Oasis

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

American robins and other wild creatures have to get creative if they want to quench a winter thirst (Photo: Ingrid Taylar, Creative Commons license)

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Which season comes to mind when you read these words?

parched

desiccated

shriveled

arid

sere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BluebirdBath (Photo: Rob and Jane Kirkland, CC license)

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

What’s more, water is an effective wildlife attractor all year long. When you offer seed, you get seed-eaters (e.g., cardinals, blue jays, house sparrows, and squirrels) and some omnivores (e.g., opossums, raccoons, the occasional deer or black bear)—and probably a lot of hulls and other waste that needs to be raked up and thrown away. Feeder maintenance can be an expensive and time-consuming habit. [Be warned, you may also inadvertently lure in some species who like to feast on the feeder regulars. If you find it disturbing to look up from your morning coffee to see a sharp-shinned hawk scattering goldfinch feathers hither and yon, you may find it helps to think of this as progressing from “having a feeder” to “having a food-web.”] Landscape with native plants and you should be able to coax some fruit and nectar fans to visit as well. Few homeowners are willing to do what’s necessary to invite insectivores to dinner, at least intentionally.

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

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© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work—just ask). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: Ingrid Taylar (thirsty robins); David Grant (thirsty squirrel); JDB Photos (thirsty goldfinch); and Rob & Jane Kirkland (thirsty bluebirds)..

Running start

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American Coot Takeoff (Photo: Matthew Paulson, CC license)

Some birds, including the American coot, need a long water runway to get airborne (Photo: Matthew Paulson, Creative Commons license)

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Hard landings. Anyone who’s a frequent flyer has experienced a few. Always disconcerting, occasionally dangerous. My most memorable touchdown was a trip from College Station, Texas, into Albuquerque on an Embraer ERJ-XXX. I forget which number, but it was one of those 3-seats-across models. One by one, passengers ducked through the doorway and tried to return to their full upright position, only to be temporarily twisted by the low ceiling into a fair approximation of Dr. Frankenstein’s personal porter, dragging themselves down the narrow aisle behind carry-ons in an ungainly but oddly synchronous choreography until each Igor found his or her assigned row.

I crammed my gear under the seat in front of me and strapped myself in right above the left-side wheels, although I was unaware of that fact at the time. It was an uneventful flight with no turbulence to speak of and a clear, bright blue sky. We made our approach, descending slowly as we grew closer and closer to the runway… then over the runway… then

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BAM!!

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Well, I guess the pilot got impatient, or maybe the end of the landing strip was coming up faster than expected, but we dropped to the pavement like a bowling ball falling out of the back of an unzipped travel case. I thought the landing gear was going to come up through the floor and imagined the plane careening along the concrete on its belly in a shower of sparks.

Instead, after a long, pregnant pause, the flight attendant simply welcomed us to New Mexico as we taxied to the jetway. But the cabin, previously humming with friendly chatter, went completely silent and stayed that way until the captain turned off the fasten seat belt sign.

Eared grebe glance (Photo: Jack Wolf, CC license)

An eared grebe in winter plumage.

I was reminded of this experience last month, when I heard reports that 3,500 migrating eared grebes (aka black-necked grebe, Podiceps nigricollis) mistook a snowy Walmart parking lot in Cedar City, Utah, for a lake. The grebes came in prepared for a water landing and, as anyone old enough to walk (and to fall) knows, asphalt isn’t as forgiving as H20. For over 1,500 birds it was a fatal error—some died immediately upon impact, others shortly after. For some who lived long enough to be found by wildlife rehabilitators and good Samaritans, euthanasia was the only humane option.

Even the ones who escaped injury needed help. They were found rowing across the landscape using their wings as oars, getting nowhere fast but too aware of their vulnerable position to do nothing but wait for a predator or scavenger to spot a dark bird struggling against a snowy white background.

6 of 6 Pacific Loon in Distress (Photo: Mike Baird, CC license)

The Pacific (Gavia pacifica) and other loons are true water birds, diving and swimming after fish with speed and grace. But out of water they are unable to take flight, and find walking difficult.

There are a large number of bird species associated with water who need a running start across a watery runway to become airborne, even for short flights; they include grebes, loons (Gavia spp.), rails (Rallidae), diving ducks (Aythyinae; aka pochards or scaups), and many sea ducks (Merginae).

The Utah stranding was unusual primarily for the number of birds affected, but similar groundings happen with some regularity during both the spring and fall migration as well as other times of the year. When I was the director of a wildlife rehabilitation center in Houston, every now and again an American coot (Fulica americana) would be ushered through our doors in a cardboard box. A single bird, usually, or at most two or three. In this case, it wasn’t snow that caused the optical illusion but heat. During Texas summers, hot asphalt roads apparently shimmer like water, at least to avian eyes, so a highway looks like the perfect place to stop for a little lunch and a quick dip, not to mention a long, straight liquid launchpad when it’s time to wing away again.

Canceled flights are such a pain in the neck… and other places, too, at times.

Merganser taking flight 2 (Photo: Mark Dalpe, CC license)

Under the right conditions, some species of waterfowl such as this female common merganser (Mergus merganser), can mistake fields and even roads for water.

Surprisingly, most of these water-walkers did survive their fall to earth. Once grounded, however, they had to hitch a ride to our center. There, we would tend to their cuts, scrapes, and bruises and then give them a helping hand back into the sky by dropping them off at an appropriate body of water. A quick look around to get their bearings and they were on their way, pedaling across the water as furiously as the pilot of a Gerhardt cycleplane but with much better results.

The snow that seduced so many birds into a making a pit-stop in Utah may actually have lessened the devastation by providing a bit of slip and slide to cushion the crash. Happily, International Bird Rescue reports that approximately 2,000 grebes were rescued and released the same week—that’s about as good as it gets in these situations, I suppose.  With any luck at all, they’re now enjoying some R&R and a little southern hospitality.  May they have friendly skies and tail winds for their return flight.

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There’s nothing quite like 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!
© 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: Matthew Paulson (American coot); Jack Wolf (eared grebe); Mike Baird (Pacific loon); and Mark Dalpe (common merganser).

Drummer boy

male pileated woodpecker by ucumari

The male pileated woodpecker may not have the most sophisticated sense of rhythm, but he's a stylish drummer nonetheless (Photo: ucumari, Creative Commons license).

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The holiday soundtrack, which retailers now begin to cue up before the Thanksgiving dinner plates have been cleared from the table, has a limited playlist. Even though the variety of artists covering these tunes is diverse, it doesn’t take long for the music to become little more than background noise. However, there’s one tune that always snares my attention—instantly I’m transported back in time to another Christmas… to a crisp, sunny afternoon on a favorite trail at the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center. That day, the sound of a tree-house being constructed high above my head caused me to  glance up, and I caught my first thrilling glimpse of a not-so-little drummer boy.

female pileated by Syd Phillips cc

The female pileated woodpecker doesn't have the red forehead and "mustache" of her male counterpart.

About the size of a crow (16-19 in. or 40-49 cm), the pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) is North America’s largest woodpecker (unless ornithologists can prove that ivory-billed woodpeckers (Campephilus principalis) still exist). At first glance, one might reasonably doubt my ability to determine that this was, indeed, a drummer boy. Adult pileated woodpeckers are easy to identify, but unless you look closely they don’t appear to be sexually dimorphic (males and females of the same species differ in appearance). But I was close enough to see the telltale signs of a male bird—a red forehead and “mustache” to go with the pointy scarlet gnome hat sported by both genders.

Since that first lucky holiday outing, I’ve had the good fortune to see many other pileated woodpeckers, but it’s always a bit of a jolt to the system. Perhaps it’s the combination of size and pointed head, or maybe its the wing-beat pattern during flight, but there’s something eerily prehistoric about this bird. Imaging you are ambling down a wooded path, enjoying the great outdoors but allowing your mind to wander where it will… when out of the corner of your eye your subconscious spots a pterodactylus!

It takes only a second or two for your conscious brain to recognize the error, but not fast enough to prevent your adrenal glands from springing into action, bathing your reptilian brain in fight-or-flight chemicals, turning your heart into a percussion instrument.

Human drummers display a assortment of styles—Afro-Cuban, blues, jazz, zydeco—and the same can be said for the avian set. But there’s not a lot of subtlety to a pileated groove. You can break the beat down into two sets—drumming and tapping.  To my ear, the drumming sounds most like an enthusiastic, albeit novice, carpenter: pound furiously for 2-3 seconds, less forcefully as muscles quickly tire… rest for a minute…  bash the next nail for 2-3 seconds… repeat. Tapping, which is slower and metronomic, often serves as a form of mated pair communication.

pileated foraging hole by Naomi Van Tol ccLooking for signs of pileated woodpeckers in your neck of the woods? It helps to live on the eastern side of the continent, although you can find them across much of Canada and down along a fair bit of the western U.S. coast. This species doesn’t migrate, and once a pair has established a breeding territory they defend it year-round (although they’re a little more relaxed about it during the winter months). So, assuming you’re in the right neighborhood, the next step for spotting this hammer-head is to look for squares. I’m not suggesting these rakishly attired birds aren’t hip—just that they have a stereotypic method of excavating the carpenter ants and wood-boring beetle larvae they like to eat. Unlike many other woodpeckers, pileateds don’t waste time drilling a succession of small holes into tree bark. They gouge out large, roughly rectangular chinks instead; a practice that can be quite damaging to small trees, but it’s beneficial to other bird species who come along and feed on left-overs after the bigger bird has flown the coop.

nestling pileateds by Larry McGahey cc

Pileated woodpecker nest cavities usually have more than one entrance.

Pileated pairs share child-rearing duties, and they prefer to use a different nursery for their offspring every year. That means each April the male carves a new nesting hole, leaving last-year’s crib vacant for other cavity-nesting creatures to use for many years to come. Biologists don’t really understand why some species exhibit nest site fidelity while others do not, but in the case of the pileated woodpecker, this philanthropic service improves the overall health of the ecological community.

All drummer boys—and girls—have a knack for gift-giving, it seems.

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© 2011 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: Syd Phillips (female pileated); Naomi Van Tol (pileated foraging sign); and Larry McGahey (nestling pileateds).  Thanks also to Marty Stouffer’s Wild America Sound Effects Library for making the recording of a pileated woodpecker’s call and drumming available through a Creative Commons license.

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).

Nutcracker suite

cardinal-grosbeak-crossbill

No, not Tchaikovsky. These are avian nutcrackers (left to right): northern cardinal, rose-breasted grosbeak, and red crossbill. (Photos: ehpien, Conrad Kulper, and Eugene Beckes, Creative Commons licenses)

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Ever wonder why hens’ teeth (and any other kind of avian teeth for that matter) are rare? It’s because teeth are heavy. That’s a problem if you live life on the wing but can’t use a knife and fork to cut your meals up into easy-to-swallow morsels.  A bird’s beak (aka bill) is an adaptation to flight that serves most of the same functions choppers handle in Earth-bound creatures, but without the high metabolic cost of carrying around a set of pearly whites.

Bird Beaks by Shyamal and Jeff Dahl, CC

Figure A. Beak shape and size offers a clue as to what the owner likes to eat.

The beak is a sheath of tough skin on the upper and lower mandibles. Wild birds exploit a wide array of feeding resources and niches, and they are aided in this task by a startling diversity of beak morphology (see Figure A). For example, nectarivores (nectar-eaters), including hummingbirds, usually have long, straw-like beaks that reach deep into flowers. Insectivores (insect-eaters) tend to have narrow, slightly curved beaks that can reach into the small crevices where their prey try to stay out of sight. Piscivores (fish-eaters) have a sharp hook, serrated edges, or both, that help them hold on to their slippery supper. Some of the most distinctive beaks, though, belong to nutcrackers.

The northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is a familiar and popular resident of cities and suburbs, possibly because it’s so easy to spot and identify. It’s so popular, in fact, that seven U.S. state legislatures have chosen this species to be their avian poster child.  At  8½—9” (21—23 cm) from jaunty crest to tail tip, it’s a medium-sized songbird with a stereotypic nut- and seed-busting beak—short, stout, and cone-shaped. Cardinal beaks can crush more than seeds, as I can personally attest. From time to time a cardinal would find its way, with the help of a kindly Samaritan, to the Houston wildlife rehabilitation center where I used to work. When this happened, I would stand at the intake desk, teeth clenched, trying to muster enough courage to open the shoebox in my hands.  Now, I like cardinals as much as the next person—I’m from St. Louis, after all, where you can walk down any street in the whole town and know you’ll see someone wearing a shirt adorned with a bright crimson bird perched on a baseball bat. You’d think that would make me an insider of sorts, an honorary member of the family who’s entitled to a few special perks. Hardly. Every time him and her cardinals by Steve Wall ccI’ve held a cardinal in my hand, no matter how gentle the exam or treatment, I was rewarded for my efforts with a throbbing blood blister on my palm, administered by a tiny but furious red vice-grip. Who would have guessed you could feel empathy for a sunflower seed?

The rose-breasted grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) is slightly smaller (7—7½” or 18—21 cm) with a pale, conical bill reminiscent of the cardinal’s, only more zaftig… a chestnut to the redbird’s hazelnut. Of course, it’s natural for kin to resemble one another, and the RBG is, in fact, one of 17 species known as the “cardinal-grosbeaks.”* Grosbeak—from the French grosbec (gros thick + bec beak) is a bit of a misnomer for this striking black and white bird with a cherry cravat (the females prefer a more sedate, sparrow-like wardrobe). Compared to the schnozzes sported by some members of the Cardinalidae clan, the RBG has a proud but modest snoot. Although not as common as its stop-light colored cousin, human development—and the fire suppression policies that accompany it—have caused forests to sprout where once only grasses grew, allowing the RBG to expand its breeding and migration range westward (although the Rocky Mountains have proven to be a tough nut to crack).  They’ve become a more frequent visitor to backyard bird bistros, where they like to snack on safflower, cracked corn, and black-striped sunflower seed. Insects and fruit are part of their diet as well, but seeds account for the majority of their calorie intake, especially during winter months.

The beak says it all—red crossbills (Loxia curvirostra) are true specialists. At first glance you might think this is a bird in dire need of an orthodontist, but that oddly shaped bill allows them to force open conifer cones and extract the tasty nuts inside. The muscles that allow birds to bite down are stronger than the ones used to open their beaks. But unlike cardinals and grosbeaks, who can clamp down with great force on tough-hulled sunflower seeds (and tender wildlife rehabilitator hands), the crossbill can wedge the slightly opened tips of its bill between the scales of a tightly closed pinecone and then bite down, pushing the scale up to expose the kernel. The red crossbill is extremely dependent on conifer seeds—wildlife biologists refer to animals whose very existence depends on a narrowly-defined habitat or food sources as an obligate species. Most granivores (seed-eaters) start their lives eating protein-rich insects, making a dietary change when they reach adulthood, but crossbills feed on seeds from cradle to grave. Of course, there are risks associated with being a specialist… we’ve all been warned against “putting all your eggs in one basket.” But as long as long red crossbill by eugene beckes ccas you follow the advice of Mark Twain and “watch that basket!” there are benefits as well. For example, red crossbills can raise young any time of the year—even during winter—as long as the cone crop is abundant. I guess some nutty looking adaptations are really quite shrewd.

The Clark’s nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana) uses the same reliable food resource—conifer nuts—to expand its breeding season. But this member of the Corvidae family (jays and crows) takes the idea even further. It is a hoarder, storing surplus pine, spruce, and hazelnuts. They actually have a special pouch under their tongues to clark's nutcracker by Jamie Chavez cccarry seeds over long distances. A single Clark’s can hide as many as 300,000 pine nuts over the course of a year, and they use this cache crop to feed themselves and their nestlings. Research has shown they have a phenomenal memory and can find most of the seeds they’ve stashed, even months later. Most… but not all; some of the hidden seeds germinate, re-establishing the bird’s favorite trees in areas cleared by fires or logging operations. It’s a sustainable harvest practice, however accidental, and a form of basket-watching that would make Samuel Clemens proud.

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* The grosbeak taxa is a conglomerate of distantly related songbirds known as a polyphyletic (“of many races”) group that we’ll explore in greater detail in future NDN posts.

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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: ehpien (northern cardinal); Conrad Kulper (rose-breasted grosbeak); Eugene Beckes (red crossbill); Steve Wall (male and female cardinals); Trisha Shears (2nd red-breasted grosbeak); Eugene Beckes (2nd red crossbill);and Jamie Chavez (Clark’s nutcracker).  Figure A was made available through WikiMedia by Shyamal and Jeff Dahl.  Bird song mp3s files are in the public domain.

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.