Kids get an up-close look at wildlife

By Ryan Cornell

STRASBURG — Grayson isn’t potty trained, and her stage fright didn’t help things on Wednesday.

In front of a packed audience of children at the Strasburg Community Library, the broad-winged hawk cocked its head back and forth and expelled a Cheeto-sized pellet from its beak.

The pellet bounced off the carpeting of the library’s reading room and was nearly covered in the bird’s poop seconds later.

An “education ambassador” at the Wildlife Center of Virginia, Grayson was one of three animals who starred in Wednesday’s summer reading program presentation.

Chapin Hardy, an outreach coordinator from the center, said these pellets are formed when a bird such as Grayson eats its prey and cannot digest the hair and feathers. Eventually, the pellet is coughed up like a hairball.

She said she travels across the commonwealth presenting to kids — the Waynesboro-based wildlife center does hundreds of presentations each year — but witnessing the hawk upchuck a pellet was something of a rare treat.

“That doesn’t always happen,” Hardy said. “That’s actually the first time she’s done that with me.”

Hardy described the center as a hospital for native Virginia wildlife.

By introducing three animals — a turtle, an opossum and the hawk — and the stories of how they arrived at the center, Hardy taught kids the negative consequences of littering, which brings animals to unsafe areas like roadways.

“The number one cause of admission [into the center] for wildlife is getting hit by a car, and most of the time they get hit by a car because people have been littering,” Hardy said. “Another top one is being an orphan, and a lot of the time, it’s because a parent has been hit by a car.”

She said she spotted a number of orange peels, banana peels and cheeseburger wrappers on the side of the road while driving up to Strasburg on Wednesday.

“A lot of times, people think, ‘Oh, this will be a nice treat for wildlife,’ and yes, it’s a treat, but you want to think about what it’s actually doing: it’s bringing them to an unsafe area, and they’re honestly not going to be eating an orange peel in the wild,” she said. “It’s pretty unfortunate, but it’s a simple, simple fix.”

Hardy said Grayson was found as a young bird who had fallen out of her nest and had broken her wing.

Wilson, an Eastern box turtle, was another animal in her presentation. Hardy said Wilson’s shell had been painted completely purple when she first arrived at the center, and workers spent weeks scrubbing his shell using a tiny toothbrush to remove the paint.

But it was Thelma, a Virginia opossum, who stole the show, yawning at the audience and flashing her 50 teeth.

Opossums are “tick-eating machines” who can eat up to 5,000 ticks in one year, said Hardy.

She said Thelma came to the center as a baby after her mother had been run over by a car. Hardy said a woman took care of the opossum but ended up making Thelma too friendly toward humans to be released back into the wild.

Ethan Garcia, 6, said his favorite part of the presentation was seeing the tick-eating opossum.

He said he doesn’t like ticks because they carry lots of diseases.

In addition to learning about an opossum’s diet, Ethan said he learned about how bad it is to litter.

The Wildlife Center of Virginia uses 24 animals, including owls, eagles and snakes, to educate children. According to its website, more than 65,000 wild animals have been treated by the center since it formed in 1982.

For more information, visit wildlifecenter.org.

Contact staff writer Ryan Cornell at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rcornell@nvdaily.com