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Commentary :: Environment
Earthworm Rescue - A Feel Good Activity
16 Jul 2009
Earthworm rescue can be a surprising source of good feelings for those who participate.
Earthworm Rescue
A Feel-Good Activity

Eleanor White
July 16, 2009

One of life's greatest pleasures as a retiree has been
interacting with wildlife. My article on making friends
with squirrels, for example, outlines that simple,
low-cost pursuit of pleasure:

Well, I'm now living in an area where I have no access
to squirrels or any other warm-blooded wildlife. Not a
happy situation. However, I've acquired, over the past
few years, an alertness to wildlife suffering. I also
will never forget the three horrifying two-week torture
sessions of a conscious and aware (verified by videos)
Terri Schiavo as the Pinellas County judge george greer
mandated three attempts to kill her by thirst, the last
one succeeding.

During my working career, I never gave the little
friends of the Earth, the earthworms, any thought at all.
But now being retired, and more aware of animal suffering
generally, I arrived at the point where I realized that
these dear little creatures, who do only good things for
our planet, suffer and die a terribly painful death by
thirst when they get lost on a dry sidewalk.

So the question posed itself to me: "What do you do, when
you come across a suffering animal? Do you turn your back,
or try to help?"

For me, the answer is a no-brainer - you HELP.

By the way, one of the best ways to help is to take courses
offered to those who seek to become licenced wildlife
rehabbers, even if you don't plan to go that far yourself.
Learning about wildlife is very interesting.

Locating and keeping contact information for your local
licenced wildlife rehabbers is an excellent way to prepare
for helping wildlife in trouble. Having minimum orphaned
animal transport gear with you when you drive or walk is
another good idea.

(If you can afford it, donating to local wildlife rehab
facilities is another way to help substantially. Most
rehabbers pay the full cost of their facilities, and the
costs really add up. Veterinarian services are part of
wildlife rehabilitation, for example. Check the price of
large cages, too.)

Anyway, after retirement, I began a personal program of
rescuing earthworms. It is not the most pleasant activity
in the world, however, I find that it is a fount of really
good feelings. And it costs nothing in terms of money.

And although the body language of earthworms is limited,
I like to think I see at least signs they are more
comfortable after my rescue procedures.

By the way, I've had compliments from members of the
public for doing this.


If I'm out walking, and it is actively raining to the
point where the sidewalk surface is thoroughly wet, I
don't feel obliged to rescue any earthworms, although
I usually do stoop down and set them into adjacent
grass or weeds. Over time, I find that 99.9 percent
of earthworms who are out on a fully wet sidewalk
manage to find their way off the pavement.

Once the rain stops and the sidewalk is just damp but
not actually wet, I go to work.


Triage, choosing which earthworms to rescue is very sad.
I choose to rescue earthworms who are moving, or who
may not be moving but still are supple, not stiff. There
is a sad grey area when earthworms are beginning to
stiffen from drying out, but still have some obvious
flexibility. Generally I give the benefit of the doubt
and pick up earthworms who have some degree of drying
out stiffness but are not completely stiff.

I rescue earthworms who are being attacked by ants. They
may be dead, or soon to die, but I can't tell since the
ants seem to paralyze their victims. I pick them up
anyway, and brush off the ants, because if they are
paralyzed, I want to get the ants off of them and get
them to a shady spot where their last minutes or hours
on the Earth can be as comfortable as possible.

I also rescue caterpillars who are being attacked by
ants, and garden slugs out on the pavement, as they
are in a similar situation to the stranded earthworm.


Picking up earthworms without hurting them can be
tricky, especially if they are small, and/or skinny.
For this purpose, I carry a small soup spoon. I place
the spoon's edge against the ground, almost vertically,
and gently pull the worm sideways and up on to the
concave side of the spoon. This avoids injury.

(For rescuing garden slugs, this method also reduces
the amount of gooey stuff slugs emit when picked up
getting on your hands.)


Earthworms and slugs out on the pavement in dry
conditions, virtually always except during actual rain,
are experiencing dehydration. Even if they aren't too
badly dehydrated yet, they will be very very soon, as
their bodies don't hold much water.

Along with dehydration, earthworms often pick up a
coating of sand which will prevent them from being easily
rehydrated, and even if they are returned to a lawn, that
sand coating will prevent normal absorption of nutrients.

Rehydration is their greatest immediate need. For small
worms and slugs, I place them in the palm of one hand,
and pour a small puddle of water from the half liter
drinking water bottle I carry at all times.

If an earthworm is obviously peppy and moist, I keep them
in the puddle just long enough to dissolve the sand
coating off. That takes maybe 3 minutes, during which time
I'm continuing my walk to my destination. Then I try to
find a shady spot to release the worm, and if conditions
are very dry, I may dig a slot in the soil with a spoon I
carry, gently lay them in the slot, and fill the slot with
water. The water doesn't remain long enough to drown them,
but does makes some of the nutrients in dry soil available
for osmosis through the worm's skin.

However, many earthworms have been dehydrated for some
hours, and are sluggish, obviously suffering the effects.
It is awkward to walk and keep your palm level so a
rehydration puddle stays put. Furthermore, for medium to
large earthworms, your palm isn't well suited to
rehydrating them.

So I use a 2-1/2 inch diameter clear plastic container
with a screw-on lid, illustrated at the top of this article.
This container can hold several worms and a generous amount
of water, and with the lid on, leakage is minimal and it
can be carried easily as you walk. There is no need to worry
about oxygen - sluggish worms use very little and they are
never in the rehydration tank for more than 15-20 minutes,
usually less.

When it's a long walk to a favourable worm release location,
and there are multiple worms with heavy coatings of sand to
dissolve off, I may change the water once or twice.

CAUTION: Do not leave worms in tank for extended periods.
That is why a CLEAR plastic tank is essential, to avoid
forgetting them.

Obviously, worms rescued from puddles don't need rehydration.
I do try to place them in a shady area favourable to their
best health.


Because adequate hydration is extremly important for tiny
creatures who can only carry a limited supply of internal
water, I put effort into finding places where a rescued
worm will have the best chance of survival, or if in the
process of dying, at least being comfortable.

In my current location, the lawns are generally terrible
for earthworm survival. They are gravelly and bony (lots of
rocks), have very little humus (organic material) content,
and dry out almost immediately after the rain stops. Even
if a worm is found in front of such a lawn, I will carry
it to a better location. Simply placing it on a dried out
gravelly lawn is just a longer death by thirst.

So I look for areas that have at least some humus, are
shaded, and ideally in an area known for more than average
moisture. Depressions along property lines, with shade
trees are good candidates.

I don't know if evergreens make the soil unfriendly to
earthworms, but I've noticed over my lifetime that
earthworms aren't found near stands of evergreen, so I
avoid placing rescued worms near evergreens.

I try to avoid places with ant populations, and of course
places with heavy foot traffic.

Because such locations are widely spaced along my walking
routes, the time it takes to reach them is put to good use
because it gives the worm(s) in the rehydration tank a
chance to absorb more water.


When I get to the chosen point of release, I try to find
a clump of rich grass growth, indicating good moisture and
soil nutrients. I work my hand down through the grass and
open a small patch where the soil itself is exposed. The
surrounding vegetation provides some protection against
the earthworm's enemies - sunlight and wind.

I place each worm, one at a time, on the area of exposed
soil. It's important, I feel, to ensure they are not
jumbled together, as there is the risk that their natural
mucosal coatings may glue them together.

If the soil is dry, I will dig down a bit, trying to find
moister soil. Unless the soil is noticably moist, after I
place the worms in the open soil area, I apply a generous
amount of water. That gives them a final drink, and makes
some soil nutrients readily available for the earthworms
to pick up through their skin.

Finally, I gently cover the open area with grass and leaves.
That is to minimize the dehydrating effects of the sun and
wind. I do not cover them with soil, as a dehydrated worm
is typically weakened. A good covering of grass and leaves,
and the soil having been wetted, gives them the best chance
of survival, or, reasonable comfort for their last minutes
or hours of life.


Although I live in relatively cool Ontario, Canada, my
earthworm rescue season has sometimes extended as early as
late March, and as late as mid-November. I find that these
northern earthworms can be just as peppy and flip around as
quickly as a small warm blooded animal can. (I don't
remember earthworms in more southern locations moving so

I find that they try to jump out of my hand at first, but
when they feel that puddle of (blessed) water, they relax
and take full advantage of the welcome relief from thirst!
They do seem to recognize that they are suddenly better off
than they were a minute ago.

Is it worth the hassle? Absolutely! The feeling of helping
suffering wildlife is wonderful!

This work is in the public domain
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