Wayward wildlife dodge ravages of winter
Winter usually is a slow season for a wildlife rehabilitator, Phyllis Carlson said.
The year’s crop of new babies usually hasn’t begun to emerge, except for a few rare early nesters such as great horned owls. Much of the region’s normal bird population has gone south. Animals still get injured, of course, but in winter are less likely to be found by a human before a predator comes across them or they succumb to the elements.
But this year has been different. For starters, Carlson doesn’t often get a call about a muskrat in a chicken coop.
Seems a man living on a farm on Trader Mine Road was gathering eggs from the family’s hens, feeling around the straw, when he touched something warm and furry, Carlson said.
While the first instinct was to evict the intruder, the man considered the distance the muskrat must have traveled to end up huddled among the chickens — and the extreme cold and deep snow it would face trying to find its way back — and let the aquatic rodent remain.
They would have tolerated the squatter until winter relented and it went on its way, except the chickens began to signal their displeasure with the new roommate by not laying. So they called wildlife biologist Monica Joseph at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources office in Crystal Falls, who called Carlson.
Basil the muskrat — named after the main character in the animated film, “The Great Mouse Detective” — for now is comfortable at Carlson’s home in Quinnesec, enjoying timothy hay, gerbil mix, carrots and sweet potatoes. “The stores,” she noted, “just don’t seem to sell cattail and water lily roots.”
Muskrats normally den up during winter in “houses” built with vegetation and mud, or in burrows dug in banks along wetlands, according to the Minnesota DNR. Unlike their beaver cousins, however, muskrats do not store much food, so must venture out on most days to find fresh plants, the DNR’s website states.
Perhaps this one was in an area that had become depleted, or the extreme cold had locked its home in too much ice, forcing it to go roaming. Or, as Carlson suspects, it simply got lost and turned around while foraging in one of the snowstorms and ended up at the farm.
This one got lucky to take refuge at a place where the first instinct wasn’t to get rid of it.
And Basil’s not the only winter guest at Carlson’s home. In fact, the muskrat might not even be the most interesting story among the growing menagerie.
Arcturus the flying squirrel, after all, managed to land on a woman’s head while being chased around by her husband after it got into an area home.
“After all,” Carlson noted in a Facebook post, “if a giant male beast is chasing you, we all know we should seek the safety of the female of the species, since they tend to be the gentler sex and more nurturing!”
Again, the people showed restraint and not only didn’t freak when it made the frantic jump into the woman’s hair, but did not toss it out into the cold, where it likely would have perished, Carlson said.
Flying squirrels do have the advantage of rating high on the cuteness meter — their nocturnal habits mean they have large, dark eyes that give them something of a Disney look — so it’s not so surprising the humans would show mercy once everything calmed down.
Flying squirrels often nest in attics, Carlson explained, so she guesses that’s how this one worked its way indoors.They nest together in winter to keep warm, and have caches of food for winter, she said.
Having no way to return it to wherever the rest of its clan might be, Carlson will keep the flying squirrel — which doesn’t really fly but glides on skin flaps stretched between front and back legs — at her home until spring as well.
Rounding out Carlson’s winter tenants is Olaf, another gray tree frog turned over to Carlson after being found on a house plant brought indoors when the seasons turned, as happened last winter as well. He has a terrarium to himself that is regularly stocked with crickets.
As Carlson terms it, “Welcome to Phyllis’s Winter Haven for Wayward Wildlife.”
While few signs of spring are readily apparent in our region, Friday technically was the start of the meteorological spring. It’ll feel a little better when clocks turn forward next weekend, putting sunset just before 7 p.m.
And if on cue, some of the first migratory birds are showing up in downstate Michigan and Wisconsin.
The online birding site eBird reported “a pulse of sightings in southeastern Wisconsin since Feb. 22, when warm southwesterly winds ushered in the vanguard of migrants looking to scoop up prime breeding habitat. Most of the sandhill cranes returning to Wisconsin winter in Florida.”
Sandhill cranes, the site explained, are able to handle being in the north as long as the snow isn’t too deep for too long; often they are among the later birds to migrate. Some of them even may remain through the winter if conditions allow.
It’s doubtful they’ll come this far until we lose some of the record snow the region received in February. But it’s good to hear even a little indication that spring is on the way.
Betsy Bloom can be reached at 906-774-2772, ext. 40, or email@example.com.