Virtuosity

Maybe Bobby McFerrin was a house wren (Troglodytes aedon) in a previous life.

This thought popped into my mind when, after listening to On Being’s Krista Tippett interview the singer, I went out for a walk with my canine companion. We hadn’t made it too far down the sunny trail when we were suddenly drenched by a deluge of liquid notes. That vocal tsunami, pouring forth from an entirely disproportional feathered Dixie cup, stopped me in my tracks.

Like McFerrin, who is known for fluid, polyphonic singing and quick, oceanic octave jumps, the wren’s song bounced around like raindrops on pavement. I suppose that’s why the synapses in my brain connected the two muscians.

There are definite differences between these gifted songbirds, though.

For example, wrens and other passerine birds produce vocal sounds using an organ called the syrinx, positioned where the trachea splits into two bronchial tubes. Each side of the syrinx operates independently, so songbirds can produce a sweeping range of notes in fractions of a second, or two different pitches at the same time, or simultaneous rising and falling notes, all without stopping for a breath. Humans, by contrast, make vocal sounds by sending air from the lung into the windpipe, through folds (aka vocal cords) in the larynx, and out to the throat, nose, and mouth.

Admittedly, McFerrin often sounds as if he has a syrinx but, hard as it is to believe, he’s making all of those notes with the same equipment you and I have. It’s just that he’s playing every instrument in the orchestra, and we’re barely pecking out “Chopsticks.” His ability to switch pitch is inarguably stunning; however, even this virtuoso can’t match the speed of a wren running through the scales.

McFerrin has a rich and ever-expanding repertoire that includes pop, a capella, choralclassical, spirituals, and movie scores. Like any jazz artist worthy of the title, he is a master of improvisation; always learning, always expanding his technique, consistently creative and ready to try something new. Wrens, on the other hand, may sound like they’re jamming but they’re actually shuffling 12-16 stock syllables… kind of like a classically trained musician who learned to play according to the rules of the conservatory but wants to sound cool enough to swing.

You see, passerines begin their musical education when they are barely out of the egg, during a development phase known as the critical period. Listening to the adult birds around them, the youngsters tune in to the songs and calls of their own species. Once young wrens have left the nest they practice, over and over and over, dialing in the sounds until the song matches the memory. With the exception of mimicking species (e.g., mockingbirds, catbirds, and thrashers), there will be no extemporization. That’s because wrens choose a mate based on the ability to cover “their song” note for note. Some bird songs have geographic variations, sort of like regional accents, but chicks want a boy who sounds like he’s from the neighborhood, and will pass over anyone who sounds too exotic or experimental.

I’m much less discriminating, at least on that score. Bubbling, effervescent singing, whether it’s an improv by McFerrin or a house wren standard, always helps me tune out my worries… and that makes me happy.

[Play both videos at once so Bobby and the house wren can duet!]

 

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Dustin Gaffke, , Todd Van Hoosear, and Rachid H.  © 2017 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

Oddly Normal

I don’t live far from the eclipse’s Path of Totality, but I decided to stay put just the same. I didn’t even order eclipse glasses. I know there will be plenty of great video to watch throughout the day, and since my sweetheart is a talented professional videographer, I feel like I’ve got that angle covered.  I want to focus on what’s going on down under, here on Earth.

In anticipation, I’ve been reading stories about how the event will impact wildlife. Every single one of these reports has focused on the “strange” animal behavior we can expect to witness as the day goes dark… and I find that very strange indeed.

What these experts are calling odd is considered completely normal activity when it happens each evening. And from the descriptions I’ve read about what to expect, assuming night is nigh would be a perfectly reasonable assumption for any creature—human or non-human—who doesn’t have a television or an Internet connection and, therefore, doesn’t know that the sun will be playing hide-and-seek with the moon for a little while today.

Humans tend to be less familiar with nocturnal species than the ones who are active during regular business hours. I think the eclipse is going to offer a chance to get to know our neighbors who work the night shift… kind of like a rerun of the National Night Out that took place earlier this month.

As the light begins to dim, creatures who are active during the day may start their usual bedtime routines.  Some diurnal birds will sing one last serenade to the daylight as faux-evening falls…

…some will hurry back to nests of eggs or chicks…

…others will congregate for mutual protection, as they do at the end of every day.

Birds who love the night life will wake, possibly feeling less than rested but still ready to boogie in search of an early breakfast (or late dinner, depending how you look at it).

Some wild mammals are active and visible during the day, including a fair number of rodents such as tree squirrels, groundhogs, prairie dogs, and chipmunks. I’m expecting the eclipse to be a great time to see mammals who are usually waking up just as I’m starting to wind down…

Insect musicians will surely want to set the mood with a tune or two.

Fireflies know a little night music calls for romantic lighting…

…and amphibians aren’t about to let the invertebrates steal the limelight!

As the skies brighten we’re also likely to have a second dawn chorus… but without needing to get up before sunrise! So don’t despair just because the eclipse will pass your part of North America by, or because you don’t know how to make and use a pin-hole camera (even after you Google’d instructions). There should be some amazing wildlife sights to see, right here on good ol’ terra firma.

 

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Eric Kilby, Dan Dzurisin, Ingrid Taylar, Pat Gaines, Rachel Kramer, Will WilsonTony Oldroyd, Michael Eisen, Elizabeth Nicodemus, USFWStsaiian, David Huth, and Ingrid Taylar.  © 2017 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

Spotted!

A spotted towhee caught on a fast-food run, and not particularly happy about it.

Supermarket tabloids love just-like-us features so they pay paparazzi top dollar to catch somebodies acting like nobodies. Today I’m focused on the Towhees. They like to keep a low profile but I’m a pro and I know how to find them.

First Rule of Papping: Ya can’t tell the players without a scorecard! It also helps to know the aliases they use to create confusion and avoid detection. See, for a long time all the Towhee’s identified as Team Pipilo. Several years ago, however, about half of them left (were removed, actually) to form Team Melozone. Maybe the rift was media-created (fake news, so sad), or maybe the less flamboyant Towhees felt overshadowed by their more colorful and fashion-forward cousins… who knows? Towheestas, as their fandom are known, love to argue over the distinctions between and relative merits of the two tribes, as well as who should be a P and who definitely qualifies as an M.

Currently,  Team P include the Collareds (P. ocai),  the Green-taileds (P. chlorurus), the Easterns (P. erythrophthalmus), and the Spotteds (P. maculatus), but not so long ago both the Easterns and Spotteds were using the tag Rufous-sided (the Easterns got full custody of P. erythrophthalmus). Spotteds are also referred to in some circles as The Avians Formerly Known as Oregon or Socorro.

Similarly, and to keep things even-steven, Team M also has four members: the Aberts’ (M. aberti), the White-throateds (M. leucotis), the Canyons (M. fusca), and the Californias (M. Crissalis). Oh, but the Canyons and the Californias used to be one big happy tribe, the Browns, even though the Aberts’ and the Californias are probably closer relatives.

Got it all straight? Yeah, it’s a complicated family tree — that’s show biz. Try keeping track of the rest of the Sparrows, not to mention the Barrymores, the Fondas, and the Coppolas.

Second Rule of Papping:  Zoom in on the habitat. Finding out where your luminary lives is a crucial datapoint.  Some Towhees prefer to be on the right side of the continent (Easterns), some are Westerners (Californias, Green-taileds, and Spotteds), and there’s some who meet in the middle. Others Towhees prefer the Southwest (Canyons and Aberts’), or even south of the border in Mexico (Collareds & White-throateds).

Towhees do household chores, just like us!

When it comes to choosing a home base, the Easterns and Spotteds will always opt for a ground-floor unit, if available, ideally tucked in next to a log or of clump of grass to provide some privacy, but they’ll tolerate the higher perches (shrubs) preferred by the Californias, Canyons, and Green-taileds. The Aberts’ are the only Towhees who like to live in a tree-top high-rise. Not much is know about where the Collareds and White-throateds homestead because they’re a secretive bunch who’ve put down roots far from the limelight’s glare, in the more rural setting of Mexico’s mid-to-high altitude subtropical and tropical pine-oak forests. They’re a rare and lucrative shot but too remote for run-and-gun photography.

A Spotted spotted at the spa.

Improve your chances by becoming a regular at all of the places your subjects like to eat, including the local hipster farmers markets and upscale grocers, where they shop for household supplies, as well as favorite watering holes and spas. If you can get a neighborhood exposure you’re golden because that’s where life gets real. As the playground K-I-S-S-I-N-G song tells it, first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in a $700 Bugaboo carriage. Actually, these days marriage is an option, not a certainty. Regardless of the parents’ living arrangements and legal status, or lack thereof, nest/crib beta is pivotal for a paparazzo because editors drool when there are kids in the picture — Mommy & Me outings are always Money Shots.

A California towhee takes her mini-me out for lunch.

Third Rule of Papping:  Know your subject inside as well as out. In other words, not just their look but the idiosyncratic behaviors that will tip you off to their presence, even when they’re not wearing breeding plumage. For example, you’ll want to know that all the Towhees like to forage for food using a unique two-footed backward hop, followed by a pert bend-and-snap. Well, I assume this includes those camera-shy Collared and White-throateds but who the hell knows. If the pickin’ are slim, or maybe too predictable, Spotteds will scan the shrubbery for snacks, and the Aberts’ have been known to poke around under the bark near the bottom of tree trunks for some grub.

Family comes first for the Canyons and Green-taileds, who have a reputation for forming long-term, monogamous pair-bonds. If a Green-tailed mom senses danger, she’ll bravely flee from home on foot with a conspicuously raised tail to attract and distract the predator’s attention from her children.

A California fascinated with its reflection in a window.

It will probably come as no surprise, that the Cali Crew has an ongoing love/hate relationship with their image — you’ll see them in front of a freshly washed window, handy car mirror, or any other reflective surface checking out their visuals or talking to themselves in a very critical, territorial tone. They’re not crazy, just a little left of center. They like to chill in stands of poison oak, feeling all cutting edge because this hangout hasn’t been “discovered” yet, gobbling up the pale berries as if they were caviar.

Last, but not least… shut up and get the shot. Sure, the relationship between some celebrities and the paparazzi is symbiotic— they get publicity, you get residuals. Towhees don’t play that. If you want to be successful with this dynasty you’ll stay quiet, blend into the scenery, keep your eyes open, and your finger on the trigger. Be the early bird that catches the worm. Not that Towhees are worms. Far from it. Truth is, they’ll eat that worm for breakfast… and you could get it all on film (or a memory card).

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Dawn BeattieCalypso Orchid, TJ GehlingDoug Greenberg, Scott Heron, Lucina M, Mike’s Birds, Jorge Montejo, JN Stuart, Ingrid TaylarUSDA, Francesco Veronesi, and Yutaka Seki.  © 2017 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

Hungry

.

 

Terrier-boy transformed into a velociraptor before my very eyes!

We were walking along, minding our own business, when a momentary ruffling of leaves on the side of the pavement captured Dash’s attention and instinct took over…

head periscopes right…

ears swivel forward, nostrils flare…

field of vision narrows, eyes become lasers…

muscles tense into compressed springs…

in the pause between two heartbeats the chase is on!

 

AND…ended just as quickly by that damned ever-present leash. Grrrr.

 

Initially, I assumed Dash’s prey response had been triggered by a mouse or vole, maybe a chipmunk. Holding him back by the harness, I leaned in for a closer look without really expecting to see anything but fern and wood violet leaves; small rodents usually dive for cover when a predator is on patrol. They don’t risk a backward glance.

So I was surprised and delighted to see small, dark-bright eyes staring back at me from beneath an impromptu stone roof.  Not a rodent after all, but an insectivore. A northern short-tailed shrew (Blarina brevicauda) standing his ground against monsters (Dash and me) larger, in relative size, than a T-rex. Fearless!

Or maybe just hungry.

Thanks to an extremely high metabolic rate, the northern short-tailed shrew (let’s go with NSTS for the sake of brevity) has to eat every 2-3 hours to avoid starvation. That makes for a mighty motivated and efficient predator. I’ll bet you if an NSTS was invited to a screening of Jurassic Park, and saw how much time the velociraptors waste stalking kids in the kitchen, he’d be thinking, “Sheesh… amateurs!” Or maybe he doesn’t need to see the movie. According to the fossil record, shrew-like mammals arrived in time to observe real dinosaurs stomping around on planet Earth. Not this particular shrew of course, but it could be buried deep in his genetic memory.

Finding, catching, and eating earthworms, snails and slugs, spiders, insects, frogs and salamanders, mice and voles, along with some seeds and fungi, is a shrew’s full-time 24/7/365 job. Sometimes they even eat each other. All those meals add up to a daily grocery tab of three times the NSTS’s weight. Think of it this way: if Dash were a shrew, he’d need to eat nearly 65 lbs of food every 24 hours, and if I were a shrew I’d need to eat… well, it’s none of your business how much I’d need to eat.

This voracious consumer tips the scales, barely, at 15-30g (0.53-1.06 oz) but he and his kind are literally red in tooth (and only figuratively of claw). Unlike rodents, a shrew’s teeth do not grow continuously. One set of choppers has to last for their entire life, but red-toothed shrews (Soricinae) have helpful iron deposits that provide additional strength to the surfaces most subjected to wear and tear.

Insectivores are one of only three known living mammal Orders with member species that produce venom. The saliva of a NSTS can paralyze or kill prey, even some animals larger than itself. Nothing as large as a human or a dog, mind you, although the pain of a bite can last several days.

Toxic spit certainly comes in handy when it’s time to appease that insatiable hunger. But before you can bite your dinner, to immobilize or eat it, you have to find it. Often in low- or no-light conditions. Lucky for the NSTS, there’s this thing called echolocation. You would think, given how many terrestrial mammals live at least a partially subterranean life, echolocating would be a pretty common talent. You would be wrong. Only rats, the tenrecs of Madagascar, the solenodons, and three species of shrews, including the NSTS, are known to have this ability. Unlike bats (which, because they can fly, are not technically classified as terrestrial mammals), shrews use low-amplitude, multi-harmonic sounds rather than clicks. It appears these calls are used primarily to collect information about their habitat rather than to zero-in on a food source. Still, you can’t find your way to prey if you can’t find your way.

Even with venom and ultrasonic squeaks, life isn’t a picnic. NSTSs (and shrews in general) have a high mortality rate. Winter is particularly brutal, especially if the shrew in question doesn’t have enough cached food to carry it through the lean times, when mercury itself remains huddled in a bulb-burrow. Summer brings its own set of challenges; temperatures above 95°F (35°C) are deadly for shrews, causing the animals to shift their periods of above-ground activity, interfering with their ability to find their 8-12 square meals per day.

It goes without saying (but here I am saying it anyway) that even fierce predators are often prey as well. Shrews are no exception. Despite spending much of their lives hidden in subsurface tunnels, under leaves, leaf litter, and snow, NSTS become a meal, or part of a meal, for many species of fish, reptiles, birds, and mammals.

It’s a predator-eat-predator world out there and size isn’t everything. You’ve got to stay hungry. As the saying goes, it’s not the size of the dog in the fight that counts, it’s the size of the fight in the dog. Or the shrew. They’re still around, still hungry, and the only dinosaurs to be found are computer generated and animatronic.

I guess that settles any argument over who ruled on Isla Nublar, and who got voted off the island.

 

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Gilles Gonthier, Goran tek-en, and snapp3r.  © 2017 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

Slender in the Grass

[photo: josh more, ccl]

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

 

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

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

[photo: greg schechter, ccl]

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

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

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

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

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

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

[photo: greg schechter, ccl]

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

 

Baby Blues

Fledgling blue jays begging Dad to make a pizza run [photo: christian lanctot, ccl]

.

Identifying songbirds by their calls is not my forte.

Sure, I can distinguish most common backyard residents with distinctive voices, including mourning doves (Coo…. coo, coo), Carolina chickadees (Fee-bee-fee-bay or chickadee-dee-dee), American robins (Cheerily, cheer-up, cheer-up! Cheerily, cheer-up!!), red-winged blackbirds (Conk-la-ree!), and the northern cardinal (Birdie, birdie, birdie! Cheer, cheer, cheer! — no wonder the St. Louis baseball club chose this mascot). I can usually tell when a mockingbird is singing a cover tune because I realize the familiar song has a new arrangement.

The further afield I stray from my audio comfort zone, or the built environment, though, the more I rely on my eyes for ID.  That said, I have a niche talent, developed in the late 990s while I was running a large wildlife rehabilitation center in Houston, Texas: I can easily identify a wide range of bird species by the sounds their nestlings and fledglings make when a parent (biological or a stand-in human) arrives with food.

[photo: smilla4, ccl]

That’s how I found out it’s baby blue jay season here in southwest Virginia. I haven’t done hands-on rehab for a long while but as soon as I heard those competitively pitiful “Feed ME! Feed ME!” cries, I knew. Young blue jays used to come into the center by the shoebox-full so that particular call for attention is burned on my brain.

Adult blue jays aren’t the most popular wild neighbors. Jay parents will actively, even aggressively, defend their offspring and, well, there are always people eager to criticize the way others raise their children. Jays also have a reputation for eating the eggs and nestlings of other birds… true, but relatively rare. An extensive study observed this behavior in only 1% of jays. They certainly aren’t the only feathered folk who will help themselves to a snack from an unattended nest but jays, with their signature sapphire, white, black, and gray plumage plus that jaunty crest, are so recognizable they receive more blame than is warranted.

What’s less well-known is that blue jays are always on sentry duty, and when they spot a predator or other threat they shout an alarm call the whole avian neighborhood understands.

[photo: duluoz cats, ccl]

Mom and Dad have PR problems but their offspring are undeniably endearing. Jays are an example of true co-parenting. The female incubates a clutch of eggs for 17-18 days, and during this time and for the first 8-12 days after the nestlings hatch, the male provides all of the family meals. Blue jays can carry food in their gular pouch, an area in the throat and upper esophagus. Acorns are a favorite (which makes my throat hurt just to think of it!).  Once ambient temperatures are warm enough, and the kids are old enough to thermoregulate, the female will join her mate on grocery runs.

Every summer, young jays arrive in wildlife rehabilitation centers, veterinary offices, kitchens, and grade school classrooms across the species’ range. They’re an abundant urban bird so it isn’t surprising blue jays would account for a large number of rehab intakes, but there are other factors at play as well. Nestling jays often venture out of the nest and onto nearby branches several days before they fledge (take their first flight). Sometimes a storm or strong breeze will give gravity a helping hand and the branchers end up on the ground sooner than expected.

Mom and Dad aren’t going to give up on Junior just because s/he made an ill-advised decision. They’ll continue to feed and monitor their children — both the wanders and the cautious ones who wait for their feathers to grow a bit longer before taking the plunge — for up to 2 months after the nest is empty. While the fledglings learn to fly they’ll be left alone at times, albeit usually within watching distances of their keen-eyed supervisors. The young ‘uns don’t mind but well-intentioned humans may find it harder to accept. One of the downside of looking winsome is that when people see you sitting on the ground or perched on a low branch, seemingly abandoned, they really, really want to help.

You’ve may have heard this Good Samaritan tune before but I’ll sing it again…

First, do no harm.

If you find a baby bird and think it might have been abandoned:

  • Wait and watch for the parents to return. In the case of a blue jay, an adult may actually dive bomb before you get very close to their precious child but not all species or individuals are that confident so be sure to give everyone plenty of room to feel safe.
  • If the bambino is well-feathered, bright-eyed, and looking around curiously, give the parents at least 60-90 minutes to return.
  • However, if the little one is clearly injured, or very young (naked or barely feathered, eyes closed), then it’s time to take action.

[photo: katrina j houdek, ccl]

Permitted wildlife rehabilitators will never be able to match the skills of a wild parent but they are trained to provide the proper nutrition and environment wild kids need to grow up healthy and strong, knowing they are blue jays (or Cooper’s hawks, or squirrels, or deer, or whatever they are) instead of people, and capable of living in the wild once they’ve been released.

The International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council website can help you access assistance, and if you’re based in the U.S. there’s a free app for iPhone and Android called Animal Help Now. You don’t even know be able to identify the bird, by sight or by sound, to make the call.

 

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

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).