Oasis

The Nissan Watering Hole (Photo: Ingrid Taylar, used with permission)

[This piece was originally published on January 29, 2012.]

Which season comes to mind when you read these words?

parched

desiccated

shriveled

arid

sere

If you’re a wild thing, the answer may well be winter.

Sure, the heat of summer can make any body feel dry as dust. But wild animals, especially those species who can tolerate living near people, usually have an easier time finding some moisture when the mercury rises than when it falls.

In cities and suburbs, April brings more than just spring showers. The return engagement of automatic lawn sprinklers turns every pampered landscaping leaf and each blade of carefully tended turf-grass into a diminutive drink dispenser. Fountains splash and spritz and spray. Swimming pools drop all pretense of modesty and shrug off their winter coats. Hoses report for car-washing and child-cooling duty, turning streets and sidewalks into ephemeral streams. Birdbaths and pet bowls brim with cool, clear water.

Squirrel lapping water from window (Photo: David Grant, CC license)During the winter months, however, creatures have to get creative and a bit brave to quench their thirst, at least in northern climes. Those of us with easy access to indoor plumbing may not realize it, but for wild animals, dehydration is a bigger threat to winter survival than starvation. Even when the clouds are feeling generous, the precipitation they deliver is often in a more or less rigid—and much less quaffable—form. Personally, I like to think of sleet, snow, and ice as the H2O equivalent of hibernation. Unfortunately, water’s winter vacation means more work for those who depend on it.

And that’s everyone. No exception. Animal, vegetable (no, not mineral)… if you’re alive, you not only need to consume water, you are water—60 to 80% water. Even critters who sleep away the short photo-period months depend on water to stay alive, same as the rest of us. They simply tank up pre-torpor and then use the water tucked away in their extra reserves of body fat.

American goldfinch drinking from an icicle (Photo: JDB Photos, CC license)Active animals need water for basic metabolic functions, including proper digestion. This is especially true for seed-eating birds—a group that tends to hang around all year rather than migrate to places where insects and fruit are still on the menu. That’s because there isn’t much moisture in their meals. In fact, it takes extra water to digest high fiber foods.

What happens to birds and mammals who can’t find a source of unfrozen surface water when they need it? The problem is far greater than simply putting up with a dry mouth until you can stop at a convenience store for a bottle of Aquafina. How long an animal can go without water depends on many factors, including their species, weight, physical condition, and parasite load, as well as the weather. Generally speaking, though, it doesn’t take long for life without liquid to get unpleasant. Lose one or two percent of total body water (TBW) and your dehydration is classified as “mild”; however, anyone who’s experienced it (that would be me) is sure to argue that the resulting headache is anything but. The definition of “moderate” dehydration is five to ten percent of TBW… the situation is getting serious now, as your skin dries out and loses turgor (the ability to snap back into place when pinched) and your eyes begin to sink back into their sockets. Over ten percent TBW loss is “severe” enough that you’re unlikely to recover without medical intervention.

The scenario I’ve just described may sound like an environmental disaster waiting to happen… and in cases of actual drought the impact is rather grim. Under more normal circumstances, winter water is difficult but not impossible to find, and this scarcity offers an opportunity for nature lovers. Want to make wild lives—and wildlife watching—a little easier? Turn on the spigot.

I mean that literally. Providing water can be as simple as letting your outside faucets drip. You probably already do this to protect your pipes from bursting when The Weather Channel warns of freezing temperatures. Perhaps you can afford to do it once a week, or every other day, regardless of the forecast.BluebirdBath (Photo: Rob and Jane Kirkland, CC license)

If you’d rather keep the water bill low, and the wild ones a little further from the house, birdbaths are a simple way to offer refreshment. They’re easy to maintain, plus you can add an electric, battery, or solar powered heater/de-icer to insure that everyone can wet their whistle on even the coldest days. Hard-core backyard habitat aficionados will drool over the possibility of installing a pond or artificial stream. Whatever floats your boat—you’ll find both ends of the water-feature spectrum, and everything in between, at your local watchable wildlife retailer or gardening center.  I promise you, the sound of water is irresistible music to non-human ears. New resources will be found and greatly appreciated.

What’s more, water is an effective wildlife attractor all year long. When you offer seed, you get seed-eaters (e.g., cardinals, blue jays, house sparrows, and squirrels) and some omnivores (e.g., opossums, raccoons, the occasional deer or black bear)—and probably a lot of hulls and other waste that needs to be raked up and thrown away. Feeder maintenance can be an expensive and time-consuming habit.* Landscape with native plants and you should be able to coax some fruit and nectar fans to visit as well. Few homeowners are willing to do what’s necessary to invite insectivores to dinner, at least intentionally.

But offer everyone something to drink and suddenly your crib is a coffee house, local pub, and hot new club, all rolled into one. Just add water!

*You may also inadvertently lure in some species who like to feast on the feeder regulars. If you find it disturbing to look up from your morning coffee to see a sharp-shinned hawk scattering goldfinch feathers hither and yon, you may find it helps to think of this as progressing from “having a feeder” to “having a food-web.”

 

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© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work—just ask). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: Ingrid TaylarDavid GrantJDB PhotosRob & Jane Kirkland, and James Marvin Phelps.

Runner-up

Two male turkeys audition but fail to impress the judge (Photo: Teddy Llovet, Creative Commons license)

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[An alternative to the trussed and roasted turkeys featured as the unlucky guests of honor on tables across the U.S. this week, reprinted from November 2012.]

I don’t know what American grade school kids are being taught these days—I left Oakville Elementary a couple of decades ago (okay, fine—several decades ago) and since I haven’t had kids of my own I don’t have access to 21st century homework assignments. But I’ll go out on a limb here and bet that most of them know the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) won the 1782 version of American Idol, and that it did so by edging out celebrity judge Benjamin Franklin’s favorite contestant, the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo).

That long-ago contest had little in common with the popular modern day version of reality TV. For one thing, neither bird has great pipes. Citizens were never asked to call or text in their votes. Also, the bald eagle has held on to national fame longer than fellow white-headed winner Taylor Hicks, while the turkey hasn’t exactly proven the voters wrong by, say, winning an Academy Award, Jennifer Hudson-style.

On the other hand, we don’t set aside a day each November (or any month, for that matter) on which the eagle takes center stage.  So in honor of Thanksgiving, I’d like to briefly sing the praises of the runner-up… and not just as the star performer at a holiday dinner.

Shortly after Congress immortalized the eagle on the Great Seal of the United States, Franklin shared his disappointment and misgivings over their choice in a letter to his daughter. Given the sparse pelt on his own pate, one might expect ol’ Ben would view the bald eagle as a kindred spirit, or at least harbor a bit of sympathy. Instead, his criticism was as harsh as any doled out by Simon Cowell, describing our new national symbol as “a Bird of bad moral character” who “does not get his Living honestly,” preferring to sup on rotting fish or, worse yet, stealing fresh seafood from more industrious raptors like the osprey (Pandion haliaetus). What’s more, Ben argued the eagle is cowardly, evidenced by how easily it can be driven away by much smaller birds defending their nests and offspring. Not exactly the role model image our fledgling country hoped to cultivate.

The turkey, according to Franklin, is “in Comparison a much more respectable bird,” a “true original Native of America” and a “Bird of Courage” who “would not hesitate to attack” any invader and defend his home turf.

This description might not square with your expectations after years of holiday stories featuring dim-witted, less than inspiring  Butterballs-to-be but the domestic turkey is but a pale and passive imitation of the real-deal.

Wild tom turkeys (as the males are called) will most definitely defend their breeding territory against potential rivals. Large and heavy, they are unexpectedly agile flyers, aggressive fighters, social, sometimes playful, intelligent, and adaptive.  To my knowledge they’ve never been accused of theft or caught dining on carrion (their omnivorous diet consists primarily of acorns and other nuts, seeds, fruit, buds and leaves, insects and the occasional small reptile or amphibian).

As far as moral character goes… well, you know rock stars. Toms strut their stuff in a flamboyant palette of iridescent red, green, purple, copper, bronze, and gold feathers worthy of Adam Lambert. No piercings or tattoos, but oozing cool with a Beat-worthy statement beard of stiff bristles starting just above the wishbone, wattles (flesh hanging from the head and/or neck), caruncles (fleshy growths on the head), snoods (long fleshy object draped across a tom’s beak), spurs and other body art. Their ladies, in keeping with general avian fashion trends, tend to be more conservatively dressed but they can strut like a runway model  when warranted, complete with long legs and outlandish makeup. Out of the spotlight, turkey hens are attentive mothers to their precocial offspring, in contrast to the menfolk, who are polygamous absentee fathers.

(Male bald eagles, it must be said, are actively involved in their children’s upbringing; given his own reputation, Ben might have been well served to heed the old saying about people who live in glass houses before he cast the first stone.)

Like the bald eagle, wild turkeys experienced a perilous decline in their numbers during in the last century, due to overhunting and habitat loss (rather than DDT exposure, as was the case for so many of our birds of prey).  Game agencies took action to protect the species and have been successful in helping the population rebound. So much so, in fact, that turkeys have not only returned to rural fields, pastures, and woodlands but have begun to tour in many major metropolitan areas as well.  In some parts of the country spotting a flock of wild turkeys foraging near a highway, hanging out downtown, or feasting at a backyard bird feeder is no longer a novelty.

That means a growing number of Americans now have a ticket to see  this national treasure up close and personal more than once a year, and at venues other than a serving platter.

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© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work. Just ask first.). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: Teddy Llovet (cover); keeva999 (turkey in flight); Mic Stolz (plumage); Peter Patau (men).

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

An opossum in the snow

A Virginia opossum braves the snow to look for an early evening meal (iStock/twphotos, used with permission)

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[I’m on the road this week and looking forward to seeing some snow! With that in mind, I decided to reprint this piece from 2010. A new NDN post is in the works for next week.]

A dusting of snow always makes it easier to see who’s been out and about in the neighborhood. Bird tracks don’t provide much insight into genus and species, but opossum tracks are recognizable enough. Several of them—or maybe it was one very busy guy or gal—live along a favorite walking route of mine.

example of opossum paw printsOpossums are down with life in and around town, in part because they are the penultimate omnivorous opportunists. In addition to their “traditional” cuisine, which features insects, small vertebrate animals, wild fruits (including persimmons, a special treat), and carrion, ‘possums are known to take advantage of uncovered garbage bins (not without risk, as they often fall in and become trapped) and bird feeder spillage. They’re not shy about venturing through a pet door now and then either, especially if there’s a beckoning bowl of kibble on the other side. This can come as quite a shock—to both parties—when the homeowner wanders into the mudroom or kitchen expecting to say good morning to Garfield or Odie.

If ever there was a creature in need of a good spin-doctor, it’s North America’s only marsupial. The Aussie cousins—kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, sugar gliders, even wombats—have somehow garnered a higher charismatic ranking than poor old Didelphis virginiana.

Their long snout, gray fur, and naked tail cause many city and suburb folks to mistake them for rodents, and this may be the root of their public relations problems. I remember a wildlife center phone conversation with a woman surprised and frightened by an opossum who wandered through the pet door into her laundry room.  Eventually, I was able to calm her down a bit by convincing her she was not dealing with a freak-of-nature rat, but my attempts to help her appreciate the natural beauty standing in front of her dryer fell on deaf ears.

Startled Woman: I’m sorry, but I can’t even stand to look at him… he’s just so UGLY!

Indignant Wildlife Biologist (that would be me): Well, ma’am, he’s probably thinking the same thing about you!

Not one of my finest Wildlife Hot-Line moments, I know, but the words were tumbling off of my tongue before I had a chance to bite it. I happen to find opossums quite handsome. Still, there’s no denying that rodent resemblance. If you are mouse-and-rat adverse you’ll probably never come to think of ‘possums as pretty.

There’s another problem—it’s a common misconception that ‘possums are clumsy, dirty, and not all that bright, with poor vision and hearing to boot.

Don’t believe it.

Personally, I think any species that’s managed to survive relatively unchanged since the Cretaceous deserves a little more credit. Modern humans arrived on the scene nearly 90 million years later, so perhaps we should be a little more respectful of our elders.

Opossums are actually quite clean. They carefully groom themselves during and after eating—even the babies. When it comes to the acuity of their senses, common knowledge has it all wrong. These marsupials have excellent hearing and can easily detect the rustling of prey hidden under dry leaves or tree bark. A wildlife rehabilitator friend who works extensively with opossums tells me they evolved with a focus on olfactory sensitivity and, as a result, have an extraordinary sense of smell. Their sight is about average for mammals, but because they are primarily nocturnal, their eyes are adapted to working under low-light conditions. Our daytime is their night and, as a result, they can appear rather dazed and confused in sunlight.

Kind of like me when I’m up past my bedtime.

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© 2010 Next-Door Nature — no reprints without written permission from the author.

King of the Road

[Here’s an oldie but goodie from back in 2010, with minor updates.]

There’s a wonderful word—one of my favorites— to describe creatures that are active at dawn and dusk. Crepuscular. It’s a popular time of day for many species, so the great outdoors gets lively when the light is low, and it’s a great time to see wildlife.

That is, unless you’re in a car.

Challenging light conditions can conceal an animal near the road and reduce a driver’s response time when something darts out. While driving at twilight, it’s important to scan the shoulders for movement or for the telltale shine of eyes reflecting headlights. Vehicles are a constant threat to wildlife, and my time running a large urban rehabilitation center provided more than enough evidence to support that claim.

Of course, I should know better. But, lost in thought on my way to the mall, I didn’t see the striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis) until he had sauntered into the middle of my lane. It wasn’t a major thoroughfare so I had the road to myself and, luckily, I wasn’t going very fast. I had time to cede the right of way. Good thing, too, because I knew better than to expect this black-and-white tough guy to blink. Fact is, he stopped and turned to stare down my Subaru.

The great horned owl is a striped skunk’s only one serious predator. Everyone else makes a wide detour, at least after being sprayed the first time. Since this particular crossing guard was a kit, the whole world has maintained a respectful distance—why wouldn’t he expect an automobile to follow suit?

If there’s enough time, skunks will usually give those who cross their path fair warning. According to mephitologist (skunk scientist) Jerry Dragoo of the University of New Mexico, a whole series of threat behaviors may occur before Pepe le Pew resorts to firing the big gun. Striped skunks will stomp both front feet, charge forward a few steps and then stamp, or back up while dragging their front feet before spraying the object of their wrath. They can discharge their weapon while looking you in the eye, using an over-the-shoulder stance or even a handstand.

I’ve heard stories in which a skunk was taking his or her time crossing the road, or was dining on some previously flattened wildlife, and clearly saw the car coming. Drivers have reported observing the kind of threat posturing described by Dr. Dragoo, although they did not recognize it as such. As their vehicle drew closer and closer, they wonder why the animal just stands there. Surely it will scurry off the road… any second now!

Instead, the skunk holds its ground, takes aim, and fires… and in the process becomes another scavenger’s meal.  Gone, but not forgotten.  Not until the fragrance fades, at least.

I’ve got good skunk karma, I guess. Either that, or this particular stinker was feeling mellow. Thirty seconds of holding my breath… then he decided to continue on his way and I escaped getting doused. My luck ran out a few minutes later at the mall, though. Still thinking about my skunk encounter, I swear I never saw that perfume saleswoman stamp her feet.

 

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Desert MuseumTJ Gehling, and USFWS Mountain-Prairie.  © 2017 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

Near and Distant

[Photo: Steven Crane, CCL]

African elephants (Loxodonta africana) aren’t usually considered an urban wildlife species but I’d come a long way and wanted to see them while I was in South Africa. The built environment just doesn’t have the amenities Earth’s largest living terrestrial mammal needs to feel at home.  Africa’s elephants prefer dense forests, woodlands, deserts, and even the transition zones between these biomes to urban canyons and suburban savannah. Lucky for me, this study abroad excursion included several days at the Shamwari Game Reserve near Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape.

[© Gil Sinclair 2013, used with permission]

I also had the good luck to meet some relatives of the elephant while in Cape Town.  The rock hyrax (Procavia capensis) has found it much easier to adapt to city living than its country cousin.  I suppose concrete looks pretty familiar when boulders are your preferred abode. It also helps when you look much less threatening to the human neighbors throughout the hyrax’s Middle Eastern, sub-Saharan, and southern African range than their towering relatives.

Up on Table Mountain, which overlooks the city, hyraxes were everywhere: scampering along the pathways, basking on benches, happily whistling to one another, and enjoying the sunset from rocky precipices. Ignoring humans while living alongside them can be a good survival strategy for urban wildlife, and the hyraxes showed little interest in the two-footed visitors… unless some tourist with a camera decided to force the issue. Attempts to get the affable-looking creatures to pose were met with low “bug off!” grunts.

[© Gil Sinclair 2013, used with permission]

The family resemblance certainly isn’t obvious at first sight but keep in mind that the genealogical tree branched out millions of years ago.  Let’s start with stature:   adult elephants stand 10-13 ft (3-4 m) tall at the shoulder and may weigh over 8 tons, while an adult hyrax measures up at about 8-12 in (20-30 cm) and tips the scales at a whopping 8-9 lbs (4 kg).

Elephants have very little hair while hyraxes are covered in short taupe fur and long guard hairs that function like a cat’s whiskers.  With their small round ears it’s easy to see how they could be mistaken for a large guinea pig (rodent) or pika (cousin to rabbits and hares). Maybe that’s why they have so many aliases; in South Africa they are called dassie (Dutch for badger) or klipdas (Afrikaans for rock badger), Swahili speakers know them as pimbi, and in the King James Bible they’re referred to as coney (Middle English and Anglo-French). Even “hyrax” is misleading, originating from the Greek word “hyrak” or shrewmouse.

Taxonomists know you shouldn’t judge a book, or a beast, by it’s cover. Look beneath the binding and you’ll find a different tail. Make that tale.  For example:

  • [Photo: Andy Withers, CCL]

    Hyraxes don’t have trunks but they do have small pointed tusks and can deliver a ferocious bite when cornered.
  • Like elephants, hyraxes have flat, hoof-like toenails rather than curved claws.
  • Both are social mammals; elephants live in herds of up to 100 individuals, hyrax colonies can have up to 50 members.
  • Both have long gestation periods (22 months for elephants, 7-8 months for hyraxes) and offspring are slow to reach maturity.
  • Elephant and hyrax newborns are precocial, relatively mature and mobile shortly after birth.
  • Both species employ cooperative care for raising young. Elephant calves are tended from birth by both their mothers and other females in the herd; and hyrax pups are greeted and sniffed by the entire colony the day after they’re born.
  • Females stay with the group their entire life; males disperse.
  • Male elephants and hyraxes don’t have a scrotum; their testes remain in the abdomen even after sexual maturity.

The differences between elephants and hyraxes are more than skin deep, too.

  • Elephants must drink up to 50 gallons of water per day; rock hyraxes can survive for long periods on just the water they obtain through their food (although they dehydrate quickly in direct sunlight).
  • Neither animal is a ruminant, but hyraxes have a complex three-chambered stomach; elephants have a simpler but less efficient digestive system.
  • Hyrax stomaches are filled with symbiotic bacteria that help break down plant material; elephants have to consume up to 300 lbs of food per day, in part because they aren’t able to extract much nutritional value from what they eat.
  • [Photo: Abri du Plessis, CCL]

    An elephant spends a good portion of each day filling its stomach with food and water; rock hyraxes are world-class loafers who are inactive 95% of the time.
  • Hyraxes have poorly developed thermoregulation compared to other mammals so they need to sunbathe for several hours each morning to warm up and won’t venture out of their shelters on cold or rainy days. Elephants have to work at staying cool; they don’t sweat or pant but their large ears help to dissipate heat and they’ve developed a temperature regulation strategy that involves storing heat during the day and releasing it at night, similar to camels and desert rodents.
  • Elephants have a sixth “toe” and their feet have large subcutaneous cushions that distribute weight and absorb mechanical forces; hyraxes have a more flexible foot with a rubbery pad in the center that can be raised to create a suction-cup for clinging to rocks and moving across slick surfaces without slipping.
  • African elephants have no natural predators as adults (they have a decided size advantage) but their calves are vulnerable to attack by lions, crocodiles, leopards, and hyenas. Hyraxes have many predators and, as such, they feed in a circle formation, heads facing outward, eyes scanning for danger.

I’m told that most tourists who have a safari on their bucket list focus on the iconic African Big Five — elephant, rhinoceros, Cape buffalo, lion, and leopard.  I’d be the first to agree they’re all worth seeing in their natural environment, with no bars or moats to limit your view. Or theirs. 

But I find celebrity tours less interesting than exploring on my own.  I like to switch to hyrax-time, wander through neighborhood, sit at a sidewalk cafe or bask on a park bench and watch the residents, human and non-human alike, go about their day. Taking note of what makes us different and all the ways we’re related, despite the distance. 

© 2017 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work  but please ask).

Town Crier

Hartlaub’s gull [photo: Paul Barnard Fotografie ccl]

My flight into Cape Town landed early last night, just before 9p. That was fine by me since, by that point, I’d been on the plane about 11.5 hours, and in transit from Blacksburg for about 31 hours.  For the next 10 days I’ll be co-leading an international field experience for some of my students in Virginia Tech’s Master of Natural Resources program.

The shuttle pulled up to the hotel and I stepped out into a well-lit courtyard. Then, less than one hour into my first trip to the continent, I had my first encounter with the urban wildlife of South Africa.

I could hear but not see birds overhead. Lots of them.  It sounded like some kind of Corvid, squawking as if they’d just spotted treasure in the form of an untapped dumpster or fresh roadkill.

I checked in at the front desk and headed up to my room on the third floor with every intention of proceeding directly from the door to under the covers. Actually, I detoured to the shower, then bed.  I wasn’t expecting to continue hearing an avian play-by-play going on outside the window but, of course, now I was closer to the commentators’ booth. Still, tired as I was, I knew a few birds weren’t going to keep me awake. I figured the din would die down as soon as everyone settled in to dine.

Boy, did I flub that call.

The birds were still going strong when I woke up this morning so I decided to see for myself who had stayed up all night talking.  Not crows or ravens, as I’d thought. Gulls.  I’d forgotten that the hotel overlooks Table Bay.

[photo: Harvey Barriston, ccl]

Gulls are notoriously difficult to identify to species. They often have several years of varying adolescent plumage before they reach adulthood and stop trying out different looks. For that reason I wasn’t expecting to get a definitive answer when I did a little research on the gulls of South Africa, even though I could see some of them quite well  as they stood preening in the morning sunshine on the roof across the courtyard. Identification turned out to be a snap, though, as there aren’t that many different kinds of gulls here. The urban birds who welcomed me to Cape Town under cover of darkness were Hartlaub’s gulls (Chroicocephalus hartlaubii).

The Hartlaub is a small, non-migratory gull found along the coasts and estuaries of South Africa and Namibia.  Also known as the king gull, and once considered a subspecies of the silver gull (C. novaehollandiae), this urban homebody doesn’t stray far from land, and nearly half of the species’ total population rarely leaves the Cape Town area.

Primarly white with a gray back and black-tipped gray wings, the usually white head is hooded in very pale lavender gray during breeding seasons. The traditional chick-rearing colony is Robben Island, infamous as the place where former South African President and Nobel Laureate Nelson Mandela spent 18 of the 27 years he was imprisoned prior to the abolishment of apartheid.

[photo: Derek Keats, ccl]

Common in its range, the Hartlaub is nonetheless a relatively rare species in the global gull panoply. They’re known for being quite social and talkative in the fall and winter months–that’s right now in the Southern Hemisphere (I can vouch for that assessment). I’ll admit, I felt exonerated for making a faulty ID last night when I read that this gull’s call has been described as “crow-like.”

Hartlaub’s gulls readily habituate to the presence of humans and have learned to exploit our built environment so well they’re considered a nuisance in Cape Town, and a hazard at the local airports (I could have easily waited to learn that nugget of information until after I’m back home).

© 2017 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work  but please ask).

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).

Runner-up

Two male turkeys audition but fail to impress the judge (Photo: Teddy Llovet, Creative Commons license)

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I don’t know what American grade school kids are being taught these days—I left Oakville Elementary a couple of decades ago (okay, fine—several decades ago) and since I haven’t had kids of my own I don’t have access to 21st century homework assignments. But I’ll go out on a limb here and bet that most of them know the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) won the 1782 version of American Idol, and that it did so by edging out celebrity judge Benjamin Franklin’s favorite contestant, the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo).

That long-ago contest had little in common with the popular modern day version of reality TV. For one thing, neither bird has great pipes. Citizens were never asked to call or text in their votes. Also, the bald eagle has held on to national fame longer than fellow white-headed winner Taylor Hicks, while the turkey hasn’t exactly proven the voters wrong by, say, winning an Academy Award, Jennifer Hudson-style.

On the other hand, we don’t set aside a day each November (or any month, for that matter) on which the eagle takes center stage.  So in honor of Thanksgiving, I’d like to briefly sing the praises of the runner-up… and not just as the star performer at a holiday dinner.

Shortly after Congress immortalized the eagle on the Great Seal of the United States, Franklin shared his disappointment and misgivings over their choice in a letter to his daughter. Given the sparse pelt on his own pate, one might expect ol’ Ben would view the bald eagle as a kindred spirit, or at least harbor a bit of sympathy. Instead, his criticism was as harsh as any doled out by Simon Cowell, describing our new national symbol as “a Bird of bad moral character” who “does not get his Living honestly,” preferring to sup on rotting fish or, worse yet, stealing fresh seafood from more industrious raptors like the osprey (Pandion haliaetus). What’s more, Ben argued the eagle is cowardly, evidenced by how easily it can be driven away by much smaller birds defending their nests and offspring. Not exactly the role model image our fledgling country hoped to cultivate.

The turkey, according to Franklin, is “in Comparison a much more respectable bird,” a “true original Native of America” and a “Bird of Courage” who “would not hesitate to attack” any invader and defend his home turf.

This description might not square with your expectations after years of holiday stories featuring dim-witted, less than inspiring  Butterballs-to-be but the domestic turkey is but a pale and passive imitation of the real-deal.

Wild tom turkeys (as the males are called) will most definitely defend their breeding territory against potential rivals. Large and heavy, they are unexpectedly agile flyers, aggressive fighters, social, sometimes playful, intelligent, and adaptive.  To my knowledge they’ve never been accused of theft or caught dining on carrion (their omnivorous diet consists primarily of acorns and other nuts, seeds, fruit, buds and leaves, insects and the occasional small reptile or amphibian).

As far as moral character goes… well, you know rock stars. Toms strut their stuff in a flamboyant palette of iridescent red, green, purple, copper, bronze, and gold feathers worthy of Adam Lambert. No piercings or tattoos, but oozing cool with a Beat-worthy statement beard of stiff bristles starting just above the wishbone, wattles (flesh hanging from the head and/or neck), caruncles (fleshy growths on the head), snoods (long fleshy object draped across a tom’s beak), spurs and other body art. Their ladies, in keeping with general avian fashion trends, tend to be more conservatively dressed but they can strut like a runway model  when warranted, complete with long legs and outlandish makeup. Out of the spotlight, turkey hens are attentive mothers to their precocial offspring, in contrast to the menfolk, who are polygamous absentee fathers.

(Male bald eagles, it must be said, are actively involved in their children’s upbringing; given his own reputation, Ben might have been well served to heed the old saying about people who live in glass houses before he cast the first stone.)

Like the bald eagle, wild turkeys experienced a perilous decline in their numbers during in the last century, due to overhunting and habitat loss (rather than DDT exposure, as was the case for so many of our birds of prey).  Game agencies took action to protect the species and have been successful in helping the population rebound. So much so, in fact, that turkeys have not only returned to rural fields, pastures, and woodlands but have begun to tour in many major metropolitan areas as well.  In some parts of the country spotting a flock of wild turkeys foraging near a highway, hanging out downtown, or feasting at a backyard bird feeder is no longer a novelty.

That means a growing number of Americans now have a ticket to see  this national treasure up close and personal more than once a year, and at venues other than a serving platter.

For that, I am thankful.

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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!

© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work. Just ask first.). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: Teddy Llovet (cover); keeva999 (turkey in flight); Mic Stolz (plumage); Peter Patau (men).