Fluffy Little Monsters

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A couple weeks ago when I was writing about our serendipitous discovery that one of our kestrels will act as a foster parent, I was having a great deal of difficulty staying on topic.  I kept wanting to write about the morbidly fascinating behavior we see these lovely little birds displaying every day.

As you can probably imagine, the people who visit and work at TreeHouse tend to be pretty big animal lovers, and sometimes it’s hard for them to see the freezers full of dead mice, rats, chickens, deer—whatever we have on hand at the moment.  It’s important to understand, though, that some animals eat other animals, and you will never convince a hawk to turn vegetarian.  We care for a lot of carnivores at TreeHouse, and we want to give them as wild and natural a life as possible.  It would be totally impractical to provide our permanent residents with live prey regularly—for one thing, many of them have injuries that impede their ability to hunt.  Still, we try to feed them as naturally as is feasible.

For anyone who is particularly sensitive about this sort of thing, it might be wise to avoid the kestrel enclosure around feeding time.  Kestrels are beautiful birds, and their small size gives them a deceptively delicate appearance.  But when they hunt—and when they eat—they turn into little killing machines.  Personally, I find it fascinating.

Hawks kill their prey with the talons of their powerful feet.  Kestrels, however, as falcons, catch their prey with their feet but kill by breaking the neck with their beaks.  When one of our kestrels gets a mouse, its first move is always to carry it to a perch and begin tearing at the neck with its beak.  Then it rips the head off.  Actually, to be more precise, it tears at the neck until the head is just dangling by a thread.  Then it proceeds to eat the brain.  I’m not really sure why they go for the brain first.  Maybe it tastes good.  I’ve also heard anecdotally that the brain will decay more quickly than the rest of the body, so maybe it has to do with eating it while it’s still fresh.  In any case, this leads to one of the more disturbing things our kestrels do: they don’t usually eat the whole head; instead, they leave the facial bones and flesh intact.  Then, often, they leave the faces on the platform where we feed them.  I don’t know if they’re trying to make some sort of statement or if it’s just convenient—probably the latter.  Either way, it’s super creepy.

Braaaiiins!!!

Once the kestrel is finished with the head, it moves on to the rest of the meal, gleefully ripping out entrails and chunks of meat.  If it’s really hungry, it will eat the mouse whole, later coughing up the fur and bones in a pellet.  Other times, it might be pickier.  Being “pickier” means that along with the face, we might find the spine, with tail still attached, lying on the platform.  Maybe I’m just weird, or maybe any 80s or 90s kid would have the same response, but when I see that, the “spine rip” move from Mortal Kombat always pops into my mind.  I think if a kestrel could play video games it would probably like Mortal Kombat.

If the kestrel really isn’t hungry, it might not be able to finish a whole mouse.  In that case, it will save its leftovers for later.  Our kestrels save their leftovers by hanging them in the Christmas tree.  Like ornaments.  To explain, the Christmas tree came with the house when we moved to our new location.  We wanted to find a use for it, and we thought that it would be perfect for the kestrels, as it would contribute to the diverse, naturalistic habitat we were trying to create for them.  And apparently it has.  They sometimes roost in it, and they frequently drape pieces of their food in it.  Like tinsel.  It’s a little bit gross, but mostly interesting.

Trimming the Christmas tree.

Ultimately, if hippos are the killer clowns of the animal kingdom, I’m pretty sure kestrels are the psychotic serial killers who keep trophies of their victims in the basement.  Though they say it’s always the quiet ones, and kestrels are anything but quiet.  Really, they’re just wild animals—predators that are supremely well-adapted for the niche they fill in nature, catching birds in flight and other small, fast things.  When I’m driving down a country road and I see a kestrel shoot through a flock of sparrows and grab one out of the air, I feel a twinge of pity for the sparrow, but mostly I’m delighted to witness nature in action.  It’s the circle of life!

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Belle & Bobbie: Week 5 Video

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The latest collection of pictures and videos from our bobcat cam is now up on YouTube.  Due to technical difficulties (a dead battery, actually) we do not have a week 4 video, but I think week 5 is well worth the wait!  Bobbie has grown significantly and has become much more active and inquisitive.  In the video, you’ll see her first couple of excursions outside the den box–as well as her first ridiculous failure of an attempt to get out of the den.  Belle is obviously a very attentive mother, keeping close tabs on her baby at all times.  It’s so exciting for all of us to watch Bobbie grow and to have the opportunity to observe a wild bobcat rearing her kitten.  I hope you enjoy the footage as much as I did!

Foster Father of the Year

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Yesterday, we admitted a young kestrel—our first this year.  She was transferred to TreeHouse by a private rehabber with whom we often work, after being found in a parking lot standing on someone’s car. The kestrel is a brancher. “Brancher” is a term used to describe juvenile raptors at the age when they have flight feathers but have not yet learned to fly.  At this age, they will hop around from branch to branch and down to the ground as they explore their surroundings, but they normally remain fairly close to their nest, as their parents are still feeding them.

The brancher sits on top of a post in the outdoor cage.

The kestrel we admitted yesterday seems to have no physical problems, but she is still too young to feed herself in the wild.  Since she was found in the middle of a parking lot, she had evidently strayed farther from her nest than is usual.  The location of the nest was unknown, so we brought her to TreeHouse until she is old enough to hunt on her own.

Although she is not yet hunting, she is old enough that she will pick food up on her own, so we placed her in our outdoor cage with our three permanent resident kestrels.  It is important to place juvenile birds with adults of the same species whenever possible, so that the adults can serve as behavioral role models and prevent human imprinting.  This particular kestrel is past the age at which human imprinting is a serious concern, but it is still beneficial for her to be with others of her species.

When Adele and I placed the kestrel in the outdoor cage yesterday, we were lucky enough to witness a very cool interaction between the brancher and one of the resident adults.

In most bird species, the chicks have a distinctive food-begging cry to which their parents respond instinctively.  When an adult hears this feeding cry, it is impelled to find food and bring it to the chick. This instinctive drive is what makes it possible for us to use non-releasable adults as foster parents.  An adult bird will typically respond to the feeding cry even if the young bird begging for food is not its own offspring.  Still, it usually takes a few days after a chick is introduced for the foster parent to adjust to the change and start actually caring for it.

In the case of our brancher kestrel, we were not expecting the adults to act as foster parents.  None of them had any previous experience fostering chicks, and the brancher is old enough to pick food up for herself.  But shortly after we placed her in the cage, she started the food-begging cry.  This in itself was not surprising.  Kestrels are notorious among wildlife rehabbers for the migraine-inducing clamor young orphans will make as they constantly demand food.  What did surprise us was the reaction of one of the adult residents.

This is Quincy, the adult permanent resident who adopted the new brancher.

As soon as the brancher started begging, one adult turned to watch her.  Within about a minute, he flew to the Christmas tree where the kestrels like to hang pieces of mice and picked one up in his talons.  (As an explanation about the Christmas tree food storage, I’ll have to follow up soon with an article about the kestrels’ normal feeding behavior—it’s pretty fascinating.  They’re like tiny feathery psychopaths.)  He then flew to where the brancher was perched and handed her the piece of mouse, from his beak to hers.  She picked at it for a few moments, then, like a toddler making trouble, dropped it on the ground and started crying again.

The adult watched her for a minute, looking back and forth from the mouse on the ground to the trouble-making brancher, and then he hopped to the ground, picked up the mouse, and brought it to her again.  This time she picked at it a little longer before dropping it on the ground, and she didn’t start crying immediately afterwards, so she must have had enough.

Of course I don’t have any pictures or video of this interaction—I never have my camera when something that interesting happens.  Now I just have an excuse to camp out next to the kestrel cage until I see it happen again.  Witnessing this sort of behavior really is my favorite thing about working at TreeHouse.  I could never get tired of observing wild animals and their behavior, and it seems like every day I see something amazing that I’ve never seen before.

Quincy and the brancher. In kestrels, unlike most of the raptors we have at TreeHouse, it is easy to distinguish between the sexes. Males are vividly colored, while females have more muted coloring.

More TreeHouse Babies

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This baby red fox was admitted to TreeHouse a couple of weeks ago after being found trapped under a deep freeze in a basement.  He is doing well, but we have to be careful to limit our interactions with him, as it is easy for young foxes to get overly habituated to humans.  You can see a video of him on our new YouTube channel.

This young barred owl was found on the ground after one of the recent storms.  The location of its nest was unknown, so we have placed it with a foster parent and two other owlets at TreeHouse.  Placement with a foster parent helps ensure that the young owls will imprint on their own species, instead of on humans.

This coyote pup was brought to TreeHouse after it was found in someone’s yard.  We don’t know why she was on her own in the open–we’re speculating that her den was nearby and she crawled out after something happened to her mother.

Belle and Bobbie are still doing well.  The baby has not yet ventured out of the den box, but it is becoming increasingly visible in the pictures and videos taken by the trail camera in the cage.  You can see the latest collection of videos here.  This photo, which shows Belle nursing her infant, is the only close-up we have of the two.

Surprise! A Wild Bobcat Kitten

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Two weeks ago, TreeHouse experienced a very exciting first.  The bobcat we admitted in March after she was hit by a car in Belleville gave birth to a kitten.  The baby, which we have decided to call “Bobbie”, seems to be perfectly healthy, but we are adopting a totally hands-off approach and allowing the mother (“Belle”) to care for the baby entirely on her own.  For this reason, we do not even know Bobbie’s sex—it would be too stressful to both mother and infant for us to take the baby away for an examination.

Belle and Bobbie are just the sixth and seventh wild bobcats TreeHouse has ever admitted.  It seems that the population of bobcats in southern Illinois is growing, as all have been admitted since 2005.  Prior to that point, we had received a few bobcats that were confiscated from people illegally keeping them as pets.

Belle was admitted to TreeHouse on March 7, and Bobbie was born, by our closest estimation, on April 16.  The gestation period for bobcats is around 62 days, so Belle would not yet have been half-way through her pregnancy when she was struck by the car and brought to TreeHouse.  She had full-body X-rays taken at that time, but even under magnification the radiographs show no sign of a developing fetus—it was simply too early in the pregnancy.

As Belle progressed in her rehabilitation from the head injury she sustained in her accident, she remained very secretive, only leaving her den box when no one was around to see her.  For this reason, although we believed that she was recovering well, we were reluctant to release her until we could verify that she was not experiencing any lingering neurological effects, such as problems with balance or diminished eyesight or hearing.

One of our first glimpses of Belle exploring her surroundings.

As a means to observe Belle’s movements without disrupting them, we obtained a trail camera with an infrared flash that would be able to take still pictures and video whenever Belle moved past it, day or night.  It was while the camera was being installed in the cage, on April 16, that we first heard the kitten mewing from inside the den box.

Belle was extremely defensive of the den at this point, showing her teeth and growling menacingly at anyone who approached her cage.  As we began to suspect the presence of kitten, we were cautious of causing any unnecessary stress to the mother, so it was not until the next day that we actually caught a glimpse of Bobbie—at that point basically a dark blob curled up by Belle’s stomach.  We immediately began to take measures to reduce any noise or disturbance in the vicinity of the bobcat cage, erecting a privacy fence around the cage and strictly limiting the number of people who would enter the cage to feed.

Our apologies to anyone who came to TreeHouse in the last two weeks and were told that the bobcat was unavailable for public viewing because she was a candidate for release and needed to remain isolated from humans.  This is true—we hope to be able to release both mother and young back to the wild once Bobbie is old enough—but the presence of an infant made complete privacy even more imperative, for multiple reasons.

Belle guards her den against anyone who approaches.

Although wild felines are typically very good mothers, if conditions are unfavorable for rearing a litter, they will abandon their young.  Unfavorable conditions can mean poor habitat, inadequate food supply, or a stressful environment.   Belle seems perfectly content with her den, and she is certainly receiving enough to eat, so our primary concern is limiting stress.  Being stared at all day by strange humans can be incredibly stressful for wild animals, so it is for this reason that she will not be available for viewing.  The presence of hormones associated with stress can even interfere with the production of hormones necessary for lactation, so if Belle becomes too stressed she could become physically unable to care for her baby.

If this were to happen and it became necessary for us to intervene in order to save Bobbie, we would do so, but it would be better in every way for the bobkitten to be raised by its mother rather than being hand-reared by humans.  It will grow up much more wild this way, and since we hope to release it to the wild, it is important that the kitten not become too accustomed to humans.

So, the reason we delayed releasing the information about Bobbie’s birth is that we needed to find a way to share this exciting story while also protecting Belle and Bobbie’s privacy.  The animals always come first at TreeHouse, and during this time the most important thing is for Belle to feel comfortable and secure.  Instead of subjecting her to the stress of having a stream of people come out to see her baby in person, we therefore will be uploading pictures and video from the camera in her cage to our new Youtube page.  Check for a new video each week, as we follow Bobbie’s growth and Belle’s daily movements.