Finally! Pass out the cigars. Peace River Wildlife Center’s resident brown pelicans usually build nests and breed in November and December. Last year our first pelican chicks hatched on New Year’s Day. This year our recalcitrant parents started much later and their first chicks hatched in early March. We have experienced a high mortality rate in previous years with the newly hatched chicks and have found a little intervention helps them to thrive. With the injured parents unable to nest where they would naturally be safer from predators and less adept at traversing the nests, the first few nights of a hatchling’s life can be a dangerous time. These neonates are brought into the hospital and placed in incubators overnight for the first few days of their lives. In the morning they are taken back to their nests and their mothers resume their care. When the babies are about a week old they will stay in the nesting area, just behind the pelican pond at PRWC’s educational display area.
Fun fact—while the pelicans are nesting we do not clean the area where the nests are located as thoroughly as we normally would so as to not disturb the birds. So that wonderful smell is not from lack of attention on our part, but due to our greater diligence in deference to the new families. Okay, maybe that “fact” is not so much “fun” as “funk”.
The tiny pink alien-looking hatchling begins life by pecking his way out of the egg using his egg tooth to pip a hole in the widest part of the egg then rotating his body to cut the cap off of the shell. By the fifth day of his life he turns purple and looks even more like an extra from Men in Black. Fluffy white down will begin to emerge on the rump around day 10 and cover the body by day 25. The juvenile brown plumage will replace the down, starting at the scapulars by day 30. Interestingly it is at this point that the pattern of the feathers resembles a greyish brown heart on the back of the downy white chick. By the time the juvenile is 70 days old he will have acquired his complete juvenile plumage.
Unable to hold his head up, the hatchling initially thrashes his head from side to side to eat pre-digested fish regurgitated by both parents onto the nest. (PRWC has a great video of one of our head start hatchlings eating chopped fish on our Facebook page for those of you able to access it.) As he gets more coordinated he will reach into the parent’s pouch to intercept the fish being regurgitated. When he is ready to leave the nest, the fledgling will often weigh more than an adult bird. The increased mass acts as a stored energy source as the youngster learns how to forage for himself.
As the weeks pass our hatchling will start to get stronger and more independent. He will emerge from the nesting area to explore his surroundings. By one month he can begin to experiment with flight. Most pelicans begin to leave the nest permanently at three months of age. The PRWC babies eventually discover that they can follow the visiting healthy pelicans and fly out of the open air enclosure during the day and do so for increasingly longer periods of time. Initially they will spend a few minutes soaring over Charlotte Harbor and work their way up to spending one and then many nights away from the Center. Eventually the older fledgling, or “teenager”, will fly back in to our pelican pond occasionally only at feeding time, sometimes with a friend or two in tow. They scarf down as many fish as they can, then rush back out to more important tasks. Any parent of a teen knows the drill. I wonder if pelicans suffer from empty nest syndrome or if they are thrilled that “housekeeping” services will resume.
by- Robin Jenkins, DVM
Baby pelicans starting to get down
Snarled traffic on US-41 through Port Charlotte notwithstanding, life is starting to slow down here in southwest Florida. Now that spring is officially here, there is the occasional lull in frenetic activity as the weather heats up and the seasonal residents start making their way back home. Some people have already begun to leave, as evidenced by my finding a parking space at Wal-Mart that was a mere three miles from the front door. At midnight. I can’t wait until I am the only crazy person shopping for kitty litter scoops and KY jelly at that time of day. (For cleaning habitats and inserting feeding tubes, respectively. Get your minds out of the gutter!)
We will miss our seasonal volunteers at Peace River Wildlife Center. Hopefully they will continue to follow us via our web site, Facebook page and Waterline online. These folks have worked hard over the past few months to help make PRWC a great place to visit and a fun place to learn about the diverse population of wildlife with which we share our little corner of paradise. They clean habitats and cages, guide tours, work as gift shop clerks, help in the hospital, transport injured and releasable animals, build, sew, cook, and donate supplies that we need on a daily basis.
While they are checking their homes for damage from the 20 feet of snow that buried those domiciles for the “better” part of the winter (“better” as defined by “larger or greater”, definitely not “of superior quality or excellence”) we will continue to guide tours, clean habitats, and offer outreach programs at PRWC, and we could use some help from our year-round residents to do so. Anyone interested in volunteering over the spring and summer is encouraged to contact the PRWC office. As much as I miss our northern friends when they make their annual migration, I will not miss being overlooked in line at the deli. It seems when there are fewer people at the grocery store, my super hero power of invisibility is less likely to be triggered unwittingly.
Speaking of super hero powers, it has recently become obvious to me that I am not the only one in my family to have been so blessed. My adopted 4-legged “daughter”, KC, is a dachshund with the ability to see alien life forms. She may be no more than six inches tall, but she is smart enough to know that she cannot fight off these beasts by herself. Luckily, the aliens are only a threat to humans when we are asleep, so all KC has to do is dive under the bed and bark vehemently any time that she senses we are sleeping. Works like a charm—not only have we never been attacked, we haven’t even seen one of these alien predators.
I’m not so sure that this power is going to be beneficial for the dog in the long run though, because lack of sleep can make humans a little cranky. I wonder why she was on Craig’s List to begin with. Hmm. I wonder why I was on Craig’s List. Every time I go to that site looking for used cages and supplies for PRWC I end up perusing the “free pet to good home” listings. I’ve gotten my last two dogs that way. I think it would be considerably cheaper for me to buy supplies new at a local store than to try to save a couple bucks and end up with a rusty rabbit hutch and a dog that needs $85-a-bag specialty food.
Anything that cannot be purchased at a local shop can be bought through www.smile.amazon.com. This site allows buyers to register PRWC (or any registered charitable organization) as the beneficiary of 0.5% of all eligible purchases. PRWC also maintains a wish list on this site and donated items can be purchased and shipped directly to us. It’s a win-win-win for PRWC and a great way for our seasonal friends to donate from afar.
Wishing safe travels to the snowbirds and a quiet summer to our year-rounders. Stay safe on the roads, stay off of Craig’s List if you have no more self-control than I, and stay frosty.
by- Robin Jenkins, DVM
Fundraiser at Opus
Fundraiser Tea Social
I am currently not on speaking terms with groundhogs from Pennsylvania or WaterLine publishers. I’m not sure who I am more upset with—Punxsutawney Phil for forecasting six more weeks until spring or Josh Olive for jinxing us with his prediction that winter was over weeks ago. I blame them both because I am tired of this horribly chilly weather we have been having. I can’t wait to say goodbye to the 50 and 60 degree days and hello to the 80’s and 90’s again. I like my weather like I like my music, nothing lower (or earlier) than 70’s will do.
Of course, with that warmer weather comes the onslaught of little paw pitter patter. Spring brings baby season to PRWC. We already have quite a few eastern grey squirrel babies at Peace River Wildlife Center. This species is known to breed twice a year, especially when food is plentiful. During a heavy mast year, when trees like oaks produce many acorns, the older females can produce a second litter in the autumn in southwest Florida (in the summer in more northern climes). Most of the squirrels will breed in the spring though and since our weather here in southwest Florida is relatively mild (if you ask anyone but me) that process has already begun. Some of our local squirrel populations take advantage of particularly mild winters to breed year round.
The eastern grey squirrel shows evidence of some pretty complex brain activity. He has spatial awareness and memory for the multiple caches of food that he hoards and stores in many locations. He uses both local and distant landmarks to revisit these sites and smell once he gets close enough to them. He will even use deceptive behaviour to protect his caches from rivals. If he is being observed when trying to place food in a cache, he will prepare a site as usual (dig a hole in the ground or clear a crevice in a tree), pretend to place the food in it while hiding it in his mouth, and go so far as to cover the empty bogus cache site.
Squirrels are one of the only mammals that can climb down a tree head-first. They do so by rotating their ankles so that the claws on their rear feet point backwards. Many other mammals can climb up a tree and a few can descend, but like cats and foxes, they must do so backwards.
Squirrel nests, or dreys, are large hollow balls composed of leaves and twigs, often lined with moss or feathers. They can be dislodged from their location in the fork of a tree by high winds or tree trimming. If there are babies in a disrupted nest it is important to leave the uninjured babies alone and the mother will retrieve them and move them to a safe location and a different nest.
The squirrel’s gestation period is about 40 days. The average litter size is one to four, but can be up to eight. The young are weaned by 10 weeks and begin to leave the nest by 12 weeks of age. PRWC has admitted 11 baby squirrels already this season. They are currently in four different foster homes, where they will be fed via a syringe with a special nipple and cared for until they are weaned. At that time the juvenile squirrels will be returned to PRWC and placed in communal prerelease cages to get them ready for survival in the wild. We anticipate the addition of many more baby squirrels over the next few weeks. Anyone interested in learning how to do mammal home care for PRWC is encouraged to call the office at 941-637-3830 to schedule training.
Our resident eastern grey squirrel, Leonard P. Squigford, is off of display right now. He is going through some challenges in his “adolescence.” Born last November, he is now approximately 3 months old and is starting to mature. It is at this age that most people who thought it would be a great idea to raise a wild squirrel as a pet begin to think perhaps those crazy people at PRWC were right after all. Wild animals do not make good pets (and it is illegal to keep them without the proper permits and licenses.)
Unfortunately, our little Squiggy cannot be released. He has a congenital condition in his brain that affects his balance and coordination. While that portion of his brain does not function normally, the rest of his brain works very well. He has been smart enough to take advantage of the accommodations we have made in his habitat to learn how to feed himself and get around without falling great distances. He does not like the small cage in which he resides during the day while on display at PRWC though. We have applied for a grant to build him a bigger habitat on site, but for now he lives in a ferret cage in the home of one of our subpermittees and gets the run of the house when they are home.
He could get out of his small cage on site more often, but many of his handlers are having a difficult time adjusting to his needs. He doesn’t mind being picked up but knows his limitations and so gets nervous if not handled firmly enough. While the natural inclination is for people to handle him gently so as not to hurt him, he seems to realize that his uncoordinated movements could result in a fall if he were to jerk out of someone’s hands because they were holding him too loosely. So, while most people mean well, they frighten him and he, in turn, frightens them. He does not like to be mollycoddled. Like Carol Kane as the Ghost of Christmas Present in Scrooged, he “likes the rough stuff,” but understandably few people are ready for 50 shades of grey squirrel. So until we can build him a more appropriate enclosure at PRWC he will be making only occasional appearances.
by-Robin Jenkins, DVM
Squiggy climbing a tree in his lavender harness.
Squiggy’s head shot–just waiting for Hollywood to call!
Baby squirrel in stack of volunteer-crocheted nests used for baby mammals and birds.
Peace River Wildlife Center’s Facebook page blew up this past week when we posted about the rescue of an approximately four-day-old white-tailed deer fawn. We got “likes”, “shares”, and lots of comments. Most of the comments were of the “aww” nature, but a few were concerned about the fawn’s chances of survival out in a place called “nature.” Assuredly, we have to make some difficult decisions at times and occasionally take a leap of faith, but this case was pretty straightforward. Although we do not see many deer at PRWC, we are lucky to have a rehabber from New York State who winters in our area and volunteers with us. Diane Hime rehabs numerous fawns every year and assured us that the best “person” to raise a fawn is its own mother.
The fawn was found in the Yucca Pens Unit of the Babcock/Webb Wildlife Management Area. Surrounded by residential development, citrus groves, and pastureland; Babcock/Webb is 65,758 acres of hydric (wet) pine flatwoods—one of the few and largest remaining tracts of undeveloped habitat of this type in southwest Florida. Yucca Pens is a 14,577 acre segment of this natural refuge for native Florida wildlife. Unfortunately, exotic plant species have been introduced accidentally and intentionally over the years throughout Florida and now pose a threat to our wildlife as they displace native flora and fauna. Not only are some plants toxic, but few of them provide a nutritious food source for our animals.
Melaleucas were introduced in the 1880’s from Australia to help dry up the Everglades (now there’s a great idea!). Downy rose myrtle, introduced in the 1920’s from Asia as an ornamental, is resistant to fire and out competes native plant species regrowth after natural (and controlled) burning. Japanese climbing fern, introduced from Asia in the 1930’s, strangles out native plant species. As these and many other invasive species crowd out the native plants, the animals are left with nothing to eat and no appropriate habitat to call home. Florida Fish and Wildlife is constantly battling these invasive plant species, just as they do the invasive animal species that threaten to displace our native populations.
FWC workers were spraying herbicide on invasive plants and did not see the fawn waiting under the brush for his mother’s return. The baby’s natural camouflage kept him well hidden and his instinct to freeze when in the presence of a potential predator worked all too well in this instance. It is normal for the mother to leave her young alone for long periods of time the first few days of his life as mom forages and draws attention away from the defenseless youngster. Just as rabbits do, the mother will return to nurse the baby only two to three times a day. As the fawn gets older, he will start to follow mama around as she feeds, but knows to stay in one place for the first week or so of his life and she will return to him. The doe will never range far from where her fawn is located.
As soon as the FWC workers noticed the fawn had been contaminated, they rinsed him off with water, but since the chemicals they were using are oil-based, they knew they had to have him checked by professionals. He was brought to PRWC where he was bathed with Dawn dish soap (rehabbers’ favourite weapon against toxic substances), had his eyes and ears checked for damage from the chemicals and water, and given supportive care. After his bath he was bundled up and dried off, then he spent the night in a bird cage—the only cage with bars close enough together to keep his tiny hooves from poking through and getting injured.
Early the following day the fawn was taken back to where he was discovered, to be reunited with his mother. She was not in evidence while the release crew was there, as expected. Just because we didn’t see her does not mean she didn’t see us. Since this was where she left her fawn the day before, we know she will come back to look for him there. The area is at least 15 miles off the beaten path, far from where most people venture, so the less human intervention in the reunion the better.
We all want to help these animals, especially when it is such an adorable little creature as this fawn. Sometimes, though, the best way to help is to do nothing. A fawn raised in captivity will have little chance at a normal life. Unless raised in a group of at least 10 conspecifics, he will imprint on humans and not have the social skills to navigate his adult life successfully. One of the best ways to help wildlife is to be cognizant of the fact that every choice we make has far reaching implications. Even as seemingly innocuous a choice as what vegetation to plant in your garden can cause ripple effects through time that can impact many other species of plants and animals. Sounds like the premise for a new sci fi thriller. Bambi meets the Butterfly Effect. Spoiler alert—it all ends in zombies and vampires, because everything these days does.
by- Robin Jenkins, DVM
The fawn on admission to PRWC
Bathing the fawn
Dr. Robin drying the fawn after his Dawn bath
The fawn at release waiting for mama to return
You know it’s going to be one of those weeks when the boss storms into the office Monday morning and declares, “I AM GOD!” Before you think I am telling tales about the crazy lady I work for, please be aware that I am that boss. I may be just a little bit crazy. But, truth be told, I’m not really even one of the minor goddesses.
In my defense, that is not exactly what I meant to say, but a new habitat cleaner was signing into the volunteer logbook in the office at Peace River Wildlife Center when I said it and she got such a look of terror in her eyes that I think I’ll start every Monday morning like that from now on. Actually I was schlepping my usual pile of paraphernalia—laptop computer, laundry soap, squirrel (the kind of things everyone carries with them to work, right?) into the office first thing in the morning. When I headed back out to get another armload, someone asked if I needed help. My brain was processing whether to say, “No, I got it” or “No, I’m good.” It came out as, “No, I’m god.”
What a week it turned out to be. We had the usual bumper crop of baby bunnies being brought in. They were pitched out of the nest by a lawn mower, retrieved by a labradoodle, and trapped in a garage. One was even found in a pool. Who knew bunnies could do the backstroke? Just like the Eveready Bunny, those little guys just never seem to stop coming in. Remember to leave them for their mother to raise if they are not injured or truly orphaned or abandoned. Mama rabbits will leave their young alone for several hours between nursing visits in order to not draw the attention of predators to the nest site. Just because the mother is not there, do not assume the babies are abandoned.
One of our more unusual patients so far this year is a grey fox that was brought to us by Charlotte County Animal Control Officer Finkbeiner. The fox was reportedly stuck in a fence for up to a few days before the property owners became aware of the situation. The adult male is resting comfortably in PRWC’s surgical/isolation ward. Initially he was so weak he could barely raise his head. He progressed quickly to eating on his own—he has a voracious appetite! He can now stand and walk a few steps, but his gait is still unstable. It will be some time before we can make the determination if permanent damage was done to his spine or the nerves in one or more of his legs by the entrapment. We hope to be able to release him if he can make a full recovery.
In the meantime, he is actually a joy to work with. He is a wild animal and must be handled accordingly, but his eyes are so intelligent. He is trusting of us so far, as though he knows we are trying to help him. We are monitoring him also for the possibility that he may have a contagious disease like canine distemper or rabies. But his progress so far diminishes the chance of that and should he survive, he will be vaccinated for those diseases.
Grey foxes, as well as red, are found over much of Florida. The smaller grey fox is usually more dominant than the larger red and will push the reds out of a common territory. Luckily grey foxes are not hunted quite as often as red foxes since the former do not give dogs as good a chase as the reds and their fur is not as valuable to man. (Although, it remains pretty darned valuable to the fox!)
Foxes are “opportunivores.” They will eat anything they can get their little paws on. They eat small mammals, birds, frogs, fruits, vegetables, etc. Although they are rarely seen since they usually only come out at night, they can be found close to human habitation, nosing through garbage. They make their dens in hollow trees, stumps, and gopher tortoise burrows. The grey fox is one of only two canids that can actually climb trees, a skill used to avoid predators and reach food (the other is the Asian raccoon dog). They can shinny up a branchless tree and jump down or climb down backwards like a cat.
Another interesting fact about foxes—the grey fox has oval pupils, while the red fox has slit-like pupils. I do not advocate using this method to determine at which wild animal you are looking. The red fox will have more red fur, black “socks” on all four legs and a white-tipped tail. The grey fox will have a little red in his predominantly grey grizzled coat and a black-tipped tail. And either will try to chomp you if you give them the opportunity by getting close enough to see the whites (or pupils) of his eyes.
by- Robin Jenkins, DVM
Grey Fox Eye