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.

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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.

It’s a Baby Otter!

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I’m so excited right now that I am literally bouncing on my desk chair.  Today, we admitted a baby river otter.  I’ve just realized that there is nothing in the world quite as adorable as a baby river otter.

I think of all the puppies and kittens I've ever seen, and then I have to accept that nothing else can ever be this cute.

After over 30 years of wildlife rehabilitation, it isn’t often that TreeHouse gets something completely new, but in all that time, we have never admitted a river otter.  They are around in this area, but much like bobcats they are rarely sighted.  According to a biologist at Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge, most otter sightings in and around the refuge come in the form of road-kill.  Otters live along the banks of secluded rivers and streams, feeding primarily on fish and crustaceans, like crayfish.  They are found throughout North America, from Florida in the south to northern Canada, and from Newfoundland in the east to the Aleutian Islands in the west.  Despite their broad range, their population has been dramatically reduced from historical numbers by habitat loss and heavy fur trapping.

I love otters.  They are highly intelligent, inquisitive, and playful.  In fact, many would argue that of all animals (besides humans!), otters show the best evidence of true play.  That is, they demonstrate behavior that does not seem to have any adaptive value, either in terms of survival, attracting a mate, learning skills for use in later life, or any other practical purpose.  They slide down mud-banks on their bellies.  They have been observed repeatedly pushing a pebble into the water, then diving down after it to catch it on the top of their head and bring it back to the surface, like a kid with diving sticks at a swimming pool.  They will even bring these “toys” back to keep in their dens—smooth stones and other objects that they play with in the water.

The otter we admitted today came from a couple who live off the Great River Road just a few miles from TreeHouse.  Her mother was found dead (cause of death unknown), but fortunately for the baby, the couple found her after hearing her whimpering coming from a drain culvert.  They dried her off, warmed her up, and brought her to TreeHouse.  Just to note, I keep using the word “her”, but we’re not sure of the sex yet.  I think it might be female, but determining the sex in otters is not actually as straightforward as it is in other mammals.

She was fairly lethargic when she first came in—she was curled in a tight little ball and wouldn’t uncurl—but after taking some warm fluids and a little bit of food, she perked up quite a bit.  She started nosing all around the counter where I was feeding her, pushing bottles and jars over as she explored her surroundings with her whiskers and staggered around on unsteady baby legs.

Like any toddler, as she began to liven up, she made an increasingly huge mess of herself.  She dipped her whole face into her water bowl and blew bubbles at the bottom through her nose, repeatedly lifting her head up for breath, then going back down to blow more bubbles.  She basically dove headfirst into her food bowl.  So, before she could go back into her cage in the nursery, she needed a bath.  I put her into a shallow pan of warm water, and she took to the water about as gleefully as you might expect a baby otter to do.  She swam all around the pan, going underwater as much as the shallow water would allow.  She is not a strong swimmer yet—it was likely her first time swimming on her own—but she looked more comfortable in the water than she does on land.

Fortunately, although we have never rescued an otter before, we have a lot of great information resources we will be utilizing, and we hope we will be able to raise this orphan for release back to the wild.

The Big Move

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We have a lot of new faces at TreeHouse this week.  Most of our permanent residents and all of our rehab animals except those in outdoor release training cages have now moved from Brighton to our new Dow facility.

Spuds and Mac, our two Brighton eagles, join Hope in their new 960-square-foot cage at Dow.

Four of our permanent resident turkey vultures settle into their new cage adjacent to the eagles. Einstein can't join them until his trainer gives the OK, though.

Cyclops the red-tailed hawk moved in with some new roommates this week. She's showing her good side in this picture, but you can probably guess why her name is Cyclops.

Long-time resident short-eared owl Mocha will have to wait until the weather warms up a bit more before he can move into his new outdoor cage. For now, he'll be staying in the exam room.