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A Tiny Tragedy

Thursday, May 31, 2012

 Stella, looking round...

My spring obligations began to close in, and I was trying to see into the future and predict when the batgirls might be ready for release. I understood from Rob Mies and Lisa Fosco that bats should be able to fly continuously for ten minutes in an enclosed space to be considered releasable. I watched my girls flutter languidly from one perch to the next and wondered if they’d ever get there. But they still had weight to lose, so I worked them and kept their rations slim (12 mealworms each day) and kept hope alive. What I didn’t want to do was to have to send them to the Ohio Wildlife Center for safekeeping while we were in Alaska from May 14-21. I desperately wanted to release them before I left. I knew from past experience that the stress of transport and of being in a new environment, which would likely be much less bat-friendly than our quiet garage with its spacious flight tent, might throw them off their feed and cause them to go back into torpor. These bats knew me and were comfortable with being handled by me. Heck, sometimes I had a hard time getting them to fly--they liked hanging out on my gloved hand. I liked it, too. But oh, I wanted them to go free.

The other wall facing me was the possibility that one or both of these girls was pregnant. Big brown bats  mate in the fall and delay implantation of the fertilized egg until conditions are right. They deliver their young—one or sometimes twins—from mid-May through June in Ohio. What I did not want was more bats to worry about. 

Lisa Fosco learned that through hard experience, when bats would deliver babies while still in captivity. She said she released a female bat with a young baby clinging to her only to see the baby fall to the ground, its newly released mother vanishing into the sky.  Ack ack ack. The only alternative to prevent such a boondoggle, she said, is to keep the mother and baby together in confinement until the baby is flying and completely independent. My mind boggled at the prospect. How many more months would that be? How could I provide adequate nutrition for a lactating mother bat, and how could the baby bat learn to forage in a flight tent? No, no, no, no. These bats had to go and find a maternity roost before they delivered their young. I felt like Indiana Jones in the vault with all four walls closing in. 

On the evening of May 1 I went out to fly the girls and found a small red wad on the towel beneath the bats’ roost. I knew what it had to be before I picked it up. It wasn’t a wad, it was a being: a fetus, about half developed, its tiny wings wrapped around it, each minuscule toe perfectly formed, its face dished like that of a puppy, its eyes just dark spots between the clear fetal skin. 


I turned it over and over, unfolded its wings and worked its tiny feet. It would have been a boy. I studied the quiet bats. Stella hung alone in the corner, not cuddled up to Mirabel as usual. Gently I picked her up and found the birth blood on her.  I fed her all the mealworms she wanted and gave her a dropper of water, apologizing to her for failing to get her out to a maternity roost where she could deliver in safety. I didn’t fly her for the next two days. By the next morning she’d passed the afterbirth. 

Looking at her baby's perfect spine reminded me of the early sonograms of our kids, just notions in the womb, but already adorned with a string of vertebral pearls. 

Oh, so very sad to know this one would never fly.

There was a bright spot in the sadness. Both bats, by May 2, were down to 20 gm, which was finally in the normal range. Yet they were still not showing sustained flight. My hands were tied. I felt the pressure of time once again. My heart ached to see the girls fly free.

Most of all, I ached for Stella and her lost baby. I wept for him and for her. I hoped that I could do better by Mirabel, hoped that part of her stubborn weight was a little fetus hanging in there, waiting for her to find the right old attic in Marietta where it could come into the world as nature intended.

I knew we were on the road to release, knew all these bats needed was a little more time. And time was the one thing I didn't have.

Bat Boot Camp

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


At the beginning of their training, I had to pick each bat up as if it were a box turtle--from above. If I let the bat climb onto and cling to my glove, I'd never get it in the air--they stuck to me like Velcro. I'd pick a bat up like you'd pick up a biscuit, swing it a couple of times, then gently toss it into the air. It would catch itself with its wings, flutter to the nearest tent wall, and cling. Well, it was better than not flying at all.

Stella, large and in charge.

 What I didn't know at first is that bats need to be warm--really warm--to be able to fly. They need to be slim enough to fly, but they also have to be warm. Every once in awhile I'd feel a wing or tail against my bare skin and be shocked at how cold those membranes were. Mid-April is still pretty darn cold, with nights barely edging into the 50's. And bats like to fly when nights are in the 60's and warmer. So as I think back on it, I may have been pushing these animals to fly in mid-April when they were physiologically incapable. It was probably not just that they were too fat. They were too cold to fly.

As I thought about it more, and conferred with Rob Mies and Lisa Fosco, it hit me that bats who have been hibernating all winter basically wake up and, without any conditioning at all, take to the wing. They fly out and catch a meal of moths. They aren't fat at that point--they're running very lean after a long winter. But by some miracle their muscles don't atrophy and they're good to go on their first flight. If I laid up for  six months, I wouldn't be able to hobble, much less catch a moth in flight. 
So maybe I was asking too much. I laid back a bit on the flight conditioning. We still worked out each evening if it was 55 or above, but not as hard. I noticed that they flew MUCH better when the day had been warm and the garage had heated up. Once again, the bats told me what to do and what not to do.

I kept them at 12-15 mealworms each per day, and they lost weight nicely, slowly but surely. 
I wish someone would keep me to 12 mealworms per day. Or the equivalent.

In the Bat Tent

Sunday, May 27, 2012


I've left you with the post "Fat Bats" for a week now. I've been busy doing all the things that don't get done when you're running around Alaska looking at moose and orcas. Spent much of the last two days washing orchids. I find I have to wash them a couple of times a year, scrub out all their humidity trays and most of all comb each one over for that nasty white Boisduval scale and regular scale. It does wonders for them, washing orchids. Take a look at yours. Are their leaves caked with dust? Well,take 'em in the shower and give those plants a good hard rinse with tepid water. They'll thank you for it.

Bats. When we last saw Mirabel and Stella, they were topping 25 gm. and unable to fly worth a nickel, certainly unable to catch their own food on the wing. In early April, I ordered the Zephyr Screen Gazebo by Wenzel. It’s made of super-soft polyester mesh and silky nylon fabric, and I didn’t see any way they could hurt themselves on that. Most importantly, it was fitted with tight-closing zippers and a welded nylon floor integral to the tent, which is designed to keep bugs off your picnic table, but also to thwart my hairy little Houdinis. A bat can get out of a ½” crack, and it will find that crack before you know it. They needed to be completely enclosed.

Zephyr is a good name for this tent because the slightest breeze will crumple it up and roll it across your yard. The steel poles are about the thickness of a good asparagus spear. Please. Sooo flimsy.  I don't recommend it for outdoor use at all; I can't imagine where you could put this up and not have it destroyed within a week by a good gust of wind. So I ditched my plans to erect the tent in the yard, and decided to set it up in our detached garage. Our cars could live outside for a month. This decision turned out to be a bit of genius. I didn't have to worry about inclement weather or raccoons, although I did say a frequent prayer that the black rat snakes in our garage wouldn't figure out how to open the zippers. Needless to say I was completely OCD about keeping all the zippers closed. What I did not want was to feed my miracle girls to the snakes.

I released the batgirls into their spacious tent on April 14, and was disappointed to find them uninterested in using it at all. They'd flutter down to the floor and hop along. They'd never be able to use the clever bat roost I'd devised out of a stepladder and some bathmats.  Once down, they'd never fly back up there.

So I took an old crate and a towel and made a little roost on the floor of the tent, one they could literally walk to. This conditioning thing was going to be a lot more work than I thought. Egad.
I sought advice from Lisa Fosco of the Ohio Wildlife Center. She confirmed my suspicion that a 25 gm. bat is too fat to fly. And she added a warning: Sometimes, despite a rehabilitator's best efforts to condition a fat bat, it will fail to lose the weight. "And THEN what??" I asked, horrified. "Well, then it has to be taken into permanent captivity. It's happened to me twice. I worked them and worked them and they just never dropped the weight."

Lisa warned that I had to keep the bats eating; that when I cut their rations to six mealworms apiece each day, they'd try to go back into torpor, and lose no more weight. "Keep them eating, keep them active," she said.

And Mirabel stopped eating. She wouldn't eat for a week, but she still didn't lose a gram. Uh oh. I racked my brains. What to do?? How do you force-feed a bat? Finally I decided to offer her a couple of droppers of the liquid nutritional supplement Ensure, which she eagerly drank. And the next evening she started eating again. Whew! 

I watched the bats. They were so ravenous when I’d feed them, always looking for more worms. I reasoned that since I was "flying" them each evening, they could probably stand to eat more than six worms a day. I doubled their allotment. And against all expectation, that was when they began to lose weight. It seemed counterintuitive for them to drop weight when they were eating more, but it was working. I was a few days into this new protocol when Rob Mies emailed.

Our lead keeper and I just talked and think you
should try giving them 12 mealworms each daily and see how they do in
a month or so.  We think their bodies may be shutting down fat
consumption because food has dwindled, but if they get used to 12
mealworms it should start to fall off.  Let me know how it goes.”

I felt like I did when I was raising four ruby-throated hummingbird nestlings and I started to worry that the soy-based adult maintenance formula I was feeding them was insufficient for their needs, growing so fast and making all those feathers. I decided to squeeze out the innards of mealworms like toothpaste and gave it to them on the round end of a blunt toothpick along with their nectar diet. Within hours I could literally see them pick up and begin to thrive. They all went on to fledge. A year later I learned from an experienced hummingbird rehabilitator that they probably wouldn’t have survived on maintenance formula alone—the soy protein settles out of the nectar and is indeed inadequate for a growing baby’s metabolic needs.

Once again, Instinct had stepped in and told me what to do. The bats had told me what to do.

Look at this photo. Isn't it weird? My little ectomorphic children, dwarfed by a giant bat. Eeee!

Fat Bats

Sunday, May 20, 2012

I'm in Soldatna, Alaska now, finishing up our work at the fabulous Kenai Birding Festival with my best guy. This is a laundry morning, a repacking morning, a get-ready-for-a-big-day-morning, but I wanted to let you know what's been going on with The Battista Sisters. You remember, Mirabel and Stella, the two big brown bats we overwintered.

The Battista Sisters came to me in the first week of February 2012, having been found flying around a bedroom in an old house in Marietta, OH (Stella) and clinging to a brick pillar in a busy supermarket breezeway, six inches off the ground (Mirabel). 

I took them in, they bonded and became inseparable, and I kept them the rest of the winter, waiting for the weather to warm enough to release them. 
Oh, and I fed them. Mealworms. Boy did I feed them. 

I plan to write this up elsewhere, and spent a good long day on the jet to Soldatna writing about it, but the long and short of it is that I gave them too much food and really messed them up. They came to me in the 17-18 gm range. I left the in the garage hibernating in cool temperatures and as of March 1 they were still maintaining a weight of about 18 gm each. Perfect. But I got sloppy and started giving them more worms, just dumping a bunch in their bowl every morning, and by April 16 they were each topping 25 gm. ACK! How did that happen?
It turns out that you have to ration them to about 12 a day. I didn't know that. I gave them all they would eat, and that's a lot.
This is Mirabel, and it's what a 25-gm big brown bat looks like. She looks like a flying sofa pillow, that's what she looks like.
In this photo, I'm blowing on her back fur to reveal a huge U-shaped roll of fat around her bottom under her sweet pink skin. Oh-oh.

See how her whole stern section (the furred part) is U-shaped? It ought to be deltoid. Yeah, so should mine.
This is how a 25-gm big brown bat flies. Which is, not at all. Scuttle-hopping is more like it. Baby got bat.

Mirabel, I got some 'splainin' to do. First, I'm sorry I got you into this mess. I thought I was helping you girls.
Second, I'm going to fix it. First, we'll get you a tent. A beautiful Wenzel Zephyr 9 x 13' screen house. 
Whose most important feature is the "welded polyethelene floor" (see Mirabel's substrate, above) which is integral to the walls and will prevent you and sister Stella from escaping while you attend Bat Boot Camp with Mether.

Bat Boot Camp? What's that??
Sounds eeky (says Mirabel as she hangs inches from the floor).

Well, it's where Mether picks you up and tosses your fat little bodies into the air every evening, and she cuts your mealworm consumption by oh, 90% until you lose the extra baggage and are airborne again.
We'll install you in the tent and you can get out and fly whenever you feel like it.

Stella: We don't feel like it, thank you.

Oh, you will. You will. Or I'm going to die trying.

If you do a little math, bringing a bat down from 26 gm to 18 gm is like asking me to get down to about 97 pounds in 4 weeks. I beg of you, don't do the math.

 Some said it couldn't be done, but I owed it to my girls, and I was going to give it one heck of a try. On the bats. Not me. I would need my Tahitian Vanilla Talenti Gelato to fortify me for the work ahead.

Chet Baker on Patrol

Thursday, May 17, 2012

He's getting a little gray around the eyebrows. Chet's most Frequently Asked Question: "How old is he now?"

I answer, "Seven. Eight in December." And can hardly believe I'm saying the words. How did that happen? How did my 2005 model puppy turn into a silvery gentleman?

I've thought about taking a Sharpie to the gray, sort of a Grecian Formula for dogs, but I know he'd hate the stink of the marker, so I don't. 

It's been hard, not being able to run any more. This dog loves to run. He couldn't love it as much as I love watching his neat little thighs scissoring along in front of me. I've had to find other things to do. It hasn't been hard to find other things to do.

Chet's gone into summer mode, which is when he runs hourly chiptymunk and bunneh patrols around the house. There's always a chance he'll surprise something quick and furry as he burns around the corners on two wheels.

He watches for small disappearing cinnabar tails in the holey back patio stones.

Chet Baker! Are there any snakes?

I will check.
I find snakes by smell.
I have found them in these cracks before.

Chet Baker! Are there any deer out in the meadow?

I will check. I cannot see over the grass now. You should mow it. I have to climb the top deck to see durr anymore. But when I see a durr, I streak out after it, yes I do.

He loved his WVU basketball, even after he popped it (eight minutes) and tore a huge gash in its side.

That was about a dollar a minute.

Worth every penny just to see him race around the yard pushing it with his nose, then gnashing his fangs against it until it finally gave up with a sigh. GNARF GNARF GNARF GNARF ppppfffffffftttttt

This little dog, so dear to me

who lights up my heart with his smile.

There. There's your Chetfix. I needed one, too.

The Mighty Mighty Bluet

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


There is great power in a tiny flower. The common bluet, Houstonia caerulea, triumphs over drought, frost, neglect and active persecution. It's a member of the Rubiaceae, a very cool family that includes partridgeberry (Mitchella repens), quinine (Cinchona), gardenia (!) and coffee (!!) Oh my!
How all those plants fit in one family beats me--tiny wildflowers and economically important shrubs that dictate land use all over Latin America.

There is a barren hillside on Rte. 821 not far from our house that blooms in early spring with blue. Misty blue, running down like water.

It's barren because the man who lives in the house above it takes a weedwhacker to the wildflowers that try to grow there. He has weedwhacked the Trillium grandiflorum and Solomon's seal into extinction. I see him, balancing on the rocks, whacking away, and I want so badly to stop and talk to him, but I don't. I think it wouldn't go so well.  Besides, I find it interesting that someone would object to bluets. I'd rather watch than intervene, because the bluets are winning.

He prefers daffodils and variegated hostas, his close-mown lawn, to bluets. These rocky steep dry  ledges are no doubt his despair. He can't get the grass to take on them, no matter how he cuts and whacks.

But the bluets don't mind. They don't listen to him and his machines. They go on growing there anyway. 
You see, by eliminating everything else that once grew there, he's creating a monoculture of bluets. And they like that just fine.

And though I mourn the trillium, I like it, too. It's a little victory. He can't kill the bluets. They're too little to bother with. They bend their slender necks and let him have at it. They sing of life and springtime.

Take that! And thank you for your help, Sir!


What's Become of Sluggo?

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Wildlife rehabilitation is often a long road. Especially with box turtles. Sluggo is a longterm client. You may remember that he was hit in the spine by a lawnmower blade last summer. I couldn't do anything for the injury with its jumbled pieces of shell bone, so I gave him shots of Baytril, a strong antibiotic, to prevent infection, then just fed him and supported him in the ensuing year. 

He won't use his back legs. He has feeling in them, and he pulls them strongly into his shell when you try to pull them out, but he doesn't use them to locomote. He drags himself with his strong orange front legs.

Lisa Fosco of Ohio Wildlife Center in Columbus believes that that's because it hurts to use them. Will that get better? We can't say. But like anyone who has a loved one who's suffering, you cling to hope. 

He's a strong, beautiful gentleman with great color and a nice personality.

I took him in for evaluation at OWC. Lisa immediately set to picking and chipping at the dead shell and bone  around Sluggo's injury. 

The black part looks yuckky but it's actually a sign of healing. It's good, it's what you want. 

Lisa cleaned him up really nicely using her fingers and a forceps. I was wincing but Sluggo couldn't feel it as the bone she was removing was long dead. She pointed to a deeper triangular divot at the bottom of the wound and said she thought that was probably what was keeping him from using his hind legs. Sigh. He's not done yet. The hard part is not knowing if he'll ever be releasable.

To be honest, I thought I'd be leaving him in the care of someone who knows more than I do about such injuries, but Lisa wanted me to hang onto him. She made a good point, that he'd do better with individual attention such as I can give him (when I'm around, that is...) than as one of a bunch of patients in a rehab setting. So she sent him back home with me.

I took him out to see how he was doing.

He was tired of being in a cardboard box, that's for sure. I set him on the concrete and he peed in excitement. And then one hind leg came out.

He was making for the spiderwort tangle, and he really, really wanted to get there. And the other hind leg came out, the one I never get to see.

Truly, he more just dragged them than anything, but they were out and moving, and that's a huge start.

I thought that going forward I should try to get him to walk on concrete, because the second he got into the soft mulch he tucked them back in and dragged himself with his front legs.

Lisa showed me how to massage his legs, how to stroke his feet "so he knows he still has feet, knows that they're still there." 

I hope he comes to trust me enough to let me massage him every day. Right now he remembers getting injections there and he pulls his legs in when I go to touch them. 

I never visit the Ohio Wildlife Center without marveling at the job these good people face. Over 4,000 animals are admitted every year, the vast majority coming in right now through July. Rehabbers call it baby season. There were bunnies everywhere, little blind ones and ones that were big enough to nibble on dandelion greens and clean their faces with quick paws.

And there were baby ducks, standing in their food, dreaming of their mamas.

If you've any extra resources, please think of OWC. The people I saw hurrying around the clinic were so tired they were reeling and punchy, warmly accepting box after box of rabbits and thanking the kind folks who had brought them in. I left, resolved to keep working with my one little case, and in awe of the volunteer network the Ohio Wildlife Center maintains. And wishing I had a few lotto millions to shunt their way.

Victorian Village Guest House

Thursday, May 10, 2012

File under: Percs of the job. It's not all leading birding field trips in a frog-drowning downpour; it's not all lugging several hundred pounds of music equipment up stairs and down halls. Sometimes you get a treat. And the trick is to let those treats carry you through the next slog or meltdown.

I'm writing from the Victorian Village Guest House on Neil Avenue in Columbus, Ohio. This is my second stay here, and I'm delighted to say Bill is with me and also enjoying its considerable amenities.

I took the first series of photos in December, when I came here to speak to the Columbus Natural History Society.

I scurried around to photographically document its untrammeled glory before I turned it into a Zick den with my exploding luggage.

I love the bathroom. And the soap is French-milled lemon verbena and it is heavenly. The soap always speaks of the quality of an establishment. I left my Dr. Bonner's Peppermint bar in the dop kit. 

Just made tea and toasted orange-cranberry bread in this lovely kitchen. It's so wonderful to stay somewhere new, clean and uncluttered, as opposed to old, ehhh and cluttered. There's even a teeny dishwasher!

It's quiet and peaceful, being set well off the busy streets. 

The December vista. It's hard to believe you're in downtown Columbus! Doesn't it look like it's out in the country somewhere? The guest house was built on the footprint of a carriage house that was standard issue for these gracious manses in Victorian times.

  From the excellent website:  A step above a bed and breakfast, Victorian Village Guest House offers a 950 square foot luxury suite tastefully appointed with antiques and modern amenities. The suite includes a full kitchen, private bath, bedroom with queen-sized bed and great room with soaring 17 foot ceilings. Situated in the rear lawn of the Morton’s renovated 1895 Queen Anne style home, the guest house provides privacy & delightful 2nd story views of the lawn, patios & perennial gardens. A peaceful retreat in an urban setting, the guest house is truly the best of both worlds! 

I would add that it's handy to Columbus' delectable Short North, where restaurants, bistros, antique and curio shops, and a fabulous dog accessory store await. If you want to buy costumes for your Boston terrier, Pampered Pooch is where you'd head.

All of that is true, true, true. And it comes with the neighbor's buttermilk tabby.

 At this link, you can take a virtual tour of the place. Such fun! except that it makes me seasick because I'm such a dolt with the mouse. Blarrrgghh. Slow down, Zick.

I love computers. Except when they make me seasick.

The Greek yogurt, fresh berries, orange blossom honey and organic maple brown sugar granola makes it all better. 

Yesterday afternoon as Bill and I were heading out to our smashing "Wine and Warblers" event at Columbus Audubon's Grange Center, I spied a feather on the sidewalk in front of our guest house. It could have come from no other bird than a black-billed cuckoo. It was very dirty and tattered, but when I washed it up, there was the small grayish-white tip, the tapered but not pointed shape, and the olive-brown shade that yelled black-billed cuckoo to me. As you can see, it's as long as a pen--about 5". I was amazed. Right in downtown Columbus!

But as I shot the gardens this morning, the songs of migrant Tennessee warbler, northern parula and even the dull wit! of a least flycatcher rang around me, and I knew it was possible that a black-billed cuckoo had molted a feather here, as well. 

I molted a little when I stayed here, too. Allium and columbine:

The peonies weren't even awake when I made these photos.

Hey! wake up! I wanna see your yellow stamens.

At least the foxgloves were up and bugling.

A view back to the Morton's home. Ahhh.

I'm afraid the Victorian Village Guest House has spoiled us for future visits to Columbus. Or anywhere.

Oh dear. The bar is awfully high.

Check it out, check in. You will never want to leave. We sure don't. We're settin' here tapping away on our respective Silver Surfers with the fasty fast wireless Net. Please accept our heartfelt Thank You, Lisa and Jeff Morton, for giving us a taste of the truly wonderful in Columbus.

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