Species Article

Otters?

Otters?  In Houston? Really? That is the universal reaction we get at the Wildlife Center when visitors to our facility or website discover that we are caring for three juvenile North American River Otters.  The next statement is invariably, “Why, I’ve never even seen an otter here!”  They are in good company.  Researchers specializing in otters can go years without seeing a wild otter in the flesh.  They have to conduct their research using scat, tracks and images caught on camera traps.  The rarity in sightings should not, however, be equated with a lack of individuals. There are a number of reasons why otters are not often seen.  Even in healthy river environments, the abundance of otters is never high.  The best estimates of researchers, and estimates they are, put a natural population density at one individual to every 2 to 10 miles of river.  By their very nature, river otters are shy and elusive.  Also as river creatures, not much of them can be seen when they are in their favored habitat.  While in the water, only a small portion of their heads can be seen.  Trying to differentiate them from a beaver or nutria is very difficult.  River otters, as a rule, are active on land only at night and remain in the water or in a den during the day. Otters belong to the weasel family, the Mustelidae.  Other members include ferrets, mink, badgers and wolverines.  These creatures are all noted for their boundless energy and voracious appetites.  Their body plans are equally similar:  long thin flexible bodies, a small head equipped with powerful jaws and short strong limbs.  Also in common to all of the species is a set of large [...]

Pileated Woodpecker – new video

There are few birds that are any flashier or eye-catching than a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) in flight. The Pileated Woodpecker is Texas’ largest woodpecker. The body is similar to that of a crow, but the wingspan is much greater. The coloration is predominately black, with a striking red crested head. The feathers underneath the wing are white as is the face. A black band across the eyes lends a rakish air. The beak is slate black and another band of black runs from the lower beak to the neck. Often there is a red cheek splash. Woody the Woodpecker is probably the best known example of his species. Many people believe Woody is a Red-headed Woodpecker, but his crest proudly announces he is a Pileated Woodpecker. In areas that are dominated with smaller woodpecker species, Red-headed or Red-bellied Woodpeckers are sometimes mistaken for the larger Pileated. Once spotted, they are impossible to forget or confuse with another bird. Mating begins in early spring as the male excavates a large nest with multiple entrances to attract a mate. Once mated, the pair will remain year-round protecting their territory. Juveniles and floaters are tolerated during the winter months. Both parents will sit the nest and will even retrieve fallen eggs. The ability to physically retrieve fallen eggs and by extrapolation newly hatched young is rare in birds. The nest will be utilized only once by the Pileated Woodpeckers. These abandoned cavities are a boon to many other species that utilize nest-cavities, but are unable to create them themselves. Even without seeing a Pileated Woodpecker, you can identify a pair’s territory by looking for square to rectangular holes of the nest cavity or [...]

Coyote Conflict Management

Does the howl of a pack of coyotes send a shiver up your spine? Well, it is supposed to. The coyote is counting on the fact that you and any competitors will hear its vocalizations and steer clear. Fighting between older juveniles and adults is very rare because they use vocalizations, posturing (including lunging and nipping) and scent marking to avoid serious conflict. The fear and hatred of coyotes used to be limited to rural development and ranchers. But the highly intelligent and adaptable coyote has discovered that suburban and even urban locations provide relatively easy sources of food without much risk. Suburban sightings are frequently followed by reporters who dutifully record mothers in fear for their children and stories of missing pets. The problem is that no expert shows up to tell the mother whether or not she SHOULD or SHOULD NOT be concerned. In all of North America, only 2 human deaths have ever been attributed to coyote. Another 2 -3 can be attributed to dog or wolf hybrid coyote.  In contrast, in the United States alone, 20 – 25 people per year are killed by dogs and according to the Centers of Disease Control 5 million people were bitten last year. The dog bites are serious enough that every 20 minutes someone needed reconstructive surgery. So, yes the coyote is capable of injuring humans, but the neighborhood dog is the real threat. For an apex predator, coyote are very risk adverse and will readily abandon prey if they feel threatened. Note that risk adverse doesn’t translate into fear. They melt back into the brush or back off to a safe distance to observe. Many researchers believe that the coyote is a stronger [...]

What’s for Dinner?

The Northern Crested Caracara is of the family Falconidae, subspecies Polyborinae or Caracarinae depending on the source. In Latin it is known as Polyborus (eats almost anything) plancus (eagle). But it is also known as the Caracara Cheriway, Audubon’s Caracara or the Mexican Eagle. Five genera are recognized and most are listed as threatened. Classified as a falcon, the Caracara is quite an unusual bird. A beautiful bird in a palette of black, white and a yellow that blends to orange or red, it seems to straddle the families of falcon, vulture and well…chicken. Once identified, it is impossible to mistake the Caracara’s striking silhouette, either at rest or in flight. At rest, the Caracara is obviously a powerful raptor; very long of leg, powerful talons, a distinctive beak and bushy crest. In flight; the long neck and tail in combination with the broad wings give it the appearance of a “flying cross”. Considered a medium sized raptor, the Caracara in 19 to 23 inches in length and weighs 1 ¾ to 3 ½ pounds. The wingspan is approximately 48 inches. On average they are heavier than a Red Shouldered Hawk, but slightly smaller than Red Tailed Hawk. At maturity, the cere (a fleshy area along the top of the beak) is usually red or dark orange. When excited this area takes on a distinctively yellow coloration.  The cere also give indication of the bird’s maturity and sexual readiness. The Caracara is a slow hunting raptor that prefers an easy meal of fresh carrion, but is just as satisfied with large insects, reptiles, amphibians, fish, birds and mammals. It is often seen walking along the ground or wading in shallow water looking for prey. Believed to [...]

By |December 23rd, 2009|Categories: Caracara, Species Article|Tags: , |0 Comments

Who are You?

The Great Horned Owl Cyndi Bohannon The Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) is arguably one of the most majestic of all raptors. Solitary in nature, a group would be called a Parliament. Of the order Strigifermes and family Strigidae, the Great Horned owl is considered a “true owl”. The other owl family, Tytonidae include barn owls. Eight sub-species have been recognized. The territories of sub-species rarely overlap. The largest owl in the United States, it can stand 18 to 27 inches and have a wingspan of 48 to 60 inches! The Great Horned owl is the most widely distributed true owl in the Americas, inhabiting all ecosystems except deep desert and Arctic tundra. The overall coloration ranges from near white in the far northern portion of their range to dark chocolate brown in the southern regions. Size and weight varies geographically with the larger, heavier individuals living in colder climates. The females are larger than the males and weight ranges between two and a half and four pounds. All sub-species share the overall markings: prominent ear-tufts or “horns”, white patch at the throat, narrow bars on the front and a random mottled back. The Great Horned Owl primarily hunts at night, but sightings at dawn and dusk are not unusual. Perched high above an open area, it silently swoops down upon almost anything that moves. Its diet is extremely diverse, but small to medium mammals, birds and waterfowl are favorites. It is the only known predator of the skunk. Unlike many raptors, the Great Horned Owl will walk on the ground to gather crawfish, amphibians, reptiles or large insects. It have been known to walk into henhouses and wade into shallow water for a meal. [...]

Squirrels, Squirrels Everywhere Squirrels

By Cyndi Bohannon   Fox Squirrel Squirrelly –adjective; eccentric, cunningly unforthcoming, reticent, odd, crazy, unpredictable, jumpy, restless or nervous…….a pretty unflattering description all things considered.  However, the adjective actually describes behaviors that with respect to evolution are extremely advanced. The squirrel’s bizarre zigzag / double back flight from danger seems random and indecisive, but is brilliant  in light of millions of years of evolution against  “death from the sky”. Once a raptor has committed to a strike, there is very little that can be done to change direction, successfully dodging this threat yielded more zigzagging squirrels. Unfortunately, this strategy actually makes them more vulnerable to cars, dogs or cats. Evolution gave squirrels large eyes that are high on the skull to provide an extremely large field of view; just what a tasty morsel needs to evade being someone’s dinner. Unfortunately,  this eye placement severely limits frontal vision and depth perception. To compensate, squirrels constantly scan for threats and perform complex “bob and weave” behaviors to triangulate distance. People sweat, dogs pant and squirrels get wet feet. Locating sweat glands on their feet, between the foot pads and on their paws between the toes seems an odd manner to regulate temperature, but in combination with scent glands,  it allows the squirrel to constantly lay down a scent trail, thereby claiming all they touch. Squirrels also appear to lovingly rub nuts on their face before caching. What appears as a cute behavior actually allows scent glands on the cheeks stamp the nut as “mine!”. A large proportion of the brain is dedicated to spatial memory. Contrary to folklore, squirrels really do remember most of their cache locations (and I can’t even find my keys!) This [...]

Raccoon – Too Smart by Half

Raccoons are my problem children. They are just “too” – too cute, too curious, too brave, too strong, too aggressive, too smart, too adaptable, too devious, too agile … well, you get the picture. As my Dad would say they are “too smart by half”. The problem is that God gave them too much dexterity to go with their superior brainpower and insatiable curiosity.   Northern or Common Raccoons are classified taxonomically as Procyon Lotor (family/genus). Procyon translates from Latin as “before the dog” or “the lesser dog” and refers to the evolutionary history of the animal. Originally, it was thought that the raccoon was distantly related to dogs and bears, but recent evidence suggest they may be more closely related to the red panda.  Lotor translates from Latin as “washer” or “he who washes”. The word "raccoon" is derived from the Algonquian word aroughcoune, "he who scratches with his hands." Raccoons are not strictly nocturnal. They are easily intrigued and will investigate new or interesting activities. This is especially true of babies that are old enough to get into trouble, but not old enough to be on their own. Raccoons will shift feeding patterns to when food is available frequently appearing during the day to exploit aquatic food exposed during low tides or cat food that’s only set out in the morning. Therefore, daytime sightings of otherwise healthy looking raccoons is not cause for alarm. At 5 to 6 weeks, the kits will belly crawl to explore near the den and call for mom if hungry or anxious. By 10 to 12 weeks, the kits are following mom out to forage and making lots of noise romping and stomping. Raccoons stay with their mothers for [...]

Awesome Opossum

By Cyndi Bohannon Anyone who has moved a wheelbarrow and found a hissing and spitting opossum underneath understands the jolt of adrenaline such an encounter produces. When faced with such an aggressive display, it is hard to remember that the opossum is more frightened that you. Think that opossums are disgustingly ugly? Tempted to chase them out of your flowerbeds? Don’t – they are voracious insect and grub eaters. OK - so it’s ugly. But don’t let its lack of good looks fool you, it is the single most important animal you can have in your yard. Nicknamed the living fossil by scientists, the opossum dates back to the days of the dinosaur. The name "opossum" is derived from an Algonquian Indian word "apasum", meaning white animal. The opossum’s face is usually white while the body coloration can range from almost white, through various shades of gray to black. Most of the guard hair is agouti (banded) which means that the hair starts growing one color then change color one or more times before it sheds. The only marsupial (mammal with a pouch) living in North America, the opossum is a unique and fascinating animal. The scientific name, Didelphis virginiana means “double womb” which refers to the pouch as the secondary place of fetal development. Virginiana refers to the state of Virginia where the opossum was first observed by early English colonists. Opossums are born after a gestation period of only thirteen days. Blind, embryonic in appearance, and about the size of a bee, the newborn opossum crawls unaided to its mother's pouch, where it attaches to a nipple. The nipple completely fills the tiny opossum's mouth, firmly attaching it to its mother. The opossum [...]

By |August 20th, 2009|Categories: Opossum, Species Article|Tags: , , |2 Comments

9 Banded Armadillo – The Texas Tank

Nine Banded Armadillo - The Texas Tank by Cyndi Bohannon Until I became a wildlife rehabilitator, my experience with armadillos was limited to squished little bodies on country roads, one bouncing through a soccer field and my great-grandmother’s macabre but fascinating armadillo skin basket.  Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew they were mammals, but it was hard to imagine those armor plated little tanks reproducing, much less giving birth to live young and nursing them. Like the under-appreciated opossum, the armadillo came along very early in the evolutionary timeline and hasn’t changed significantly since. The armadillo’s most distinctive feature is its armor plating, however its sticky tongue, reproductive behaviors and methods of crossing bodies of water are strange enough to amaze. The nine banded armadillo is so named for the nine “plates” or scutes in-between the larger anterior (shoulder) and posterior (hip) scutes. The tough connective skin between the scutes makes it appear to be able to curl into a ball, however only one of the twenty species is capable of this feat. The bony plates can not grow and are not shed or molted, so young are born with soft plates that slowly harden until it is full grown at approximately a year old. Armadillos are primarily insectivores, showing preference for grubs, beetles and ants. However, when insects are not as plentiful, the armadillo shifts to a diet of berries and other vegetable material, small amphibians and carrion maggots. The armadillo is often accused preying on ground nesting birds and their eggs. While a hungry armadillo won’t turn down an egg breakfast, reports show that ground birds and their eggs constitute less than 0.04% of their overall diet. The armadillo has [...]

By |August 20th, 2009|Categories: Armadillo, Species Article|Tags: , , |1 Comment