Slender in the Grass

[photo: josh more, ccl]

But never met this Fellow, Attended or alone, Without a tighter Breathing, and Zero at the Bone.

 

Unlike Emily Dickinson, ophiophobia isn’t an issue for me. I like snakes and know them to be upstanding ecosystem citizens… umm, ok, upstanding probably isn’t the best descriptor for creatures without legs but you get my drift.

Of course, I offer an extra measure of obeisance for any and all animals who engage in chemical warfare but their numbers are relatively few here in North America. Of the over 125 snake species endemic to my home continent, for example, only 21 are venomous. All 18 of the vipers have a distinctive triangular head, and the 16 rattlesnakes in this group are armed with an unmistakable warning system. The 2 coral snakes species found in the U.S. wear a color pattern that’s easy to recognize from further than arm’s-length, and since Blacksburg, Virginia, isn’t anywhere near the western coast of Mexico I don’t have to watch out for yellowbelly sea snakes.

[photo: greg schechter, ccl]

So if I happen upon a small garden hose that unexpectedly untangles and slips into the lawn I’m not chilled to the marrow. On the contrary — when I spot a green grass snake (Opheodrys spp.) passing by I’m likely to lean in cordially and say, “Well, hello gorgeous!”

And what comely creatures these colubrids are, with large, round eyes and a red tongue tipped in black.  Bright, nearly neon green above, accented with sunny yellow and ivory below, their color scheme is positively tropical despite the fact that they’re only found well above the equator.  Both the smooth (O. vernalis) and rough (O. aestivus) are slight and lithe. For this genus “rough” refers raised scale keels along the back and sides but, like all snakes, the skin of both grass snake species is satiny, not slimy.

Contrary to what the name implies, grass snakes don’t limit themselves to turf and terra firma. They are great climbers, moving with grace and prudence as they stalk insects and small amphibians through brambles, bushes, and trees. The many regional names given to this species testify to this fact, including: magnolia snake, huckleberry snake, vine snake, bush snake, and green tree snake. Grass snakes are also known to mimic small breeze-blown branches to blend into the surroundings while waiting for prey, or while attempting to avoid becoming prey to birds, mammals, and other snakes, including the eastern racer (Coluber constrictor) and the eastern king snake (Lampropeltis getula).

Grass snakes are good swimmers who are often found near water, in and around moist meadows and marshes, in riparian habitat as well as open forests and woodlands, as well as cities and suburbs.

Their willingness to live in developed areas puts grass snakes at risk of being persecuted by house cats, run over by cars and mowers, and they appear to be susceptible to pesticides as well.  These docile beauties haven’t gone unnoticed by the pet trade, sadly. Although Smooths are protected in some places, few states in the U.S. regulate reptile harvest.  Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of grass snakes are collected from the wild each year, making them one of North America’s most exploited snakes. This practice is particularly tough on Roughs because they are easily stressed and don’t do well in captivity.

Seems to me Emily’s reaction to spotting a snake is more appropriate and understandable from that narrow fellow’s point of view… don’t you?

[photo: greg schechter, ccl]

© 2017 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.

 

British Invasion (Part I)

The British may have lost North America but their native house sparrows have successfully colonized the continent.

The British lost North America but English house sparrows have colonized the continent.

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It seems to happen once each century. In 1775 the Redcoats showed up in Boston, the Beatles made a big splash about 200 years later in 1964, and in the sweet-spot in-between the House Sparrows (Passer domestics) arrived.
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It’s difficult to believe, given current controversies and political grandstanding, but for a long time America had a very open-door immigration policy that allowed almost anyone—human and non-human—hassle-free entry. For example, no one batted an eye when my paternal ancestors washed up here after being kicked out of Scotland during the Highland Clearance to make room for sheep… but I digress. In the 1850s, when Brooklyn Institute Director Nicholas Pike purchased 8 pairs of house sparrows from England he didn’t have to sneak the birds past a Customs agent—the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) hadn’t been created yet and wouldn’t be for over 100 years. Nor did Pike need permission from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation to release the birds. It didn’t exist.
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Introducing these Old World sparrows to North America was not done on a whim. Some sources suggest the birds were imported to control a serious canker-worm (Alsophila pometaria or Paleacrita vernata) infestation threatening New York City’s trees—a somewhat misguided notion since house sparrows are granivores (seed-eaters), not insectivores, although they do feed insects to their nestlings.  Pike reportedly paid $200 for the pairs’ passage across the Atlantic, which may not sound like much but according to one relative-value calculator it’s equivalent to $5,000 today.
.feeding the sparrows
Like many immigrants before them those first settlers didn’t do all that well in their new home. Not dissuaded, Pike purchased another 25 pairs the following year and released them along the East River. This cohort proved hardier, or perhaps more adaptable. Another 100 pairs were ordered in 1853 and released at the Greenwood Cemetery, Central Park, Union Square Park, and Madison Square Park. Americans have a history of Anglophilia so it should come as no surprise that soon the former colonies were all a-twitter about these chatty, cheerfully social birds.
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male house sparrow by Eric Bégin, CCLHouse sparrows aren’t closely related to native North American sparrows and you can see it in their physique—they’re a bit heavier, with a deeper chest, a more rounded head, shorter tail, and a less delicate bill. Six inches (15 cm) long from beak to tail-tip, and weighing in at about 1.4 oz (40 g), the male house sparrow cuts a dashing but not flashy figure; he’s British, don’t forget, and all business. Bright blues, greens, and yellows are not his cup of tea; rather, he wears a neutral palette of black, gray, and chestnut, with a touch of white to sharpen up the entire female house sparrow2ensemble. Female fashion preferences are appropriately tweedy: tawny-brown with darker striping on top, oatmeal-tan or gray below. More Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson than David Bowie and Amy Winehouse, nonetheless, house sparrows were a trending novelty that went viral.
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Entrepreneurs recognized a market opportunity and became breeders.  Citizens in Maine, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania all followed Pike’s lead, and by 1870 this pioneering species had spread south to Texas, north to Montreal, and past the Mississippi River to Iowa. A West Coast population was established with releases in California (1871-1872) and Utah (1873-1874), and in the subsequent decade house sparrows expanded their range from less than 1,200 mi2 to over 500,000 mi2. By the turn of the 20th century the space between eastern and western fronts had nearly filled.
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Why have house sparrows thrived while other species—including some natives—have failed? Here are the keys to making it in America:
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Get lucky.  House sparrows couldn’t have wished for better timing to facilitate their successful acclimation. Steam and internal combustion engines were coming on strong but horses and cattle were still the primary means of facilitated transportation. Working herbivores need more calories than grass and hay alone can provide so corn, barley, oats, wheat, and rice are common additions to the diet. Hoof-stock “exhaust” has a fair amount of undigested “fuel” and resilient city sparrows weren’t picky about where they got their vittles. Additionally, urbanites raised livestock and poultry and a small bird could easily slip in and out of pens and stables to pinch a bite or two. Enterprising sparrows even hitched rides on those new-fangled locomotives and their boxcars filled with grain.
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Grow up fast, breed early and often.  House sparrows eggs hatch after 10-16 days of incubation, nestlings fledge at 14-15 days old, are independent 7-10 days later. One study suggests they may reach sexual maturity as early as 4 months of age—time to find a mate and get busy! Females produce 2-5 clutches of 3-7 chicks per breeding season; that’s an average of 20 chicks per season, per breeding pair. Do the math and there’s your answer.
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Stand up for yourself and your kin.  House sparrows will form loose nesting colonies, are strongly territorial, and will aggressively defend nest sites and feeders. They’ll attack both intruders and potential intruders, and have been known to destroy the eggs and nestlings of competitor species.
. Be smart, adaptable, and adventurous.  Many bird species follow a strict set of guidelines when it comes to choosing where to raise a family.  Sparrows, on the other hand, sparrow nest by gingiber, CCL are willing to at least consider nearly any property when scouting for real estate. You’ll find them nesting in a wide range of locations—nest boxes and tree cavities, of course, but also signs, architectural features, drain pipes, dryer vents, and anywhere else that offers a large enough entrance.  When a potential nesting site has been identified they’ll use every means at their disposal to make it work.  They can even learn how to trip automated door sensors to access food and shelter from the elements and predators. When young house sparrows are old enough to leave the nest they’ll readily disperse 5 miles or more to find new feeding and nesting areas and quickly learn how to claim and exploit available resources.
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Have friends in high places. If you’re a wild thing, having H. sapiens on your side is the equivalent of a royal patronage. In the mid-19th century people trapped house sparrows from one place and released them into new territory cleared of predators and outfitted with nesting boxes.  That, my friends, is what’s called “choosing sides.” Is it any wonder house sparrows are now found in all 48 contiguous states and Hawaii’i (where they were introduced from New Zealand in 1871)? The kindness of human strangers has also allowed P. domesticus to claim much of Canada, all of Central America, most of South America, southern Africa, and eastern Australia.
dark green = natural range light green = introduced range

dark green = natural range     light green = introduced range

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I’m sure you can guess how this story goes, though. It’s been played out countless times in the media—print, broadcast, and social.  First they love you, then they love to hate you.  Americans adore a winner but as any reality TV star can attest, get too successful and fans will take equal pleasure in watching, sometimes facilitating, your fall from grace.
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Even as the house sparrow fad continued to grow, some conservation-minded folk had begun to notice the immigrants were not assimilating as hoped, or following local customs and expectations. Before long, civic leaders had deemed house sparrow nests “unsightly.” Their droppings were blamed for “besmirched” buildings and sidewalks.  They were tagged as thieves who pilfered valuable grain from honest, hard-working farmers. Worse yet, the foreigners were observed being downright inhospitable to the native avian community, including valuable insect-eaters. The nerve of those ungrateful little upstarts!!
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sparrow trap (Albert F. Siepert, Project Gutenberg License)Guides for trapping, shooting, and poisoning the birds were distributed free of charge. By 1883, state legislators in Indiana had declared the house sparrow an outlaw who should be killed on sight. Five years later, Illinois and Michigan had established a small bounty on “English” sparrows and children scrambled to exchange dead birds for cash to buy candy.
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Never mind the fact that human development was having at least as great an impact on native bird species as the house sparrow we had intentionally loosed upon the landscape. Forget that the effects of trapping and poisoning are rarely limited to the intended target species. Ignore the lack of conservation legislation that allowed “market hunting” to bring dozens of wild bird populations to the brink of extinction. The public was frightened and angry about the changes in their communities wrought by industrialization and human migration. Scapegoats were needed to pay the piper for society’s sins and transgressions.
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Many individual house sparrow were killed but despite the all-in extermination effort the species continued to thrive. While no longer hunted for bounties in the US., the bad PR stuck like glue—to this day they are generally resented or reviled. Unlike migratory species house sparrows are not protected in the U.S. and, in fact, the population has declined somewhat.
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save-sparrowFollowing the tried and true media script, the house sparrow is experiencing a rebound in popularity, at least in its native range. This is due to precipitous population declines in England, where this native species has been “red-listed,” Europe, Scandinavia, and India. The problem seems to be a lack of available food for their young—nestlings need the higher level of protein insects provide, only later changing to a grain-based diet. As Rachel Carson pointed out decades ago, our pesticide arms race takes a toll on many of the creatures we enjoy having around. Over the past 10-15 years, “Save Sparrows” campaigns have encouraged home-owners to decrease or eliminate insecticide use, choosing insect-attracting plants, and intentionally increasing nesting sites.
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I’ve yet to see anything in the scientific literature proposing North American as a possible source of imported house sparrows to repopulate their original range but there’s a nice full-circle appeal to that storyline.  Maybe you can go home again.
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© 2015 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work  but please ask). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license (CCL) or Project Guttenberg License (PGL) (from top to bottom): Martha de Jong-Lantink, CCL (birds on a branch); Harper & Brothers, PGL (feeding the sparrows); Eric Bégin, CCL (male HOSP); Phil McIver, CCL (female HOSP); gingiber, CCL (HOSP nest); Cactus26, CCL (HOSP distribution map); Albert F. Siepert, PGL (sparrow trap).

Headbanger

 

Male downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)

The male downy woodpecker is a dapper urban resident (iStock, used with permission)

Rushing out the door, I went over the list in my head. Workout pants and layered tees—check. Running shoes—check. Coat, hat, gloves—check. Keys and sunglasses—check. MP3 player—check. Everything was in order as I pulled out of the driveway.

Or so I thought.

Fifteen minutes later I pulled into a parking space at the Power Valley Conservation Nature Center, a 112-acre oasis in suburban St. Louis created by the Missouri Department of Conservation with hilly trails perfect for raising my heart rate for 30-40 minutes. But as I stepped out of the car and began to gather my gear I realized with dismay I’d left behind a critical component—my earbuds.

The thought of a run without my workout mix, and without any caffeine in my system either, was disheartening. I need the motivation of a musical pulse. But I didn’t have time to go back to the house so I set off anyway, prepared to suffer.

About 10 minutes later I realized I was running to a faint drumbeat. At first I thought someone who had NOT forgotten their audio equipment had the volume on their iPod turned up to 11. Once I realized the thumping came from the woods themselves, though, it wasn’t too long before I spotted the drummer, dressed more appropriately for jazz than heavy metal in the stylish black-and-white houndstooth jacket and jaunty red cap of a male downy woodpecker. In spite of the bird’s diminutive size—no more than 6” from head to tail-tip and weighing in at an ounce or less—his wardrobe set him apart on that overcast day from the slate-and-silver hickory bark backdrop.

Downy’s are capable of making a noise disproportionate to their size. When a woodpecker is looking for a mate or claiming a territory, the sound of drumming needs to carry; building a nursery cavity using a beak as a jackhammer isn’t quiet either. But if you’re in the woods and the beat is more bongo than bass, hunger is probably acting as the drummer’s muse. A gentle tap, tap, tap betrays hollow spots beneath the bark where wood-boring insect larvae wait.

drawing of a woodpecker's tongue

Woodpeckers can really stick out their tongues (Florida Center for Instructional Technology, used with permission)

Once dinner has been detected, things get… interesting. That short chisel of a beak hardly prepares you for what’s inside—like many other woodpeckers, the downy has a barbed, sticky, and flexible tongue so long it wraps around the skull when at rest. If ever there was a bird ready-made for rock ‘n roll, it’s the woodpecker. Gene Simmons got nothin’ on these headbangers.

The whole tone of my morning changed in an instant. It’s so easy to carry a personal soundtrack wherever I go that I forget about everything I normally tune out when I turn up the volume. As a result of my oversight, I suddenly had a standing-room-only ticket to a great live performance, one I would surely have missed had this excursion proceeded according to plan.  My run could wait. I stayed for several encores and gave that downy an enthusiastic round of applause as he flew off toward his next gig.

[This post was originally published in January 2011. Hope to have a new installment ready for prime-time soon.]

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love-earthThis blog, like so many activities that foster support and appreciation of the natural world, is a labor of love. If you’ve enjoyed learning about the creatures who share our built environment, consider becoming an NDN Benefactor with a donation of any amount you’re inspired to give. If you’d like to find a little Next-Door Nature surprise in your inbox just click the Subscribe!  button in the upper right-hand corner of this page and receive notifications of new posts!

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

Barnstormers

next-door nature, urban wildlife, suburban wildlife, barn swallows

The barn swallow is a spectacular aerial acrobat (Photo: Eugene Beckes, Creative Commons license)

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WITNESS astounding tricks of precision flying!

THRILL to the sight of daring aerial capers!

Come one, come ALL!

The Flying Circus is winging its way to a backyard near YOU!!

 

next-door nature, urban wildlife, suburban wildlife, barn swallowCritics are raving about this summer’s must-see event. Word to the wise, though—in addition to a lawn chair you’ll definitely want to bring some binoculars. That’s because the stars of this air show have an average wingspan of about 12 inches (30 cm). We’re not talking F/A-18 Hornets here, or even a Cessna 152. Think sparrow-sized, not Sparrowhawk.

Barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) epitomize the principle of “form follows function.” Combine a slender fuselage with long, tapered wings and a deeply forked stabilizer (aka “tail”) and you’ve got a bird made to spend the majority of waking life with wheels up. They even wear a uniform appropriate for fly-boys (and girls)—glossy chrome blue above and buff-to-rust below; similar to the colors of a U.S. Air Force Blue Angels jet.

Barn swallows are found far beyond U.S. borders, though.  You might even go so far as to call them jet setters. Six officially recognized subspecies are found in North and South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. Generally speaking, the species breeds in the Northern Hemisphere (as far north as the Arctic Circle) and takes winter R&R in the Southern Hemisphere. Ornithologists have recorded barn swallows traveling over 7,000 miles (11,000 km) from Europe to southern Africa, and those based in the Americas cover similar distances.

next-door nature, urban wildlife, suburban wildlife, barn swallowWhether cruising inches above land or water or performing barrel rolls, loop-the-loops, spins, and stalls in mid-air, these agile flyers are crowd-pleasers. They aren’t grandstanding, though. A barn swallow’s life consists of more than playing with the physics of flight. Like the post-WWI stunt pilots of the 1920s, they’re trying to make a living.

It takes fuel to fly and the barn swallow go-juice of choice is winged insects—primarily high-octane flies, but also beetles, bees and wasps, next-door nature, urban wildlife, suburban wildlife, barn swallowmoths and butterflies, ants and termites.  Eating on the fly really comes in handy during long missions, including migration. Quenching one’s thirst, bathing, dating, and defending the home territory—they’re all done on the wing.

Historians disagree as to the origin of the term “barnstorming,” but one popular explanation is that pilots would fly through an open barn door and out the other side (they hoped) as a demonstration of their prowess and to drum up joy ride business.  Barn swallows have been known to fly in and out of barns as well—hence the common name. It’s a lot less risky for the birds, though.

Even daredevils like to have a place to call home, a chance to raise a family.  Before permanent man-made structures became commonplace, barn swallows built nests in caves or on the face of cliffs. Long tolerated by humans for reasons  both practical and aesthetic, today only one North American population holds to this tradition, in the Channel Islands off the coast of California; the rest of the fleet hangar in the rafters of open buildings or beneath porches. Bridges, especially those that span water, are particularly popular due to their proximity to crucial building materials.

next-door nature, urban wildlife, suburban wildlife, barn swallowGathering mud by the bill-full, mated pairs make countless supply runs to construct a neat cup or half-cup, depending on the location, then line it with grass, feathers, hair from the livestock living under the same roof, and any other soft, insulating materials they can find.

Once there’s a home base in the crosshairs, the bombardier gets the go-ahead to drop her payload of 3-7 eggs. The pair begin a series of aerial fueling attempts and in about a month’s time they’ve got themself a squadron of next-gen aviators.

Time to put on a show!

next-door nature, urban wildlife, suburban wildlife, barn swallow
.There’s nothing quite like finding a little Next-Door Nature in your email inbox—click the “subscribe”  link in the upper right-hand corner of this page and receive notifications of new posts!
© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work; all you have to do is ask). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: [from the top] Eugene Beckes (wings tucked; wings open); Julio Mulero (drinking); Dan Wilson Photography (nestlings); Eugene Beckes (swooping); Bill Lynch (muckraking); Mikael Dusenne (parenting); Pat Gaines (missile).
Barn swallows in flight:
Modern day barnstormer performing aerial acrobatics:

Border battles

red-bellied woodpecker on fence (Photo: Brian Peterson, Creative Commons license)

Robert Frost said, “Good fences make good neighbors” but embattled red-bellied woodpeckers must find other ways to protect their territories. (Photo: Brian Peterson, Creative Commons license)

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Last Sunday morning I unexpectedly found myself sitting ringside for a brief but furious brawl. Two male red-bellied woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus) were having a boundary dispute that started with an argument over some shrubbery then escalated into a full-on aerial assault. Colliding mid-air, they grasped one another by the feet and were so intent on punching, pecking, and plucking, the adversaries flew thoughtlessly over the nearby road directly in front of my car. Luckily, I was making my way slowly along the otherwise quiet suburban street, so I was able to stop and watch.

With my windshield serving as an impromptu HDTV, the smackdown aired for all of 45 thrilling seconds and then, as if in response to a referee’s break command… it was all over.  Each fighter retreated, shouting insults over his shoulder as he returned to his corner.

male and female RBW by Jason Paluck, Creative Commons licenseRed-bellied woodpeckers (let’s just shorten that to RBWs, shall we?) are a medium-sized bird—just over 9” (24 cm) from chisel beak to stiff tail tips with a 13-16” (33-42 cm) wingspan. Like many North American woodpeckers, they wear a black-and-white houndstooth jacket, but their bright red Mohawk (males sport a full forehead-to-neck cap while females wear an abbreviated version) sets them apart. It’s also the reason these birds are so often misidentified as the similar-sized red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), although once the difference is pointed out the mistake is rarely repeated. RBWs take their name from a subtle scarlet stain on their buffy belly.

red-headed vs. red-bellied woodpeckers by Laura Gooch and Jason Paluck, respectively (Creative Commons license)Year-round residents in U.S. wetlands, river bottoms, woods, and wooded suburbs from the Midwest east to the Atlantic coast, RBWs are omnivorous, consuming all manner of  insects, nuts, seeds, sap, and fruit. They store surplus food in various nooks and crannies and, since they don’t migrate, their larders come in handy during winter. This species employs gender-specific foraging strategies—males search for sustenance primarily along bole while females spend the bulk of their time on the boughs.

Biologists don’t often venture out on a limb to officially identify any non-human behavior as play, but I’ve notice the profession has loosened up a bit on this issue over the past decade or so, thankfully. One example of this trend was a description of RBW behavior I read recently. This species will periodically engage in swift, nimble, and unpredictable forest flights, complete with many direction changes to dodge trees, and accompanied by constant excited chatter. The author of this resource was quick to explain that the activity probably has a practical application in that it helps youngsters practice evasive maneuvers that would come in handy should predators be lurking about. However, and surprisingly, the expert also admitted the birds seemed to be having fun.

male red-bellied woodpecker in nest (Photo- Frederick Knapp, Creative Commons license)RBWs are monogamous—for the extent of a breeding season, that is (so perhaps it would be more accurate to say they are serial monogamists)—and both are actively involved in raising young.  They nest in hardwood and pine trees, along with the occasional fence post, by excavating a cavity or stealing one from other birds. What goes around comes around, though—or so says a timeworn adage; RBWs often lose their precious nest holes, in turn, to European (aka common) starlings (Sturnus vulgaris).

Assuming the pair can hang on to their home, the female lays two to six white eggs on a cushion of wood chip construction debris and incubates them for 12 days. The hatchlings are altricial, meaning they begin their lives naked, blind, and helpless. They don’t waste any time growing up, and are ready to leave the nest for a first tentative flight when they are 24—27 days old. Depending on the region, the adults may raise from one to three broods in a season.

red-bellied woodpecker at feeder (Photo: ehpien, Creative Commons license)Defending the homestead is a top priority during the child-rearing seasons, especially if the ‘hood includes a well-tended feeder (a gold mine for species able to digest seeds or suet). Even though most bird nestlings can’t tolerate seeds and need a diet composed largely of insects, when Mom and Dad can grab a high-calorie meal from the avian equivalent of a fast-food restaurant, they have extra time to hunt for the more illusive foods their offspring need to develop properly.

Since RBW territories range from 3 to 39 acres protecting the perimeter is far from a simple task, especially when feeding yourself and your family is a full-time job. So, naturally, breaches occur… but everyone trespasses and is trespassed against.  Border skirmishes are common but they rarely result in bloodshed. Research tells us that’s due, in part, to the fact that the intensity of defense behavior tends to decrease as an animal moves away from the center of its territory. Put another way, property rights become less important the farther you are from home. In most cases, both combatants throw in the towel long before there’s a knock-out.

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There’s nothing quite like finding a little Next-Door Nature in your email inbox—click the “subscribe”  link in the upper right-hand corner of this page and receive notifications of new posts!
© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work; all you have to do is ask). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: [starting from the top] Brian Peterson (on the fence); Jason Paluck (male & female; red-bellied); Laura Gooch (red-headed); Frederic Knapp (in nest); ehpien (rbw @ feeder).

Tangled up in blue

eastern bluebird 2 by Jason Matthews, Creative Commons license

A male Eastern bluebird personifies happiness, whether he’s happy about it or not (Photo: Jason Matthews, Creative Commons license)

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Happiness is a shy little bird. Hiding from sight in life’s nooks and crannies, impossible to find if you look but then it darts out and lands on your shoulder just when you least expect it. It sidles up beside you like a pickpocket on a crowded street, soft and silent as wings brushing against your lapel. Hardly even noticed until something or someone causes it to flush in a flurry of feathers from beneath your jacket, taking with it a sizeable chunk of your heart. Try to grab hold as it flies away and the thief proves as elusive as dreams upon waking, slipping through your fingers like a shadow, like quicksilver.

The concept of happiness has been flitting in and out of my brain and my life for a couple of weeks now. My birthday earlier this month may have provided the initial impulse. This wasn’t a major milestone year, I’ve got too much on my plate these days to leave much room for cake, plus I’m living in a new town and don’t know many people yet… but I did take a little time to acknowledge the day and do some thinking. December 31st may be the culturally accepted time to contemplate one’s short- or long-term past and make plans for the year to come, but my inner-Pagan knows the vernal equinox is the true start of a new trip around the sun. Besides, I’m not much for following the crowd. I was the kind of kid who would disassemble all the board games in the house, shuffling the tokens and cards to make up my own game with my own rules.  So I like the idea of a personal calendar that begins in April, and a personal New Year’s Eve for reviewing said year is also appealing. Later that same week, two unanticipated events provided additional incentive to ponder the nature of happiness.

Then again, maybe I’ve had happiness on my mind because the bluebirds have returned.

mountain bluebird pair (Photo: freeopinions, creative commons license)

Mountain bluebird pair

This year, I’ve been watching eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) each morning while my terrier-boy practices his soccer moves on a squeaky red rubber ball. At other times in my life, while living in other parts of the U.S., I’ve watched spring come to town on the wings of both western and mountain bluebirds (S. Mexicana and S. currucoides, respectively).  A feathered piece of sky flashing across the landscape on shallow wing beats can lift a heavy heart and lighten my mood.

Members of the Turdidae family (aka thrushes), bluebirds are related to that other famous spring harbinger, the American robin (Turdus migratorius). All three Sialia species are easy to spot and identify even though, as fruit and insect eaters, they don’t visit seed-filled feeders. The males are clad in some combination of blue with red and/or white; their mates wear less conspicuous versions of the same plumage.

Efforts to ensure this popular bird’s continued breeding success began with the recognition that they were struggling in the face of competition from introduced species such as the European starling (Sturnus vulgaris) and house sparrow (Passer domesticus), as well as reduced access to nesting habitat. Happily, by building, installing, monitoring, and maintaining special nest boxes, handy men and women across the U.S. have proven crucial to the species’ recovery.

Bluebirds have long symbolized cheerfulness, health, prosperity, and renewal, although I’m not sure why. Their lives are far from easy or free of conflict. Males battle over breeding territories, chasing one another at breakneck speeds, grabbing each other by the feet in mid-air, smacking opponents with their wings as they try to pull each others feathers out with their beaks. They must defend nest cavities or boxes from a host of other birds, many of which are substantially larger. Once a nest site has been established, a mated pair may produce 2-4 broods per season—a task that requires foraging non-stop during daylight hours to find enough food to keep themselves and their offspring fed. If that were not challenge enough, bluebirds undertake an exhausting and hazardous migration of up to 2,000 miles each autumn and spring.

female eastern bluebird by Patrick Coin, Creative Commons license

Female Eastern bluebird

Despite these hardships, some sources claim the connection between blue birds and happiness is global (albeit focused on bird species indigenous to each country or continent). One thing is certain—the notion, however it began, has been perpetuated by Hollywood and on the radio. I have to wonder if any other bird has been as popular with songwriters and singers, starting with  Bluebird of Happiness, a hit song in the early 1930s that may have ushered this phrase into the popular vernacular.  Judy Garland probably helped things along when she sang of bluebirds flying Somewhere Over the Rainbow. For those who like both their birds and their grass blue, there’s Lester Flatt’s Bluebirds Singing For Me. Paul McCartney, Buffalo Springfield, Bonnie Raitt and, more recently Christina Perri and Adam Green all feature bluebirds on their playlist. Sara Bareilles’ poignant Bluebird tells of a kind of migration, but my own favorite blue bird tune, Birdhouse in Your Soul by They Might Be Giants, transports me to a happy scene, sitting at the kitchen table of a remote lake house in a faraway forest.

Emotions can be tricky to articulate and color can help paint a clearer picture. I get that. If a friend says she’s in the pink or he’s green with envy, you know the score even without the details (although you may still want to hear them). Red is, of course, the color of both anger and passion (maybe that’s why one so often leads to the other). Blue is happiness—at least, that’s what a little bird told me. But is it? If I say I’m feeling blue you’re not likely to picture me in your mind’s eye singing in the rain ala Gene Kelly.

western bluebirds by Julio Mulero, Creative Commons license

Western bluebirds

How did a single color come to represent both sides of the spectrum, sadness and joy? I wish I knew, but I’m not sure it matters in the long run. I do know this: happiness prefers an open palm to an iron grip. It doesn’t do well when caged; like a wild bird, it needs to be free to come and go as it chooses. A full life requires both kinds of blue plus all the other colors and creatures, winter and spring, parting and reunion. If you want to have happiness in your life you must be willing to risk losing it, trusting that it will return as surely as bluebirds in April. That’s the trade-off, the price you pay for the flutter of wings in your heart and stomach.

But worth every penny.

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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; all you have to do is ask). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: Jason Matthews (male Eastern bluebird);  freeopinions (mountain bluebirds); Patrick Coin (female Eastern bluebird); Julio Mulero (Western bluebirds).

Wobbling waxwings

Cedar waxwing (Photo: Eve Fraser-Corp, Creative Commons license)

By the end of winter, the fruit upon which cedar waxwings depend can pack a real punch (Photo: Eve Fraser-Corp, Creative Commons license)

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I recently came across a report that cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) have returned to Texas. Every time I hear someone mention this species I’m reminded of  my days as director of a wildlife center in Houston. For a few weeks every year the waxwings would show up by the cardboard box-full and the rehabilitation clinic would turn into… well, a different kind of rehab center.

With their handsome, distinctive plumage, even a newbie birder can easily recognize this species. Their yellow tail- and red wing-tips look as if they’ve been dipped in sealing wax—thus the name. With a range that covers much of North America, waxwings aren’t rare but they’re not as common as some of our iconic backyard birds, so it’s always a bit of a thrill when they’re in the neighborhood.

Cedar waxwing and chick (Photo: Alan Huett, Creative Commons license)They’re one of only a handful of avian species in the U.S. and Canada whose diet is composed largely (but not entirely) of fruit, a useful characteristic when one shares a breeding territory with brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) and other nesting parasites—females who don’t bother to build a nest of their own. Instead, they leave their eggs in the nests of other birds and the cowbird chicks are cared for like biological children. In fact, the foster nestling normally out-competes the surrogate’s own offspring when food is being passed out but the high-sugar diet provided by waxwing parents, while perfect for their own kids, causes the cowbird to waste away.

Waxwing adaptability has allowed them to benefit from the introduction of non-native fruit-bearing plants used in urban and suburban landscaping. For example, they seem to love honeysuckle… and it shows. The red pigment in the exotic vine’s berries can turn the bird’s canary tail-tips bright orange, a plumage change birders and ornithologists first began to notice in the 1960s.

Waxwing flock on pyracantha (Photo: Bob Muller, Creative Commons license)Waxwings travel in flocks that may include 40+ individuals, all searching for pyracantha and privet, choke cherries, mulberries, and any other tree or shrub that bears sugary fruit. Once they’ve gobbled up every last berry, they move along without a backward glance.

Unless the fruit is spiked.

It’s not a matter of someone trying to contribute to avian delinquency. From late autumn until plants have produced new spring and summer crops, last season’s berries, drupes, drupelets, pomes, and other sweet seed containers hang on, growing inceasingly less… fresh, shall we say. Temperature fluctuations and the presence of wild yeasts often will cause fruit to ferment in situ. Migration and colder temperatures make for voracious birds and the waxwings are carbo-loading as fast as they can swallow. They don’t seem to notice some of the snacks pack a punch. When you weigh slightly more than an ounce, the alcohol content doesn’t have to be very high to knock you for a loop. Next thing you know, birds are careening around on the front lawn like New Year’s Eve.

Injured waxwing (Photo: Churl Han, Creative Commons license)It can look rather comical but it’s no laughing matter. Many inebriated birds are seriously injured or are killed when they fly into cars and windows.

Good Samaritans across the county scoop disoriented birds into cardboard boxes and head for the nearest wildlife rehabilitation center. There, the birds are given a head-to-toe, beak-to-tail examination. Most of the patients are simply allowed to safely sleep it off in a warm, dark room before being released to continue their travels… although they probably set out with a doozy of a headache.


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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; all you have to do is ask). Thanks to name for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: Eve Fraser-Corp (waxwing with wizened berry); Eve Fraser-Corp (waxwing with wizened berry); Alan Huett (waxwing adult and nestling);  Bob Muller (waxwings on pyracantha)’ and Churl Han (injured waxwing).

Urban development

Raccoons by John Biehler, Creative Commons license

Just hangin' on the corner with the homies... smart, bored, and looking for trouble (Photo: John Biehler, Creative Commons license)

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World War II had barely ended when researchers began to notice a major migration under way in North America, from undeveloped and agricultural areas to cities and suburbs.  Now, in the early 21st Century, the urban population is over 20 times that of the early-1940s—in some places, more than 50% higher than the surrounding rural landscape. With growth has come all the problems that naturally occur as a community becomes overcrowded: housing shortages and squatting; dumpster diving; increases in theft and property damage; sanitation-related public health concerns. sometimes, we all need a little help getting through the day... by jmtimages, creative commons licenseAll of this has a tendency to make established residents less tolerant of immigrants, even when the new neighbors are clever, ambitious, hard-working, good parents, and undeniably cute as all get-out.

Raccoons (Procyon lotor) may be new to the urban scene, but… wait a minute. You thought I was talking about people?

That’s understandable, I suppose. Just about everything I’ve said to this point could apply to humans as well. There’s no denying that Homo sapiens is now an urban species. The tipping point (>50% of humans living in areas of high population density) came around 2007. Each year, more of us are lured by the promise of better-paying jobs, more housing options, access to social services and chain restaurants, bigger shopping malls, a larger dating pool, and high-speed Internet connections. In other cases, concrete tentacles sprawl past the city limit signs to grab up and devour surrounding countryside, forcing rural residents to choose between relocating to land that hasn’t yet caught developers’ eyes and becoming accidental townies.

urban raccoons by liz west ccThe “built environment” is intended to meet the wants and needs of our own kind, but raccoons may be better suited for what we’ve constructed than the target real estate market.

Raccoon Nation, a documentary shown recently in the U.S. on the PBS “Nature” series, and in Canada on the CBC News Network series “The Nature of Things with David Suzuki,” makes a strong case in support of that thesis.* As filmmakers follow the furry urbanites in their native North America (including Chicago and Toronto—known as the “raccoon capital of the world”), as well as in Germany and Japan (where they were intentionally introduced), it’s hard not to notice the similarities between those who construct cities and those who exploit them and their work.

How alike are we? Let’s build this case from the ground up.

raccoon paw and human handFeet—humans and raccoons are both plantigrade. In other words, we walk with the entire foot planted firmly on the dirt… make that asphalt. There are other examples (elephants, kangaroos, and pandas come to mind), but the majority of mammals walk on their tippy toes (more on this in a future blog post).

Hands—okay, technically raccoons don’t have hands, they have two more feet. That’s semantics. Look closely and you’ll see one reason it’s so hard to invent a raccoon-proof container—a paw that looks a lot like a palm and a digit that’s as close to the functionality of an opposable thumb as it gets for non-primates.

dumpster raccoons by zeetz jones ccStomachs—the best way to avoid starvation long enough to pass your genes along to the next generation is to cultivate the ability to eat anything and everything you can cram in your mouth that contains a calorie. The human diet is astonishingly diverse, and urban raccoons gobble up everything we leave on our plates and toss in the trash… plus a lot of stuff we would rather not eat. Some researchers suggest that omnivory played a crucial role in human development—by providing a more consistent and more nutritious diet, and because finding potential new foods, determining whether they are edible, and figuring out how to eat them pushed our brains to create new neural pathways. Which brings us to…

Brains—raccoons and people also share a high level of behavioral plasticity, a term that implies the ability to change. Flexibility, adaptability, and life-long learning (well… we both have that capacity; whether we use it or not is another issue). With no email to check, no AYSO games to attend, no need to commute, and only one significant predator (those commuting automobiles), raccoons have plenty of time for learning. Each day is devoted to DIY personal growth, lifestyle enhancement, and honing useful skills, such as…

  • how to turn a garbage can or dumpster into a convenience store;
  • how to tight-rope walk a fence (great for avoiding the neighbor’s dog);
  • how to shimmy down a tree branch onto a rooftop;
  • how to turn a loose shingle on that roof into an attic entrance;
  • how to turn that attic into a cozy, rent-free nursery.

Whether you find these critters endearing or exasperating, it’s never fun to clean up refuse that’s strewn across your yard, and there’s no denying they can and do cause damage to property. Ironically, our attempts to outwit them are molding these savvy metropolitan mammals to better fit the world we built for ourselves. And here’s the other reason I will never invest my hard-earned money in some inventor’s guaranteed raccoon-proof fill-in-the-blank: because no human being will ever have as much time to devote to keeping a raccoon out of something as raccoons, often working in teams, are willing and able to devote to cracking the code. By trying to thwart them, we’re simply selecting for the traits that make a more worthy opponent and a better urban animal. An über-coon, if you like.

bipedal raccoons by David~O ccBefore you know it, they’ll be standing upright in line right beside us at Starbucks, waiting for a Venti Caramel Macchiato to help them wake up for the night shift.

Urban raccoons share another, disturbing commonality with their human neighbors—the toll exacted by easy access to a plentiful, high fat, high sugar, high calorie diet. Diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease may do more to limit their numbers, in the long run, than all the Hav-A-Heart trap-toting home and business owners, urban wildlife biologists, and nuisance wildlife control operators combined. Cleverness and dexterity are no match for the fearful symmetry of a predatory heart attack or kidney failure.

No wonder they call it the urban jungle.

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* The full hour-long episode of Raccoon Nation, along with interesting behind-the-scenes extras, can now be viewed online.

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NOTE:  As many of you know (or have figured out), I started this blog a little over a year ago because I’m committed to reconnecting people with the natural world, starting with the wildlife in their own backyard, neighborhood, county, and city or town.  My goal for 2012 is to increase the number of subscribed readers from ~150 (through both WordPress and Facebook) to 1,000.  To that end, Next-Door Nature is a new member of the Nature Blog Network (NBN), a wonderful resource for finding writers on just about every green topic you can imagine.

Want to help me reach my goal (and share your passion for wildlife at the same time)?

  • First, tell everyone you know about Next-Door Nature—by email, on Facebook, LinkedIn, Stumbleupon, Google+, and any other social media platform that comes to mind.
  • Second, go to the NBN site and submit a review (hopefully glowing) of Next-Door Nature.
  • Third… you tell me! If you have an idea for how to get the word out about this blog, please share. Leave a comment, or send an email. Thanks!
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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; all you have to do is ask). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: John Biehler (3 sepia raccoons); jmtimages (mother & child); Liz West (supper club); Stuti Sakhalkar (human handprint); Jon Stogner (raccoon pawprint); Zeetz Jones (dumpster ); David~O (bipedal).