Monthly Archives: February 2016

That duck.

I recently had a heartwarming experience that most of us can probably share in some fashion. I was walking the beach with friends and I found a weak, injured duck with a neck wound from a shot gun pellet. Duck season was full underway so it was not entirely unexpected to find such an injured duck.Scaup

My personal religion does not forbid hunting. However it is considered incumbent on Jews to avoid hunting for sport. Hunting for survival or when domestic raised meat is not available is acceptable. When we hunt, or have any kind of interactions with animals, we are also supposed to avoid causing an animal any unnecessary injury or pain. We are supposed to do what we can to help an animal in trouble if we can. All the creatures of the earth share in the spark of life with the Creator and should be treated with respect and consideration.

That being said I have nothing against hunting per se. I am an old style environmentalist and I support habitat preservation above all other ecological endeavours. Those who favour hunting as their sport tend to put significant effort and resources into preserving large areas of natural habitat. One only has to look at the acres of forests in northern Florida set aside for pheasant hunting or follow the work of organizations like Duck’s Unlimited to see supporting hunting is supporting the environment. The other thing I really like about hunters is that in all my years of environmentalist efforts, I have never had to try to convince a hunter that animals don’t live in lovely suburban style parks gambolling about like happy cartoon characters in a typical animated and disgustingly anthropomorphosed movie for children. Hunters know nature is harsh and demanding and that most animals don’t make it past their equivalent of infancy and childhood and old age is a rare thing that never extends to infirmity. I also value people more than animals and I have noticed large predatory animals such as alligators and bears will lose their fear of people if they are not hunted. Better to hunt a few and have them all afraid than to have them hunting us. Finally in areas where we have disrupted nature by doing things like killing off wolves, we must be willing to step into the vacated niche and become the apex predator. For example, hunting is required to keep populations of deer in many areas at levels where they don’t destroy all the vegetation and they all starve over winter. Starvation is a far worse way to die than a well placed gunshot, not to mention all the plants that are destroyed when overburdened by herbivores.

So it was with mixed feelings that I scooped up the little duck and checked him.  The duck was not mortally injured. It had a wounded neck that was actually healing nicely but the injury had made it unable to preen. This meant the water proof layer on the outer feathers was not working properly because the duck had been unable to move oil along all the feathers. The result was the poor thing was really wet and as a result really cold. What should have been soft warm down was wet gunk against a chilled body. The duck’s feet were icy cold, something I know they do anyway to preserve body heat, but this seemed far colder than even that should be. It was also acting stupid and confused, which is common with hypothermia. We were heading into another below freezing night so I knew the duck would be dead of hypothermia by morning if I did nothing. On the one hand, duck season was still going on and ducks were dying all up and down this coastal area and that is the way it is. There is no much point being upset about one duck. On the other hand, here is one injured animal, suffering and in pain. Silly to put so much effort into one animal while others were dying but I decided this one animal could be helped now and I would do it. Our host knew of an injured wildlife refuge that could take the duck and so off we went.

I was not equipped to deal with the wound or hunger or anything like that. I could fix the hypothermia. We put the duck in a grocery bag so he had just his head out and then I help him against my chest tucked inside my coat. We had a 40 minute drive to the Florida Wild Mammal Association during which I observed closely as the bird warmed. At first the poor bed struggled and tried to get free. I spoke to him soothingly and held him close and he eventually settled. I am not sure if birds respond to soothing voices but he either gave up  fighting because he was too worn out or because he decided I was not going to eat him. He settled in a position designed to ease his wounded neck and then rested, his eyes closing for a few minutes and then popping open to stare and then going back to dozing. He also let out a kind of sigh sound and snuggled closer. After about 20 minutes he began to warm up and sleep for longer periods. As we got near to our destination I could feel his little feet were finally warm and since I wanted to avoid overheating him, I loosened my hold on him and removed some of the layers over him. He woke up completely and began watching things fly by out the window. Now ducks are certainly used to flying fast but what might a duck’s mind have made of traveling in a car looking out the car window at 55 mph?

We arrived at our destination and one of the volunteers there took him from me. He was looking much better. He certainly flapped around a lot more. She gave him a quick check and pronounced him as almost healed from the neck wound but skinny and weak from being unable to eat properly. She promised they would keep him safe and warm until he was fully healed and feed him and get his weight back to where it should be. I left confident the duck was in good hands. My husband slipped her the $40 cash we had on us because we know animal rescue is never cheap.

After we got back home we looked up ducks and discovered he was a lesser scaup. This is common diving duck but for reasons unknown scaups have been in a decline. The lesser scaup is currently classified as a Species of  Least Concern by the IUCN. If the decline continues that may change.Saving one little male was probably a good thing.

Wildlife rescues are often criticized because an enormous amount of time and money goes into rescuing a few animals who may well have been among the stupid or weak. Wouldn’t that money be better spent buying habitat or something? There have been many studies about this question and they generally conclude the same thing.

Allowing people to interact directly with injured animals develops a sense of stewardship for wildlife which may foster community involvement in local habitat protection and conservation (Tribe & Brown 2000, Feck & Hamann 2013). Additionally, the release of rehabilitated turtles can have important public educational benefits (Tribe & Brown 2000, Cardona et al. 2012, Mestre et al. 2014) because such opportunities are often advertised widely as media events to raise awareness of the threats facing wildlife. Although this may not contribute to conservation directly (in terms of population growth), continuing to rehabilitate these animals in facilities that are open to the public likely contributes to conservation in other ways, by facilitating a widespread understanding of the causes and nature of wildlife injuries. The public can also use this knowledge to place political pressure on decision makers in a context where conservation measures are known, feasible and available, but not implemented because of lack of will by those responsible. Edwards, Baker and Pike, 2015

And the duck was okay.

Two weeks later he flew out of the cardboard box and made his escape back to the dangerous beautiful world where he belongs. These ducks nest in the area around our Manitoba home so it might well be that I will even see him again back home. Certainly, whenever I see a lesser scaup, I will wonder if its him.


Interacting with Octopuses

Common octopus (Octopus vulgaris) at Gulf Specimen Marine Lab and Aquarium.

Common octopus (Octopus vulgaris) at Gulf Specimen Marine Lab and Aquarium. Photo part of the Joel Sartore PhotoArk collection and used with permission.


One of the fun things at Gulf Specimen Marine Lab is they occasionally have octopus. There are several species of octopuses (being a Greek root word the plural is octopuses not octopi) and one normally found in the Panacea area is the common octopus (Octopus vulgaris). There is not a lot known about this fascinating creature but they do seem to possess intelligence and an ability to react to their environment beyond what we would normally consider to a mollusk to be capable of.

The octopus begins life as a carefully tended eggs washed with constant fresh flowing water by its mother. The egg hatches and the mystery begins. The baby octopus is very squid like in appearance. The mystery is what happens next. The tiny octopus vanishes from view and the younger stages of the organism are almost unknown. In spite of numerous attempts there are almost no successful culturing of these babies. They must have very specific dietary and environmental needs. I suspect they likely make their home in the sargassum sea weed beds much like young turtles do.

At some point they are big enough and have attained an adult form and they make their home on the bottom of the Gulf. They often learn how to raid crab traps and that is how the typically end up at Gulf Specimen Marine Lab. Local crabbers will pull up their trap and the octopus inside is unable to make its escape before the crab trap is up. Often the octopus are injured. The crabber then delivers the octopus to GSML.

Octopus have a short life span. Within a year they die. The octopus at GSML present a fascinating opportunity to observe this intelligent animal in action. I have two personal stories of the octopus of my own.

The first was a smaller male octopus who for some inexplicable reason appeared to take a fancy to me. I wanted to make sure that none of my interactions were about food and so I never fed the octopus nor was present when the person doing the feeding was there. I would come into the lab when a new octopus arrived and talk to them and wave. They would initially be very shy but after a period of not being harmed, they begin to relax and get curious about their surroundings. This little guy, after getting over his initial fright. reacted to the sight of me with appeared to be happy joyful recognition. He was far more interested in me than in any other person on staff. I think I know why. One day I bent over the water and he reached up and tied to grab my hair. So I lowered it down below the water and let him grab a lock. His reaction was astonishing.

After feeling the hair he flushed red, the colour they take before the fight, and he swam away. He was in a huff. From that day forward he refused to interact with me. If he was out visiting with tourists he would spot me and swim as fast as he good to the other side. What did I do? I think I offended him. I think he thought my long hair was some kind of tentacle and he was trying to communicate to me the way octopuses do by reaching and touching tentacles. I cheated and lied about who I was. That octopus never got over his huff. I have seen other octopuses get offended. One time a boy was commenting how ugly octopuses are, how disgusting, and the octopus responded by squirted him right in the face with a well place stream of water. The other octopuses soon learned how to do it as well and that year visitors got squirted on a regular basis. They learn by observation.


My second encounter was even stranger. In the wild octopuses decorate their caves with coloured shells, bright objects, and pretty rocks. In an effort to observe this behaviour we offered the octopuses a whole variety of things to play with. They had opportunities to play with beads, marbles, pool balls, and toys of all descriptions. One of the toys was a small plastic octopus. This bright red toy octopus resulted in many frenzied battles and a lot of theft and stealthy retrievals. They all wanted it and they all wanted it in front of their own home.

In order to check their reaction I purchased a variety of other toys and among them was a toy giraffe. I presented the toy giraffe and octopus took it and examined it very carefully and then very obviously and deliberately handed it back. If I were to put it into words I would say “No thank you, not interested in that.” While a tiny red octopus toy practically caused a war, the giraffe was just boring.

I wish I could say I figured them out. I didn’t. They are fascinating. They are intelligent. They adapt and learn and interact. But we don’t speak octopus and they haven’t learned to speak back. Someday….