The Urge for Going… or maybe not

Urban canada geese flying through a neighborhood

Urban Canada geese flying through a neighborhood (© Smith)

See the geese in chevron flight, a-flapping and a-racing on before the snow
They’ve got the urge for going, and they’ve got the wings to go.
~ Joni Mitchell, The Urge for Going

Vaguely aware of dusk approaching, I was sitting at the kitchen counter grading homework assignments. Normally, I don’t like to stop in the middle of a paper but I heard a clarion call that made me bolt for the door without a second thought—the rasping two-note hank-honk, hank-honk of Canada geese.  For me, this sound is the very essence of autumn and wanderlust, and I responded instinctively.

My disappointment at not being able to sprout feathers and tag along was tempered by the fact that I could tell this particular flock wasn’t going very far. They were resident geese, a relatively new concept that refers to birds that hang around all year long rather than migrate with the changing seasons. The urge for going, it seems, does not reside in the heart of every Canada goose.

Scientists used to think migration was an undeniable impulse. This idea gained strength following experiments in which some species of wild birds were raised in captivity under circumstances that prevented them from experiencing environmental signals, yet they continued to behave like their uncaged brethren. For example, when allowed to fly they demonstrated a preference for the same direction as the migratory path their conspecifics in the wild were navigating. The urge for going is strong among many birds, including warblers and vireos, northern pintails and blue-winged teals. Canada geese, however, seem able to take migration or leave it, at least those living in the burgs and ‘burbs.

Wildlife biologists are supposed to take a dim view of anthropomorphism, but when I observe a flock of resident geese at this time of year my overactive mind hears an urban waterfowl couple discussing their winter travel plans, à la Pixar:

Goose (voiced by Betty White): Dear, I’ve been thinking… wouldn’t it be nice to skip the move down south and just stay put this year?

Gander (voiced by Robert Duvall): Now, Mother, what’s gotten into that feathered head of yours? We can’t just skip migration! It’s a tradition in our family that goes back more generations that anyone can count! What would the rest of the flock say?!

Goose: Some of the flock did stay behind last year, you know, and it worked out just fine. Travel is so metabolically expensive… maybe it would be smart to consider a staycation. Just think about it. That’s all I ask.

One feature of the urban landscape that makes winter survival easier for resident geese, even in northern states, is the heat island effect. Cities have a lot of thermal mass. According to the U.S. EPA, evening temperature differences can be as large as 22°F (12°C). That means lakes and ponds freeze over less often—an appealing feature for waterfowl. And the food supply at a park or on a golf course is plentiful year-round.

When faced with the question, “should I stay or should I go?” more and more geese are choosing to stay. And why not?

How did I know the geese winging past my door were year-round neighbors? Migrating geese can be seen flying high and fast unless they’re heading down to rest and refuel. My geese were flying low and slow, gaining altitude only when necessary to avoid colliding with power lines and apartment buildings. Knowing I’d see them again if I keep my ears open, I bid them goodnight, said hello to the nearly full moon, and stepped back inside to grade… and dream of flight.

Have a question about wildlife and other next-door nature? Send me an email and the answer may turn up as a future blog post. And don’t forget to friend NDN on Facebook!

© 2010 Next-Door Nature — no reprints without written permission from the author.

When a Mess is a Nest

Gray squirrel on a tree branch.

Gray squirrel (© Jim Isaacs, used with permission)

High winds and rain here in Virginia earlier this week have left once-vivid foliage tossed and trampled on the ground like Election Night confetti. The red-orange-yellow pallet of October is shifting to browns, taupes, and grays. With the hyperbole of early autumn behind us, bare boughs and blue skies offer the perfect opportunity to pull back the leafy curtain for a peek “behind the scenes.” All you need to do is step outside… and make the leap from two dimensions into 3D.

Sure, we all know it’s a three-dimensional world but, with the exception of a flight of stairs now and then, our days are usually spent in a forward-backward-left-right routine. Skeptical? Spend even a few minutes watching a gray or fox squirrel ricochet through some timber and I guarantee you’ll feel like your days are spent in Flatland.

Unlike many mammals, squirrels make it easy for wildlife watchers. They’re not shy, they’re active during the day, and much of their activity occurs within the visual field between our feet and our face. Of course, while we keep our feet planted firmly on the ground, squirrels do not, and when they bolt up the bole into dense foliage they seem to disappear like a campaign promise. What good does it do to look up?

In parts of the country that have both squirrels and seasons when the trees go au naturel, craning one’s neck can be more rewarding during the fall. That’s why I’m trying to cultivate a new habit when out for a walk. Whenever I catch myself contemplating my shoes, I lift my eyes and scan the trees, starting at about the same level as the roof of a two-story house. Try it yourself. See those seemingly accidental wads of leaves and twigs, about the size of a football, caught in the gutters formed by branches? Those are squirrel nests, also known as dreys.


Dreys in a silver maple

Squirrels aren’t as famous for their engineering skills as are beavers but maybe they should be.  It can’t be easy to build 20 feet or more above the ground on a foundation that sways with every breeze. Construction begins with a platform of woven twigs, followed by a spherical framework secured to the base. Leaves, paper, and moss are used to fill in the gaps and create a snug, weatherproof abode with two doorways—a main entrance and a hidden escape hatch. The exterior may look a little rustic but the décor is luxurious. Lined with fur, feathers and other cozy furnishings, it’s the perfect cocoon for a cold winter’s night.

Closeup of a drey

Close up of a drey (© N. Hawekotte, used with permission)

Squirrels don’t hibernate but they do lie low during inclement weather. When the mercury drops or the snow starts to fly, a group of females may crowd into a single drey to share the warmth–kind of like a slumber party without the pajamas, pizza, and prank phone calls.

As spring approaches, the dreys serve a dual purpose as nurseries for the new crop of infants. I realize not everyone is a fan, but if you’re a squirrel aficionado and want the scoop on where to enjoy watching for youngsters when they venture out to explore the world and bounce among the branches, now’s the time to make note of which trees are littered with messy nests. Just think 3D… without the funny glasses.

Have a question about wildlife and other next-door nature? Send me an email and the answer may turn up as a future blog post. And don’t forget to friend NDN on Facebook!

© 2010 Next-Door Nature — no reprints without written permission from the author.

It’s Not Just Habitat for Humanity

polar bear strolling through downtown Vancouver

Polar bear strolling in downtown Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada (©


Wildlife habitat—what images come to mind when you hear those words? Sweeping vistas where windblown grasses ripple like ocean waves, steep slabs of snow and stone high up on a mountain, or perhaps the dappled shadow and light of a forest primeval?

How about glass-and-concrete skyscraper canyons, emerald green fairways shimmering with sprinkler system generated dew, or the metal halide-lit expanse of asphalt surrounding a shopping mall?

People tend to think of the places we live and work—the places architects, landscape designers, and urban planners call “the built environment”—as removed from the natural world as if it exists on a separate plane or planet. This helps to reinforce our conceit that humans are not indigenous, that we’re some kind of exotic or introduced species. But human beings are animals, mammals to be exact. Cities and suburbs are simply another kind of habitat… and not just for humanity.

True, most of the non-human species among us are not the ones who lived here before the people moved in. Once development starts, the wild creatures are either lucky (they happen to be well-suited to the newly created landscape), adaptable (they figure out a way to tolerate or exploit the new neighbors), or gone. But there’s no such thing as a vacant lot in nature. When the original residents move out it creates an opportunity for someone else. Once the construction dust settles it doesn’t take long before wildlife watching can begin.

Why plunk down a wad of bills for a once-in-a-lifetime trip to “the wilderness” when you’re living smack dab in the middle of unique and genuine wildlife habitat? Yours to enjoy every single day of your life without getting on a plane or hiring sherpas or buying a bunch of new gear (although there’s plenty to be had should you choose to indulge). Let’s call it urban ecotourism. All you need to begin this safari is a willingness to open the door, open your eyes, and look at things from another perspective.

This blog is intended to help you do just that—to become aware of an entire community hiding in plain sight, invisible only because your brain thinks you already know the place like the back of your hand. I’ll show you who’s living there and explain the reasons why so you’ll be able to make your own discoveries. Hopefully you’ll share some of those discoveries in the comments section of this blog. Have a question? It could turn into a future blog post so feel free to send me an email.

Until next time, I’m going for a walk among the wild things. Want to come along?

© 2010 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author