The Hawk Who Mistook Her Mate for a Meal

Seriously, it could happen to anyone.

Well, any working mom operating on instinct and snap-judgements who needs to snag some groceries before she flies back home to those perpetually ravenous kiddos.

Okay… maybe it couldn’t happen to anyone. But every now and then, once in a very blue moon, some harried female Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii) will be scanning earth and sky for something to serve for supper, probably thinking about the million other things on her to-do list, and she’ll innocently, accidentally, absentmindedly, kinda-sorta… confuse her spouse for take-out.

At which point she becomes a single working mother.

Now, before you get all mommy-shamey (“I would never feed my children their dad for dinner, but maybe that’s just me…), at least hear her side of the story.

First of all, you need to understand that most predators have a niche, a specific go-to prey that’s based, at least in part, on their particular hunting skill-set. Coopers are no exception; as one of the world’s most adept and daring fliers, they’re capable of barnstorming through a tangle of tree leaves, twigs, and branches as they chase down some chow. Naturally, their aerial talents give Coopers an edge when it comes to the pursuit of other winged creatures. Sure, if the opportunity presents itself they’re not going to turn up their beaks at a frog, a chipmunk, or a bat but the Coopers prey of choice is birds.

When a Cooper’s prey drive kicks in, male and female alike, the only thing that matters in that moment is hitting the target. They don’t even give much consideration to potential risk to life and limb, it seems. According to the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, a study of this species found nearly a quarter of the 300 skeletons examined had healed chest fractures, especially of the furcula (aka wishbone, analogous to the collarbones in humans).

Of course, just because you’re willing to endure some broken bones to get the job done doesn’t mean you wouldn’t welcome easier access to some eats. Coopers are savvy enough to recognize that a backyard bird feeder is the hawk equivalent of a drive-through restaurant. If they’re lucky enough to have one or more of these bistros in their neighborhood, they’ll cruise on over and hang out in some nearby foliage until feathered patrons stop by for a snack, then grab-and-go. The humans who stock these seedy establishments can get pretty judgemental about what they view as harassment, or even exploitation, of their preferred clientele but that’s the biological carbon cycle for you. Everybody’s gotta eat.

Which brings us back to the hawk who mistook her mate for a meal.

Like many raptors, female Coopers are quite a bit larger than their male counterparts—taller, heavier, longer wing-span, you name it.  But it’s not her size that puts him at risk; it’s his.

See, Coopers tend to focus their hunting efforts on pigeons, mourning doves, flickers, cowbirds, kestrels… in other words, avian species ranging in size between an American robin and an American crow. Ironically, at 14½ to 15¼ inches from beak to tail-tip, the male Cooper’s hawk fits neatly into his very own prey niche. Add to the issue of similar stature the fact that both predator and prey share, in many cases, a color palette of whites, grays, and rusts, and it’s obvious to the most casual observer how the daily chore of hustling up some grub for the family can easily turn into an unfortunate case of mistaken identity.

I guess blue moons and beleaguered female hawks aren’t as uncommon as one might think because male Coopers have a stereotypic strategy for dealing with a distracted but fiercely efficient domestic partner.  First, as he approaches the home-front, he flies in large, slow arcs and hollers out the hawk version of “Honey, I’m home!!”  Then he listens carefully for the female’s “all-clear” response call, signaling that she sees and recognizes him. When he arrives at the nest he’ll have a thoughtful gift in his bill… a little something for her and the chicks to nosh on, or a few home maintenance supplies. Cuz, you know, it never hurts to tip the scales in your favor.

Happy hawk wife, longer hawk husband life.


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© 2019 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 (from top to bottom): Hal Trachtenberg, Jenny, Chuck Roberts, Jeff Bryant, and Hal Trachtenberg.

The Jet Set

Everyone has their own personal markers of summer—the flash of a firefly, the pulsing hum of cicadas, the aroma of freshly cut grass… I’m sure you have a favorite.  To my mind, nothing says summer quite as definitively as the sight of chimney swifts (Chaetura pelagic) foraging overhead.

These small, sleek birds have belonged to the feathered Jet Set since way back. They’re trendsetters, not fad followers. For example, fashionistas trade angora sweaters and down anoraks for bright floral sundresses and tropical guayaberas as the calendar flips past March, April, and May, but swifts stick to a classic all-season, all-purpose ensemble in understated hipster tones of sooty charcoal accented with an ash-gray ascot.  Très chic! Moreover, chimney swifts really don’t need a cold weather wardrobe; when the temperature changes swifts change their address. They winter in Peru, Brazil, Ecuador, or Chile, not St. Barts or Dubai, and they always summer east of the Rockies. They simply love, love, LOVE the U.S.A and Canada, dahling.

Every chimney swift would be a platinum-status frequent flyer if they weren’t all pilots themselves.  Their cigar-shaped fuselage and narrow, curved wings are built for speed and acrobatic maneuverability, so you won’t find them shuffling through airport security headed for the first-class lounge. Commercial flights are so… pedestrian. Anyway, these birds are rarely ever seen standing still.  Their Latin family name—Apodidae—means “footless,” and while that’s not strictly true their legs and feet are not their strongest feature.  Swifts don’t perch; when forced to land they cling to vertical surfaces, including the walls of those eponymous chimneys.

Which brings us to another characteristic that sets swifts apart from the globetrotting glitterati. Long before Airbnb matched adventurers and accommodations, chimney swifts were bypassing 5 star hotels in favor of host families. It all started when Europeans arrived in the New World and began building houses and fireplaces. The local swifts, who had been housekeeping in hollow trees for more generations than anyone could count, saw an opportunity to make a killing in real estate. They seized the day and the rest is history. Now swifts are North America’s summer house guests, albeit usually uninvited and sometimes unwelcome.

It’s not because they’re inconsiderate. Swifts mostly mind their P’s and Q’s. They don’t monopolize the bathroom taking long, hot showers—a quick splash in a puddle or pool, followed by a thorough mid-air shake, does the trick.  They never raid the family fridge—thousands of in-flight protein-rich insects snacks each day provide nourishment. They don’t expect a chambermaid and fresh linens—using found objects, such as small twigs, and glue-like saliva they fashion temporary fire-resistant DIY berths on the chimney wall to cradle their offspring.

Actually, it’s their kids that cause most conflicts with the conscripted landlords.  Chimney swifts rear 1-2 broods of 3-5 young while visiting the Northern Hemisphere.  The chicks, who snuggle up quietly together while napping, turn into the very definition of sibling rivalry each time a parent arrives at the nest to deliver a meal. The hungry mob push and shove for position, stretching wobbly necks to the heavens. They open their mouths wide and scream their heads off so Mom or Dad will notice and reward them with a juicy morsel. Those high-pitched squeals for attention amplify as they bounce down the open chimney shaft, past the damper, and out into the room below. Multiply that acoustic event by hundreds of feedings per day and the human residents can begin to feel as though they’re being strafed with sound.

There’s a simple solution to live and let live.  A thick slab of Styrofoam™ (aka expanded polystyrene) from the local craft store, cut to fit snugly inside the hearth opening, will reduce the chatter to a tolerable decibel level.

Meanwhile, it can help to remember that their parents are scouring the skies above your humble abode for mosquitoes, making summer evenings outdoors much more pleasant. Plus, it only takes 2-3 weeks for the youngsters to progress from hatchling to flying away, which is pretty impressive you have to admit.

Still, if you’d rather not play innkeeper to international travelers you can turn off the Vacancy sign by installing a chimney cap.  This relatively inexpensive device will not only exclude all manner of wild things from moving into (or falling down) the flue, the cap will also stop downdrafts, prevent sparks and embers from landing on the roof, and block rain, leaves, and branches.

Keep in mind, though, that once a chimney swift family has moved in you can’t legally evict them.  The Migratory Bird Treaty Act gives swifts and most other wild birds a kind of diplomatic immunity so you’ll have to wait until they jet back to South America to pull up the Welcome mat.


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© 2016 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 (from top to bottom): Jim McCulloch, Chester A. Reed (public domain), Greg Schechter, and Jim McCulloch.

A Moveable Feast

They say necessity is the mother of invention — I guess that’s why spiders found a clever way to order in, long before Kroger and Amazon began to lug customer’s grub. Not even a Costco cart is big enough to satisfy arachnid appetites but spiders rule when it comes to home food delivery. You see, it’s all about the web.

I don’t mean the Internet.

The menu of ingenious spiderweb designs includes: the classic spiral cobweb with its orderly silk scaffolding; messy 3D tangles rigged between available attachment points; carefully woven sheets scattered like picnic blankets across a lawn; funnels and trapdoors; and even a minimalistic single thread and sticky ball baited with pheromone-mimicking chemicals.  Gourmet or generic, webs deliver the vittles.And spiders are a hungry lot. They have to eat approximately 10% of their body weight in prey, each and every day.  Humans, by way of comparison, consume on average only 2–3% of our body weight—2.5 to 4 pounds of food per day. Now, I can already hear you bellyaching, “Not so fast, Kieran! Sure, 10% may sound like a lot at first but spiders don’t weigh very much. This hardly qualifies as extreme eating.” True, even the 12-inch Goliath Bird-Eating Tarantula is significantly smaller than most people. But, believe me, 10% can add up fast.

Based on published spider censuses (yes, I assure you there are people who do this for a living), there’s an average of 131 spiders for every square meter of land on Earth. Here’s a handy visual for metrically-challenged Americans:  Think of a square kitchen table that seats 4 people. Now imagine that table top covered with 131 peckish spiders. Next, see a vista of spider-covered kitchen tables, placed edge to edge like tiles across the entire landmass of our planet.

Remember, 131 is an average so in less hospitable regions the tables will have only a few patrons, while in other parts of the world each table may have up to 1,000 spiders patiently waiting for dinner to arrive. All told, there are approximately 27 million tons of spiders hanging out in the Earth’s forests, grasslands, plateaus, and deserts, our basements, attics, garages, and kitchen tables.

Before you shudder in horror, remember that insects are the spider-snack of choice and, consider for a moment, how buggy the world would be without these arachnid carnivores.

Scientists Martin Nyffeler (University of Basel, Switzerland) and Klaus Birkhofer (Lund University, Sweden) did just that.  They decided it would be fun to compute the global spider grocery bill and possibly add a peer-reviewed paper to their CVs in the process. They reviewed the work other researchers had done on the metabolic needs of spiders, assessed field reports on the number of prey captured and eaten by spiders, threw it all in a statistical blender, and published their calculations in The Science of Nature earlier this year. According to their recipe, spiders catch and eat 400–800 million tons of prey annually.

Let’s put that number in context, shall we?

  • Seabirds (all species) consume 70 million tons of food annually.
  • Whales (all species) consume 280–500 million tons of food annually.
  • Human beings consume approximately 400 million tons of meat and fish each year.

Still not impressed? Every year, the combined weight of insects consumed by spiders is greater than the total biomass of every person on Earth:

                      7.4 billion people x 130 lbs (avg. weight) = 400 million tons

There’s no doubt spiders play a significant role in managing insects, especially in forests and grasslands. The mere intimidating presence of spiders has been shown to limit the feeding behavior of some insects, reducing plant damage.

Spider prey includes insects that are of interest to humans due to their role as pests or disease vectors, but they’re not particularly helpful in managing agricultural pests.  Nyffeler and Birkhofer hypothesize that cultivated lands have less insect diversity and fewer insects overall than undisturbed lands, making them almost as unappealing to spiders as grocery stores.

Grocers must adapt to modern shoppers, though, and spiderweb technology could help capture the home delivery market!


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© 2018 Next-Door Nature. Originally published in Pest Control Technology Magazine (February 2018). Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author. Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Tibor Nagy, Christopher, varmfront.se, Katja Schulz, and Marcus.

Bull Session

I say potato, you like potahtos. You wear pajamas, I wear PJs. And a rose by any other name, we’re told, would smell equally sweet. So does it really matter that we all agree on what to call an American bullfrog? 

“HELL, YEAH!” 

That’s the collective cry of taxonomists around the globe raising their voices in indignant protest. (Yes, these are men and women of strong, science-based convictions.) You see, to a biologist who studies the classification of organisms, names are not at all trivial… but they should all be binomial.

Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus is credited with introducing this ubiquitous classification system, based on bestowing a unique two-word Latin name upon each species, precisely to avoid the kind of misunderstandings that arise when you say ersters and I say oysters.

Or, for example, when one scientist is talking about a fish using one of its common names, “dolphin” (Coryphaena hippurus, aka mahi-mahi, dorado, pompano), and another scientist hears “dolphin” and thinks of a perpetually-smiling bottlenose marine mammal (Tursiops truncatus).

And yet, despite Carl’s best efforts, disagreements persist. As in the case of the American bullfrog, whose official Latin name (Rana catesbeiana or Lithobates catesbeianus, depending on whom you ask) is more likely to be disputed and cause confusion, ironically, than its common name.

The quibble over nomenclature began about 10 years ago and quickly became a quarrel. Darrel Frost, Herpetology Curator at the American Museum of Natural History, suggested a conceptual leap that would divide members of the genus Rana, which includes bullfrogs, into nearly a dozen new genera. Many of Frost’s colleagues, unconvinced that his argument held water, refused to jump into the newly proposed systematics pond.

In response, feelings, opinions, and counter-claims have been aired publicly in peer-reviewed journals. Several years ago, a group of international researchers created a consortium to promote their own preferred adaptation of the froggy family tree. The taxonomy community still hasn’t managed to harmonize this chorus, which is why she says Rana and he says Lithobates.

But hold on… let’s not call the whole thing off just yet.Because, of course, a bullfrog doesn’t need a taxonomist to know exactly who he or she is… once s/he reaches a certain age, anyway.

Sure, there may be some gender ambiguity early on but that’s common among young amphibians. Their sex is determined genetically, although research suggests that for many frog species, exposure to environmental estrogen or variations in water temperature during tadpole-hood can induce male-to-female or female-to-male transitions. Self awareness doesn’t always come easily, and it can take some time for those gender identity questions to work themselves out. Bullfrog development is relatively slow—one to three years from egg to adult, and another two years to reach sexual maturity.

By the time they’re ready to procreate, however, males and females have definite, discernible physical differences. Males are smaller than females, their tympana (external eardrums) are larger than their eyes, and when in breeding condition their throats are yellow; female tympana are equal or smaller in size than their eyes, and their throats are white. There are behavioral distinctions as well—male bullfrogs are territorial over the summer mating season, and quite vocal about it, too; females are relatively silent, although older gals have been known to sing along with the guys. (I have a sneaking suspicion their favorite tune is If I Were A Boy.)

Ok, ok… life, in all it forms, is full of uncertainty and differences of opinion, at the laboratory bench and the water’s edge. But can we all come together on this much, at least? That the creatures featured throughout this post are:

a. Amphibians

b. Bullfrogs

c. Cool.

Everything else is neether/nyther here nor there.


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© 2018 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author. Thanks to the following photographers who made their work available through the Creative Commons license: Mark Beckemeyer, LadyDragonflyCC, Greg Schechter, Rick Cameron, and Kaibab National Forest.

Telephone

This university town is always less crowded during the summer. Most students are at home or on summer internships, faculty and graduate students are using the break to slip away for some R&R or doing research at field sites, and there are no home football games to bring in alumni and supporters of the opposing team.  While I enjoy the school year, and recognize how much Blacksburg depends on the university and related personnel, I do my best to pause and catch my breath from mid-May to mid-August.

That includes plenty of walks with my wire fox terrier, Dash, along a leafy section of the Huckleberry Trail, a former railroad easement. Tt’s rare for Dash and I to have the Huckleberry trail all to ourselves, at least not for very long. Usually we share with cyclists, runners, and other dog-walkers.

But one mid-July day was an exception. I guess we must have left a bit later than usual, but regardless of the reason, the trail and surrounding suburban backyards were quiet enough for me to hear a feathered fellow shouting his heart out from the power lines above.

I peered skyward and saw the black, white, and terra cotta of an Eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus)). I’ve read descriptions of this bird’s call as “Drink your tea!” but to my ears it sounds like, “Drink your tea-hehehehe!”

I stood still for as long as Dash could stand it, enjoying the sight and sound of a serious sparrow with a major case of the giggles. Then we picked up the pace and continued walking.

 

 

Several minutes later… more giggling. Were we being followed? Most likely is was a different individual; it was breeding season, after all, and males tend not to stray far from home base and the Mrs.

 

 

 

 

Further down the trail… more tea, more giggles. I felt like I was hearing a musical baton passed from one bird to the next in an auditory relay…

 

 

 

 

Drink your tea-hehehehe!…

 

 

 

 

 

Drink your tea-hehehehe!…

 

 

 

 

 

Drink your tea-hehehehe!

 

 

 

 

I can recognize a game of Telephone when I hear it! In this case, though, all of the players were excellent listeners who repeated the phrase exactly, with perfect fidelity and zero degradation. Since garbled messages are the whole point and fun of Telephone, I wasn’t sure why all these towhees were laughing.

I’ve heard recorded birds calls I couldn’t distinguish by ear but the sonograms (graphical representations of sound) showed clear variations my hearing wasn’t sensitive enough to notice. Maybe if I had Towhee ears I’d be in on the joke.

When Dash and I returned home I had the strangest craving for a cup of tea (strange because I don’t even like tea).


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[© 2018 Next-Door Nature, Sidewalk Zendo. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the authorThanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Pat Gaines, Alberto_VO5, devra, Mike’s Birds, Amanda, Ken Schneider, marneejill, and Keith Carver.]

Fast Food

When humans talk about making a breakfast, lunch, or dinner run, it’s understood that we’re speaking metaphorically. Truth be told, we’ll probably drive, not jog, to a local café, convenience store, or Kroger. The same cannot be said about the way greater roadrunners (Geococcyx californianus) grab a meal. Fast food is how these long-legged, long-tailed, long-necked North American cuckoos roll—make that sprint—through life.

I mean that quite literally. Roadrunners are feeble fliers but they can definitely beat feet. Angling the body forward to nearly parallel with the ground as they pick up speed, the tail is held flat, acting as a stabilizer during turns. Their unmistakable X-shaped feet, with two toes pointing forward and two toes pointing backwards, are better suited to life on the run than the typical three-one toe formation of perching bird species. And who needs powerful wings when you can leap skyward, as if propelled by a pogo stick, to grab a snack out of thin air?

If you grew up in the U.S. during the latter half of the 20th century, as I did, you may have some serious misconceptions about this fleet-footed bird, not to mention coyotes (Canis latrans). For example, roadrunners are quick but at top speeds of 43 mph, coyotes are more than twice as fast. Smarter, too.

Moreover, I think Warner Brothers animator Chuck Jones must have grabbed the wrong field guide when he started to sketch, because his roadrunner looks more like an ostrich (Struthio camelus) to me than the iconic avian of the American Southwest. I think you’ll agree that a side-by-side line-up provides plenty of evidence to back up that statement.

Roadrunners do have at least one thing in common with ostriches—both birds prefer more arid, savannah-like landscapes to damp, dense forests. That said, greater roadrunners have been expanding their range, moving east from southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, into the juniper, pine, and hardwood stands of Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas, and even Louisiana. And while they won’t tolerate densely populated urban areas they are showing up in more open suburban developments.

Like so many desert species, roadrunners have evolved to survive in a low rainfall environment. This includes a gland near each eye that secretes a highly concentrated salt solution, reducing the amount of water lost through their urinary tract. The ability to efficiently use the moisture present in their food reduces the roadrunners’ dependence on scarce surface water supplies.

I have a few more bones to pick with Warner Brothers’ depiction of the life and times of coyotes and roadrunners. For one thing, those cartoon characters would have you believe one is a predator, the other prey. Well, my friends, that’s as wrong-headed as expecting a tiny Acme parasol to protect you from a falling boulder.

The real skinny is that roadrunners are predators, too. Their moveable feast includes just about anything they can catch, including insects, spiders, scorpions, frogs, toads, songbirds, bats, rodents, and lizards. They’ll even pair up to take on a rattlesnake—one bird distracting the serpent, the other sneaking up from behind to pin the head down, rending those venom-delivering fangs moot.

This chick is all business. I’m not kidding.

Once their prey has been dispatched, roadrunners swallow their food whole, so there’s no need to carry around silverware, a la Wile E. Before that hummingbird goes down the hatch, though, there’s an important food prep step that has to take place. Fair warning—the process will make you reconsider the sincerity of that two-dimensional speedster’s goofy grin. I’ll let my friend, fellow wildlife enthusiast, and long-time Albuquerque resident, Janelle Harden, deliver the play-by-play:

“Not everyone would appreciate this, but I know you will! I saw a roadrunner catch a house finch on my driveway the other day. Holding the dead bird by the head, the roadrunner proceeded to bash and thrash the carcass against the concrete curb. Once the skeleton was pulverized and the body limp as an al dente noodle, the roadrunner threw her head in the air, along with the finch, opened her bill, and let gravity do its thing. It was fascinating! Took about 6-8 big swallows, and I swear her eyes got bigger with every gulp!”

I have to admit, I do appreciate Janelle’s field observations, and her description of the roadrunner’s bulging eyes does sounds pretty cartoonish. It’s the kind of thing I could imagine happening to a certain famously incompetent but persistent wild canid. Maybe Chuck Jones wasn’t a total Looney Tunes after all.

Gotta run—that’s all, folks!

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© 2018 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: Anita Ritenour, Photo KentTeddy Llovet, Alan Harper, LDELD, Jo Zimny, and Nick Chill.

Watchdogs

I heard sharp calls piercing the air, even before I noticed the compound of earthen dwellings, and knew that sentinels had spotted me and my canine companion.

Last autumn, I spent some time in New Mexico. I lived there, between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, for nearly a decade about 10 years ago, and I’d been feeling nostalgic for the high desert, with it’s technicolor sunsets and scents of piñon smoke and roasting chiles. So I packed up the car, settled Dash into his travel crate, buckled my seatbelt, and drove west. I wanted to spend some time catching up with friends over pozole and stacked enchiladas, making a pilgrimage to my favorite spa, and watching for urban wildlife species that are notably absent from my current home-base in Virginia’s New River Valley.

The terrier-boy and I were walking along a suburban easement one afternoon, behind a neighborhood of faux adobe Pueblo Revival style homes, when the cautionary cries began to fly. The barked alarms were not coming from man’s best friends—the backyard pooch patrol was decidedly silent. Maybe they were on a coffee-and-donuts break, or just taking a siesta. All I can say is, residential security companies and neighborhood watch associations could learn a thing or three about vigilance and civilian defense from the citizens of a prairie dog community!Based on old cowboy movies, you might think a drive far beyond the city limit sign would be required to find a prairie dog town, but these southwestern  hobbits have adapted admirably to humans and our sprawling developments. I guess that shouldn’t come as a surprise—after all, we have a good deal in common. Like H. sapiens, prairie dogs (Cynomys spp.) are social mammals. Like people, they can and do organize for the common defense. And, similar to their bipedal neighbors, they’ve developed a sophisticated vocal communication system.

Despite their common name and distinctive bark, these watchful creatures are not canines, but a type of ground squirrel native to North American grasslands. There are five different prairie dog species found in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico: black-tailed (C. ludovicianus), white-tailed (C. leucurus), Gunnison’s (C. gunnisoni ), Utah (C. parvidens), and Mexican (C. mexicanus). While best-known for their namesake call, this burrowing band is no one-hit wonder.

According to research by Constantine Slobodchikoff, Professor Emeritus at Northern Arizona University, prairie dog calls vary based on the type of predator (e.g., coyote or domestic dog, hawk, snake, or human). They even construct sentences, complete with a form of grammar, to convey specific information about the approaching menace, including color, shape, size, speed, and direction. Not a generic “Danger, Will Robinson!” SOS, but a detailed threat assessment along the lines of “Heads-up everyone! There’s a short, square-shaped, white-furred dog and a medium-tall human wearing a blue Marmot fleece jacket approaching on foot from the southeastern quadrant!”

How did researchers learn to decode Cynamysian? (Hey, if you have a better name for the language of prairie dogs, I’m all ears.) By presenting an imitation predator and observing the call and response. For example, the alarm call for “diving hawk” causes all the prairie dogs beneath the flight path to dive for shelter, while those outside the path calmly stand and watch. When a sentry sounds the “coyote or domestic dog” call, everyone above-ground moves toward a burrow, everyone below-ground comes to the surface, and then they all stand near the entrances, rubbernecking. “Human,” on the other hand, must be the equivalent of “CODE RED!” because the whole damn town runs for cover.

Dr. Slobodchikoff found that prairie dogs create new calls to communicate with one another about novel objects. They even engage in social chatter that has nothing whatsoever to do with existential threats to individuals or society. This small talk has been harder to decipher, but I suspect it includes all the gossip greatest hits—friends and family, crushes and break-ups, insults and resentments.

The social nature of a prairie dog town may explain a cultural phenomenon I think of as the Cynomys Wave. This conspicuous (and apparently contagious) behavior, also known as the jump-yip, begins when a single resident spontaneously stands on its hind legs, stretching up and back as if beginning a sun salutation asana. Instead of chanting OOOMMM, however, the creature let’s rip with a high-pitched WEE-OO, similar to the infamous yell that ended Howard Dean’s presidential aspirations . Then, in a scene reminiscent of a circa 1977 football stadium, the whole town jumps up to do The Wave, squealing like demonic dolphins.

Some scientists have hypothesized the jump-yip has a territorial function, as in “Mine, mine, this magnificent mound of excavated soil is MINE, and don’t you forget it!” Others suggest it’s related to alarm calls, serving as an “All clear!” once a crisis has pasted. A definitive diagnosis remains elusive but, regardless of its true purpose, it is certainly attention-grabbing.

Humorous antics aside, not all humans are happy when prairie dogs move into the neighborhood. For example, the sort of person whose self-worth is tied to an manicured, emerald green lawn of putting green smoothness is unlikely to put out the welcome mat for any subterranean species.

Nevertheless, prairie dogs do provide an accidental altruistic service to the larger environmental community, including people: they act as khaki-furred “canaries in the coal mine” for a very specific zoonotic disease. When there’s a sudden die-off in the local prairie dog population, it’s a strong indication that plague (of bubonic fame) has come to town. In some states, Health Department personnel regularly visit prairie dog communities, sampling the burrows for fleas, which carry the Yersinia pestis bacterium. The blood-sucking insects are then tested for plague as a proactive management strategy.

The development of modern antibiotics have lessen the impact of plague on human populations but the disease remains devastating to prairie dogs, inflicting far more damage to the community than mammalian, avian, or reptilian predators. Knowing this, I can’t help but wonder if Dr. Slobodchikoff’s team ever discovered a unique alarm call for fleas.


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© 2018 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author. Thanks to Alan Howell of Star Path Images for granting permission to use his photo, and to those who made their work available through the Creative Commons license: Josh MoreLarry LamsaToshihiro Gamo, Thomas, and William Currier.

Vice Squad

I was just trying to help, I swear.

In fact, the primary directive in wildlife rehabilitation is: First, do no harm. But the indignant male northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) I had just lifted out of a shoebox clearly interpreted my attempts to do a thorough but gentle intake exam as disrespectful. He spat a curse at me, and before I could blurt out an apology, he clamped that bright orange vice-like beak down on the webbing between my thumb and forefinger with more force than seemed plausible for a creature that weighed less than 2 ounces (57 g). 

There we stood—me holding him and trying not to squeeze, him holding me and trying to squeeze with all of his might. I watched a blood blister forming beneath his pincer but there wasn’t much I could do about it. Any attempt to pry him from my hand risked adding to his injuries. I could only try to remain as still as possible, take deep breaths, and wait for him to let go… even though he appeared firmly cemented in place.


Cardinals are year-round residents in much of the continental U.S., from the East Coast westward into Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, parts of New Mexico, Arizona, and southern California. Familiar and conspicuous, with an easy-to-recognize crest and stop-light bright plumage, even in winter, this species is a perennial favorite of backyard feeder enthusiasts and beginning birders. This species is known to be a courageous defender of both offspring and territory, which may be why it was chosen as the mascot for a couple of national sports teams, and for seven different states.

Songbird beaks often provide a clue, or a blatant disclosure, of the owners’ food preferences, especially if the species is a fussy eater—for example, primarily nectar, or meat, or in this case, seeds. There’s more than one way to crack a hard shell and evolution has equipped other granivores with distinctive but equally effective beak shapes. Even so, the cardinal’s short, thick, cone-shaped bill is typical of an avian seed-eater.

Which is not to imply that these black-masked bad-ass birds demand a solely grain-based diet; approximately 10% of their calories come from fruits, flowers, maple sap, and invertebrates. Moreover, their young are fed insects almost exclusively until they’re old enough to leave the nest and digest seeds.

Hatchlings cardinals don’t start life equipped with the same vice-grip their elders wear on their faces (rather than in tool belts at the waist). Given the sibling rivalry for Mom and Dad’s attention whenever they bring home groceries, it’s probably for the best that the youngsters don’t have access to pinching pliers until after they fledge; pushing and shoving are dangerous enough when the nursery is a twig cup perched precariously in the crook of a tree branch.

Eventually, the baby redbirds bills do morph into their final adult size and shape, although for a while the their adolescent nose may look out of proportion to the rest of their head. Hey, being an awkward teen is all part of growing up. It builds character, or so they say. 

With daily compulsory practice (at least if they want to eat) it doesn’t take long before those gawky bills are wielded like a finely crafted tool that quickly converts a feeder full of sunflower seeds into a pile of empty shells… or, very nearly brings a well-meaning wildlife biologist to her knees.


Back at the rehab center intake desk, the good Samaritans who had handed me the shoebox—a young mother and two small children—watched as I stood stock still, a bright red songbird pretending to be a pair of locking forceps stuck to my hand, struggling to hold back tears of pain (and four-letter words).

It’s been 20 years since I worked at the TWRC Wildlife Shelter in Houston, Texas. I’m not at all sure how long it took for the cardinal to release his grip… what feels like least a half-hour in memory was probably less than 3 minutes in real time. Luckily, there’s no scar on my hand, but my cardinal encounter did leave a lasting mark; the memory of that fierce feathered vice is riveted to my brain.

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[Thanks to the photographers who granted permission to use their photos, and to those who made their work available through the Creative Commons license: John Flannery, Fred Faulkner, Sasha Azevedo, Kenneth Cole Schneider, and John Flannery© 2017 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]