Hops-itality

pacific tree frog (photo: jacki dougan, creative commons license)

[Reprint from April 2012]

Fifty years ago, Rachel Carson asked the world to consider a simple question: imagine springtime without birdsong.

Silent Spring was an unlikely subject to become a best-selling book—the effect of DDT and other pesticides that persist in body tissue, becoming more and more concentrated as they move up the food chain (a process known as biomagnification). Yet nearly everyone could easily understand that their own quality of life would be diminished should they step outside one sunny May morning to find the dawn chorus had been replaced with a deafening stillness.green treefrog (Photo: sarowen, Creative Commons license)Thanks to Carson’s courageous stand—and the subsequent public outcry—songbirds and other avian species dodged a bullet.* Now there’s another set of wild voices in the spring choir who could use a hand—the amphibians.

More specifically, frogs.

There are now over 1,800 threatened amphibian species. At least 168 species have gone extinct in the last two decades due to factors such as habitat loss, water pollution, disease, climate change, and invasive species. Additionally, many areas in North America, Europe, and southern Africa have recently experienced severe drought.

Many frog species depend on ephemeral (temporary) water sources for breeding since they don’t support fish that would eat the eggs and tadpoles. If the ephemeral pools dry up before the young amphibians have time to metamorphose, or if there isn’t enough rain to create pools in the first place, it can result in a missed generation… and a fragile future for frogs.Poison Dart Frog Sitting on a Leaf (Photo: MoleSon2, Creative Commons license)Kermit the Frog spoke from experience—it isn’t easy being green… or yellow, or red, or black, or blue.

Frogs are essential to the health of wetland, riparian, and coastal ecosystems. Tadpoles feed on algae, preventing blooms that can reduce oxygen levels. Frogs consume millions of insects each year, including mosquitoes and ticks carrying diseases that threaten the health of humans, their companion animals, and livestock. A wide variety of wild mammals (raccoons, opossums), birds (herons, hawks, geese), and reptiles (snakes) rely on frogs as part of their diet.

April 28th is the 10th Annual Save the Frogs Day, established to raise awareness and funds for amphibian conservation. Since many frog species are comfortable living in cities and suburbs, I thought I would pass along suggestions for homeowners who would like to offer some hoppin’ hospitality, courtesy of the event organizers:A Wet Welcome Mat

Fall and spring are the best times to create a permanent oasis for frogs. Kits are available at many garden and home improvement stores, or simply use a container or dig a hole that is deep enough (at least 1 foot at one end) and line it with sand or a flexible plastic liner before adding water.  Keep in mind, you must provide a sloped ramp so the frogs can get out easily.  Slope the liner or build one out of rocks to gradually allow the frogs to get to ground level or out of the pond. (Some nurseries also have floating devices for swimming pools that can allow amphibians who might jump in a way out.)

Don’t clean the water. In fact, add floating plants such as lily pads or leaves to provide cover. Refill slowly and carefully if water levels get low.

Don’t put fish in your pond, as they will munch on your tadpoles and frogs.

Shade & Shelter

Place your pond in a shady spot, preferably surrounded with native plants to attract a tasty bug feast of ladybugs, bumblebees, and other pollinators to also help beautify your yard. You can stack some rocks or turn over a half of a flowerpot beside the rim of the pond to give your frogs a place to sit and eat their lunch as it flies or crawls by.glass frog (Photo: Josiah Townsend, Creative Commons license)Go Organic

Don’t use pesticides or weed killers. Amphibians absorb water—and any chemicals in it—through their skin. Pesticides and weed killers can run off from land into water and can be lethal to amphibians. Certain weed killers also can alter hormones, changing male frogs into females and reducing the potential of frogs to perpetuate thriving populations.

Patience, Grasshopper

Don’t be tempted to relocate frogs from other areas or stock your pond from pet stores. You may introduce diseases or invasive species and domestically raised frogs will not necessarily adapt to wild habitats. If you build it, frogs will come.

Look & Listen

Become a frog watcher. You will appreciate these wonderful animals more if you can see them in action, and you can help their conservation in the process. There are a number of citizen scientist projects centered on these jumpy amphibians, including FrogWatch USA  and the USGS North American Amphibian Monitoring Program. Learn more about the wetlands in your community and collect data that will help monitor wild population health.

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* Although the focus of this post is frogs, wild birds still face many challenges and threats to their long-term survival. You can check out one such hazard here. Others will be addressed in upcoming NDN posts.

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© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work; all you have to do is ask). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: [from top to bottom] Jackie Dougan (Pacific tree frog in rose); sarowen (green treefrog); Sascha Gebhardt (poison dart frog); ucumari (bullfrog); Josiah Townsend (glass frog).

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.

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.

Prodigal sons (and daughters)

next-door nature, mountain lion, cougar, dispersal, Midwest

Cougars are one of several predator species returning to historic ranges, even when they include highly developed areas (Photo: Wayne Dumbleton, Creative Commons license)

[Reprint from 2012]

Midwesterners are welcoming the return of some long-absent natives.

On second thought, “welcoming” is probably an overstatement… because just as in the famous biblical parable, not everyone is thrilled about this reunion.

A rigorous statistical study to be published in a 2012 issue of the Journal of Wildlife Management confirmed the presence of 178 cougars (Puma concolor) in the Midwestern U.S. states of Missouri (10), Nebraska (67), North Dakota (31), Oklahoma (12), South Dakota (11), and Texas (12). Single incident reports were documented in Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.next-door nature, cougar, mountain lion, historic photo, market huntingOnce found throughout North America, from the Canadian Yukon south to the Chilean Patagonia and all 48 contiguous United States, cougar populations dropped precipitously over most of their historic range following European colonization of the continent. The 19th and early 20th centuries, in particular, were hard times for all wild predators. Eradication programs aimed at protecting livestock interests were common. Bounties for cougar pelts, combined with sport hunting and a reduced prey base, lead to extirpation of the species east of the Rockies, with the exception of a small subspecies population in Florida (the Florida panther, Puma concolor corryi).

You’ve heard of a coat of many colors? How about a cat of many names? Cougars are almost interchangeably known as mountain lions and pumas, but regional variants include catamount, panther, painter, ghost cat, screamer… and that’s just the English nomenclature.The cougar has had more than it’s share of scientific names, too. Originally considered the largest member of the Felis clan, a genus that includes both the domestic cat (F. catus) and the somewhat larger jungle cat (F. chaus), in 1993 taxonomists created a new Puma group based on similar genetic structure and composed of two members—P. concolor and P. yagouaroundi, the much smaller jaguarondi, found in Central and South America. Another homecoming of sorts, I guess you could say, although whether the members are happy about their new blended family is anyone’s guess.

As the forth largest of all the world’s cats, adult cougars reach shoulder heights of between 24-35 inches (60-90 cm), nose-to-tail lengths of between 6.5-8 ft (2-2.4 m, females and males, respectively), and average weights of 100-150 lbs (42-62 kg; females and males, respectively).  It’s interesting to note that the closer a cougar lives to the equator the smaller it will likely be; the largest cougars are those found closest to the poles.

The species gets its name from the Latin word for “plain” or “one color” and that’s generally true for individual animals (as long as you ignore the lighter belly, throat and chin). At the population level there’s significant color variation, from golden to silvery-grey or even coppery-red. Cougar kittens don’t start out concolor—they are spotted with ringed tails but these markings fade as the youngsters mature.next-door nature, cougar, mountain lion, dispersal, historic range, midwestAdult cougars have a sleek but muscular physique and are able climbers and strong swimmers, with exceptional leaping and powerful sprinting skills. Despite their speed, these cats are typically ambush predators that quietly stalk and then, if possible, drop silently down onto prey from above, breaking the neck or delivering a suffocating bite.

Cougars are obligate carnivores, which means to survive most of their calories must come from meat. What’s less important is whether the main course is mouse, squirrel, rabbit or raccoon, mutton, venison or veal. This failure to discriminate between wild game and domestic livestock has resulted in a long and bitter feud with ranchers that continues to this day.

The 1960s, however, were witness to a sea change in American attitudes toward the environment in general and predators specifically—at least in the urban and suburban areas that were rapidly becoming home to a majority of citizens. Public pressure to change management policies created greater legal protection for cougars and their numbers began to increase. Over subsequent decades, pressure to disperse has obviously increased as well, as western cougar habitat reaches carrying capacity.

Which brings us right back to where we started, with cougars recolonizing the center of the continent. They use what researchers call a “stepping stone” pattern. Young animals say goodbye to Mom (male cougars are absentee dads) and go looking for adventure. Travel the highways and byways, stop at an interesting locale, scout out dating and dining options then move along. Sometimes quite far along… as was the case with a male cougar who made it to Connecticut before being hit and killed by a vehicle.  Leaving home is what most young mammals, including humans, are programmed to do. I’m as good an example as any, having dispersed from Missouri at 21 to explore all three North American coasts and beyond.
next-door nature, cougar, mountain lion, dispersal, midwest
Cougars may have returned to their old stomping grounds but don’t expect fireworks or any other hoopla. As a native who left the area and has returned many times (although never to stay) I can assure you this homecoming will be a low-key affair.

We Midwesterners don’t like to call attention to ourselves, you know.

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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 first.). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license:  Wayne Dumbleton (cover); USFWS/Public Domain (historic photo of a market cougar hunter); Anthonut (profile); Susan Shepard (climbing down); NaturesFan1226 (sharpening claws).

When a Mess is a Nest

Gray squirrel on a tree branch.

[Reprint from November 2010]

Winter winds have blown nearly all the remaining leaves to the ground. They lie tossed and trampled on the ground like post-holiday parade confetti. The hyperbole of autumn reds and oranges and yellows is long gone, replaced by browns, taupes, and grays.

But bare boughs and blue skies offer the perfect opportunity to pull back that 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 human days are usually spent in a forward-backward-left-right routine. Skeptical? Spend even a few minutes watching a gray or fox squirrel ricochet between branches and you’re guaranteed to 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 Santa up a chimney. What good does it do to look up?

Dreys in a silver maple

Two dreys in a silver maple (Photo: KJ Lindsey, CCL 2.0)

In parts of the country that have both squirrels and seasons when trees go au naturel, craning one’s neck can be more rewarding during the winter months. That’s why I’m trying to cultivate a new habit during walks with my terrier-boy, Dash. Whenever I catch myself contemplating my shoes, which is often, 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.

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 interior 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, 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 tree squirrel fan, but if you’re an aficionado and want the scoop on where to enjoy watching for youngsters when they venture out to explore the world and learn how to navigate in every direction, now’s the time to make note of which trees are littered with messy nests.

Just think 3D… without the funny glasses.

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© 2010 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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