Creatures under rocks and in the skies: Help for hellbenders and birds


Here’s a question for the anglers in the family: Have you ever hooked a long, slimy, four-legged creature while fishing on a clear, cool, cobble-bottomed stream or river?

It was an eastern hellbender, the largest salamander in North America.

Hellbenders spend most of their daylight hours under large flat rocks on rocky stream bottoms. At night they emerge to dine on crayfish, about 90 percent of their diet, and other small aquatic creatures. This is when anglers are most likely to hook a hellbender.

They are completely harmless, so remove the hook immediately and release the hellbender.

Figure it out

Identification is easy. Hellbenders males measure 17 inches and females are up to 21 inches, and the body seems wrapped in flabby folds of skin.

The eyes are small, beady, and positioned on top of the head.

Though larval hellbenders have conspicuous external gills, adults retain only a pair of gill slits on the sides of the head.

Hellbenders transform from the larval form to adult at 18 to 24 months of age, but they don’t breed until they are 5 or 6 years old.


Mudpuppies or waterdogs are the only species that might be confused with hellbenders, but they are typically less than 12 inches long, and adults retain conspicuous external gills.

In September, males scoop a shallow nest depression under a large flat rock on the stream bed and when a female enters, she lays up to 400 eggs in long, bead-like strands.

The male fertilizes the eggs as the female releases them, then he chases the female away and tends the nest. The eggs hatch in 60 to 87 days.


Hellbender populations face many challenges. They are seldom seen, they reproduce slowly, and they face habitat deterioration due to chemical pollution, acid mine drainage and siltation from mining, logging and road construction.

Field research is essential to determine the population status and distribution of the species.

Joe Greathouse, curator of animals at the Good Zoo in Wheeling, W.Va., has been studying and counting hellbenders in West Virginia since 2005.

He has learned that they don’t wander far from home and seem unable to cross stretches of silty stream bottoms. Perhaps with no rocks to hide under, they are simply easy prey for predators.

Greathouse values input from anglers.

“Since word of this study got out, I’ve received many calls from fishermen,” he said. “If anyone sees or catches a hellbender anywhere in West Virginia, Ohio, or Pennsylvania, I’d like to hear about it.”

His phone number at the Good Zoo is 304-243-4029.

Migratory birds

According to the American Bird Conservancy, each spring, some 5 billion birds of 500 different species make their spectacular migration from their winter habitats in Latin America to breed in North America.

These birds face many threats, in particular the continuing loss of habitat across the hemisphere.

Many of these birds are experiencing significant population declines. Several species, such as the Cerulean Warbler, have declined by as much as 70 percent since the 1960s.

You can help by doing one simple thing: support the reauthorization of the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act.

It is the only source of federal funding dedicated specifically to bird conservation throughout the Americas.

It is an extremely effective matching grants program that coordinates and funds the conservation of neotropical migratory birds and their habitats in the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean.

It has a proven track record of reversing habitat loss and degradation, and of advancing innovative management and habitat restoration strategies.


This act is now up for reauthorization in Congress, and thanks to a bipartisan bill (H.R. 5756), sponsored by U.S. Representatives Ron Kind (D-WI) and Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD), funding could be dramatically increased from the current $6 million to $20 million.

All grants made by this act must be matched by other funds at a ratio of 3:1, meaning every single tax-payer dollar from the act leverages $3 from private sources.

Overall, the program could leverage some $60 million in additional funding for bird conservation.

At, you can learn more and easily send a message to your representative requesting support for this bill. Please do.


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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at or contact him directly at or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.



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