Whooo’s got a birthday?

Whooo’s got a birthday?

Peace River Wildlife Center invites you to celebrate the first birthday of the latest addition to our family of glove-trained birds.  Orion the barred owl turned one on February 14 this year.  He is our Valentine baby, and lives up to all that entails by being such a love.

Orion was transferred to PRWC last year as a fledgling from our sister organization, the Wildlife Center of Venice.  They had helped to re-nest the barred owl chick when he was found on the ground, but subsequent exposure to the people at the site caused the bird to get habituated to humans and unsuitable for life in the wild.

Barred owls, with their distinctive “Who cooks for you?” call, were historically found on the east coast of the U.S., but have been expanding north and west into Canada and now down into northern California, due to changing habitat.  They do not migrate and usually spend their entire lives within a six-mile radius of where they hatched. 

Breeding season in Florida is late January to March.  Hatchling barred owls are born covered in white fluffy down, which is slowly replaced by adult feathers as they age.  The young barred owl will have complete adult plumage by six months.

At four to five weeks of age, the “branching” (an age between nestling and fledgling) baby bared owl will perch on the edge of the nest and climb out onto nearby branches.  If he drops to the ground, he can usually climb back up his tree or a neighboring one using his talons and beak to dig in, while fluttering his wings to get to lower branches.  He will remain there while his parents protect and feed him.  This unique behavior is what got Orion in trouble when people interacted with him and lured him down from the tree to feed him.

During a re-nesting, we normally ask the homeowners in the area to keep an eye on the baby and let us know if it falls out of the nest again.  We will re-nest another time or two, but if a hatchling continues to end up on the ground, we assume there is either something wrong with the baby or there are larger siblings that will not allow the smaller one to eat and rest comfortably. I know that feeling, having had an older sister who used her height and weight advantages to torture me throughout our youth.

When WCV heard nothing more about the status of the barred owl, they assumed all was well.  Until it wasn’t.  The homeowners, concerned that the parents weren’t feeding the owlet enough, were luring it down from the tree to feed it ground meat off their shoes.  Eventually they called WCV back to say they were now concerned that the young owl wouldn’t go back up into the tree. 

The owlet was taken back into rehab and placed with foster parent barred owls to try to wild him up again.  But by then, the damage was done.  He had been habituated and would not know how to feed himself or associate with members of his own species. 

Luckily, PRWC was able to obtain a permit to keep the owl as an education bird.  We named him Orion, after the hunter from Greek mythology and the constellation, although he would actually never be able to hunt in the wild.  He took to glove-training easily and is one of our most sought-after birds for outreach events and greeting visitors at the Center.  Orion will be at the Peace River Woodcarvers Show at the Turner Agricultural Center in Arcadia on Saturday February 17 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.  Or stop by PRWC to wish him a happy birthday.  He likes dead mice if you want to get him a gift.

by- Robin Jenkins, DVM

Orion's baby picture--when transferred to PRWC.

Orion’s baby picture–when transferred to PRWC.

Orion is now a 1 yr old

Orion is now a 1 yr old

Avoiding rabies

Avoiding rabies

Peace River Wildlife Center has received numerous calls recently concerning rabies. After a brief lull in occurrence in Florida, this lethal virus seems to be rearing its ugly head again. According to Florida Department of Health rabies surveillance data, there were 60 reported cases of animals testing positive for rabies in 2017 around the state (through the month of September.)

This appears to be an alarming increase from the low numbers of three and seven in 2016 and 2015, respectively. That is, until you look back even further. In the preceding 10 years the average number of rabies cases was 126 per year, with 2005 topping out at 201.

Rabies is a viral disease that any warm-blooded mammal can contract. (Birds, fish, and reptiles do not get rabies and cannot carry it.) It can be prevented, but not cured. Attention must be sought immediately after a potential exposure to initiate treatment for the best chance of success. The virus attacks the central nervous system, and ultimately the brain. It is essentially 100% fatal once symptoms have started.

The disease is usually spread from the bite of an infected animal. In Florida, most cases are in raccoons, followed by bats and then other wild mammals. Each year, domestic cats are still represented in a few reported cases. It is very important to protect your companion animals (cats, dogs, and ferrets) by keeping their vaccinations current, neutering them to decrease the likelihood of wandering, keeping them on leash or in a fenced yard, and feeding them indoors. If you must feed outside, do so during the day only, bringing the food in after dark. Keeping your trash covered and contained also helps reduce the attraction of wild animals to your location.

If you find a wild animal known to be a rabies vector species (raccoon, bat, fox, otter, coyote, skunk, bobcat, etc.) that you think may be injured, do not touch it with bare hands. Even if you think it was just hit by a car, there may be a reason it wandered into traffic in the first place. Call a wildlife professional from PRWC or Charlotte County Animal Control to assist with the capture. At the very least, use thick leather gloves, a thick towel, or a shovel or board to gently nudge the animal into a box or kennel if it is not active and alert.

You do not have to be bitten to be exposed to rabies. The animal’s saliva can get into a recent scratch or any area of broken skin. If you think you may have been exposed, report it immediately to PRWC, CCAC, and the county health department.

We should always use an abundance of caution when dealing with wild animals, but being overly paranoid can be almost as dangerous. Treat every animal that appears to be ill or injured carefully, but not all of them will be rabid. Less than 1% of all bats may actually have rabies. While raccoons are normally more active at night, seeing one during daytime hours does not mean it is rabid, or even sick at all. It may be a nursing mother looking for food, or it may be searching for water during a dry spell.

All of the native species of wildlife have a job here in Florida. Bats eat thousands of mosquitoes and other flying insects that can make our lives uncomfortable. Raccoons are opportunistic omnivores that eat rodents and even carrion. We don’t need to rid ourselves of the wildlife that surrounds us—we just need to learn to live with them. A few simple precautions can help keep us, our pets, and wildlife safe from each other.

by- Robin Jenkins, DVM

Brazilian free-tailed bat

Brazilian free-tailed bat

Chelonian life

Chelonian life

Today is the most important holiday of the year:  Groundhog Day.  While we don’t actually believe in groundhogs here in Florida (the southern extent of their native range is Georgia), we know many of our northern friends put great stock in a certain Pennsylvanian rodent’s morning ritual on this day.  Whether or not the little rascal sees his shadow, spring is just around the corner.  And while we will miss our friends when they journey back north, no one will miss the extra traffic.  Especially the tortoises.

Peace River Wildlife Center has a dozen turtles and tortoises in long-term care right now.  A few were attacked by predators (mostly dogs), some are suffering from respiratory infections (just like the rest of us), but most were hit by cars.  With their slow metabolism, it can take up to a year for a tortoise or turtle to heal from an injury.  Depending on the species, their care and diet must be adjusted accordingly.  How do we know what type of food, temperature, and humidity each patient requires?

Let’s start with a little science lesson.  Within the Kingdom Animalia (animals, as opposed to plants), Phylum Chordata (basically, having a spinal cord) is the Class Reptilia.  This Class is composed of the Orders Crocodialia (25 species-crocodiles, alligators, etc.), Sphenodontia (tuataras, a single living species found only in New Zealand), Squamata (9,600 species-lizards, snakes, etc.), and Testudines or Chelonia (400 species-turtles, tortoises, and terrapins.)

 

It is rather an American convention that all chelonians are called turtles.  Other languages do not seem to relish the confusion that the English language within North America stirs up with rampant ambiguity of certain words. All tortoises are turtles, but not all turtles are tortoises.  Of course, English is weird.  There are no fewer than seven ways to pronounce the letters “ough” (rough, cough, drought, dough, bought, through).  Be thankful if you learned English as a child because as second languages go, it’s a doozy.  Quit trying to distract me from the science lesson.  Sit still and be quiet; it’s almost over. 

 

So with some 400 species, how does one know the correct way to help a chelonian (say “key-LOW-nee-an”) in trouble?  It is difficult to memorize the many breeding times, exact fit within the families, and at which stage of life a particular animal prefers water to dry land.  We could be here until next Tuesday going over the specifics of each family, genus, and species. 

I can see your eyes glazing over already.  Let’s make this simple—look at the feet.

 

At Peace River Wildlife Center we have heard people relating the following story many times:  “We tried to return that ungrateful turtle to the water, but he just kept crawling back out.”  Upon further questioning, it is ascertained that the “ungrateful” reptile in question is a land-dwelling tortoise.  Surprisingly, they can hold their breath and walk across the bottom of a shallow creek or pond occasionally.  But if repeatedly thrown into deep water, especially the ocean, they will drown.

 

Obviously people are trying to be helpful.  Especially at the beach, we hear so much about sea turtle nesting (May through October.) Most egg-laying and hatching is done at night, but it is not impossible during the day to see a mama turtle who got caught up in a lawn chair that was left out, or a hatchling that got confused about which way to go to get to the water.  Hence the admonishments during that time of year to remove all items from the beach overnight, fill in any holes dug in the sand, and keep lights from shining toward the water.  But there are also gopher tortoises that live in the dunes by the beach.  Placing one of them into the water could be a death sentence.

 

There are four main categories of chelonians with which to be concerned.  There are sea turtles, land-dwelling tortoises, land turtles, and fresh water turtles, but only two basic differences that matter in the long run.  Does the animal spend most of its time on land or in the water?  The most obvious way to discern that difference is to look at the feet.  A turtle with flippers or webbing between the toes belongs in the water.  A tortoise or turtle with blunt feet and stout nails for digging belongs on land. 

 

Of course there is some overlap of these areas.  Most turtles that live in the water will lay their eggs on land, so do not be too quick to help these little ladies back into the water.  You may see a gopher tortoise at the edge of the sea.  It is not known if they actually drink salt water or use it to cool down, but this sight is not uncommon.  As they walk back toward the dunes to their home burrow, please do not try to throw them back into the water.

 

Most gopher tortoises are rescued when they attempt to cross roads.  People wishing to help with this are advised to ensure their own safety first and foremost.  If the tortoise is not injured, simply place it a few feet away from the edge of the roadway in the direction it was heading.  If its progress is impeded by a curb or wall, try to get the animal around the obstruction to the other side and back to the direction in which it was heading as if the curb, bridge or building was not there.

 

Pond-dwelling turtles can be found in parking lots and on roadways as well.  These animals can be returned to the nearest water, often a retention pond.  Simply place them at water’s edge and the turtle will enter if it wants to.  It is not necessary or advised to place it or throw it into deeper water.

 

If you see a turtle or tortoise in its natural environment, even if it looks like a baby, and there does not appear to be anything wrong with it, leave it alone.  Tortoises and most turtles are very slow growing.  A gopher tortoise of only a few inches can be up to three years old.  Even immediately after hatching, every chelonian is precocial, meaning it is not dependent upon a parent and can feed itself. 

 

Sometimes the best thing we can do to help the environment is to sit back and enjoy it.  If you want to take a more active role in helping wildlife in distress, educate yourself as to what is best for each species and what you need to do to keep yourself and the animal safe.  If you really want to get involved, PRWC (or your local wildlife rehabilitation facility) always needs volunteers to help in a variety of jobs.  Especially if Phil doesn’t see his shadow and our seasonal volunteers head for higher grounds.

by- Robin Jenkins, DVM

Gopher tortoise after two months of healing

Gopher tortoise after two months of healing

Red tide lesser scaup update

Red tide lesser scaup update

As reported previously, Peace River Wildlife Center admitted more than 40 lesser scaups (bluebills) in the final days of the previous year.  In the weeks to follow, admission rates slowed, but did not stop.  We have now taken in well over 50 of these medium-sized diving ducks that have been affected by red tide.

 

Red tide is the common name given to an algal bloom, an unusually high concentration of aquatic microorganisms in the water, which can cause a reddish or brownish tint, especially as seen from afar.  In the Gulf of Mexico that organism is Karenia brevis, and occurrence at this time of year is not uncommon.  It is a natural phenomenon, but may be exacerbated or extended by nutrient run-off from fertilizers and other manmade conditions. 

 

The presence of the organisms can cause a depletion of dissolved oxygen in the water, which can result in the suffocation of fish.  The algae also produce a toxin (brevetoxin) that paralyzes the central nervous system of fish, causing further disruption to their ability to breathe. 

 

The asphyxiated fish are in turn eaten by larger fish or birds, and the toxin is bioaccumulated, or passed on to the next victim.  Brevetoxin can also become airborne as waves crash on the beach, breaking open the algae cells and releasing the toxin to become an ocular and respiratory irritant to animals and people on and near the beach.

 

Bivalves like clams and oysters appear to be unaffected by the toxin, but they do accumulate it.  Birds and humans can become seriously ill by eating tainted shellfish.  The scaup’s preferred diet of crustaceans, insects, and mollusks put it at risk of the effects of the potent neurotoxin.

Many of the scaups that were brought to PRWC were already dead or died soon after admission.  The neurotoxin causes an ascending paralysis.  First the wings and legs get weak, then the rest of the somatic (body) muscles get weaker until they cannot be moved at all.  When the neck can no longer hold the head above the water, many birds drown, or the bird simply stops being able to breathe.

The birds that made it to our care before they were severely affected were treated symptomatically.  Ointment was placed in their unblinking eyes.  Fluids were administered subcutaneously to flush the toxins until the birds could hold their heads up.  Then a watery diet was gavaged into their stomachs to get their body weights back up. 

As they slowly regained strength, they were given physical therapy and handled carefully so as not to disrupt their waterproofing.  Eventually they were placed in outdoor habitats to prepare them for release.  Then the biggest challenge of all for us—when and where to release them.

With red tide still lingering in the area, we risked having the birds get recontaminated, but they have to be released when they are healthy again.  We checked FWC’s postings of the strength and location of red tide monitoring.  We checked the location of sightings of lesser scaups in the wild.

Luckily, we found a fresh water pond where the scaups have historically been observed wintering and a number of them have been seen recently.  Red tide doesn’t occur in fresh water, so the birds should be safe from that threat there.

One of the most difficult aspects of our job is that final leap of faith, when we release the creatures on which we have spent so much time and energy.  We hope they are fat enough and fast enough to thrive back in the wild. 

The scaups we released this week looked good as they flew off over the pond.  They looked happy to be playing in the water and checking out the other birds there.  We wished them luck, hoped they would thrive, and did a little happy dance.  A really quick dance—and then we turned and went back to PRWC to start all over again with the next patients.

by- Robin Jenkins, DVM

Lesser scaups recovering from red tide

Lesser scaups recovering from red tide

Meet our ambassadors

Meet our ambassadors

Our primary goal at Peace River Wildlife Center is to rescue, rehabilitate, and release injured, orphaned, and ill native Florida wildlife.  Our secondary mission is to educate the public.  This is the reason we have display habitats at our facility.  People can see the unreleasable birds up close, learn how and why they got injured, and hopefully stop that same thing from happening to another animal.

Jackson Andritsch meets Orion

Jackson Andritsch meets Orion

We have over 100,000 visitors every year at our wildlife center, but we also reach countless others through our online presence with our website, Facebook page, and other social media outlets.  We also have a troupe of volunteers heading up PRWC’s outreach efforts, headed up by Sue Gilleo.  How she keeps all these events and volunteers straight, is a testament to the fact that she used to be a teacher and is used to being pulled in many directions at one time.

What started out with one retired school principal, Maryanne Sakamoto, going to Fishermen’s Village once a week to give lectures with a screech owl in a cage, has turned into one of our most popular features.  We used to show up at the occasional street fair or church social with a table and some brochures, and invariably heard, “I’ve lived here for 45 years and never heard of PRWC!”

Fast forward a few years, and we now have three glove-trained birds of our own and three more that our seasonal volunteers bring with them from New York.  We also have Blossom the opossum, who blissfully sleeps through outreach events in the loving arms of whichever volunteer is lucky enough to call dibs on her on any given day.  And now we are welcomed at every event with a chorus of, “Yay, Luna’s here!”

Luna, a leucistic (albino) screech owl; Bella, a great horned owl; and Orion, a barred owl are our resident glove-trained birds that greet the public on the boardwalk at the Center or go out into the public to various venues.  John and Diane Hime, wildlife rehabbers from upstate NY, bring their education birds with them when they flee the ice and snow each winter.  Hootin’ Annie, a great horned owl; Maggie, a barred owl; and Allister, a red-tailed hawk are quite literally snowbirds that help PRWC spread the word locally, spending their winters at PRWC when they are not out at events.

Our outreach now includes trips to Fishermen’s Village twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays from 11 a.m.-2 p.m.  We are also out in the community almost every weekend and many week days at schools, clubs, and events.

John, Annie, and Luna at a car show

John, Annie, and Luna at a car show

On Saturday January 27, we will be at the Mopar Car Show at the new location of Rick Treworgy’s Muscle Car City Museum (10175 Tamiami Trail, Punta Gorda.)  That location is just south of their previous site, (for us old-timers, where Sweetbay used to be.)  Luna will be there from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. trying to decide which vintage vehicle he would most like to fly over and anoint with his personal “Luna’s choice” award.

After a morning of car shopping, join us at the 7th Annual Charlotte Harbor Chili Challenge & Beer Festival at Laishley Park, also Saturday January 27 from noon to 5 p.m.  PRWC will be serving our award-winning Road Kill Chili and there will be beer, live music, and (did I mention?) beer.  Some of our well-behaved glove-trained birds will be in attendance as well as some of our volunteers (whose behavior may leave a bit to be desired.)  Come out and vote for us as your People’s Choice award winner with the token you receive on admission.

PRWC will have a booth at the Charlotte County Fair at the Charlotte County Fair Grounds (2333 El Jobean Rd, Port Charlotte) starting Friday January 26 and running through Sunday February 4.  We may not have birds there due to the number of adoptable dogs that will be in the same tent, because our birds get a little nervous around that kind of commotion.  We will have brochures and flyers and an amazing display board that our volunteer Maria Metge just spent weeks (and the GNP of a small county) putting together.  Okay, so for the price of a glue stick and a couple photos on sale from Walgreens, it must have been one of those very small countries.  Definitely not Norway.

Callie and Bella

Callie and Bella

Next month is shaping up to be just as busy.  Stay informed with PRWC’s website and Facebook event calendars to know where in the world we may be on any given day.  Rest assured the Center is always open seven days a week, 365 days a year, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. for visitors.  Depending on the weather or our outreach agenda, if you want to see a particular animal or presentation, call in advance of your visit to verify the schedule for that day.

Education is a very important component of what we do at PRWC.  The animals that are being rehabilitated with the ultimate goal of eventual release, are not, by law, permitted to be shown to the public.  Having unreleasable education animals is a wonderful way to engage the public with our message.  Our volunteers make great ambassadors and have a fun time doing it.

by-Robin Jenkins, DVM

2017 rehab stats

2017 rehab stats

The rehabbers at Peace River Wildlife Center did an amazing job in 2017.  They treated 2,443 injured, ill, or orphaned wild animals—another record for patient intake.  Thanks to the support of the community, PRWC has been able to hire a few more part-time employees to help with patient care, but we still rely on our army of volunteers to get us through the day.

The rehabbers are tasked with managing the care of the patients and residents at PRWC.  They spend their days tending to the weak and broken.  Is it any wonder that their compassion does not extend to people?  At least not to me.  I’m pretty sure they are trying to get me killed.  They often send me on rescues or releases into dubious conditions.

I was recently given a nest box full of baby squirrels that we had raised at PRWC.  They had been in home care for weeks, then placed in outdoor habitats back at the Center to get them used to being outside.  When the time came for their release back into the wild, we locked them into the nest box in their habitat, reattach it to a tree at a location where at least one of them was originally found, and then open the box to allow them to explore their new (old) home at their leisure.

The directions I was given to find this nirvana seemed fairly straightforward.  The homeowners at the given address were out of town for a few days, but gave us permission to return the squirrels.  There was no ladder onsite, so I had to bring my own.  Not an ideal situation, but nothing I couldn’t handle.

When I got there, the garage door was wide open as were the windows.  This was a rural community, but no one is going to leave for a few days and leave everything wide open.  I had either been given the wrong address (wouldn’t be the first time) or they hadn’t left yet.  I rang the doorbell, and hearing nothing, knocked.  At this point I probably should have left the property.  I, of course, just started hiking around, looking for a good tree in which to attach the squirrel box.

Around the first corner there was a ladder leaning up against the side of the house.  Further proof that I was in the wrong place.  But, having found a fun tree to climb, I gathered my equipment and began the task.  Balancing a drill and a couple screws, plus the nest box full of juvenile squirrels careening around inside, I climbed up the ladder to a fork in the tree where I could lean the box while attaching it to the trunk.

Mission accomplished, I returned my gear to my car and placed the homeowner’s ladder where I found it.  Still no one threatening me with a shotgun.  No vicious attack Rottweiler coming at me á la Cujo.  I’m still pretty sure I had the wrong place.  Won’t these people be surprised when they get home from work and find a weird little wooden box in their tree?

While the rehabbers failed to get me shot or mauled by a guard dog on this adventure, I did get two screws in one tire.  So, they did have some satisfaction.  Oh, how I love badly rutted dirt roads in my Volt—which was made for minimum wind resistance, not the Baja 1000.

Happy to have provided some entertainment for my overworked staff back at PRWC, I have finished tallying the numbers for 2017.  Our patient total of 2,443 reflects an increase of approximately 10% over last year.  We had a few more mammals than birds this year, an unusual occurrence.  Since PRWC’s educational exhibits include mostly birds, many people thank we treat only avian species.  Our 2017 statistics show we treated 44% birds, 48% mammals, and 8% reptiles.

We saw a total of 113 different bird species, 27 different mammals, and 28 different reptiles.  The top three types of birds were mourning doves, northern mockingbirds, and common grackles.  The three most common mammals seen were eastern cottontails, eastern grey squirrels, and Virginia opossums.  Gopher tortoises comprise the vast majority of reptiles we see.

One of the most important figures at year’s end is patient outcome.  Overall, PRWC had a positive outcome for 49% of our patients, and a negative outcome for 51%.  A positive outcome includes patients that recovered well enough to be released, or were transferred to another facility for continued care or to become an education resident. 

It is an unfortunate fact that some patients are dead on arrival, or very nearly so.  After removing patients that do not survive the first 24 hours of care, our positive outcome increases to 82%.  That number is increased over last year and that is definitely good news.

Thanks to the community that supports us both financially and by volunteering their time, PRWC is able to help the injured, ill, and orphaned wild animals in and around Charlotte County.  A huge thanks to our employees who, while being paid to do the job, could be making much more money if employed by a for-profit company.  Wildlife rehabilitation is a labour of love and we all love the animals we are able to help and all the other people who assist us in that endeavor.

by- Robin Jenkins, DVM

Neonatal Squirrels

Neonatal Squirrels

Eastern Grey Squirrels four weeks old

Eastern Grey Squirrels four weeks old

Baby squirrel weaning

Baby squirrel weaning