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.

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.

Trumpeter Swan Release

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The best part of working in wildlife rehab is always when you get to release an animal. It can take months of treatment before an injured animal is ready to return to the wild, and in many cases the animal doesn’t survive, or it is non-releasable due to the nature of its injury. These challenges make it all that much more rewarding when we are able to release one of our patients back into the wild.

Last week, we released two trumpeter swans at Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary. The swans had been rehabilitating at our Brighton facility for around six weeks. One of them had evidently been injured by the animal—possibly a coyote—that killed its mate, and the other was the victim of stray shot from a dove hunter’s gun.

I was along for the retrieval of the swan that was shot, and I got to assist with its admission examination—definitely a multi-person endeavor when dealing with a bird the size of a trumpeter swan. My contributions included holding the swan while standing on a scale to find the bird’s weight (28 pounds, if I recall correctly) and cleaning the piece of lead shot we discovered embedded in the plush feathers of its neck. After that, I didn’t see the swan again until we released it last Wednesday, as it was placed in one of our Brighton facility’s outdoor rehab cages that we have yet to replicate at Dow.

On Wednesday, we brought a couple of Great Horned Owls, which had been recovering from what we suspect was West Nile Virus, to Brighton to build their strength back up in one of the flight cages, and while we were there we picked up the two swans for release. I should mention that it might be a bit misleading to say we “picked up” the swans—it wasn’t quite so easy as that! Ultimately it took four people to capture the two swans and get them into the crates in which we would be transporting them—even after one person manages to pick a swan up, a second person must manually fold the bird’s wings to keep it from pummeling its captor with them.

Despite one near escape when placing the swans in the crates and some incredibly strong winds, the release went perfectly smoothly. The two must have developed some bond while they were recovering together, because as soon as they were both out of their crates they began calling to each other, and they swam and flew together straight into the 55 mph gusts of wind all the way to the farthest corner of the pond, until all we could see was two white specks on the choppy water.