The Fawns of Redwall

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Over the past few months, the additional help of several summer interns has meant that TreeHouse has been humming with activity as projects that have been backed up for ages get wrapped up one after another.  For me, the biggest step came a couple of weeks ago, when we completed work on our new deer pen.

The deer pen has been in the planning stages since last winter.  It was originally intended to have been completed in time for last year’s fawns, but a number of factors ultimately made that goal untenable.  To me it was beginning to feel like the enclosure would never be started.  Even after the materials had been ordered and delivered, it seemed like the weather would never cooperate.  So, the first time we had an open afternoon, a few of the interns decided we just needed to start it.

Looking at the enclosure in person, it's pretty easy to imagine guard towers at the corners and crossbows sticking out between the posts.

Looking at the enclosure in person, it’s pretty easy to imagine guard towers at the corners and crossbows peeking out between the posts.

With the help of a lot of hard work by interns and volunteers, the pen went up remarkably quickly.  The enclosure is more than 1500 square feet, and it includes a swinging gate that allows us to separate specific individuals if necessary.  It also, with a bit of imagination, looks exactly like a medieval fortress.

Apparently, TreeHouse interns tend to have a certain number of shared interests.  Maybe that should be obvious—clearly, something drew all of us to want to intern at TreeHouse.  So maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised when I mentioned the Redwall books and found that both of the interns I was talking to had also read them as kids.

A portion of the combined collection of my brother's and my Redwall books.  Apparently there are a total of 22 books in the series.

A portion of the combined collection of my brother’s and my Redwall books. Apparently there are a total of 22 books in the series.

For those of you unfamiliar with Redwall, it is the name of an abbey populated and defended by an assortment of woodland creatures in a series of novels by Brian Jacques.  I loved the Redwall books when I was younger, but I haven’t met many people who read them.   Evidently they’re very popular among TreeHouse interns though.  So it was sort of obvious to all of us, once the name had been brought up, that our new deer pen had to be called Redwall.  At the moment it basically has a moat along the east wall where a new water line was put in a few months ago, it is currently housing about a dozen fawns, and as more of our new rehab enclosures are completed in the coming months, it will be increasingly surrounded by assorted woodland creatures.  I’m not sure if the name is actually official, but to those of us who built it, it will always be Redwall.

The fawns themselves, meanwhile, seem very pleased with their new housing.  Before the enclosure was completed, they had been staying in an indoor exercise room.  They were quite young at that point, so the situation wasn’t bad, but the outdoor enclosure gives the growing fawns a much healthier and richer environment.  The fawns, predominantly car-strike orphans, will live and grow in Redwall until this fall, when they are old enough to set out on their own.  In the meantime, I suppose we’d just better keep a lookout for an invading horde of weasels wielding battleaxes.

Redwall has sunshine and shade, shelter, and plenty of natural vegetation for enrichment when the fawns are old enough to start browsing.

Redwall has sunshine and shade, shelter, and plenty of natural vegetation for enrichment when the fawns are old enough to start browsing.

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Belleville Bobcat: An Overdue Conclusion

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It occurred to me the other day that before I took a hiatus from writing here, one of the primary stories I had been chronicling had not yet been wrapped up.  Belle, the bobcat that was brought to TreeHouse last year after being hit by a car, and Bobbie, the kitten she gave birth to while rehabilitating, concluded their stay at TreeHouse last October.  For anyone who hasn’t heard the amazing story of how Belle and Bobbie came to be TreeHouse’s guests, you can read about it here.  And thanks to the trail camera donated by a reader of this blog, we were able to watch Bobbie grow without interfering as he learned from his mother how to be a bobcat.

This picture from the trail camera actually shows Bobbie's first step out of the den.

This picture from the trail camera actually shows Bobbie’s first step out of the den.

I could go on for twenty pages talking about all the incredible (and adorable!) behaviors and interactions we witnessed between Belle and Bobbie thanks to the trail camera, but luckily I don’t have to.  The best videos are available for anyone to view on our YouTube channel.

Our number one priority with the bobcats was to ensure that they would both be able to return to the wild as soon as Bobbie was old enough to take care of himself, so we erected a privacy fence around the cage and strictly prohibited visitors and even volunteers from that area.  A handful of interns and volunteers were responsible for all bobcat care, keeping the number of humans they became comfortable with at an absolute minimum so that Belle was able to raise her son wild.

Bobcats spend an extended period of time with their mothers, and this interaction is vitally important for their behavioral development.

Bobcats spend an extended period of time with their mothers, and this interaction is vitally important for their behavioral development.

Ultimately, Belle resided at TreeHouse for about seven months.  In October, one week before Bobbie reached six months of age, mother and son were released in a wildlife conservation area in southern Illinois. Their release site was deep in optimal bobcat habitat—plenty of dense vegetation, steep slopes, caves, and spring-fed streams.  We couldn’t have designed a better place for them to live.

In the actual moment we opened the crates to let them go free, it was—as is often the case with mammal releases—a bit anticlimactic.  After a minute in which they both seemed to debate whether they were safer inside or outside their crates, Belle took her first cautious peek out.  Slowly and deliberately, alert and testing the air at every step, she stalked off into the woods in the direction opposite the spot from which the humans were watching.  Bobbie apparently decided that his crate was the safest spot, and finally we had to unscrew the top in order to get him to leave.  As soon as the top was removed, though, he took off like a shot, without a backward glance.  A video of the release is also available on YouTube.

Watching through the lens of the trail camera over the course of half a year, we witnessed Bobbie grow from a squirmy dark blob at the back of the den box into a wild and rambunctious young bobcat.  We saw his first steps outside the den box and his first attempt to reach the ground level of the cage.  We watched him snuggling with his mother, being bathed by her, and later ambushing her for rounds of play-fighting.  As with all carnivores we release, we needed to be sure that he was capable of hunting to provide food for himself, so we also observed his first encounter with live prey and his first kill.

When we released Belle and Bobbie, several people asked me if I was sad to see them go.  Although I can understand why someone might think I would be sad—of course I grew attached to them as I cared for them and watched their lives unfold—I can honestly say that their release wasn’t even bittersweet.  It was only sweet.  A successful release to a habitat like the one Belle and Bobbie were sent to is exactly what a wildlife rehabber hopes to achieve for every animal.  If I could write the perfect ending to Belle and Bobbie’s story, it would be this: “And they never saw another human as long as they lived.”

Bobbie, a few days before his release.

Bobbie, a few days before his release.

Latest Bobcat Videos

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Just a reminder to anyone following our running story on Belle, the bobcat struck by a car in Belleville in March, and Bobbie, the kitten she gave birth to while recovering at TreeHouse: videos chronicling the first 13 weeks of Bobbie’s life are available on YouTube.  The latest video can be found here.  We have now confirmed that Bobbie is male, and he is growing like a weed!  He spends his days running, climbing, playing, and generally learning from his mother how to be a bobcat.  Be sure to check back on our YouTube page over the next week or so, as more videos will be posted in the next few days.

Off in a Flash

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Yesterday, we released a young Cooper’s hawk at The Nature Institute in Godfrey.  The hawk was one of this year’s orphans, raised at TreeHouse until it was old enough to hunt for itself in the wild.  This hawk came from Bond County, where it was found grounded and in need of help.  It has been in a flight training cage at our Brighton facility for the past few days, building up its flight muscles and practicing hunting.

Adele get the Cooper’s hawk set for release at The Nature Institute.

We are currently experiencing a bit of a pinch with our flight training for young birds ready for release, since we do not yet have the full funding required to build our new flight cage at Dow, but the old flight cages in Brighton are nearly unusable, as weasels and mink can get in through many of the cracks and gaps.  Despite their small size, weasels are formidable predators, and they are able to kill large adult owls with ease.  Great horned owls, barred owls, Cooper’s hawks, waterfowl—not to mention tiny screech owls and kestrels—all can fall prey to weasels when young or in a confined space.  For this reason we are presently cutting the time our birds spend in the flight training cages to a minimum—as soon as we establish that they are able to hunt, the birds are released.

Fortunately, Cooper’s hawks are among those, based on Adele’s 30+ years of rehab experience, that pick up the skill of hunting the fastest.  Cooper’s hawks are accipiters, a genus of raptors that have broad, rounded wings, very long tails, and relatively delicate feet and talons.  Accipiters are extraordinarily fast, maneuverable flyers, and their primary prey consists of other birds, which they are adept at catching while in flight.  The most common cause for admission of Cooper’s hawks at TreeHouse is collisions with windows—they fly so fast that when they hit something, they hit it hard.  They are extremely high-energy birds, and they are usually high-strung in captivity, constantly bouncing off the walls—literally.  All they want to do is fly.

The young hawk we released yesterday proved that it was more than delighted to be out in the open as it pelted toward tree-line.  After weeks or months of caring for an animal in rehab, releases, while always both exciting and gratifying, can sometimes be a bit anti-climactic.  Mammals, especially, have a tendency to be pretty wary of leaving their box.  This Cooper’s hawk, however, did not disappoint.  A brief video clip of the release can be found on our YouTube page.  Even though the hawk was gone in a flash, it put on a brief but spectacular show of accipiter flying prowess as it wheeled over the treetops and out of sight, presumably in search of a flock of little birds to hunt.

You can find information about donating to our cage-building fund here or by calling TreeHouse at (618)466-2990.

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.

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