Wildlife Center News

Spring Has Sprung at the MWRC!

Every year at this time we begin to gear up for the busy baby season. Presently we have admitted baby Eastern Grey Squirrels, Virginia Opossums, Eastern Cottontails and even a clutch of hatchling Carolina Wrens. 

From now throughout the summer months people can find baby animals everywhere they go. Some might be orphaned and need help, but many are normally vulnerable at this stage and are being cared for by their parents. The following are some of the common species we see at the center and tips to decide whether or not they truly need your help. 

Expand the sections below to read more about common babies that visit the center.



    Remember the wives tale that says you must not touch a baby bird or the mother will reject him or her? It's not true! Birds do not have a strong sense of smell and will take good care of their young when you re-nest them.

    Baby songbird ages can be identified in three categories:

    Hatchlings: no feathers, blind and totally helpless. They are dependent on the parent for warmth. If you find them on the ground and you know where the nest is, please re-nest them. If you can’t find the nest or the babies are cold, call the center for instructions.

    Nestlings: Nestlings are still helpless and cannot fly, but have begun to grow pinfeathers, or are feathering out, but cannot fly and are still dependent on the parents for food. If you find on the ground, re-nest them if you can or call the center for instructions.

    Fledglings: These babies are fully feathered and can hop and maybe flutter short distances. They are being cared for by parents, but are on the ground and vulnerable to cats and other predators. Please keep cats inside. Unless they are injured, please let the parents to their job and leave the fledgling alone.

    Cat bites, even small punctures, can be deadly for any of these age groups, as they carry bacteria in their saliva called pasturella. Please bring those babies in for support and antibiotic treatment. 

    Learn more about all the diverse species of songbirds from Cornell University ‘Birds in Action’


    Eastern Cottontail Rabbits

    Often people will find a nest in their yard when mowing the lawn, or often the dog or cat will find them. Cottontail nests are simply a shallow depression filled with dry grass and fur to keep the babies warm.  When discovered by pets, they are vulnerable. Please bring your pets inside and walk the dog in other areas to protect the babies. People rarely see the mother near the nest, which is normal. She does not want to draw attention to her young, so she will stay away and will only come in to feed her babies at dusk at dawn, unless of course humans are standing around waiting for her to return.

    Here’s a tip to help you to be sure she has come back to her nest: Put some very small thin sticks crisscrossed across her nest, and when she returns to feed her young, the sticks will be moved. Don’t worry about leaving your scent on the sticks or the babies if you have to put them back in the nest. Cottontails are good mothers and will take care of their young even if they smell humans on them.

    If a cat gets ahold of a young cottontail, their bite can be deadly even if you cannot see it. These should be brought to us for antibiotic treatment and support. If you have any questions at all, please call the center.

    Learn more about the Eastern Cottontail Rabbit on the National Geographic Animals’ website

    The May Wildlife Center also receives the rare Appalachian Cottontail (Sylviagus obscurus), which look almost identical to the Eastern Cottontail only rarely has the white dot on the forehead.

    Learn more about this rare species on the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History website


    Virginia Opossums

    Opossums are North America’s only marsupial, meaning the babies are carried in the pouch (and later on her back). They are solitary, nomadic animals who would rather be left alone. Most people find them on the road after the mom is hit by a car, either still hanging on to her body, scrambling around her, or in the pouch. If she is still alive, please first make sure you are safe from traffic, then collect her and her babies and put them all in a box with a soft towel, and contact us or your local licensed wildlife rehabilitator. If you happen to be hiking with a dog and he or she chases an opossum, and it drops some babies off her back, she will not come back for them. Please get the dog under control, then collect the babies and contact us or a local rehabilitator. If you find a young opossum who is ~7 inches or less, they need support. Please put them in a box with a soft towel and call the center. Baby opossums have to be fed with a tube, which takes an experienced professional to accomplish, so please call us immediately. Remember if they are very young, they cannot keep themselves warm, so a heating pad set on low can save lives!

    Learn more about the fascinating natural history of the Virginia Opossum on the National Opossum Society website


    Eastern Gray Squirrels

    These agile ‘tree monkeys’, as some call them, can be very entertaining or frustrating at the bird feeder. But whether or not they are loved or resented they are part of the ecosystem surrounding us (over 200 species on the planet), they provide food for the predator species, and they help to plant many trees by caching nuts and seeds where they can grow into tall trees. Eastern Gray squirrels have two breeding seasons: one in the early spring and one beginning in late August. People often see the babies after trees are cut, without knowing there is a nest up above. Mothers often have two nests reserved for this very reason. If her nest is destroyed, she will move her young to another nest. If the babies are not injured you can usually leave them in a box at the site of the tree and she will collect them one at a time. Often times, some are injured so if you have any questions please contact the center. Another reason you might see a baby is if it comes out of the nest too early and falls out of the tree. If something happens to the mom, you might see the whole litter coming out looking for her, yet they are not old enough to fend for themselves.

    For more interesting information on the Eastern Gray Squirrel, visit the Animal Diversity website


    White-tailed Deer Fawns

    If you come across a fawn curled up in the grass–walk away! The mother has instructed them to stay put until she returns to feed them. You will most likely not see the mother as she does not want to draw attention to her young. If a fawn has flies around them, or has obvious wounds, they need help, but if is walking around calling for the mother, stay at a distance and observe first to see if she returns. If you have any questions please call the center at 828.898.2568.

Other, not quite as common, orphans we see at the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center are: waterfowl, raptors, bobcats, mink, chipmunks, mice, rats and sometimes armadillos! Remember, if you ever need help regarding wildlife call us at 828.898.2568. If we can’t help you ourselves, we can often find someone who can!

The Importance of Professional Development for Students and Staff

In the field of wildlife rehabilitation things are always evolving in methods, medicine modalities and training. It is important to stay in touch with our professional entities such as the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association (NWRA), Wildlife Rehabilitators of North Carolina (WRNC), and the many veterinary symposia offered for the continuing education credits (CE) that are required for Dr. Amber McNamara, who by the way, serves on the state WRNC board.

In March of 1999, North Carolina licensed rehabilitators gathered for the first time ever and became a state association, WRNC, when we hosted the NWRA symposium in Greensboro. The symposium theme was titled Educating Ourselves Today for the Children Tomorrow, and was a very exciting time in the collaboration of the rehabilitators in North Carolina as we shared ideas, deciding our mission and goals. May Wildlife Center Director, Nina Fischesser, was elected founding president and served as a guiding force, along with other professionals, in the fledgling days of our state association. State symposiums have been held every year since then in order to offer important education to all people interested in wildlife rehabilitation.

The state and national symposiums are also a great opportunity for Lees-McRae College students to acquaint themselves with what is going on professionally outside our center, and to meet the various professionals who may specialize in their focused interest area. We try to alternate which symposiums we attend year after year. In March 2017, we attended the NWRA symposium in Williamsburg, VA. There were three Lees-McRae students (Holden Whitesides, Nathaniel Watkins and Kyndsey Rounds) who attended, and four Lees-McRae alumni (Sunny Kellner ’12, Yaritza Acosta ’12, Jonathan Honchul ’11 and Sarah Lisi ’12) all who work in the wildlife field.

These symposiums are the pillars of our profession in wildlife rehabilitation and are an important step in the learning process for the Lees-McRae students in this unique program, to seek out potential future careers and continue their education in their chosen profession. 

Did you know? 

The May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center is hosting its own wildlife symposium this summer! The inaugural North Carolina Regional Wildlife Medicine Symposium will be held Friday, July 28. Veterinarians, veterinary technicians and students are encouraged to register!

Ambassador Highlight: A Bird and His Trainer

Captain the Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) has been with the MWRC for about five years. He suffered left eye damage when hit by a car. Because he was a juvenile bird when injured, we began to work with him with the intention of placing him in another facility. During his training, one of our elderly Red-tailed Hawks, Ladybird, passed away so we decided to add him to our team. We introduced him to Cloudfeather (leucistic Red-tail), and after some time the two became a bonded pair.

Jennifer Sleeman, an intern at the American Bald Eagle Foundation in Haines, Alaska, is Captain's trainer. During the academic year, she works with him on a regular basis and trains the assigned students in how to work with him as well.

When did you begin working with Captain?

I started working with Captain in February of last year when I was a student in the Wildlife as Partners in Education class. I have continued working with him ever since. This past semester I taught students how to work with Captain and present him to an audience.

What has developed in your relationship with him? 

My relationship with Captain has developed significantly since I first started working with him. Our relationship revolves around mutual trust. The first few times I held him we learned to trust each other while he was sitting on my glove. Then, we worked up to where he would allow me to evaluate his keel (chest area) to perform a health check, which consists of feeling his pectoralis muscle to assess his body condition. Throughout the fall semester I began hand-feeding Captain, which further strengthened our relationship. Captain first became comfortable with taking food from my hand, then with me being around him while he ate, and now he is perfectly content to eat his mice while on my glove. This may not seem like a big milestone, but in order for a hawk to eat they must be comfortable enough to take their gaze away from watching their surroundings, which is a big deal for a wild animal.

Positive reinforcement training has played a huge role in my relationship with Captain. This method of training focuses on giving him the choice to perform a task such as stepping up onto my glove rather than using force. If he chooses to step up onto my glove, he is rewarded with either with a piece of food or a verbal praise, and if he chooses not to, I respect his decision and there are no repercussions, not even a negative remark. As a result, all of my interactions with Captain have been positive. These positive interactions have formed the foundation of our relationship, which has grown to become quite strong.

What are your favorite times with him? 

I absolutely love every second I spend with Captain! I especially enjoy when I am able work as a team with him to share my knowledge and passion for Red-tailed Hawks with the public during presentations. In particular, I had a great time educating the public with him during the Woolly Worm Festival. I also love sitting out in the sun with him, and he really enjoys it too! 

How has he improved since you started working with him? 

Captain has improved a lot since I began working with him. Throughout the summer months and in particular, the fall semester, his training is not as consistent and he is not used in as many presentations, compared to the spring semester when he is working with new students. Therefore, it took a few additional training sessions after winter break to get him back into the swing of things. One specific aspect of his training I wanted to focus on was having him step up onto my glove from an outdoor aviary. In early January, Captain would sometimes jump away if I asked him to step up, and my goal was to work towards having him step up onto my glove contently and get used to coming out of the outdoor aviary often. For a few weeks I worked on having him step up from this outdoor cage, and I rewarded him not only with verbal praise, but also with his lunch, frozen mice I thawed out and gutted. The first few training sessions did not go quite as well as I had hoped, but I did notice small improvements over the next few weeks. These small improvements added up, and in no time he was doing very well. I can remember one specific day that I worked with Captain on this part of his training and he behaved perfectly. I was so proud of him on that day! By the time I began teaching three new students how to work with him, he made huge improvements in all aspects of his training.

What has he taught you that you can take with you on your journey away from here? 

Captain has taught me so much over the time I have worked with him. I have learned countless lessons of patience and determination from him. There have been a few times when I have gotten frustrated because a certain part of his training was not going how I had anticipated. Often the very next day, all of a sudden everything was going exactly as I imagined. It may sound cliché, but he taught me that not everything is going to go the way you expect it to, but if you have patience and give it time, it will work out. In fact, I learned quite a bit about the importance of patience from working with Captain. I had to take my time in order to earn his trust and for him to get comfortable with me. These are just a few of the lessons I learned from working with Captain that are applicable to my everyday life. Beyond life lessons, I have also learned a lot about raptor handling and training from working with Captain. I learned how to handle and care for captive raptors, including how to cope, or trim, his talons and beak with a dremel, and how to hand make his leather equipment. All of these skills will be extremely useful for me in the future, as I hope to work with captive raptors after I graduate in the upcoming fall semester. Captain has also taught me how very effective positive reinforcement training is and how worthwhile it can be. I know the organization I am interning at over the summer utilizes positive reinforcement training, so I will definitely be able to take my knowledge and experience of this training method with me. I am extremely grateful to have had the wonderful opportunity to work with such an amazing animal that has taught me as much as Captain has!

Recent Releases

Injured Great Blue Heron Defies the Odds

There is an adage in wildlife rehabilitation that says, “A down Blue is a dead Blue” – referring to the challenges inherent to restoring sick or injured Great Blue Herons back to health. In November, the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center received an injured Great Blue Heron from Hickory, North Carolina, found fluttering in the road near a fire station. Staff identified a fracture in the swollen left wing, and radiographs confirmed the severity and proximity to the wrist joint. Shortly after arrival, Lees-McRae College wildlife rehabilitation students wrapped the wing with a “figure of eight” bandage and administered pain medications and fluids. Time would tell if the trauma had caused internal injuries.

With damage so near to the joint, diligent physical therapy would be essential for the bird’s recovery. In order to return to flight, the healing of the soft tissue would be equally important as the healing of the bone. Given the enormous length of the wing (over a six-foot wingspan!), coupled with the high-stress nature of this species, staff chose gas anesthesia to facilitate complete range-of-motion exercises. Using a repurposed water bottle as an anesthesia mask, they performed physical therapy approximately once per week to prevent contracture near the injured area.

Thankfully, the Great Blue was extremely cooperative during her rehabilitation. She was quiet in her cage, left her bandages alone and was a champion eater. Thanks to the Hump Mountain Trout Farm in Elk Park, North Carolina, she had a bounty of fish to supplement mice and shrimp. 

After approximately five weeks, the bird was transferred to an outdoor enclosure – big enough to stretch her wings, but not big enough for her to fly. After acing the next recheck, she moved to a 60-foot enclosure. She climbed onto the low perches and began to glide down, exercising the wing with each movement. Regaining her strength and grace, she was soon seen flying from end to end of her flight enclosure. As soon as her stamina had returned, it was time to think about release!

Lees-McRae Wildlife Biology senior Keenan Freitas returned the Great Blue Heron to Rhodhiss Lake, near where she was injured. As soon as he opened her transport box, she took a few glances around and headed for the sky. She flew across the lake, banked right and landed near another Great Blue. 

View the beautiful release here 

Wedged Eastern Cottontail Released after Rehabilitation

Too often, wildlife get themselves stuck in predicaments that don’t end well. In the case of a fortunate Eastern Cottontail, getting stuck in a fence was not the end of the line. A good samaritan carefully removed the trapped bunny and drove her to meet rehabilitator Savannah Trantham in Asheville. From there, she made her way via a volunteer transporter to the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Banner Elk.

On arrival to the MWRC, the adult female cottontail was notably weak. When attempting to hop, her rear legs would drag behind and she could not pull them up underneath her body. Suspecting soreness and swelling from her hours-long predicament, students administered anti-inflammatory medications. They also treated for numerous fleas and removed approximately 50 variably sized ticks.

The following day, she was sitting upright but remained very dull; she was very sensitive to palpation in her neck area and her rear leg function was poor. In addition to anti-inflammatory medications, staff added acupuncture to her treatment regimen. Acupuncture is not always successful in adult rabbits, as their high-stress nature can cause extreme anxiety when restrained. With a towel draped over her head, this rabbit remained calm and quiet during the 15-minute treatment.

Within four days, the cottontail was more active and earned a transfer to a larger indoor enclosure. Although her strength was somewhat improved, she did not yet have the agility required of a rabbit to maneuver well and avoid predation. Thankfully, she enjoyed her regular offerings of mixed greens, veggies, oats and hay.

Ten days after her admission to the clinic, the rabbit was alert and reacted appropriately when handled. Since powerful and agile function of her hind limbs would be critical to her success in the wild, staff elected to evaluate her briefly in an outdoor enclosure. The slow-motion video feature on smart phones provides an invaluable tool when evaluating such crucial factors.

View her pre-release evaluation here

Looking strong and nimble, the cottontail was successfully released back to the wild later that same morning, just in time for baby season. 

Rest in Peace

The joys of working with the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center ambassadors are many, especially when you have experienced the trust gained when building a personal relationship with the animals that serve to educate. Each student who works with the ambassadors has an opportunity to have that special relationship and in many cases bond with the ambassador, and vise versa, animals bond with their human trainers. Either way sometimes we have to say goodbye as they pass over the ‘Rainbow Bridge’, which is painful for us all. We want to take the time to honor their contribution in educating thousands while here at Lees-McRae College. Each animal has a story to tell and a conservation message. For that we thank them and feel honored that they served a great purpose.

It is with great sadness that we had to say goodbye to:

  • ‘Zeus’ – Peregrine Falcon (2005–2016)
  • ‘Nod’ – Northern Saw-whet Owl (2003–2016)
  • ‘Bandit’ – Barn Owl (2015–2017)

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