You probably saw the “turtle” photo in the paper. I just wanted to point out that my new SEEK app (thanks for your recommendation!) IDs the creature as a red-footed tortoise. I assume some pet owner released this guy in the Fort Williams area, but what are its chances of survival?

– Michael Kelley

We heard from a few people who noticed a photo that ran in “Your Turn” in the Oct. 18 Outdoors section of the Maine Sunday Telegram captioned, “You expect to see many different dogs on the trail at Fort Williams, but a turtle? But here he was, taking a walk.” Sure enough, as Michael masterfully identified using the SEEK app, the photo showed a red-footed tortoise. Their native range spans from Panama south to Argentina, but they find themselves as pets across the world.

My hope is that this tortoise is an escaped pet and that the owner saw the photo and was able to recapture it. However, the idea of a tortoise “running” away seems unlikely. Unfortunately, we know that a lot of pets are “released” into the wild when their novelty wears off. Pets like red-footed tortoises can live over 30 years in captivity. African gray parrots, another common pet, can last well over 50 years and often longer than their original owners. We’ve had pets, from roosters to floppy-eared bunnies, and even famously a three-foot alligator, in April 2006, dropped off at Maine Audubon’s Gilsland Farm in Falmouth.

While Gilsland Farm is a “wildlife sanctuary,” it is important to note that when you remove the “wild” from wildlife, those animals shouldn’t be released into the wild for a few reasons. Here’s why: First, any animal that is domesticated, or even just habituated to humans, probably doesn’t have the skills (typically learned from a natural parent) or abilities to survive in the wild. Finding food is tough, especially when you’ve never done it on your own, and avoiding becoming food, especially when you’ve never had to worry about predators, is even tougher. It is worth noting that the domestic cat is one of the only pets that has been able to survive on its own following its human-caused spread around the world, as evidenced by cats killing more than 2.6 billion birds each year in the U.S. and Canada.

The environment a pet is being released into is another huge factor against its survival. Not only do the animals lack the survival instincts they’d have fine-tuned growing up in the wild, they may lack physical adaptations needed to survive in a new environment, especially in Maine’s temperate climate which, to the detriment of even native animals, gets pretty cold in winter. The great black hawk of 2018-19 is a good example of a non-native species that wasn’t adapted to survive Maine’s winter; it eventually succumbed to freezing temperatures. The important thing to note with the hawk is it was a naturally occurring vagrant, here of its own free will, versus a pet that should never have made it to Maine’s outdoors unaccompanied by an owner.

If you encounter an animal that you think needs help, here are a few suggestions:

1) Know what it is. I’m proud of Michael for using the SEEK app to identify the tortoise. This free app can fairly reliably identify almost any living thing you point your phone’s camera at. We don’t need more headlines about “man rescues lost dog, learns it’s actually a coyote after being attacked.”

2) Contact a professional. If you find an animal that needs help, either a wild one or an escaped pet, you should contact a professional immediately and not try to help on your own. The diet or other needs of the animal can be very unique and humans can do more harm than good when uninformed decisions are made. When in doubt, contact a Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologist or game warden, or a licensed wildlife rehabilitator like those at the Center for Wildlife in Cape Neddick.

WELCOME TO THE NEIGHBORHOOD

I am looking at my tray feeder and nyjer feeder, as well as the ground below, which all together are full of a flock of pine siskins, probably 30 strong. This is a life-list bird for me! While that might be less exciting or remarkable for you, I just wanted to let you know about them, and ask if I should expect them to be around for a while – they’re going to eat me out of house and home!

– Sue Farris, Gray

It seems almost everyone in Maine with bird feeders has seen pine siskins in October! These small finches, resembling dull goldfinches with dark streaks all over their bodies, are an irruptive species that we typically only see in Maine when spruce cone crops are low across the boreal forest. You can think of an irruption as a type of migration where instead of going from point A (wintering grounds) to point B (breeding grounds), and back and forth, the species needs to go to point C temporarily because some resource, typically food, is scarce. This is basically the same reason we see snowy owls in Maine; they are common in some winters when there is an irruption, and scarce in others when there is not.

The irruption of pine siskins in Maine this fall is likely to subside as winter sets in. Doug Hitchcox photo

The big increase in pine siskins we are seeing right now will probably subside as winter sets in and most will continue south, though we will probably see them around in small numbers throughout the winter. The most interesting thing to me of this year’s irruption is how quickly the psychology of bird watchers changed, from an excited: “Wow, I haven’t seen siskins in years” when they first arrived, to a negative: “When will these things leave?” after a couple of weeks. We often hear from people that remember the large flocks of evening grosbeaks that used to descend on feeders in winters in the 1980s and ’90s. They miss the “beautiful” birds but always seem to forget about their voracious appetite! Siskins and grosbeaks can empty a well-stocked feeder station in a single day. As I write this, we are getting the first reports of common redpolls coming south as well.

With many finches coming south right now, it is likely to be a great winter for activity at bird feeders. It may be a bit expensive to keep up with their appetites but most of these are species we don’t see that often, so I recommend enjoying them to the fullest while they are around! And maybe only fill the feeder half way each day if they are becoming a nuisance.

Do you have a nature question for Doug? Email questions to [email protected] and visit maineaudubon.org to learn more about virtual and backyard birding, online classes and other programs about wildlife and habitat.


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