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)

[Another reprint, this one from February 2012. I’ve been traveling over the holidays and due to some family-related changes to the itinerary I haven’t had much time to write. New stuff is coming, though. I promise. And is there a better way to start a new year than with raccoons? I think not!]

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… oh, you probably thought I was talking about people, right?

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 that aired 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. Or you could say they do have hands but they just happen to use theirs for walking. That’s all semantics, though. 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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© 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).

Nutcracker suite

cardinal-grosbeak-crossbill

No, not Tchaikovsky. These are avian nutcrackers (left to right): northern cardinal, rose-breasted grosbeak, and red crossbill. (Photos: ehpien, Conrad Kulper, and Eugene Beckes, Creative Commons licenses)

[A seasonally appropriate reprint from December 2011. New posts are coming for the new year, I promise.]

Ever wonder why hens’ teeth (and any other kind of avian teeth for that matter) are rare? It’s because teeth are heavy. That’s a problem if you live life on the wing but can’t use a knife and fork to cut your meals up into easy-to-swallow morsels.  A bird’s beak (aka bill) is an adaptation to flight that serves most of the same functions choppers handle in Earth-bound creatures… but without the high metabolic cost of carrying around a set of pearly whites.

Bird Beaks by Shyamal and Jeff Dahl, CC

Figure A. Beak shape and size offers a clue as to what the owner likes to eat.

The beak is a sheath of tough skin on the upper and lower mandibles. Wild birds exploit a wide array of feeding resources and niches, and they are aided in this task by a startling diversity of beak morphology (see Figure A). For example, nectarivores (nectar-eaters), including hummingbirds, usually have long, straw-like beaks that reach deep into flowers. Insectivores (insect-eaters) tend to have narrow, slightly curved beaks that can reach into the small crevices where their prey try to stay out of sight. Piscivores (fish-eaters) have a sharp hook, serrated edges, or both, that help them hold on to their slippery supper. Some of the most distinctive beaks, though, belong to nutcrackers.

The northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is a familiar and popular resident of cities and suburbs, possibly because it’s so easy to spot and identify. It’s so popular, in fact, that seven U.S. state legislatures have chosen this species to be their avian poster child.  At  8½—9” (21—23 cm) from jaunty crest to tail tip, it’s a medium-sized songbird with ahim and her cardinals by Steve Wall cc stereotypic nut- and seed-busting beak—short, stout, and cone-shaped. I like cardinals as much as the next person—I’m from St. Louis, after all, where you can walk down any street in the whole town and know you’ll see someone wearing a shirt adorned with a bright crimson bird perched on a baseball bat. But my affection is somewhat tempered by the fact that their beaks work equally well at crushing seeds and human skin, as I can personally attest. Who would guess you could have empathy for a sunflower seed?

The rose-breasted grosbeak (RBG, Pheucticus ludovicianus) is slightly smaller than a cardinal (7—7½” or 18—21 cm) with a pale, conical but more zaftig bill… a chestnut to the redbird’s hazelnut. Of course, it’s natural for kin to resemble one another, and the RBG is, in fact, one of 17 species known as the “cardinal-grosbeaks.”* Grosbeak—from the French grosbec (gros thick + bec beak) is a bit of a misnomer for this striking black and white bird with a cherry cravat (the females prefer a more sedate, sparrow-like wardrobe). Compared to the schnozzes sported by some members of the Cardinalidae clan, the RBG has a proud but modest snoot.

Although not as common as its stop-light colored cousin, human development—and the fire suppression policies that accompany it—have caused forests to sprout where once only grasses grew, allowing the RBG to expand its breeding and migration range westward (although the Rocky Mountains have proven to be a tough habitat nut to crack).  They’ve become a more frequent visitor to backyard bird bistros, where they like to snack on safflower, cracked corn, and black-striped sunflower seed. Insects and fruit are part of their diet as well, but seeds account for the majority of their calorie intake, especially during winter months.

As the name suggests, red crossbills (Loxia curvirostra) are true specialists. At first glance you might think this is a bird in dire need of an orthodontist, but that oddly shaped bill allows them to force open conifer cones and extract the tasty nutmeat inside. The muscles that allow birds to bite down are stronger than the ones used to open their beaks. But unlike cardinals and grosbeaks, who can clamp down with great force on tough-hulled sunflower seeds (and tender, well-meaning human hands), the crossbill can wedge the slightly opened tips of its bill between the scales of a tightly closed pinecone and then bite down, pushing the scale up to expose the kernel.

The red crossbill is extremely dependent on conifer seeds—wildlife biologists refer to animals whose very existence depends on a narrowly-defined habitat or food sources as obligate species. Most granivores (seed-eaters) start their lives eating protein-rich insects, making a dietary change once they reach adulthood, but crossbills feed on seeds from nest-cradle to grave. Of course, there are risks associated with being a specialist… we’ve all been warned against “putting all your eggs in one basket.” But as long as long red crossbill by eugene beckes ccas you follow the advice of Mark Twain and “watch that basket!” there are benefits as well. For example, red crossbills can raise young any time of the year—even during winter—as long as the cone crop is abundant. I guess some nutty looking adaptations are really quite useful.

The Clark’s nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana) has also used the reliable conifer nut to expand its breeding season. But this member of the Corvidae family (jays and crows) takes the idea even further. It is a hoarder, storing surplus pine, spruce, and hazelnuts. They actually have a special pouch under their tongues which they use to clark's nutcracker by Jamie Chavez cccarry seeds over long distances. A single Clark’s can hide as many as 300,000 pine nuts over the course of a year, and they use this cache crop to feed themselves and their nestlings. Research has shown they have a phenomenal memory and can find most of the seeds they’ve stashed, even months later.

Most… but not all; some of the hidden seeds germinate, re-establishing the bird’s favorite trees in areas cleared by fires or logging operations. It’s a sustainable harvest practice, however accidental, and a form of basket-watching that would make Samuel Clemens proud.

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* The grosbeak taxa is a conglomerate of distantly related songbirds known as a polyphyletic (“of many races”) group that we’ll explore in greater detail in future NDN posts.

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© 2011 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author. Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available for use through a Creative Commons license: ehpien (northern cardinal); Conrad Kulper (rose-breasted grosbeak); Eugene Beckes (red crossbill); Steve Wall (male and female cardinals); Trisha Shears (2nd red-breasted grosbeak); Eugene Beckes (2nd red crossbill);and Jamie Chavez (Clark’s nutcracker).  Figure A was made available through WikiMedia by Shyamal and Jeff Dahl.  Bird song mp3s files are in the public domain.

Stick in the mud

red-eared slider by Charles Lam cc

[This reprint was originally published on January 14, 2012.] 

Shorter days and Jack Frost nipping at your nose means it’s the start of the serious season, filled with snowplows, tire chains, and 10-pound sacks of clay litter that will never feel a kitty’s caress.  In many parts of the northern hemisphere, it’s a long slog through snow, sleet, and freezing rain to get from December to daffodils.

Understandably, we look to Nature for role models. Native people aren’t unique in their ability to draw a connection between human and non-human animals—Madison Avenue is especially canny at choosing charismatic creatures to impersonate our enviable and endearing (or at least humorous) characteristics.  Particularly at this time of year, when mercury can’t seem to bootstrap its way past 32°F, you’ll find a lot of furry sales reps pitching warm and cozy wares in magazines and newspapers, on television and online. I assume the general idea behind this trend is that raw, gray days bring out the hibernator in all of us mammals.

Not to split hairs, but that’s not technically correct. Humans don’t hibernate, but we do go through some behavioral changes at this time of year, at least so far as jobs, school, and the other routines and rituals of modern life allow. times square blizzard by Asterio Tecson ccFunny, how those cold weather coping strategies make humans look strangely reptilian. Just watch—next time the Weather Channel predicts a cold front, with or without a “wintery mix,” check out all the necks and heads tucked back into Gortex shells, peeking out from fleece hoodies, swaths of scarves, and turned up coat collars as they hunch toward the warmth of home. Do you think they look more like bears, or turtles?

Now, there’s a bit of Class warfare at play here because homeothermic (body temperature largely uninfluenced by the surrounding environmental) hominid mammals aren’t often flattered by comparisons to scaly, poikilothermic (body temperature influence by the surrounding environment) cold-bloods. Knowing this, and well aware that you, dear reader, will read my claim with considerable skepticism, I’ve got an example ready to back me up: a familiar and easily identifiable semi-aquatic turtle called the red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans).Even nature neophytes will immediately recognize this species, a common resident of lakes and ponds in urban and suburban parks, as well as pet stores. Shell, legs, head and tail are inscribed with stripes and nested ovals of green and yellow, the “elegant script” referenced in its Latin name (although the vibrant colors do tend to fade somewhat with age and a thick coat of algae).

The red “ear” on either side of the head distinguishes the slider from all other North American turtle species and allows for a quick and definitive ID as they sunbathe on stones and logs. “Quick” being the operative word here; sliders don’t hear well, but they are very sensitive to vibrations that alert them to the presence of potential predators, and they can slip back into the safety of the water with surprising speed.

In the wild, the slider’s life cycle begins with courtship and mating as early as March or as late as July, depending on the region and the weather. Subsequently, the female heads for dry land to deposit a clutch of eggs, excavating with her hind legs to create a nest in the soil. Then she turns for home with nary a backward glance, and the turtles-to-be she leaves behind are on their own from that point forward. Two or three months later, depending on the average ambient temperature, hatchlings emerge from the nest and set out to conquer the world.

Most of them don’t make it past the first year—such is Testudine life… and death. Those who live to see their 2nd birthday, however, can reasonably expect a couple decades of celebrations, getting bigger with each passing year (females reach 10-13 in (25-33 cm), while males max out at 8-10 in (20-25 cm)).

In addition to predation, freezing temperatures are one of the biggest barriers to longevity that young turtles must navigate in the wild (HA! I’ll bet you thought I’d lost my original train of thought on winter and hibernation, didn’t you?).  No one expects to see a slider in a snowstorm, so it’s natural to assume they use sleep as a survival strategy.  Hey, it works for two of the most diverse Orders on Earth—Chiroptera (bats) and Rodentia (rodents)—so why not?sunning r-eared sliders by Alan Vernon ccBut reptiles take a different road.

Brumation is a period of decreased activity, but it doesn’t involve the extreme metabolic changes that occur during hibernation. ‘Round about October, as temperatures dip below 50°F, sliders begin to settle in at the bottom of their preferred body of water, or in some cases under stream banks and tree stumps, and just… hang out. They’re less social, they move a little more slowly, sleep a little later, watch more television (I’m sure there must be a turtle equivalent), and generally feel lethargic and unmotivated. On warmer days, they’ll drag themselves up from the depths to stretch their limbs, have some lunch, and catch some rays with a few friends… but as soon as old Sol goes into hiding they follow suit, retreating into their shells to become stick-in-the-muds until spring.

Social commentators have come up with any number of marketable catch phrases to describe the human desire to turn our backs on a less than hospitable world—cocooning, burrowing, vegging out, even hibernating. The admen (and women) may argue that it doesn’t have the same sizzle, but what we’re really talking about here is brumating.

Sound like anyone 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; all you have to do is ask). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: Charles Lam, Asterio Tecson, Jim, the PhotographerAlan Vernon, and Jack Wolf.

Us against the world

coyotes by larry lamsa creative commons license

Coyote couples are as destined to misfortune as any literary star-crossed lovers, but a lot more reproductively successful (Photo: Larry Lamsa, Creative Commons license)

[In honor of my visit to New Mexico, during which I’ve had far less time to write than expected, a reprint from February 2012.] 

Boy meets girl.

It’s such a familiar story I don’t even need to spell out the rest, right?

Ah, but folks do love their stories to have a beginning, a middle, and an ending.

Ok, ok… so a male and a female find one another.  They “meet-cute” (the classic contrivance of romantic comedies), or through the efforts of micro-managing parents (the historically classic approach), or online, or in one of a million completely unremarkable-to-everyone-else ways—the “how” doesn’t matter (except to the starry-eyed pair, of course). A spark catches and a bond is formed… perhaps by rite (mating or marriage rituals, depending on one’s religion, politics, or species), or at first sight, or possibly over time. They find a home, start a family, and live happily enough ever after (fairy tales tend to gloss over the details of that last part).

It’s a comforting, feel-good saga but it’s not the stuff of legends, or of Pulitzer Prize winning novels, or Oscar accolade dramas. No, for that we need a star-crossed couple, thwarted by outside forces. We need Romeo and Juliet. Catherine and Heathcliff.  Edward and Bella. A pair of coyotes.

coyote in grass by trey ratcliff, creative commons licenseWyle E. and the Mrs. may not be icons of romantic literature, but one would be hard pressed to find couples more destined to misfortune than those of the Canis latrans clan. It’s all here—blood and poison, class and caste, honor and artifice, cruelty and revenge… and then some. After all, the persecution most luckless lovers experience only lasts three Acts, or about 100,000 words. Coyotes have been wearing a target since shortly after European settlers, and their livestock, came to North America in the early 15th Century.

Many species have disappeared into extinction under far less pressure yet, despite hundreds of man-hours and billions of dollars spent annually to wipe coyotes off the face of the Earth, as a species they continue be fruitful and multiply. To survive. To thrive.

urban coyote by ken slade creative commons licenseUnlike their close relative the wolf (Canis lupus), the coyote’s range has expanded in response to human development and programs to exterminate wolves, a key natural competitor. Prior to 1700, coyotes were almost solely creatures of the prairies and deserts of the central United States and Mexico. Now they can be found as far west and north as Alaska, in all but the northernmost reaches of Canada, across the entire “lower 48,” as well as much of Central America, and in habitats as diverse as protected wildlands and urban centers.

How is this possible? Chalk it up to intelligence and adaptability. Behaviorally, coyotes are as flexible as a yoga instructor regarding everything from where to live, what to eat, and even family size and composition.

By 12 months of age—and there’s about a 60% chance a pup will survive his or her first year—coyotes are old enough to start looking for a mate. They don’t always leave home or settle down right away, though. Adults may live alone (for at least part of their life), in pairs, or in packs comprised of an alpha male and female and their offspring from previous years.  Once mated, they form perennial, monogamous bonds; however, on average, “till death do we part” is only a couple of years. In captivity, coyotes can live about as long as domestic dogs (Canis familiaris)—13 to 15 years—but in the wild few live to see their third birthday. Dying young is a familiar theme for the romantically doomed, be they canid or primate.

coyote pups by zac garrett creative commons licenseEveryone in the family unit—Mom, Dad, and any older sibs who haven’t left home—pitches in to rear the current generation of pups; it takes a village to raise coyote kids, too. Litters average four to seven pups, although—and here’s another example of that flexibility I mentioned earlier—coyotes litter size goes up or down based on how much food is available and how many of their brethren live in the neighborhood. In other words, when humans remove (almost always by some lethal method) coyotes from an area, causing the population density to fall, the next breeding season will see a rise in the number of pups per litter. And in the case of the loss of an alpha pair, the remaining pack members may disperse, find mates, and begin raising pups of their own, so the area ends up with more breeding pairs than before any effort was made to reduce their numbers. One could argue that, however counter-intuitive it may first appear, extermination programs are a great way to increase your coyote crop.

last laugh by matt knoth creative commons licenseWell, what do you know? Play your natural selection cards right, and it’s possible to turn the tables on those who try to sabotage your relationship and have the last laugh—talk about a plot twist!

Perhaps the folks who try to control coyotes would find it helpful to read a few Victorian romances. Then again, anyone who’s tried to keep besotted teenagers apart should understand that when it comes to ill-fated lovers, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Come to think of it, maybe Cyrano and Roxanne, Tristan and Isolde, and Jack and Rose should have taken a lesson or two from a couple of cunning characters dressed in fur. They may not have cheated death, but they’ve managed to leave behind generations of children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to tell their tale.  From Once Upon a Time to…

The End.

EPILOGUE:  Lest anyone think I’m unfairly choosing sides in the war against coyotes and other wild predators, readers should know that I understand the narrative presented above is not the whole story. I used a literary device to focus attention on a particular aspect of the coyote’s natural history—pair-bonding and social structure—and I intend to return to this and other species featured on this blog again and again over time, as is necessary to flesh out these complex and fascinating creatures.

While I may not always agree with their production practices, I don’t begrudge farmers and ranchers their right to make a living and protect their investment. I’m an omnivore who depends on the plant and animal foods they produce. However, I do find it strange that many who own livestock will point to the fact that coyotes, wolves, and foxes kill cows, sheep, and chickens as proof of their inherent cruelty, and as justification for implementing lethal control measures—even though many, if not most, of these domestic animals are being raised as food and will eventually be killed by the same humans who cry foul when the grim reaper appears on four feet in a pasture instead of on two at the processing plant.

As a biologist, I know that life feeds on other life. That’s the way of the world and I don’t see it changing any time soon. I just think we should be honest about our motives (and I’m aware that I risk offending some readers with what I’m about to say): It’s not that we don’t want that lamb or calf to be killed and eaten; it’s that we want to be the only ones who get to eat. That strikes me as fundamentally wrong-headed, because it perpetuates the idea that people are somehow removed from the natural world.

Here in the U.S., we’re already paying to have both livestock and predators on our public and private lands, and have done so for a long time. But the true cost of tonight’s meatloaf or hot wings isn’t visible on the grocery store receipt, in the form of the higher meat prices livestock producers might charge to pass along the cost of losses to predation (or non-lethal prevention methods). Instead, part of the price of our food is disguised, hidden as taxes that support inefficient, ineffective, and often brutally cruel control programs. Personally, I prefer to know how much my dinner really costs, financially and ecologically.

You may disagree, as is your right.

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: Larry Lamsa (two coyotes and a pup); Trey Ratcliff (coyote in grass);  Ken Slade (coyote on the street); Zac Garrett (coyote pups); and  Matt Knoth (last laugh).

Waste management

American black vulture

American black vultures work hard to keep the environment clean  (Photo: Rusty One, CCL)

[This post was originally published on Apr 9, 2011.]

The air wasn’t filled with the thumping of Rubbermaid® recycling bins or the metallic squeal of a dumpster being lifted high above a clumsy automated truck, so the last thing I expected to see when I came around the corner was three members of the neighborhood waste management team standing in the middle of the street.

On their lunch break, no less.

Then again, if you’re an American black vulture (Coragyps atratus), feasting on freshly squished squirrel is one of your duties as a sanitation worker.

Rather than rummaging down streets and alleyways, black vultures take to the skies. Catching a thermal updraft to soar at altitudes that provide sweeping views of the landscape below, they rely more on excellent eyesight than a keen sense of smell to do their job.

It’s all for one and one for all in black vulture communities; when one bird hones in on area in need of garbage collection and begins to descend, the rest of the scrap-heap squadron will be on her tail, ready to pitch in.

black vultureEvery clean-up crew needs a uniform—something that hides stains while providing a little protection from the elements. Baggy-butt coveralls? No, thank you! Feathers provide insulation from both hot and cold weather, and how can you beat basic black for low maintenance and classic sophistication? Add to that a generous cowl neckline that can be pulled up to cover a bare pate, or down when it’s time to dive into a decontamination chore head first, and you’ve got a versatile and hygienic fashion statement.

They might not strike you as endearing creatures, but I have a soft spot for these scavengers. Back when I had wildlife rehabilitation permits and had an active practice, I received a black vulture nestling from the Texas A&M veterinary college. The little fellow reminded me of an old boyfriend—never mind why—so I christened him accordingly and, unbeknownst to my landlord, turned the kitchen of my one-bedroom apartment into a vulture nursery. These birds don’t waste time building nests, preferring to lay and incubate their eggs on bare ground, so my vinyl flooring must have seemed reassuringly familiar to the youngster.

Once he was stabilized, I began to look for a rehabilitator elsewhere in the state who worked with this species. Blacks are more social than turkey vultures (Cathartes aura), our other North American vulture species, so finding some siblings for this fuzzy beige only child was a high priority. Unfortunately—or maybe it’s a good thing—vulture chicks aren’t common patients at wildlife rehabilitation centers. I don’t know if this is because these birds have small families, or because they are cautious parents who raise their young out of the spotlight of human activity, or maybe people are simply less likely to rescue a bird they think of as a harbinger of death.

As a result, it took several months to find a new foster parent. During that intervening time, I learned there’s more to these dumpster-divers than meets the eye. For example, I discovered that vulture chicks investigate everything with an endlessly curious beak. Standing barefoot in front of the open refrigerator door, before long I’d look down and see that wrinkled black head delicately and determinedly shredding the cardboard soft drink carton, or I would feel a tickle and look down to see him attempting to pluck a loose thread from the hem of my pajamas. I would smile, charmed right down to the tip of my big toe, only to notice the chick was trying to exfoliate said toe, one hair at a time.

Eventually, it dawned on me that he was using me and my toe to practice for the day when he would apply that clever, hooked bill and tear open a carcass like an overstuffed Hefty® Cinch SAK, and suddenly a bedtime snack didn’t seem all that appealing. They give you nightmares, you know.

© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author. Thanks to Gregory Moine and Anita363, who made their photos available for use under a Creative Commons license, allowing us to illustrate the black vulture’s feathered cowl-neck attire. Rusty One’s photographer’s original photo can be seen here.

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Still Life

Great blue heron

The great blue heron is a patient angler.

[I’m working on new essays this week so I hope you’ll enjoy this reposting from March 26, 2011]

Racing past a nearby pond, I mistook the bird for an art installation.

I realized my error quickly enough once I downshifted. Then again, there’s just something so painterly about a great blue heron (Ardea herodias). The graceful, sinuous lines; the aqueous blues and grays; the plumage, evocative as a brush stroke. The unhurried disposition that creates a pose of every posture. The stippled scene was realism and impressionism all at once.

Slow, prehistoric wing-beats call to mind the cave paintings of Lascaux and Altamira. The great blue is one of the more easily identified birds in flight, partly due to its size—a 6-foot wingspan is hard to miss—and partly because of its silhouette, reminiscent of a textbook pterodactyl: neck folded back on itself in a compressed S; a contrail of long, slender legs.

Statuesque as an adult, the stalk-and-strike hunter spends much of its life standing still as stone.  Balanced as bronze armature, this is a kinetic sculpture that moves imperceptibly, and yet, as you watch… you can feel the potential energy of that cocked, cursive neck building in your own musculature, grown taut with anticipation.

Patience personified…

waiting…

waiting…

waiting…

and THEN

…the spring detonates with blinding speed, blasting the javelin bill through the water’s surface and into the target!

The spear is dragged back from the depths as a squirming fish-kabob. Or, perhaps, a canapé of frog, salamander, crab, or crawdad… would you prefer a vole, garter snake, duckling, or a dragonfly. Heron menus include far more than seafood.

On occasion, large prey will be consumed bite by bite. A tedious process and, as every angler knows, if you want to increase your catch you need to keep your line in the water. So, more often, there’s a flip of feathered head and neck, then dinner is swallowed whole.

Or not. That narrow neck can accommodate a surprisingly wide load, but in the hurry to put the catch in the creel, herons have been known to choke on a too-big meal.

 

 

I know the feeling. I gobble down the items on my to-do list—even tasks like “take a walk.” I channel surf when I should take the time to savor the canvas before me. Taking a deep breath, I tried to quiet my mind, and settled down to watch… and wait.  Dining, fishing, or appreciating a living, breathing work of art—these are pastimes that can’t be rushed.

 

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: S Pisharam and Len Blumin. Blumin, who is responsible for the “catfish dinner” series, reports that in this particular heron’s eyes were NOT bigger than its stomach, or its throat, and it lived to fish another day. © 2011 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

Shell Game

eastern box turgle

Eastern box turtle shells provide protection from predators, but not the hazards of life in cities and suburbs (Photo: Alan Howell © 2010 Star Path Images, used with permission)

[This post is a reprint from 2011, prompted by Dash’s discovery of a box turtle on our evening walk last night–enjoy!]

Sometimes you just need to shut out the world for a while, you know?

Maybe you can’t relate but I know the eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) certainly can. Whether the threat is carnivores or the impending return of students to campus, there are times when nothing beats a little self-imposed solitary confinement.

Carrying a personal isolation chamber on your back means sensory deprivation can be achieved in mere seconds. No need to call ahead for an appointment at the local day spa. Don’t bother dimming the lights, closing the blinds, and turning off your cell phone. Just pull in your extremities and slam your hinged shell shut—a little privacy, if you don’t mind!

eastern box turtles

Hello… goodbye!

Is it any coincidence that box turtles are one of our longest-lived species, with well-documented cases of individuals who reached and then passed the half-century mark? Stress reductions, in the form of a room of one’s own, may well be the key to attaining a ripe old age.

We shouldn’t dismiss the importance of wise food choices either—lots of lean protein, in the form of earthworms, snails, slugs, and insects, as well as fruits and veggies such as berries, grasses, and flowers.  Turtles have another favorite food that may contribute to overall longevity—they’ve been known to consume poisonous fungi, causing anyone who dines on that particular portion of turtle meat to sicken, or worse.

Of course, someone has to kill and eat said turtle before suffering the consequences, which may not seem like much of a survival benefit unless you consider it from the standpoint of the population, rather than the individual. See, all it takes is one or two bad dinners and, ever after, box turtles become a much less appealing meal for that particular consumer. The technical term is adverse conditioning—that’s a polite way of saying animals (both human and non-human) tend to stop eating things that make us vomit.

Now, it’s unlikely that turtles have that particular life-extending strategy in mind when eating wild mushrooms, but other kinds of magical fungi have been credited with providing a variety of benefits, including an improved sense of well-being and decreased anxiety levels. Perhaps box turtles are self-medicating with the Terrapene equivalent of Xanax®.

One of six subspecies of the common box turtle (T. carolina), the eastern, like all its kin, has a highly domed carapace (the upper portion of the shell) and a hinged plastron (the lower half of the shell). What sets each subspecies apart is distribution and habitat, as well as certain physical characteristics.  T.c. carolina, found from southern Maine to southern Florida and as far west as central Texas, is known for a colorful keeled carpace that features diverse combinations of spots, bars, and radiating lines.

Color provides a clue to more than a box turtle’s species. It can also help us determine the gender of that lurching, resolute reptile we stop to help cross the street.  If the eyes (irises) are bright orange or red, you’re holding a male; females have brown or light orange eyes. What if, in response to your good deed, the turtle has gone into hiding, making eye contact a moot point? Simply turn the creature over; females have a flat plastron, males are slightly concave. (You know… birds do it, bees do it…).

The hinged plastron is what caused taxonomists to create a separate genus for North America’s box-top reptiles, and what allows the eastern and it’s relatives to retreat into a kind of biological fortress. For most of their history, this survival strategy worked quite well against predators like coyotes, raccoons, and skunks.  Sadly, it doesn’t provide the same level of protection from every threat.

Box turtles are still relatively common throughout much of their range, but not even the most tightly closed shell can shield this species from the impacts of habitat loss and interactions with Homo sapiens. These are slow moving, slow growing creatures with delayed sexual maturity and low reproduction rates, all of which puts them at risk. A female may produce hundreds of eggs during her lifetime, but less than a dozen offspring can be expected to survive to adulthood.

It’s hard to even begin to estimate how many turtles are hit attempting to cross roads every year, and there are plenty of other hazard against which withdrawing into your shell is of little use—trains, lawn mowers, tractors, and bulldozers, to name but a few. Then there’s the capture of turtles for the pet trade. In many states, this practice is completely unregulated, with devastating impacts on wild populations.

Even so, there are still times when coming out of your shell is the better choice. Especially for humans. Solitary confinement is used as a punishment because, unlike turtles we are social mammals. We need companionship, conversation, touch. Hard to get any of those needs met when you retreat to your shell. Unless, of course, you invite someone to join you there.

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Doug Letterman, Bill Lynch, Shane Kemp, Brian Hefele, and  Chesapeake Bay Program.  © 2011 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

Lonesome Doves

It’s a fine world, though rich in hardships at times. ~ Larry McMurtry

There’s a sweetness in the lament of a mourning dove (Zenaida macroura) that makes the sorrow bearable, and believable. Theirs isn’t an pop tune about a hookup with a hook, or a power ballad tale of infatuation, thrill, and transitory heartbreak. When mourning doves call I hear a country-western melody about spacious, isolated landscapes and complicated lives composed of joy and calamity, love and betrayal, not to mention good and evil that can’t be easily differentiated by the color of someone’s hat.

Country music has had it’s share of singers who could wail with convincing anguish on stage, then party ’til the cows came home once the show was over… so I have to wonder if the mourning dove’s high lonesome yodel —coo-OO, COO, coo — is simply part of the act. After all, that grievous angel cry is replaced by a jaunty whistle of wings every time they launch skyward.

Plus, doves are rarely alone and don’t seem to have much time in their lives to feel lonely. The whole clan is known to grow up fast (reaching sexual maturity at about 85 days old) and then pair up into monogamous ’til-death-do-we-part couples who take the directive to be fruitful and multiply seriously… as in up to twelve chicks in a single season serious (six broods of two chicks each). Both Mom and Dad are doting, active parents who share grocery shopping and child care equally, rarely leaving their babes unsupervised by at least one adult at all times.

The end of the lovey-dovey breeding season shouldn’t bring on the lonesome blues either, because that’s when the community flocks together in a big way. They go on group picnics, gobbling up seed in open fields or from the ground beneath backyard feeders until their crops are full, then settle onto fences, or walls, or telephone wires to digest the meal and the days events. They go drinking together, although for doves that means sipping water from puddles and bird baths rather than throwing back with Jose Quervo at the neighborhood saloon.

The community even sleeps together— literally, not euphemistically — roosting in trees and other protected areas. Comforted by the safety of numbers, they’ll drop their heads comfortably between raised shoulders rather than tucking in beneath a wing or over the back as so many other birds do.

Despite all the social network support, there is a darker side to the life of a mourning dove that may explain their doleful song — they often end up on the wrong end of a gun. Mourning doves are abundant, with a population estimated to be comprised of nearly 500 million individuals, but they are classified as a game bird and are the most frequently hunted species in North America. As many as 70 million are shot by hunters each year. Those who dodge the bullet still have to contend with the threat of lead poisoning from shot picked up from the ground while feeding.

Despite what their name implies, though, when one of these doves becomes a widow or widower they don’t spend a lot of time in Brokenheartsville bemoaning their newly-single status. In fact, they pair up again pdq. After all, ya can’t be fruitful all by your lonesome.

 

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Sarah Richter, Chuck Roberts, George Thomas, Tina :0), Edward Peters, and Patty Myrick.  © 2017 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]