Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Bear of a Year

Emaciated bear cub at The Wildilfe Center, Espanola, NM

A neighbor’s compost pile dug up and trashed. Dogs barking during the night. Hummingbird feeders ripped from their hangers. Bird baths overturned. The perpetrator of the vandalism left ample evidence of his or her presence, beginning in late September. It has been several years since a black bear made itself evident in Area 3 north of Jemez Springs, not since the infamous shooting of a harmless bear by a local resident. He paraded the carcass to friends in Belen, was busted by New Mexico Department of Game and Fish when he attempted to have the animal mounted, was roundly roasted in the Thunder, and moved out of state shortly thereafter.

Although, my area of expertise is all things avian, not mammalian, it seems most appropriate to consider the plight of these omnivores during our driest year on record. I contacted Katherine Eagleson, Director of The Wildlife Center (TWC) in Espanola, New Mexico’s largest wildlife rehabilitation center and the only resource for injured, orphaned, or starving large mammals, including predatory mammals. The center has taken in 46 black bears since January 1, 2011. As of October 17, they had 33 bears on site; normal is 6-8 bears.

Wildlife Center staff working performing triage on a new arrival

According to Eagleson, drought has the greatest effect on bears as well as other wildlife. Most of a bear’s diet consists of vegetation. Soft mass (mast) includes berries, grasses and other vegetation and hard mast includes nuts, such as pinyon, and most importantly, acorns, of which there are few this year. It was so dry throughout the winter that, in the early part of this year and through early summer, even the grasses were failing in bears’ foraging areas. Females and their cubs emerged from their dens when little food was available. Females won’t abandon cubs due to food shortage, but the cubs follow their mothers and may be predated upon by other bears. Underweight youngsters are more vulnerable to predation and their biggest threat is other bears. Coyotes and mountain lions also prey upon young bears.

Then, the fires arrived, exacerbating an already tenuous existence and forcing bears from known habitat into the territories of other animals. Starving bears descended on communities statewide, looking for food. According to Eagleson, there has been no formal assessment of food sources for bears, something she would like to see developed as a citizen science project. New Mexico Department of Game and Fish (NMGF) officers have killed over 200 bears this year, problem bears that broke into cabins, have been hit by cars or have other injuries, or have lost their fear of humans. Humans do a lot to exacerbate the problem of habituated bears by leaving out garbage, bird feeders, and feeding dogs outdoors. “A fed bear is a dead bear.”

Young bear in one of the bruin holding pens at The Wildlife Center

TWC only keeps first and second year bears. Other bears, unless injured, are returned to forested areas throughout the state. Cubs normally stay with their mothers for 16-18 months before dispersing. Some female cubs even establish territories adjacent to their mothers. Young born in 2010 and 2011 would normally still be with their mothers and are not ready to be on their own.

Second year bears, those born in 2010, are fattened up as much as possible and are now being released in areas where it is hoped that they will begin hibernation soon. One such bear is the one that was found in Albuquerque near Coors Blvd. The emaciated 18 month old cub arrived at TWC weighing only 50 pounds. During its stint in captivity, it packed on another 150 pounds and became a very feisty bear that needed to be released NOW. All bears are anesthetized for release. Their release is carefully coordinated with NMGF biologists, who select sites that have low human impacts, little traffic, and that should have a food source in the spring when the bear emerges from hibernation. Release sites also have to be evaluated for carrying capacity and the number of bears already present in the area.

Cubs born in 2011 will have to remain on site throughout this winter, and will be released in the spring of 2012. Although they will be very young to be independent, only be 15 months old, TWC can’t effectively keep them over the next summer without seriously habituating them to humans.

Housing and feeding 33 bears might be considered overwhelming to some, but TWC staff seem to take it all in stride. Each bear consumes 6 - 7 pounds of dog food a day, totaling 200 pounds each and every day. That doesn’t include the apples, melons and other fruit donated by grocery stores and individuals. In New Mexico, healthy females weigh 130 – 180 pounds while males tip the scales at 250 – 300 pounds. Bears need to gain 30% of their weight before they got into hibernation. Breeding for bears occurs in June, but fertilization is delayed. If the female is underweight, the egg will not attach and no young will be born the following winter. Eagleson anticipates fairly low cub production in the spring of 2012.

Bears at TWC are held at an off-site location, and the influx of 2011 has required the construction of additional enclosures to safely house their expanded bruin population. When I wondered how one goes about cleaning an enclosure that contains large wild bears, Eagleson quickly responded, “Cleaning through intimidation! We use the same people all of the time. They go in and bang on the doors and yell at the bear and so on.” TWC did receive $20,000 in donated dog food, but needs cash donations to help pay for new enclosures and also pay trained staff to clean the enclosures and care for bears.

It’s an admirable job, and one that I am glad doesn’t belong to me. TWC is always looking for new volunteers. They hold periodic training classes throughout the year. But mostly, they could use cash donations! You can donate online Please contact TWC center for more information if you are interested in becoming a TWC volunteer.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Forest Hawk

Juvenile Cooper's Hawk. Image by David Powell.

Just two days ago, two juvenile birds joined our avian ambassador team, a young Common Raven and a male Cooper’s Hawk (more about the raven in a later issue), courtesy of the Wildlife Center in Espanola, New Mexico. Both had wing injuries that rendered them non-flighted and permanently non-releasable. The good folks at the center had toiled long and hard to rehabilitate the two so they could be returned to the wild, but unless a bird is nearly 100% fit, it would not survive. In cases like these, the only choices are to place them with an educational organization like Hawks Aloft or toeuthanize them.

Coops, as we affectionately call them, are notoriously challenging to handle in captivity and have a well-deserved reputation for aggression. They belong to the Accipiter family, forest hawks that have short, rounded wings and long tails to help them maneuver through dense vegetation in search of prey, primarily other birds. The other two species of Accipiter in North America are the tiny, Sharp-shinned Hawk and the Northern Goshawk. Both of these species nest in coniferous forest where they can coexist because the size of their prey it significantly different.

Adult Cooper's Hawk. Image by David Powell.

This little fellow, who still wears the bright yellow eyes of a youngster, arrived thrashing around in a pet carrier, acting every bit like he could take me on and win. Patience and extreme calm are essential when training a bird that arrives from the wild, helping the education bird adjust to life in captivity, and ultimately being presented at public education programs.

You might wisely ask why we would want such a volatile species for our education program. Our most common urban nesting raptor -- the Cooper's Hawk – is reknowned for its aggressive nest defense behavior. Each year, during the month of June, we field numerous phone calls about aggressive hawks. During the courtship, egg-laying, and incubation stages the birds are unobtrusive and, in fact, are very difficult to detect.

We attached jesses almost immediately after he arrived, figuring that it already was a stressful day, and it might be better to get on with the final indignity of attaching the leather straps that would tether him throughout his training and also later during public programs. Then, we let him rest for a full 24 hours before bothering him again.

Adult Cooper's Hawk with prey. Image by David Powell.

All this changes; however, once the young have hatched, and the parents have a greater investment in this year's nest. They can become extremely defensive, and the unwary human who inadvertently crosses into their territory first hears the loud, scolding call, "Kek, Kek, Kek, KEk, KEk, KEK, KEK, KEK!" Then, when they turn to see the source of the insistent warning, they find themselves face-to-feather with a furious, rufous-breasted, gray-backed bullet with blood red eyes. The automatic response for most humans is to fall to the ground, cringing in terror, lest the bird actually strike them. Then, after escaping from the incident unharmed, they scramble to the telephone and begin calling anyone who might help with the situation. Enter the Hawks Aloft education program for homeowners.

This morning, when I lifted the cloth that covered the carrier, he looked ready for battle, all 2/3 pound of him. He flipped over on his back and presented his talons, ready to grab me. A quick flip of the towel and I had him in my hands, attaching the lead. We sat together in the sunny living room as I tried nonverbally to communicate that this really would be okay, that I would never hurt him.

Adult Cooper's Hawk. Image by David Powell.

Most of the callers appreciate 'their' hawks, and just need a little education and assistance to avoid arousing the defense mechanism of the feisty parent, doing their best to protect their young nestlings from the perceived human danger. It helps when we give them tips to avoid arousing the angst of the hawk, and reassure them that Cooper’s Hawk will only rarely actually strike a human. Generally, they pull up at the last minute. Biologically, it would not be wise for a bird weighing between ½ and 1 pound to take on a 100+ pound human. There have been no reports published of serious human damage incurred from the attack of a Cooper’s Hawk. We work with them through the 3-4 week period, and the result is usually a happy home or business owner once the young are out of the nest, and the aggression stops as suddenly as it began.

Now, several hours later, he is quietly sitting on a specially made perch atop a covered table in the shrouded extra room (Coops can eject their waste stream with considerable force over great distances). A de-feathered quail carcass sits by beside him, hopefully tempting him to dine. I only pause at the door to check on his well-being. It is enough for today and tomorrow, until this becomes normal to him. Only then will we move on to the next part of training. We have all the time in the world.

Then, as the young begin to disperse with their newly earned fledgling independence, the phone begins to ring again, with a call arriving almost every day. The young birds, in their early hunting attempts, chase anything feathered, often pigeons or sparrows. The juvenile Coop pursues them with great abandon right into the warehouse, building, or batting cage and, once inside, cannot figure out how to get back out. We have become adept at catching and releasing them. It makes for a busy summer.

One day, possibly months from now, he will make his debut, educating the public about an often misunderstood raptor, the Cooper’s Hawk. While all of our education birds do have names that we use to distinguish them from one another, they do not respond to being called by name. We rarely use their names in presentations. Only when the name is educational in some way, relative to the species, the injury, or the location where the bird was found, is it ever revealed. This little guy will have just such an educational name. We call him Forest – Forest Hawk.