Appalachian Spring

American robin

[Reprint from March 2011].

Walking in the rain near the central drill field on campus earlier this week, I happened upon the beginning of a mid-afternoon rehearsal for the arrival of spring. The American Robin Ballet Company had taken their places on the lawn, dark taupe cloaks and carmine waistcoats vivid against the pale green and buff turf. They appeared frozen in place, waiting for the orchestra’s opening chords. Then all at once they began to move, not in sync but each using the same choreography.

Step… step… step… then a brief, brisk run… pliérelevé. Repeat.

Adagio (step… step… step)… allegro (step,step,step)… pliérelevé.  Repeat.

bird skeletonActually, if you think about it, it’s natural to see robins and other songbirds as dancers. For one thing, they are almost always on at least demi pointe—what you and I might call our tippy-toes. That’s because what we think of as the bird’s foot is actually only toes, and what we might initially think of as the knee is actually the ankle.

But for the corps de ballet in this show, function is as important as form. It may look like a dance but in fact it’s a hunt… or a very stylish way to shop for groceries. Take your pick.

The appearance of robins is considered by many to signal the arrival of spring; however, in some parts of North America robins are year-round residents. In winter they may form enormous nighttime roosts of over a hundred thousand individual birds. There is strength—and warmth—in numbers.

In spring and summer, after pairs have formed for pas de deux, males and females participate in the care and feeding of their offspring. However, females sleep on the nest, warming eggs or nestlings, while the males continue to gather each evening to sleep at the roost. As young robins gain their independence, they leave the nest and join the males at night.Robins are territorial, but unlike many birds, males are more protective of their mate and nest site than of feeding grounds, which often overlap. So while cardinals and even hummingbirds are known for aggressive intra-species defense of food resources, it’s not unusual to see groups of red-breasted dancers on a single grassy stage, even at the height of breeding season, and especially during winter, with its unpredictable weather and food supply.

When a robin stops suddenly, stands stock still, cocks its head to one side, dips slightly, then rises for another series of steps, the audience may assume the bird is listening intently. But ornithologists believe robins are actually looking for signs of digging that reveal the location of a worm.

They—the birds, not the ornithologists (well, maybe some of the ornithologists)—also consume other invertebrates, such as snails and insects, and a wide variety of wild fruits. Exactly the kind of high-protein, high-fiber, low-fat diet ballerinas and danseurs need to remain light on their feet. I could almost hear Martha Graham calling out…

Places everyone… and five, six, seven, eight… GRAND JETÉ!

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© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author. The cover photo is by Di Qiu (CCL); the bird skeleton drawing, from Illustrations of Zoology by W Ramsay Smith and J S Newell (1889), is in the public domain; the snowy robins are by Ingrid Taylar (CCL).

Froggy goes a-courtin’

wood frog

.[Reprint from February 2011]

My mole Tboy (mole as in spy, not insectivore) tells me Valentine’s Day has its intended effect on the wood frog population in southwestern Virginia. Mid-February is when the first early-bird males usually appeared at area ponds, floating patiently in anticipation. Within a few days the gene pool is getting crowded, and the boys are warming up for karaoke and the start of happy hour. Once the ladies arrive and joint be jumpin’!

The watering holes have been silent for the last few months. Winter is a time for amphibians to lie low. Really low. Aquatic frogs hibernate on or partially submerge in the mud at the bottom of ponds and lakes. Terrestrial frogs, including the wood frog, hibernate on land. Some burrow down below the frost line, but wood frogs are not adept diggers so they seek out crevices in rocks, crawl beneath a log, or just huddle in the leaf litter.  Their hibernacula don’t always make for cozy inglenooks. When the temperatures drop below freezing, so do the wood frogs. But not to worry—wood frogs have what it takes to best Old Man Winter.

Antifreeze.

No, I’m not talking about well drinks. A high concentration of glucose keeps a frog’s vital organs from freezing, so even though the animal may stop breathing and doesn’t have a heartbeat, it’s not dead. As soon as things heat up again, the frog thaws and life goes on.

wood frogs in amplexis

Wood frogs in amplexis—male is on top (Photo: Richard Bonnett, Creative Commons license)

The wood frog club scene is cool. That’s because it usually begins in late winter, sometimes before the ice has disappeared from vernal reproduction pools. The whole rave lasts for about two weeks. A female steps onto the dance floor—I mean into the water—and a male grabs her and holds on tight. The process is called amplexis. That’s Latin for embrace. Yeah… kind of like the way sumo wrestlers embrace.  Because once the male has her in his arms, he’s not letting go without a lot of… persuasion. Sometimes not even then.

The process is highly competitive and not without hazards. “Satellite” males hang out beyond the water’s edge so they can grab a gal while she’s in transit. In this way, he avoids jostling with the boys at the pool while also scoring a ride to the party. Male wood frogs are stimulated by movement so they;re not always discriminating about who they grab. Sometimes it’s the wrong species of frog, and sometimes several males will grab the same female, which can cause her to be squeezed to death or drown. Club life has its ugly side, too.
wood frog egg masses
But, assuming there aren’t any bar brawls, the female will lay large masses of 1500+ eggs, choosing a site where they receive sunlight and protection from predators. When she releases her eggs, the male—who has been waiting for this opportunity and is now in the perfect position—fertilizes them with a sperm-containing fluid and soon the eggs begin to develop.wood frog metamorphosing

Eventually, the tadpoles hatch and begin their metamorphosis, absorbing the nutrient reserves in their tails to fuel their makeover.wood frog metamorphosingTime to head for the forest and get on with the serious business of making a living. Last call! (Until next year, that is).

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© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author. Cover photo by Garrett and Kitty Wilkin; egg mass photo by Richard Bonnett; metamorphose photos by Brian Gatwicke. Thanks to all these photographers for making their photos available for use under a Creative Commons license.

Street Creatures – February 3, 2018

I’m missing the migratory birds in their bright breeding plumage so this month’s Street Creatures will feature those feathered jet-setters who brighten our lives with color and song… staring with a rainbow-hued hummingbird on Rue Riquet, Paris (photo by Jeanne Menjoulet, cc by 2.0).

Like cats… and dogs

red fox

The red fox is a canine with many cat-like characteristics and behaviors (Photo: Matt Knoth, Creative Commons license)

.[Reprint from March 2011]

Gazing blearily through coffee steam, a ghostly figure wafting through the early morning haze caught Lisa’s eye. “At first, it was just a ginger-orange and white shadow, and I thought, “Oh, no… another stray cat.”

The specter became more substantial as it moved closer.

“I saw that it wasn’t a cat after all. It stopped at the edge of my patio and began to watch me. There we sat, two redheads—one natural, one augmented—staring straight into each other’s eyes.”

An understandable case of mistaken identity. The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) has some strikingly feline features: a sleek, slender-boned physique; long, sensitive whiskers; flexible feet with partially retractable claws on the front paws; thin, dagger-like canine teeth; and a tail that accounts for 1/3 of the animal’s total length… it all contributes to the illusion.Add to that eyes with vertically slit pupils and you start to understand why the red fox is known as the “cat-like canid.”

Their hunting strategy is more felid, too. Canines tend to rely less on stealth, often hunting in packs using a tag-team approach to run down prey.  Cats, with the exception of African lions (Panthera leo), are solitary hunters who stalk and ambush prey with an explosion of speed. Canids are relay runners; felids—and foxes—are sprinters who dispatch dinner with a quick, sustained bite, in contrast to the multi-wound or bite-and-shake method employed by most canines.Biologists suggest that the behavioral similarities between foxes and cats could be the result of convergent evolution: the development of an identical trait in unrelated lineages. Comparable adaptations, they explain, arise when species occupy similar niches—insect, bird, and bat flight are commonly sited examples. Foxes and small felines target similar prey, so one should not be surprised that analogous hunting strategies evolved in these species.

Seems reasonable enough… but it’s harder to explain some of the V. vulpes‘ other felid behaviors. Their young hiss and spit like kittens, while adult vocalizations include cat-like shrieks and mewing cries. And then there’s the “lateral threat display.” You know it as the classic Halloween scaredy-cat pose—back arched, fur erect. See it and you immediately think, “cat,” not “dog.”

We humans like categories. You’re hip-hop or honky-tonk, freak or geek, fact or fiction, apple or orange. Pick your pigeonhole, please, and kindly stay in it.

So what are we to do about a creature who refuses to comply with our “either/or” worldview?

If you’re an urban wildlife enthusiast, you smile and shake your head in wonder at the boundless diversity of this bright blue gem of a planet, and your luck at having landed on it.

If you’re a taxonomist, you lay awake at night, grinding your teeth.

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© 2011 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work. Just ask first.). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: Matt Knoth (cover); Dave C (eyes); Bernard Stam (hunting); and Dave C (napping).

© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author.

Prodigal sons (and daughters)

next-door nature, mountain lion, cougar, dispersal, Midwest

Cougars are one of several predator species returning to historic ranges, even when they include highly developed areas (Photo: Wayne Dumbleton, Creative Commons license)

[Reprint from 2012]

Midwesterners are welcoming the return of some long-absent natives.

On second thought, “welcoming” is probably an overstatement… because just as in the famous biblical parable, not everyone is thrilled about this reunion.

A rigorous statistical study to be published in a 2012 issue of the Journal of Wildlife Management confirmed the presence of 178 cougars (Puma concolor) in the Midwestern U.S. states of Missouri (10), Nebraska (67), North Dakota (31), Oklahoma (12), South Dakota (11), and Texas (12). Single incident reports were documented in Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.next-door nature, cougar, mountain lion, historic photo, market huntingOnce found throughout North America, from the Canadian Yukon south to the Chilean Patagonia and all 48 contiguous United States, cougar populations dropped precipitously over most of their historic range following European colonization of the continent. The 19th and early 20th centuries, in particular, were hard times for all wild predators. Eradication programs aimed at protecting livestock interests were common. Bounties for cougar pelts, combined with sport hunting and a reduced prey base, lead to extirpation of the species east of the Rockies, with the exception of a small subspecies population in Florida (the Florida panther, Puma concolor corryi).

You’ve heard of a coat of many colors? How about a cat of many names? Cougars are almost interchangeably known as mountain lions and pumas, but regional variants include catamount, panther, painter, ghost cat, screamer… and that’s just the English nomenclature.The cougar has had more than it’s share of scientific names, too. Originally considered the largest member of the Felis clan, a genus that includes both the domestic cat (F. catus) and the somewhat larger jungle cat (F. chaus), in 1993 taxonomists created a new Puma group based on similar genetic structure and composed of two members—P. concolor and P. yagouaroundi, the much smaller jaguarondi, found in Central and South America. Another homecoming of sorts, I guess you could say, although whether the members are happy about their new blended family is anyone’s guess.

As the forth largest of all the world’s cats, adult cougars reach shoulder heights of between 24-35 inches (60-90 cm), nose-to-tail lengths of between 6.5-8 ft (2-2.4 m, females and males, respectively), and average weights of 100-150 lbs (42-62 kg; females and males, respectively).  It’s interesting to note that the closer a cougar lives to the equator the smaller it will likely be; the largest cougars are those found closest to the poles.

The species gets its name from the Latin word for “plain” or “one color” and that’s generally true for individual animals (as long as you ignore the lighter belly, throat and chin). At the population level there’s significant color variation, from golden to silvery-grey or even coppery-red. Cougar kittens don’t start out concolor—they are spotted with ringed tails but these markings fade as the youngsters mature.next-door nature, cougar, mountain lion, dispersal, historic range, midwestAdult cougars have a sleek but muscular physique and are able climbers and strong swimmers, with exceptional leaping and powerful sprinting skills. Despite their speed, these cats are typically ambush predators that quietly stalk and then, if possible, drop silently down onto prey from above, breaking the neck or delivering a suffocating bite.

Cougars are obligate carnivores, which means to survive most of their calories must come from meat. What’s less important is whether the main course is mouse, squirrel, rabbit or raccoon, mutton, venison or veal. This failure to discriminate between wild game and domestic livestock has resulted in a long and bitter feud with ranchers that continues to this day.

The 1960s, however, were witness to a sea change in American attitudes toward the environment in general and predators specifically—at least in the urban and suburban areas that were rapidly becoming home to a majority of citizens. Public pressure to change management policies created greater legal protection for cougars and their numbers began to increase. Over subsequent decades, pressure to disperse has obviously increased as well, as western cougar habitat reaches carrying capacity.

Which brings us right back to where we started, with cougars recolonizing the center of the continent. They use what researchers call a “stepping stone” pattern. Young animals say goodbye to Mom (male cougars are absentee dads) and go looking for adventure. Travel the highways and byways, stop at an interesting locale, scout out dating and dining options then move along. Sometimes quite far along… as was the case with a male cougar who made it to Connecticut before being hit and killed by a vehicle.  Leaving home is what most young mammals, including humans, are programmed to do. I’m as good an example as any, having dispersed from Missouri at 21 to explore all three North American coasts and beyond.
next-door nature, cougar, mountain lion, dispersal, midwest
Cougars may have returned to their old stomping grounds but don’t expect fireworks or any other hoopla. As a native who left the area and has returned many times (although never to stay) I can assure you this homecoming will be a low-key affair.

We Midwesterners don’t like to call attention to ourselves, you know.

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© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work. Just ask first.). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license:  Wayne Dumbleton (cover); USFWS/Public Domain (historic photo of a market cougar hunter); Anthonut (profile); Susan Shepard (climbing down); NaturesFan1226 (sharpening claws).