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.]

Headbanger

 

Male downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)

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

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

Or so I thought.

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

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

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

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

drawing of a woodpecker's tongue

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leftovers

foraging raccoon by Kara Allyson CC

One man's trash is another creature's feast (Photo: Kara Allyson, Creative Commons license)

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According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans throw out 34 million tons of food each year—an average of 93 thousand tons per day, and some experts estimate the amount triples on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Food for thought, while making another trip to the garbage can following our national day of feasting. Waste not, want not… so the proverb goes. But does anything digestible really ever go to waste? Only if you think food is wasted when humans don’t consume it.

red squirrel in trash can by Rémi Lanvin ccWe live on a planet where, if someone can eat it, bet your bottom dollar someone does eat it. Within a biotic community there are three basic trophic (feeding) levels:  producers, consumers, and decomposers. Producers transform energy from the Sun into sugar (i.e. food)—that’s the work of green plants. Primary consumers eat the plants, secondary or tertiary consumers eat the animals that eat the plants. Decomposers transform both dead plants and animals back into their abiotic components (e.g., water, nitrogen, CO2). All three groups work together to create food, move it through the community, and return the abiotics back to the environment for another trip through the system.

Food travels through the community in food chains and food webs. A food chain is a simplistic model, a subset, for illustrating the relationship between a community’s trophic levels. For example:

Sun > violets > caterpillars > black-capped vireo > sharp-shinned hawk > black vulture > bacteria

The food web is a more realistic and complex model of the relationship between members of the biotic community. It takes into consideration the fact that most consumers eat more than one thing—vireos don’t just eat caterpillars, they eat a variety of insects, insect larvae, and spiders; sharp-shinned hawks eat all kinds of songbirds, plus some small mammals, and an occasional large insect; black vultures will eat almost any kind of meat, although they seem to prefer it well “aged.” A species can, and usually does, belong to more than one chain within the web. Very little is wasted, and everything that lives eventually takes a turn at eating and being eaten (with the exception of modern humans in the “developed” world, primarily due to our funereal laws and customs).

herring gull at landfill by Jerry Oldenettel ccA large portion of the human population may have disentangled themselves from food webs, but we remain an indirect source of nutrition for many non-human animals, and not just those we feed intentionally, such as our companion animals and livestock. Easy access to consistently plentiful human-produced food waste is a primary reason behind the success of many wild species in urban and suburban habitats. Garbage is also one of the main sources of conflict between wildlife and humans. This is due, largely, to the fact that—and I’m sorry, but I don’t know how else to say this—the human race has some definite control issues when it comes to food.

The concept of owning food seems to be uniquely human, as is the idea that we should be able to stipulate who gets access to calories that we think of as “ours,” including future-food (crops and livestock), faux-food (from Petco or Wild Birds Unlimited), and former-food (garbage).

Skeptical? How many times have you heard a bird-feeding acquaintance complain when squirrels invite themselves to dinner? Or even when the wrong kind of bird drops in for a snack? How about the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which spends millions of dollars annually on research and other efforts to reduce or eliminate wild species that like to avail themselves to a helping of the harvest? Consider, also, the time, money, and energy spent trying to keep wild creatures out of garbage cans and dumpsters, so their contents can be transported to the landfill and buried to prevent other non-humans from turning it into a meal.

Of course, there are valid reasons for managing food waste, including aesthetics and hygiene. Garbage stinks, and no one wants to live in the middle of a kitchen midden. You may be willing to share your cast off cuisine with resourceful furred and feathered recyclers, but human neighbors tend to be less than forgiving about garbage-strewn lawns. Picking chicken bones and greasy bits of aluminum foil out of the Zoysia grass isn’t all that fun; even less so when you’re running late for work. It’s mornings like these when homeowners begin to formulate battle plans.

opossum in trash can by Gary Oppenheim ccIt’s a war we’ll never win. At its core, this is a first-come-first-serve, finders- keepers-losers-weepers kind of world, especially when it comes to food. Sure, a brief détente may be achieved through an exclusion technology arms race. Some may even seek vigilante justice against an individual opossum or raccoon, a flock of seagulls or crows.

Victory will be short-lived. There will always be more where those came from because our leftovers are the raw materials from which the next generation of wild dumpster divers are created. Urban wildlife are adaptive, creative, resourceful, and fecund. They are adept exploiters of the humans with whom they live.

Still, in most ways it’s a symbiotic relationship. They take the food we no longer want and, in exchange, add to our quality of life in ways that are easy to recognize and hard to measure. Moreover, by refusing to accept that we are masters of the universe they keep us humble. And for that, I am thankful.

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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: Rémi Lanvin (red squirrel); Jerry Oldenettel (herring gull); and Gary Oppenheim (opossum).

Big mouth

garter snake swallowing a whole fish

Who needs a knife and fork, or even molars, when you can easily swallow bites bigger than your head? (Photo: Jesse Palmer, Creative Commons license)

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Could there be a holiday more representative of the true nature of American culture than Thanksgiving? Considered the least commercial of our national holidays, yet the true theme of the day is consumption. Family, food, and football are all available in quantities large enough to cause a bit of indigestion. Moreover, the entire event is just a warm up, an appetizer that signals the start of a dietary and retail feeding frenzy.

A turkey is the holiday’s traditional mascot, not to mention the main course, but I’d like to suggest a different and even more appropriate talisman for a day devoted to stuffing one’s face—the garter snake (Thamnophis spp.).

color and pattern variation in garter snakesThought to resemble the fanciful bands that held up men’s and ladies’ hosiery in a pre-elastic era, garter snakes are as American as pumpkin pies and pigskins. The most widely distributed reptile genus in North America, you’ll find them slithering from sea to shining sea across 49 states, including Alaska—the only snake able to make that claim. Remarkable in their ability to adjust to a wide range of habitats, garter snakes live on purple mountain ranges, in amber waves of grain, across the fruited plains, and everywhere in-between.

The genus includes 26 species and dozens of subspecies. Most include the “garter” tag as part of their common name, but the western ribbon snake (Thamnophis proximus) and its subspecies are part of the tribe too. Morphologically diverse—even within a species—the unifying theme is one or more stripes that run the length of the body (with or without spots). Some, like the common garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis), favor an understated tan or brown background with yellow stripes. Other color combos may include: red-orange, black, and creamy yellow (coast garter snake, Thamnophis elegans terrestris); black with a pale teal green stripe and red spots (red-spotted garter snake, Thamnophis sirtalis concinnus); and even a striking electric blue paired with black (Puget Sound garter snake, Thamnophis sirtalis pickeringii).

Garter snakes are not picky eaters, and this characteristic has also helped them to spread out across the continent. These legless wonders will eat just about member of the Animal Kingdom they can catch and devour, including slugs, earthworms, fish, frogs and toads, lizards and other snakes, birds (including their eggs and nestlings), and small mammals, including rodents.

You’ve heard the phrase “His eyes were bigger than his stomach”? Well, that’s never really a problem for an animal whose stomach, along with the skin, muscles, ribs, throat, and mouth, can expand to accommodate up to 20% of its body weight in a single swallow. Imagine the kind of advantage you’d have in an eating contest if you could loosen your jaw, open wide (150° compared to 45° for the average human), and send a whole turkey down the hatch! Chewing? Why bother? Snakes don’t. They don’t have the choppers for it, although some have a few small teeth that curve toward the back of the mouth and help the reptile “walk” the upper and lower jaws over and around their meal. Concerned about how to breath while a roasted 30 pound tom or hen is passing through your gullet? No worries… if you’re a snake your windpipe is located near the front of your mouth and can move out of the way. If you’re not a snake (and I mean that literally—your in-laws’ opinion doesn’t count)… you may want to reconsider using a knife and fork.

Still, when your favorite team is lining up for the opening kickoff on the 55” LCD HDTV with Surround Sound, and Grandma is standing between you and the game with a third helping plate and a look that says responding to her offering with “no thanks, I couldn’t eat another bite” may not kill her, but it will significantly shorten her life—you have to admit, the ability to swallow food whole would sure come in handy.

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© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author. Thanks to the following photographers for making their photos available for use through a Creative Commons license:  Frank Miles/USFWS (2 common garter snakes); randomtruth (coast garter snake); Jonathan Crowe (red-spotted garter snake); and Dan Dzurisin (Purget Sound garter snake).

Mystery chef

barred owl with crayfish

Barred owls always want to know who prepares your meals, but they don't spend much time preparing their own dinners (Photo: Matthew Paulson, Creative Commons license)

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“Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?”

With Thanksgiving less than 2 weeks away, that’s the question on everyone’s lips. Even those who don’t have lips, like the barred owl (Strix varia)—a species that seems to be innately, and oddly, curious about kitchen staffing.

If these owls had access to cable television I’m sure they would love The Food Network. Since they are a protected species and can’t be hunted they could watch Extreme Chef, Good Eats, and Throwdown with Bobby Flay without having to worry about seeing any family members on the menu. As long as a great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) doesn’t become the Next Iron Chef, that is—where their ranges overlap, our largest North American owl poses the greatest predation risk to our feathered foodie.

As far as their own palate goes, Thanksgiving with The Barreds is meat-centric. No cranberry sauce or green bean casserole, or even pumpkin pie. Turkey is less likely to be served than rodents, rabbits, bats, weasels, opossums, small-to-medium fowl (e.g., woodpeckers, quail, pigeons, and the occasional duck), reptiles, and amphibians. Oh, and don’t be surprised to find crawfish as the featured dish. They are favorite repast—so much so that the belly feathers of some barred owls may turn pink from carotenoids found in the shells.* To tell you the truth, I have a strong suspicion that Cajun and Creole cuisines would be a big hit with this crowd and that Emeril Live would be a guilty viewing pleasure.

You’ll find barred owls shopping for groceries in woodlands throughout much of Canada and down into parts of Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. They are also well established across the eastern half of the U.S., and their range has been expanding westward. They may be curious about who’s preparing your meals, but they put as little effort as possible into their own supper. Opportunist is a more accurate description that epicurean—why fly all over town to Whole Foods and Williams-Sonoma at the end of the day in search of exotic eats when you can hang out on a comfy branch, eyes and ears open, and wait for something edible to wander by? A little help from gravity as you descend toward dinner… and then—GULP!—down the hatch. No dishes to wash up afterwards, either!

A round face, large liquid eyes, and a general I’m-not-fat-I’m-fluffy appearance give the barred owl a gentle countenance, but don’t be fooled. You know how territorial even the most homey, hospitable people can get when it comes to recipes, cookware, and all things related to food preparation? Then it should come as no surprise to you that this seemingly mild-mannered bird can boil over like the host of Hell’s Kitchen when defending its turf against interlopers.  Aggression isn’t limited to their own kind either. Barred owls will shoo away the less assertive and near-threatened northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) too, in parts of the Pacific Northwest where both species are found.

If you can’t stand the heat, as they say…

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* These same compounds are what give flamingos their signature South Beach hue.

UPDATE: We did it!  Thanks to everyone who helped me to achieve my goal of reaching 10,000 hits on the NDN site by the end of this 1-year anniversary week. We made it over the top on Tuesday, November 15 — 3 days to spare! Thanks also for all your positive feedback and support during this past year. It has, and will continue to be, greatly appreciated.  ~ Kieran

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