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Archive for January, 2010

Only about nine eagles were on hand for the 3,000 visitors who showed up for the closest eagle watch to Chicago, Eagle Watch Weekend at Starved Rock. Last year, 50 were there for the weekend and 115 spotted on the peak February day.

“I think most people got to see at least one eagle in the wild, which is better than seeing one on TV,” said Kevin Eubank, the head ranger at the dam where you do most eagle viewing. Plus, they had a live bird of prey demonstration, so people got to see one up close, too. Edna Daugherty, who was driving the trolley for Starved Rock Lodge, said that eagles were out off and on all day.

eagle treeThe northern states have had slim eagle viewing this year. In 2009 the mid-winter Illinois eagle survey showed lousy results. First the cold weather seemed to drive birds further south. Now some rivers aren’t frozen at all, meaning the raptors don’t have to concentrate in one spot. The fish they like are in slim supply this year. And, on top of everything else, it’s foggy. The local paper The News Tribune says presciently that eagle-watching has “never been much of an activity for serious birders.” Maybe that’s why it’s so fun: It’s relatively easy these days because eagle populations have recovered and the birds are big, obvious, and thrilling to watch. Six states have eagle watches this weekend: AL, IL, WA, MO, OK and TN.

If anything, I feel even better about my visit to the dam a few weeks ago, when we saw about seven birds. I think it should encourage people who maybe can’t come out during the special events to try to see them another time.

Who celebrates Eagle Days: when and where

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Brown pelicans, just removed from the Endangered Species List three months ago, are getting slammed by California’s polluted storms. These swimming birds can cope with rain far more gracefully than whiny Los Angelenos have been. But the water is so polluted that they have to be treated like oil spill victims. The International Bird Rescue Research Center had 80 pelicans by 7 p.m. Friday and expects they’ll be treating 100 hypothermic birds this weekend.

There’s a bit of callous reaction to the brown pelican‘s plight. One comment on the Washington Post site said it was just the “circle of life.” But they aren’t dying because of storms; they’re freezing because the contaminants break down their natural waterproofing and insulation.

“Brown pelicans tend to feed and congregate near harbors and river mouths where nutrients from the runoff attract fish and other creatures. Pelicans can easily become dirty from pollution in these areas and can lose their waterproofing. The current massive runoff from the storms has brought even more grease, car oil sheen, fish oils and other forms of surface pollution into the coastal areas where these birds feed,” says executive director Jay Holcomb in a letter to supporters.

“We wash them just as if there had been an oil spill. We use dish-washing liquid,” spokesman Paul Kelway told the AP. It takes about a week and $500 of treatment for the birds to recover from hypothermia. The center has responded to 150 oil spills around the world and treated 300,000 birds; 23 other groups in California are also trained to deal with oil spills and wildlife.

Donate to the IBRRC Now

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Florida’s cold snap could provide the big check on invasive species biologists have been wanting for decades. We could see less iguanas and pythons–and also fewer more beloved animals such as parrots. Even animals that didn’t die in the cold could die of a cold in coming weeks.

“I expect we’re going to have huge, huge mortality, maybe even in Miami itself,” says Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission invasive species expert Scott Hardin. “Those that didn’t die [from the cold] could easily die of a respiratory infection.”

The Everglades’ infamous python invaders were at least cold-stunned and perhaps hurt worse. Researchers found that 10 of 11 of the giant snakes they tracked weren’t moving, Hardin said. He added that he didn’t have word yet on the giant parrot colonies that live around the state, especially Miami.

Given the hurt the freezing temperatures caused Floridians, Hardin didn’t want to sound too gleeful. But he so clearly was. The non-natives can push out species that naturally belong, and they’ve been running amok for 30-40 years, the last time Florida saw weather this harsh.

A few of the more vulnerable native animals were also hurt by the wintry blast. Hundreds of sea turtles were rescued, but hundreds more found dead, according to Hardin. The state did get to tag and collect information on lots of endangered green turtles.

Florida got a record count of manatees (5,067) because they’re easier to see when they’re crowded around the warm water of power plants and natural springs. Officials warned tourists to stay away so the manatees wouldn’t leave the warm areas they need to survive. And not just the big tours known for their inappropriate petting, either. Manatee advocate Tracy Colson says even kayak tour operators like hers suspended operations to let the manatees warm up.

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Today is officially Squirrel Appreciation Day. I don’t know what else I can do for the family of squirrels that frequents my window sill and fire escape. “Mommy Squirrel”–named because she was lactating last summer–will put her paws on the window to demand chestnuts if I only have out peanuts and sunflowers. These New Yorkers also have South Carolina acorns (bought in bulk on eBay) and apple cores on the menu.

HuffPo has a list of suggested activities, including looking for TV shows. Thanks to my lousy Time-Warner DVR, I can’t even do that. There are plenty of places that have specialty squirrels around the country that you can visit: the Grand Canyon has black and white Kaibab squirrels, Maine has chatty red squirrels and plenty of towns boast the title of White Squirrel Capital.

As a made up animal holidays go, it sure beats yesterday’s far more theoretical Penguin Awareness Day.
Please, sir, may I have some more?

Mommy squirrel

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A big difference in the two leading plans for 33,000 wild horses now held by the federal government is whether mares and geldings may mix. The issue may come down to undescended horse testicles. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s plan wouldn’t let geldings mix with mares, who would also be on birth control. Madeleine Pickens’ plan would let the geldings run free and form normal social groups.

There are plenty of other things that divide the plans–location, price, management–but whether the wild horses get to live in their natural herds is a big sticking point for horse advocates. Suzanne Roy, program director for In Defense of Animals, calls it the “the Sala-Zoo plan.” “Most people can drive half an hour or 10 minutes to see horses,” she says. “These horses are wild in name only.” What makes these horses special is the wild, natural lives they lead, she says.

I asked Madeleine Pickens whether geldings at her proposed Mustang Monument would be able to mix. “They’d be able to roam freely and form bachelor bands,” she said.

BLM spokesman Tom Gorey told me this week that they would have to keep the sexes segregated because you “can’t take a chance that the gelding might not have worked. There is always a possibility.”

Say what? I was always amazed when dog people would ask if my obviously neutered male dog Jolly was neutered. The testicles are either intact or removed. Either way, it’s highly visible.

But Gorey referred me to Dr. Albert J. Kane of APHIS, a vet that works with BLM. Perhaps understandably, Dr. Kane wasn’t too comfortable answering my questions about whether geldings could somehow be fertile. He referred me back to the BLM, but he did say that when you’re dealing with thousands of horses, one virile gelding could slip through.

The BLM isn’t totally crazy here. Horse herds are generally matriarchal, so there’s only one or two males in a herd of 10-20 horses. One stallion could impregnate all the females in their herd. (Or could if the mares weren’t on birth control. Or if undescended testicles didn’t confer at least some infertility.)

So, is this whole wild horse population management thing coming down not being able to keep track of which horses are gelded or to undescended testicles? Because the ACVS says that’s pretty easy to detect (hormone levels) and treat (surgery). British horse magazine Horse and Hound says about 15% of 2 or 3 year olds are “cryptorchids”–that is they have an undescended testicle. And they’ve got more crazy terms for us: a “true rig” is a horse carrying a hidden testicle and a “false rig” is one that just acts like that with “over-the-top stallion-like behaviour.”

Oddly, this whole issue might become something taxpayers care about. Or might insist that the BLM stop caring about. The BLM now spends $29 million to keep 33,000 horses and wants to catch another 10,000 to 12,000 this year in Nevada. Salazar plans on asking Congress for $97 million to build two of seven horse preserves. Pickens will supply the land and management, she just needs about the same amount of money per year per horse as the feds are paying ranchers to keep them in pens now.

Where to go to see wild horses

Read what’s going on with Madeleine Pickens’ Plan

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Ocracoke Wild Ponies

Maybe instead of creating a sanctuary for all 33,000 wild horses currently in federal holding pens, as Madeleine Pickens proposed in 2008, she’ll just take 10,000. The smaller version may help “establish credibility,” she told a group of reporters and supporters at a Manhattan breakfast Wednesday.

She senses resistance is weakening at the Bureau of Land Management, which controls the horses and spends $29 million a year keeping them in holding areas.

So far, however, the BLM just keeps collecting more wild horses, something animal advocates hoped would stop after President Obama took office. In Defense of Animals announced Tuesday that BLM is already starting to round up 12,000 horses this year in Nevada. That means we’ll end 2010 with roughly 63%–or nearly two-thirds of our wild horses (including expected foals)–kept in holding facilities, mostly in Oklahoma and Kansas. Even if BLM lets Pickens take care of 10,000 horses, we’d still be worse off (as judged by the size of our wild horse menagerie) than when Obama took office.

The Obama Administration has come up with a rival option known as Salazar’s Plan, named after Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who is thought to be too cozy with cattlemen. It would cost $96 million to create for two of seven preserves he would put in the east and Midwest. Pickens says those would accommodate just 7,000 horses. Somehow I think taxpayers would prefer Pickens’ option, in which she supplies the land and manages the horses and the feds just pay her $500 a year per horse, about what we pay to keep them in long-term holding.

We’ve heard very few details about the federal plan and Salazar’s op-ed in the LA Times didn’t clear much up. I thought it was churlish for a cabinet member to drop the line “to allow wild horse herds to grow beyond the limit of the range — as some wild horse advocates and celebrities are arguing…” Nobody wants to overcrowd the horses, of course. They just don’t want the agency giving the only land horses can legally graze on to cattle ranchers. Wildhorsepreservation calculates the horse’s area has been cut by 36%.

But the horse advocates in the room thought it was great Salazar was at least talking about horses and the need to use contraceptives to control the herd. It’s certainly a lot better than the 2005 plan to sell them to slaughter. But we’ve got a long way to go to bring these plans together.

Where to go to see wild horses

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China’s own wildlife officials estimate that only 50 tigers survive within its borders, Xinhua News reports. And those shockingly low numbers include four subspecies. The World Wildlife Fund figures they’ll go extinct within 30 years, an estimate which seems optimistic. The IUCN range maps show that tigers are doing much better outside China, sometimes just outside its borders.

China’s State Forestry Administration (SFA) says only 20 Siberian tigers remain in China’s northeast, 20 Bengal tigers in Tibet, and 10 Indochinese tigers in the southwest. And you can pretty much forget about the South China tiger. Zhu Chunquan, conservation director of biodiversity at WWF China, told AFP: “After the late 1970s, there has been no concrete evidence to show that there are any left.”

Siberian Tiger (Pantera tigris ssp. altaic) : endangered (20 in China)

What’s weird here is that there’s a Siberian Tiger Breeding Center in Harbin, capital of northeast China’s Heilongjiang Province, that brags that it’s bred 1,000 cats (some pictured here).

The center combines breeding and tourism, but has come under fire for animal cruelty. Specifically, it got in trouble for feeding the tigers live cows and sheep. That wouldn’t be bad if they were training tigers to hunt in the wild, but the videos show it’s more to make a buck off tourists. The bigger the animal killed, the more the tourist pays. Tourists on this video paid $60 (1,500 renminbi) to see a sheep slaughtered, not splurging $180 to witness a cow death.

The best hope for the Siberian tiger seems to be Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin, who fancies them a national symbol.

South China Tigers (Panthera tigris amoyensis) critically endangered and possibly extinct

No one is sure if these cats live in the wild anymore. WWF’s estimate that there are zero South China tigers contradicts the group’s estimate on its Chinese website of 30-40.

The IUCN says reintroduction is sketchy, but progressing. The UK group Save China’s Tigers, is releasing cats in Zixi, Jiangxi, and Liuyang, Hunan. The controversy is that they’re retraining captive, closely-related tigers on private reserves in South Africa. About 70 captives survive, but they’re not even 100% genetically South China tigers. The range map shows the animal does much better just outside China.

Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) -Endangered (20 in Tibet)

Most Bengal tigers now live in India. The rangemap tell the story best: The animals live in many countries bordering China to the north and east, but have been wiped out in China.


Indochinese Tiger (Panthera tigris ssp. corbetti) – (10 in the Southwest)

In the IUCN’s count, they don’t even bother listing China as a habitat anymore. Most live in Thailand.

View AnimalTourism.com Big Cats in a larger map

Where can you see Big Cats?

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