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 [...]
Would you know what to do if you heard scratching from the wall or thumps in the ceiling? Your quick reaction could mean the difference between the life or death of an animal(s) and whether there is damage to property from the animal’s activities or from its decomposition. If you didn’t hear animal activity until March – April – May, I can guarantee there are babies in the attic. Even if you don’t hear babies – they are there. The worst thing that can be done is to trap and haul off the mother. The first step in dealing with an animal incursion is to determine the species of animal. Many techniques are common across the board, but a faster solution can be reached if you know what you are dealing with. Rats and mice sound like a scratching that moves along the perimeter of the room or up and down walls. Inspection of the attic will reveal droppings against a vertical surface. Rats and mice show an extremely strong preference to move along walls. Mice will leave dropping that are half the length of an uncooked grain of rice, rats will leave a dropping that is as large as a cooked grain of rice or larger. It is important to know what size rodent you are dealing with. Many believe that rat poison is a “no muss, no fuss” solution. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is a gruesome death as the animal bleeds out internally. The mythology is that rats eat the bait, then leave in search of water. The problem is that they often don’t leave and if they die in an enclosed space, the stench and subsequent clean up [...]
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 [...]
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 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.
Weather reeks havoc on native wildlife in the Houston area. If you don’t like the weather, just wait a few minutes and it will change. This seems very true here in the Houston area the last few weeks. We have seen snow, freezing temperatures, sunshine, wind and rain. Our native wildlife as been seen trying to adjust to all these changes. Squirrels are burying acorns like there is no tomorrow and birds are flocking to backyard bird feeders, and yet babies are still being born. Obviously, these mothers didn't get the memo. Friday night another storm blew through the Houston area bringing a cold rain and strong winds. A flying squirrel nest blew down spilling three helpless little ones to the ground. A kind gentleman scooped them up and went to great lengths to keep them warm. He drove them up to the Wildlife Center on a motorcycle but those were the warmest babies that have come through the Wildlife Center doors. They have been given warm fluids to hydrate them and they are well on their way to having a second chance at life thanks to the team effort of the rescuer and the Wildlife Center volunteers. It is amazing that babies are coming through our doors, don’t the parents know it is winter? The normal first arrivals each year are Great Horned Owl babies. The parents are currently refreshing an existing nest or tree cavity in anticipation.
Busy as a Beaver Cyndi Bohannon Beavers (Castor canadensis) alter their environment to fit their needs to a greater degree than any other animal besides man. Their conversion of densely wooded streambeds to wetlands and finally to nutrient rich meadows is an ecologic miracle. Whether you consider the beaver to be an engineering genius or a tenacious pest that is ruining a beautifully wooded stream depends on exactly where the beaver “is being busy”. Known to the American Indians as “sacred center”, beavers create rich habitat that act as a cradle for biodiversity. Wetlands provide habitat for almost half of all endangered species and their biodiversity is rivaled only by rainforests. Wetlands sponge up flood water, prevent erosion by slowing the progress of flowing water and raise the water table. Wetlands also act as earth’s kidneys to purify the water by providing natural “settling ponds” where bacteria can break down toxins and remove excess nitrogen from the system. Beaver vary in weight and size based on their habitat with the larger, heavier individuals living in colder climates. On average the beaver is 20 – 60 pounds and has a body length of 30 to 40 inches long and a tail length of 10 – 13 inches. Pairs mate for life during their third year and can live twenty or more years. They have a single litter per year which consist of two to four kits (up to six have been documented) that weigh about a pound each after a gestation of 110 to 120 days. Kits are born with open eyes and begin swimming within weeks of birth. Beaver families consist of the mated pair, the yearling kits and the current litters. The yearlings babysit [...]
One of the greatest joys for a wildlife animal rehabilator is the successful reunion of a mother and her babies. Lots of books have been written about living in peace with the local wildlife. Even how to foster an environment to encourage wildlife without having them wreck YOUR home and eating all of your landscaping. However, little has been written about how to get the local wildlife out of your house once they have moved in or what to do with a separated youngster. The original call came in about 8 a.m. The condensed version was: “Two raccoons, a very small one and a slightly larger one had fallen though the suspended ceiling of the “basement” and that there was at least one more still “up there”, what am I supposed to do?” They had already called Animal Control and were now afraid that the animals would be destroyed. Luckily for them AND the raccoons, Friendswood Animal Control works closely with the Wildlife Center of Texas. I told them not to worry and to accept the live trap that was on the way. Trapping and relocating an adult raccoon is a death sentence, only 10% will survive the next 6 months. If the raccoon is a female with babies, it is often a death sentence for them as well. Needless to say, relocation was not in the cards for this coon family. The next call went like this; “We caught the smaller of the two and put it in a cat carrier, now what?” Hoping that the live trap would catch the mother, who was still thought to be in the office, I sent them off to buy the supplies necessary to close up the [...]
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 [...]
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 [...]