Houston

Neotropic Cormorant

This Neotropic Cormorant was brought to the Wildlife Center by a Texas Parks and Wildlife game warden.  The bird presented with a wing droop and was very lethargic.  Veterinarian exam and x-rays showed no breaks or swelling.  The cormorant was put on cage rest and was given fluids.  Several days later it was on its feet and eating great. The Neotropic Cormorant is very common on the Mexican border. The Galveston area also supports a large population.  This cormorant is the only one that ranges over the entire tropical American region of Western hemisphere thus having the name neotropic.  It was known as the olivaceous cormorant in earlier times. The neotropic is a blackish bird with a long tail that holds its neck in a S shape.  The pointed posterior edge of the gular skin is often pointed with whitish border.  Their bill is long with a hook on the end. Juvenile cormorant begin brown and slowly shift to black with their adult plumage. Cormorants swim well and dive for fish from the surface.   The staff and volunteers know the cormorant at the center is feeling better because it is doing a great deal of vocalizing.  This consists of a low gutteral pig-like grunt.  Every time they hear it everyone’s head snaps to attention thinking someone just brought in a pig.  Upon leaving the water the cormorants hold wings and tail open in a “spread eagle” fashion to dry them. And while holding the wings out to dry seems like a good idea, why do so few exhibit this trait, all sea birds and water birds get their feathers wet. Some researchs believe that the "spread eagle" pose is a method of themal regulation. Vultures often [...]

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 [...]

Hitching a Ride

We’ve seen lots of strange things in this city, especially along Westheimer and Richmond. But a recent hitchhiker seen on San Filipe takes the cake. The call to the Wildlife Center went something like this: We found this tortoise on San Filipe, can we bring it to you?  Is it a turtle or a tortoise? (Volunteer is thinking, some of Texas’ tortoises are endangered – it’s probably just a Red-eared Slider) It’s a tortoise. Is it a baby? No Is it injured? No Well, we only care for sick, injured of orphaned wild animals here at the Wildlife Center, just move it to a nearby safe spot and let it go. There isn’t a safe spot - this is SAN FILIPE! Like, six lanes plus a suicide lane! OK, bring it to the Wildlife Center and we’ll see what can be done. Just put it in your car and bring it to us. You don’t understand, I have someone sitting on it to keep it from walking away and it is STILL walking away! I don’t think I can lift it. (Volunteer feels like they’ve stepped into the Twilight Zone) Can you and the person that is sitting on it lift it? It’s pretty big.  Well, maybe if I fold down the seat it will fit. (Cue the theme music for the Twilight Zone) A couple of volunteers are asked to help bring the tortoise inside. It is so big that if placed in a normal sized bathtub it would take up two-thirds of the length and could not turn around. And this bad boy weighs about 45 pounds! One volunteer takes a look and says “Oh that’s an African Spurred Thigh Tortoise, it is [...]

Ongoing Research

For the last seven years, Wildlife Rehab and Education has been working with biologists Woody Woodrow with the U S Fish and Wildlife Service, Sharon Schmalz Director of the WR&E Wildlife Center and Dr. Ray Telfair a well known ornithologist and former Texas Parks and Wildlife colleague of Woody’s study the movement patterns in Yellow-crowned Night Herons.  While these herons are a common sight in our ditches and neighborhoods, biologists don’t know too much about their movement patterns.  They are high tree nesters and so banding them in the nest is extremely difficult.  Each year WRE typically releases a considerable number of these herons.  To Sharon and Woody, this seemed like an opportunity to band some birds and hopefully collect some information about the birds.  With the help of Dr. Ray Telfair banding and marking began in 2003.  Additional research is being conducted by Dr. Heatley from Texas A&M University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.  She is using small blood samples collected from healthy birds to determine normal electrolytes and other blood parameters in these herons.  Thus when ill or injured herons are, these values will help rehabilitators, veterinarians and biologists determine appropriate treatment and to diagnose diseases or toxicoses.    Before the banding began, Sharon had started to apply hacking techniques used with raptors with the herons.  This allowed the birds to transition from a captive state to living without her assistance.  When the birds are ready to go, the team bands them with a USFWS number specific aluminum band.  In order to track observations of the birds, a nylon flag is also placed with the band above the bird’s wrist (what we think of as their knees).  The bands are typically aluminum gray but the [...]

Grumpy Old Men

While baby bird season is beginning to wind down, we are still receiving Mockingbirds, Blue Jays and Dove. The pictured Mockingbird is a fledgling. From hatching of an altricial species to the unfurling of enough flight feathers to flutter short distances is considered the nestling stage. Babies are completely dependent on the parents at this stage for nourishment, warmth and protection. Once they fledge, the young will continue to beg for food, but will begin to search for food on their own. Within a few days they are flying well and feeding themselves. Precocial species like Killdeer, chickens and ducks are mobile and self-feeding shortly after hatching. They require mom’s protection and guidance to find good sources of food. They will hang together as a group until the young are flying well. Then the group will disperse. Raptors, especially the larger owls have an additional development phase called branchling that occurs between nestling and fledgling. Branchling babies can’t really fly yet, but they leave the nest and spread out along the nearby branches. They continue to be fed by the parents and strengthen their wings by vigorous flapping. They begin to experiment with flight by jumping and fluttering between branches.

Let's Go Fly a Kite!

A newly hatched Mississippi Kite is a fearsome sight, despite its poufy white down. The beak leaves absolutely no doubt that this bird is a raptor. Which is a little odd since it grows up to prefer grasshoppers and cicada caught on the wing to mice and rats or rabbits. Only the smallest raptors, such as Screech Owls prefer insects and amphibians to mice and rats. The Kite doesn’t really fit the bill. The Mississippi Kite is a small to medium raptor that is about the size of a Peregrine Falcon. However, the falcon can weigh as much as three times as much. The eating habits aren’t the only slightly odd habit. Mississippi Kites migrate long distances to and from central South America in a groups of 20 – 30 individuals. They also nest near each other as a group. Mississippi Kite arrive at the nesting site as mated pairs. Many raptors don’t migrate and those that do usually don’t do so as a flock. The Mississippi Kite isn’t a well known raptor. People that see them often mistake them for other birds because the Kite’s gray coloring is so different from other more well known raptors. The head and back are a beautiful pearl gray which darkens along the sides and out the wings. The wings are unusually long (up to three feet) and narrow. The undersides of the wings are a lighter gray. The tail is long and a very dark gray or black. Juveniles have dark brown mottling or stripes and dark brown banding on the tail. This group of juveniles look much like more “traditional” raptors because of their brown markings. They have been released from the large flight cage, but [...]

Aren’t White Animals Albino?

The short answer is no. There are three major categories of white animals. The first is genetically white - white tigers receive a recessive white allele from each parent. If two white tigers mate, then all the offspring will be white. A heterozygous normal phenotype mated with a white phenotype would yield half normal and half white. Genetically white animals are usually a true white; dark stripes, rings or masks usually appear the same color (sometimes diluted) as found in the normal phenotype. The eyes are the normal color.   Albinism occurs when melanin is not produced by melanocytes. Melanin is the pigment that colors our skin. Sunlight stimulates its production. The melanin provides protection from UV damage. This protection extends to the eyes. Without melanin to protect them, eyes suffer from many issues including photosensitivity.   Albinism is easily identified by the striking red eyes. Eyes appear red or pink because without melanin in the iris, the capillaries inside the eye show through. Even animals that have genetically blue eyes will have a pink cast because the melanin helps provide opacity. The coat color will be a creamy white to pale yellow – the color isn’t a true white. Dark markings will be expressed as gray or pale tan. Most animals express as completely albino, but there are cases when only certain parts of the body are affected.   Many believe that albinism is a freak occurrence. However, albinism is actually genetic. It is a recessive trait that can be inherited. Most types strike males and females equally, but there is one type that is X-linked. The melanocytes are normal, but the body either doesn’t produce a necessary enzyme or produces a defective enzyme. [...]

Nature’s Nuclear Deterrent

The Wildlife Center continues to receive wildlife that was displaced by the recent rains. Mom has moved her kits to the second most safe place she knows…but because of her natural perfume (skunks always smell a little like…well, skunk) the humans and dogs know she’s moved in. This rarely ends well for either party. An interesting fact - it is actually difficult to get a skunk to spray. They hoard their chemical weapon since they only have four or five sprays at a time and it takes ten days to make more. The big caveat is “unless they are startled”. Skunks are very nearsighted (and a little cross-eyed in appearance) and you have to be dangerously close for them to see you. Given the opportunity to flee they will, however there isn’t a self-respecting dog that won’t make a wild dash to see what smells so “wonderful”. Dogs don’t seem to learn their lesson either. Other wild animals give it wide berth. Skunks have a whole ritual to warn off before spraying. There's no biologic reason for it, but if an animal goes the other way without the skunk having to spray, they get to save ammunition for later. First they arch the back, then begin pounding the front feet - at this point you should be making tracks because next they flip the business end towards you and cut loose. Some will bounce the backend up for better aim, while others actually do a brief handstand. The only known predator of the skunk is the Great Horned Owl. Considering how many Great Horned Owl babies come to the Wildlife Center smelling like skunk, it must be a favorite meal. Skunks are nearsighted and can't [...]

The Hawk that isn't a Hawk

The life history of the Common Nighthawk is so tightly tied to our own that it is amazing how successfully they fly “under the radar”. They have adapted so completely to our urbanization of their environment there is not a grocery store or shopping mall that isn’t patrolled by these voracious insect eaters. Normally crepuscular in habit (feeding at dawn and dusk), they swarm parking lot security lights at all hours. Nighthawks belong to the Nightjar family which includes Whip-poor-will and Chuck-will’s-widow. The family is called  Caprimulgidae from the Latin caper which means goat and mulgeo to milk or suck.  There is a legend that these birds sucked milk from goat in the night but they actually were feeding on flying insects stirred up by the goats.  Another legend has them sucking the blood of goats. Biting insects attack the goats causing them to bleed. The innocent Nighthawks were eating the insects preying on the goats. Common Nighthawk eat and drink “on the wing”, which means that they snatch insects in flight and skim calm lakes and creeks for water. The tiny beak belies the astounding gape of these birds. Unlike many birds that eat on the wing and use the beak to manipulate the prey before swallowing, the Nighthawk simply sweeps the air like a butterfly net scooping up everything in its path. Considered to be strictly ground nesters, the flat gravel covered roofs provide uniquely predator proof nesting sites. In the “wild” these birds rest on the ground where they blend perfectly into the leaf-litter. When startled, they bounce relatively short distances and try to hide again. Like the Whale Shark, which is neither a shark or a whale, the Nighthawk doesn’t exclusively [...]

Home Sweet Home

The three armadillo brothers that were raised at the Wildlife Center since they were a couple of days old were taken to a remote site that already has armadillo on it for release. It was wonderful to witness these unusual mammals grow, change and learn. Watching their instinctual behavior emerge gave us confidence that these boys would have the tools they needed to survive at release. The landowner dug a trench to create an artificial den. At the uphill end of the trench, he placed a five-gallon bucket. To the cap of the bucket, he connected  a “tunnel” of metal dryer vent. Then everything except the entrance was buried. A low fence was erected to guide the armadillo to the nearby pond. Back-up food was provided. The armadillo had been busy digging around the enclosure, so the fence was removed. The landowner dug up the den one week later check on the health and well-being of the brothers. He discovered that two of the three armadillo was still calling it home. It is thought that the largest of the three was probably foraging nearby or had struck out on his own. It is expected that the remaining two will eventually abandon the artificial den, but it will be there in case they need a place to hide. What a perfect release! It makes all of the work worthwhile.