Friday, June 25, 2010

Wildlife education -- part 2

(continued from yesterday's report)

A Virginia opossum – the only marsupial in America and an animal that was around with the dinosaurs – was the third animal introduced. Because she has brain damage, she probably couldn’t survive in the wild. Rakos-Yates did some rumor busting here: first, opossums really don’t hang by their tails; nor do they “play possum.” Faced with a predator, they actually faint from fear, and in the process vomit and relieve themselves. Altogether, they become wholly unappetizing to save their own lives.

Last came a red-tailed hawk, a majestic and scary creature who looked like much more than her estimated three pounds. (She can pick up about twice her weight, though – so squirrels beware.)

New Jersey has lots of these hawks, who like the flat open land that makes food-finding easier. Because this hawk may have been “human imprinted” as a fledgling and therefore can’t or won’t leave humans and their food alone, she must be kept from the wild, where she could hurt or be hurt.

Except for the hawk, who in nature would be diurnal, the animals were nocturnal. The carnivorous screech owl would depend mainly on her hearing to hunt, and special feathers allow her to fly very quietly so her prey can’t hear her coming.

An omnivore, the skunk had nails that showed why digging for grubs is a common way to feed. Spraying is her only protection, although contrary to belief, her first warning is stomping her feet. Then she turns around and looks over her shoulder at a predator, and then if necessary, she lifts her tail and sprays.

The opossum, a carnivore and scavenger, keeps her offspring in her pouch – which Rakos-Yates declined to show the children. “We must be respectful of her,” she explained.

Hawks are not the birds we often see soaring in big circles, she told them. That would be vultures – the only birds with a sense of smell. Hawks and other birds migrate south in winter not for the warmer weather – their feathers keep them cool in summer and warm in winter - but because of the plentiful food still available in warm places.

All told, this was in fact “an education session.”

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