Vultures In Crisis

It’s that time of year again...the time to sit back, relax, and think about vultures, of course!

The first Saturday in September is International Vulture Awareness Day, a day where people and organizations raise awareness about the health of vulture populations all over the world, and engage the public in the fight to conserve and protect these amazing creatures.

  "Just so you're aware...I'm watching you"                            Photo: WRSPA

"Just so you're aware...I'm watching you"                            Photo: WRSPA

Unfortunately, around the globe not everyone shares the same positive feelings for vultures. Sometimes lack of information, or cultural beliefs can prevent governments from understanding the effects the vulture population can have on the environment, and often critical protections for these threatened animals happen too late.

In Pennsylvania, our resident New World vulture species– the black vulture and the turkey vulture– have maintained a healthy population (and you can read a little about them here!). However, there are many species, especially of Old World vultures, that are not faring so well on other continents.

Over the last few decades, Asia and Africa have both seen drastic drop in their vulture populations. Much of this decline is attributed to the vultures consuming poisoned or medically-treated carcasses, some of which were left in the environment to purposefully target and kill vultures.

 The Slender-billed vulture, one of the species affected   Photo:peregrinefund.org

The Slender-billed vulture, one of the species affected   Photo:peregrinefund.org

 

The Indian Vulture Crisis was especially detrimental to the populations of the white-rumped vulture, the Indian vulture, and the slender-billed vulture, with their numbers almost completely wiped out. It took over a decade to trace the cause of the drastic vulture decline to an anti-inflammatory drug, Diclofenac, often used to treat cattle. Despite the vulture’s ability to digest carcasses with all manner of diseases from rabies to botulism (they are often described as a “dead-end to pathogens”), Diclofenac caused fatal renal failure in these species.

  Diclofecac, an anti-inflammatory drug fatal to some vultures                         Photo: peregrinefund.org

Diclofecac, an anti-inflammatory drug fatal to some vultures                         Photo: peregrinefund.org

The Indian Vulture Crisis illustrated on a large scale how things introduced to the environment can have unintended consequences, but it also illustrated just how big of a role vultures played in the ecosystem.

Prior to this, vultures were perhaps misunderstood for their value to the environment, and their deaths initially were not cause for alarm or concern. As the vulture populations quickly declined, the populations of other scavenger species (wild dogs, rats, etc) that were not affected by the traces of the drug soared as a result of their increased access to food.

The increase of the feral dog population hit India the hardest as the rates of rabies (and the cost of rabies treatment and management) also increased. Suddenly, people saw the “value” in maintaining a healthy ecosystem– one that included vultures.

So on this day, we celebrate vultures and commit to protecting and preserving these wonderful animals, by recognizing their "value" before it's too late!

IVAD-logo-2018-ENG-01.jpg

To learn more about the vultures in crisis in Asia and Africa, please check out the websites below!

https://www.vultureday.org/

http://www.birdlife.org/africa/news/poisoned-extinction-bold-new-approach-saving-africas-vultures

https://www.peregrinefund.org/projects/asian-vulture-crisis

And if you REALLY want to nerd out– here's the original study linking Diclofenac to the vulture deaths in India:

http://assets.peregrinefund.org/docs/pdf/research-library/2004/2004-Oaks-diclofenac-gout.pdf

Species Spotlight: Get Canada Goosed

 Canada geese, they always look so determined  ///   photo: Tom Haines

Canada geese, they always look so determined  ///  photo: Tom Haines

At the wildlife rehabilitation clinic I used to volunteer for we would often get a chance to observe the many repeat wild visitors to the property. By far my favorite was a group of Canada geese who frequented a close-by pond.  One year, almost every day they would walk about a quarter of a mile down the road from the pond and down the driveway of the rehab center for a visit–no one is quite sure what made them do this. One would even stand by the front door and look in on us to see what was up. If a volunteer was hosing off equipment, the geese would run over to play in the water and try to catch it in their mouths (this, mind you, is something I think all geese enjoy...the patients did it, too, when we would fill up their pools in the enclosures).

 "Knock, knock"                                                                                                                                                  photo: WRSPA

"Knock, knock"                                                                                                                                                 photo: WRSPA

Because there were lots of visitors to their pond, these geese were habituated to people, which made them friendly. Despite their friendly nature, we were mindful to keep our interaction to a minimum as they still are wild birds, but it's hard not to enjoy their playful behavior! The group would always cross the pond whenever I hiked or ran passed them–no matter what they were doing, they would look up and make their way over– and would just hang around eating grass while I watched them. This was especially hilarious when the pond was fully or partially frozen, but they still always managed to come over for a visit!

 Ice skating for geese                                                                                   photo: WRSPA

Ice skating for geese                                                                                  photo: WRSPA

Over the period of two years the group ranged in size from two to seven geese, and they were always a joy to observe. Then, one day, you take notice that they haven’t visited in a while; you think to yourself, “when was the last time I saw them?”, and just as quickly as they entered into your world, they are gone.

This happens frequently when you spend time observing local wildlife, and the only thing to do is enjoy every moment because our relationship with wild animals is fleeting.

I cherish the memories of this particular mini-flock of geese because it made me absolutely fall in love with the species, which is the best benefit of frequent observation of wildlife. For this reason, the sometimes misunderstood Canada goose is the subject of our next Species Spotlight!

 

CANADA GOOSE (Branta canadensis)

For starters, let’s get something out of the way: the honking black, white, and brown-feathered friend you see at the pond is not a Canadian goose, it’s a Canada goose. Unless, of course, it’s super into hockey and maple syrup, then it might be a Canadian goose (eh?).

 It's a  Strange Brew , indeed.                                                                photo: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, plus a little Photoshop

It's a Strange Brew, indeed.                                                               photo: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, plus a little Photoshop

Also, Canada geese are legitimately referred to as “honkers”, which I find so endearing and hilarious that I may as well stop this article right now because my work here is done.

Aside from their honking, probably the most distinctive characteristic of the Canada goose is their “V” formation as they fly through the air. There have been numerous studies of different species of birds that fly in V-formations and why they do so. It pretty much boils down to this: it makes flying long distances easier! Individual geese are able to draft off of the airflow of the bird in front of them as they fly, allowing them to expend less energy and fly longer than they would be able to if they were alone.

According to the PA Game Commission, there are seven recognized subspecies of Canada geese, three of which can be found in Pennsylvania (two migratory subspecies, and a third resident subspecies that will breed here and also remain over winter–lucky for us!).

 Snoozing                                            photo: WRSPA

Snoozing                                            photo: WRSPA

The Canada goose population has definitely benefited from our love of large swaths of lawn. They feed on short vegetation, and large, grassy areas provide plenty of room to eat, take off, and land. Bonus points if this grass is right next to a pond, lake, or creek as that is prime real estate for geese (location, location, location, right?) It is this access to convenient food sources that allows for Canada geese to remain year-round for us to enjoy, and for their population to remain very healthy.

Some folks do find these healthy populations of geese to be a nuisance. Canada geese can be rather territorial (especially around breeding season), and large numbers of geese also produce large amounts of goose excrement, which is not their best feature by far.

Fun fact for the dinner table: A group of 50 geese can produce 2.5 TONS of poop in a year

The Canada goose is another species in which males and females pair up and mate for life, which I think often endears them to us humans. They also tend to return to the same breeding spot year after year, so if you are a careful observer of your local wildlife you might get to enjoy an annual treat each spring of seeing that year’s brood. The Canada goose uses the few months it takes to raise young in the spring and early summer to molt and regrow their flight feathers. During this molt there is a period of about three weeks where, like their babies, they are unable to fly. Once their feathers are all set, it’s time for the parents and the kids to take flight!


CANADA GEESE IN REHAB

Remember that special flock that I told you about before? May I melt your cold, cold heart with a little rehab story?

One time, we had two Canada geese brought in separately for different issues from a nearby locations. Now, it’s not uncommon to have multiple adult geese in the facility at any given time in the spring and summer. We had one goose already housed in the intensive care unit, and when we brought the other goose in to recover in a different cage the two geese began honking excitedly at each other!

It was really unusual behavior. Not that geese aren’t noisy on occasion, but to have an immediate reaction at the presence of another goose was something we didn’t see often. We thought maybe they were a part of our local flock and recognized one another. When they were moved to an outside enclosure to continue their recovery we housed them together, and we tried a little experiment when it was time to release them– instead of packing them up and moving them to another location for release, we decided to simply open their cage and see what happened. Well, they waddled out, went up the driveway, and journeyed down the road to the pond! Easiest (and sweetest) release ever!

 Goose entangled in fishing line, inhibiting its ability to walk                                                                           photo: WRSPA

Goose entangled in fishing line, inhibiting its ability to walk                                                                          photo: WRSPA

Rehabilitators often see adult geese come in from suffering from various ailments– vehicle collisions, entanglement issues (see the above photo), and side effects of poisoning or malnutrition. The malnutrition in waterfowl often occurs in places where humans are feeding them a harmful diet of bread, popcorn, or other such unnatural foods. Many of us have fond memories of feeding ducks and geese as children, but the side effects of such a poor diet can be devastating (and those side effects are not immediately seen by the public when they are feeding, but rehabilitators DO see these ailments). If you must feed waterfowl, choose options that won't cause harm such as inexpensive duck feed, cut grapes, or chopped greens such as kale. (And, if you're a parent, you're already cutting up the grapes anyway so, what's a few more?)

Wildlife rehabilitators also get many, MANY goslings...

 

 Aw, a Gosling! Its name is Ryan. They're all named Ryan. It's the law.                                                                       photo: Tom Haines                                                       

Aw, a Gosling! Its name is Ryan. They're all named Ryan. It's the law.                                                                      photo: Tom Haines                                                      

Unlike, say, a baby songbird, a gosling is precocial at birth (a fancy science word for “able to move about and feed on their own").  Songbirds are altricial, which is a fancy science word for the opposite of that. This is over-simplifying it a bit but, basically, when a young gosling is born it is covered in downy feathers and is able to eat on its own–as long as mom or dad can show them the way.

This is why precocial birds, such as waterfowl, need their parents. If they aren’t around, those babies cannot survive and will need the help of a professional that will keep them warm, dry, fed, and safe until they are able to do so on their own.

When a gosling is brought to a wildlife rehab center for care, that baby is protected and fed until it is able to thrive in the wild. Those fuzzy little goslings end up leaving looking like adults. Releasing healthy animals back into the wild is probably the most satisfying aspect of wildlife rehabilitation, and releasing waterfowl is no exception. While we can't know how another species thinks and feels, it sure looks like they are having a great time when they get to splash, fly, and play in a pond for the first time!

At the time of this blog post, the Canada geese in our area are gearing up to begin nesting and the goslings (AKA "Ryans") will definitely be coming in! Think about donating to your favorite local rehabber, or Help Us Help Wildlife by visiting our donate page!


 

Hey, look! resources!

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birds/c/canada-goose/

 

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/canada-goose-resident-vs-migratory/

 

http://www.pgc.pa.gov/Education/WildlifeNotesIndex/Pages/CanadaGoose.aspx

 

http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2014/01/15/birds-that-fly-in-a-v-formation-use-an-amazing-trick/

 

The Weird, Wild, World of Capture and Transport

 "Don't you...forget about me"– crow in a box                             photo: WRSPA

"Don't you...forget about me"– crow in a box                            photo: WRSPA

Funny story: About a year ago I took my car in for it’s yearly inspection. I knew going into this that my chances of getting my car back with only the inspection and emissions fee were slim to none; my car was old and well-loved and it probably needed a new, well, everything. I was right.

Cut to me unexpectedly having to empty the contents of my old car into my new car (as my old car was being held for a ransom that I just couldn’t justify paying), assisted by two very nice gentlemen in dress shirts and ties. Not only were they privy to the backseat of my car that looks as though a squirrel went on a rampage at the bulk aisle of the grocery store with the amount of nuts, seeds, and cracker bits that my kid drops, but they also got to experience...my trunk.

I tried to politely turn down their assistance, but they were just too nice. So I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and popped the trunk.

 All the things!                                                                              photo: WRSPA

All the things!                                                                             photo: WRSPA

The dealership fellas were treated to an array of surgical gloves, plastic bags, goggles, welding gloves, utility knives, a plastic tub with air holes drilled in it, and a bunch of cut-off sweatshirt sleeves of various sizes.

“Dexter. They think I’m Dexter and that this is my mobile serial killer unit,” I thought.

Then came the feathers of probably at least 4 different species, floating into the spring air as we unloaded. And the 3-pound bag of peanuts. And the birdseed. I had some explaining to do.

 Quite a bit of peanuts if you're not running a steakhouse.        photo: WRSPA

Quite a bit of peanuts if you're not running a steakhouse.       photo: WRSPA

As you can probably guess, I’m not a serial killer of serial killers. I’m also not that huge a fan of peanuts. What I am is a wildlife capture and transport specialist and, if you are so inclined, you can alarm perfect strangers nosing through your trunk and be one, too!

What is a PA capture and transport specialist and who is crazy enough to be one?

A simple way to describe a capture and transport (c&t) specialist is to liken them to an EMT, but for wild animals. The folks who receive capture and transport training, pass the required test, and obtain their permit through the Pennsylvania Game Commission can then assist the public by responding to calls regarding injured or otherwise compromised wildlife, and transporting those animals to their local veterinarian or wildlife rehabilitator.

C&T specialists provide a vital service in that when they field a call from a member of the public about a wild animal, they are on the frontline of the situation. A knowledgeable c&t specialist can determine if the animal in question is indeed in need of help, and, if so, how best to help the animal while keeping themselves, the animal, and the public safe.

There are many times when the “capture” portion of capture and transport is the operative word, because injured or compromised animals don’t always position themselves conveniently. You could find yourself wrangling an animal from a sewer grate or an icy pond, or directing a bird or squirrel out of someone’s fireplace. There are so many creative rescue stories from the world of capture and transport that involve things such as mylar balloons being used to help block an escape route in a sewer grate, or a remote-controlled toy boat that helped to herd waterfowl into the correct location.

The people who go out and do this regularly are pretty talented and amazing–AND they’ve got the best stories at dinner parties. Me? Not so much, although I did split my pants once while wading waist-deep in a creek trying to catch a flighted goose with fishing line wrapped around its leg. My skill level has yet to catch up to my determination.

goose fishing line.jpg

 

For fun, I reached out to some members of our Pennsylvania rehabber and volunteer community to answer the following question:

You Might Be a Capture and Transport Specialist If:

  • 911 operators have you on speed dial (Peggy)

  • You dodge strange looks by bringing your canoe to a pond in the middle of an office complex

  • You have more towels in your car than in your bathroom

  • You’ve had a furry or feathered friend spend the night

  • No air freshener can combat the smell in your car

  • You’ve swam fully-clothed in a pond or creek

  • Your dogs think you smell a little funny (3-7, Chris)

  • Your husband no longer asks what’s in that box in the spare bedroom (Bonnie)

  • You’ve strapped a cage containing a mink onto a SUP BOARD and paddled it across a lake in order to release it (Franklin, see picture below)

  • When your garage smells like a vulture (Jenny)

  • When you have more supplies in your car than an ambulance (Tracie)

  • You’ve literally been on a wild goose chase...more times than you can count

  • You've used a trash can lid for protection from an owl attack

 Franklin, the aquatic Uber driver for minks                                                                                   Photo: Franklin Klock

Franklin, the aquatic Uber driver for minks                                                                                  Photo: Franklin Klock

 

Capture and Transport training in Pennsylvania occurs a few times a year. Our friends at Red Creek Wildlife Center hold periodic training sessions–check them out here

As always, many thanks to the wildlife rehabilitators who tirelessly care for PA's wild animals, and an extra special thank-you to the capture and transport specialists who help them! If you would like to Help Us Help Wildlife, please DONATE HERE !

Species Spotlight: Groundhog (the Rodent of Many Names).

  Photo: Christophe.rolland1/ Stock Free Images

Photo: Christophe.rolland1/ Stock Free Images

How many of us have stayed up well into the night pondering, “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood”? The answer is: no amount of wood because woodchucks don’t chuck wood. Frankly, I’m not sure what it means to chuck wood, but I take it that it could involve throwing logs.

What I am sure of is the minor existential crisis I encountered when I was in my late twenties and discovered that A WOODCHUCK AND A GROUNDHOG ARE THE SAME THING. It was a shock on par with finding out that the “Alphabet Song” and “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” are sung in the same tune. Some of us are just late bloomers wildlife-wise. Oh well, I’m making up for it now.

Whatever you would like to call them–groundhogs, woodchucks, marmots, whistle pigs, and (my favorite) land beaver– they are pretty cool creatures and a point of pride for us here in Pennsylvania. In honor of our beloved Groundhog Day, the humble woodchuck is the natural choice for our next Species Spotlight.

GROUNDHOG (Marmota Monax)

WHY THEY'RE SO COOL

Of course, groundhogs have adaptations that make them wonderful (and we’ll get to that shortly), but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Pennsylvania’s famous groundhogs. Yes, groundhogs, plural. Not only do we have Punxsutawney Phil (live groundhog, The OG–original groundhog– of weather prognosticating), but also Octoraro Orphie (stuffed version, also a prognosticator), and Gus (also stuffed/animatronic, talking mascot of lottery scratch-offs). What other state can lay claim to not one but THREE famous groundhogs? (Answer: I didn’t Google it, but I’m hoping the answer is zero.)

  Sciuridae Snacking! It's a "family" affair                                                                                       Photo: BKushner/Stock Free Images

Sciuridae Snacking! It's a "family" affair                                                                                       Photo: BKushner/Stock Free Images

The takeaway is that we get to lay claim to everything groundhog here in Pennsylvania. So here’s a little about them!

Groundhogs are a large rodent in the squirrel family. If that sentence right there doesn’t make you love them, you are probably reading the wrong blog. They are about 20 to 25 inches long and their weight can fluctuate, depending on the season, from 5-15 pounds!

The reason for this weight fluctuation is because of the amount of food they eat in summer and fall in order to prepare for winter, and thus they are a good animal to talk about when you want to discuss true hibernation. Groundhogs feed on vegetation, which is scarce in winter, so entering into a deep, energy-conserving sleep is essential for their survival. The heart rate and body temperature of a groundhog drop significantly during this period. And unlike some other hibernators, such as raccoons, that may wake occasionally throughout winter to eat, groundhogs really commit to the whole process and are deep sleepers until warmer weather arrives.

According to the PAGC, a groundhog has the potential to live about 8 years, but with predation and health issues, the average lifespan is likely closer to six. The exception to this, of course, is Punxsutawney Phil who is over 132 years old. You see, every summer at the Annual Groundhog Picnic he drinks a special elixir that grants him another 7 years of life. This sounds like something that maybe Gwenyth Paltrow might tell you to try to do, but I think it only works for Phil.

  The Official Festivities featuring Phil                               Photo: groundhog.org

The Official Festivities featuring Phil                               Photo: groundhog.org

Groundhogs have adaptations that allow them to survive. Their eyes, ears, and nose are all placed near the top of their head, which makes it easy for them to peak out of their burrow to spot danger. If they do spot something that is cause for alarm, they’ll let out their signature whistle to warn others. Despite being short-legged and a little on the heavy side, they can run at a good clip on the ground and can also scurry up and down trees head-first like their relative, the gray squirrel.

Interestingly, he groundhog actually benefits from the modifications people make to the land as they enjoy settling down in farmlands, fields, and open pastures. Because of this, the groundhog population is healthy in Pennsylvania and elsewhere around the country. Also because of this, groundhogs are often seen as a pest species to homeowners, gardeners, and farmers because they, too, enjoy the bounty of a delicious vegetable garden, and the elaborate tunnel system they dig can leave the ground uneven and dangerous for farm equipment.

Naturally, groundhogs have an important role in the ecosystem and, therefore, we need to make an effort to peacefully coexist, even if they eat up all of our future salads. The Humane Society has an excellent resource page on how you can solve groundhog issues (as well as other wild animals) and that resource can be found here.

GROUNDHOGS IN REHAB

 Groundhog                                                                                                                                                   Photo: Lori Black

Groundhog                                                                                                                                                  Photo: Lori Black

Like many mammals, groundhogs come into rehab facilities for a variety of reasons: illnesses, injuries, or being orphaned.

Groundhogs are very cute– especially the babies–but great care must be taken when handling these guys. In Pennsylvania they are one of our six rabies vector species (along with coyotes, skunks, raccoons, foxes, and bats), which means they can be carriers of the virus without showing symptoms. The rehabilitators who treat these animals have a special license in order to do so, and they follow strict guidelines for handling and housing. If you find a groundhog that needs help, call your local wildlife rehabilitator for advice and the steps you can take!

Happy Groundhog Day from your friends at WRSPA! 

As always, you can Help Us Help Wildlife (and groundhogs!) by donating today!

Hey, Look! Resources!

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/g/groundhog/

http://www.groundhog.org/

http://www.pgc.pa.gov/Wildlife/WildlifeSpecies/Documents/woodchuck.pdf

http://www.sciencemadesimple.com/hibernation.html

https://animals.howstuffworks.com/animal-facts/hibernation1.htm

Species Spotlight: Red-tailed Hawks, the Mel Blanc of Birds (Sort Of)

 Red-tailed Hawk in flight                                                                                                                                    photo credit: Tom Haines

Red-tailed Hawk in flight                                                                                                                                   photo credit: Tom Haines

I don’t know if you know this, but sometimes TV and movies stretch the boundaries of reality and things are not always what they seem. For instance, if I had not paid close attention in actual real-life-nature-time, I would still think that because of Looney Tunes (and also every western movie ever), I could be out in the desert and have a kettle of vultures circling me overhead, screeching their resonant “keee-aaaaw”, while they wait for me to slowly die of thirst.

Or, I could hear that very same sound coming from a majestic soaring eagle like in the beginning of every episode of The Colbert Report.

Neither of these birds make that piercing shriek we’ve all come to recognize– instead it’s the cry of the poor Red-tailed Hawk, doing all of the screeching and getting none of the credit. I jokingly refer to them as the “Mel Blanc of birds” because their calls are heard everywhere in television and film. Once you start paying attention to this you’ll see what I mean.

Those of us who tend to nerd out on bird stuff may find it difficult to continue to suspend their disbelief when watching television and hearing a vulture cry overhead like a hawk (I’m looking at you Netflix’s Ozark). I suppose that is our cross to bear, and we can attempt to cope by giving anyone we’re watching anything with a little elbow nudge and a mini-lecture.

Of course, the Red-tailed hawk can’t help that it’s call is so awesome that it has become a part of the Foley sound archives, and we can’t help but love them! This is why this beloved, beefy bird is our next Species Spotlight!

 Self-explanatory hawk shot                                                                                                                                      p hoto credit: WRSPA

Self-explanatory hawk shot                                                                                                                                      photo credit: WRSPA


RED-TAILED HAWK: Buteo jamaicensis

Because of their ability to find food in a variety of climates, we are fortunate in Pennsylvania, and all over the United States for that matter, to be graced with the presence of the Red-tailed Hawk. They really are quite abundant and most times when you spy a hawk in flight it is likely a Red-tail. To illustrate, I've prepared a handy flowchart for hawk identification:

 A very academic flowchart for hawk identification

A very academic flowchart for hawk identification

All kidding aside, Red-tails are pretty easy to spot. Because their preferred habitat is deciduous woods (made up of trees that lose their leaves each season), fall and winter is a great time to watch for these birds as they sit in the bare trees waiting to spot their next rodent meal. Funnily enough, the place I personally see the most hawks is on the side of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and similar highway stretches. It’s almost like a game to see how many I can spot in the trees (when in the passenger seat, of course). 

Why they're so cool

Well, first of all, they’re raptors and there’s likely little argument that birds of prey are just pretty awesome. From head to toe these birds have amazing adaptations to help them survive and thrive:

VISION

Of course you’ve heard the idiom “watch like a hawk”– it’s no coincidence, the keen eyesight of a hawk is one of its most useful features. Unlike our vulture friends, Red-tails (and much of the bird world) have little to no sense of smell, so being able to spot prey is paramount. The location of their eyes on their face provides them with a greater field of view and they are capable of both binocular and monocular vision, which means they can focus on an object with one eye or both. That, combined with 20/5 vision (meaning that they can see with clarity from 20 feet away what the average human can see from 5 feet away), means that the chipmunk spotted by a hungry Red-tail had better watch out!. They can also see a much richer color field than that of humans.

 
Fun fact for the dinner table:
Red-tails (and all other birds) have a third eyelid called the nictitating membrane. They use this primarily for blinking and for cleaning and protecting their eyes, their “regular” eyelids they use for sleeping.

FEET

With a few exceptions (hey there, Peregrine!), most raptors are killing their prey with their feet, which are made up of heavily padded toes and large talons powered by strong leg muscles. For most of us, we are experiencing Red-tails and other raptors from afar, either soaring in the sky or perching in nature. Rarely does the average person get an up-close look at the wonderful feet that raptors have, and for good reason–the feet are the “danger zone” when handling these kind of birds and you definitely don’t want one going after your hand or arm like it was a prey animal!

Fun fact for the dinner table:

Most of the “leg” that you see in birds is actually their foot. That thing that looks like a backwards knee? That’s their “ankle”.

 You're being watched like a (Red-tailed) Hawk                                                                                                        photo credit: WRSPA

You're being watched like a (Red-tailed) Hawk                                                                                                       photo credit: WRSPA

RED-TAILS IN REHAB

Rehabilitators in Pennsylvania must have a special license to care for raptors. It’s not uncommon for orphaned but otherwise healthy birds to be admitted each breeding season and, in these cases, the birds are given the proper food and shelter until they can manage on their own in the wild.

 I made this puppet out of an old dish towel. Thankfully, baby Red-tails don't have a keen eye for craftsmanship.                 photo credit: WRSPA

I made this puppet out of an old dish towel. Thankfully, baby Red-tails don't have a keen eye for craftsmanship.                photo credit: WRSPA

Even though that little ball of fluff looks so cute, special care is given to prevent baby raptors from imprinting on humans when they are brought in very young. Like the picture above shows, many rehabbers employ a combination of hand-puppets, gloves, and masks to keep the association between food and humans to a minimum. Some rehabilitation centers that are permitted to keep unreleasable animals for education purposes will also use them as surrogates, which is the most favorable way to care for them. A baby Red-tail can be housed with an adult of the same species until they are ready to be released...three cheers for free babysitting (and for keeping wild animals wild)!

Sadly, many other raptors are admitted for human-caused injuries such as vehicle collisions, entanglement, contact with glue traps, and poisoning. Because our beloved Red-tailed hawks feed primarily on mice, squirrels, chipmunks, and other small mammals, they are particularly susceptible to secondary poisoning. This means that they are ingesting the poison that exists in the mouse or rat that they caught for lunch. Even when a hawk is admitted because of a vehicle collision or animal attack, poisoning could be the underlying cause since the effects of many rodenticides weaken and keep the animal from defending itself properly.

If you’d like to learn more about Red-tailed hawks in general, or if you are interested in wildlife-friendly ways to control pests, please check out the links in our resources section below!

 

And, as always, you can Help Us Help Wildlife by donating!

 

HEY, LOOK! RESOURCES

http://www.pgc.pa.gov/Education/WildlifeNotesIndex/Documents/raptors.pdf

http://www.hawkmountain.org/raptorpedia/hawks-at-hawk-mountain/hawk-species-at-hawk-mountain/red-tailed-hawk/page.aspx?id=460

https://www.livescience.com/18658-humans-eagle-vision.html

http://www.dvrconline.org/raptoradapt.html

For info on the Red-tail's place in the Foley soundscape: http://soundandthefoley.com/2013/05/08/hunting-time-red-tailed-hawk/

For information on poisons:

http://saferodentcontrol.org/site/

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/raptors-and-rat-poison/

https://www.epa.gov/rodenticides/restrictions-rodenticide-products

Happy Halloween For Humans AND Wildlife

  Halloween crows in their natural habitat.     Photo: WRSPA

Halloween crows in their natural habitat.     Photo: WRSPA

Ah...holidays! The period between Halloween and Christmas is the time of year when we humans really like to amp up our outdoor decorating, because who doesn’t want a plastic vulture in their yard? (Short answer: my mom.) Whatever your personal tastes may be, holiday decorations are serious business, but they can have some serious consequences for wildlife, too. Lucky for us there are ways to decorate that won't disturb the other creatures that share our space!

  Under-appreciated lawn vultures.  Photo: WRSPA

Under-appreciated lawn vultures.  Photo: WRSPA

On Halloween, especially, we like decorate with owls, crows, rats, and vultures (all the best animals, clearly!), but we also need to be mindful of the REAL wildlife, too. You might be asking yourself, "how in the world could my seasonal flair hurt animals?"

Wildlife can suffer greatly from becoming entangled or ingesting man-made items such as netting, webbing, strings, and balloons. The popular sticky fake spider webs are one culprit as animals that normally fly through that area or feed on the vegetation that it’s covering, can become entangled and will not be able to free themselves (and I think we've all enjoyed the experience of unexpectedly walking into a spider web, so you can see how an owl or a songbird could fly right into one, too).

  Fake spider webs. Photo: WRSPA

Fake spider webs. Photo: WRSPA

Wildlife rehabilitators treat animals each year that are harmed from becoming entangled. The dove below was found with ribbon around its wing (likely matching someone's wedding colors!). While this dove was fortunate to be found early, these situations can have disastrous consequences. Animals who become entangled can quickly become stressed, dehydrated, and emaciated without access to their usual resources and are also unable to escape predatators. Other physical injuries also occur, including broken wings and lacerations, that often result from being caught in nets, webbing, or fishing line.

For some tips on what to do if you have found an entangled animal, visit here, and, as always, reach out to a wildlife rehabilitator in your area for advice!

But Halloween decorating isn't all doom and gloom (or is it?), and here are some tips courtesy of WildCare in San Rafael, CA for decorating in a way that considers wildlife:

  • Don’t use fake spider webs or other decorations made of entangling fibers on the outside of your home. Wild animals can easily get trapped and may not be able to break the material to free themselves.

  • Avoid decorations with loops or closed circles. A foraging animal can inadvertently put its head through a loop or circle and choke itself.

  • Avoid decorations with small, dangling, edible-looking parts.

  • Strings of lights can become snare traps for adult male deer who get them caught in their antlers. Avoid hanging lights or decorations in areas where deer pass.

  • Candy, and the plastic it’s wrapped in, can also be a hazard for animals. Don’t leave candy out where wildlife may find it, and dispose of all candy wrappers properly.

  • Carved pumpkins may be attractive to wildlife as food, so properly dispose of them if you don’t want post-holiday trick-or-treaters.

  • Be alert for nocturnal wildlife while trick-or-treating. Avoid cutting across lawns and through brushy areas to avoid accidental encounters with your wild neighbors.

  • Drivers on Halloween night know to be on the alert for children, but we encourage you to also be aware of wildlife that may be scared out of hiding by all the unusual nighttime activity.

(This list was originally published October 28, 2016 by The Mercury News)

We at WRSPA wish everyone a Happy and Safe Halloween (for humans and animals!) As always, consider donating to Help Us Help Wildlife. Your contribution goes directly to assisting wildlife rehabilitators in Pennsylvania!

Don't Pee On My Legs and Tell Me It's Raining (I Can Do That Myself): Or, why the vulture is (literally) cool

 Turkey vulture                                                                                                                                                                     photo: WRSPA

Turkey vulture                                                                                                                                                                     photo: WRSPA

Every year on the first Saturday in September many people in the U.S. are relaxing,  enjoying picnics, and celebrating the final days of summer. But we here at WRSPA are thinking about how many ways we can geek out on vultures without causing alarm to our friends and family.

See, the first Saturday in September is also International Vulture Awareness Day (IVAD) and it’s the BEST day. Why? Because vultures are some of the most interesting creatures the natural world has to offer us. So in honor of IVAD our Species Spotlight will focus on two species of vultures that we can find in Pennsylvania:

TURKEY VULTURE (Cathartes aura)

BLACK VULTURE (Coragyps atratus)

We are lucky in Pennsylvania to have these two species of vultures grace our skies, the turkey vulture being the more common of the two. The wingspan of these large majestic birds can reach up to six feet, making it easy to spot them riding the thermals and circling above us in the air. They are not always scoping out a meal when they’re up there–most of the time they are literally just hanging out, as riding the columns of rising warm air conserves considerable energy (no flapping!).

WHY THEY ARE SO COOL

Let’s not bury the lead here–vultures eat dead stuff and don’t get sick, they use their vomit as a defense mechanism, and they pee on their legs...WHY DOESN’T EVERYONE LOVE THESE GUYS?

Well, there may be a few reasons why these often-misunderstood birds get a bad rap, but we can help clear the air and have everyone jump on the vulture-appreciation train.

Firstly, people are sometimes put off a bit by the eating habits of a vulture. Sure, there are loads of species that make a habit of munching on carrion (fancy science word for dead animals), but vultures seem bear the brunt of public disgust for doing so. People mistakenly think they are gross, unclean, and that they are pests that will destroy property or nab the family pet from the backyard. As we'll find out, vultures certainly are not gross, and don’t often take live prey, and, if they do, the animal was likely weak or compromised (think newborn or sick animals), as they lack the grip strength in their feet for killing prey like true raptors.

 WRSPA's founders showing our love and dedication for vultures (and novelty shirts)

WRSPA's founders showing our love and dedication for vultures (and novelty shirts)

Fun fact for the dinner table: vultures are not across-the-board carcass consumers; they have standards. Vultures prefer their dead stuff to be relatively “fresh”, and prefer the carcasses of herbivores over carnivores (I guess they taste better!)

 

It is true that vultures primarily eat dead, rotting carcasses and they have some amazing adaptations that allow them to do so. Let’s start from top to bottom:

SENSES

Interestingly, turkey vultures have an excellent sense of smell that sets them apart from most other birds, including other vultures. A turkey vulture can smell the gas released from a rotting carcass–ethyl mercaptan–from pretty far away, allowing them to find food not only by sight but by smell (great for discovering lunch from the air that might be hidden by the forest canopy). Black vultures cannot detect this scent so in areas where both species are present, black vultures, the opportunistic and aggressive buggers that they are, will follow turkey vultures to the carcass and often push them out of the way.

"OUTER BEAUTY"

Vultures certainly are one of our fine-feathered friends...but we’re not talking about their heads, which, of course, are featherless. Why the beautiful feathers everywhere else and not the face? It’s purely sanitary. Just as it’s easier for you to wash dirt off of your bare hands than it is to wash off your mittens, the vulture can keep itself clean of all the nastiness from digging into a bacteria-infested carcass without the pesky facial-feather upkeep. And right on for them because studies have shown vultures to have around 528 different types of bacteria on their face, which brings us to…

"INNER BEAUTY"

Their iron acidic stomachs are a marvel of nature! Those 528 different kinds of bacteria that were transferred from the dead animal to the vulture’s face? Scientists found only 76 types of bacteria in the vulture’s gut– this is some major bacterial destruction going on inside the highly-acidic stomach of the vulture! The fact that they are able to tackle some of the most harmful bacteria, such as botulism, makes them a very useful species to study.

GETTING A "LEG UP"

My favorite vulture adaptation is where the title of this post comes from...the practice of urohidrosis (the fancy science word for basically peeing on themselves). This serves two functions, one being that it is a cooling mechanism for them. So, while we humans sweat when we’re hot, vultures are cooled by the evaporation after relieving themselves on their legs and feet. I mean, I complain about sweating in the summer, but I’ll take that over the vulture’s technique any day! The acidity of their urine also kills the bacteria their legs and feet come into contact with, protecting them from possible infections and from spreading the bacteria around.

 These are some "cool" feet                                                                                                                                               photo: WRSPA                                                                 

These are some "cool" feet                                                                                                                                               photo: WRSPA                                                                 

"I HATE TO EAT AND RUN BUT..."

Occasionally vultures have to. If they have to make a quick getaway to escape danger the vulture, who isn’t the most adept at a quick lift-off, must find a way to “lighten their load” quickly. This means they will vomit up whatever is in their stomach. They also do this to protect their ground nest area from a possible intruder. If you know how bad a rotting carcass smells, you can probably imagine that the unsavory-ness increases tenfold once it’s regurgitated. I’ve smelled it a lot and it’s definitely one for the books.

 Black Vulture                                                                                                                                                               photo: Tom Haines

Black Vulture                                                                                                                                                               photo: Tom Haines

See? These super scavengers are amazing creatures, and they play such an important role in our ecosystem. They are often referred to as “nature’s garbage men”, as they help to rid the environment of rotting flesh and this inhibits the spread of disease. What would our lives be like without vultures? I certainly don’t want to find out!

We’re lucky in Pennsylvania to have a robust vulture population, but many species throughout the world are in decline. Please check out www.vultureday.org for more information on how you can help.

Wildlife rehabilitators in Pennsylvania provide care for orphaned, sick, or injured vultures every year. These animals require much care to feed, house, and rehabilitate them properly for release into the wild. Please consider donating–your financial help can go a long way to provide for these amazing creatures. And don’t forget to KEEP CALM and CARRION– and share the vulture love!

 

Hey, Look! Resources!

http://www.pgc.pa.gov/Education/WildlifeNotesIndex/Documents/vultures.pdf

https://baynature.org/article/comes-smell-turkey-vulture-stands-nearly-alone/

http://www.hawkmountain.org/raptorpedia/hawks-at-hawk-mountain/hawk-species-at-hawk-mountain/turkey-vulture/page.aspx?id=644

https://turkeyvulturesociety.wordpress.com/quick-facts/frequently-asked-questions/

http://www.globalraptors.org/grin/researchers/uploads/118/status_of_vultures.pdf

http://insider.si.edu/2014/11/vultures-remarkably-tolerant-to-deadly-bacteria-study-reveals/

http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-30216294

https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms6498

Species Spotlight: Unrecovered Nuts (and other reasons to love the squirrel)

There’s a scene in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation where Clark Griswold comes face-to-face with a squirrel from his yard-obtained, last-minute-replacement Christmas tree. There’s a chase, someone faints; you know, general hilarity ensues.

This scene makes me laugh even harder because it reminds me of my first baby squirrel season as a wildlife rehabilitation volunteer. Let’s just say that the juvenile squirrels can be frantic and indecisive little escape artists when you try to clean their cages. I may or may not have had to fish a squirrel out of my shirt.

Some time has passed and being more adept at “squirrel wrangling”, I have kept the squirrels flying at my face to a minimum, but I am still as enthusiastic about the rodents as I ever was, as are my fellow WRSPA founders. Because we think they are cool (and because we believe you should, too), the gray squirrel is our first “Species Spotlight” animal!

Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)

While there are three other species of squirrel native to Pennsylvania (the fox squirrel, red squirrel, and the flying squirrel), the robust little gray squirrel is a fairly common sighting. If you are able to get a close look, perhaps at some of the opportunistic “picnic” squirrels hanging around your local park trash can, you’ll notice their beautiful coloring. Their gray appearance can vary in darkness and often made up of soft gray, black, and white hairs with flushes of rusty red. (Side note: while watching squirrels at a local park nose through the trash my daughter asked if squirrels would eat pizza. The answer is, yes, a squirrel will eat pizza even though it's not good for them. Apparently, we have a lot in common with squirrels, no?)

Fun fact: the black squirrels that you will sometimes see are actually gray squirrels with a genetic marker for melanism. Casually bring this up at dinner and you’ll make more friends.

  photo: Tom Haines

photo: Tom Haines

 

WHY THEY’RE SO COOL

Well, first of all, they’re cute (not that being “cute” is a requisite characteristic for loving a species, am I right?) Their furriness, their big eyes, their bushy tails, and their ability to hold stuff in their front paws makes them incredibly endearing and fun to watch.

Squirrels have some interesting adaptations that help them succeed. Often you’ll observe a squirrel running down a tree head-first, something that is difficult for other species of mammals who have to rely on the old-fashioned way (read: butt first). This forward-facing descent is made possible by a combination of sharp claws and flexible ankle joints that allow the squirrel’s foot to rotate backwards 180 degrees, keeping them steady and allowing them to see where they are going!

Another thing they’ve got going for them is their convenient, all-purpose, built-in HVAC/communication device/equilibrium-maintainer: the bushy tail. I sort of wish I had one. Their tails help them warn each other of danger, keeps them balanced, and is used to regulate their temperatures on top of being one of their defining characteristics.

  photo: Tom Haines

photo: Tom Haines

Finally, if you’ve ever heard the term “squirreling away” you will recognize why we use it to describe any time we hoard or hide things for later use—squirrels are experts at this. In the early spring the gray squirrel will rely on new buds of trees for food, but they also rely on the mast (fancy science word for “various nuts”!) that they have hidden in the fall in preparation for scarce times.

The gray squirrels’ excellent sense of smell allows them to sniff out their buried stashes and maintain their caloric needs throughout the winter. This brings us to the “unrecovered nuts” (which sounds like a swell band name–feel free to use it, you’re welcome). The squirrels’ inability to ever possibly recover every nut that they have buried helps provide a valuable role in our ecosystem—those unrecovered nuts can sprout into trees, and, viola! New trees, new forest, new habitat.

 

SQUIRRELS IN REHAB

Wildlife rehabilitators are very familiar with the gray squirrel. Because squirrels build their homes in leaf nests and in dens of trees they can easily fall, especially after a nasty storm. While every attempt should be made to re-nest a baby squirrel, often times people find truly orphaned babies and bring them to a wildlife rehabber for help.

It’s quite a bit of work to keep these orphaned squirrels cared for and fed around the clock to ready them for their “real world” release back into the wild. In order to ensure that the squirrels are healthy, they need precise nutritional care and temperature and housing considerations. Even when they no longer require formula they’ll eat you out of house and home like any self-respecting teenager who’s always hanging around with the refrigerator door open.

  photo: WRSPA

photo: WRSPA

A rehabilitator during the height of “baby season” (late February to early April) can be up to their neck in hungry, needy baby squirrels. Then, in mid-summer, when they put their hands on their hips and breath a sigh of relief, wiping the sweat from their brows having survived The Great Squirrel Influx of (insert any year here)...Ding! Round two! Those little buggers are at it again as the gray squirrel often produces a SECOND brood in July and August (and even later if the temperature stays unseasonably warm).

The tireless work of rehabilitators will get these orphaned babies out in time to start foraging and burying those nuts for winter. So...three cheers for the gray squirrel, and to the unrecovered nuts everywhere!

Dang those things eat a lot… did you know it costs anywhere from $15-$20 for the supplies to rehabilitate each baby squirrel? (And that’s not including the money it takes to keep the lights on!). Rehabilitators end up taking in dozens (or even hundreds!) of squirrels each year. Please consider donating to help us help wildlife!

Found a baby squirrel? Find out what to do here.

 

Hey, Look! References!

http://www.pgc.pa.gov/Education/WildlifeNotesIndex/Documents/squirrels.pdf

http://rescuingwildlife.com/faq/

http://nutsaboutsquirrels.com/category/fun-squirrel-facts/

"You Won't Save What You Don't Love": Conservation Efforts That Make You Care

 Photo by Grahm S. Jones                                                                                                                                        natgeophotoark.org    Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Ohio. After a photo shoot at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio, a clouded leopard cub climbs on Sartore's head.                       

Photo by Grahm S. Jones                                                                                                                                      natgeophotoark.org

Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Ohio. After a photo shoot at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio, a clouded leopard cub climbs on Sartore's head.                    

 

Joel Sartore is a National Geographic wildlife photographer who with his Photo Ark project has been on a mission to record the 12,000 captive species around the world—this includes many species that are endangered or threatened. He is an inspiration for us here at WRSPA, so we'd like to take a moment to highlight his work.

The photographs in the Photo Ark are breathtakingly beautiful and they seem to capture what's unique about each animal. There’s something about these images, all of which appear against a stark black or white background, that makes you stop for a moment and consider the truly amazing biodiversity on our planet. As with all of Mr. Sartore's work, each animal no matter how large or small, how popular or how unknown, is treated with the same respect and reverence. 

 A Fiji Island banded iguana, Brachylophus fasciatus, at the Los Angeles Zoo                                                            natgeophotoark.org

A Fiji Island banded iguana, Brachylophus fasciatus, at the Los Angeles Zoo                                                          natgeophotoark.org

Joel often states that, “you won’t save what you don’t love”, and many of his photographs have inspired local governments and institutions around the globe to stop and reevaluate how to protect and help these species. PBS stations are airing a three-part documentary RARE: Creatures of the Photo Ark that gives an intimate behind-the-scenes look into Joel’s work, and some of the rare and wonderful creatures he’s captured on film.

This quote really hit home for me, because it’s true–with so many different things competing for our attention and resources, we won’t go the extra mile to help something or someone unless we have a more concrete experience to draw upon. Mr. Sartore is using his artful photographic skills to get people to stop and think.

We humans need to care because the interconnectedness of the natural world means that habitat destruction and the disappearance of species can have an effect on our lives. It’s important to care about the northern white rhino, the majestic Spanish imperial eagle, or the aldabra giant tortoise.

I also feel passionate that the time to care about any species is NOW. My heart breaks at the thought that there are three northern white rhinos left on the planet. Conservationists work to captive breed species and restore habitat in order to curb the disappearance of these endangered species.

“Fifty percent of all animals are threatened with extinction, and it’s folly to think we can drive half of everything else to extinction but that people will be just fine,”
— Joel Sartore

One of our goals at WRSPA is to connect people to their wild co-habitants of this earth. We want people to consider common species—the red tailed hawks, robins, geese, skunks, opossums, squirrels, salamanders, snakes, moths, bats, and the turtles. The time to care about these creatures is BEFORE they are compromised, while they are still robust and with us. Just as with our bodies, it’s much easier to work to prevent the break or the illness than it is to heal it.

 A pygmy slow loris, Nycticebus pygmaeus, at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium                                 natgeophotoark.org

A pygmy slow loris, Nycticebus pygmaeus, at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium                               natgeophotoark.org

At WRSPA we want to help the public get to know (and get to love!), the species that we interact with every day. They all matter. Personally, the more I learn about an animal, the more I interact with it, and the more I discover— the more I love and want to work to protect it. This is why we are launching our Species Spotlight series, where, with any luck, in the coming weeks and months we’ll get you to love each and every creature we highlight as much as we do!

You don’t have to visit a zoo or a nature preserve in order to see something wonderful. Sometimes, all you have to do is go outside and look around. This requires no money and little effort. You’ll see the songbirds flying around, the vulture soaring overhead, the colony of ants weaving in and out of the sidewalk cracks. Even though we might fail to recognize how wonderful these things are amidst our busy lives, it’s important to take a moment to appreciate the interconnectedness of it all.

All photographs shown here are used with permission from the National Geographic Photo Ark. Love what you see? Please take the time to check out Joel Sartore’s Photo Ark project and take a look at the excellent tips for how YOU can help be part of the conservation solution!

 

Introduction

Most people have a memory from childhood of that first time they stumbled upon death in the wild. Perhaps it was a baby bird,  a squirrel, or a deer by the side of the road.

It’s not uncommon for children, who naturally connect so easily with even the smallest of creatures, to hold a funeral for a dead worm or mouse they’ve discovered. This is special because they do so in earnest, and with a sensitivity that can disappear as we grow older and become acclimated to such natural things as a worm dying. It would be impossible to mourn every loss, but the kids have an insight into something that we as adults lose.

Many of us also have a memory of happening upon a wild animal that was hurt and in need of help, and wanting to provide aid and comfort in any way possible.

We hear so many remembrances–especially from “older” folks– of finding and trying to heal an injured animal, or raising an orphaned baby in their youth. Sometimes it worked, most of the time it didn’t, but these experiences matter because they stay with us and they shape our understanding of the creatures that share our world. The concrete connection that’s built when we see suffering first hand, or interact with an animal, forever changes the way we view those animals in the future.

For some folks, that intense desire to help never leaves. And for some, becoming a wildlife rehabilitator was the answer.

Lucky for us, nowadays with the internet and its wealth of information it’s easier to help wildlife in an informed and effective way. Wildlife rehabilitators play a huge role in informing the public of how to handle their individual wildlife situations, even if that means telling people to leave an animal alone.

Wildlife rehabilitators in Pennsylvania are licensed by the PA Game Commission and are the only individuals who can legally keep and care for injured wildlife. This is done for the safety of the animals and humans involved– and many are surprised to find out that rehabilitating wildlife is a very precise undertaking.

If you care about orphaned and injured wildlife you should know that the animals you put into the care of a licensed rehabilitator are in good hands. These dedicated individuals work tirelessly in an effort to help the creatures in their care.

Our hope is that through the That’s Wild blog we will be able to showcase the great and unique work that is done by wildlife rehabilitators both in Pennsylvania and around the world, to share their amazing stories, and to showcase the truly awesome wildlife that surrounds us as well!

Stay tuned by following us on facebook and instagram so you’ll never miss a wild moment!