When the Wind Blows

neonate songbird

Wild youngsters may end up on the ground when their nests are blown out of trees by violent storms (Photo: Ryan Keene, Creative Commons license)

[Reprint from April 2011… but still useful information during this windy season.].

Late Thursday evening a sound came blasting through dreams and memory to my sleeping brain.  It’s been years—decades even—since I lived in Tornado Alley, where March meant The Wizard of Oz on television and being hustled into the basement at all hours of the day and night while my dad watched the sky and listened to the radio until the National Weather Service ended the Warning or Watch period.

I still have a vivid memory of my first tornado warning after moving to West Texas as a young adult. I heard the siren blast and… froze. Standing in the middle of my kitchen, I had no idea where one is supposed to go when your house doesn’t have a basement. Turning on the radio, a pre-recorded emergency announcement instructed listeners to head for the bathroom. This didn’t make any sense to me at all but I scurried obediently down the hall, imagining myself flying through the air in a bathtub like Calvin and Hobbes hurdling through space in their wagon, or like Slim Pickens riding a nuclear bomb in Dr. Strangelove.

My parents and my personal history have taught me to take tornados seriously. And I do.

All these years later, when the wind started howling loud enough to make the vent over my stove wail, my eyes flew open. I leapt up, threw back the covers, hustled into the living room and out onto the patio. My turn to keep the night-watch vigil, looking for the bruised, greenish-gray, flat-light sky I still associate with twisters. All I saw were clouds high above, scuttling quickly past, and the flags on a nearby municipal building snapping out a furious beat. Damaging wind speeds, to be sure, but no tornado.

great spotted woodpecker nestlings

Cavity nests offer protection from storms… unless the entire tree goes down (Photo: by Graham Gavaghan, Creative Commons license)

When I ran a wildlife rehabilitation center in Houston, Texas, springtime storms always brought a deluge of baby animals into our shelter. Nests cradling baby birds and squirrels were blown out of branches, and even cavity-nesters weren’t safe when the storm was strong enough to uproot entire trees. Permitted wildlife rehabbers are trained to provide the care wildlings need to grow up healthy and return to the wild, but it’s always best to reunite offspring with their parents… if possible. As a result, rehabilitators have come up with a variety of creative reunion methods and techniques. After a tornado or hurricane churns through a neighborhood, though, the wild adults, if they survived, may be too disoriented to find their babies.

If you come across a wild baby on the ground, for whatever reason, and you’re not sure if it needs help or what to do, contact a local wildlife rehabilitator for advice. State and provincial wildlife agencies that require a permit to rehabilitate wildlife legally will usually post a list of individuals on their website. Additionally, readers in North America may find the following links helpful:

WildlifeRehabber.Org

Wildlife Rehabilitation Information Directory

International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council (IWRC)

National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association (NWRA)

young squirrels in rehab

Wildlife rehabilitators are trained to meet the special needs of wild infants (Photo: by Carol Vinzant, Creative Commons license)

You may be offered instructions for how to help bring mother and child back together, or be asked to transport the animal to an individual or a center for care.  Just as important, you’ll be told how to protect your own health and safety while being a good Samaritan.

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© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author. Thanks to the photographers for using the Creative Commons license.

No particular place to go

snail

Snails are gastropods–a word that translates as “stomach-foot” (Photo: Sally Crossthwaite, Creative Commons license)

.[reprint from March 2011]

Back when I lived in a large apartment community in this southwestern Virginia college town, I stepped onto the sidewalk one morning for a pre-breakfast stroll with my terrier-boy Dash, and saw a shimmering calligraphy on the concrete up ahead. Living in close proximity to undergrads had taught me to watch my step on Monday mornings… but this didn’t look like party residue.

Since it resembled writing, I thought for a moment it might be chalk—a message decipherable only by Greeks (the collegiate variety, not the folks in Athens)— but that didn’t explain the silvery quality of the text.

Finally, I drew close enough to solve the mystery. It wasn’t writing at all. The weather had finally turned warm enough, temporarily, for the local gastropod to take a stroll along a slime trail.

Wait… can you stroll when you have no legs and only one foot?

Stroll, stride, saunter… call it what you will. Snails get from point A to point B by gliding along a secreted track of mucus that hardens into a kind of Slip ‘n Slide® when exposed to air. The animals ride waves created by a band of muscles that travel along a foot that spans from the tail to the head. Surfing the slime they wander over roadways, through the woods, and up the walls of grandmother’s house or any other structure in their path.

snail trail

Snails secrete a mucus trail that serves as a kind of slo-mo Slip ‘n Slide® (Photo: Krstnn Hrmnsn, Creative Commons license)

Progress appears painfully slow to bipeds and quadrupeds, but the meandering trails suggest snail excursions are all about the journey, not the destination. You have to admit, they never rush—unlike many of their harried human neighbors.

Of course, it’s a smaller world for some. An average speed of 0.03 mph must be fast enough for a garden snail to get where s/he needs to go (snails are hermaphroditic, meaning they have both male and female sex organs, so s/he is particularly apt here).

Before you dismiss the lowly snail as too pedestrian to warrant admiration, you should know that the National Science Foundation supported a research collaboration between the University of California at San Diego (USA) and Stanford University (USA) to better understand the locomotion of snails and slugs, their shell-less cousins. The goal was to create robots that mimic snails, propelling themselves up and down walls, along ceilings, and across other challenging surfaces.

An examination of the mucus trail has proven fascinating as well. When common periwinkle snails are traveling along a vertical surface, the secretions have more adhesive qualities than when the animal is moving along a horizontal surface; the chemical structure of the mucus changes depending on the demands of the route.

But wait—there’s more!

A study by researchers at the University of Sunderland (UK) found that snails conserve energy by reusing slime trails. They will retrace their step to return to a previous resting site—a much safer strategy than hoping to stumble on an appropriate new location in time to avoid the dehydrating rays of the sun. Snails will also follow the trails of their cohorts to find dinner and a date. Essentially, they’re playing follow-the-leader.

So maybe a snail’s life is filled with fun and games. And wouldn’t you just love to see a group of gastropods do the Hokey-Pokey?

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

Appalachian Spring

American robin

[Reprint from March 2011].

Walking in the rain near the central drill field on campus earlier this week, I happened upon the beginning of a mid-afternoon rehearsal for the arrival of spring. The American Robin Ballet Company had taken their places on the lawn, dark taupe cloaks and carmine waistcoats vivid against the pale green and buff turf. They appeared frozen in place, waiting for the orchestra’s opening chords. Then all at once they began to move, not in sync but each using the same choreography.

Step… step… step… then a brief, brisk run… pliérelevé. Repeat.

Adagio (step… step… step)… allegro (step,step,step)… pliérelevé.  Repeat.

bird skeletonActually, if you think about it, it’s natural to see robins and other songbirds as dancers. For one thing, they are almost always on at least demi pointe—what you and I might call our tippy-toes. That’s because what we think of as the bird’s foot is actually only toes, and what we might initially think of as the knee is actually the ankle.

But for the corps de ballet in this show, function is as important as form. It may look like a dance but in fact it’s a hunt… or a very stylish way to shop for groceries. Take your pick.

The appearance of robins is considered by many to signal the arrival of spring; however, in some parts of North America robins are year-round residents. In winter they may form enormous nighttime roosts of over a hundred thousand individual birds. There is strength—and warmth—in numbers.

In spring and summer, after pairs have formed for pas de deux, males and females participate in the care and feeding of their offspring. However, females sleep on the nest, warming eggs or nestlings, while the males continue to gather each evening to sleep at the roost. As young robins gain their independence, they leave the nest and join the males at night.Robins are territorial, but unlike many birds, males are more protective of their mate and nest site than of feeding grounds, which often overlap. So while cardinals and even hummingbirds are known for aggressive intra-species defense of food resources, it’s not unusual to see groups of red-breasted dancers on a single grassy stage, even at the height of breeding season, and especially during winter, with its unpredictable weather and food supply.

When a robin stops suddenly, stands stock still, cocks its head to one side, dips slightly, then rises for another series of steps, the audience may assume the bird is listening intently. But ornithologists believe robins are actually looking for signs of digging that reveal the location of a worm.

They—the birds, not the ornithologists (well, maybe some of the ornithologists)—also consume other invertebrates, such as snails and insects, and a wide variety of wild fruits. Exactly the kind of high-protein, high-fiber, low-fat diet ballerinas and danseurs need to remain light on their feet. I could almost hear Martha Graham calling out…

Places everyone… and five, six, seven, eight… GRAND JETÉ!

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© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author. The cover photo is by Di Qiu (CCL); the bird skeleton drawing, from Illustrations of Zoology by W Ramsay Smith and J S Newell (1889), is in the public domain; the snowy robins are by Ingrid Taylar (CCL).

Froggy goes a-courtin’

wood frog

.[Reprint from February 2011]

My mole Tboy (mole as in spy, not insectivore) tells me Valentine’s Day has its intended effect on the wood frog population in southwestern Virginia. Mid-February is when the first early-bird males usually appeared at area ponds, floating patiently in anticipation. Within a few days the gene pool is getting crowded, and the boys are warming up for karaoke and the start of happy hour. Once the ladies arrive and joint be jumpin’!

The watering holes have been silent for the last few months. Winter is a time for amphibians to lie low. Really low. Aquatic frogs hibernate on or partially submerge in the mud at the bottom of ponds and lakes. Terrestrial frogs, including the wood frog, hibernate on land. Some burrow down below the frost line, but wood frogs are not adept diggers so they seek out crevices in rocks, crawl beneath a log, or just huddle in the leaf litter.  Their hibernacula don’t always make for cozy inglenooks. When the temperatures drop below freezing, so do the wood frogs. But not to worry—wood frogs have what it takes to best Old Man Winter.

Antifreeze.

No, I’m not talking about well drinks. A high concentration of glucose keeps a frog’s vital organs from freezing, so even though the animal may stop breathing and doesn’t have a heartbeat, it’s not dead. As soon as things heat up again, the frog thaws and life goes on.

wood frogs in amplexis

Wood frogs in amplexis—male is on top (Photo: Richard Bonnett, Creative Commons license)

The wood frog club scene is cool. That’s because it usually begins in late winter, sometimes before the ice has disappeared from vernal reproduction pools. The whole rave lasts for about two weeks. A female steps onto the dance floor—I mean into the water—and a male grabs her and holds on tight. The process is called amplexis. That’s Latin for embrace. Yeah… kind of like the way sumo wrestlers embrace.  Because once the male has her in his arms, he’s not letting go without a lot of… persuasion. Sometimes not even then.

The process is highly competitive and not without hazards. “Satellite” males hang out beyond the water’s edge so they can grab a gal while she’s in transit. In this way, he avoids jostling with the boys at the pool while also scoring a ride to the party. Male wood frogs are stimulated by movement so they;re not always discriminating about who they grab. Sometimes it’s the wrong species of frog, and sometimes several males will grab the same female, which can cause her to be squeezed to death or drown. Club life has its ugly side, too.
wood frog egg masses
But, assuming there aren’t any bar brawls, the female will lay large masses of 1500+ eggs, choosing a site where they receive sunlight and protection from predators. When she releases her eggs, the male—who has been waiting for this opportunity and is now in the perfect position—fertilizes them with a sperm-containing fluid and soon the eggs begin to develop.wood frog metamorphosing

Eventually, the tadpoles hatch and begin their metamorphosis, absorbing the nutrient reserves in their tails to fuel their makeover.wood frog metamorphosingTime to head for the forest and get on with the serious business of making a living. Last call! (Until next year, that is).

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© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author. Cover photo by Garrett and Kitty Wilkin; egg mass photo by Richard Bonnett; metamorphose photos by Brian Gatwicke. Thanks to all these photographers for making their photos available for use under a Creative Commons license.

Like cats… and dogs

red fox

The red fox is a canine with many cat-like characteristics and behaviors (Photo: Matt Knoth, Creative Commons license)

.[Reprint from March 2011]

Gazing blearily through coffee steam, a ghostly figure wafting through the early morning haze caught Lisa’s eye. “At first, it was just a ginger-orange and white shadow, and I thought, “Oh, no… another stray cat.”

The specter became more substantial as it moved closer.

“I saw that it wasn’t a cat after all. It stopped at the edge of my patio and began to watch me. There we sat, two redheads—one natural, one augmented—staring straight into each other’s eyes.”

An understandable case of mistaken identity. The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) has some strikingly feline features: a sleek, slender-boned physique; long, sensitive whiskers; flexible feet with partially retractable claws on the front paws; thin, dagger-like canine teeth; and a tail that accounts for 1/3 of the animal’s total length… it all contributes to the illusion.Add to that eyes with vertically slit pupils and you start to understand why the red fox is known as the “cat-like canid.”

Their hunting strategy is more felid, too. Canines tend to rely less on stealth, often hunting in packs using a tag-team approach to run down prey.  Cats, with the exception of African lions (Panthera leo), are solitary hunters who stalk and ambush prey with an explosion of speed. Canids are relay runners; felids—and foxes—are sprinters who dispatch dinner with a quick, sustained bite, in contrast to the multi-wound or bite-and-shake method employed by most canines.Biologists suggest that the behavioral similarities between foxes and cats could be the result of convergent evolution: the development of an identical trait in unrelated lineages. Comparable adaptations, they explain, arise when species occupy similar niches—insect, bird, and bat flight are commonly sited examples. Foxes and small felines target similar prey, so one should not be surprised that analogous hunting strategies evolved in these species.

Seems reasonable enough… but it’s harder to explain some of the V. vulpes‘ other felid behaviors. Their young hiss and spit like kittens, while adult vocalizations include cat-like shrieks and mewing cries. And then there’s the “lateral threat display.” You know it as the classic Halloween scaredy-cat pose—back arched, fur erect. See it and you immediately think, “cat,” not “dog.”

We humans like categories. You’re hip-hop or honky-tonk, freak or geek, fact or fiction, apple or orange. Pick your pigeonhole, please, and kindly stay in it.

So what are we to do about a creature who refuses to comply with our “either/or” worldview?

If you’re an urban wildlife enthusiast, you smile and shake your head in wonder at the boundless diversity of this bright blue gem of a planet, and your luck at having landed on it.

If you’re a taxonomist, you lay awake at night, grinding your teeth.

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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. Just ask first.). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: Matt Knoth (cover); Dave C (eyes); Bernard Stam (hunting); and Dave C (napping).

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

Hide and seek

meadow vole by manual crank

Meadow voles are sometimes referred to as mice and moles, but there is a difference (photo: Leo Papandreou, Creative Commons license)

[I’m attending a faculty retreat in a remote location this week so I decided to run this reprint from 2011. I’ll be back with new Next-Door Nature soon!]

Winter weekend mornings are perfect for catching a little extra shut-eye, but my fur-covered drill sergeant thinks it’s important to rise and shine on schedule, seven days a week. I can’t seem to dissuade him from this mindset.

There’s a snooze button on clock radios and even on my iPhone, but wire-haired fox terriers don’t come with that feature, as either standard or optional equipment. Snug in my blanket burrow, my sympathy for small, ground-dwelling creatures is renewed every time Dash excavates me from beneath the covers and insists, “GET UP! It’s time to OPEN YOUR EYES!!”

Once we’re wrapped in an appropriate number of layers and out the door he begins to search in earnest for that one perfect piece of real estate on which to make his mark. This takes some time—Dash has strong feelings about the importance of a job well-done. As we mosey along I often find myself absent-mindedly scanning the terrain as well (although I use my eyes instead of my nose, and with a different objective).

We had slightly warmer temperatures in southwestern Virginia this past weekend so there was more wildlife activity than when the mercury huddled near zero, and I noticed etchings in the dun-colored grass near our usual pathway.

meadow vole surface runway system 1

At first I thought the scribbles were the result of melting ice, but somehow that didn’t feel right. I took a closer look…

close up of meadow vole surface runway system

…and began to develop a hypothesis:  meadow voles. But if a vole was the engineer behind this winding road, where was the signature grassy-igloo nest?

meadow vole nestAha—I knew it! And not just one… there was a second nest.  I could read what had happened as if a book lay open before me. A blanket of white stuff builds up in the shadows and becomes a snowy fortress for an intrepid rodent willing to do a little mining. Food and building materials close at hand, there’s no need to venture out into the outside world of hungry predators.

Meadow voles (Microtus pennsylvanicus) claim many an alias: meadow mice, field mice, round moles, meadow moles. They are neither moles nor mice, but they are more closely related to the latter than the former. Moles are insectivores. Mice and voles are rodents. Unsurprisingly, then, there are physical similarities. Voles have shorter legs and tails than mice, but it’s dentition—their teeth—that caused mammalogists to set them apart from others gnawers. The upper cheek tooth row is relatively long compared to other rodents, and the third premolar has some distinguishing characteristics. Yeah, I realize that’s an observation that borders on nit-picking but taxonomists are a crowd that believes the key to life is in the details.

As soon as Dash finished his business, I dropped him off back home so I could take a closer look—you can’t sneak up on a rodent with an inquisitive terrier in tow. Smartphone in hand, I examined the carefully arranged, perfectly spherical, palm-sized mound of dried grass and wondered… had the nest become a nursery? Had the vole family tree added another branch? I listened carefully, but if a creature was stirring it wasn’t loud enough to register against my eardrums. The weather forecast calls for a general warming trend but I wondered… would the nest prove warm enough without its outer ice-cave shell?

meadow vole runway and nest Who was I kidding? I’m a woman of the natural world and I could see the writing on the sod. What had once been a well-camouflaged hideaway now looked like a treasure map for predators. If the other companion canines in our neighborhood overlooked these nests while on their quest for bladder relief, it’s unlikely the raccoons, opossums, and even tree squirrels in the woods just beyond the pavement would be so clueless.

I’m a tender-hearted soul, I’ll admit. I’m also a biologist and, therefore, an equal-opportunity empathizer. I hate to think of vulnerable pink babies being gobbled down, but I wouldn’t like to see a starving raccoon either. Some creatures die so other may live. It’s the way of this world.

But while they are alive, in the course of going about the business of living, voles make a unique if fleeting mark on the world that can be discovered and appreciated by anyone who will open her eyes.

Thank you, Drill Sergeant Dash, sir!

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

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)

[A seasonally appropriate reprint from December 2011. New posts are coming for the new year, I promise.]

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 ahim and her cardinals by Steve Wall cc stereotypic nut- and seed-busting beak—short, stout, and cone-shaped. 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. But my affection is somewhat tempered by the fact that their beaks work equally well at crushing seeds and human skin, as I can personally attest. Who would guess you could have empathy for a sunflower seed?

The rose-breasted grosbeak (RBG, Pheucticus ludovicianus) is slightly smaller than a cardinal (7—7½” or 18—21 cm) with a pale, conical but more zaftig bill… 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 habitat 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.

As the name suggests, 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 nutmeat 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, well-meaning human 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 obligate species. Most granivores (seed-eaters) start their lives eating protein-rich insects, making a dietary change once they reach adulthood, but crossbills feed on seeds from nest-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 useful.

The Clark’s nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana) has also used the reliable conifer nut 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 which they use 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.

Oasis

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

[This piece was originally published on January 29, 2012.]

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)During the winter months, however, 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. That’s 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 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.* 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!

*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.”

 

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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 TaylarDavid GrantJDB PhotosRob & Jane Kirkland, and James Marvin Phelps.