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.]

Bright-eyed and brushy-tailed

common brushtail possum (Photo: David Midgley, Creative Commons license)

Common brushtail possums know how to work the cute (Photo: David Midgley, Creative Commons license)

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Consider, if you will, the sartorial importance of tail attire.  To bare, or not to bare… that is the question.  The answer might seem to be of little consequence, but for marsupials living in cities and suburbs some strategically placed fur can make all the difference.

That’s because naked tails make people nervous. I blame this bias on the Black Death. Of course, now we know the true culprit in that famous pandemic of 1347 was not the rat, but the infected fleas that hitched a ride on those hapless rodents. Since standards of human hygiene at the time were rather… haphazard, shall we say, there were plenty of opportunities for the insects to hop onto a handy human. We may not remember why rodents make us uneasy but the bias remains to this day.

How else do you square our acceptance and even advocacy of squirrels and chipmunks, for example, with our abhorrence of rats and mice? As Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City fame so wisely observed, “A squirrel is just a rat with a cuter outfit.” Clothes make the man and the mammal.

The same could be said of the common brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) and its cousin the Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana). Both are omnivorous marsupials of similar size and weight. However, the former has a hirsute terminus while the latter’s prehensile appendage is as furless as a snake. Brushtails are the source of much frustration among Aussie homeowners who, nonetheless, demonstrate great fondness for this plush-toy wannabe. The North American model does not enjoy a similar degree of affection from its human neighbors (to put it mildly).

Is this inequity mere coincidence? I think not—if you ask me it’s blatant bare-tail bigotry!

Personally, I find the adult Virginia opossum to be a handsome creature and their young ones winsome and endearing.  But—let’s face it—we only have one marsupial here in the U.S., so there’s no competition for best in show.

It’s a different story in Australia, where possums* and the closely related gliders account for approximately 30 of the continent’s 140 marsupial species. Brushtails are attractive animals by any aesthetic standard, with thick, luxurious fur that ranges in color from silver-gray to cream, brown, black, and even red, depending on the subspecies.

As the name implies, the common brushtail is a familiar resident along much of coastal Australia including the major metropolitan areas such as Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Perth. Suited to a wide variety of habitats, from rainforests to semiarid regions, this semi-arboreal (tree-dwelling) possum has adapted readily to urban life, trading traditional tree cavities for a home under the eaves.

brushtail mother and child (Photo: mugley, Creative Commons license)Brushtails can breed at any time during the year, but there are two peak seasons—from September to November (southern hemisphere spring) and from March to May (Australian autumn). Following a 16-18 day gestation, the female gives birth to a single blind and extremely underdeveloped child who scrambles unaided up to her pouch. Once inside, it will attach to a teat and remain there for another four or five months, after which it will either stay home at the den while Mom goes out to forage or ride along on her back, sharing any groceries she finds while learning what and where to eat. Male possums are not involved in child-rearing.

Human or non-human—if you want to succeed in the urban jungle, it sure doesn’t hurt to have a pretty face. Brushtails have large ears perched on a rounded head, a pink nose and dark liquid eyes… and they don’t seem at all shy about working their assets to full advantage. They may have learned a thing or two from eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), introduced to Australia sometime between 1900 and the 1930s—there’s just something about watching a furry creature nosh while holding the treat with two hands that people find irresistible, apparently, because hand-feeding fruit treats is a popular past-time.

attic brushtail (Photo: play4smee, Creative Commons license)There’s a down side to this Down Under hospitality, though. With warm, dry sleeping berths and plenty to eat, brushtails haven’t found it necessary to step lightly on the Earth… or in the attic either.  Their heavy-footed nocturnal comings and goings and loud vocalizations are responsible for plenty of sleepless nights and lost tempers. Brushtails often wake the neighborhood dogs as they wander through the neighborhood via utility poles and fencing, creating the same kind of hard feelings directed at Virginia opossums on the other side of the globe, for the exact same reason.

When not snacking on handouts from the produce section they will munch on magnolias, roses, and other selections from the flower garden as well as on eucalyptus and other trees—Aussies do not consider this one of the brushtail’s more appealing qualities. And, like their northern hemisphere kin, brushtails will dumpster dive and help themselves to the back porch pet food smorgasbord, resulting in much hair-pulling and teeth-gnashing by Homo sapiens.

Yet, somehow, brushtails seem largely immune to the vilification of their less charismatic cousins. To the cute (and furry-tailed) go the spoils, I guess—it’s an all too familiar tail and decidedly unjust. But as my mother (and probably yours too) always said, “Who told you life is fair?”

One thing’s for sure, it wasn’t a ‘possum.

[This one is for Barb at Passionate About Pets and People. Thanks for your support and encouragement!]

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* Although both are marsupials, it is commonly accepted that the Americas have opossums (colloquially referred to as ‘possums) while Australia has possums. Yes, it is confusing. No, I don’t know why or how this came to be. Even in the 21st Century there remain great unsolved mysteries.

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© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work. Just ask.). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: David Midgley (brushtail eating an orange); mugley (mother and baby); and play4smee (attic brushtail).

Hitchhikers

Urban living for Sadie the Squirrel by Tom Fischer Photography, Creative Content license

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Add another accomplishment to my resume as official wildlife guru and animal-vehicle biologist for NPR’s Car Talk—the 14th most popular radio show on the U.S. airwaves and the 6th most popular if you exclude shows that feature a some kind of shock-jock (and that, I’m sure hosts Tom and Ray Magliozzi would agree, is pretty shocking).

No April fooling. In addition to answering questions for their Wildlife & Your Car FAQ page and helping a Wyoming caller understand why horses consider the hood of her car an appropriate alternative to chewing gum, I’m now a guest blogger on the site as well.

Wrangers Escort Gremlins shares some listener tips for preventing and humanely discouraging packrats and other rodents from turning your engine compartment into an apartment and an ingenious method for convincing snakes (pet pythons as well as serpent strangers) to vacate the interior of your preferred form of motorized transportation. Why wait? Click and Clack on over to the blog site before you find yourself staring into a pair of beady eyes or on the receiving end of a forked-tongue raspberry. And while you’re there, feel free to add comments on my post and offer any tips you may have for dealing with vehicle-wildlife conflicts. You never know… maybe your advice will be featured further down the road.

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© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work; all you have to do is ask). Thanks to Tom Fischer Photography  for making his  work available through a Creative Commons license.

Urban development

Raccoons by John Biehler, Creative Commons license

Just hangin' on the corner with the homies... smart, bored, and looking for trouble (Photo: John Biehler, Creative Commons license)

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World War II had barely ended when researchers began to notice a major migration under way in North America, from undeveloped and agricultural areas to cities and suburbs.  Now, in the early 21st Century, the urban population is over 20 times that of the early-1940s—in some places, more than 50% higher than the surrounding rural landscape. With growth has come all the problems that naturally occur as a community becomes overcrowded: housing shortages and squatting; dumpster diving; increases in theft and property damage; sanitation-related public health concerns. sometimes, we all need a little help getting through the day... by jmtimages, creative commons licenseAll of this has a tendency to make established residents less tolerant of immigrants, even when the new neighbors are clever, ambitious, hard-working, good parents, and undeniably cute as all get-out.

Raccoons (Procyon lotor) may be new to the urban scene, but… wait a minute. You thought I was talking about people?

That’s understandable, I suppose. Just about everything I’ve said to this point could apply to humans as well. There’s no denying that Homo sapiens is now an urban species. The tipping point (>50% of humans living in areas of high population density) came around 2007. Each year, more of us are lured by the promise of better-paying jobs, more housing options, access to social services and chain restaurants, bigger shopping malls, a larger dating pool, and high-speed Internet connections. In other cases, concrete tentacles sprawl past the city limit signs to grab up and devour surrounding countryside, forcing rural residents to choose between relocating to land that hasn’t yet caught developers’ eyes and becoming accidental townies.

urban raccoons by liz west ccThe “built environment” is intended to meet the wants and needs of our own kind, but raccoons may be better suited for what we’ve constructed than the target real estate market.

Raccoon Nation, a documentary shown recently in the U.S. on the PBS “Nature” series, and in Canada on the CBC News Network series “The Nature of Things with David Suzuki,” makes a strong case in support of that thesis.* As filmmakers follow the furry urbanites in their native North America (including Chicago and Toronto—known as the “raccoon capital of the world”), as well as in Germany and Japan (where they were intentionally introduced), it’s hard not to notice the similarities between those who construct cities and those who exploit them and their work.

How alike are we? Let’s build this case from the ground up.

raccoon paw and human handFeet—humans and raccoons are both plantigrade. In other words, we walk with the entire foot planted firmly on the dirt… make that asphalt. There are other examples (elephants, kangaroos, and pandas come to mind), but the majority of mammals walk on their tippy toes (more on this in a future blog post).

Hands—okay, technically raccoons don’t have hands, they have two more feet. That’s semantics. Look closely and you’ll see one reason it’s so hard to invent a raccoon-proof container—a paw that looks a lot like a palm and a digit that’s as close to the functionality of an opposable thumb as it gets for non-primates.

dumpster raccoons by zeetz jones ccStomachs—the best way to avoid starvation long enough to pass your genes along to the next generation is to cultivate the ability to eat anything and everything you can cram in your mouth that contains a calorie. The human diet is astonishingly diverse, and urban raccoons gobble up everything we leave on our plates and toss in the trash… plus a lot of stuff we would rather not eat. Some researchers suggest that omnivory played a crucial role in human development—by providing a more consistent and more nutritious diet, and because finding potential new foods, determining whether they are edible, and figuring out how to eat them pushed our brains to create new neural pathways. Which brings us to…

Brains—raccoons and people also share a high level of behavioral plasticity, a term that implies the ability to change. Flexibility, adaptability, and life-long learning (well… we both have that capacity; whether we use it or not is another issue). With no email to check, no AYSO games to attend, no need to commute, and only one significant predator (those commuting automobiles), raccoons have plenty of time for learning. Each day is devoted to DIY personal growth, lifestyle enhancement, and honing useful skills, such as…

  • how to turn a garbage can or dumpster into a convenience store;
  • how to tight-rope walk a fence (great for avoiding the neighbor’s dog);
  • how to shimmy down a tree branch onto a rooftop;
  • how to turn a loose shingle on that roof into an attic entrance;
  • how to turn that attic into a cozy, rent-free nursery.

Whether you find these critters endearing or exasperating, it’s never fun to clean up refuse that’s strewn across your yard, and there’s no denying they can and do cause damage to property. Ironically, our attempts to outwit them are molding these savvy metropolitan mammals to better fit the world we built for ourselves. And here’s the other reason I will never invest my hard-earned money in some inventor’s guaranteed raccoon-proof fill-in-the-blank: because no human being will ever have as much time to devote to keeping a raccoon out of something as raccoons, often working in teams, are willing and able to devote to cracking the code. By trying to thwart them, we’re simply selecting for the traits that make a more worthy opponent and a better urban animal. An über-coon, if you like.

bipedal raccoons by David~O ccBefore you know it, they’ll be standing upright in line right beside us at Starbucks, waiting for a Venti Caramel Macchiato to help them wake up for the night shift.

Urban raccoons share another, disturbing commonality with their human neighbors—the toll exacted by easy access to a plentiful, high fat, high sugar, high calorie diet. Diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease may do more to limit their numbers, in the long run, than all the Hav-A-Heart trap-toting home and business owners, urban wildlife biologists, and nuisance wildlife control operators combined. Cleverness and dexterity are no match for the fearful symmetry of a predatory heart attack or kidney failure.

No wonder they call it the urban jungle.

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* The full hour-long episode of Raccoon Nation, along with interesting behind-the-scenes extras, can now be viewed online.

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NOTE:  As many of you know (or have figured out), I started this blog a little over a year ago because I’m committed to reconnecting people with the natural world, starting with the wildlife in their own backyard, neighborhood, county, and city or town.  My goal for 2012 is to increase the number of subscribed readers from ~150 (through both WordPress and Facebook) to 1,000.  To that end, Next-Door Nature is a new member of the Nature Blog Network (NBN), a wonderful resource for finding writers on just about every green topic you can imagine.

Want to help me reach my goal (and share your passion for wildlife at the same time)?

  • First, tell everyone you know about Next-Door Nature—by email, on Facebook, LinkedIn, Stumbleupon, Google+, and any other social media platform that comes to mind.
  • Second, go to the NBN site and submit a review (hopefully glowing) of Next-Door Nature.
  • Third… you tell me! If you have an idea for how to get the word out about this blog, please share. Leave a comment, or send an email. Thanks!
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© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work; all you have to do is ask). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: John Biehler (3 sepia raccoons); jmtimages (mother & child); Liz West (supper club); Stuti Sakhalkar (human handprint); Jon Stogner (raccoon pawprint); Zeetz Jones (dumpster ); David~O (bipedal).

Us against the world

coyotes by larry lamsa creative commons license

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

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Boy meets girl.

It’s such a familiar story I probably don’t need to spell out the rest.

Ah, but folks like stories to have a beginning, a middle, and an ending, don’t we? Ok, ok… so a male and a female find one another.  They “meet-cute” (the classic contrivance of romantic comedies), or through the efforts of micro-managing parents (the historically classic approach), or online, or in one of a million completely unremarkable everyday ways—the “how” doesn’t matter (to anyone else).  A spark catches. A bond is formed—over time, at first sight, or by rite (mating or marriage rituals, depending on one’s religion, politics, or species). They find a home, start a family, and live happily enough ever after (fairy tales tend to gloss over the details of that last part).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The End.

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

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

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

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

You may disagree, as is your right.

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© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work; all you have to do is ask). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: Larry Lamsa (two coyotes and a pup); Trey Ratcliff (coyote in grass);  Ken Slade (coyote on the street); Zac Garrett (coyote pups); and  Matt Knoth (last laugh).

Long winter’s nap

arctic fox by emma j bishop cc

There's nothing quite as contagious as a yawn* (Photo: Emma J. Bishop, Creative Commons license)

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Grab forty winks. Saw logs. For a species that’s habitually short on shut-eye, we humans sure have come up with myriad ways to talk about it. We also spend a lot of time and money studying sleep, or the lack thereof. Yet, in spite of decades of inquiry, researchers still don’t have a good fix on why we—and just about every other living creature—need to nod off.  We’ve had better luck trying to understand other unconscious states, especially those employed by certain non-human species to deal with hard times.

yawning prairie dog by SearchNetMedia ccWinter poses a critical challenge for animals who stay put rather than migrate to warmer climes. Thermoregulation requires calories, but many foods—especially fruits, nectars, vegetation, and insects—are scarce when the days are short. The ability to reduce one’s energy needs can be a life-saving adaptation. Hibernation does just that—it lowers an animal’s metabolic rate. If all goes well, this period of inactivity, which may last several days, weeks, or even months, depending on the species, will stretch stored energy reserves (aka body fat) long enough for the animal to survive until a greener season. “If” depends on many factors, such as the abundance of autumn food resources, the length and severity of cold days, and even the stability of the den site during repeated freeze-thaw-freeze cycles.

When a critter—let’s use the chipmunk (Tamias spp.) as an example—transitions into a state of hibernation, its body temperature drops to near freezing, breathing becomes so shallow as to be imperceptible, and the heart rate decreases dramatically, from 350 to 4 beats per minute.  Although we tend to think of hibernation as a season-long slumber, chippies and other hibernating rodents do wake up every few weeks to have a snack and take a potty break, even though these periods of activity, called interbout arousals, consume up to 90% of stored body fat. There are some champion nappers in this chisel-toothed group—including the groundhog (aka woodchuck, Marmota monax), who sleeps half its life away, setting the alarm for March when it heads to bed in September.

Other examples of sound sleepers include: insectivores like the European hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus) and the tenrecs (Microgale spp.); the mountain pygmy possum (Burramys parvus)—the only hibernating marsupial; and the echidna (Tachyglossus spp.), a monotreme.  Biologist recently added the mouse lemur (Microcebus spp.) and the fat-tailed dwarf lemur (Cheirogaleus medius) to the hibernator roster; prior to this discovery, we didn’t have any examples from among the primates. Additionally, since winter temperatures in their native Madagascar may reach 86° F (30° C), it’s become clear that hibernation isn’t strictly associated with cold weather. Nor is it limited to mammals; a bird called the common poorwill (Phalaenoptilus nuttallii) snoozes through at least some of the snowy season.

yawning polar bear by Paul Davidy ccIronically, that most famous of North American sleep icons, the bear (Ursus spp.), is the subject of much debate. The question is whether or not they are “true hibernators.” Bears often spend far more time sleeping than the so-called “trues,” so what’s all the fuss about?  Well, this is going to sound like nit-picking, but here goes. First of all, a bear’s heart rate drops, but not quickly enough to suit some scientists. Also, while the number of heartbeats may go as low as 8 per minute, the average is closer to 50 per minute. Moreover, during this time the bear’s body temperature remains pretty close to normal. This is a handy little idiosyncrasy that, should the need arise, allows the animal to wake up fast… and often cranky—a fact Santa (and anyone else) should keep in mind when planning a mid-winter visit to the den.

Taking to one’s bed for months on end could be seen as a rather over-the-top response to a simple cold front. It smacks of swooning characters in English romance novels from the late 1700s. Frankly, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and many wild critters take a more measured approach. Torpor is the term commonly used to describe these shorter, less dramatic forms of dormancy, although, technically, hibernation and other types of suspended animation are really subsets of torpidity. Call it what you will, there are examples of “temporary hibernation” in all the Classes of vertebrate animals—mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish—and it’s commonplace among the myriad spineless critters.

For some of the busiest bodies, torpor is a daily habit. Hummingbirds (Trochilidae), for example, have such a high metabolic rate that they need to ingest a steady stream of non-carbonated sugar water (i.e., nectar) during their waking hours or they’ll become hypoglycemic and are too exhausted to fly. Can’t fly? Can’t feed. It’s a vicious circle that will ultimately lead to the bird’s death without some kind of intervention. As you might imagine, this need to constantly refuel creates an enormous problem when night falls and these feathered perpetual motion machines must rest. Without some way to temporarily lower their metabolic rate, hummingbirds would never be able to get out of bed in the morning. Never fear—torpidity to the rescue!

rock dove yawning by Tatiana Bulyonkova ccSwifts (Apodidae), chickadees (Paridae), nightjars (Caprimulgidae), and doves (Columbidae) are just a few of the other avian species who go torpid under various conditions. Generally speaking, these birds are fruit-, nectar-, or insect-eaters, and they tend to be on the small side (less than 80g). The snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus), at 1600-2950g is one exception to this rule, and biologists recently added a second, when it was confirmed that the tawny frogmouth (Podargus strigoides) goes torpid during Australian winters.  Personally, I find these new insights into animal behavior thrilling, because they reassure me that what we know about wild creatures is still a drop in the bucket compared to what we don’t know—there are worlds upon worlds waiting to be discovered on this blue gem of a planet we call home.

yawning turtle by Michael Ransburg ccOf course, cold is not the only hardship wild things would rather sleep through. Periods of drought are just as serious a threat to survival, especially for aquatic and semi-aquatic species. When a lake, pond, or stream goes dry, the inhabitants need to dig in. Literally. Turtles and tortoises (Testudines), crocodiles (Crocodylidae), frogs and toads (Anura), salamanders (Caudata), and some crustaceans will aestivate (also spelled estivate)—a drought-driven form of hibernation. They sink down into the mud before it dries completely, sealing themselves in a mucous capsule until the rains come again. If ever there was a time to be glad you can absorb oxygen in the soil through your skin, this is it, because the air in your boggy bubble won’t last very long.

yawning snowy owl by Pat Gaines ccResearchers are intrigued by these alternate forms of sleep and how they might offer clues for solving a variety of human health concerns. Honestly, I understand their fascination but I don’t know how they stay awake long enough to collect any data. Just writing about dormancy has my eyelid feeling so… heavy. I guess it’s… time for…. me to turn… in.

…..Hit the  YAWN!  hay.

……….Catch some…..zzzzzzzzz

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*Pop Quiz:  How many times did you yawn while reading this? 😉

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There’s nothing quite as invigorating as finding a little Next-Door Nature in your email inbox—click the “subscribe”  link in the upper right-hand corner of this page and receive notifications of new posts!
© 2011 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author. Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: SearchNetMedia (prairie dog); Pau Davidy (polar bear); Tatiana Bulyonkova (rock dove); Michael Ransburg (turtle); and Pat Gaines (snowy owl).

Where the Livin’ is Easy-er

Young raccoon

Everyone needs a room of their own, and a little wild-proofing goes a long way to keep everything, and everyone, in their own place.\ (Photo: Alan Howell © Star Path Images, used with permission).

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Sinatra was wrong.

I’m sorry Ol’ Blue Eyes, but the line that says if you can make it in a big city you can make it anywhere doesn’t hold true for everyone. For a lot of wild species, especially those who can tolerate living close to human beings, Gotham—and nearly every other town and suburb—has some significant advantages over small-town and no-town life.

Such as…?

Let’s start with the basics. All living creatures need, at minimum, four things to survive: air, water, food, and space. Air is equally available in most habitats (generally speaking), so one place is about as good as another when you’re looking to put down roots. City mouse, country mouse—neither has an oxygen advantage. Call it a draw.

pigeon at a drinking fountainHowever, finding something to fill your stomach and quench your thirst can be a full-time job in undeveloped areas, while living near people pretty much guarantees that #2 and #3 on that list will be plentiful. Parched? Even in arid regions, even during a drought, water is much easier to find in the city. Think birdbaths, hoses, fountains, sprinkler systems, swimming pools, park ponds and lakes. Chalk one up for the city critter.

opossum foraging in a trash canHungry? You’ve got your birdseed, your suet, your stale white bread—people hand that stuff out like there’s no tomorrow. Then there’s the never-ending supply of second-hand snack dispensers, available in medium (trash cans), large (dumpsters), and big-gulp (landfills). Plus you’ve got your “repurposed” vittles—garden produce, fruit trees and bushes, grass seed, expensive landscaping plants, pet food… and pets. Advantage urbanites.

The one thing that’s hard to come by for both human and non-human city residents is quality real estate.  Actually, it’s the fact that food and water are so bountiful that creates the wild housing crisis. In “natural” habitats, these resources are finite so the creatures living there vigorously defend access to them by establishing territories to exclude new residents, especially during breeding season. In the built environment, as illustrated above, food and water are, for all practical purposes, limitless. The carrying capacity of an urban or suburban landscape is much higher than surrounding undeveloped habitat, in large part because food, in all its myriad forms, is removed from rural areas and trucked into the city on a daily basis.

European starling exiting a pipe gapMore food = more critters… but the space available for nesting and denning sites doesn’t expand at a similar pace. In fact, development removes many natural denning and nesting sites, so finding a nice traditional home takes more effort. Is it any wonder that urban wildlife—comprised primarily of the most adaptable of species—start thinking creatively about dryer vents, chimneys, attics, garages, decks, and sheds?

fox under shedThink of it from a wild perspective—with a little behavioral flexibility, they and their loved ones can be warm and dry, while someone else pays the heating bill!

Now, most of the people I meet fall into one of two major camps regarding wildlife: “love-love-love-it,” and “live-and-let-live.” It’s only after a human-wildlife conflict of some kind has occurred, usually resulting in an expense for the human, that people start bad-mouthing their furry, feathery, and scaly neighbors.

Prevention is the best conflict resolution strategy I know. Autumn is when many animals begin to look for a place to hide out from old man winter, and sunny fall days are also a great time to get outside and tackle those wild-proofing maintenance and repair chores around the house and garden. Once you’ve made it more difficult for squatters to move in, staying on friendly terms with next-door nature is a breeze. There’s a nice little bonus for doing your chores, too—by sealing up all those potential entryways you’ll keep out the cold winds, reducing your heating bill and your carbon footprint. Such a deal!

squirrel under the eavesHere’s your to-do list:

  • Remove overhanging tree limbs that serve as bridges to your attic and chimney
  • Ask a professional to cap your chimneys (and while s/he is up there, might as well have them do a little sweeping to reduce the chance of a flue fire)
  • Cover all attic vents with caps made of ½” mesh hardware cloth
  • Replace any loose shingles and rotting soffit and fascia boards (great time to check for evidence of termites, too)
  • Fill any hole ≥ ¼” in diameter with calk, hardware cloth, or galvanized sheet metal
  • Seal gaps around window air conditioners, cables, and pipes
  • Remove firewood and brush piles from next to buildings

For more helpful instructions, along with a wealth of information on humane methods for preventing and solving all sorts of human-wildlife conflicts, I highly recommend a book titled Wild Neighbors by John Hadidian of the Humane Society of the United States, available new and used from all the usual online booksellers.

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P.S.  Homes are but one venue where human-wildlife conflicts occur. To hear about a few others, check out last week’s With Good Reason broadcast/podcast, Beyond Campfires and Cookies. The focus of the second feature story is none other than yours truly.

© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author. Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available: Alan Howell/Star Path Images (raccoon, used with permission); SP8254 (pigeon, Creative Commons license); Jason Ahrns (opossum, Creative Commons license); John Haslam (European starling, Creative Commons license); David Ginsberg (fox, Creative Commons license); and Joel Down (squirrel, Creative Commons license).

You haul

eastern chipmunk

Eastern chipmunks carry nuts and seeds in cheek pouches to underground food caches for use in winter (Photo: Gilles Gonthier, Creative Commons license)

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Moving supplies have been dominating my thoughts of late and taking over my apartment too. With boxes stacked everywhere the walls are, quite literally, closing in. When claustrophobic thoughts threatened this afternoon, I took a deep breath and remembered that wide, open spaces were waiting outside.

But a funny thing happened when I walked through my front door into a bigger world. I promptly fell into a smaller one.

I was sitting beneath a favorite shade tree, just letting my mind wander anywhere it wanted to go that didn’t involve packing, when my adventure began. Staring absently at the clover 6’ beyond my feet and growing sleepy, I wasn’t even startled when a pointy, soil-dusted nose suddenly pushed it’s way, dreamlike, to the surface. In short order the nose became an Eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus), complete with rusty-brown face, two bright, black eyes, curious, mobile ears, small hands, and a slender torso. Of course, vertical stripes are always slimming.

Maybe I was large and still enough to be perceived as part of the tree. Perhaps a long to-do list was urging her on to the tune of “I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date!” Either way, that rodent paid no attention to me at all as she immediately set to work. I settled in to watch, sure I’d found the perfect distraction from my own busy schedule… but then she started packing.

No, she didn’t pull cardboard boxes and rolls of tape out of that hole in the ground. No need, when you’ve got a steamer trunk in each cheek. Okay, technically they’re pouches, but they are used to transport things from one place to another. Lots of things—this species has fewer molars than other chippies so there’s extra room. What do chipmunks need to carry? Some plant-based bedding now and then, but mostly groceries. During the summer their diet includes perishables such as wild fruits, bird eggs, insects, and other small creatures. These items are consumed immediately. Nuts and seeds are naturally long lasting, so they end up in underground caches. When you need both your arms and legs to get around, there aren’t any limbs left for lugging things to and fro. Ergo… you stuff your face.

chipmunk on a bird feederWhen the cheeks are full, they may double the size of the chipmunk’s head. Think Dizzy Gillespie. Believe it or not, there are people who spend time documenting and reporting what chipmunks pack into these pouches, and we’re not talking small potatoes. Seriously—the pouches are big, but they’re not that big; an adult chipmunk is smaller than your average restaurant Idaho. The cheeks are large enough, however, to hold 70 black-oil sunflower seeds, 31 dried corn kernels, or 13 prune pits (where do chipmunks find prune pits I wonder… curiouser and curiouser).

As the small face in front of me grew wider, I began to doubt that it would fit back through a 2” opening without leaving behind some of the payload. I forgot that by this time of year, even a young’un would be an old hand at this. She dove into the entrance without a second’s hesitation… and me right on her heels, having conveniently shrunk down to chipmunk size (in my mind, that is—there weren’t any bottles labeled “Drink Me” at hand).

I’m not Alice and this was no rabbit hole, so we didn’t fall into a chasm. The whole burrow was only 18-36″ below the surface. She scampered along an 8’ tunnel towards a labyrinth of chambers and passageways, darting past what appeared to be a nesting area into the pantry; one of many pantries, actually, although technically, I think these rooms are referred to as hoards. From November through March or April, chippie chick and her kin will spend most of their time underground. If the weather above is warm enough, they’ll venture out to forage, especially if there’s a handy bird feeder nearby, but chipmunks rely primarily on foods put up during the summer months. Not a true hibernator, they arouse now and then from periods of torpor. When they do they need to eat, and there’s no cake in this Wonderland.

Or books, or dishes, or clothing, or any of the other myriad items waiting to be stuffed into the cartons I’m using instead of pouches. But my belongings won’t pack themselves and my new friend is busy taking care of her own business. “Time to leave Wonderland,” I thought, shifting ever so subtly. And with that, I was instantly transported back to my favorite tree, watching a tail tip disappear into a hole in the ground. Definitely time to return to the land of boxes and rental trucks… and cake!

When I head out for more supplies I think I’ll stop at the grocery store for a treat. This is one cake that doesn’t need to say “Eat Me.”  With all the bending and lifting and stair climbing I’ve done today, I can have a slice without fear of growing too large to fit in my apartment.

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© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author. Thanks to Doug Cadmus for making his photo of a chipmunk feasting at a bird feeder available through a Creative Commons license.