bending the rules

Earlier this week, we received a call from a friend of ours, Natalie, at Nature’s Nursery Center for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation Education. It was, she informed us, time for a release, something that we’re always up for. So Nat came down with four Virginia opossums, a woodcock and a juvenile blue jay.

The release of the opossums went off without a hitch (though one did cling to the top of my shoe and hiss at me for all he was worth before finally scrambling off toward Cranberry Run). The woodcock’s release was equally uneventful, but exciting, even so. We regularly see and, more often, hear them here in the spring. But, to the best of my knowledge, this is the first time we’ve released one at The Quarry Farm.

The blue jay, on the other hand…

jay bird 3A release, in most cases, is a relatively simple affair: you transport the animal to a suitable location, open the door of whatever is containing the animal, the animal exits its containment and then, ideally, it has the whole of the world to explore,  or at least as much of it as it can reach. It is free, beholden to and dependent on no one and nothing. The jay nearly made it. Nearly. He was brought here, the door was opened, he flew out and…he stayed.

Blue jays are corvids, cousins to crows and ravens, and like their cousins, they’re complex, intelligent birds. They’re also communal, living in extended family groups in the wild. Both of these factors, their intelligence and their sense of community, help them to survive Out There. Both of these factors also make them easy to imprint, particularly when they’re raised alone, as this jay was. With no family to turn to for help, he stays in the only community he’s ever had, with the only company he’s ever known: people.

We had the usual concerns when we released him and began the process of moving him toward self-sufficiency, predation being at the top of the list. Blue jays are slow fliers and as such, easy pickings. Along with a number of cats that treat The Quarry Farm like their own private larder, there are the wild things that prey on jays: raccoons and Cooper’s hawks and screech owls, primarily, but weasels and even the blue jay’s cousins, the crows, as well. We’re even a little concerned about the chickens; a few of the Jersey giants have developed some unusual feeding habits…but that’s a different story for a different day.

What we didn’t see coming, though, what has proven to be this jay’s greatest challenge, are the cedar waxwings.

calling waxwing

accusing waxwingThey found him nearly right away, the waxwings, and they’ve kept an eye on him, and occasionally a beak or talon, ever since.  When one spots the jay in the open, it will call the others with short trills, glaring all the while. They harass him in groups of two or three or four. It’s startling to watch. Where jays are slow and somewhat awkward fliers, waxwings are sleek and fast and the coordination that they exhibit as a flock is nearly military in its precision. But the jay is smart and takes cover in the dense foliage of apple or coffee trees, hugging the trunk and keeping branches between him and his attackers. Which is not to say that they don’t occasionally get to him, that he doesn’t sometimes need help, protection. Three pinpoint spots of blood on his neck and face tell tales of brief melees that haven’t gone his way. So I watch, now, a little more closely and step in when the odds are too dramatically out of his favor. Either I drive them off, or he comes to me, alighting on my shoulder and hiding in my admittedly thinning hair.

hiding jay

This is where the gray area of my participation in this wild thing’s life has the potential to turn black. Because it’s beguiling, this trust he shows in me, this faith. When he sits on my shoulder, when he tucks his head behind my ear, I am, in some small way, connecting with the heroes I read about as a boy. Jean Craig Shepherd’s Sam Gribley and the peregrine falcon, Frightful. Ursula LeGuin’s Ged and his otak companion. Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli with his family and mentors: Raksha and Bagheera and Baloo.

jay bird 2Even so, contrary to what some conventional wisdom suggests, what some rehabbers would insist on, I refuse to drive him away. And not only do I refuse to drive him off, I encourage him to stay. I call him to me and present him with food and, when necessary, I protect him. I justify my behavior with the knowledge that, if he’d been raised by other jays, the adult birds would still be a part of his life, defending him from predators and competitors and helping him find food. The fundamental truth is that he’s a young juvenile in a strange place with no other means of support. As rationalizations go, this one is exceedingly rational. Because he needs it, support. Without it, his chances for survival drop alarmingly.

Just like Cat Stevens said, “It’s a wild world.”

jay bird

 

a different perspective

For the moment, let’s say you’re driving down a two-lane highway at night when, off to the side, your headlights pick up a misshapen bundle. You slow down to get a better look at whatever’s laying there, something that’s almost certainly dead, when, suddenly, part of the bundle shakes itself loose and skitters away into the dark…

Or it could be that there’s this cat that’s been hanging around and it’s pretty obvious that it’s had it more than a little rough. So, because you feel sorry for the poor wee thing, you’ve started leaving food out in a little dish by the back kitchen door. You hear it rustling around and turn on the light to give it a once over, see if there’s any improvement in its condition, only it’s not a cat, nothing like a cat, crunching down kibble. Nothing like a cat at all…

Or maybe it’s the night before garbage pick-up and you’re hauling the last bag out to the curb where you’ve already placed your recyclables and one half-full can. You reach for the lid, but it’s not in place. It’s lying, top-down, in the grass next to the can, and that’s odd because you’re more than kind of certain that you actually did put it in place before heading back to the house for that one last sack of trash. And that’s when you see it, furtive and menacing all at the same time, perched in the ripped-open Hefty bag at the bottom of the garbage can…

Whatever the scenario, what happens next is almost universal: you see those black eyes and all those sharp, glinting teeth in that gaping maw and your flight reflex kicks in. Before you’re even aware of turning, you’re burning rubber down the road, racing up the stairs, or dead-panic, brainless sprinting back to the house. And if your ears weren’t already full of the THUD, THUD, THUD of your own pounding heart, you know – I mean, you just know – that you’d hear it scrabbling along behind you, hissing and growling and keening for blood…

Virginia opossumExcept we’re not talking about some Jurassic Park raptor here, nor a great white shark or a freakshow hybrid of a government experiment gone awry, either. Nope. It’s an opossum – a Virginia opossum, to be precise – and it poses about as much threat to you as the neighbor’s Pomeranian. (You know, the one that they spritz with stink-pretty every other week after it’s been to the salon? The one that wears the pink Hello Kitty sweater as soon as the temperature drops below 40 degrees Fahrenheit? Yeah. That one.) So instead of chasing you down, that opossum’s busy either trying to put as much distance between the two of you as it possibly can, or making itself as small as possible, hoping against hope that you just won’t notice it.

Understand, I’m not saying that opossums can’t seem scary. They have more teeth than any other North American mammal and when their jaws are gaping wide in abject terror (yeah, mate, they’re positively terrified of you) it can be a little intimidating. But here’s the rub. Opossums aren’t predators. They’re scavengers, eaters of the dead and the overripe. See, they’re not interested in taking a bite out of you, unless, of course, you’re dead; in which case you have considerably bigger things to worry about than the chance that a wandering opossum just might stop in for a nibble.

mother and babies

So, no, opossums aren’t predatory, but they are seriously cool. They’re nomadic marsupials, have opposable thumbs on their back feet and they have prehensile tails. They’re the most primitive mammal in North America and, when threatened, “play possum.” The word “play,” though, is more than a bit misleading. It’s not a conscious act, not something that they choose to do. Nope, it’s something that happens to them when they get overexcited. Their hard drives crash and there’s absolutely nothing playful about a crashed hard drive.

Keep all this in mind the next time you scare up an opossum, because “scare,” my friends, is truly a matter of perspective.

Give Us a Hand and We’ll Give You a Shirt

If you’ve been following us for any time at all, you’ll know that, while we focus on assisting domestic animals, we also work with the occasional wild, but native, animal, as well. Most are just passing through, either on their way back to the wild or off to a rehab center. Sometimes, however, as with the two American crows and the Canada goose that live here, this is where they’ll stay from here on out. These native animals aren’t eligible for release, either because they have some physical defect that will prevent them from a successful return, or because they’ve developed a certain affinity for their most significant predator, humans. Such is the case with an opossum that recently came to us from Nature’s Nursery Center for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation Education.

No Name OpossumThey told us right up front that he seemed a bit on the friendly side, and he was. Even so, we treated him with the same distance as we treat all such animals we’re tasked with fostering. Several days ago, after nearly six weeks here at The Quarry Farm, we decided it was time to give him the opportunity to go it on his own. Sadly, rather than march off into the woods or even just into the tall grass near the banks of Cranberry Run, he decided to follow us back to the house.

After discussing the situation with the powers that be at Nature’s Nursery, it was decided that responsibility for him should be transferred to The Quarry Farm, where he will live out his days and serve as an ambassador of his kind to the folks who visit us here, on-site, and to those whom we visit in their classrooms.

But, Houston, we have a problem. We can’t seem to come up with a suitable name for him. We’ve labeled him a host of different monikers, but none of them have stuck. So we’re throwing it open and asking for help. The person who comes up with an appropriate name (and, yes, we’re the ones who decide what’s appropriate) will get a Quarry Farm T-shirt.

So, have at it, boys and girls, men and women.

And thanks. Here’s another quick study of the little guy, should that prove inspirational.

No Name Opossum

when the bough breaks…

Somewhere between two and three weeks ago, we went out and brought back our first squirrels of the season: fox squirrel pups, three of them. They were tiny, nearly hairless and had yet to open their eyes.

IMG_6526The call about them came from a friend in the Village of Continental. One of her neighbors was felling a tree damaged at some point over the winter. What came down with the tree, sadly, was an unnoticed squirrel’s nest and the three little beings inside it. Efforts were made to reunite the pups with their mother, but, again sadly, that didn’t work out. So now they’re here in Rowan’s very capable hands, getting the best that we can offer.

Ideally, though, infants will grow up with their own parents. So, without meaning to sound preachy, if you’re going to do tree work, particularly at this time of year, give a thought to the animals living in the tree in question. If you can, wait until the little ones, whether mammal or bird, have grown and left the nest.

On a different, but related, topic, if you happen to find an infant on the ground, do your best to reunite the little one and its parents. If it’s a mammal, keep an eye on it for up to 24 hours before making the choice to take it in. More often than not, one of the infant’s parents will rescue the little one. With birds, try to work out from which tree the nestling might have fallen. If you do, build another nest out of an old butter tub or some other suitable container and line it with paper towels. Drill holes in the bottom of the container to allow rain water to pass through and tack it to the tree as high as you can safely place it. Then, as with the mammal babies, keep an eye out for the bird’s parents. If you don’t see a parent caring for the nestling bird, then take it in, keep it warm and dry, but do not feed it, and contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitation center to make arrangements for transport.

*A special thanks to Fox Valley Animal Nutrition, Inc., for all their efforts in creating the most effective milk replacement formulas for orphaned and injured wildlife.

Sixteen Chicks and a Kit

It’s only Tuesday and it’s already a busy week.

On Monday, we received a call from the Pandora branch of the United States Postal Service.

“There is,” a woman explained, ” a package for you.” Long pause. “And it’s talking.”

Chicks TiredThe chicks we’d ordered late last winter had arrived: five Black Australorps, five Black Giants and, as it turns out, six (though we only ordered five) Buff Orpingtons. Now ordinarily we don’t buy the animals that live here. There are more than enough domestics out there in need of a different situation that we don’t have to. But chickens? Well, they hold a special place in my heart and, frankly, they feed us. Not with their bodies; we’re vegetarians. But we have absolutely no issue with eating the eggs they produce, Chicksparticularly since the eggs they lay are infertile. This is not to say that we don’t take in wayward chickens. We do and have: Barbara the Australorp, Karen the Rhode Island Red and Big Girl, the Ameraucana,  just to name a few. But there’s something about raising a chicken from virtually her first breath. At least, there is for me.

Then, on Tuesday, today, we received a call from Nature’s Nursery Center for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation Education. A couple in our county had found an orphaned red fox kit and were looking for assistance. I met Rachel and Andy in Ottawa in the parking lot of the local Rite Aid. They explained that they’d found him huddled next to a dead sibling and kept a watch out for the mother. 003When nearly two days had passed without an appearance, they took the kit in and contacted NN, which in turn called us. We provided him with a little watered down formula, which he gladly drank, and, since he was severely dehydrated, gave him a subcutaneous injection of sterile saline solution. So he’s here for the interim. Tomorrow, we’ll try him on a slurry of soft cat food and formula.

From there, thanks to Rachel and Andy, the sky’s the limit.

Passing Through

Orphans. The word conjures a host of images, mostly Victorian, of wide-eyed children dressed in rags begging on streets or, empty bowl in hand,  pleading for more; of row on row of narrow beds, each filled with a child praying for a good family. These are Hollywood images, as unrealistic in their portrayal of real orphans as television is in its presentation of detectives or living in New York City. They’re the only ones I know, though. The human kind, anyway.

But there are other kinds of orphans.

This year we’ve handled the usual: squirrels, opossums, vultures, swifts, starlings, sparrows and more, all either passing through our hands up to Nature’s Nursery or down to us from there for release or fostering. At present, we’re hosting two: a black squirrel and a Virginia opossum.

The opossum was one of six found on their dead mother (she was hit by a car). While we’re not certain how long the little ones were out there clinging to her corpse, it’s likely that it was quite a while. All six were slow and skinny and dotted with fly eggs. The worst part of such a case is that the young continue to feed from their mother and after she has died, the milk that sustained becomes corrupted, poisoned. Five of the six died. On the up side, the one that survived is strong and growing and shows no sign of becoming attached to the people fostering him. Just the opposite, in fact. He hisses and growls when we approach, bites when we lift him out to clean his temporary digs. He’s been here about a month and we expect that he’ll need to stay another before moving on and out there, on the Quarry.

The black squirrel is a new arrival, an intake from a Lima man who found him outside his apartment. After doing everything he could to reunite the little squirrel with his mother, James called us. This squirrel, like the opossum, is strong and a good eater. We’re providing a temporary safe haven for him. Tomorrow he’ll make the trip north to Nature’s Nursery where they have several other juvenile black squirrels.

Raptor Rehabilitation and Release

One of two pre-fledgling turkey vultures surrendered to Black Swamp Raptor Rehab.

This past weekend, we were offered the opportunity to do something a little bit different. As part of our function at The Quarry Farm, we often serve as transporters for several area wildlife rehabilitation centers. Laura Zitzelberger, director of operations at Nature’s Nursery Center for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation Education, contacted us and asked if we’d serve as courier and chaperone for two pre-fledgling turkey vultures. The barn the two birds were nesting in was destroyed by the storm that tore this area apart in late June. Since then, the birds had been under the care of Diane Myers at Black Swamp Raptor Rehab. Nature’s Nursery had taken in a nestling turkey vulture and were excited at the chance to properly socialize their charge by introducing it to the two birds from Black Swamp.

Despite some rather unsavory habits, turkey vultures are social, intelligent animals (http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/turkey_vulture/id).

The nestling turkey vulture surrendered to Nature’s Nursery.

Sadly, these positive attributes create a challenge for rehabilitators. Imprinting becomes an even more serious concern as their social nature makes them more prone to identifying with their caregivers. This can prove disastrous for any animal and can even prevent their successful release back into the wild. In an effort to offset their natural inclination to bond with their caregivers, the three birds were brought together in the hope that they would bond with each other. Although they can’t be housed together because of a significant difference in age and size, the three birds will be kept adjacent to each other and share a common wall; two on one side, one on the other. It’s hoped that all three birds will benefit from this situation, improving their chances for a successful release.

And speaking of releases, not only did we transport two raptors up, but we also brought one back with us.

Early last autumn, we were called on to pick up a red-tailed hawk in nearby Miller City, Ohio. The bird had been on the ground for a couple of days and the homeowner in whose yard the hawk was sitting had called Nature’s Nursery. We’re not entirely sure what was wrong with the bird, but it was in sorry shape when we arrived. Emaciated and dehydrated, the hawk had no energy to defend itself and we simply walked up to it, wrapped it in a blanket, put it in a carrier and transported it north. After months of exceptional care, the bird’s appearance and attitude had changed drastically and the rehabbers at Nature’s Nursery asked if we’d return her to the county of her birth.

The red-tailed hawk perches shortly after release.

The hawk was slow to realize its situation and initially only flew far enough to perch in the nearest tree. But after a bit and the pestering of several camera-wielding humans, it finally took to wing and flew away and out of sight. I won’t say it was a picture-perfect release, but it certainly was a success.

We hope for the same results for the turkey vultures. When it happens, you’ll be the first to know.