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Dry weather wilting feathered and furry, too

Birds and wild animals are going hungry and thirsty as the record drought continues without any relief on the near horizon.

Some might call Esther Rhodes an eccentric, others a bleeding heart.

But while most of Hernando County's residents have become fixated on their dying lawns during the area's drought, the wildlife rescuer has focused on the animals who are suffering.

Each day, she puts out more than 20 feeders and watering areas on her 1-acre lot on Oakley Island, attracting such visitors as raccoons, owls, the occasional possum and flocks of songbirds.

"Everything is so dry. Right now, the animals are coming to the house because they don't have anything to eat or drink," said Rhodes, who rehabilitates injured and sick animals for a living. "It's like a zoo here at night."

Although biologists say local wildlife is not in imminent danger from the drought, dry weather _ the driest spring on record, in fact _ is putting the squeeze on them, reducing their sources of food and water. And conditions might worsen.

Although meteorologists have predicted more rain for the area this summer, the drought will continue because an expected heat wave will evaporate much of the moisture before it can help crops and replenish water supplies, the government said this week.

That makes Rhodes all the more concerned. Already, she said, she has found the carcasses of three raccoons she suspects died of starvation and of thirst. She had a veterinarian do a necropsy on one of the animals, confirming her suspicion.

"They're just dying," she said.

Wildlife enthusiasts say residents can ease animals' search for nourishment by putting pans of water on their lawns. An added benefit of helping the animals, said members of the Hernando Audubon Society, is the large number of birds residents can attract for their own enjoyment.

"The birds are getting stressed (because) it's dried up tremendously," said Dave Wilson, a member of the Audubon Society. "If you can't keep your hose running, put out a pot or pan."

The drought is especially tough on the variety of migratory birds on their way north, Audubon Society bird specialist Bill Pranty said. Dozens of species make the 30-hour flight each April and May from Mexico and South America across the Gulf of Mexico. Other local birds have an easier time, simply flying to whatever local source of water still exists.

Even those residents who don't particularly care to attract critters to their lawn might want to leave out water, added Jim Varn, supervisor of Animal Services for Hernando County.

He said his office has already received complaints of raccoons trying to break through screened porches in an effort to get to swimming pools. Varn said setting out a pan of water far from the house could save homeowners a big headache.

"This would prevent (raccoons) from tearing through screens," Varn said. "One of my officers recommended a family put out a pan, and they haven't had any more problems."

At the same time, Rhodes and Varn caution that anyone who has deep reservoirs of water, such as watering troughs, makes sure that any small animals, which might be coming to them for water, have a way out. Varn said he used a branch to create a makeshift "ladder" in his cows' watering troughs after he found two drowned squirrels in them.

"Let's not worry so much about the grass," he said "and worry about the animals."

_ Times staff writers Josh Zimmer and Chase Squires contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press.