Can You Hear Me Now?

The American Bittern (Botauru lentiginosus) is a one of the stockier and short legged members of the Ardeidae family which includes herons, egrets and bittern. This Nearctic species has a breeding range in Canada and northern United States to parts of central United States.  They are solitary and prefer to hide in heavy reeds, cat-tails and grass around isolated bogs, marshes and flooded meadows. Bitterns can be found in both saltwater and freshwater marshes. It sports brown streaking with an appearance similar to immature night herons. The coloration is such an effective camouflage the bird simply melts into the reeds.  Animals that use camouflage as their primary defense against danger freeze when spotted. The Bittern has an interesting adaptive behavior to hide; it stands motionless with its bill pointed upward and its body held in tightly while giving the appearance of a clump of reeds in the water.  Once the Bittern decides that hiding won’t work, it puffs itself up and sways ominously to show how dangerous it is. The bird blends in perfect with the brown vegetation as it moves slowly with its bill held horizontal while eyes are focused downward to spot prey such as frogs, small snakes, fish, rodents and eels.   They are generally crepuscular (most active at dawn and dusk) and hunt along the margins of ponds in dense vegetation.   The American bittern does not perch in trees but spends most of its time on the ground.    Because the Bittern is shy and reclusive, it is more difficult to find in the wild than its family members the herons and egrets. You may not be able to see one, but their booming voice is quite loud and distinctive leaving no doubt [...]

If It Looks Like a Duck….

If it look like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it must be a….flamingo? The wonderful thing about research is that I learn things I didn’t know before and thanks to the internet, I don’t even have to leave my couch. When the Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) came into the Wildlife Center, I yawned…thinking it was just another water bird. The initial research didn’t change my opinion, but I wanted to know more about those bizarre feet.  That question set off a cascade that led from the bird to advanced genetic analysis and biochemistry. Instead of simplifying the classification of animals, genetics has blown the roof off. It doesn’t help that dozens of “official” definitions exist for the concept of species. Most lay people will recite the “can interbreed and produce fertile offspring” definition we learned in grammar school. Add to the mix animals that form a “ring species”, Each “species” can successfully produce fertile offspring with the “species” close to it on the ring but not with “species” across from it on the ring. It becomes even more confusing since the number of kingdoms varies from 6 to 8 depending on the convention, so phylum, class, order, family, genus and species all become a bit fuzzy. Early naturalists grouped animals based on phenotype, or what they looked like. These days the assignment of a particular “group” of animals to a species is considered a hypothesis. The wheels really come off when talking about amphibians and more simple organisms – we won’t go there. Most “evolutionary trees” imply that animals that look alike trace back to a common ancestor. The fossil record clearly shows the same trait /adaptation frequently pops up. For example, webbed feet [...]

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 [...]

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 [...]

Mommy, What's that Pink Bird?

The Roseate Spoonbill is relatively common in the Gulf Coast area, but only a few per year wind up at the Wildlife Center. This magnificent bird is in full breeding plumage; note brilliant pink patch on the breast and the overall vibrant coloration. A relatively large wading bird, they can stand almost three feet tall and have a wingspan of about 50 inches. Besides the eye-popping color, the Roseate Spoonbill is characterized by its long white neck and spatulate bill. They filter feed as they swing their unique bill side to side as they slowly walk through the wetlands. Unlike other birds like herons with this general build, Spoonbills fly with their neck outstretched. A gregarious bird, it can often be found in the company of other large wading or water birds such as Great Egrets, Tricolored Herons and Pelicans. Haven't seen one in the wild yet? Go to places where you've seen large wading birds before.

On the Road

The three amigos (Endangered Brown Pelicans) finally have all of their Texas Parks and Wildlife and United States Fish and Game permits and are ready for their trip to the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas. A WR&E volunteer will be driving them to their new home tomorrow.  The volunteers that specialize in fish eating birds will really miss them.     Click here to view the video footage posted to Channel 11's website. The Amigos are safely on their way to Brownsville.

Status Update: Pelican & Osprey

Numerous inquires about the Brown Pelican that presented with numerous problems including a treble hook in his mouth and the Osprey with the burned feet and feathers has prompted this update. “Buddy” the pelican (as named by his rescuers) is now healthy and strong. The old badly healed wing break still prevents him from being released into the wild, but Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville is still waiting for Buddy and his two companions. All they are waiting on is paperwork and a ride.           The Osprey whose feathers and feet were burned (perhaps by a flare)  is holding her own. She doesn’t like the same type fish that the other fish eating birds adore, so a volunteer frequents a fish market for tempting meals. While she’s not out of the woods yet, we are very hopeful.

Brown Pelican Rescue

United States Fish & Wildlife brought a juvenile brown pelican to the Wildlife Rehab & Education Center Thursday November 5, 2009 for evaluation and treatment. The young pelican had been observed near a dock at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Galveston and was apparently injured.  A thorough exam revealed many complications for the bird. It presented very emaciated and dehydrated. An examination revealed that it had a heavy mite infestation, a treble hook was embedded inside its mouth, and a single large hook was embedded in its neck. The initial exam also revealed an old wing fracture that had not healed properly. Pain medications, antibiotics and fluids were administered.  It was treated for the mites and the hooks were removed. Wounds were treated and he was crated to rest. The brown pelican will remain at the Wildlife Center until itis stabilized and healthy again. It was determined that the old wing break made it non-releasable. But the story won't end there. It is planned to transfer the pelican to the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas to live out its natural life in comfort.  WR&E thanks all those who were involved in the rescuing of this magnificent bird.


Seabirds along the coasts of Washington and Oregon are mysteriously losing the waterproofing that protects their feathers. Without this waterproofing, the birds quickly develop hypothermia and have to expend much more energy to remain afloat.  Unable to hunt, the birds become dehydrated and starve. There are many theories concerning the cause, but none has been proven. It seems that a contributing factor may be the foam produced when red tide algae die and decompose. It is estimated that over one thousand birds have washed up dead and almost five hundred have been collected by concerned citizens. The Coast Guard has airlifted hundreds of birds to a rehabilitation center in California for care. Could this happen here? Yes, it already has on a much smaller scale. AND there have been reports of red tide in south Texas over the last several weeks. Is WR&E prepared? You bet!   The WR&E Wildlife Center has a team of State and Federally permitted and experienced wildlife rehabilitators that can care for all species of birds and mammals including endangered species during an emergency. We have the capability to set up remote facilities with the option of using the facilities available at the Wildlife Center. Each facility is capable of managing the treatment of 500 large seabirds such as pelican. The facilities can be modified to handle even greater numbers of smaller birds or mammals. Response equipment is stored in 8 “push pact” containers that can be trucked or airlifted anywhere for oiled wildlife response, hurricane response or other wildlife emergencies. The containers include over 3000 various sizes of plastic crates/kennels, 44 large cases of towels, paper towels, trash bags, feeding bowls, etc. We have free standing wooden cages equipped [...]

Great Blue Heron

  Twisting in the Wind Margaret Pickell This spring, the greater Houston area experienced two violent thunderstorms that made us wonder if it was time to start building arks. It was during one of these three inch an hour storms that homeowners noticed a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) was tangled by a stretchy rope to the tree it was roosting in. The largest heron in North America, it stands 36 to 55 inches tall, has a wingspan of 66 to 79 inches and weights 4 ½ to 8 pounds. Usually ill-tempered when handled, the wickedly sharp bill is thrust without notice in defense. The homeowners called The Wildlife Center of Texas and several volunteers braved torrential rain, wind and lightening to evaluate the situation. The Wildlife Center doesn’t have the resources to respond to most wildlife calls, but occasionally a case is so extreme and retrieval so dangerous that volunteers feel compelled. The Great Blue Heron’s predicament turned out to be much more horrible and gut-wrenching in person. The rope was wrapped around the heron’s beak and neck. Starving to death while being perched high in a tree was bad enough, but the wind was blowing it off of its perch. Unable to reach the heron, rescuers watched helplessly as the wind and rain blew the heron from its perch, dangled by its neck, fought an exhausting battle to scrabble back onto its perch only to be blown down again. The homeowners and volunteers brainstormed (pun intended) possible rescue scenarios but the heron couldn’t be reached by climbing or by ladder. Undaunted, the homeowners hit the phones and called a friend who owns Prono Cranes. He willing to come to the heron’s aid. To [...]

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