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January 9, 2019:  Daddy Longlegs

Perhaps everyone knows about daddy longlegs, or should I say, everyone thinks they know about them.  Eight very long legs supporting a tiny central body seems distinctive until a bit of research shows that details about these creatures are far more complicated.  First of all, many are not spiders at all.  In the Southern United States as well as some parts of Canada, the crane fly is sometimes called a daddy longlegs. This distinctive bug, with six long legs and two large wings is an insect.  Other non-spiders do belong to the Arachnid family but they’re actually more closely related to scorpions than they are to spiders. They don’t produce silk, have just one pair of eyes, and have a fused body (unlike spiders, which have a narrow “waist” between their front and rear).  Their proper name is Harvester. 

“We know from a very well preserved fossil of a daddy longlegs from Scotland that they are at least 400 million years old,”  according to Ron Clouse, of the University of North Carolina, who has been studying the DNA and lineages of these arachnids for a decade.  “This fossil actually looks a lot like the long-legged species we see today. It is believed daddy longlegs split off from scorpions, which were becoming terrestrial about 435 million years ago. To put this in perspective, this is about 200 million years before dinosaurs appeared, which were only around for about 165 million years.”

There might be as many as 10,000 species of these daddy longlegs, with 6000 to 7000 currently described. “We’re describing new ones all the time,” Clouse says. “They tend to have lots of species, because the minute a river flows between two different populations or a mountain rises and cuts one population off from another population, they split into two new species.” For example, the closest relatives to the ones he’s studying in South Carolina live in West Africa, which were all one species before the continents split and the Atlantic Ocean appeared between them.

Because of this tendency to split off into new species, daddy longlegs can look very different depending on where they live, and each species will have a very small range.   “One mountain top will have one species, another mountain top will have another species,” Clouse says. “Where I grew up in Pennsylvania, they have tiny pod-like bodies and long legs. In Laos, a species with a leg span of 13 inches was discovered in 2012, while some which live in South America, have spines and vibrant colors.”

To complicate the story, there are also as many as 1500 species of true spiders that also go by the name of daddy longlegs, and if you have seen a spider with very long legs in its web, you have probably been looking at one of these.  They are commonly designated as cellar spiders, and their family contains about 1500 species, with names such as daddy long-legs spider, granddaddy long-legs spider, carpenter spider, daddy long-legger, vibrating spider or skull spider.

These construct messy and irregular-shaped webs usually in dark and damp recesses such as caves, under rocks and loose bark, as well as in undisturbed areas in buildings such as attics and cellars.  When the spider detects prey within its web it quickly wraps it with silk and inflicts a fatal bite.  Some species exhibit a threat response when disturbed by a touch to the web or entangled large prey.  The spider responds by gyrating rapidly in a motion in its web, a response that has led to these spiders sometimes being called "vibrating spiders".   Certain species of these spiders invade the webs of other spiders to eat them, any eggs, or their prey.

These daddy longlegs have two body segments, and like other spiders, these have eight eyes arranged into a central pair and two clusters of three on either side of this pair.  Their characteristic long, skinny legs are several times the length of their small bodies and a few can grow up to 2 inches long.   According to one researcher, daddy longlegs’ long legs allow them to put less of their leg in contact with their web silk, making it less likely for them to become caught in their own web. She said this is the case for most web-weaving spiders, which have longer, slenderer legs than wandering, or ambushing spiders.

You’ll often see these big, long legged arachnids with only six or seven legs, having lost one or two. These sometimes are broken off by an a attacker or other accident, and although it was often believed that they could regenerate new appendages, it isn’t true.   The males of some species even fight and attempt to break off their opponents' hind legs with their large spines.

Daddy longlegs spiders can mate throughout the year. According to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, like most spiders, the male squirts sperm onto the web, sucks them up into his pedipalps (a pair of sensory appendages near the mouth), and  then inserts them into the female’s external genital opening onto her eggs.  When the eggs hatch the babies crawl onto the mother’s body for a brief time before going off on their own. It takes about a year for the baby spiders to develop from egg to adult. Male daddy longlegs typically live for about one year and die after mating while the females can live for three years.

A baseless urban legend has spread that both harvestmen and cellar spiders are the most poisonous spiders in the world.  The truth is that harvestmen do not have fangs, just small structures near their mouths used to grasp, hold and chew up their prey. They also have no poison glands.  Cellar spiders, on the other hand, do have small fangs and venom but would much rather run away than bite a human.   Also, the Discovery Channel television show, MythBusters, tested the myth.  The program’s host Adam Savage inserted his hand into a container with several daddy-long-legs, and reported that he felt a mild bite that did penetrate his skin but did not cause any notable harm.    That’s one worry that we can discount!


December 17, 2018

Around the world, there are an estimated ten-thousand living species of birds that range in size from the two-inch bee hummingbird to the nine-foot ostrich.  All are characterized by feathers, toothless beaks, the laying of hard-shelled eggs, and strong yet lightweight skeletons. We often think of birds as positive symbols -- the bluebird of happiness, doves as love and peace, owls as wise, robins as Spring harbingers, storks as babies deliverers -- but many species are efficient killers and feed on the flesh of other birds. 

The hawk family probably poses the greatest danger to other birds and the red-tailed with an average wingspan of four feet is one common avian predator.  In some areas birds are their primary food although on average it is reported that 65% of their diet is small mammals; still, over 20% is birds, with the remainder a mix of other creatures.  Because they are so common and easily trained as capable hunters, red-tails make up the majority of hawks captured for falconry in this country. 

Another large hawk is the northern harrier or marsh hawk.  It is somewhat smaller but is relatively longer winged and long tailed.  In addition to its regular diet of small mammals, It also takes birds, preferring sparrows, larks, small shorebirds and young waterfowl. 

Two smaller hawks, the sharp-shinned and the Cooper’s, surprise and capture most of their prey while flying quickly through dense vegetation. They are adept at navigating dense thickets and the great majority of their prey are small birds, especially various songbirds such as sparrows, wood-warblers, finches, finches, wrens, nuthatches, tits and thrushes.  The sharp-shinned is only about 10 inches long while the Cooper’s is somewhat bigger. 

Three falcons find other birds good hunting.  Merlins and American kestrels are smaller than the above hawks but both are swift fliers and skilled hunters who specialize in preying on small birds from sparrows to quail.  They typically watch for prey from a perch, then dive with claws extended, but also hunt from the air hovering with rapid wing beats.  Then there is the peregrine falcon that is now listed as Endangered in Wisconsin but is a large, crow-sized falcon with a blue-grey back, barred white underparts, and a black head. It is renowned for its speed, reaching over 200 mph during its characteristic hunting dive, making it the fastest member of the animal kingdom.  

Another endangered species, the loggerhead shrike, and the smaller northern shrike are notorious for impaling birds and other prey, sometimes still alive, on thorns, spines, or barbed wire for later consumption. They both are gray with black masks and wings.  The northern breeds in Canada and Alaska but may spend the winter here in open areas with occasional trees or forest and wetland edges.

Despite their reputation as wise, owls are some of the heaviest predators of other birds during the darker hours.  The great horned usually perches on a tree branch and waits until a turkey, grouse or quail passes by and then glides silently down to make the capture.  The barred and screech owls also hunt at night, picking off rodents, bats and any birds that make the mistake of passing by.  Small birds such as chickadees, swallows, sparrows and warblers are normally caught directly from their nocturnal perches or during nocturnal migration.

Bald eagles with their seven foot wingspans prey upon larger birds and we have seen geese floating on the water take flight in panic when one appears.  Birds may also occasionally be attacked in flight and killed in mid-air.   They have been recorded as taking red-tailed hawks, ospreys and vultures as well as geese, although these are thought to be attacks of competition on rival species that ended with the consumption of the victim.

In past years, we have found feathers in our yard attesting to the activities of the kestrel that nested in one of the ventilator  holes of our old barn.  We understood that having this interesting predator hunting in our yard would result in the deaths of some of our song birds, but it saddened us anyway and were not sorry when it moved elsewhere to find its dinners.  Now we wonder about the safety of the growing numbers of sandhill cranes that are gathering along Rainbow Road each autumn.   Not too many years ago we travelled to the Jasper-Pulaski Wildlife Area in Indiana to see these migrating birds but now hundreds are stopping in these fields close to home.

At the same time, bald eagles nest in the wetland just south of Highway 60 and their numbers are also increasing in the area.  Friends whose home overlooks the river report that the eagles are currently courting, participating in their famous courtship rituals in which they fly up, lock talons and then spin toward the ground, breaking apart at the last minute, or chasing each other in mock battles.  We trust that these big birds will find plenty of fish to eat and not resort to attacking the cranes.  Nature is finely balanced in most cases between predators and prey, and although we may not like witnessing the process, we have to accept it.

December 11, 2018:  Acorns and other nuts

It Is obvious to any woodland walker that there are good and poor acorn years. This is of concern because acorns are a very important wildlife food and many of our creatures feel the pinch when drought or freezes damage the crop. Birds such as jays and woodpeckers, small mammals like mice and squirrels, and even large animals such as bears and deer depend upon acorns; in fact, it has been estimated that they may constitute up to 25% of the diet of some deer come fall.

The acorn is a nut usually containing a single seed enclosed in a tough, leathery shell, and attached to a cup-shaped cap.  Acorns are important to wildlife because they are relatively large, rich in nutrients, and can be stored for later use. Percentages vary from species to species, but all acorns contain substantial amounts of protein, carbohydrates and fats, as well as calcium, phosphorous, potassium, and the vitamin niacin. It is interesting that red oak acorns are 18% to 25% fat, while white oak acorns are only 5% to 10% fat.

Acorns also contain bitter tannins, the amount varying with the species. This is particularly true of the acorns of red oaks that contain 6-10% tannin while white oak acorns have less than 2% tannin. While many insects, birds and mammals seem to metabolize tannins with few ill effects, some reportedly select acorns that contain fewer tannins, while others may store the acorns until sufficient groundwater has percolated through them to leach some of the tannins out. Still other creatures seem to get along by diluting their acorn diet with other foods.

Acorns were a traditional food of many indigenous peoples of North America. They used rock grinders to break them open, and they would soak the acorns in the streams for many days to leach the tannins. Because some species germinate in the fall, the women shelled and pulverized those acorns for immediate use, while spring-germinating types were dried in the sun to discourage mold and then cached in hollow trees or structures on poles to keep them safe from mice and squirrels.

An oak must grow for about twenty-five years before beginning to ripen a crop but then may produce about 2,000 acorns each season. Acorn production varies year to year, however, as not even the healthiest and largest oak can seem to accumulate enough food and energy to produce strong crops two years in succession. In addition, a late spring frost can damage the flowers, or drought and insect infestations can affect the crop. Curculio weevils are a major threat as they bore into immature acorns to deposit their eggs and some years, infect up to 90 percent of the acorn crop.

There are six relatively common species of oak in Wisconsin in two general groups: the red and white. The red type, including the rubrum, the Northern pin and the black oaks, have leaves with sharp-pointed, shallow lobes. Their acorns contain considerable tannin and they usually require two years to mature. The white type, that includes the alba, swamp white, and bur oaks, have leaves with rounded lobes.  Their acorns mature in one year, are not as bitter, and their shells are hairless inside. The white oak is found in well-drained woods, the swamp white oak is usually found on wet sites, and the bur oak, a large spreading, fairly slow-growing, long-lived tree typically grows in the open.  Its presence in our woodlands indicates that the area was once open grassland. It is also fire-resistant, and possesses significant drought resistance by virtue of a long taproot.

In addition to the oak, Wisconsin has hosted a number of nut trees.  American chestnuts were once common, but in 1890, the chestnut blight, which is caused by a fungus, arrived from Asia, probably spread from imported nursery plants.  Between 1904 and 1950, the disease killed or infected virtually all of the U.S. fruit-bearing American chestnuts.  Beech and butternut are now scarce but the Eastern black walnut is a common native tree with edible seeds.

Black walnut requires full sun for optimal growth and nut production and can often be found along roadsides, fields, and forest edges.  Most parts of the tree including leaves, stems, and fruit husks have a very characteristic pungent or spicy odor. The bark is deeply furrowed into thin ridges and the leaves are compound and alternately arranged on the stem.  Its nuts ripen during the autumn and have brownish-green husks and brown inner corrugated seeds.   Squirrels are important to the trees as they collect the nuts and bury those they cannot eat immediately, often allowing them to germinate and help disperse the species.

Hickories are relations of the walnuts. They're large, well-shaped trees, 60-80 feet high, and thrive best in open woods or at the edges of forests where they have plenty of light.  Hickory is appreciated as the best raw material for skis, axe handles, chair backs, barrel hoops and other wooden items that have to do hard work. The shellbark hickory (its bark comes loose in long strips) is the most popular for its nuts that are wholesome to eat with good flavor.

Although many oak trees can live 200 or more years, the champion is a certified tree in Louisiana that measures more than 37 feet in circumference with a crown spread of 150 feet, and an estimated age of more than 1,000 years! The champion black walnut is in Oregon and is almost 8 1/2 feet in diameter, 112 ft tall, with a crown spread of 144 feet.  Our oaks and walnuts are not record-holders, it is true, but some are well past the century mark and a few are magnificent specimens. We treasure them.

December 4, 2018:  Trees

As I gaze out of the window at the fields and forested hillsides beyond, I marvel at the change that has occurred in the view in the last few weeks. It seems only yesterday that we were enjoying the vibrant colors displayed by the maples and aspens and later by the oaks, but all that remain are shades of brown and gray.  Their leaves now blanket the ground, their job of producing food for their host plants completed, although they still have an important role to play in sheltering ground-dwelling creatures and plants and finally decomposing into the soil.

Trees have been given deep and sacred meanings throughout the ages. The most ancient symbolic representation of the structure of the universe is that of a tree, pictured as a colossal plant whose branches support the sky, thereby connecting the heavens, the earth, and, through its roots, the underworld.  In folk religion and folklore, trees were often said to be the homes of spirits, and in real life, they have provided humans and other creatures with shelter, food, and warmth.

The number of tree species worldwide, the majority of which grow in tropical regions, is estimated at some 100,000, or about 25 percent of all living plant species. The earliest were tree ferns and horsetails that flourished in forests in the Carboniferous Period when dense tropical swamps covered much of the planet. Then, about 300 million years ago, conifers and ginkgos appeared that did not require as much water, developed pollen so that fertilization could occur in the drier climate, and cones which contained inner seeds and outer shells.

We are well acquainted with northland conifers but the ginkco is an interesting tree that has been widely planted in cities.   It has existed virtually unchanged for over 200 million years and was brought over from Asia and planted in London’s botanical gardens in the early 19th century.  Coal pollution was rampant, respiratory illness spiked, and the smog wreaked havoc on city trees but the ornamental ginkgo trees continued to thrive and gained a reputation in industrial Europe for being a hardy tree that could withstand city life.  They survived despite air pollution, soil compaction, pests, disease, salt, wind, cold, drought, and even fire.

However, there has always been a major problem.  Female ginkgo trees bear their seeds in cones, which contain inner seeds and outer shells, and when the outer layers of the cones fall to the ground in autumn and rot, they stink!  Botanists theorize that the rancid smell might have evolved because it attracted dinosaurs to eat and then expel the seeds that would then germinate and spread the trees.  Despite this odor, a recent tree census published in New York City, ranked the ginkgo in the top 10 of most common street trees. In Seoul, South Korea, approximately 114,000 ginkgoes dot the city streets and parks, so each year, the city deploys an army of workers to hand-pick the berries before they fall to the ground at a cost of some $13,000.  In some smaller US towns, like Iowa City, Iowa, and Easton, Pennsylvania, they’ve simply chopped down most of their female ginkgoes or banned them from being planted altogether.

While it might have seemed reasonable to plant only male trees that do not have cones, the ginkgo, like some fish such as the clownfish, can spontaneously change its sex, an evolutionary adaptation that allows them to propagate when the sex ratio is imbalanced. This meant that even planting a male ginkgo did not guarantee that it wouldn’t start to stink 30 years down the line.   Still sometimes it was decided it was better to have a stinking, sex-changing ginkgo tree than no tree at all.

Most species of trees today are either conifers or flowering plants.  Each consists of roots, a trunk (or trunks), branches and twigs, and leaves. The roots are generally embedded in earth, providing anchorage and absorbing water and nutrients from the soil. It is easy to overlook the fact that despite the role roots play in taking up ground nutrients that are essential to a tree's growth, carbon dioxide absorbed from the atmosphere and photosynthesis do most of the work of producing wood.  To expedite this process, the trunk raises its leaf-bearing branches high above competing plants, usually in such a way as to optimize exposure of the leaves to sunlight.

Trees prevent erosion and provide shelter beneath their foliage. They also play an important role in producing oxygen and reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, as well as moderating ground temperatures. They produce fruits and wood for building material and fuel. Many areas from which the trees have been almost completely eradicated become nearly uninhabitable.

It has been estimated that there are approximately 400 billion trees on Earth, about 61 for each person. An interesting fact is that the four tallest trees in the world live on the west coast of the United States and the oldest known individual tree is a Great Basin bristlecone pine in the White Mountains of California, which was 4,789 years old when last sampled in 1957.

Even when a tree finally dies, it continues to play an important role in supporting native wildlife. Standing dead stumps, limbs, and logs provide habitat for birds and numerous animal species.  In some forests, 30 to 45 percent of the resident bird species are cavity nesters, and mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and invertebrates also rely on their shelter and thrive in the moist soil found beneath them.  Spiders, beetles, worms, and microbes hide and feed within the decaying matter, and fungi and mushrooms flourish on and around logs, breaking down the organic matter to release important nutrients back into the forest ecosystem. Trees, alive and dead, are vital to our world .

November 27, 2018:  All About Owls

Owls are some of the most fascinating and mysterious predators in the world.  There are more than 150 species with the greatest owl diversity in Asia.  Only nineteen species are found in the United States and Canada and only six of these regularly nest in Wisconsin. Two more, the barn owl and the great gray owl, have historically been recorded here but are now quite rare. Snowy, boreal and northern hawk owls are occasional winter visitors. 
All owls have upright posture and forward-facing eyes that give them binocular vision, just like humans, that is a great help in judging distances.  Owls' eyes are not spheres, however, but are tubes that do not focus clearly up close but provide better depth perception to allow them to see prey at a distance.  An owl's eyes are supported by bony eye sockets and are fixed in place so that it must rotate its head to follow prey.  An owl has three eyelids: one for blinking, one for sleeping, and one for keeping the eye clean and healthy.

Owls' ear openings are relatively huge and often asymmetrically positioned, which means sound received by one is slightly delayed, giving the birds the ability to pinpoint where prey is located even if they can't see it. Their flattened facial disks also funnel sound to the bird's ears and magnify it as much as ten times to help it hear noises humans can't detect.  Many owls have tufts of feathers on their heads but these have little to do with their hearing; instead it is thought these are used indicate the bird's mood such as aggression or dominance and help keep it camouflaged by mimicking branches or leaves.

Owl species are divided into two families--the barn owl family and the true owls. There are many differences between the two types, such as their shape, size and coloring, the calls they make, the way they hunt and the habitats where they live and breed.

Barn owls are slim, medium-sized owls with distinctive white, heart-shaped faces.  They roost during the day and sometimes use hollow trees, but they also roost in buildings such as barns and church towers, often nesting where they roost.  In Wisconsin, the few breeding records have come from the southern counties where the state Bureau of Endangered Resources has attempted to increase their numbers over the years by installing nest boxes and releasing captive bred owls. One limiting factor seems to be our severe winters with heavy snowfalls that make catching prey beneath the snow difficult. A barn owl can eat up to 1,000 mice each year, and many farmers try to attract owls by erecting nesting boxers to help control rodent populations.

The true owls are found on every continent except Antarctica. They vary greatly in size, with the smallest species, the elf owl, being a hundredth the size of the largest, the Eurasian eagle-owl. They tend to have large heads, short tails, similar plumage, and round facial discs around the eyes. The wings are large, broad, rounded, and long.  The feathers are soft and the base of each is downy, allowing for silent flight.  In addition to excellent hearing, owls have massive eyes relative to their body size.  Contrary to popular belief, however, owls cannot see well in extreme dark and are able to see well in the day.

Wisconsin’s largest owls are the great horned and the barred, and the smallest is the northern saw-whet, which may weigh as little as two ounces. (Saw-whets are most often observed during migration here on their way to their main nesting area in Canada's boreal forests.)  All typically swallow their prey whole if possible and later spit up a "pellet," a one-to-two inch hairball with bones and skulls in it, things the bird's stomach can't digest.

 An adult great horned owl may reach 25 inches in length and have a wingspan of up to 5 feet. Its call is normally a low-pitched “ho-ho-hoo hoo hoo”, plus a variety of hoots, screeches, and squawks.  Barred owls are almost as large, with round faces and a mottled brown and white plumage.  They also call with a series of hoots: “ho hoo, ho hoo ho hoo-waaah” that slowly fades away, and it is common to hear two or more barred owls calling to each other.  These latter efficient killers have gradually expanded their territories westward from the eastern half of the country and are being blamed for the current decline in the population of the northern spotted owl on the west coast.  A controversial 10-year program has been undertaken in a few places to kill off some of these newcomers with the goal of saving the endangered spotted owl.

The eastern screech owl is quite common, although, due to its smaller size and camouflage, it is more frequently heard than seen.  Its call is a tremolo with a descending, whinny-like quality, like that of a miniature horse or a monotone purring trill lasting 3–5 seconds.  The long-eared and short-eared owls are two additional middle-sized Wisconsin natives that only differ from each other mostly on the length of their ear-tufts. 

In most Native American folklore, owls are symbols of death, and the belief that they are messengers and harbingers of the dark powers is found among the Winnebago here in Wisconsin.  Many of us, however, generally associate owls with wisdom and vigilance and I grew up with this rhyme:  “A wise old owl lived in an oak. The more he saw the less he spoke. The less he spoke the more he heard. Why can't we all be like that wise old bird?”  While many people don’t seem “to care a hoot”, I’ve always been very fond of these birds and their stories and am thrilled to hear our farm owls advertising their presence.


November 20, 2018: Where Have All the Monarchs gone?

This is a copy from that I thought you might enjoy:

"Ecotourism is drawing fans to the central states of Michoacan and Mexico, thanks to the spectacular yearly migration of millions of orange-and-black-winged monarch butterflies.  In delicate swarms, the butterflies head south from the U.S. and Canada to Mexico, where they drip from pine trees and coat mountainsides from November to late March. They gather in such astonishing numbers that cars passing the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve sometimes have to slow to a couple of miles per hour to avoid splattering the delicate creatures on the windshield as they fly across the road.

"I have on many occasions seen Spaniards, Italians, Americans, Canadians, Mexicans come into the butterfly colonies and literally weep," said Lincoln Brower, a monarch expert at the University of Florida and Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar, Va.  "It's such an overwhelming emotional experience to realize that you're actually looking at these tens of millions of monarch butterflies that have come into this tiny, little area of Mexico."

The Biosphere Reserve, a federally protected area nominated for World Heritage Site status, spans some 124,000 acres across two states and costs less than $5 to enter and $10 more for a guided tour. In some parts, visitors can trek about on rented horses and burros.  Communal farmers own the land and have the exclusive right to conduct tours. For that reason, many guides don't speak English -- so bring a Spanish dictionary if you want to ask questions about the butterflies.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon plans to pump an extra $4.6 million into the reserve's $36.4 million budget this year, to improve infrastructure and make the area more tourist-friendly.  Four butterfly sanctuaries are open to the public on the property: El Rosario and Sierra Chincua in Michoacan, and El Capulin and La Mesa in Mexico state.

Brower, who has studied the flying insects for 52 years, recommends the Michoacan sanctuaries, which he says are among the most popular and offer amenities such as food, souvenirs, and easy access by car. He suggests visitors go in February and March when the butterflies perform an elaborate mating ritual. "The males chase the females -- they zoom around after them and catch them in the air and drop like a dead weight," Brower said.  "Then the male flies off carrying the female, and he'll land up in the trees and mate for several hours."

Astrid Fisch, director of operations for Ecotours de Mexico, an environmentally conscious travel agency based in Puerto Vallarta, said she tells foreign clients to go on weekdays to avoid throngs of Mexican tourists.  Be prepared to hike anywhere from 20 minutes to over an hour or to ride a donkey. You can only reach the butterflies on paths laid by the reserve, and they congregate at extremely high altitudes -- between 9,000 and 11,000 feet -- so visitors should be in good enough physical condition to handle steep inclines.

GETTING THERE: Visitors can fly to the Toluca, Morelia or Mexico City airports and then rent a car or hop a bus to the town of Angangueo or the city of Zitacuaro -- both of which offer lodging and transportation, usually buses or taxis, to the butterfly reserve.  It takes about three hours to get to Angangueo by car from Toluca or Morelia and about four hours to get there from Mexico City. People unfamiliar with the area should hire a car or take a tour bus for the 30-minute trip from Angangueo to the El Rosario sanctuary as the roads can be twisty and sometimes dangerous. In late November, Continental Airlines had roundtrip tickets on February flights from Chicago O'Hare International Airport to Toluca for under $500.

The butterflies begin arriving in November, and leave by late March. The best time to see them is between 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m., when they are at their most active.  On cloudy days, the butterflies remain still to preserve body heat. It's advisable to plan your trip to include an overnight stay in the area so you can come back on a different day if the weather doesn't cooperate."


 November 13, 2018: All About Moles

Most people know that moles live in Wisconsin but few have ever seen one.  That is because these unique creatures spend their entire lives underground, constantly digging under the earth's surface for food, shelter and at times, mates.  Moles make their presence known by the raised tunnels and mounds of soil they create in lawns, gardens and fields but are sometimes confused with other small animals such as shrews, mice and pocket gophers.  Shrews are closely related and are also insect-eaters, but do not look or act the same.  Mice and pocket gophers also are present in considerable numbers but they are rodents and eat mainly plant material; the damage they cause is more severe and widespread than that of moles.

There are two species of moles in the state: the common (also known as the eastern or prairie) mole, which is found mainly in the western and southern part of Wisconsin, and the star-nosed mole, which is found primarily in the northern half.  Both have small, poorly developed eyes and ears, tiny sharp teeth, soft velvety fur and huge flattened front feet equipped with large broad claws for digging. The common mole is silvery gray, while the star-nosed mole is charcoal gray to black and is readily identified by the circle of fleshy tentacle-like projections around the tip of its nose that give it its name.

The common mole can be up to eleven inches long including its short tail and weighs less than seven ounces.  It can live four to six years and prefers drier upland soils that are loose and free of rocks, and digs tunnels at several depths.  It moves through loose soil with surprising speed (it has been observed to dig up to 18 feet in one hour) because of its two large front feet.  These forepaws are unique in that they have obvious “fingers” with an additional thumb next to the regular thumb.  While the mole's other digits have multiple joints, this extra thumb has a single, sickle-shaped bone that develops later and differently from the other fingers.  

The star-nosed mole, on the other hand, prefers moist soils. It is an excellent swimmer and can often be found in or near the water. Its nose is hairless and ringed by a unique 'star' of 22 pink, fleshy tentacles that vary in length. When this mole is burrowing, the tentacles are held forward over the nostrils to prevent soil from entering the nose (also while consuming prey). The tentacles are constantly being used to feel the mole's surroundings, moving so rapidly that they appear as a blur of motion, and identification of prey can be made in under half a second.

This animal digs shallow surface tunnels for foraging but unlike the common mole, it is active throughout the winter, burrowing through snow and even swimming under the ice of frozen ponds.. The surface tunnels only occasionally come close enough to the surface to cause a raised ridge and the loose soil dug from the tunnels is pushed out onto the surface, forming a molehill.   A spherical nest is constructed in the tunnel system above the water line, often under a log or similar protective object, and lined with dry leaves or grass.  Because of its habitat preference, the star-nosed mole rarely becomes a nuisance for humans.

Moles are often blamed for the destruction of bulbs, seeds and garden vegetables or flowers, but they rarely consume plants or plant parts; instead they feed on harmful vegetable pests like grubs and other insect larvae or adult insects as well on earthworms. Mice, ground squirrels and insects are the usual culprits, because they inhabit the mole’s network of tunnels, feeding and gnawing on plants.  Still, a mole’s raised tunnels are unsightly, particularly in well-manicured lawns in parks, golf courses and yards, and the tunnels can interfere with mowing grass and expose roots to air, killing some plants. 

Moles are insectivores, eating up to 100% of their weight in worms, grubs and insects each day. The tunnels are effective traps and the mole quickly finds anything that falls into one. Because their saliva contains a toxin that can paralyze earthworms, moles are able to store excess still-living prey for later consumption in special underground larders.  Researchers have discovered such spots containing over a thousand worms, and have found that before eating them, the moles will squeeze any dirt out of the worm's gut.

Surface-dwelling animals often have long fur that tends to lie in one direction, but to facilitate their burrowing lifestyle, a mole’s hair is short with a dense velvety texture and no particular direction to the nap. This makes it easy for it to move backwards or forwards underground.  Moles have also been found to tolerate higher levels of carbon dioxide than other mammals, because their blood cells have a special form of hemoglobin (the protein molecule in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to the body's tissues and returns carbon dioxide from the tissues back to the lungs).  In addition to this, moles utilize oxygen more effectively by reusing the exhaled air, and as a result, are able to survive in low-oxygen environments such as underground burrows.

We are told that the easiest and least expensive way to handle a mole problem is to learn to accept their presence. Although those who maintain lawns often view them with disgust, the burrowing is actually beneficial as it aerates and mixes soil layers and improves drainage.  One can tamp down molehills and tunnels regularly and re-bury any exposed roots to avoid damage to plants.  Even better, one can transform the yard from a boring grass mat to a diverse habitat filled with native plants. These will thrive in the healthy soil that the moles have helped cultivate, and the local wildlife (including the moles) will thank you!


November 6, 2018: Wooly Bears

While many birds and even some insects move south for the winter, a surprising number of creatures stay right here and tough it out.   Among the insects, there are moths and butterflies that spend the winter in their larval stage.  A fat black caterpillar crawled down the sidewalk this week, its body ringed by closely spaced tufts of long, stiff, hairs that were black on its front and rear ends and reddish-brown in the middle.  Others of this type can appear entirely black or entirely rust colored, and banding patterns are so variable that some caterpillars might seem to be of different species.  These larvae lack stinging spines and do not bite but the stiff spines are probably effective defenses against many invertebrate and vertebrate predators. When threatened, these wooly bears curl up tightly to protect their vulnerable undersides.

This black caterpillar was the larva of the Isabella tiger moth, the most common member of the family of Leopard moths.   All of their caterpillars are members of a group of so-called "wooly bears" that are often seen crossing roads and sidewalks in the late fall.  Folklore, which originated in Europe, tells us that the amount of black on the wooly bear in autumn will predict how long, cold, and snowy the winter will be. The wider the middle brown band appears, the milder will be the coming winter.  In addition, the position of the longest dark bands supposedly indicates which part of winter will be coldest or hardest. If the head end of the caterpillar is dark, the beginning of winter will be severe while if the tail end is dark, the end of winter will be cold.

Today, some insect specialists tell us that wooly bears develop uniform black coloration under wet conditions and all insist that variations in caterpillar color patterns are caused by factors other than the severity of the coming winter. They report that the segments of young caterpillars have mostly black hairs, and with each molt individuals gain more rust colored rings. This new information doesn't appear to matter to the citizens of Vermillion, Ohio and Banner Elk, North Carolina, who hold galas each year to honor this insect celebrity. The festivities include parades, caterpillar races and the examination of a number of the wooly bears for the town's official prediction for the coming winter.

In autumn, these caterpillars take shelter in secluded sites under fallen logs or among rocks and overcome the lack of food and the freezing temperatures with a low metabolic rate and accumulation of antifreeze chemicals. The caterpillars manufacture glycerol, a naturally manufactured insect "antifreeze," which decreases the formation of ice crystals in their bodies, and the insects enter a resting stage and empty their bodies of fluids to minimize any effects of freezing.  Some in subarctic regions produce a 40% solution of glycerol that can withstand temperatures as low as -125 degrees F.  Then there are the seemingly indestructible types that actually allow themselves to freeze. The Arctic wooly bear caterpillar spends nine to ten months each year frozen in temperatures as low as -60 degrees F.   During each brief warm season, it becomes active and matures a little and it sometimes takes as long as 14 years to mature to the moth stage.

A more spectacular-looking member of the family is the giant leopard moth, a large eastern tiger moth that is found from southern Ontario south to Florida and west to Minnesota and Texas.  Its full-grown wooly caterpillar can be three inches in length and is covered with shiny black bristles with reddish bands between each of its body segments. When it rolls into a protective ball, it appears to have red horizontal stripes.  In northern latitudes, larvae accumulate glycerol to enhance their freeze tolerance and nearly full-grown larvae overwinter and complete their development in the spring. Giant leopard moth caterpillars are primarily nocturnal, but are often seen crossing roads during the fall while seeking sites to spend the winter or found under leaves or in wood piles by people doing yard work during spring and fall.  There is a single brood in the North and two or more broods in the South.

Adult giant leopard moths are white with highly variable black spots on the front wings and iridescent blue-black with orange spots on the body and legs.  Biologists theorize that the spots on the forewings may serve as disruptive coloration to make them less conspicuous to predators, and when threatened, adults “feign death” and curl the abdomen to display their brightly colored abdomens which seems to startle predators. They also secrete droplets of yellow, acrid fluid as a further protection.

A fascinating fact is that adult giant leopard moths and many other related moths have ears located immediately behind the bases of their hind wings. It is thought that these can detect the echo-location sonar of hunting bats, thus allowing the moths to take evasive action.  Many leopard moths are also able produce high frequency clicks in response to the bat sonar and biologists theorize that the clicks may serve as a warning signal to any predators of the moths’ chemical defenses.  In one species of moth the clicks have been demonstrated to jam the bats’ sonar.

Some butterflies such as the common wood-nymph also spend the winter as caterpillars.  They lay their eggs in the fall and when these hatch, they burrow into the soil under the nearest plant and enter a state of hibernation, only digging free and ready to eat when the weather warms enough that the plants are leafing out.  Others such as the white admiral, start earlier in the summer but find a protected place to wrap themselves in leaves held in place with silk with the arrival of cold weather.  These resemble cocoons but remain as caterpillars only waiting for winter to end.  Mother Nature continues to confound us with the complexity of her care of her marvelous creatures.


October 30, 2018: Sandhill cranes

Sandhill cranes are believed to be among the world’s oldest surviving birds. A 10-million-year-old crane fossil from Nebraska may be from a prehistoric relative and the oldest identifiable sandhill crane fossil is 2.5 million years old with an age twice that of most other living species of birds. The variety found in Wisconsin and Michigan, belonging to the Eastern Population of the greater North American subspecies, ranges from southern Ontario to central Florida and primarily nests in wetlands or grasslands around the Great Lakes region.  

An adult sandhill is gray overall and has a red forehead, white cheeks, and a long, dark, pointed bill.  Each weighs 9-10 pounds, stands up to four feet tall and has a wingspan of up to 7 feet.  In flight these birds extend their long necks and allow their long, dark legs to trail behind, and their loud, trumpeting calls can be heard from a long distance.  The sandhill crane’s common name originated with another subspecies of this bird that has frequented the Nebraska’s sand hills at the Platte River.  Some 450,000 of the lesser sandhill cranes migrate through that area annually and provide one of the most spectacular wildlife shows in the country.

Sandhill Cranes nest in marshes, bogs, wet meadows, prairies, burned-over aspen stands, and other moist habitats, preferring those with standing water.  They feed on land or in shallow marshes where plants grow out of the water often probing with their bills. Their diet is heavy in seeds and grains, but may also include berries, tubers, as well as small animals and other creatures.

Cranes mate for life, choosing their partners with dancing displays -- stretching their wings, bowing, and leaping into the air. They then build nests from cattails, sedges, burr reeds, or grasses, and to the foundation of larger materials they add a cup-shaped hollow lined with smaller stems or twigs.  Although each female usually lays two eggs, only one nestling typically survives to fledge. The chicks hatch covered in down with their eyes open, and are able to leave the nest within a day. The parents brood the chicks for up to three weeks after hatching, feeding them intensively for the first few weeks, then less frequently until they reach independence at 9 to 10 months old.  Mated pairs and their juvenile offspring stay together all through the winter in loose roosting and feeding flocks in the southern U.S. and northern Mexico, in some places numbering in the tens of thousands.

In the late 19th century, the local population of the Eastern population was on the brink of extinction as a result of habitat destruction and rampant hunting.  By 1940, probably fewer than 1,000 greater sandhills remained but the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918, a federal law intended to protect hundreds of vulnerable species from hunters, has allowed  populations to increase, and parts of the Midwest have seen an impressive rebound of the species.  At nearly 100,000, they are still fewer than the lesser sandhill crane, which is the most plentiful crane alive today. 

This new abundance of sandhill cranes in the upper midwest has thrilled environmentalists but caused problems with others.  Farmers complain the birds damage crops and decrease yields and hunters are eager to add the big birds to their prey list.  This month, members of the Michigan House of Representatives have proposed a controversial response: institute a hunting season.  

Sponsors of the Minnesota bill cite repeated complaints about the birds, which typically eat corn or wheat seedlings and otherwise damage vulnerable young crops and point out there are no problems with hunting sandhill cranes in 16 other states.  Many hunters praise the meat as the “ribeye of the sky” and argue that any hunt could be limited to levels that wouldn’t damage the population’s overall health. 

Environmentalists counter that the hunted birds are part of a different subpopulation in the West that has never been in trouble and that even a highly regulated hunt would kill birds without actually solving the problems faced by farmers.  Instead many advocate a different solution -- instituting a new seed coating developed by the National Crane Foundation that will irritate the cranes’ stomachs and train them to stay away from the crops.  Opponents retort that modifying the seeds is expensive and impractical.

This debate follows a recurring pattern of often-bitter battles between wildlife conservation and industry. At its root is a fundamental clash between people who see the natural world as something to be protected and preserved, and those who view the land as a resource to be managed. In the Pacific Northwest the timber industry and environmentalists feuded over the home of the northern spotted owl; in recent years, there have been heated debates on the western plains over the sage grouse, a prairie bird whose protection efforts conflicted with the interests of ranchers and drilling; there are conflicts with rattlesnakes in New England, panthers in Florida, and now the sandhill cranes in the Great Lakes region.

In general, sandhill cranes are currently numerous and their populations increased by about 4.5% per year between 1966 and 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey.   At the annual Conservation Congress meetings held this month in Wisconsin, the question of whether to approve a sandhill crane hunt was again raised stating they are hated by golfers, park visitors, farmers and anyone who owns waterfront property.  Sandhill cranes lost the vote with 2349 people in favor of a hunt and 2049 against it; still there is a long process ahead, but it looks as if it is only a matter of time...


October 23, 2018:  Juncos and More Winter Birds

By this time, you have probably said “bon voyage” to the hummingbirds, orioles and other nectar and insect-eating backyard birds that nested in your trees and shrubs during the summer.  Once their food sources dried up, they took off for more hospitable climates, but some of our birds have remained and soon we will be seeing a new group of arrivals from Canada and points north who think of our area as the southland. 

Birds migrate, not to stay warm, but to obtain food, and a number of our common residents seem to have little trouble finding sufficient grain and other seeds to survive.  Many of the finches and sparrows, titmice, chickadees, cardinals, and bluejays remain, but we put out feeding trays and suet holders to offer additions to their natural diets and to bring them to the farmyard to enjoy their presence.  

Birds are able to stay warm in the freezing temperatures because they are covered with layers of feathers.  Feathers are thought to have evolved from the scales of reptiles, and are made out of keratin, the same protein found in hair and nails.  Contour feathers cover most of the bird’s surface, and are divided into flight feathers and those that protect it from sun, wind, rain, and injury.  Down feathers are small, soft, fluffy and are found under the contour feathers and trap air in an insulating layer next to the skin, protecting the bird from heat and cold.  Humans have found these to be so efficient that they use them in down jackets and comforters. 

The dark-eyed junco is usually the most obvious of the northern newcomers.  It is sparrow-sized gray-brown bird with a dark head, a stout pink bill and a fairly long, conspicuous tail.  What attracts attention most are the white outer tail feathers and white belly that show off in flight.  These gregarious birds travel in flocks of 10-30 and are seen most often at winter feeders.

Dark-eyed juncos hop around the bases of trees and shrubs in forests or venture out onto lawns looking for fallen seeds giving high chip notes to each other.  Much of their diet consists of a variety of seeds including weed and grass seeds but they also devour caterpillars, ants, spiders and other insects. There are fifteen described races across the continent, but in general there are two widespread forms: the “slate-colored” junco of the eastern United States and most of Canada, which is smooth gray above; and the “Oregon” junco, found across much of the western U.S., with a dark hood, warm brown back and rufous flanks.

Our juncos breed in coniferous or mixed-coniferous forests across Canada.  They usually build their nests on the ground, in shallow depressions with overhead protection (such as the roots of moss covered trees). Females construct a nest that is generally made up of moss, grasses, rootlets, twigs, and lined with soft materials. Males will not help with the actual building, but may carry in nesting materials.  The female will lay up to six pale blue-greenish eggs, with splotches that concentrate into a wreath at the large end.   Juncos generally have two, sometimes three broods per year. Eggs are incubated about two weeks and nestlings are able to leave the nest in about 12 days.

Another common winter visitor in the finch family is the pine siskin that is around the same size as our goldfinch.  Adults are heavily streaked and have short forked tails.  Many also have small yellow patches on their wings and tails, as well as white streaks on the wings. Their breeding range is also found in open conifer forests across Canada and Alaska, and migration is highly variable, probably related to the success of food crops from year to year.

Pine siskins can survive in very cold temperatures as their metabolic rates are typically 40% higher than a "normal" songbird of their size.  They also put on half again as much winter fat as their common redpoll and goldfinch relatives. They protect their young from the cold by heavily insulating their nests with thick plant materials, and females are often fed by their mates while incubating their eggs and hatchlings so that they never have to leave the nest.

Red-breasted nuthatchs and red polls are two other species that are fairly common migrant visitors.  This nuthatch resembles its white-breasted cousin with the addition of a rusty breast and a white stripe through the eye and has a nasal "hank-hank" call.  Common Redpolls are brown and white with heavily streaked sides, a small red forehead patch, and two white wingbars.  The redpoll has a pouch in its throat where it can store some food for up to several hours, allowing it to feed rapidly in the open and then digest food over a long period while it rests in a sheltered spot.

Black oil sunflower seeds and suet, as well as peanuts and peanut butter are by far the best foods to offer birds and can be offered in platform, tube or hopper feeders as well as sprinkled on the ground or a table or railing.  Smaller finches appreciate nyjer or thistle seed that is best offered in a special bag.  Feeding the birds is one of the joys of a Wisconsin winter, as you can watch your birds up close from the comfort of your living room.  The varieties you will attract will change depending on where you live, what your yard looks like and how the weather is acting but even the common English sparrow can become a friend.


October 16, 2018:   Snails and Slugs

According to the Smithsonian Institution, there are approximately 91,000 named species of insects, and at any one time, it is estimated that there are some 10 quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) individual insects alive.  Could you guess what class of creatures has the second most prolific species? The answer is Gastropoda, commonly known as snails and slugs, and there are thought to be up to 80,000 living types.  Many species live in the sea, some in freshwater and others on land, and they come in all sizes from microscopic to the African land snail that can grow to a length of almost 12 inches with a diameter of 6 inches.

Although the name "snail" is often applied to all the gastropods, usually this word refers only to those species with an external shell big enough that the soft parts can withdraw completely into it. Those without a shell, and those with only a very reduced or internal shell are usually known as slugs, and those with a shell into which they cannot withdraw are termed limpets. Some live in gardens, woodland, deserts, and on mountains; others in small ditches, great rivers and lakes; and still others in brackish mud, in the rocks and sand, and even in the hydrothermal vents in the depths of the ocean.

Snails, slugs and limpets have several unique abilities as each uses its long, muscular foot to crawl on a layer of mucus-like slime that it secretes. Scientists once assumed that these sticky slimes were essential for snail movement but in a recent study researchers were surprised to find that the creatures didn't need the mucus to travel horizontally.  It had been discovered nearly 30 years ago that the mucus changes its characteristics according to how firmly the snail presses on it and now it was realized that the slime initially acted like glue, sticking the snail to a surface, but when the snail's foot pressed down hard enough on the mucus, it became more liquid, allowing it to flow underneath the moving snail.

Snails and slugs propel themselves by generating waves of muscle contraction and relaxation that travels along the central portion of the foot from tail to head. The waves move much faster than the snail itself, and generate sufficient force to push the snail forward.  If the snail's foot never lifted off the ground, then the animal would need the special mucus to achieve enough force to push itself across a horizontal surface, but high-resolution videos show that parts of a snail's foot lift off the ground as the waves motion travel through it.  This reduces the amount of friction the snail has to overcome to move, a similar situation to that of a crawling caterpillar, which lifts the middle part of its body up and stretches it forward as it moves.  (It is fascinating that researchers from Tohoku University in Japan are building an endoscope, a tool that doctors will use to look inside the body, that would move like a snail.  They contend that snail-like robots are less complicated to build as there are no legs sticking out, and their crawling motion allows them to traverse a wide variety of surfaces.)

A snail shell is an exoskeleton, which protects the animal from predators, mechanical damage, and dehydration, but also serves for muscle attachment and calcium storage. Some snails also possess an operculum that seals the opening of the shell, which affords further protection. The gastropod shell has three major layers secreted by the mantle: an outermost layer which is resistant to abrasion and is often colorful; a calcareous central layer, typically formed of calcium carbonate; and a innermost smooth layer usually composed of mother-of-pearl.

The shell begins as a minute embryonic circular or elliptical whorl which forms the apex of the spire and gradually increases in size. The most simple form consists of longitudinal ridges, sometimes with transverse ridges, but can become quite complicated as primary and secondary spirals may appear in regular succession on either side of the first primary. Ribs are regular transverse foldings of the shell, and spines may appear later stages. The aperture of the shell may be simple or have an outer and an inner lip.

Other than shells, there is little physical difference between slugs and snails and both feed using the thousands of microscopic tooth-like structures located on their banded ribbon-like tongues.  These work like files, ripping food into small pieces. Many are herbivorous, eating tender plant tissue, clipping off seedlings at soil level, creating shallow pits on roots and tubers and chewing large irregular holes in foliage, although a few land species and many marine species are carnivores and predatory.

There are important differences in habitats and behavior however, as a shell-less animal is much more maneuverable and compressible.  Even quite large land slugs can take advantage of habitats or retreats with very little space, and slugs squeeze themselves into confined spaces such as under loose bark on trees or under stone slabs, logs or wooden boards lying on the ground. In such retreats they are in less danger from either predators or desiccation, and often those also are suitable places for laying their eggs.  They are prone to drying out however, and are most likely seen on cloudy, rainy days.

Gastropods have served as study organisms in numerous evolutionary, ecological, physiological, and behavioral investigations.  They are extremely diverse in size, body and shell development, and habits and occupy the widest range of ecological niches of all mollusks, being the only group to have invaded the land.   In addition to all these facts about these interesting animals, Husband Bill adds that the escargot he once tasted was delicious!


October 9, 2018: Those Amazing bats

Bats are some of the most unique and ecologically beneficial animals in the world. They are the only mammals capable of true flight, are in fact more related to primates than to rodents, and are divided into 1200 species.  Like most mammals, bats have fur, are born live and nurse milk from their mothers.  In North America, they are the primary predators of night-flying insects.  In the past, people feared these creatures and killed them on sight, but now it is understood that they play a valuable role in the ecosystem.

Bats are divided into two main groups, the mega-bats and the micro-bats. The mega-bats (about 160 species) are often known as fruit bats because many of them eat fruit, nectar, and pollen. They are also called flying foxes because they have big eyes for finding food and they have faces that look somewhat like those of foxes.  North America hosts none of these creatures but they are relatively common in tropical and subtropical areas of Eurasia, Africa, Australia, and Polynesia.

Wisconsin bats are micro-bats; all are insectivorous and use echolocation to navigate and capture prey.  Although most bats have good daytime vision, an insect-eater depends on its unique sonar system during the hours of darkness when insects are most active.  It sends out a steady signal of very short, high-pitched pulses through its mouth, turning its head from side to side. The sounds bounce off nearby flying objects and return to the bat as echoes telling it exactly where a potential meal might be located. Once a bat has zeroed in on its prey, it usually uses its wings to scoop it up.

Micro-bats eat moths, wasps, beetles, gnats, mosquitoes, midges and mayflies, among others.  Since many of their preferred meals are insects with an aquatic life stage, such as mosquitoes, they often forage near bodies of water and adjacent vegetation.   The bats' insect diet makes it beneficial to agriculture as it eats many species of agricultural pests.  Mating occurs in the fall, and females store sperm until emergence in the spring.  Most bats live around six or seven years but are preyed upon by a variety of animals such as rats, snakes and bigger birds, often when they are packed together in roosts or fall to the ground when young or hibernating.

Four Wisconsin bat species hibernate in caves and mines throughout the winter while another three (known as tree bats) migrate south to warmer climates.  Our cave bats include the big brown, little brown, Northern long-eared and Eastern pipistrelle now renamed tricolored.  The big brown has a a body length of about 5 inches, a wingspan of about 13 inches and weighs almost an ounce; the little brown has a body length of about 3 inches, a wingspan of about 9 inches, and weighs less than a half ounce; the northern long-eared bat is about 3 1/2 inches in length, with a wingspan of 9-10 inches and is distinguishable by its long ears when compared to other bats; and the tricolored, a body length of 3 inches and a wingspread of up to 10 inches. It weighs about .3 ounce, and has three colors on each hair -- black at the base, yellow in the middle and brown at the tip.

White-nose syndrome is a devastating disease responsible for mass mortalities in hibernating cave bats and this rapidly spreading threat has killed millions of bats in the eastern United States. The responsible fungus is now in 30 states and 5 Canadian provinces. It causes a white growth on the muzzles, ears, or wings of infected bats (any surface without fur) and disturbs the bat’s winter hibernation, forcing them to use up their stored fat and often causing them to starve.  Little brown bats are most severely affected by white-nose syndrome and it is estimated that 94% of the population in the eastern half of the country has died over the last few years, but the other cave bats are disappearing as well.

Our three tree bats are the silver-haired, the Eastern red and the hoary.  The first gets its name from its dark brown fur frosted with silver on the back, while the Eastern red bat has silky red-orange fur.  Both migrate south to central and southern states where they hibernate in rock crevices and tree hollows.  The hoary bat is one of the largest bats in the United States, the most widely distributed, and has dark yellowish fur tipped with white. It is more common in the prairie states than in the eastern parts of the country and roosts in tree foliage, mostly in evergreens.  Northern populations may migrate considerable distances to subtropical areas when the weather gets cold.

Now, even more disturbing reports are coming out about the wind turbines that are being erected to generate “clean” energy.  One recent study indicated that these turbines kill a rather staggering 600,000 to 900,000 bats every year (as well as great numbers of birds), mostly during their migrations. The flying animals are struck by the spinning blades, and the rapid decrease in air pressure around the turbines seems to damage their lungs.  So far efforts to discover a way to prevent this slaughter have proved ineffective and more wind farms are being constructed every year.

Bats are important consumers for agricultural, forestry and human pest insects and it is estimated that bats in Wisconsin save farmers up to $658 million every year in the form of pest control services, to say nothing about our outdoor comfort.  We urge those who are trying to protect them good success in their efforts. 


October 2, 2018:  Insect winter survival

A common question in autumn as the temperatures drop is what happens to all the many bugs and the like that have been so obvious and prolific all summer.  The answer is complicated; some survive the winter as eggs, larvae, or pupae, while others make it through the winter fully-grown.  Many such as crickets die in the winter, leaving eggs behind that will hatch when the temperatures moderate. Aphid eggs can be found in the bud scales of woody plants. Bagworms hang out as eggs inside this year's bags. Tent caterpillars spend the winter as egg masses on branches.

Winter survival strategies of insects are in many respects more similar to those of plants than to mammals and birds. This is because, unlike those animals which can generate their own heat internally, invertebrates can not.  Either they must tolerate freezing or they must use one of a number of strategies to deal with the rigors of winter temperatures in places where they would otherwise not survive.

In general, there are three distinct strategies for adult insects: a few such as some species of butterflies and dragonflies survive by simply heading south as soon as the cold threatens; others move underground or to the bottoms of ponds where they can remain relatively comfortable even when the surface freezes; or snow cover thicker than about 8 inches can insulate the soil surface and stabilize the ground temperature close to the freezing point. Many ground-living invertebrates such as springtails and mites as well as larger insects and spiders are active at this temperature in the open, shallow cavities or animal tunnels that often occur under deep, layered snow.

The first, migration, is a complete avoidance of the temperatures that pose a threat.  North American monarchs are probably the most well-known of the migrating insects, traveling to central Mexico, but members of another butterfly family that includes the Red Admiral, Painted Lady and American Lady, also move long distances.  Especially impressive is the European version of the Painted Lady that migrates nearly 2,500 miles from the UK to Africa, flying at altitudes up of 3000 feet at speeds up to 30mph.

Another common winter migrant insect, found over much of North America is the green darner, a large dragon fly that leaves its northern ranges in September to migrate south.  It holds its wings horizontally both in flight and at rest, has a wingspan of around 4 inches and grows about 3 inches in length.  It has a dark green shaded thorax and head, and a metallic blue abdomen that is long and narrow resembling a darning needle, from which it acquired its name. Like the monarch butterflies, these dragonflies migrate to humid climate regions like Mexico and Texas.  Migration in insects is different than in birds that is a two-way, round-trip movement of each individual.  The short lifespan of insects means that the adult that went south will be replaced by a member of the next generation on the return voyage.

If an insect cannot migrate, then it must stay and deal with the cold temperatures; it must either avoid freezing or somehow tolerate it.  Many insects overwinter in the larval or immature stage with a survival strategy called diapause -- a dormant, semi-frozen state.  The shorter daylight lengths of fall trigger this condition, during which many body processes shut down so they aren't injured and an insect's metabolic rate drops to one tenth or less, subsisting on stored body fat.  In addition many insects produce alcohols and glycerol that act as antifreezes, so that their bodies can reach temperatures below freezing without forming cell-damaging ice.

We have often been taught that water freezes at 0C but microscopic droplets of very pure water can be cooled much below that before they freeze. Bonnie Ennis, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension agent who wrote an interesting treatise on insects and cold temperatures, explains that water "normally" freezes at 0C because the growth of ice crystals is "seeded" by the presence of some particle or surface that helps to line up the water molecules into the crystal shape. Once an initial microscopic nucleus of ice is formed, more and more water molecules quickly join the crystal and high-speed crystal growth is triggered.

Many insects possess a strong, waxy covering that provides excellent waterproofing and also prevents external ice from coming into contact with body fluids. During much of the year, these insects won't freeze until at least -5C and in the winter, some develop further protections that allow them to supercool to -15 and lower without freezing. Supercooling is only effective if the insect can avoid contact with ice crystals as these act as seeds around which additional crystals can form. Some insects gain further protection by picking dry spots to hibernate or spinning waterproof cocoons around themselves to block contact with ice.  Ms. Ennis writes that an insect’s ability to supercool also depends on how much water it contains, for the smaller the amount of water, the greater its ability to resist freezing.  In order for insects to continue to the next life stage, diapause has to be terminated and most insects do not come out of diapause unless a long period of cold precedes warm temperatures.

Many insects such as mourning cloak butterflies and bean leaf beetles spend the winter as adults in protected areas such as under loose tree bark and in fallen leaves. Native lady bugs overwinter in clusters under fallen tree bark or firewood. Asian multicolored lady beetles look for a warm spot in our homes to wait for spring.  Some grubs overwinter deep in the soil as beetle larvae. European corn borers survive as full grown larvae. Others such as cecropia moths and swallow tail butterflies overwinter as pupae in cocoons or chrysalis.  Mother Nature provides for all her children and we continue to be amazed at the complexity of her care.


September 25, 2018: Eagles

We are often distressed to hear that some creature or another is threatened because of loss of habitat, changes in climate or other reasons, but there are also success stories; take, for instance, the bald eagle.  There are now thought to be about 6000 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the lower 48 states and some 1600 in Wisconsin. This is a big change from 50 years ago when eagles were rapidly being exterminated.

Not only were they shot as “varmints”, but also many were poisoned by pesticides such as DDT that were present in much of their prey. These accumulated in their fatty tissues and not only sickened many birds but also caused their eggshells to be thin and break prematurely, killing developing chicks. A ban on the use of DDT and other harmful pesticides, as well as federal protection has allowed bald eagle populations to rebound, and the situation has improved so much that they have not only been removed from the Endangered Species List but are now considered a species of least concern.

Eagles are often mistaken for large hawks but if you know what to look for, it is easy to see the differences. When very high and silhouetted, eagles’ very long, uniformly wide wings are held straight out, and their relatively large heads extend beyond the body more than half the length of the tail.  At lower altitudes, the distinctive white heads and tails of the dark-brown adults show up plainly, and while immature birds lack these characteristics, no other Wisconsin birds are as large.

Females may weigh up to 15 pounds and are 30-31 inches long with a wingspan of six to seven feet, although males are somewhat smaller and lighter. Both are strong flyers, capable of traveling at speeds up to 65 miles per hour in level flight and of reaching 150 miles an hour in a dive, but they are also pragmatists and much prefer to float effortlessly whenever they can.

An eagle makes it look easy to rise to great heights and make lazy circles high in the sky, using its broad wings, flared tail and rising air currents. The sun’s rays heat up the various ground surfaces at different rates; earth more than water, dark more than light, dull more than reflective.  As the air directly above these areas warms, it tends to rise in great columns called thermals. These are most pronounced near bodies of water or in mountainous or hilly country, but are present to some degree everywhere, and on favorable days a bird can glide from thermal to thermal with seldom a wing flap. 

When an eagle first leaves its perch, it uses its wide wings and powerful flying muscles to lift it high in the air. As it enters a thermal, it allows the rising air to support and raise it, sometimes reaching heights up to 3 miles. To help reduce turbulence as air passes over the end of the wing, the tips of the feathers at the end of the wings are tapered so that when the eagle fully extends its wings, the tips are widely separated. The tail is also very important and is spread in such a way as to provide the largest possible surface area to increase the effect of thermals and updrafts. Eagle bones are hollow and weigh almost nothing; in fact, the bird’s entire skeleton weighs only about eight ounces, half the weight of its feathers.

Bald eagles have approximately 7,000 feathers. These are also hollow and lightweight yet extremely strong and flexible, and protect the bird from the cold as well as the heat of the sun by trapping layers of air. The feathers overlap to form a dense covering that the bird can open or close at will. There are several layers and types of feathers, each serving a different function, the smallest being an inner coat of down. Eagles who migrate to warmer climates for the winter do so not to escape the cold, from which they are well protected, but to find food.

Eagles feed primarily on fish, small mammals, and aquatic birds, but will eat dead creatures when live ones are unavailable. Carrion is an important food source, particularly in winter when they search along roads and in garbage dumps for anything they can salvage. Although their diets vary considerably depending upon both season and location, fish are their preferred prey and as lakes and streams freeze over, they move south to find open water. When hunting on the wing, an eagle will typically fly along above the water until it spots a fish (or perhaps a swimming water bird) and then dives feet first, latching onto the victim with its talons, and pulling it out of the water and up to a perch to eat. Occasionally a bird will miscalculate and find the prey too large to lift, in which case it can swim to shore with its burden, using its powerful wings as oars.

But there is another reason to look up every once in a while.  The bluffs and ravines in western Wisconsin and Minnesota are now home to a significant wintering population of golden eagles as well. Raptor expert Scott Mehus of the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, MN, reports "There are probably something like 100 golden eagles wintering in Wisconsin, and about the same in Minnesota." 

The American golden eagle breeds across much of Alaska, western Canada and in the United States west of a line from North Dakota down through Nebraska and Oklahoma to west Texas.  Adult goldens are usually uniformly dark, except for a “golden” nape, and “golden” feathering along the middle of the upper wings, but can be confused with immature bald eagles.  Young baldies do not acquire their white heads and tails until their fourth year but they usually show more white mottling on the undersides of their wings.  Keep an eye on the sky and you may be treated to the sight of one or another of these magnificent birds.


September 18, 2018:  Ruby-throated Hummingbirds

Omens of winter are becoming more obvious--corn fields are being harvested, our apples are ripening and the leaves on our apple trees are turning brown and falling, the green maple and aspen trees are fading in preparation for their autumn colors, and the number of the visitors at our hummingbird feeders are dropping daily. Our appreciation for these tiny birds had increased considerably this year after we attached a feeder to our living room window and they fed and fought and cavorted just a few feet from our easy chairs. 

According to Lanny Chambers, a hummingbird enthusiast from St. Louis, Missouri, hummingbirds apparently evolved to their present forms during the last ice age. They were (and largely still are) tropical birds, but as the great ice sheets retreated from North America, they gradually expanded their crowded breeding ranges to open areas to the north.  This was fine during the summers but hummingbirds are carnivores (nectar is just the fuel to power their flycatching activity), and depend upon insects that are not available in subfreezing weather, so most of them must retreat back south to warmer climes in the winter or risk starvation.

Chambers tells us that although hummingbird migration is not well documented by large numbers of banding records, we do know a few facts. ("Banding" means trapping a bird and wrapping a tiny numbered strip of aluminum around one leg. This is currently the only way to identify individual hummingbirds, and species are studied by gathering data on large numbers of individuals.)  Each hummingbird species has its own migration strategy, and banding studies suggest that individual birds may follow a set route year after year, often arriving at the same feeder on the same calendar day.  It is not known if any individual bird follows the same route in both directions, and there are some indications that they do not.

During migration, a hummingbird's heart beats up to 1,260 times a minute, and its wings flap up to 80 times a second. To support this high energy level, a hummingbird will nearly double its weight before it starts migration in order to make the long trek over land and water.  Before departing from the tropics, each bird will weigh about 5 grams, and when it reaches the U.S. Gulf coast, it may weigh only 2.5 grams.  Hummingbirds fly by day when nectar sources such as flowers are more abundant and flying low allows the birds to access food supplies along the way. They are also experts at using tail winds to help reach their destination faster using less energy and body fat. 

Most ruby-throated hummingbirds winter between southern Mexico and northern Panama.  Each year, they begin moving north as early as January, and by the end of February they are at the northern coast of Yucatan, gorging on insects and spiders to add a thick layer of fat. Some will skirt the Gulf of Mexico and follow the Texas coast north, but most apparently cross the Gulf -- a nonstop flight of up to 500 miles that takes about 20 hours.

Once in North America, migration proceeds at an average rate of about 20 miles per day, generally following the earliest blooming of flowers hummingbirds prefer.  Banding studies show that each bird tends to return every year to the same place it hatched, even visiting the same feeders.  Some adult males then start migrating south as early as mid-July, but the peak of southward migration for this species is late August and early September. By mid-September, essentially all of the ruby-throats at feeders are migrating through from farther north, and are not the same individuals seen during the summer. The number of birds traveling south may be twice that of the northward trip, since it includes all the surviving adults as well as the immature birds that hatched during the summer.

For a young hummer there is no memory of past migrations, only an urge to put on a lot of weight and fly in a particular direction for a certain amount of time. It then looks for a good place to spend the winter and once it learns a route, the bird seems to retrace it every year as long as it lives. The initial urge is triggered by the shortening length of sunlight as autumn approaches, and has nothing to do with temperature or the availability of food; in fact, hummingbirds migrate south at the time of greatest food abundance. When the bird is fat enough, it migrates.

It is not necessary to take down feeders to force hummingbirds to leave as in the fall all the birds at your feeder are already migrating. If you remove your feeder, birds will just feed elsewhere and may not bother to return to your yard the next year, so  continue to maintain feeders until freezing becomes a problem.  There are several other things you can do to help them, however: maintain more than one feeder as hummingbirds do not like to share and tend to be territorial; do not use soap to clean a hummingbird feeder -- just hot water and a brush; change the hummingbird nectar or sugar water at least every 3-5 days, and more often in very hot weather; and, when feeding in the autumn, go from a 4-to-1 to a 3-to-1 ratio of sugar to water to give them extra energy.

We still have many more questions than answers about hummingbird migration. Until technology provides radio transmitters small enough for a 3-gram hummingbird to carry safely, banding is the best tool to collect data on individual birds. But since only a few dozen people in North America are licensed to handle hummingbirds, progress is slow and the odds of tracing a banded bird are very low.


September 11, 2018:  Bobcats

A year or so ago, we caught a glimpse of a bobcat crossing the road in front of our car.  It was our first sighting of one of these elusive animals, even though we have spent quite a bit of time in the outdoors and keep our eyes open.  Heavily forested areas of northern Wisconsin are home for the majority of the bobcat population where these wild cats seem to prefer alder thickets and coniferous swamps; more recently, though, they have been spotted in Dane, Iowa, and Sauk counties.  Last week, friend Tracy met up with one here at the farm and recorded the occasion on her camera.

The bobcat is about twice the size of its distant cousin, the common house or barn cat, and it once was very common throughout Wisconsin.  As the human population and farming increased, however, it was considered a threat to livestock, and it was hunted and trapped for sport, skins and bounty for nearly a century, almost killing off the entire population.  Beginning in 1970, harvest was regulated, fortunately, and a permit system was initiated in 1980 for northern Wisconsin.  These protections allowed the bobcat numbers to increase and in 2014, hunting and trapping permits were allowed for the first time in the state's southern zones as well.                                                                                                                                                    

The bobcat has an orange-tan fur with black stripes on the face and spots on the body, a short “bobbed” tail (that gives it the name), and sideburn cheek whiskers.  Irregular black spots and blotches on its fur provide camouflage as it hunts for prey in thick underbrush. The average Wisconsin bobcat weighs from 20 to 35 pounds,  stands about fifteen inches tall and is about 3 feet long. Only the Canada lynx has a similar appearance, but none of these “look-alikes” has been reported in the state in recent years. 

Cottontail rabbits are the primary prey, but porcupines, squirrels, woodchucks and birds are also taken, as well as mice, voles, shrews, reptiles and insects. The bobcat has been known to occasionally feed on carrion but only when relatively fresh. Evidence indicates that bobcats kill very few deer unless other foods become scarce, and then are thought to prey only upon sick, injured, young or very old animals. 
The mating season normally occurs during late February or March in Wisconsin.  The female establishes a natal den in a rock crevice, hollow log or other protected cavity, and gives birth to several kittens in late spring or early summer.  Bobcat kits are born fully furred, although their eyes don't open for about ten days.  At about four weeks, the kittens leave the den and start taking solid food provided by the mother.  Bobcat teenagers leave their mother's territory before she gives birth the following year but they usually don’t breed for another year or two. 

Usually solitary and territorial animals, females never share territory with each other but male territories tend to overlap and each male usually has several females. Territories are established with scent markings, and territory sizes are extremely varied – generally 25-30 square miles for males and about five square miles for females.  A resident bobcat warns visitors to stay out of its territory by marking the boundaries with feces, urine, and gland secretions to avoid fights.

Each bobcat may have several dens, one main den and several auxiliary dens, in its territory.  The main one is usually a cave or rock shelter, but can be a hollow log, fallen tree, or some other protected place. Auxiliary dens are usually located in less-visited portions of the home range and are often brush piles, rock ledges or stumps.

Bobcats are widely dispersed and extremely stealthy, which poses a challenge to scientists as they work to monitor the animals’ population.   Nationwide, they numbered around 3.5 million animals in 2008, and were found in every state in the Lower 48, with stable or increasing numbers.  According to DNR estimates, northern Wisconsin had about about 3,500 in 2016 with an unknown population in southern Wisconsin.  Winter track surveys have always been the primary technique used to monitor population changes as well as data from hunters and trappers, but in recent years, bobcats have been increasingly documented with the use of trail cameras.

About 15,000 people apply for a harvest tag in Wisconsin each year but records show that only around 250 animals are taken. The hunters and trappers supported a fee increase to help fund a science-based program to track bobcats and $3 of every $6 bobcat permit application fee is used for research to track and assess the population.  Now some sixty bobcats that were caught unharmed in modern leg-hold traps or cable restraints have been fitted with GPS collars and have been released as a part of this program.

"Bobcats are a true Wisconsin success story," said Nathan Roberts, Department of Natural Resources furbearer research scientist.  The secretive, native feline is notoriously hard to observe and track, but Roberts said all signs point to a strong, ever increasing population in Wisconsin as well as in most other states.


September 5, 2018: Spiders and their Silk

As I walked through the woods one afternoon, I was stopped short by the sight of a spider web suspended directly in my path. It was spotlighted by the sun’s rays filtering through the trees, and stretched from one side of the opening to the other, completely blocking my way. I tried to slip by without disturbing it but severed one of the main support threads and saw the whole structure fall, along with the spider, a tiny creature barely a quarter inch across.  The encounter left me shaking my head in disbelief, that such minuscule animals could manufacture all that silk, and that they could fashion it into such intricate webs.

There are other animals that spin silk, but spiders have the most complex silk spinning equipment. The various species possess seven different types of glands that each produce a highly concentrated solution that is half water and half folded up, rod-shaped proteins. As the fluid emerges through moveable finger-like spinnerets on the spider’s abdomen, the proteins unwind, lock together and solidify into silk fibers. The spider hauls out the silk with its legs, stretching, combing, or otherwise altering it to make it suitable for the particular use it has in mind.  Weight for weight, spider silk is up to 5 times stronger than steel of the same diameter and it is believed that the harder the spider pulls on the silk as it is produced, the stronger the silk gets.  Spider silk is so elastic that it doesn't break even if stretched up to four times its original length, is waterproof, and doesn't become brittle at temperatures as low as -40C. Husband Bill tells of tossing a brick into an old accumulation of webs in an abandoned shed without breaking them.

I could not identify the little spider I encountered in the woods but I recognized a more familiar species a day or two ago. The golden garden spider is a relatively large arachnid that is a common sight around the farm. While many people tend to think that all bugs are bugs, arachnids are really quite different from insects and other creepy-crawlers. They all have eight legs, no wings or antennae, and only two body parts, a “head” which contains the eyes and mouthparts and also bears the legs, and an abdomen. Besides the spiders, the arachnid classification also includes daddy long legs, scorpions, mites, and ticks. All spiders in our area contain venom but most are relatively harmless, with the exception of two species, the brown recluse and the black widow.

The adult female garden spider is predominately black with yellow or orange markings on the abdomen and legs. She spins a spectacular orb web, up to two feet across, and can often be found hanging head down, in the center. Even more noticeable is the “stabilimenta", a bright white zigzag that is laid down the web’s center. At least 78 species of spiders use some form of this silk add-on, but biologists disagree about its purpose. One study supports the idea that it attracts flying insects while other research found that such decorated webs capture fewer prey. Another hypothesis is that the highly visible threads prevent birds from flying into and destroying the webs.

To spin her web, the garden spider climbs to a high point, perhaps a tall grass stem or shrub or tree branch, and produces a sticky thread whose end is carried by the breeze to another support. This forms a bridge and the spider climbs across, reinforcing it with additional silk. How she manages to add the additional radii required to form a firm foundation is a complete mystery to me but she manages, and then lays down a circular coil of sticky thread across the spokes to complete the web. This forms an efficient trap to capture small flying insects such as aphids, flies, grasshoppers, and wasps and bees, as a large female can take prey up to twice her own size. When the web becomes torn, often after only one night, the spider removes the silk and eats it leaving only the first bridge line, and then spins a new web.

In late summer and fall, the male wanders about in search of a mate. When he finds a female he waits around the edge of her web, sometimes building a small web of his own, until she somehow signals her receptiveness. These spiders have relatively poor vision, but are quite sensitive to vibration and air currents and males communicate by plucking and vibrating the female’s web. He spins a small plate upon which he deposits drops of sperm that he then sucks up into the small leg-like palps beside his jaws.  In mating he transfers the sperm by inserting the sperm into an opening on the underside of the female's abdomen. It is an extremely hazardous procedure for him as most males are considerably smaller than their mates and often end up as her dinner.

After mating, each female lays several hundred eggs and encloses them in one or more brown, papery egg sacs. The spiderlings hatch quickly but remain within the sacs until spring, if they survive the sacs being opened and eaten by birds. It’s fascinating that one study found that in addition to the expected garden spiders, nineteen species of insects and ten other species of spiders emerged from collected egg cases. I’ve often found moth cocoons but never thought of looking for spider sacs. It might be an interesting project.

August 28, 2018:  Gentians and More

You might think that all successful plants would tend to have the same optimum developmental habits, but nothing could be farther from the actual situation. Some sprout up and bloom almost before the frost is out of the ground, while others take many months of growing before they display their flowers. This succession of blossoms is very much to the benefit of the insects that depend upon their nectar and pollen but it is difficult see why it might be best for the flora.

Now, consider the closed gentian, one of the beauties of Wisconsin’s damp meadows that is just now coming into full bloom. Not only does it dally along most of the summer doing not much of anything, but it doesn’t even open its flowers wide to welcome any pollinators. Why would any plant that needs to attract insects to transfer its pollen keep its flowers almost completely closed?

The closed or "bottle" gentian is one of our showiest late-season flowers. It sends heavy yellow roots deeply into damp soil supporting plants that can reach a height of two feet. Pairs of 2-inch-long leaves are found along the full length of the rather stout stems and clusters of brilliant blue flowers appear among the upper pairs of leaves. Each flower appears to be tightly closed but can be stretched to reveal an opening with a pleated appearance in the fused petals and plenty large enough for pollinators to enter.

Closed gentian does not appear naturally on our upland meadows, but cream gentian does and we have several patches that are thriving. It looks much like its blue cousin, but has creamy white flowers and is typically found in oak-hickory savannas, preferring well drained, limey soils. Large plants may have a number of stems and are often found in areas that have been frequently disturbed by fire. I read that the cream gentian is pollinated almost exclusively by bumblebees, an interesting aside considering its closed appearance. In the fall, the papery husks split and release hundreds of tiny flat seeds. Although we have found it relatively easy to propagate, it is listed as a threatened plant in Wisconsin.

Gentians are named for Gentius a king of ancient Illyria from 180 to 167 B.C. who was supposed to have discovered its medical properties, although there is a papyrus from Egypt that mentions medical use of these plants written a thousand years earlier. The name of one species, Sampson's snakeroot, implies it may be useful for treatment of snakebite and is thought by some to have a curative effect on other bites such as from a dog as well. In Appalachia the root is sometimes carried as a charm. The bitter root has long been used as a tonic and is known to be an appetite stimulant as well as a cathartic and laxative. A quick look on the internet reveals a number of sites that offer medicinals derived from this group of plants.

In addition to the cream and bottle gentian, be on the lookout for the downy gentian, a smaller plant with a single deep-blue open flower and narrow leaves, and the fringed gentian which has clusters of conspicuously-fringed open blossoms, but these beautiful, fall blooming flowers are becoming increasingly rare due to habitat loss and plant removal.

According to Susan Simonson of the UW Arboretum, gentians are one of many mychorrhizal plants that have a symbiotic relationship with one or several fungi growing on their roots. Scientists are just beginning to realize how many plant species including trees have this sort of fungal relationship. The total relationship between the two organisms is not fully understood but it does offer a possible explanation for why some plants are so difficult to transplant. She writes that “gentians should not be removed or displaced from the wild and that (they) should remain where they are if at all possible since they may not thrive if relocated”.

Many of the other prairie plants such as the sunflowers and coneflowers are completing their blooming, but what may be our tardiest plant hasn’t even begun to open its buds, the sneezeweed. I don’t know about the toxicity of our particular species but a western version is poisonous to sheep and horses and the plant gets its name from the actions of affected animals.

Sneezeweed is a four-foot plant that opens so late here that it often freezes before it can set seeds.  It has a winged stem bearing yellow, daisy-like flower heads with fan-shaped drooping rays and disk flowers forming a greenish-yellow ball-like structure at the center of the head.  The flowers have raised centers and wedge-shaped petals which end in three teeth.

The common name is based on the former use of its dried leaves in making snuff, inhaled to cause sneezing that would supposedly rid the body of evil spirits. Other Helenium species include Purple-head Sneezeweed, with a purplish-brown ball of disk flowers, and Slender-leaved Sneezeweed, with stems covered with almost thread-like leaves.

Can you believe it is almost autumn?

August 21, 2018: Singing Insects

Now that the frogs and toads have ceased their evening choruses at the farm, the insects take the center stage.  There are three main  groups of singing insects -- cicadas, katydids and crickets.  Each species produces a distinctive sound and in almost all cases, only the males sing, making it seem likely that the main purpose is to attract a female; at the same time, however, the song also warns other nearby males that belong to the same species to keep their distance.  It is interesting that males of other species often seem to interpret the sound as an invitation to approach, and they form a chorus loud enough to attract even more females.

Insects have a variety of physical equipment to produce their songs but cicadas are the only ones with organs intended solely for that purpose. The male’s abdomen has two curved plates called tymbals that are connected to powerful muscles. These repeatedly contract and then relax at different frequencies to create a distinctive sound that is amplified by a resonance chamber in the insect’s abdomen.

Cicadas are large insects up to two inches long.  Their bodies are generally black, brown or green, with markings of different shapes and colors depending on the species.  A cicada’s wide head is flattish in front, with a pair of large eyes, three small eyes (ocelli), two short antennae and piercing-sucking mouthparts.  There are two pairs of long transparent, membranous wings on the thorax held down flat on top of the abdomen. 

After mating, the female uses her ovipositor, at the tip of her abdomen, to make slits in the bark of tree or shrub twigs and lay her eggs.  Some species overwinter as eggs, but it is generally the nymph that lives through the cold weather.  When it emerges from the egg, the nymph drops to the ground, where it digs itself a hole with its forelegs where it develops underground, molting several times.  At the proper time, it emerges from the ground, climbs onto a tree or other support and hangs on with its claws.  Its exoskeleton hardens and splits, revealing the new adult, generally at night so as to avoid predators. When its wings and new exoskeleton are dry, the adult flies off in search of food.

There are about 3000 species around the world but only seven that can be found in Wisconsin and of these, the most common is the so-called Dog-day Cicada.  The name comes from the fact that this species sings during that time of the year when the star Sirius of the constellation Canis Major (the big dog) is prominent in the night sky.  (These typically hot and muggy days of July and August are often referred to as the “dog days” of summer.)   The Dog-day Cicada has a high-pitched whining drone that lasts about 15 seconds, starts soft, gets louder, then tapers off at the end.  Some liken it to the penetrating buzz of an electric saw.

The Dog-day lives for about four to six weeks as an adult, but the length of the life cycle of the various species can last from less than one year to as long as 17 years.  The highly publicized Wisconsin species of the 17-year type (also present in Iowa, Illinois and Indiana) is part of the XIII brood and was last seen in 2007.  Its nymphs are currently underground and will emerge as adults in 2024. 

Grasshoppers, katydids, and crickets are commonly mistaken for one another but grasshoppers have antennae that are shorter than their bodies and those that sing make a sound by rubbing a hind leg against one of their hard forewings. The rough leg causes the wing to vibrate and make a sound, almost like a bow playing a cello. 

The Common True Katydid has long antenna, is large, bright green, and has fore wings that look much like leaves.  Across the northern half of their range, katydids sing songs usually comprised of 2–3 harsh pulses delivered at a leisurely rate: ch-ch . . . ch-ch-ch . . . ch-ch-ch . . . (often likened to the words ka-ty or ka-ty-did).  The forewings of males bow out slightly to create a resonance chamber that intensifies their calls.

Crickets are black or brown insects with long antennae, two compound eyes and grinding mouthparts. Their two pairs of many-veined wings on the thorax are folded in a fan shape when at rest. Of the three sets of legs, the hindmost legs are the most noticeable, since they are adapted for jumping.  The female cricket lays her eggs in the soil – about 100 of them over the space of a few days.  These hatch into tiny crickets resembling wingless adults and they molt several times as they develop, growing in size until reaching adulthood, with complete wings and functional reproductive organs.

Crickets produce their songs by rubbing file-like serrations against sharp edges on their two pairs of elevated leathery wings.  Each time the wings rub together, this is called a “pulse” and the pulse rate is impacted by factors such as temperature.  Pulse rate and the pattern of the pulses also differ between cricket species.

Some beetles can also produce sounds by rubbing the rough surface of an organ against a surface with ridges or edges. In addition, various groups of insects emit sounds that are not songs. For instance, flies, mosquitoes and bumble bees buzz. The larvae of certain beetles also make an audible noise as they bore their tunnels into wood. Click beetles make an definite click when they are turned onto their backs, propelling themselves into the air and falling back on their feet. 

Add some lightning bugs and the sound and light show produced by our insect neighbors can be breath-taking these warm summer evenings...

August 13, 2018

These cool, foggy mornings give a hint of fall, and there are other signs, as well. The first goldenrod are waving their sprays of yellow blossoms in the fields; families of birds are flying about getting used to their wings and learning to feed themselves; grasshoppers and crickets are joining the cicadas in their songs; and the first bitternuts are underfoot.

The bitternut hickory tree grows throughout the eastern United States, and although it prefers wet bottomlands, it also grows on dry sites and can be found on well-drained, fertile soils in the southern part of Wisconsin. Bitternut grows to about 70 feet tall and has compound leaves with 5 to 9 leaflets. The tree produces nuts after about 30 years and will continue for a hundred years or more, although good seed crops seem to appear only at 3- to 5-year intervals.

Bitternuts have round, hard, yellow-green husks that split along their four raised ridges, revealing smooth, roundish, 1-inch nuts with sharp-pointed tips. They are extremely bitter because of their high tannin content but are eaten by squirrels and some other animals and birds. Together with losses from insects and disease, these prevent almost all successful seed survival except during bumper crop years.

Another much more common hickory tree in our woods is the shagbark. It can grow to a height of 100 feet, with conspicuous shaggy bark that separates into thick, vertical strips that are only partly attached to the trunk. Its winter buds are large and egg-shaped, looking almost flowerlike when they open in the spring. The nuts contain less tannin than those of the bitternut and were ground into flour or pressed for oil by both Native Americans and early colonists. The wood is extremely hard, heavy, strong and elastic, and was used for wheel spokes and tool handles, and wherever strength and resilience was required.

The word “nut” typically refers to any tree seed that grows inside a hard shell, but the term in botanical language is much more restrictive.  All seeds are classified as either fleshy or dry fruits.  Principal fleshy fruit types are those that are soft and pulpy, such as the grape, tomato, and banana, as well as those that have a tough outer layer around a hard pit that contains one or more seeds such as the peach, cherry, and walnut.

Dry fruits are divided into those whose hard or papery shells split open to release the mature seed and those that do not split. Among those that do are the legumes and many flower pods such as the milkweed.  Dry fruits whose hard shells do not split include composite flowers, grains, and nuts. We seldom think of these as fruits at all but to the botanist, they meet the definition. Therefore, botanically, a nut is a dry fruit that contains one seed and has a thick, hard shell that does not open at maturity. 

Examples of true nuts are acorns, chestnuts, hickories and hazelnuts.  Almonds, cashews, macadamias, pecans, pistachios, peanuts, and surprisingly walnuts do not meet the botanical definition of nuts, but for all practical purposes are treated as such and much enjoyed.

The most important nut tree in our woodlands for the wildlife is undoubtedly the oak. "Across the United States, almost 100 animal species rely on acorns as a major food source," says Gary San Julian, professor of wildlife resources in Pennsylvania. Bears and deer, for instance, eat acorns to put on a layer of fat that sustains the bear through its hibernation and helps the deer make it through severe winter conditions. Other animals such as squirrels, chipmunks, turkeys, blue jays and forest mice store acorns in caches and burrows or by burying them. Several years ago, a study found that the white-footed mouse consumed more than 90 percent of the acorn crop at some of their research sites.
The acorns from the red and black oak are very bitter. They require two growing seasons to mature, have a hairy lining on the inside of the shell, and have yellow nutmeats. The acorns of the white oak are less bitter, and require only one growing season. The inner portion of the white oak acorn shell is smooth, and the nutmeat is white in color. The bitterness in acorns is caused by tannic acid which is water soluble and reportedly can be removed by boiling in many changes of water until no bitterness can be detected.

Years ago in our more energetic days, we attempted to prepare some, but never accomplished the promised pleasant nutty flavor to make the hours of preparation worth the effort. When processed properly, however, acorns are said to be an excellent source of energy, protein, carbohydrate, and calcium. (Native Americans would let the crushed acorn meat soak in a fast-moving stream for several weeks to remove the bitterness.)

Nuts and seeds of many kinds will replace all of the flowers around the fields and woods in the next month or two. Many are more of a nuisance than benefit for us, as the burs and stick-tights cling to our clothing and the dog, and others spread undesirables about the area. But most will eventually become food and sustenance for one creature or another and a few will sprout to continue to provide the bounty we enjoy.


August 6, 2018: Little Owls

Perhaps you have heard the strange voice of the Eastern screech owl and wondered what it might be.  This bird makes a wide variety of sounds: at times it sounds like a cat; other times it screeches; its most distinctive call is a descending whinny.  It is small--only around eight inches in length and weighs about 6 ounces, although its wingspan is close to 22 inches. Its yellow eyes and prominent ear tufts (that aren't ears at all but simply elongated feathers on the top of the head), have caused many people to mistakenly believe that it is actually a baby great horned owl.

Eastern screech owls are found in a wide variety of locations, from evergreen forests to urban areas as long as there are mature trees. By day, the owl will sit quietly among the branches, and if danger threatens, it hides by shutting its eyes down to mere slits and stretching its body and extending its ear tufts until it resembles a branch stub. If the threat persists, it will snap its bill to produce a loud popping sound.

The screech owl has both red and gray versions, and both may be present in the same brood. The rusty red form is more common in the southern states, however, while the gray one predominates in the North. It is interesting that when roosting in a tree, gray-phase birds tend to roost next to the trunk, while red-phase ones tend to stay in the outer foliage.

Screech owls most often nest in tree cavities, but will also use nest boxes or niches in abandoned buildings or barns. The female lays 3-5 eggs on any wood chips or sawdust on the floor while the male provides most of the food, even stockpiling if prey is plentiful.  Come autumn, the juveniles will disperse but the adults tend to remain near their nesting sites year-round. Breeding territories range from ten to fifteen acres in wooded suburban areas to seventy-five acres in more open rural territories, but there is much overlap between pairs.

The screech owl usually hunts by waiting on a low perch, and when prey is spotted, it dives quickly and seizes it in its talons. Small prey will usually be swallowed whole on the spot, while larger prey is carried off and then torn into pieces. It prefers small rodents and deer mice, but will also take rats, chipmunks, squirrels, shrews, bats, small reptiles and amphibians, and large flying insects.  Usually some 7% of its diet is comprised of birds, even larger species such as pigeons, and ruffed grouse. A screech owl has also been seen to plunge into shallow water after small fish and crayfish.  Two to four compact, dark gray oval pellets are expelled each day, composed of fur, feathers, bones, and teeth.

Both males and females give the "trill" song, which may be used in courting, when arriving at the nest with food, and to urge nestlings out of the nest for fledging.  Other calls are hoots, rasps, chuckle-rattles, and barks that generally indicate some degree of alarm or anxiety. Screech owls are also famous for the loud screech they sometimes make when attacked.

It is a strange fact that they have been observed to bring small live snakes and acrobat ants into their nests to feed on flies, and other insects that infest the nest cavity.  These are important guests because the owl pairs reuse their nests, not only for next year’s brood, but also as winter shelter, and unchecked parasites would be a major problem for them.

An even smaller owl is also relatively common in Wisconsin--the Northern saw-whet. It gives a high-pitched repeated sound that is often thought to sound like a saw being sharpened on a whetting stone -- a sharp, high, repeated “too-too-too”. The female of this tiny species does all of the incubation and brooding, while the male does the hunting. When the youngest nestling is about 18 days old, the female leaves the nest to roost elsewhere. The male continues bringing food, which the older nestlings may help feed to their younger siblings.

Owls are unique in a number of ways that fit them for their lives as nighttime predators. Most have extremely large eyes to operate in semi darkness so that, even though their heads are also unusually big, the eyes take up so much space in the skull that they must be fixed in place, forcing them to turn their heads to look to the side.  They have a distinctive facial disks that help to direct sound waves towards the ears.  They have excellent hearing and in many species, one of the ears is located higher than the other so that a sound reaches it at a slightly different time, allowing the bird to zero in on the source. They also have tiny fringe-like structures along the outer edge of each feather that allow them to fly in virtual silence to avoid alerting any prey.

Both the Eastern screech and Northern saw-whet owls are difficult to observe not only because of their size, but because almost all of their activities take place after dark and usually deep in the forests.  During the day they roost silently in dense foliage but are occasionally discovered by mixed-species flocks of songbirds which mob them in an effort to drive them away, and tracking down that commotion is one of the best ways to find these well-hidden birds.

Wisconsin hosts two other much larger owls--the great horned and the barred, but that’s another story...


August 2, 2018:  Silk Moths

For a number of weeks I have been tending my caterpillar farm, providing the livestock with fresh leaves almost daily as their appetites have increased along with their size.  The caterpillars that were only about inch long when they hatched, are now three to four inches in length and fat as sausages. At last, the end seems in sight for most of them, and a few in a hurry have stopped eating and begun to spin their cocoons.

The eggs came from a female that emerged from one of the almost a dozen cocoons I had stored over the winter in an unheated shed.  She mated with a male from another cocoon and produced about sixty tiny round eggs which I collected before releasing both of them into the woods as well as the others moths as they emerged.  I was soon to regret keeping so many potential eating machines, and even though I was able to share some with other willing tenders, I still have about thirty ravenous mouths.

Tradition tell us that a Chinese empress some 4500 years ago discovered how to unravel silk cocoons when one dropped into her cup of tea. (Why she had a moth cocoon on her teacart is not explained). It is said she recognized the superiority of this thread over that which was made from plant fibers and animal hair, and thus was born the silk industry.  Silk became a much sought-after material around the known world, and to meet the great demand, the emperor ordered his citizens to pay a portion of their taxes in silk cloth. 

The government also made it a capital offense to reveal the secret of silk production.  This deception continued for over 3000 years until reportedly (and this is only one of the many tales) two Christian monks from Constantinople discovered the secret and returned from China with silkworm eggs and mulberry tree seeds hidden in hollowed out canes.  From this point, silk production spread throughout Europe.  Today, silkworm culture is practiced throughout Russia, Turkey, France, Italy and Brazil with China being the largest producer.  As those countries become more affluent, more farmers are leaving agriculture in search of higher paying jobs, and silk is becoming more scarce and costly.

Before the silk can be unwound, the cocoon must be soaked in very hot water to dissolve some of the “glue” that makes the silk stick to itself. As the ends of the silk float free, they can be wound onto a reel. The silken strand from one cocoon is too fine to weave into cloth, so several cocoons are often unraveled at the same time. The glue that remains on the filaments sticks them together to make a thread the size of a human hair and the resulting strand of silk is stronger than a similar-sized steel wire. Generally, one cocoon produces between 1,000 and 2,000 feet of silk filament, and to make one yard of silk material requires about 3,000 cocoons. Scientists have been able to manufacture somewhat similar synthetic fibers but only at high temperatures or under extreme pressure and continue to work to discover how this can be accomplished by the caterpillars at ordinary temperatures and pressures.

The silk moth species has not lived in the wild for centuries and now exists only in large domesticated groups that are bred for size and silk quality and are carefully nurtured. There are, however, more than 500 other kinds of silk-producing caterpillars whose thread has proved impossible to unravel. The species I am now raising— the large cecropia with a 6-inch wingspan--as well as three others relatively common in our woods--the luna, polyphemus and the smaller promethea—are treasured for their beauty, not the silk they manufacture.

Silk is produced in the caterpillar’s salivary glands and consists of semi-liquid proteins that are secreted from two glands located under its jaws. The larva tosses its head from side to side, releasing the insoluble fiber in a figure-eight pattern and it is held together by a soluble gum that hardens as soon as it is exposed to air. The caterpillar spins at a rate of about 1 foot per minute while turning some 200,000 times in the three days it takes to completely encase its body. The single continuous strand of silk may reach almost a mile in length and forms a cocoon that becomes a tough protective container for the moth’s pupal stage.

Eastern tent caterpillars begin to manufacture silk soon after emerging from their eggs. They construct a communal silk tent in which to shelter, emerging three times each day to add silk and feed. The tents act as miniature glass houses, trapping the heat of the morning sun and allowing the caterpillars to warm themselves, and because of its tiered structure, the caterpillars can adjust their temperature by moving from layer to layer. Tent caterpillars secrete silk wherever they go, laying trails for others to follow to food sources as well as finally spinning cocoons.

Of course, caterpillars are not the only creatures that spin silk. Spider silk is also an unusual substance in that it is quite acidic and is not attacked by bacteria or fungi, which is why cobwebs hang around for so long.  Certain spiders can produce at least 7 or 8 different kinds of silks but a typical strand has a diameter of only about 0.0001 inch while that of a silkworm is ten times as thick. Still, spider silk is said to be tougher, more elastic and more waterproof, and work is ongoing to produce a synthetic version that would useful in a great variety of products.

My cocoons will spend the winter in the shed protected from mice and other creatures that would make a meal of the nutritious pupas inside, and come spring we should be treated to the sight of a number of gorgeous moths emerging that will join the native populations already present in our woodlands.


July 24, 2018 Nighttime creatures

We, in our arrogance, think we own our farm, but the wild creatures that far outnumber us regularly go about their business as if we don’t exist.  This is true especially now that our collie, Sunny, has aged and no longer patrols the premises, keeping the deer and other residents in check.  Birds, squirrels, butterflies and other diurnal insects set up housekeeping, find mates, raise their families, and die, not only ignoring us, but using our gardens and buildings for food and lodging. The night creatures are even more independent, and we are often unaware to their presence.

When the sun goes down, most birds disappear to their favorite roosts, busy squirrels curl up in a hollow tree or a nest of leaves, butterflies fold their wings and bees find cover. Bats and whip-poor-wills and nighthawks emerge to swoop and dive for what flying insects are about, and the animals of the night take over.   Untold numbers of mice scurry about, and there is a chorus of croaks, chirps and trills from amphibians and singing insects of untold numbers of species. Moths flutter above our phlox, beetles bump into the windows, lightning bugs flash their signals in the cornfield, and katydids spread their big green wings, while earthworms and other creatures crawl in the grass.

To operate in darkness, an animal must have special adaptations. Many have highly perceptive senses of smell and hearing but probably the most notable characteristics are the size and shape of the eyes. Light rays are projected onto the retina, the back surface of the eye, where they activate photoreceptor cells that convert the image into information in the brain. To gather sufficient light for these cells to respond, most nocturnal animals develop very large eyes; for example, an owl's eyes fill over half its skull. Some have evolved tubular eyes that fit so tightly into their sockets that to look around they must move their whole heads. Others have acquired spherical lenses and widened corneas that increase the animal’s field of view.

Another stratagem used by some animals to improve night vision is the tapetum, a reflective membrane only 15 cells thick situated directly beneath the retina that bounces light back for another opportunity to stimulate the photoreceptors. We see this reflective surface in the eyes of deer and other animals when our headlight beams illumine them.

Humans have two types of photoreceptor cells—cones and rods. Cones let us see color and more details than rods do, but they require stronger light than is usually present at night. Rods, on the other hand, are remarkably sensitive and can respond under very dim conditions. Nocturnal animals have retinas that are packed with rods and some have evolved specialized pupils to shut out overly bright light that might damage them. Many possess pupils that are vertical slits that allow only a narrow band of light, and when the animal squints, its lids close across the slit, further reducing the amount of light entering the eye.
While we sometimes catch glimpses of a fox, coyote, or raccoon during the daylight hours, the various skunk species are almost exclusively night animals.

Only the striped skunk is common in Wisconsin, and it is active throughout the year, although it spends the coldest parts of the winter in its solitary den.
It eats large insects and larvae as well as small mammals, and will also eat bird eggs and sometimes turtle eggs if it can find them. Plants, especially fruit in the summer are also favorites, and we see evidences of its visits to our garden as it makes numerous shallow holes with its sharp claws and nose in the mulch searching for hiding creepy crawlers.

A few nights ago I was awakened by a strong odor.  Already primed to think “gas” after the horrendous explosion in Sun Prairie and knowing that our propane is provided with a rotten egg or “skunky” odor so that any leaks become very apparent, I made the rounds of the house, yard and barn, and awoke my long-suffering husband with my fears.  As no source could be found and the smell faded, we finally concluded all was safe and it was most likely a skunk that had just left a calling card during a visit. 

Skunks are slow and placid in their movements, but they can afford to be relaxed as each has special anal glands that hold about a tablespoon of a fetid, oily, yellowish musk. This is sufficient for five or six jets of spray although usually only one is needed. When threatened, the skunk will face the intruder, elevate its tail, chatter its teeth, and stomp the ground with the front feet. If this doesn’t work, the skunk will twist around, raise its tail straight up, and spray with remarkable accuracy. The stream can travel 10 to 15 feet and in addition to the terrible smell, it causes intense pain to the eyes of any attacker and even loss of vision as well as nausea and vomiting.

Only the great horned and barred owls (or an inexperienced young coyote or dog) will attack a skunk but they always lose in encounters with vehicles. Incidentally, healthy skunks cannot “carry” rabies and only sick, rabid animals can transmit the disease, and then only through bites as the virus is in the saliva.  Skunks find mates in late winter or early spring, and a female can store the male’s sperm and delay pregnancy for some weeks so that cubs are usually born in May or June. Litters range from 3 to as many as 10, and very occasionally one can catch a glimpse of a parade of young obediently following their mother during the early evening hours as she forages.

Last weekend was the second bat count and we sat out near the barn, watching the little animals emerge for their nightly forage.  It is always a surprise to find how many spend the summer with us and this year we were even more amazed to find that there were at least three hundred of these strange creatures.  On these lovely summer evenings as the dusk settles upon the landscape, it is a marvelous opportunity to take time to sit quietly and watch and listen.


July 17, 2018:  Queen Anne's Lace and other carrots

It is called Queen Anne's lace in America, but this invasive flowering plant whose other common names include wild carrot, bird's nest, and bishop's lace, is native to regions of Europe and southwest Asia.  Belonging to the carrot family, Queen Anne’s lace is a biennial, meaning that it requires two years to mature.  It grows up to two feet tall and is rough and hairy with a stiff stem, finely divided leaves and has flat white flower clusters.  As the seeds develop, the clusters curl up at the edges and create concave surfaces (the “bird’s nests”).

Queen Anne’s lace earned its common name from the tiny dark red floweret in the center of each blossom cluster.  Legend has it that Queen Anne of England in the 1600s pricked her finger, causing a drop of blood to land on white lace she was tatting.  Early Europeans grew the plant in their gardens, and the Romans ate it as a vegetable.  American colonists boiled the taproots, sometimes in wine as a treat. Interestingly, Queen Anne’s lace is high in sugar (second only to the beet among root vegetables) and was sometimes used to sweeten puddings and other foods.

Like the closely related domestic carrot, the root of the Queen Anne's lace is edible while young, but it quickly becomes woody and tough. The leaves are also edible for most people, and the flowers are sometimes battered and fried.  When freshly cut, the blossoms can be brightly colored by placing their stems in water containing dye, an effect also used with carnations by florists and in scientific demonstrations. 

Queen Anne’s lace was thought to be beneficial in its native lands and was used to draw pollinators to their crops. The tiny central flower contains anthocyanin, a dark red pigment, and is believed to be attractive to insects (particularly wasps). This process has not proved as successful in North America, but in northeast Wisconsin, when introduced with blueberries, it did seem to succeed in attracting butterflies and wasps.  It has also been documented to boost tomato plant production, and it can provide a cooler, moister atmosphere for lettuce.  Despite these results, the states of Iowa, Ohio, Michigan and Washington have listed the plant as a noxious weed and it is often considered a serious pest in pastures. Its seeds persist in the soil for two to five years.

Caution should be used around Queen Anne’s lace because it contains a chemical that makes some human skin hypersensitive to ultraviolet light. Photosensitive persons may suffer skin irritation and blistering and it is even said that they can create exact images of leaves on their skin by placing them on their skin and then exposing them to sunshine. The plant also bears a close resemblance to poison hemlock although that plant’s small white flowers grow in erect clumps rather than flat clusters. 

Far more of a problem is another similar looking invasive weed from Europe and Asia called wild parsnip that now grows prolifically in our roadside ditches, fields, along bike trails and in prairie areas.  There are family members grown for their edible roots, but whether the wild type came to America as a garden vegetable or on some immigrant's clothing, no one knows. Dried specimens at the University of Wisconsin-Madison herbarium date back to 1894 in southeast Wisconsin, and a specimen was collected on Madeline Island at the northern tip of the state in 1896.

This plant can stand up to five feet tall and resembles a large Queen Anne’s lace with yellow rather than white flowers.  Its large leaves are alternate, compound and have saw-toothed edges and each leaf has oblong leaflets with variable toothed edges and deep lobes. It can quickly take over an area and crowd out the native plants and is poisonous to both domestic animals and humans.

Most people are very sensitive to this flowering plant and soon develop a rash if their skin contacts the leaves or plant sap in the presence of sunlight.  Parsnip burns often appear as streaks and long spots, revealing where a juicy leaf or stem was dragged across the skin and then exposed to the sun.  Because of its surface resemblance to the effects of poison ivy, and because wild parsnip is often not correctly identified, it is nearly always diagnosed and treated as poison ivy.

In mild cases, affected skin reddens and feels sunburned. In more severe cases, the skin reddens first, then blisters, and for a while the area feels like it has been scalded.  Places where skin is most sensitive are most vulnerable and moisture from perspiration speeds the process.  Blisters appear a day or two after sun exposure and eventually rupture before the skin begins to heal.  One of wild parsnip's "signature" effects is a dark red or brownish discoloration of the skin in the area where the burn occurred and can persist in the skin for as long as two years.

Although not a native plant, wild parsnip has likely become "naturalized" in all of Wisconsin's 72 counties and is here to stay. According to observers around the state, its range has been expanding rapidly in recent decades causing people to come into more frequent contact with it.  It is also one of the chief targets for weed removal in prairie restorations as the ecological impact of this invader puts it high on the hit list of land managers. Weed whackers or string trimmers are particularly lethal as these machines can spray bits of pulverized leaf and stem over the exposed skin of their operators, resulting in speckled patterns of small blisters and redness.  Anyone who has contact with the poisonous plant is warned to shower immediately, wash thoroughly, and stay inside, out of the sunlight.  It seems that Mother Nature does have a wry sense of humor at times...


July 2, 2018: Bumblebees

A widely believed falsehood holds that scientists have proved that bees are incapable of flight.  The origin of this claim seems to be a 1934 book by a French entomologist who had applied the equations of air resistance to insects and determined their flight was impossible.  (He did admit however, "One shouldn't be surprised that the results of the calculations don't square with reality").

Bees range in size from tiny stingless bee species whose workers can be less than a 0.1 inch long to a leafcutter bee that can attain a length of 1.5 inches.  The most common bees in the Northern Hemisphere are the sweat bees, but they are small and often mistaken for wasps or flies.  Bees are adapted for feeding on nectar and pollen, the former primarily as an energy source and the latter primarily for protein and other nutrients.

Probably the European honey bees are the best-known because of their role in producing honey and beeswax. Their colonies can house thousands of members, with a single fertile queen, non-reproductive female workers, and a small proportion of fertile males.  Depictions of humans collecting honey from wild bees date to 15,000 years ago and efforts to domesticate them are shown in Egyptian art around 4,500 years ago; however, bees provide a more important little-recognized service, as it is estimated that one third of the human food supply depends on pollination by insects, birds and bats, most of which is accomplished by wild and domesticated bees.

Bumblebees have been in the news recently as concern is being raised about their falling numbers.  (There are 250 species of bumblebee worldwide although only 50 are native to parts of the US and Canada.)  Compared to honeybees, they are larger and stouter-bodied, have broad bands of color and usually have part of the body covered in black fur. 

Most bumblebees are social insects that start new colonies each year with a single fertilized queen.  She survives the winter in hibernation and upon emerging in the spring, hunts for an abandoned underground nest site.  She collects pollen on a fringe of hairs that surround a bare area on her hind leg, forms it into a mat, lays a number of eggs there, and covers them with wax. They hatch in four or five days, eat the pollen, form pupae and emerge as sterile female workers.  Like the honeybees, bumblebees feed on nectar, using their long hairy tongues to lap up the liquid, and folding the proboscis under the head during flight.  Bumblebees also gather nectar to add to the stores in the nest, and collect pollen to feed their young.

Bumblebee colonies are smaller than those of honey bees, sometimes having as few as 50 individuals in a nest.  The queen and the young workers have special glands in their abdomens that secrete wax resembling flakes of dandruff.  They scrape it off with their legs, work it until it can be molded and use it to cover the eggs, to line empty cocoons for use as storage containers and sometimes to cover the exterior of the nest. The workers nurture the succeeding broods through the summer until fall, when the queen will lay the eggs that will hatch a new generation of fertile males and females.  The old queen, drones and workers die as the weather turns colder but the young newly bred queens feed intensively to build up stores of fat for the winter. They survive in a resting state, generally below ground, until the weather warms up in the spring and the cycle begins again.

Currently, particular attention is being paid to the rusty patched bumble bee, a species native to North America that can withstand cold temperatures that most species of bumblebees cannot.  Its historical range has been throughout the east and upper Midwest, and its numbers have declined in 87% of its historical habitat range.  Queens are about an inch in length while workers that are typically about half an inch.  Both queens and workers have black hair that covers their heads, much of their legs, and the bottom of their abdomens as well as yellow hair on the majority of their abdomens. On January 10, 2017, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service placed it on the list of endangered species.

The rusty patched requires three different types of habitats (farmland, marshes, and wooded areas for foraging, nesting, and hibernating) which are geographically close to one another, making this species particularly vulnerable to extinction.  Surveys as of 2008 have located populations only in Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, and southern Ontario--none in Wisconsin.  Members actively forage between April and October, thus requiring flowers that bloom for a long period of time, and the large decline in recent years is thought to be due to increased land development and agricultural use.  Little is known about the queens’ hibernating habitats but they are thought to survive underground or burrow into rotting logs during the winter.

Bumblebees are important pollinators of both crops and wildflowers and are being increasingly cultured for this purpose in agriculture and in greenhouses.  Bumblebee nests are produced in at least 30 factories around the world with over a million nests grown annually in Europe.  Bumblebee decline caused by habitat loss, pesticides, and agriculture techniques is a cause for concern in Europe, North America, and Asia.  We make sure our garden with its delicious raspberries and blueberries are welcoming and safe for all the bees.

July 25, 2018

The past few weeks my attention has been focused on beautiful silk moths, as they emerged from their cocoons, laid eggs and then were released.  Now that they have flown, it is the butterflies that catch my eye.  Biologists place both types of insects in the same insect order but they have many interesting differences.

Most moths are fly at night while most butterflies are active during the day; most moths have stout furry-looking bodies, while butterflies have slender and smoother abdomens; moths are usually plain brown, grey, white or black (with the exception of the silk moths) and often have patterns of zigzags or swirls which help camouflage them from predators as they rest during the day while most butterflies have brightly colored wings; moths usually rest with their wings spread out to their sides while butterflies usually fold their wings above their backs; moths usually have comb-like or feathery antennae while butterflies have thin slender filamentous antennae which are club shaped at the end; and most moth caterpillars spin a cocoon of silk within which they change into a pupa while most butterfly caterpillars form an exposed chrysalis. 

Dozens of butterflies are present around the barnyard these days.   Painted ladies, red admirals, red-spotted purples, and a number of other species flit about, many on and above the gravel driveway.  It is a common sight to have groups of these flying flowers congregating around puddles or damp spots, their tubular tongues probing for moisture, but this gravel seemed quite dry and I wondered what attracted them. Perhaps it was the warmth of the sun that brought them but there also might have been wetness beneath the stones. Butterflies seem to detect the same basic flavors as we do, sweet, sour, salty and bitter, but have different perceptions as to what they find desirable. Manure, urine, decaying plant wastes, and other damp debris will bring them by the dozen, presumably to obtain certain minerals and salts that their bodies require.

We usually assume butterflies are attracted to our gardens by seeing the bright colored flowers. It would seem, however, that what more likely brought them was the perfumed invitation that the flowers were sending out. Butterflies have very sophisticated senses of smell and taste as these are their main windows on the world, rather than the sight and sound that we and most other animals use. Many of the receptors are on their antennae, the two "feelers" that all insects have on their heads and which tell them an enormous amount about their surroundings.

Antennae are usually segmented tubes, moved by tiny inner muscles. These may be covered with minute hairs, knobs, bristles, or scales that are extremely sensitive to odors and chemicals, movements, physical contact, and even air humidity. The main functions are usually smell and taste, however, and butterflies often wave their antennae about as they "sniff" the air for telltale scents and odors.  Insects need two antennae to establish direction; tiny as they are, they can distinguish which is receiving the stronger scent and therefore can fly toward the source.

Insects use smell to communicate, orientate, navigate, detect humidity, find food and water, locate suitable egg-laying sites, and identify friends and foes. The olfactory receptors are porous pegs or cones covered by a very thin layer of cuticle, and containing sensory nerve cells. They can detect scent molecules in the most minute quantities and are usually concentrated on the antennae though there may be some on the mouthparts as well. Butterflies and moths can be drawn to mates over distances of a mile or two by the pheromones produced by one or the other.

Butterflies rely on taste as well as smell to determine whether liquids are suitable to drink. Taste receptors are similar in structure and function to the olfactory receptors as both detect the presence of various chemicals, airborne in smell, and by contact in taste. Taste receptors in insects are usually found on and around the mouthparts but butterflies have them on their antennae and on their feet as well. Thus, a butterfly is led to a food source by the smell, lands upon to it taste with its feet and then probes with its feeding tube for confirmation.

A monarch butterfly's sensors have been known to detect a sugar solution of only 0.0003 percent strength and are more than 2000 times more sensitive than those on the average human tongue. Observers have determined that the taste receptors in the feet trigger an increase in the butterfly's internal blood pressure that causes the tube-shaped tongue to uncoil automatically. I've noticed that many moths feed on the wing, a fact that makes me wonder if they lack the taste sensors on their feet that the butterflies possess.

In addition to the antennae, butterflies have bristles and hairs growing on their bodies and legs. Each one grows from a socket and has a ball joint at its base which can move freely in all directions.  The socket is supplied with a network of microscopic nerve fibers that detect and transmit any movement to the brain. Insects also are supplied with statocysts, fluid-filled chambers that are lined with tiny bristles and containing solid granules called a statoliths. As the insect moves about, the statolith tends to remain stationary in the chamber and the bristles on the wall detect its position, relaying information about the insect's orientation and balance.  Despite all the fascinating complexity of their bodies, the beauty of their wings, and their value as pollinators, butterflies are considered to be just another delicious if somewhat elusive meal for our swallows while the bats feast on the moths.


June 19, 2018:  Treefrogs

We built a tiny pond in our back yard many years ago that has proved very popular with the local wildlife.  Some unexpected but quite welcome visitors have been a succession of tree frogs, small amphibians native to much of the eastern United States and Canada.  As the name implies, these frogs are typically found in trees or other high-growing vegetation but they come down to mate and spawn in June.  Tree frogs are usually smaller and more slender than terrestrial frogs and have well-developed discs at the finger and toe tips that give them unusual grasping ability.

Most frogs create sound by closing their mouths and forcing air through the larynx in their throats where the sound is amplified by vocal sacs.  These sacs are membranes of skin under the throat or on the corner of the mouth, that inflate during the call. The main reason for calling is to allow a male frog to attract a mate, and females seem to prefer males that produce sounds of greater intensity and lower frequency.  Presumably these attributes show his fitness to produce superior offspring.

Frogs can hear both in the air and below water and their eardrums are membranes that are visible as a circular areas just behind the eye.  The size and distance apart of the eardrums is related to the frequency and wavelength at which each particular frog species calls.  The sound causes the membrane to vibrate and this is transmitted to the middle and inner ear where semicircular canals and the auditory hair cells are located.  Some frog calls are so loud that they can be heard up to a mile away.

Frogs have a rain call that they make as the humidity rises prior to a shower, and many species also have a territorial call that is used to drive away other males.  Both of these calls are emitted with the mouth of the frog closed.  A distress call, used by some frogs when they are in danger, is produced with the mouth open, resulting in a higher-pitched sound.  It is typically used when the frog has been grabbed by a predator and may be designed to distract or disorientate the attacker allowing the frog to escape.   (Is that where our slang phrase “ to croak” arose when this tactic didn’t work?)

Wisconsin is home to twelve species of frogs including the American toad, and all breed and deposit their eggs in water.  We are most aware of two of the tree frogs -- the gray and the spring peeper -- both because of their loud persistent calls.  The spring peeper has already finished its springtime shrill and repetitious "peeps".  It can be differentiated from other tree frogs by the irregular dark "X" marking on its light tan back and has a dark bar that runs between the eyes.  Spring peepers live primarily in moist forests and larger woodlots and breed in wetlands within and adjacent to these habitats, and their nighttime chorus can be deafening in May. The Wisconsin Frog and Toad Survey shows this species to be widespread and common even though their numbers are declining,.

Shortly after the spring peepers find their mates and are silent, the gray tree frogs take the stage.  Gray tree frogs prefer to breed in semipermanent woodland ponds without fish, but also lay eggs in swamps, spring pools, man-made fountains and water gardens, and even in rainwater filled swimming pool covers.  Their tadpoles have rounded gray bodies (as opposed to the more elongated bodies of stream species) with high, wide tails that sometimes are colored red.    As they grow the new froglets will almost always turn green for a day or two before changing to the more common gray.

The adult gray tree frog can change its color from green to grey to yellow, depending on the air temperature or the surface upon which it is resting, using using special chromatophore cells in their skin.  Each chromatophore is star-shaped and contains pigment units of a single color that can be spread out, or bunched near its centre. When the pigments are dispersed, the cell makes a darker patch on the animal's skin while when they are bunched in the center, most of the cell, and the animal's skin, appears light.  These changes are controlled by hormones and therefore are relatively slow while in some other creatures the change is controlled by the brain and occurs much more rapidly.  Gray tree  frogs also have bright-yellow patches on the underside of their hind legs that are only visible when the frog jumps.  

I am always conflicted in my enthusiasms for our wildlife, as some of my favorite creatures are programed to eat others that I also enjoy.  The tiny quarter-inch long caterpillars that have just hatched from the eggs of the cecropia moth that emerged a few weeks ago are a case in point, as I am sure any of our frogs would happily make of meal of them.  They are covered with small black hairs growing from small bumps all over yellow-green bodies, and as the larvae grow, the hairs will drop off and the skin will become bluish-green, with the knobs turning blue, yellow or orange.  In about six weeks or so, they will be four inches long and will spin large cocoons.

If any readers would like to adopt a few of these caterpillars, I would be happy to share.  All that is needed is a sealed container and a source of food -- these are eating Norway maple or crabapple, and I understand they will accept willow and some other trees as well.  As mine grow, I will place them outdoors on a leafy tree branch inside a big net bag (made from old curtains) to protect them from birds, wasps and other predators until they spin their cocoons. The cecropia moths have only one brood a year so the moths will not emerge from the cocoons until next spring, and I learned long ago that it is important to store these in an unheated safe spot so that they do not think spring has arrived in the middle of the winter.   Give me a call if you are interested...


June 12, 2018:  Whitetails

Our first encounter with a tiny fawn occurred one spring a number of years ago when we were amazed to find one lying under our porch next to our collie.  The wildlife rehabilitator we called came to get it and opined that it was infested with bot flies, internal parasites that grow within the gut and would probably kill it.  We found it fascinating that its mother must have brought it to us in desperation, and that our collie was watching over it.

We see at least two does in the woods across the field from our farm house these days, each with a single fawn.  The sight of the babies cavorting and gambling (fawns are masters of both) is always entertaining as they disappear into the undergrowth and then reappear into the open, under their mothers’s watchful eyes.  A doe can give birth to from one to three fawns, depending upon her age and health and perhaps her genetics. The mother licks the newborns clean and then leads them from the birthing area before she returns to eat the placenta. It is thought that she does this to remove any scent of the tissue and blood that might attract a predator. The placenta is also a source of quality nourishment for the doe who now has to produce rich deer milk.

The newborn fawns struggle to manage their long, stick like legs, often collapsing repeatedly, but finally stand upright and can even take a few steps.  They are expert at hiding, however, and if they sense any threat, they drop down to the ground or sometimes just collapse like a pile of sticks and will not move from even the most awkward position.  The fawns are helped by their having no body scent for their first few days.

Whitetail fawns start to practice their survival skills when they are only days old. They will use their flimsy looking legs to suddenly jump straight up in the air, sometimes twisting in the air and landing at an angle, then lowering their heads like they have horns and are challenging an opponent.  Soon they discover they can run, and will sprint close to the ground, suddenly change direction and run some more, even if each has no playmate with which to sharpen its life-saving skills.

Whitetails belong to the oldest deer species on the planet (first identified some 3 million years ago), and they are such successful survivors that they have not changed appreciably throughout this time.  They can be found in all sorts of environments, and can eat a huge variety of foods -- even fish, dead birds and insects when pressed.  They flourish on farm crops and even in back yards, but have been sometimes proved serious pests, not only to farmers and gardeners, but on the road causing accidents and numerous human deaths as well.  The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has estimated that there are more than 1.5 million deer-vehicle collisions each year in our country, resulting in 150 human deaths, tens of thousands of injuries and over $1 billion in vehicle damage.

Whitetails typically live in or at the edges of woods. and, if restricted to open plains, probably would not survive, as they did not develop the special teeth or stomachs that can grind up and digest the tough fibers in grasses.  What they do eat is a huge variety of low fiber foods, tender shoots and leaves from all sorts of trees, vines, plants and bushes, as well as fruits, vegetables, nuts (acorns are a real favorite), grains, mushrooms and mosses. 

Deer are ruminants, meaning that they bring their food back up to chew it again, and are completely dependent on microorganisms that break down the food.  They have stomachs with four sections; the rumen is where the food goes first after it has been chewed and swallowed, and then held to be brought back up and chewed again.  It can hold over two gallons, allowing the deer bolt down a large amount of food quickly.  Digestion takes place in the second and third sections, and finally the material is pelleted and routed for exit in the fourth.

Males regrow their antlers every year, beginning in late spring.  These are true bone that grows from an attachment point on the skull and are covered with a specialized skin called velvet which supplies the growing bone with oxygen and nutrients. Once the antler has achieved its full size, the velvet is lost and the antler's bone dies.  Bucks shed their antlers when all females have been bred, from late December to February.

Whitetail numbers were reduced to critically low numbers due to overhunting at one time, but through conservation efforts, they have been brought back to plentiful, and some even think excessive numbers. The whitetail populations tend to expand explosively because their historic predators, the large carnivores, are mostly gone, and because agriculture provides them with access to unprecedented amounts of high quality feed.  Now a major danger is the chronic wasting disease disease, and ongoing research is directed toward informed, effective management of their population size and health.  It is hoped that the whitetail's future will be secure and we will continue to see fawns in our woods and fields.


June 5, 2018  Wild Silk Moths

The notorious mosquito that has made its presence felt the past few weeks is only one of the estimated million species of insects scientists have identified as present on earth.  Of these, almost 400,000 species are beetles, and surprisingly, 250,000 are butterflies and moths.  The latter creatures have always held a special fascination for me and I have collected and cared for dozens of various kinds throughout my life, particularly the giant silk moths.

The names of Luna, Cecropia, Promethea and Polyphemus, all ancient Greek and Roman gods and goddesses, have been given to four of our relatively common wild silk moths.  These large insects are distantly related to the domestic silk moth from which raw silk has been obtained for several thousand years, but are seldom seen because they are creatures of the night.  The majority occur in wooded tropical or subtropical regions, but some forty of these reside this side of Mexico in North America.

Adult silk moths are characterized by large, lobed wings and heavy bodies covered in hair-like scales, and are sometimes brightly colored, often with translucent eyespots on their wings.  Males can generally be distinguished by their larger, feathery antennae while females have larger bodies swollen with eggs.  Some species produce only one generation a year emerging the following spring, whereas others produce spring and summer

My favorite is the Cecropia, North America's largest native silk moth with a wingspan of up to six inches.  Its heavy body is bright red with a white collar and white bands on the abdomen; the wings are brown with white hairlike scales giving a frosted appearance and are banded with red, white and beige; the forewings are red at the base; and crescent spots are red and white on all four wings. A few days ago, I had two female moths emerge from cocoons I had kept over the winter, and I placed them in an open cage up in the woods, hoping to attract a male.

To find a mate, the female moth gives off pheromones, chemical particles that a male's sensitive antennae can detect up to a mile away.  This morning I found that a wild male had appeared and joined his tail to the hers and they have remained connected all day.  When they separate, I will release the male back into the woods and put the female in a paper grocery bag for a day where she will lay some eggs.  When I have a couple dozen eggs of the hundred or so she will produce, I will release her and any other moths that emerge, hopefully increasing the wild numbers in our area.

When the tiny black baby caterpillars hatch they will be placed in a rearing cage and offered several types of tree leaves -- maple, birch, cherry and apple.  These larvae feed upon many common trees and shrubs, so it is no problem to find an acceptable food.   The black appearance comes from small black hairs growing from small projections called tubercles all over a yellow-green body, and as the caterpillars grow larger, the black hairs will disappear and their skin color will become green to bluish-green, with the tubercles becoming blue, yellow and orange. 

By autumn, each caterpillar will be four or five inches long and it will spin a silk cocoon around itself and then split its skin to reveal a brown pupa.  Inside this rigid casing, its body will be liquefied by digestive fluids with the exception of some very specialized cells that previously had lain dormant.  These will then become active and form the various parts of the adult insect such as wings, legs or antennae.  The caterpillar that chewed up leaves has undergone a seemingly miraculous transformation into a creature that can no longer eat anything but has wings, can fly, and reproduce.

The Luna, Polyphemus and Promethea moths have much the same lifestyles and feed on many of the same tree leaves. The Luna is a lime-green four-inch moth with long wing tails.  These are expandable decoys that seem to trick hungry bats by distracting and fooling them, allowing the moth to get away.  The Polyphemus is a tan-colored six-inch moth whose most notable features are its large, purplish eyespots on its two hind wings that give it its name. – from the Greek myth of the Cyclops Polyphemus.  The Promethea is much smaller with a wingspan of three to four inches.  Males are darkly pigmented, while females are more brightly colored, and both have beige borders on their wings.  Their caterpillars attach themselves directly to a tree branch with silk, curl a dead leaf around themselves, and hang with relative safety over the winter.

All of these caterpillars make tasty meals for bats and birds proving the need for large numbers of offspring.  Also, some species of wasps and flies lay their eggs in or on the young caterpillars which then hatch and consume the internal organs and muscles of the caterpillars, eventually killing them.  Woodpeckers and squirrels also eat the pupae of these silk moths, which can decrease the populations significantly.  Still the fact that my female so quickly attracted a mate is proof that these beautiful creatures populate our woods, so keep an eye out.


May 27, 2018: Mosquitoes

Groups of creatures have acquired interesting names through the years -- a school of fish, a pride of lions, a mischief of mice, a murder of crows, a congress of apes.  How about a “misery” of mosquitoes, as that name is certainly apt this week!  Add in the irritating buzzing caused by their rapidly beating wings during an attack and you have a miserable situation.

Despite its size, more deaths are associated with the mosquito than any other creature on earth.  The various species are estimated to transmit many types of disease to more than 700 million people annually in Africa, South America, Central America, Mexico, Russia, and much of Asia, with millions of resultant deaths.  Mosquitoes may carry malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever, and encephalitis; they also carry heart worm which can be lethal to your dog. 

Mosquitoes have been around for over 30 million years and use chemical, visual and heat sensors to locate their prey. Their chemical sensors can detect carbon dioxide and lactic acid from a source up to 100 feet away; certain chemicals in sweat can alert their sensors; they can see you moving if you are wearing clothing that contrasts the background; and they use their heat sensors to detect warm-blooded mammals and birds in their vicinity, often us humans.

There are approximately 2,700 species of mosquitoes with the majority belonging to 3 major groups: those who lay their eggs in floodwater areas (Aedes), those who lay their eggs in permanent fresh water (malaria Anopheles) and those who lay their eggs in quiet, standing water (Culex).  The mosquitoes flying around your head may all look alike but all three groups and many species may be present.

A recent study collected and identified twenty thousand female mosquitoes in five urban neighborhoods in Baltimore.  Most of these were Asian tiger mosquitoes, an Aedes type, but samples also included 24% Culex and 3% other Aedes mosquitoes.  The researchers were able to determine the mosquitoes’ latest meals from DNA in their stomachs and found most of tiger mosquitoes had bitten rats.  Birds were the most common victims of Culex, while Aedes appeared to avoid birds altogether.  Humans and cats each made up fourteen percent of Aedes blood meals, while deer and dogs were bitten less frequently by all mosquito species.  The study also showed that different neighborhoods had different populations of mosquito species, dependent on the availability of water containers for breeding, and how people chose to spend time outside.

Most mosquitoes lay their eggs singly or as a floating raft on the surface of the water, except for Aedes, which deposit in protected areas that will later flood.  Eggs of some species of mosquitoes tolerate freezing temperatures, and adults of some species can survive the winter by taking shelter in buildings or hollow trees.

The mosquito eggs hatch into larvae or "wigglers," which live at the surface of the water and breathe through air tubes.  They filter organic material through their mouth parts for food and can swim and dive down from the surface when disturbed.  The larvae may live up to several weeks depending on the water temperature and species, and after several molts, the they transform into pupae, which float at the surface and also breathe through two small tubes.  Although these do not eat, they are quite active and in a few days the pupal case breaks open and an adult mosquito crawls out onto a plant stem or other projection and rests while its exoskeleton hardens and wings dry.

Adult mosquitoes immediately seek out mates and then look for something to eat.  The males feed only on plant nectar, but the female mosquitoes need two foods -- nectar for energy and blood as a source of certain proteins for egg development.  Females possess a digestive system which can store both food types, as well as a sharp proboscis to puncture the host and withdraw blood. Prior to and during blood feeding, she injects saliva which contains an anticoagulant that also starts an immune response and causes swelling and itching which remains until the saliva proteins break down. Mosquitoes tend to prefer humans with type O blood, heavy breathers, those with a lot of skin bacteria, people with a lot of body heat, and the pregnant.  An individual’s attractiveness to mosquitoes also seems to have a genetically-controlled component.

Many measures have been used in mosquito control but reaching the goal of complete eradication of mosquitoes is likely to have undesirable consequences.  Entomologist Phil Lounibos of Florida Medical Entomological Laboratory points out that adult mosquitoes are a significant food source for birds and bats, and their wigglers, for fish and frogs -- important parts of the food chain affecting many species.  At this point the best that can be safely done is for individuals to use netting, a repellant that contains NN-diethyl-meta-toluamide (DEET) and eliminating any sources of standing water to prevent mosquitoes from breeding nearby. 


May 22, 2018:  Big Cats

A cougar in Wisconsin?  The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in 2008 confirmed that this big cat was roaming the state for the first time in a century, and has verified at least one cougar sighting every year since, and across 17 counties!  This has led some to believe there might be a breeding pair in Wisconsin, but most wildlife biologists think many of the sightings are multiples of the same cat.  Still, six separate cougars have been identified through DNA samples from hair, blood, urine, or feces samples as males from South Dakota’s Black Hills, probably juveniles passing through on futile searches to establish breeding territories.

The cougar holds the Guinness record for the animal with the greatest number of names, with over forty in English alone.  "Puma" is the common name in Spanish-speaking countries, borrowed from the Peruvian Quechua language in the 16th century where it meant "powerful".  The first English record of "puma" was in 1777,  but the cat has many local or regional names in the United States and Canada, of which cougar, mountain lion, and panther are popular, as well as catamount (probably a contraction from "cat of the mountain"), mountain screamer, and painter.

It is the the biggest cat in North America (the fourth-largest cat species worldwide), and the second-heaviest in the New World after the jaguar.  Adults stand up to three feet tall at the shoulder and up to nine feet long of which three feet is tail.  Secretive and largely solitary by nature, the cougar is mostly active during twilight and nighttime hours, although daytime sightings do occur.  Although large, the cougar is more closely related to smaller felines than to other big cats and the family is believed to have originated in Asia about 11 million years ago.

Primary food sources are deer and livestock but it also eats insects and rodents.  It prefers habitats with dense underbrush and rocky areas for stalking, but can also live in open areas.   It is reclusive and mostly avoids people and fatal attacks on humans are rare, but have recently been increasing in North America as more people enter their territories. The male cougar ranges over a territory of up to 300 square miles depending on terrain, vegetation, and abundance of prey, while female ranges are half that size.

Compared to other big cats, cougars are usually silent.  They cannot roar, but communicate with low-pitched hisses, growls and purrs, as well as chirps and whistles, many of which are comparable to those of domestic cats. They are also well known for their screams, however, as referenced in some of their common names, although these sounds are often thought to be the calls of other animals or humans.

It was initially called a mountain lion because of its tawny coat like that of a lion, but it can be silvery-grey or reddish, with lighter patches on the underbody.  The cougar's top running speed ranges between 40 and 50 mph but is best adapted for short, powerful sprints rather than long chases.  Its large paws and outsized hind legs give it great leaping and short-sprint ability and it is adept at climbing. 

Though capable of sprinting, the cougar is typically an ambush predator.   It stalks through brush and trees, across ledges, or other covered spots, before delivering a powerful leap onto the back of its prey and a suffocating neck bite. The cougar is capable of breaking the neck of smaller prey with a strong bite and momentum bearing the animal to the ground.  The cat then drags its prey to a secluded spot, covers it with brush, and returns to feed over a period of days. The cougar rarely consumes prey it has not killed.

Females average one litter every two to three years throughout their reproductive lives.  There are typically two cubs and as they grow, they begin to go out on forays with their mother, first visiting kill sites, and finally beginning to hunt small prey on their own.   Young adults leave their mother to attempt to establish their own territory at around two years of age and life expectancy in the wild probably averages eight to 10 years
The cougar's total breeding population is estimated at less than 50,000 by the IUCN, an international organization working in the field of nature conservation and sustainable use of natural resources.  Although Oregon and California are actively attempting to protect the cat, regulated cougar hunting is permitted in every U.S. state from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.

Cougars are a protected species in Wisconsin and any individual animals encountered are not considered a threat to public safety. In the unlikely event that one is sighted, it is suggested that to face the animal, wave the arms to appear larger and make as much noise as possible.   As a reminder, suspected cougar sightings can be reported by searching the DNR website, <> for large mammal observation form.  


May 15, 2018: Bull Snakes and Others

We had unexpected visitors this past week.  A couple of love-sick bull snakes were pitching woo (you know what I mean if you are old enough to remember Merle Haggard’s old song “Okie From Muskogee) right on our doorstep.  He was curled around her with her head clamped in his jaws and they were quite wrapped up in each other until another male appeared from under the porch and broke up the party.

Bull snakes are large non-venomous reptiles that can be found from Canada south to Texas, and throughout the central United States west to Colorado and east to Illinois. They are usually yellow, with brown, white, and black blotching on top, three sets of spots on the sides, and bands of black on the tail.  Adults can stretch up to six feet in length, and mature specimens can weigh up to three pounds.  This makes the bull snake among the largest snakes native to Canada and the United States, although it is generally not as long as the Southeastern indigo snake nor as heavy or as large in diameter as some of the rattlesnakes. 

The bull snake is a constrictor; it kills by squeezing prey in its coils until the victim can no longer breathe and then swallowing it whole, head first. The snake's top and bottom jaws are attached to each other with stretchy ligaments, allowing it to swallow animals that are wider than itself.  Snakes don't chew their food but digest it with very strong acids in the stomach, and will prey upon mice, rabbits, gophers, ground squirrels, ground-nesting birds, and bird eggs.  After eating, a snake becomes dormant while the process of digestion takes place.  If disturbed, one will sometimes regurgitate its prey to be able to escape any perceived threat, but the digestive process is highly efficient otherwise, with powerful enzymes dissolving and absorbing everything but hair, feathers and claws, which are excreted along with waste.

Snakes are thought to have evolved from lizards, and fossils readily identifiable as snakes (though often retaining hind limbs) first appear in the fossil record dated at about a hundred million years old.  They are cold-blooded, meaning they take on the temperature of their environment, mostly lay eggs and are covered in overlapping scales. 

Snakes use smell to track their prey, using their forked tongues to collect airborne particles, then passing them to a specialized organ in the mouth for examination.  They keep their tongues constantly in motion, sampling particles from the air, ground, and water, analyzing the chemicals found, and determining the presence of prey or predators near by.  The underside of their heads are also very sensitive to vibration, allowing snakes to sense approaching animals by detecting faint vibrations in the ground.  Pit vipers, pythons, and some boas have infrared-sensitive receptors in deep grooves on the snout, which allow them to "see" the radiated heat of warm-blooded prey. 

Snake vision varies greatly, from very keen to only being able to distinguish light from dark, but its main use is to track prey movements.  Many nocturnal snakes have slit pupils while diurnal snakes have round pupils, and most snakes focus by moving the lens back and forth in relation to the retina.

The skin of a snake is covered in scales and has a smooth, dry texture. Most snakes use specialized belly scales to travel, and have transparent eye scales.  Molting occurs once or twice a year when the inner surface of the old skin liquefies and separates from the new skin beneath it.  It breaks near the mouth and the snake wriggles out, aided by rubbing against rough surfaces, revealing  a new, larger, brighter layer of skin underneath.  Young snakes, still growing, may shed up to four times a year. 

There are two venomous snakes in Wisconsin -- the timber rattler and the massasauga (a now rare northeastern US pit viper).  These and closely related species use injected venom that is modified saliva delivered through fangs to immobilize or kill.   Such venoms are often prey specific—their role in self-defense is secondary.  It has recently been suggested that all snakes may be venomous to a certain degree, with harmless snakes having weak venom and no fangs. 

Although a wide range of reproductive modes are used by snakes, all employ internal fertilization.  This is accomplished by means of the male’s paired, forked organs which are stored, inverted, in its tail and inserted into the female's generative cavity.  Most snakes lay eggs, although some retain the eggs within their bodies until they are almost ready to hatch.  Bull snakes breed in March or April and lay a dozen eggs or so in sand or other protected areas leaving the eggs to incubate unprotected.  The eggs are elliptical, leathery, rough, sticky, and up to 2 3⁄4 in long, and typically hatch in August or September.

According to new research, captive snakes all around the planet are contracting a deadly fungus that forms fast-spreading lesions all across their bodies, eventually killing them.  It is reported that the fungal infection has been identified among 23 snake species in the United States, and might lead to some species becoming extinct.  So far the disease seems to be restricted to captive snakes but some scientists are worried that the release of captive bred or rehabilitated snakes might unwittingly unleash this devastating problem into the wild.  This would be tragic to our environment as snakes are vital in our ongoing battle with all types of rodents and are very important members of our natural world.


May 8, 2018: Hummingbirds

The hummingbirds are back!  They are amazing creatures: most species measure only 3–5 inches in length; they have the highest metabolism of any animal that maintains a stable internal body temperature; their heart rates can reach 1,260 beats per minute with a breathing rate of 250 breaths per minute, even at rest; if one survives its first year, it may well live five years or more; the birds can even hover in mid-air with rapid wing-flaps, which vary from 12 beats per second in the larger species, to more than 80 in the smallest. The name was given them because of the humming sound created by these beating wings. 

Many male hummingbirds have brilliant plumage, resulting both from pigmentation in the feathers and from prism-like cells within the top layers of feathers.  When sunlight hits these cells, they act as diffraction gratings producing iridescence, and by merely shifting position, feather regions of a dull-looking bird can instantly become fiery red or vivid green.

The hummingbird evolutionary tree shows ancestral hummingbirds splitting from swifts about 42 million years ago, perhaps in Eurasia.  Hummingbirds' wing bones are hollow and fragile, making fossilization difficult and leaving their history poorly documented; however, in 2013, a 50-million-year-old fossil bird unearthed in Wyoming was determined to be a predecessor to both hummingbirds and swifts before the groups diverged. By 22 million years ago the ancestral species of current hummingbirds became established in South America, where environmental conditions were congenial.  Between 325 and 340 species of hummingbirds have now been identified, divided into two subfamilies, the hermits and the typical hummingbirds, which have the second-greatest number of species of any bird family (after the tyrant flycatchers).

Hummingbirds are now found only in the Americas from south central Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, with the majority of species occurring in tropical and subtropical Central and South America.  Columbia alone has more than 160 and Ecuador has about 130 species, while fewer than 25 different species of hummingbirds have been recorded in the United States and fewer than 10 in Canada.  The ruby-throated hummingbird is the only species in eastern United States, and it migrates to Mexico, South America, southern Texas, or Florida for the winter, many of the birds crossing 500 miles of the Gulf of Mexico on a nonstop flight.  This hummingbird, like other birds preparing to migrate, stores fat as a fuel reserve in the autumn, almost doubling its weight.

To supply energy needs, hummingbirds drink nectar, a sweet liquid inside certain flowers that is a mixture of glucose, fructose, and sucrose.  White granulated sugar with a ratio of 1 part sugar to 4 parts water, is the best sweetener to use if you want to attract them to your yard.  Organic and "raw" sugars contain iron which can be harmful, and brown sugar, agave syrup, molasses and artificial sweeteners also should not be used.  Honey is not good to use in feeders because when it is diluted with water, microorganisms easily grow in it, causing it to spoil rapidly.  I also read that commercial products and red food dye are not necessary and give no benefits.

High-speed photography has revealed that hummingbird tongues have tubes that open down their sides as the tongue goes into the nectar, and then close around the nectar, trapping it so it can be pulled back into the beak.  The tongue, which is forked, is compressed until it reaches nectar, then the tongue springs open, the rapid action traps the nectar and the nectar moves up the grooves, like a pump action.  Nectar is a poor source of other vital components, however, requiring hummingbirds to meet their nutritional needs by consuming many insects as well.

The metabolism of hummingbirds can slow at night or at any time when food is not readily available; the birds enter a hibernation-like, deep-sleep state (known as torpor) to prevent energy reserves from falling to a critical level. During night-time torpor, body temperature can fall from 40 to 18 C, with heart rate to roughly 50 to 180 beats per minute from its daytime rate of higher than 1000.  On an average night, a bird loses about 10% of its weight.

Most species build a cup-shaped nest on the branch of a tree or shrub. The nest varies in size relative to the particular species—from smaller than half a walnut shell to several centimeters in diameter.   Many species use spider silk and lichen to bind the nest material together and secure the structure. The unique properties of the silk allow the nest to expand as the young hummingbirds grow. Two white eggs are laid, which despite being the smallest of all bird eggs, are quite large relative to the mother's size.  Incubation lasts 14 to 23 days, depending on the species and ambient temperature.  The mother feeds her nestlings on small insects and nectar by inserting her bill into the open mouth of a nestling, and then regurgitating the food into its crop.

Aztecs and other groups have long revered hummingbirds as powerful beings and they wore hummingbird bodies or parts as talismans to enhance sexual potency, energy, vigor, and skill.  According to a recent National Geographic Magazine, the practice is still rampant.  On YouTube and elsewhere, one can find directions for creating your own: “Catch a hummingbird. Kill it. Wrap it in underwear, cover it with honey—and sell it to arouse passion”.  Hummingbirds are strictly protected in the United States but that has not stopped such traffic and the slaughter of unknown quantities of the tiny creatures.  We can only support such efforts and get the word out to fight this.

May 1, 2018:  Beetles

The English name “beetle” comes from the Old English word bitela, meaning little biter, and anyone who has been outdoors on a warmish day when the ladybugs are flying can understand the name. While it actually pinches rather than bites, one does get your attention if it lands on your bare skin. There are more than 400,000 species of beetles (with more described every year) and they include almost 40% of all described insects and 25% of all known animal life-forms.  So what makes a beetle a beetle? 

Most insects have two pairs of wings but beetles differ by having the first pair of wings hardened and thickened.  These substantial forewings serve as a protective shield for the fragile flying wings, which can be folded up beneath them; in fact, Aristotle gave this order the Latin name, Coleoptera, meaning “folded wing”.  These wings allow beetles to move about freely in the air when desired but also to squeeze into confined spaces on land. The retracting of the wings is operated by muscles attached to the wing base, and it is interesting to watch a ladybug ratchet up its long wings under cover as it walks away. 

Even the most disinterested person is probably aware that butterflies and moths go through a complicated life cycle -- egg to caterpillar to cocoon or pupa to adult -- but many do not realize that beetles have a similar story.   A female may lay from several dozen to several thousand eggs during her lifetime, depending on species and size. Most beetle larvae feed on plants, but some are predatory like the adults (ground beetles and ladybirds).

Most species of beetles do not provide any parental care after the eggs have been laid but some dung beetles collect feces to feed their young, and burying beetles lay their eggs on a small animal carcass to serve as food and later the parents help the larvae feed by regurgitating food for them.
Beetle larvae can be differentiated from those of other insects by their hardened, often darkened heads, the presence of chewing mouthparts, and spiracles along the sides of their bodies.  Many common beetle larvae live underground and have short thick curved white bodies and are commonly known as grubs.  When fully grown, the larvae split their skins a final time revealing pupae and eventually become sexually mature adult beetles.

The length of the pupal stage may vary from weeks to years, depending on the species, and like butterflies, their anatomical structure changes dramatically.  Some wood-boring beetles can have extremely long life-cycles and it is believed that when furniture or house timbers are infested by beetle larvae, the timber probably contained the larvae when it was first processed.  In one extreme instance, insects emerged from wooden items more than fifty years after they were manufactured.

Some facts about beetles that you may not know; they and other insects took to the empty skies sometime between 300 and 360 million years ago, long before birds, bats or pterosaurs. Wings allowed them to spread to new habitats and ecological niches, and insects quickly established themselves as one of the most diverse and successful animal classes, a position they still hold today.  The vast majority of living insects either have wings or evolved from flying ancestors, says Dr. Linz, an evolutionary biologist now at Indiana University.

Beetles are prominent in human history, from the sacred scarabs of ancient Egypt to beetle-wing art.  Diving beetles have been kept as exotic and interesting pets in fresh water aquaria, and in Japan, horned rhinoceros and stag beetles have proved particularly popular among young boys.  In response, vending machines for dispensing live beetles were developed in 1999, each holding up to 100 stag beetles.

Beetles have been used in the Far East as fighting insects for entertainment and gambling.  Also, many beetle groups are brightly and attractively colored making them objects of collection, decorative displays and as additions to jewelry. Over 300 species are used as food, mostly as larvae such as mealworms and rhinoceros beetle larvae.  However, the major impact of beetles on human life is found in agriculture, forestry, and horticulture.  Serious pests include the cotton boll weevil, the Colorado potato beetle, the coconut hispine beetle, and the mountain pine beetle.  Still, many beetles, such as the lady beetles and dung beetles are beneficial by helping to control insect pests.

Recently, new technologies are being inspired by structures and materials developed by these living organisms over geological time.  The bombardier beetle’s powerful repellent spray inspired the development of better mist spray technology, and the moisture harvesting behavior of a desert beetle has inspired a self-filling water bottle to benefit people living in dry regions.  Even more exotic are current experiments to implant electrodes into beetles, allowing their behavior to be remotely controlled via radio receivers on their backs. 

The scriptures tell us “Look to the ant, thou sluggard...” but perhaps the writer should have cited a beetle instead.  Who knows what will come next?


April 24, 2018:  Seeds

Many of us have treated our frustrations with this belated spring by starting vegetables and garden seeds indoors, planting them in elaborate set-ups designed for such activities or simply using empty milk bottles or other containers filled with soil or commercial mixes. 

A seed is made up of a fertilized cluster of cells (the embryo) enclosed in a coating, usually with some stored food. Some seeds can sprout immediately if soil temperatures and moisture conditions are satisfactory for cell growth and division, but it is to the advantage of most seeds to delay and this they accomplish by becoming dormant. Delayed germination allows time for the seeds to be carried or blown to new areas, and staggers their emergence, lessening wholesale damage from bad weather or from being eaten.

There are two types of dormancy—that caused by conditions outside the embryo and that caused by conditions within the embryo itself. The former occurs when seed coats are impermeable to water or the exchange of gases, when seed coats are too hard to allow the embryo to expand during germination, or when growth regulators are present in the coverings around the embryo that must be leached out of the tissues by rainwater or snow melt.  Internal dormancy occurs when chemical inhibitors are present that retard embryo growth, when the embryo needs a period of darkness or light to begin growth, or when embryos will germinate only when the soil temperature is warm or cool. Some plants even release their seeds before the tissues of the embryos have fully developed, and need further growth after they take in water over a period of time in the ground before they can germinate. 

In the Wisconsin wild, seed dormancy is usually overcome by the seed spending time in the ground through one or more winter periods and having its seed coat softened up by frost and weathering action. By doing so, the seed is undergoing a natural form of "cold stratification" or pretreatment. Gardeners sometimes replicate this process by placing seeds in a sealed plastic bag with moistened sphagnum moss (or sand or even a damp paper towel) and then refrigerating it for several months. The seeds can then be planted in the ground for germination.
When and how quickly seeds germinate often depends on conditions in a plant's original natural habitat. Many seeds will germinate at 60-75 degrees Fahrenheit, while others require temperatures just above freezing or with alternated warmth and cold. Light is seldom important, but some seeds, including many species found in woodlands, will not germinate until an opening in the canopy allows sufficient light for growth of the seedling.

Other factors vital to germination include water and oxygen. Mature seeds are often extremely dry and need to take in significant amounts of water before growth can begin. The uptake of water leads to the swelling and the breaking of the seed coat and also activates enzymes that break down the stored food into useful chemicals. Oxygen is required for all the chemical reactions that occur in a living organism to maintain life, and if a seed is buried too deeply or the soil is waterlogged, the seed can be oxygen starved. Some seeds have impermeable coverings that prevent oxygen from entering the seed, and germination can only take place when the seed coat is sufficiently worn away or deteriorated.

Seeds come in a wide range of shapes, sizes and colors. The dust-like orchid seeds are the smallest, with about one million seeds per gram. They are quite different from the other seeds with which we are familiar as they have immature embryos and no significant energy reserves. Orchids and a few other groups of plants depend on the help of a particular fungus for nutrition during germination and the early growth of the seedling.
Perennials and woody plants often have larger seeds; they can produce seeds over many years, and larger seeds have more energy reserves for germination and seedling growth and produce larger, more established seedlings. Many annual plants produce great quantities of smaller seeds; this helps to ensure at least a few will end in a favorable place for growth. Plants that produce smaller seeds can generate many more seeds per flower, while plants with larger seeds invest more resources into those seeds and normally produce fewer.

Plants have evolved many ways to spread their seeds.  Some are dispersed while still inside a fruit or cone, which later opens or disintegrates to release them. Other seeds have wings or hairs that catch the wind, while still others are supplied with barbs or hooks which attach to animal fur or feathers and then drop off the host later.  Some have soft, fleshy parts that contain nutrients and are very attractive to ants that carry them back to their nest to eat, discarding the inedible part which then can germinate.

We often tend to overlook the importance seeds play in our lives. Much of our food, as well as that fed to our livestock and birds, are or come from seeds, especially cereals, legumes and nuts. Seeds also provide most cooking oils, many beverages and spices. They also are needed to propagate other food crops, ornamentals, forest trees, turf grasses and pasture grasses.

So, what will happen to those seeds I have so carefully planted and labeled so that my iffy memory will not wonder what that row contains?  There is magic in a seed and I never plant one without feeling myself a partner in creation.


April 17, 2018: Turkeys

The turkey is most often associated with the Thanksgiving dinner in many minds, but anyone who has watched a “tom” strutting his stuff at this time of year knows that Spring is his finest hour.  He fluffs up his five- to six-thousand glossy bronze feathers doubling and even tripling his normal apparent size while the fleshy flaps of skin on his head and neck become engorged with fluids and blood and turn bright red, blue and white.  

The wild turkey is native to North America and is the largest in the order of heavy-bodied ground-feeding birds that also includes grouse, chickens, quail and pheasants. It is the same species as the turkey which was domesticated and transported to Spain centuries ago from Mexico and eventually to Great Britain.  Some sources say that the British believed that the bird was imported from the Middle East particularly Turkey, and so named it for that country; others say that the designation came from the sound the bird makes when scared -- "turk, turk, turk". 

The eastern wild turkey was the species Europeans first encountered when they reached the American shore, its range covering the entire half of the United States from Maine to Florida and extending as far west as Minnesota, Wisconsin, and into Missouri.  However, by the beginning of the 20th century the range and numbers of wild turkeys had greatly decreased due to hunting and loss of habitat. Game managers estimated that the entire population of wild turkeys was as low as 30,000 by the late 1930s, and could be found only in scattered pockets in the Appalachians and was almost totally killed off in Canada.

Belatedly, the national wildlife people began to protect and encourage the breeding of the surviving wild population, and by the 1960s the birds had spread back across much of the country.  As their numbers rebounded, hunting again became legal but was regulated so that the current estimate of seven million birds now seems stable. In recent years, "trap and transfer" projects have reintroduced wild turkeys to several provinces of Canada as well.

The adult male turkey has a long, dark, fan-shaped tail and glossy bronze wings.  As with many other species, the male is substantially larger than the female, and his feathers have areas of red, purple, green, copper, bronze, and gold iridescence.  He has a large, featherless, reddish head, red throat, and red wattles (the fleshy outgrowths on the throat and neck). These are thought to indicate high levels of testosterone and good quality genes, and females are definitely attracted to males with the largest and most colorful appendages.  Males also have a "beard", a tuft of coarse modified feathers growing from the center of the breast, and weigh an average of seventeen pounds, while the average weight of an adult female is less than ten pounds and is duller overall, in shades of brown and gray.

Courtship begins during the months of March and April, while the turkeys are still flocked together in winter areas.  Males may often be seen courting in groups, spreading their tail feathers, dragging their wings, drumming and spitting.  (Interestingly, in one DNA study, the average male that courted as part of a group of males fathered six more eggs than those that courted alone.)  One theory behind that team-courtship success is that each male will mate with as many hens as it can, so the larger the flock, the greater the chance of a less-dominant male being

When mating is completed, the female scratches a shallow dirt depression in the undergrowth and lays ten to fourteen eggs, one a day.  She incubates them for four weeks and when they hatch, leads the tiny poults away from the nest almost immediately. Wild turkeys forage on the ground for nuts, acorns, seeds, berries and insects and occasionally consume amphibians and small reptiles.  They prefer hardwood and mixed-hardwood forests with scattered openings such as pastures, fields, orchards and marshes and often roost in trees where they are safe from predators.    

Predators of the poults include almost every kind of mammal, reptile, and large birds while human hunters pose the greatest danger to the adults. Despite their weight, wild turkeys, unlike their domesticated counterparts, have strong wings and can fly for short distances at speeds up to 55 miles per hour. They can also reach speeds of 25 miles per hour running on the ground.  

Turkeys are the only breed of poultry (birds raised for food) native to the Western Hemisphere.  Our common domestic chicken is a subspecies of the red junglefowl, a member of the pheasant family that is native to Asia.  This bird was probably first domesticated for the purpose of cockfights not as food, but at present there are an estimated  25 billion chickens in the world, more than any other bird species.  Having a wild population of turkeys is a added bonus to our beautiful Wisconsin countryside.

April 10, 2018:  All About Shrews

It is a natural wonder that offspring of some creatures that flourished around the time of the dinosaurs are still here in our neighborhood.  The marsupial group including our funny little opossum is the best known, but there is another common mammal that is also such a survivor.  The tiny northern short-tailed shrew is the largest shrew (five inches long including its tail and weighing less than an ounce) in its genus and occurs all over our region of North America.  Its earliest fossil record was from the early Pleistocene Age in Kansas some two millions years ago. Interestingly, the Etruscan shrew of southern Europe and northern Africa is the smallest living terrestrial mammal at 1 1/2 inches long (imagine its babies). 

A shrew looks something like a fat, long-nosed mouse, but is not a rodent.  It is in fact a much closer relative of the hedgehog and mole, and is related to rodents only in that both belong to the huge class of mammals that includes humans, dogs, horses, cows, whales, etc.   Shrews have sharp, spike-like teeth, not the familiar gnawing front incisor teeth of rodents.

The northern short-tailed shrew is highly active, lives and feeds mostly underground and and is a voracious hunter of insects.  It has silvery, black or brownish velvet fur and its tail is quite short, accounting for less than 25% of its total length.  It has three well-developed scent glands, presumably for marking territories, though the shrew's sense of smell is thought to be poor.  Its eyes are also of little use and vision is thought to be limited to the detection of light, but the animal compensates by using echolocation (emitting calls and listening to the echoes that return from various objects) and having a delicate sense of touch.

It is notable that the shrew is one of the few venomous mammals and produces saliva that contains a protease, an enzyme capable of cutting peptide bonds in proteins.  The toxin is strong enough to produce a painful bite to any human who attempts to handle it, but mainly it is used to paralyze and subdue prey even larger than the shrew itself.  The venomous saliva is secreted from glands, through a duct which opens at the base of the lower teeth where the saliva flows along the groove formed by the two incisors, and into the prey.  It is interesting that the venom has been studied for use in treating ovarian cancer.

This little animal is probably the most common shrew in the Great Lakes region and populations usually range from two to twelve individuals per acre. It can be found in grasslands, old fields, fencerows, marshy areas, forests, and household gardens, though the preferred habitats are those which are moist with leaf litter or thick plant cover. The typical home range is about an acre in size and may overlap slightly with the ranges of other shrews.

The northern short-tailed shrew consumes up to three times its weight in food each day.  It prefers insects, earthworms, voles, snails, and even other shrews for the bulk of its diet but also eats small quantities of subterranean fungi and seeds. The shrew mostly forages within a few hours after sunset, though it is also active during cloudy days. High evaporative water loss requires it to have access to water, though it does obtain some moisture from its food, as well. The shrew often hoards food, especially in the fall and winter but during any time of prey abundance; one study found it caches 87% of the prey it catches, while 9% is eaten immediately and 4% is left where it was killed.

Its ability to consume almost anything it can catch allows the northern short-tailed shrew to survive most cold winters.  Food consumption is almost twice as high in winter than in summer, as the shrew must maintain its body temperature. Other winter adaptations include the creation of a lined nest underground or beneath a log, the caching of food in case of prey shortages, foraging below the leaf litter or snow where the temperature is milder, and decreasing activity levels during cold periods.

Typically solitary, the shrew wards off encounters with other members of its species (such meetings usually result in the death of one or the other) except when courting.  Mating occurs from March through September, with two broods of six or eight common.  The hairless and blind young are weaned in about three weeks, and may become sexually mature in less than three months and themselves reproduce in the same year they were born.

The northern short-tailed shrew has a high mortality rate, though it usually remains hidden under vegetation, soil, leaf litter, or snow.  A number of predators find it good eating, although some appear to be deterred by the musky odor produced by the shrew's scent glands.  Still, they are considered a species of least concern on the international warning list, as they are widespread, abundant, and their population is not declining.  And considering their sharp teeth, their insatiable appetite and their general attitude, it is fortunate for us that they are so small...


April 4, 2018:  Hepaticas, Virginia Bluebells and Skippers

One would think that a prairie flower basking in the warming sun would be the first to open its petals in the springtime but here in my wild garden, the first flower to appear was one of the delicate woodland blossoms--the hepatica. 

The flowers of sharp-lobed hepatica bloom earlier than most spring-blooming wildflowers of woodlands. The plant produces hairy leafless stalks that bear a single flower less than a inch across. There are usually six but up to twelve petal-like sepals, and numerous white stamens surrounding a green center.  Petal color ranges from violet to white, sometimes pinkish, and behind the flower are three large hairy bracts each less than a half inch long, with a blunt or pointed tip.

The name hepatica derives from the Greek word for a liver, because its three-lobed leaves were thought to resemble that human organ.  Old style herbalists classified herbs by their signature -- that is, the shape and color, and outward appearance of the plant was associated with various parts of the body and ailments it might be able to cure.  Thus, this plant was once thought to be an effective treatment for liver disorders and although poisonous in large doses, the leaves and flowers have been used to ease slow-healing injuries, and as a diuretic. 

Hepatica leaves appear after the flowers bloom and are up to 3 inches long and wide on slender hairy stalks up to 6 inches long. They are mostly mottled green through spring and summer, turn red or brown in fall and persist through the winter. They wither away when the plant starts blooming again the following spring.

Another native variety of this plant species is the round-lobed hepatica, which has a very similar appearance, except that the lobes of its basal leaves are well-rounded rather than pointed.  Sometimes these two varieties intergrade where their ranges overlap.  Small bees collect pollen from the flowers, while syrphid flies and other flies also feed on the pollen.

Close by the hepatica plant was another clump of sprouting purple leaves pushing up through the dried leaves.  Virginia bluebells are a hardy species that we added to our wild garden years ago and which has spread happily in its new home.  When blooming, this plant consists of a number of two-foot light green or purple stems topped with soft leaves and clusters of nodding flowers.

The blossoms have five petals fused into a tube, five stamens, and a central pistil that is long and slender. The flower buds are pink, bluish pink, or purple, while the corollas of mature flowers are light blue. Afterwards, the flowers are replaced by 4-lobed fruits, which contain dark brown nutlets.

The flowers are cross-pollinated by long-tongued insects feeding on the nectar -- butterflies, skippers, and Sphinx moths, some bees, and even ruby-throated hummingbirds have been observed to visit.  When this plant forms large colonies, it provides protective cover for many kinds of wildlife during the spring.  By mid-summer it is gone...

Crossing the driveway to the wild garden, my attention was drawn to a small flitting skipper.  These usually small moth-like insects are seldom noticeable except in early spring when little else is out and about.  Like all insects, the moth, butterfly and skipper have exoskeletons and jointed limbs, but unlike other insects, the three all have membranous wings covered with pigmented scales, which give their taxonomic order its name, "Lepidoptera," or "scaly wings."

The moth typically displays muted colors and patterns and flies at night, while the butterfly, adorned in flashy colors and patterns is abroad in the daylight hours. The skipper, with characteristics of both the moth and the butterfly, falls into an intermediate stage. Combined, the moths, butterflies and skippers comprise more than two hundred thousand species throughout the world and more than 10,000 in Canada, the United States and northern Mexico. Moth species outnumber the butterfly and skipper species combined by about ten to one.

Collectively, these three groups share many characteristics, especially in the egg, larval, and pupal stages.  What sets the skippers apart, however, are their antennae hooked backward like crochet hooks, while the typical butterflies have club-like tips to their antennae.  Skippers also have generally stockier bodies and larger compound eyes, with stronger wing muscles in the plump thorax, in this resembling many moths more than the butterflies do. Their wings are usually small in proportion to their bodies and when at rest, skippers usually keep their wings usually angled upwards or spread out.

This particular skipper flew away before I could get an identification but since I read that there are some seventy species in Wisconsin, I probably wouldn’t have had much luck putting a name to it.  Still, its appearance as well as those of the early wildflowers is certain proof that winter is over if not totally gone and we can look forward to Spring in all its glory.

March 27, 2018:  Red-winged Blackbirds

Red-winged blackbirds have had a long history in North America, and indigenous tribes had only good thoughts of the birds. It was believed that if one flitted across one’s path, it was a sign of good luck and a big change in that persons’s life.   Legend says that the red wing covers appeared because it bled after being injured by a human, and succeeding birds retained the red color. 

It was further believed that if one carved a red-winged blackbird totem, one would have a special spiritual awareness.  A totem was a sacred object that served as an emblem of the tribe or a spiritual ideal and could be small enough to carry around or carved from a large tree. Figures on a totem pole were not gods to be worshipped, however, but represented special traits and characteristics.

Modern people have a very different perception of the red-wing.  It is a very aggressive bird and often flies around in large flocks in fields and feed lots.  The majority of the adult diet is seeds, including those of grasses, weeds, and waste grain with berries and small fruits when available.  It also eats many insects, especially in summer, including beetles, caterpillars, grasshoppers, spiders, millipedes, and snails.  It feeds mostly while scratching on the ground, and outside the breeding season, usually forages in flocks, often with other blackbirds and starlings.  Red-wings communicate with several calls, as well as bodily displays.  Males usually use a song of “oak-a-lee” or “konkeree” while both sexes use sounds like “ti-ti-ti”.

In the nesting season between March and May, males with their red epaulettes displayed sing their nasal songs in almost every marsh and wet field as well as many farm fields and pastures from coast to coast. Meanwhile the females tend to slink through reeds and grasses collecting food or nest material. Both males and females are very aggressive and defend nests from intruders and predators.  Several will often attack a larger bird such as a hawk or crow that intrudes near their nesting area. Typically, up to fifteen females nest in any one male’s territory, mating with him and also any other nearby males.  Red-wing blackbirds are one of the polygynous of all bird species, with the males usually mating with two to four females, although they have been observed to have as many as fifteen!

The nest is placed in marsh growth such as cattails or bulrushes, in bushes or saplings close to water, or in dense grass in fields. The female builds it by winding stringy plant material around several upright stems and weaving it into a platform of coarse vegetation.  Around and over this she adds more leaves and decayed wood, sometimes plastering the inside with mud to make a cup and lining it with fine, dry grasses.  When finished the nest is about four to six inches across and three to seven inches deep.

She lays two to four eggs that are pale blue-green, with markings of black, brown, and purple concentrated at larger end.  In about two weeks the blind chicks hatch, naked with a scattering of grayish down.  They grow quickly, however, and leave the nest in just about fourteen days but must continue to be fed for another three weeks.  Scientists have told us that these birds live only an average of little more than two years, although one in captivity reached 15 years. 

It is no wonder that they are not welcomed in an area as loose flocks have been estimated to contain up to a million birds and in the past, the number of breeding pairs in Northern and Central America has exceeded 250 million.  Damage caused by blackbirds including red-wings eating crops and seeds totals millions of dollars each year in the United States and is increasingly a problem. The birds can also transmit diseases such as toxoplasmosis, encephalitis, and salmonella in urban areas. Insect pests and parasites may use the birds as host animals, and nesting materials may clog drains and gutters.

Red-wings, as well as most other species of blackbirds are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918; however, the law allows individuals to eliminate blackbirds that pose a threat to their crops or property.  USDA has been providing this service to farmers since the 1960s, in a controversial program called Bye Bye Blackbird, using an avicide called DCR-1339 to kill the birds.  In 2009 alone, according to a Christian Science Monitor article, USDA agents have euthanized more than 4 million red-winged blackbirds, starlings, cowbirds, and grackles. Still, the most acceptable and effective methods of blackbird control include frightening the birds with loud noises or playing bird distress calls over loudspeakers.

In the 1970s their count was still increasing but that has changed now. Though they may be one of the most abundant native birds on the continent, red-winged blackbird populations declined by over 30% throughout most of their range the last fifty years, according to the North American Breeding Bird survey, perhaps because of the poisonings.  Still, Partners in Flight now estimates a global breeding population of 130 million.  The majority of the population spends part of the year in the United States, fourteen percent in Canada, and sixteen percent in Mexico.

The red-wings may not be your favorite bird species but they are interesting and feed on insects during the nesting season. They may come to your yard for mixed grains and seeds, particularly during migration. If you want to feed, spread grain or seed on the ground since this is where red-wings prefer to feed.


March 20, 2018: Tufted Titmice

The woods that have been quiet and seemingly lifeless for the past few months are showing more signs of spring. The owls were the first to break the silence and you may have heard the barred owl calling at any time during the day or night. This week, I saw the first robin, heard the hoarse calls of the sandhill cranes, cardinals singing, and now the noisy titmice are adding their voices.

The tufted titmouse is a plump five-inch grey bird, with a lighter breast and rust flanks, prominent black eyes and a perky crest on its large head. It is a social bird and, especially in winter, joins with small mixed flocks of chickadees, nuthatches, and small woodpeckers. It flits about in the trees and shrubbery, searching upside down as often as right side up along branches and trunks for insects and other tidbits. Its song is a loud two-note phrase, repeated over and over up to a dozen times with the first note high and the second low. Listeners often describe it as sounding like “pe'-ter, pe'-ter, pe'-ter”, or sometimes a more melodic "tshew-tshew".

The tufted titmouse was once a southern species as was the cardinal, but its range has spread steadily northward throughout the eastern United States. In the first half of the 20th Century, it was found primarily along the Mississippi and Ohio River basins, but by the 1970s, it had expanded into New England, the upper Midwest, and Canada. It has been theorized that this has been possible because of the growing number of people feeding birds each year, a theory that seems to be substantiated in our experience, as the birds appeared after we began to feed. It is a known fact that bird territories depend upon far more on food availability than temperature. A very similar bird, the plain titmouse, frequents our son's retreat in the San Bernardino Mountains but it lacks the rust color on its flanks and black forehead.

I often wondered where the bird got its strange name but found that it came from the old English. Titmice have been quite common in Great Britain throughout history where early on “tit” was a word meaning “little” and “mase” meant any small bird. Then, about 500 years ago, the word titmase morphed into titmouse, presumably because the small, active bird reminded someone of a mouse, although that seems a bit far-fetched. The “tufted” description is quite understandable, however, as the crest on this species is very prominent.

The typical tufted titmouse lives its entire life within a mile or so from its birthplace, which is likely to be at a forest edge or in any grassland as long as there are a number of scattered trees and sufficient rainfall to allow for abundant insect life. A researcher found that two-thirds of its food is made up of animal matter, with caterpillars the largest portion and insects, spiders, and snails comprising most of the remainder. Tent caterpillars are particular favorites.

Fruit is also eaten in the summer and seeds in increasing amounts as winter approaches. It is interesting that their favorite food seems to be the acorn when available. One observer reported watching a titmouse knock an acorn from its twig and then fly down to the ground after it. The little bird could not open its bill wide enough to grab the whole acorn, but carried it back up to a limb by its stem. Once there, the titmouse held the acorn between its feet and hammered at it with its sharp bill until it had penetrated the shell, and then ate the soft interior meat in small pieces.  Another time, a titmouse was seen to spear an oak gall more than an inch in diameter on its bill and carry it to the crotch of a tree where it dug through the tough half inch of outer covering to reach the white grubs in the center.

After wandering about all winter in small flocks, the titmice begin their courtship activities early in spring and separate into pairs.  Many utilize abandoned woodpecker holes for their nests, but will set up housekeeping in any cavity that is available. Nest building begins late in April, and they carry in strips of bark and dead leaves supplemented with moss and dry grass, and then decorate with bits of rags, strings, or cloth. The nesting cavities vary greatly in size and shape, which means that in some cases a large quantity of material has to be collected to fill up the extra space. Titmice are particularly fond of lining their nests with hair, and collect it from both dead animals and tolerant live ones. A number of people have written of seeing one pluck strands from their pets and even from their own heads as they stood watching.

The birds raise only one brood each season, and the female builds the nest and incubates the eggs. The chicks are naked when hatched but are well feathered and look like adults before they are two weeks old. Both parents feed the young for some time after they leave the nest, and the birds travel about together in family groups until they all join the mixed parties during fall and winter.

Titmice are particular favorites of mine as they have come readily to my hand for sunflower seeds with a little patience, peering at my face even as they collect their prizes. I even read that they can be taught to perform tricks but I am quite content to enjoy their antics in the wild.


March 13, 2018

No matter what the local weather is doing, the first day of spring this year (also called the spring equinox) arrives Tuesday, March 20 at 11:15 P.M., which theoretically means we should experience equal periods of day and night. This is because our seasons are determined by the direction of Earth’s tilt in relation to the Sun and the angle of the Sun’s light as it strikes Earth.  (Its axis is tilted at a 23.5 angle away from the Sun during winter in the Northern Hemisphere and towards the sun in the summer.)   On 2 days each year, on or around March 21 and again on September 23, the Sun is directly above the equator marking the beginning of spring and autumn.

It is also important to consider Hopkins Law, however.  This says that phenological events vary at the rate of one day for each 15 minutes of latitude and one day for each 100 feet of altitude. (Phenology is the study of the seasonal activities of our flora and fauna – when the first robin returns, when the first trillium blooms, etc.) If we compare biological events in Spring Green to those in northern Wisconsin, for instance, there should be a 20-day interval between the two areas, given their distance apart (say 200 miles) and their differences in elevation.

Whatever the scientists are saying, signs of the coming spring are all around us and soon buds will be breaking, leaves popping and flowers unfolding.  Birds, too, are returning many following the first hatches of insects, although those that wintered in Central and South America may wait another month or so to return,  Many migrating birds utilize the Lake Michigan shoreline as their route north where as many as 200 species of bird have been counted by observers, but we are also seeing cranes, red-winged blackbirds and an occasional robin here at the farm.

Although we no longer have our wildflower sales, our woodland floors will soon be adorned with the early bloomers -- hepatica, spring beauties, shooting stars, bloodroot, trillium and dozens of others.  You are welcome to come visit the farm in another month or so to enjoy them with us; just give us a call first.

Most mammals are either mating, gestating or giving birth during now.  Gray squirrels have their first litters in March, and Northern flying squirrels mate in April and give birth in May. In the dog family, red foxes give birth to their kits in late March and early April, while coyotes produce young in April.  Timber wolves mate in March and give birth in May.  Most of us know white-tail deer mate in the fall (the rut) but most fawns are born in May.

In the weasel family, nearly all members use delayed implantation to govern their breeding cycle.  Skunks breed in March, but give birth later in May. Mink breed in early March and employ a short, delayed implantation, giving birth in late April and early May.  Martens, ermines and long-tailed weasels use an intermediate delay, breeding in July but giving birth in the following April to early May. The longest cycle of delayed implantation belongs to fishers and river otters, a cycle that keeps the females perpetually pregnant. Both otters and fishers breed in April, but not until 350 days or so later do the females give birth. Then they promptly breed once again.

March courtship displays are hard to catch, but they're magical when found. Male grouse begin to drum out messages to females. Chipmunks emerge seeking a partner to court, the male singing at the den entrance to his chosen female in the hope she will like the song.  On mildish evenings now, listen for the saw-whet owl -- an endless loop of whistled “toots” on a constant pitch.  The monotonous call comes at a rate of about two notes per second and some say it sounds something like the beeping of a commercial truck backing up. Saw-whets also give a call which researchers describe as resembling “the sounds produced by filing [whetting] a large mill saw,” hence the name “saw-whet.”

The saw-whet is one of the smallest owls in North America and stands just 5 to 6 inches high with a wingspan of 18 to 22 inches.  It has a round, light, white face with a distinctive white "Y" shape, pale underparts with dark shaded areas and brown upper parts with white spots, but their bright yellow eyes are their most striking characteristic. As small as it is, it has been seen to take prey as large as a squirrel. 

Its favorite spots are in coniferous type forests farther north, but many migrate southward for the winter throughout Wisconsin.  They also love areas along rivers and streams because of the abundance of prey there.  They live in tree cavities and old nests made by other small raptors. The males give their “toot” call, beginning in late January in southern Wisconsin with their calling peaks at two hours after sunset, so listen around 10 p.m. The call then tends to decrease until just before sunrise.

Whatever your interest, it is a marvelous time to get outside and into the prairies and woods and see what there is to see.  We are blessed with a nearby river, a conservancy, and several parks within easy driving distance; what more could we ask? 


 March 6, 2018: Daddy Longlegs

The more I learn about the various creatures in our natural world, the more amazed I become at their stories.  Take the common daddy long-legs, for instance: many of us might have wondered at these strange “spiders” that we find in our basement or out in the garden but just accepted them as just one of those bugs...  However, although they resemble spiders, daddy long-legs are neither spiders nor insects. They are more correctly called "harvestmen", the name coined by an observer who saw them only at harvest time in the fall. Officially, they are also arthropods, in the same class as spiders but in a different order.  They mainly differ because their three body segments – head, thorax and abdomen -- are joined as one compact body segment. Spiders have two body segments (the head and thorax are joined) and insects have three segments.

The harvestman’s most impressive features are its four pairs of long slender legs, which are many times longer than its body. Each leg has seven segments and curves out at the tip. If the harvestman is in danger of being caught, it can break off a portion of leg and then escape while the detached leg continues to quiver in front of a hopefully confused predator.  The leg continues to move after it is detached because a 'pacemaker' is located in the ends of the first long leg segment. This sends recurring signals via the nerves to the muscles that will first extend the leg and then allow it to relax. While some harvestman's legs twitch for a minute, others have been recorded to move up for an hour and more. The twitching has been thought to function as an evolutionary advantage by keeping the attention of a predator while the harvestman escapes.

If an immature harvestman loses a leg, a replacement evidently regrows, but once the creature is fully grown, it can not regenerate a new one.  It is therefore otherwise very careful of them and spends considerable time fastidiously cleaning them.  Ronald Clouse of the American Museum of Nature History, who has been studying these often misunderstood arachnids for a decade, describes the process.  “They slide each leg one at a time through the little pincers by their mouths,” Clouse says, “and this behavior is very important to keep them clean as well as to remove any parasites off the body. You can see small red mites on many of them in places that they can’t reach.”  

Besides the four pairs of legs, the fused body supports two other pairs of appendages -- the jaws and pedipalps used for sensing, capturing and holding food.  The body also has a tiny a raised knob on its top with two minute black eyes peering out.  Like other arthropods, these do not focus however, and are mainly to distinguish light and dark.

Adults ordinarily hide during the day and become active at twilight when they wander in search of food such as small insects and all kinds of plant material and fungi.  They are also known to feed on dead organisms, bird dung, and other fecal material. When they walk, their bodies are always held a little distance above ground and they stretch out their second pair of legs, the longest, to touch the surface. If something edible is detected, the harvestman explores the object with its pedipalps and if the detected item is acceptable, the daddy long-legs grabs and eats it.

Birds, frogs, and lizards frequently make meals of harvestmen but the arthopods have a few additional strategies for not becoming lunch. “Their most obvious feature to avoid predation is to produce chemical excretions from glands on their bodies, which have been observed to repulse predators,” Clouse says. “Daddy longlegs are also usually extremely well camouflaged. During the day many of them hide in crevasses, and when disturbed they usually curl up and remain motionless for several minutes.  For a lot of predators, if something stops moving, they can’t see it anymore. It just disappears for them. When these guys stop moving, they’re gone.”

During the mating season early in the autumn, the male climbs on the body of the female and transfers his spermatozoa into an opening in her body.  In a few weeks, the female uses a long, reversible ovipositor to deposit her eggs into the soil or crevices in wood in a sheltered spot.  In Wisconsin, the adults die in the winter and the species must survive in the egg stage. The young hatch the following spring and grow by splitting and shedding their "skins" and the cycle begins againP.

 “As of April 2017, over 6,650 species of harvestmen have been discovered worldwide, although the total number of species may exceed 10,000 and can be found on all continents except Antarctica.” Clouse tells us.  “We know from a very well preserved fossil of a daddy longlegs from Scotland that they are at least 400 million years old, and it actually looks a lot like the long-legged species we see today.  It is believed daddy longlegs split off from scorpions, which were becoming terrestrial about 435 million years ago. To put this in perspective, this is about 200 million years before dinosaurs appeared, which were only around for about 165 million years.”.  Wow!

February 28, 2018: Woolly Bears

Many of us are eager to know when and what kind of spring is in the offing after a long winter, and we have two traditional prognosticators -- Punxsutawney Phil and Woolly Bear.   Three weeks ago, Punxsutawney Phil (a woodchuck) forecast six more weeks of winter, and now husband Bill has seen Woolly Bear on the sidewalk, one of the few caterpillars easily identified.

The Woolly Bear (caterpillar of the common Isabella tiger moth that has orangish wings spotted with black) is not at all woolly, but is covered with short, stiff bristles of hair with a rusty-brown band between two black ends.  It feeds during the summer on a variety of plant species, including grass, herbs and tree leaves, and when freezing temperatures threaten, it is often seen wandering about searching for a secluded overwintering site under tree bark or inside a cavity in a log or among rocks. 

There the little caterpillar hibernates; its heart stops beating, breathing ceases, and its body synthesizes a natural antifreeze (like glycerol) to protect its cells from ice crystals.  In the spring, as the weather warms, it awakes and starts to eat again and when it has gathered enough nutrients, it spins a cocoon and pupates.  In a few weeks the moth emerges, lays eggs and the cycle repeats.  It is a fascinating fact that in the Arctic, the summer period for vegetative growth and hence feeding is so short that the Woolly Bear survives for several years, hibernating and freezing again each winter before finally pupating. Some have been known to live through as many as 14 winters before reaching full growth. 

If you are not familiar with woolly bear folklore, it holds that the more brown segments in the middle of the caterpillar’s body, the milder the coming winter will be; contrarily, the more black there is on its ends, the more severe the winter will be.  In the fall of 1948, Dr. C. H. Curran, curator of insects at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, decided to check its accuracy.  He travelled to the nearby Bear Mountain State Park and, over the next eight years, collected as many caterpillars as he could in a day, measuring the reddish-brown segments and recording the weather.  The resulting publicity made the woolly worm the most recognizable caterpillar in North America.

Dr. Curran found that the average brown segments took up more than a good third of the woolly bear’s body and since the corresponding winters were milder than average, he concluded that the folklore might possibly have some truth to it.  He knew his sample was small and unscientific but he and a group of friends continued the project, calling themselves The Original Society of the Friends of the Woolly Bear.  Thirty years after the last meeting of Curran’s society, the woolly bear brown-segment counts and winter forecasts were resurrected by the nature museum at that park and annual counts have continued, more or less for fun, since then.

The town of Banner Elk, North Carolina copied the idea some years ago and held a Woolly Worm Festival each October for a decade, highlighted by a caterpillar race.  Retired mayor Charles Von Canon inspected the champion woolly bear and announced its winter forecast. If the rusty band was wide, then it would be a mild winter and vice versa.  This fall if you want to join in the effort, add any observations to the website <>.

Most scientists discount the folklore of woolly bear predictions as just that, and Mike Peters, an entomologist at the University of Massachusetts, doesn’t disagree, but he says there could, in fact, be a link between winter severity and the brown band of a woolly bear caterpillar. “There’s evidence,” he says, “that the number of brown hairs has to do with how late it got going in the spring. The [band] does say something about a heavy winter or an early spring; the problem is it is telling you about the previous year.”

If you don’t trust a woodchuck or caterpillar as forecaster, I can assure you there are better indicators.  An alert friend called this week reporting that a small group of snow geese flew over his home.  These arctic nesters migrate back and forth through Wisconsin from points far to the south, sometimes stopping at the river and providing birdwatchers with quite a sight.  Now, soon, other migrants will be passing through and we will know that Spring has arrived for sure. 

Another welcome sign of things to come is the song of the cardinal that I heard in Spring Green a few days ago.  Once only common in the Southeast, this beautiful singer has been extending its range northward for decades (perhaps because of stocked sunflower seed feeders), and now brightens winter days with its color as far north as southeastern Canada.  Both males and females sing and the song is a loud string of clear down-slurred or two-parted whistles, often ending in a slow trill. The songs typically last 2 to 3 seconds and syllables can sound like the bird is singing “cheer, cheer, cheer” or “birdie, birdie, birdie”.   It is usually the first bird to sing, sometimes even on warm days during the winter, but we will enjoy its music more and more in the coming weeks.   If none of these signs and forecasters work for you, you can always try the Farmer’s Almanac...


 February 20, 2018: Opossums

Our collie, Sunny, has been warning us about night-time visitors around the farm for some time, and last week we finally spotted a strange naked tail protruding from the bird feeder on the ground under the apple tree.  It was too large for a rat and only one other local animal possesses such a tail -- a Virginia opossum.  This strange creature is a marsupial (so designated because the female possesses a pouch for its young) and it is unique to the Americas. 

Opossums lived during the age of dinosaurs and fossil remains have been found from 70 million years ago.  They originated in South America and moved northward following the connection of the two continents during the Great American Interchange.  This is a little known but very important series of events in which the volcanic Isthmus of Panama rose up from the sea floor and formed Central America, bridging the formerly separated continents.  This connection allowed land and freshwater plants and animals to migrate from North America down to South America and vice versa.

Opossums are most closely related to kangaroos and other marsupials found in Australia.  In North America, not too long ago, they were found only in the southeastern states, but in recent years their range has expanded west and north.  They can be found in rural areas of all of Wisconsin except the far northern part where their naked ears, nose, and tail are more vulnerable to freezing temperatures.  The tails are unique in themselves as they can grasp and hold, much like those of some monkeys, and are covered with scuta, bony scales overlaid with horn.  Both front and hind feet are likewise so covered and have opposable “thumbs” as well.

Opossums spend most of their daytime hours in hollow logs or in dens in the ground, in brush piles, or under buildings.  They are usually solitary and nomadic, staying in one area only as long as food and water are easily available.  Though they will temporarily occupy abandoned burrows, they do not dig or put much effort into building their own.

Opossums eat almost anything -- small rodents, worms, snakes, insects, eggs, young birds, fruit, grain and the remains of dead animals.  Additionally, they will scavenge vegetables, berries, nuts, garbage, pet food and bird seed which sometimes brings them into conflict with humans. The opossum lifespan is unusually short for a mammal of its size, usually only two to four years and not only because of their many predators and trapping; biological aging is rapid.

Opossums raise two litters of six or more each year. The female has a unique reproductive system that includes a branched vagina, a divided uterus and a marsupium, her pouch.  She possesses a simple placenta that is not fully functional, and her young are born in only 12 to 14 days after fertilization, essentially still embryos about the size of your thumbnail.  At that point, each must use the minute claws on its tiny front feet to climb up the mother's belly and into her pouch where it attaches to a teat where milk is pumped into its stomach. There it will remain to continue its development for 60 to 70 days. For another month after that, the young opossums, now called joeys, climb in and out of the pouch, and finally, when mouse-size, they climb aboard the mother's back where they spend much of their time until becoming more independent.  Females often give birth to large numbers of young, but most fail to attach to a teat.

Threatened opossums will growl deeply, raising their pitch as the threat becomes more urgent.  In dire circumstances, they will "play possum", mimicking the appearance and smell of a sick or dead animal. This physiological response is involuntary (like fainting), rather than a conscious act.  The animal's lips are drawn back, the teeth are bared, saliva foams around the mouth, the eyes close or half-close, and a foul-smelling fluid is secreted from the anal glands.  The animal can be prodded, turned over, and even carried away without reaction but will typically regain consciousness after a period of a few minutes to an hour or so. 

A group of enthusiasts calling themselves the Opossum Society of the United States (a non-profit, wildlife rehabilitation and educational organization) have taken upon themselves the task of changing attitudes about what they contend are mostly shy and unappreciated animals.  They point out that learning and discrimination tests rank opossums well above dogs, and more on the level of pigs!  They insist that opossums help to maintain a clean and healthy environment as they eat all types of insects, enjoy over ripe fruits and vegetables, catch rats and mice and consume dead animal carcasses.  In addition, the fact that the opossums are immune to deadly snake venom is now giving researchers the clues to produce a new anti-venom that could not only save people after snake bites but from attacks by scorpions and from plant and bacterial toxins as well. 

Opossums are gentle and placid— they prefer to avoid all confrontations and just wish to be left alone.  You may remember a cartoonist named Walt Kelley who thought enough of possums to make one named Pogo as the central character of a long-running daily American comic strip set in the Okefenokee Swamp of the southeastern United States.  Maybe he was on to something...

February 13, 2018:  Eastern Gray Squirrel

You may think it is still the dead of winter, but some members of our wildlife community are already busy starting their families. Female gray squirrels have been advertising for mates from the treetops for several weeks, using duck-like “come hither” calls, and interested males have responded by racing through the branches after them.  There are over 365 species of squirrels in seven families around the world and they comprise forty percent of all present day mammal species. These include tree squirrels, ground squirrels and flying squirrels, plus many squirrel-like mammals such as gophers, ground hogs and prairie dogs.
Eastern gray squirrels have two breeding seasons per year, and most breeding occurs in January-February and May -June.   Female eastern gray squirrels do not reproduce until 15 months of age while the males are sexually mature at 10 - 11 months of age and both sexes remain reproductively active throughout their lives.

After a female relents and accepts a suitor, she prepares a warm sheltered nest in a hollow tree if one is available; otherwise she constructs the first of two dreys that are conspicuous twig and leaf nests built high in a tree.  The first is waterproof, and made of an outer layer of interwoven twigs with a softer inner lining consisting of moss, bark, leaves, fur, feathers, lichen or other similar material. She generally gives birth to two or three kittens in this first litter, but the second pregnancy that takes place in late spring often can produce up to six young. That nest is less elaborate and may be no more than a twig and leaf saucer-shaped platform on an exposed branch.

The newborn kits weigh about an ounce and are naked and blind, but mature quickly. In eight weeks the youngsters are venturing out of the nest and by 12 weeks they will be almost fully grown.   An adult gray squirrel grows to about 18 inches in length, half of which is tail, and weighs about a pound and a half.  Its back is grizzled dark to pale gray and may be tinted with reddish coloration on their hips, feet and head. The tail is pale gray and as is the stomach. In the north, both ears and soles of the feet grow heavy fur during winter. The average squirrel’s lifespan is less than six years, although some in the wild have been found to be as old as 13 years.

The most notable physical feature of the gray squirrel is its large bushy tail. This acts as a rudder when the animal jumps from high places, as a warm covering during cold weather, as a counterbalance when walking a telephone wire, as a signal to other squirrels, and as a distraction to a pursuing predator.  If necessary, a squirrel can lose much of the skin and even some of the bones of its tail to escape a marauder’s grasp, and it is not uncommon to see one with only a partial tail.

The gray squirrel has muscular hind legs that allow it to leap more than 20 feet, and long hind feet that are double-jointed and equipped with sharp claws to help it scramble head first down a tree trunk. If a squirrel should fall, it can land safely from heights of 30 feet and more, and we have often seen one just drop to the ground rather than bother to climb down. When danger threatens a squirrel will sidle quietly around the trunk of the tree, keeping just out of sight. When it remains motionless against tree bark, it is very difficult to see.

The eastern gray squirrel’s diet varies with the seasons. In early spring, it eats tree buds, especially maple. During the summer, maple and elm seeds are major food items, as well as a wide variety of berries and wild fruits. It will also eat insects, caterpillars, and will happily clean out a nest of birds’ eggs or even young birds.  In the autumn, its most important foods are acorns, hickory nuts, walnuts, and pine seeds.  A squirrel can break the shell of a nut with its teeth, then clean the nut by licking it or rubbing on its face before it is buried. This action applies a scent to the nut which helps the squirrel find it later, even under a foot of snow.

The squirrel's front teeth continue to grow throughout life, so they can never be worn away by the animal's gnawing on such hard materials. Their incisor's will grow six inches per year, but stay short due to the constant wear they receive. Squirrels bury hundreds of nuts and seeds for the winter. They will wait out very cold weather in their nests, often with others of their kind for warmth, and then emerge to search for a larder. Contrary to popular myth, squirrels do not find buried nuts by memory but by their highly developed sense of smell. Not all hidden nuts will be found though, and some will germinate and grow into new trees.

 An adult squirrel normally lives alone, but will, in severe cold, share its nest with other squirrels to conserve body heat. In the summer, they are most active two to three hours after sunrise and then again two hours before sunset, rarely leaving the nest in the dark.  In the winter, the squirrel will complete its activities between dawn and mid-day, and will remain in the nest until the next day.  During winter storms, or severe cold, the squirrel may not leave the nest for days but it does not hibernate!

As kids we had tamed the local squirrels so that they would come to us for a handout, but we early learned how to accomplish this without being bitten.  A squirrel’s eyes are located high on its head so as to detect any approaching predators, but this also makes it difficult for it to see directly in front of its nose.  A finger tip looks much like a nut to it and a squirrel has sharp teeth! 


February 5, 2018: Hawks and Falcons

We have seen both hawks and falcons here at the farm, but it was still a surprise to spy a sharp shinned hawk sitting on our porch railing last week.  Our feeders are popular with a variety of smaller song birds and their leavings attract small rodents as well, but any raptors that might be tempted to prey upon them tend to remain out of sight.

Both hawks and falcons are birds of prey and are skilled hunters, but they have interesting differences. Falcons have long narrow wings, and they are fast flyers; in fact, the peregrine falcon has been clocked at 60 miles per hour with dives up to 200 mph.  They tend to hunt in open territories and typically feed on birds and other flying creatures, and when spotting a victim, they usually fly above and behind it.  The falcon then uses its powerful notched beak to grab and stab its prey, sometimes in the midst of a dive, or it may stun the it and then grab it as it falls. 

Hawks are usually much larger than falcons and their beaks have a slight curve. Their wings are shorter, allowing them to weave through shrubbery and trees in pursuit of prey, and they move much more slowly than the falcons.  Hawks will take birds if they can catch them but usually prefer to prey upon ground-dwelling animals like mice, rats, rabbits and squirrels, killing with their sharp talons.

The sharp shinned is the smallest of the hawks -- about the size of a bluejay -- males about eleven inches long with a wingspan of about 20 inches, while the females are some larger.  Adults have short broad wings and a medium-length tail banded in blackish and gray with the tip square to slightly rounded. Their yellow legs are long and very slender giving them their common name.  The hooked bill is black and a waxy yellowish structure called a cere covers the base of its bill. Our Wisconsin variety has a dark cap and blue-grey upper parts.  Their underparts are white with rufous or tawny bars.

These birds capture most of their victims from cover or while flying quickly through dense vegetation.  Unlike the larger hawks, the great majority of its prey are small songbirds, and it often raids backyard bird feeders, plucking the feathers off its catch on a post or other perch. Sharp-shinned hawks will also eat rodents, lizards, frogs, snakes, and large insects such as dragonflies captured on the wing.

Sharp-shinned hawks construct a stick nest in a large conifer or dense group of deciduous trees and the female incubates her 4-5 eggs for about 30 days.  The young fledge in about four weeks but rely on their parents for feeding and protection for another month. Their nesting sites and breeding behavior are generally secretive, in order to avoid the predation of larger raptors--their biggest threat.  The sharp-shinned will travel as far south as Panama in migration, and adults are often preyed upon by most of the  larger raptors, especially the peregrine falcon. 

In North America this species declined in numbers in the 1960s and 1970s seemingly as a result of the use of DDT, but the population has rebounded since the banning of that pesticide, as well as to the increase in numbers of backyard bird feeders in North America which provide reliable and easy food. The less common Cooper's hawk is sometimes confused with the sharp-shinned as its plumage is almost identical and its habits similar although it is considerably larger.  This bird was named after the naturalist William Cooper, one of the founders of the New York Lyceum of Natural History in New York. 

While sharp-shinned and Coopers are the smallest members of the hawk family, the American kestrel is even smaller. This tiny falcon is only about ten inches in length although its pointed wings may stretch to 24 inches.  It is one of the most colorful of all raptors: the male has a reddish back and tail and a slate-blue head and wings while the female has the same warm reddish on her wings, back, and tail. Both sexes have pairs of black vertical slashes on the sides of their light-colored faces—sometimes called “mustaches” and “sideburns." 

Hunting for insects and other small prey in open territory, kestrels perch on wires or poles, or fly with wings bent and the wingtips swept back.  They are most easily distinguished in the air by their typical hunting behavior which is to hover at a height of around 35–65 ft over open country and swoop down on small mammals, lizards or large insects.   American Kestrels usually snatch their victims from the ground, though some catch prey on the wing. When perched, kestrels often pump their tails as if they are trying to balance.  Kestrels are declining in parts of their range, particularly because of attacks by the Coopers and larger hawks.  

The merlin is a slightly larger, stockier, darker brown version of the kestrel but quite different in flight style and attitude. Merlins target larger prey, particularly shorebirds and other small to medium-sized birds, which they often chase on the wing.  Our other member of the falcon family, the peregrine, is crow sized and has a blue-grey back, barred white underparts, and a black head.

In addition to the raptors mentioned above, keep an eye out in the sky or atop a power pole for the much more visible red-tailed hawk.  It and the broad-winged, red-shouldered, and rough-legged hawks, as well as the northern harrier, once known as the "marsh hawk", are all fascinating birds.


January 30, 2018:  Timber wolves

The timber wolf has roamed Wisconsin from the time the glaciers melted about 10,000 years ago, feeding on the muskox and caribou that moved onto the virgin prairies.  Native peoples also depended up these grazing mammals, but there were plenty to support them as well.  The arrival of the European settlers, however, brought domestic animals that were easier prey and wolves became a problem for them.  A bounty was placed on them in Wisconsin in 1865, and by 1960 no wolves were known to remain in the state. 

In 1974, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ruled that the eastern timber wolf was a federally endangered species with only a few remaining in the wilds of Minnesota.  With this protection, It did not take long for these survivors to spread over into Wisconsin however, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources began to monitor their activities with radio collars and snow-tracking. By 1980, they were watching 25 wolves in 5 packs and devised a wolf recovery plan. 

A study at that time showed that the diet of Wisconsin wolves was comprised mostly of white-tailed deer, but beaver was also important in spring and fall.  These animals spend a lot of time on shore at those times, cutting trees for their food and dam repair, and are easy to catch, in contrast to winter when they are in their lodges or moving safely beneath the ice.  In the summer the wolves also prey upon a variety of smaller mammals such as rodents and anything they can catch.

Wolves, coyotes and large dogs can generally be distinguished from one another at sight.  An average adult male wolf weighs about 75 pounds with a female somewhat lighter, and its coat is usually buff-colored grizzled with gray and black (although it can also be black or white).  It is twice the weight of the largest coyote, and it generally holds its long tail straight out from the body or down, in contrast to a dog that typically has at least a slight curl.  

Wolves are social animals, living in a family group or pack usually made up of six to ten animals - a dominant male and female (the breeding pair), and pups from the current and previous year.  A pack's territory may cover up to 100 square miles depending upon the habitat, and the wolves announce their ownership by howling and leaving urine and feces as scent messages, attacking any interlopers as they appear. 

Wolves are sexually mature when two years old, but seldom pair up until they are older. In each pack, the dominant male and female are usually the only ones to breed so a pack generally produces only one litter each year, averaging five to six pups.  In Wisconsin, wolves breed in late January and February and the pups are born two months later in the back chamber of a sheltered den.  If dug into the ground, the den's entrance is usually about two feet in diameter and may lead to a deep tunnel up to 12 feet long but the female will sometimes use a hollow log, cave or abandoned beaver lodge.

At birth, wolf pups are deaf and blind, have dark fuzzy fur and weigh about 1 pound. They grow rapidly and when about six weeks old, the pups are weaned and are fed meat regurgitated by the adults.  As they grow, the female moves them to a successions of new nursery areas, usually near water.  By August, the pups begin to explore and in September or October, the then almost full-grown the pups follow the adults on hunts.

A young wolf attains breeding status by staying with its natal pack and working its way up the dominance hierarchy, or it can leave the pack to find a mate and a vacant area in which to start its own pack.  Dispersers usually leave in autumn or winter during hunting and trapping season, and  have been known to travel considerable distances. One radio-collared Wisconsin wolf traveled 23 miles in one day, another Minnesota wolf was spotted in Saskatchewan, Canada some 500 miles from its den, and a female wolf pup trapped in the eastern part of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan died from a vehicle collision about 300 miles from her home territory.

Wolf numbers have continued to grow and with the exception of three seasons when the federal protection was lifted (2012-’14), no hunting has been  permitted in Wisconsin.  There have been found to be more than 900 animals in Wisconsin the winter of 2016-'17, and questions are becoming more prevalent on how many of these large predators can be tolerated.  The state paid out more than $100,000 in reparations to farmers and hunters who have had domestic animals killed ($2500 per hunting dog and $800-1300 for a calf) and the incidents keep rising. 

There are strong feelings on both sides; hunters with dogs and some farmers point to increasing attacks on domestic animals, but many citizens appreciate the presence of wolves in the state and their reduction of the deer herd seems to be having beneficial effects on plant life.  Professor Tim Van Deelen, wildlife specialist at UW-Madison, thinks that the population expansion may be near its limit as the wolves have filled up all of the good habitat; however, he suggests that wolves could possibly reproduce at such a rate that they could withstand a hunt that culled up to 30 percent a year of their population.  At this point, it is his hope that the state will allow nature to take its course and see what happens.

 January 22, 2018:  Snowy Owls

When any owl is pictured in a magazine, book or other publication, it is usually a great horned individual with twin tufts on its head (horns) and mottled plumage.  And certainly if one is sighted at this time of year, sitting silently in a tree or heard hooting in the woods, it is most likely to be this species.  Those in the know, however, are more likely to be on the lookout for another large owl--the snowy.

There are nineteen owl species found in North America and six regularly nest in Wisconsin.  Two more, the barn owl and the great gray owl, have historically been recorded here but are quite rare.  Snowy, boreal and northern hawk owls are occasional winter visitors, and the snowy is most widely known.  Its bright white plumage, large yellow eyes, massive feathered feet and daytime activities make it unmistakable.

As the name suggests, snowy owls are generally a northern species, nesting worldwide on the treeless tundra above the Arctic Circle.  During a typical winter some remain close to their breeding areas while others head south into southern Canada and the northern United States, and at least small numbers reach Wisconsin each year.  Every handful of years, however, large numbers move into the state, an event known as an "irruption".

At last count in late December, some 200 snowy owls have been observed across the state and this total far exceeds that found in the past two winters.  Most of the birds are juveniles hatched last summer, although several beautiful adult males were photographed as well in recent weeks. Unfortunately, vehicle collisions remain a significant source of mortality, for many of these owls are inexperienced hunters and unfamiliar with a developed landscape.

No one is certain of the reason for these “irruptions”, but most experts agree these periodic mass movements are associated in some way with their primary prey, a small rodent known as a lemming.  It was once believed that a drop in the numbers of lemmings caused the birds to move southward in search of food, but more recent evidence suggests nearly the opposite, at least in some years.  It seems that a temporary abundance of lemmings allows the owls to successfully raise large families, and then these excess young owls disperse southward by the hundreds to avoid competition with older birds for winter territories.

Experts report that many of the birds fare quite well during their time here if they can avoid the dangers of collisions with vehicles, electrocution, rodenticide poisoning and illegal shooting.  On the other hand, a significant number of the birds arrive to southern wintering areas in poor body condition, exhausted or emaciated from the long journey of more than 1,000 miles.  Some of these die while others recuperate but this is the way of all migratory birds.

Snowy owls usually seek out open habitats similar to their arctic tundra home such open grasslands and agricultural fields, wetland areas, and even airports.  They are known for being active during the day, unlike many other owl species, but especially around dawn and dusk.  They usually hunt by sitting on an elevated site watching for movement and will attack almost anything but especially voles, mice and shrews.  Ducks and other waterbirds are also common prey sources, while rabbits, weasels, muskrats, pigeons and other birds are also taken.

Like all owls, they have excellent vision and incredible hearing.  Their eyes are fixed in their sockets, so their whole head must move to look around, but it can turn up to 270 degrees.  Their large forward facing eyes give them the best stereoscopic vision of all birds, which is vital for judging distances. They also have relatively huge and asymmetrically positioned ear openings, which indicates that any sound is slightly delayed in reaching one and thus its source can be pinpointed. 

In most years snowy owls arrive around mid-November and depart by the end of March.  Early-season birds are often on the move and can't be relocated in the same location day after day, but by December and January most have established winter territories and remain in a relatively small area.  These owls are likely to stay around another two months and you may be able to catch sight of one of these magnificent birds by driving by open habitats around dawn or dusk.  Viewing with a spotting scope or binoculars, and preferably from a vehicle more than 100 yards away from the bird, is advised to limit unnecessary stress on the birds.   Good luck...


January 15, 2018:  Black Bears

Black bears can be found in literature, folk songs, legends, mythology, fairy tales, and cartoons around the world; think Yogi, Teddy, the family discovered by Goldilocks,, and untold numbers of others.  There are even two immortalized in the night sky as the constellations Ursa Major and Minor.  In Wisconsin, their primary range has been located in the far northern third of the state but due to a growing population, they are now seen occasionally in southern sections as well.

Bears have played an important part of our history.  The Native Americans honored it as a supernatural being and treated the bear hunt with great ceremony and respect. They prized its skins for robes and the meat and oil for cooking, fuel and medicines.  Early settlers also placed great value on bear meat and especially sought the bearskins from which they made clothing and bedding.  As more immigrants moved into Wisconsin, however, bounty systems were set up to encourage killing of the "noxious pests" and fur traders paid high prices for bearskins.  Logging and settlement also reduced the bears’ habitat and numbers until by 1930, laws and hunting regulations had to be put in place to protect the remaining population.

In the early 1980s, Jeff Traska of Wausau, Wisconsin and a lifelong outdoorsman, was concerned about what he considered was the “bum rap” the bears were getting and created a not-for-profit private sanctuary called the Wisconsin Black Bear Education Center.  It consists of six acres of natural habitat including a fresh water waterfall and pond, natural vegetation for foraging, open meadows and numerous hibernation dens, and currently houses three bears that are allowed to roam freely throughout the property.  His observations of the animals have showed him and others who visit the center that bears are not the highly dangerous animals portrayed in so many sensational news stories, but instead are intelligent, gentle animals who play a critical role in the functioning ecosystems they inhabit.

The black bear is approximately five feet long and varies in weight from 125 to 400 pounds. ( A few have reached 700 pounds!) It has small eyes, rounded ears, a long snout, a large body, and a short tail. The shaggy hair varies in color from white through chocolate brown, cinnamon brown, and blonde to black, but most black bears are indeed black or a darker shade of brown.  Bears will eat just about any available food, and while they prefer berries, nuts, grass and other plants, they also eat carrion, small animals and fish. 

A black bear is capable of standing and walking on its hind legs, but it usually moves about on all fours.  The characteristic shuffle results from walking flat-footed, with the hind legs slightly longer than the front legs.  Each paw has five strong, non-retractable claws used for tearing, digging, and climbing, and a blow from a powerful front paw is enough to kill an adult deer. But in spite of its size and strength, the black bear is surprisingly agile and can run as fast as thirty miles per hour. 

When fall approaches, the bear must eat large amounts of food in order to gain sufficient weight to sustain it through its winter sleep.  It seeks a den site under a fallen or hollow tree, a cave, or in previously occupied den and will lie rolled into a tight ball with its head between its forepaws and its heavily furred back exposed to the worst of the cold.  Its metabolic rate drops by half and it may breathe only once every 45 seconds or so.  Its heart rate can drop as low as eight beats per minute, and blood flow to skeletal muscle, particularly the legs, can be reduced by 45 percent or more.  While sleeping, an adult bear may lose up to 40 percent of its weight; still, bears are not true hibernators and are easily awakened from their winter slumbers and sometimes emerge to forage in milder periods.

Black bears reach maturity at 4 or 5 years of age, and females typically breed every 2 or 3 years. They mate in the spring, but the embryos do not begin to develop until fall when the mother settles in a den.  In January, she wakes up just long enough to give birth to a litter of two or three half-pound, hairless cubs.  Her milk contains 33% milk fat (compared to the 3% in a human mother's milk), so the tiny cubs benefit from a rich initial diet. They grow fast and in three months they will weigh up to eight pounds and are ready to leave the den. 

Wisconsin's bear population, that was estimated to be about 9,000 in 1989, is currently close to 30,000.  Their range is also expanding, which means we can expect to see black bears in areas where they didn’t formerly roam. Their pictures are appearing on trail cameras in southwestern Wisconsin, and the animals themselves are being spotted -- even sows with cubs, indicating they probably hibernated nearby.  Friends living in wooded hill country west of Spring green a year or two ago found their garage door pushed open and empty pizza boxes that were stored inside scattered about on the back lawn.  They assumed it was the work of raccoons but a local wildlife specialist identified scat left behind as that of a bear.  Bird feeders there have also been raided, a situation our Duluth niece has often experienced. 

State wildlife offices now receive black bear complaints each year and give some simple advice: don’t leave anything out at night that might tempt a hungry bear.  Bird and pet food as well as garbage and all kinds of fruit and vegetable waste, (in fact, anything edible) can attract young bears chased out of parent’s territories as well as older adults when natural food is scarce.  Hanging bird feeders where they can’t be easily reached and keeping garbage tightly contained and only put out shortly before the pickup truck arrives are always wise plans.  It is unlikely that you will come in contact with a bear in our area, but if you do, stand tall, stare the intruder down and make lots of noise; most importantly, do not try to run away.  Most black bears won’t attack a human unless they are provoked; so enjoy the sighting, but still keep your distance. 


January 9, 2018:  Feeding birds

Did you know that over 100 North American bird species supplement their natural diets with birdseed, suet, fruit and nectar obtained from feeders? Many people simply put out small hanging dispensers purchased from a hardware or variety store and filled with an inexpensive seed mix; however, to attract and keep a diversity of birds, you should provide three essentials: quality food offered in a suitable manner, fresh water for drinking and bathing, and sufficient cover.

We know that some birds, notably cardinals, mockingbirds and tufted titmice, have extended their winter range northward, most likely because of the increased availability of food in our backyard feeders. However, we must also keep in mind that bird feeders do present potential risks to their visitors, such as window collisions, predators, and possible disease. A recent study found that colliding with a window is the most common cause of bird death associated with feeders, with predation by cats a close second.

Most of what we know about the most efficient and economical methods of backyard bird-feeding came from a 1982 report by Dr. Aelred Geis, then of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland and more recently Director of Research for Wild Bird Centers of America.  His research examined the relative attractiveness of 16 different seeds to wild birds in California, Ohio, Maine and Maryland, collecting data from widely separated areas to determine if there were regional differences in bird food preferences.  He found none, but a total of 710,450 observations indicated that many commonly used materials in inexpensive mixes such as wheat, cracked corn and milo had very little appeal for most birds and could well be left out.

Dr. Geis discovered that sunflower seeds were the most beneficial and widely accepted bird food. He advised readers to choose packages labeled as oil-type sunflower seeds, as not only are they eaten by a greater variety of species, but there are from two to four times as many of these small seeds as the larger black striped sunflower seeds in packages of the same weight.

The seeds can be placed in a hanging or elevated feeders, as well as on platforms which ground-feeding birds are more likely to visit. Whole or broken kernels of hulled sunflowers are also very attractive (although more expensive), and white proso millet should be offered to the smaller birds by spreading it on the ground or on a platform feeder.

Peanut hearts, which are the embryos of the peanuts removed in making peanut butter, are sometimes added to mixes to make them smell better, but there is little to recommend them as they were found to be attractive only to starlings.  In contrast, peanut kernels were snapped up by blue jays and tufted titmice, although both also took sunflower seeds readily, a cheaper alternative.

Niger (also called thistle seed) was very attractive to goldfinches, but it was suggested that this was because they did not have to compete with other more aggressive species at its specialized containers.  Goldfinches very well might prefer the oil sunflower seeds if offered in such a manner that other birds could not crowd them out.

Rapeseed was only eaten by mourning doves and house finches, and safflower was initially chosen only by cardinals and mourning doves as well as an occasional sparrow.   Additional tests indicated that several species gradually increased their intake of safflower and that it might be used to feed cardinals while discouraging other undesirables.

The greatest variety of bird species was attracted to food placed on the ground, or for practical reasons, platform feeders.  It was reported that placing white proso millet on the ground next to dense cover resulted in attracting many species of birds including some that were rarely seen on elevated feeders.   At the same time, tube feeders without trays benefited those birds capable of clinging -- finches, chickadees, titmice and woodpeckers.

If you enjoy watching birds, you might want to consider making checklists of what you see in your yard, park or wherever, and then report them on the internet site eBird.  In 2017, eBird received more than 4.75 million complete checklists from birder enthusiasts who kept track of what they saw in their favorite local spots. The site even challenges readers to submit an average of at least one checklist a day for the entire year with a nice reward!  (I see the site will be down on January 10th for maintenance so avoid that one day.)

In addition to submitting checklists to eBird, there is another opportunity coming up for helping the wild birds.  The Great Backyard Bird Count, sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society will be held on February 16-19 and more than 160,000 people of all ages and walks of life worldwide will join the four-day count.  To take part, simply spend at least 15 minutes outdoors on one or more of the days and tally the numbers and kinds of birds seen.  Then, open your free online account at the Cornell Lab site on your computer, and enter the numbers.  You can count from any location, anywhere in the world, for as long as you wish.  Give it a try!


January 2, 2018:  A new year

January seems like a strange month to designate as the commencement of a new year.  Certainly the Wisconsin outdoors shows almost no sign of any beginnings, and much of the wild world is either hunkered down or fast asleep. One would think that the onset of spring would be a more logical time to celebrate, and that was true in the past. 

In 2000 BC, the Babylonian year began with the appearance of the first crescent moon after the Vernal equinox (first day of spring). The Romans continued this tradition, but various emperors tampered with the calendar until it lost its connections with the sun. In order to right things, the Roman senate, in 153 BC, declared January 1st to be the beginning of the New Year, and when Julius Caesar, in 46 BC, established what has come to be known as the Julian calendar, that practice was continued. January1st has been celebrated as a holiday by Western nations for only about the past 400 years.

According to the astronomical calendar, however, we are deep into the winter season.  The solstice, that day at which the sun appears to rise at its most southerly point, occurred weeks ago.  As a result, the length of time between sunrise and sunset was at a minimum and we experienced the shortest day of the year.  Earth is actually closest to the sun in January, but is so oriented that the direct rays of the sun fall in the southern hemisphere rather than upon us, so we see the sun low in the southern sky and have short wintry days and long nights.

It is interesting to learn that the earth has not always had its present tilt on its axis of 23.5 degrees. It has been as great as 24.5 and as small as 21.5 over a cycle of 40,000 years and it is impossible to know what effect this has had on our planet. If the north pole were tilted directly toward the sun during the summer months, the entire northern hemisphere would have 24 hours of sunlight each day while winters would be in constant darkness. On the other hand, if there were no tilt at all, the entire planet would have equal days and nights with no seasons at all. There is some evidence that even the small deviations we have experienced have caused significant changes in the world’s climate through the centuries.

So what is going on in the outdoors these days? Animals such as the woodchucks, bats, bears, and chipmunks are hibernating; that is, their heartbeats and breathing rates have dropped to a near-death status in their secluded dens.  A woodchuck's heart rate goes from 80 beats per minute to four beats per minute. Squirrels, raccoons, skunks, and deer mice also disappear during very cold periods but venture out on mild winter days. These species are not true hibernators but enter a deep torpor during severe weather.

Snakes and other reptiles begin to look for a place to hibernate as early as October -- some species often gathering in large congregations. Box turtles have been known to bury themselves five feet into soft dirt or sand to escape the freezing temperatures, while we think at least some of our rattlesnakes may spend the winter in a den deep under a big rock. Amphibians also hibernate, with toads and tree frogs burrowing into the ground and aquatic frogs sinking to the bottom of ponds and lakes.

Just about every wildlife species will experience some decline in population over the winter season, even those who migrate to warmer climes, as the journey is often a dangerous one. Whitetail deer reduce their metabolism to conserve stored fat energy and have coats with hollow hairs filled with insulating air, but even then it is estimated that a winter with very deep snow can kill as much as 30% of the northern herd. In open country, extended blizzards can wipe out more than 60 percent of a pheasant population.

The snow also causes difficulties for shrews, mink, coyotes, and fox that depend upon small rodents for food. The same snow benefits the mice and voles, however, as they can live and navigate more safely under its protection.  Even some birds such as ruffed grouse burrow under the surface for shelter and warmth. In lengthy periods without snow, subzero cold can drive the frost deep into the soil, and plants, insects, and small rodents that otherwise would have the protection of an insulating blanket may not survive.

This year with winter’s tardiness, some of the migrant birds have been slow to make the trip south.  We were still seeing sandhill cranes along our road the week before Christmas, and we wondered at their reluctance to leave.  Flocks of geese and cranes perhaps even slowed Santa’s reindeer as they made their yearly round.

Of all nature's survival feats, the most impressive might be that of winter resident birds such as chickadees who must maintain body temperatures of 100 degrees or more. Overnight, a chickadee may lose 10 to 15 percent of its body weight, and must spend its daylight hours feeding constantly to make up. Wild turkeys, on the other hand, can go for two weeks without eating in periods of severe weather, losing up to 40 percent of their body weight without lasting harm.

It is the great horned owl that really begins the calendar new year with a flurry of activity. These large owls are the first birds to nest each year in Wisconsin, and males start calling and setting up territories as early as November and December.  January is the month of noisy courtship calls and interesting behavior between the male and female, so step outside one of these quiet nights and listen in the New Year of 2018.


December 19, 2017:  Chickadees and Titmice

It seems strange that chickadees can be found on so many of the decorations offered for the Christmas season. Certainly they grace numerous holiday cards, but you can also find them on tree ornaments, clothing, tree skirts, pillows, throws, stockings, and who knows what else? There are sometimes more chickadees than reindeer!

Why should chickadees be so popular? The little bird is almost universally considered cute—probably because it is almost cartoon-like with its oversized round head, bright beady black eyes, tiny body, and its curiosity about everything, including us. The chickadee’s black cap and bib, white cheeks, gray back, wings, and tail, and whitish underside with buffy sides are distinctive.  If you feed the birds, you probably have discovered that it watches you constantly from a nearby perch and is the first to return to a feeder after you fill it.

The chickadee is a member of the Titmouse family that is widely distributed in North America from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, in England, and across Europe. There are five species in North America: the black capped which makes its home to the north, the chestnut backed found in the Pacific Northwest, the Carolina chickadee which is found in the southeast, the mountain chickadee found in the west, and the Mexican chickadee found in Arizona, New Mexico and mountainous areas of Mexico.

Chickadees are usually seen in pairs or small groups. When nesting is over and the young fledge, they often form small flocks of up to a dozen birds that will roost and forage together until the next mating season. Finding food in the winter is often tough, and hunting together seems to increase their chances for success. This group concept also helps as a predator defense system with many pairs of eyes to look for and voices to warn of approaching danger.

If you have chickadees at your feeders you have probably heard their many calls and even conversations, as they are seldom silent. Thirteen distinct types of vocalizations have been classified, many of which are complex and can communicate different types of information. The song is a simple, clear whistle of two and sometimes three notes, the second and third a step lower than the first, but the most familiar call is the familiar “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” which gave this bird its name.

This call is astonishingly complex and consists of up to four distinct units that can be arranged in different patterns to communicate information. A recent study showed that the number of “dees” usually indicated the level of threat from a nearby predator. It was found that alarm calls triggered by small, dangerous raptors had a shorter interval between chick and dee and tended to have extra dees, usually averaging four instead of two. In one case, a warning call about a pygmy owl – a prime threat to chickadees – contained 23 dees.

“Black-capped chickadees have a wonderful assortment of adaptations for the winter,” writes biologist Susan Smith, who has long studied them. “Carefully hidden food items, dense winter coats, specially selected winter roost cavities, and perhaps most remarkable of all, the ability to go into nightly hypothermia, thus conserving large amounts of energy, greatly increases the chances of survival,” she said. This lowers the chickadee’s body temperature down to about 12 or 15 degrees below their normal daytime temperature of 108 degrees F., and allows the bird to reduce its heat loss by about 25%.

The chickadee is largely an insect eater and spends much of its time gleaning insects, eggs and larvae as it clings to a tree trunk, twig or branch. As the temperature drops and when such food becomes scarce, it switches to pine, birch, and weed seeds and any berries it can find.  It loves sunflower seeds, peanut kernels, peanut butter mixes and suet and becomes a regular and eager visitor to any feeder it can discover that offers them. The bird will typically take one seed, fly away and perch nearby to eat it or else hide it for later use. Often the flock will settle nearby, each member waiting its turn to grab a seed, and conversing about the situation.  With a little patience, some of the bolder birds will even accept seed from a person's hand.

We are also fortunate to host another member of the family -- the tufted titmouse.  It has a grey back and wings with white underparts, and a grey crest sets it apart from other small birds at the feeder.  Its song is usually described as a whistled peter-peter-peter, but it may make a variety of sounds.  Its range is expanding northwards, possibly due to the increased availability of winter food at feeders.

The tufted titmouse also dines mainly on insects, especially caterpillars, but also eats seeds, nuts and berries, storing some for later use. The female raises her brood in a natural cavity, a nest box or sometimes in an old woodpecker nest and lines it with soft materials, and has even been observed plucking hair from a neighborhood dog.  Sometimes a bird hatched one year will help the parents raise their next brood before breeding setting up housekeeping themselves.  They tend to be curious about their human neighbors and can sometimes be spotted on window ledges peering into the windows to watch what's going on inside.  The pair may remain together and defend their territory year-round and often joins small mixed flocks.

All of us at Timbergreen Farm send you our best wishes for a joyous holiday season and hope you will spend part of it outdoors enjoying the chickadees, titmice and other wildlife, as well as the beauty of our Wisconsin countryside.


December 12, 2017

The weather, particularly the temperature outside and presence or lack of snow, is a popular subject for discussion these days as it affects many of our activities and much of our comfort, but daylight length and sun angle are important as well. Many people find it hard to adjust to the long hours of darkness during the winter, and these will culminate at the solstice, which will occur on December 21 this year. This is the shortest day and longest night of the year and is also when the noontime sun appears to be at its lowest point in the sky. 

Ancient peoples who meticulously observed the sun's position each day noticed that twice a year its motion appeared to stop and hold in the same place for several days before reversing direction. This is the origin of the word "solstice", coming from the Latin words for "sun stoppage".  Eventually it was understood that the reason for the different seasons was that while the earth rotated about the sun, its spin axis was tilted some 23.5 degrees from the axis of its trajectory. This tilt causes us to receive less direct sunlight in the Northern Hemisphere at this time of the year and creates our winter.

Many plants and animals are also affected by these changes in day length as it allows them to set their internal clocks.  Birds use specialized cells called photoreceptors that detect light and initiate a physical response to it. The photoreceptors are deep in the bird’s brain, not in its eyes as they are in mammals (including us).  The receptors react to light that penetrates bird’s thin skull and surrounding tissues, and register variations in day length as well as the strength and angle of the rays.

After the solstice as the hours of daylight begin to lengthen, the gonads of birds will grow larger and will produce more sex hormones. Bald eagles are some of the first to respond to the change and they will begin to spend more time working on their nests, bringing in sticks for the outer cup and softer materials for the inner lining. Over time, this may cause the nest to become very large. One bald eagle nest in Florida was measured as 20 feet thick, almost 10 feet wide, and weighed almost 3 tons.

Other birds may react to changes in daylight length by migrating. Researchers have studied the dark-eyed junco when it is in its winter territory in the United States. As the days lengthen, the reproductive organs enlarge and the bird begins to gear up physically for the flight north to its breeding territory in northern Canada. After they complete their nesting in the shortening days of summer the process reverses. The junco’s reproductive organs gradually become inactive and shrink in size, while hormones stimulate the growth of a new set of feathers and fat deposits to provide fuel for the long trip south.

Songs in birds such as the goldfinch also depend on the hours of daylight. In the spring when the photoperiod increases, the male goldfinch’s testes grow.  These secrete steroid hormones that cause changes in the song center of the brain and stimulate the bird to sing more numerous and elaborate songs.  During autumn with less daylight, the male goldfinch’s testes regress and the singing decreases dramatically. 
Plants in temperate zones must also set up their internal clocks.  A photoreceptor protein created by daylight allows the plant to sense seasonal changes in night length, causing them to develop leaves and flowers at the most advantageous time. Long-day plants such as peas and lettuce typically flower during late spring or early summer as days are getting longer. Short-day plants cannot flower under long days or if exposed to any artificial light. Day-neutral plants aren’t fussy and may initiate flowering at a certain stage in development regardless of light exposure.

The angle of the sun may be more important to a plant than day length because plant cells produce special compounds in response to different portions of the light spectrum. During late fall and early winter when the sun remains low in the southern sky, the indirect light produces an increase in far-red induced compounds. As spring approaches and the arc of the sun rises in the sky, direct sunlight triggers the production of red compounds. Although it is hard to believe, some botanists suggest that even seeds below the soil are affected, as the amounts of red and far-red light that penetrate the soil are sufficient to affect germination.

Considering the dependence of many of the Earth’s residents on day length, a study published a few years ago in the journal Nature is interesting.  It reports that periodic wobbles in Earth's core change the length of a day every 5.9 years.  Scientists believe that gyrating iron fluid generates Earth's magnetic field like a giant dynamo, and both yearly and millennial-scale changes in the field have been attributed to the swirling, spinning outer core. The authors wrote that finding a connection with changes in the length of day provides a new way of thinking about the phenomenon. During these short-lived lurches in the magnetic field intensity, Earth's day shifts by 0.1 millisecond, and while seemingly negligible, these fleeting variations are very important to those who study the planet and its core.

Other forces also change the planet's spin. Since Earth formed, tugging from the sun and moon have slowed the planet's rotation.  Earthquakes, melting glaciers, ocean currents and strong winds such as the jet stream, can alter how fast the planet spins, shortening or lengthening a day by milliseconds.  It is fascinating to think what effects such day-length variations might have on us and our fellow creatures.

December 5, 2017: Non-native Nuisances

In the 1800s a number of acclimatization societies were organized in the United States for the purpose of introducing animals and plants from elsewhere around the planet.  Private individuals, too, devoted both time and money to importing birds or mammals which they considered desirable additions to our land.  The results of these efforts have been less then satisfactory, however, and probably only hunters have appreciated any of the imports, as ring-necked pheasants and several species of water birds have joined native species as good prey.

Several other introduced birds have become notorious, however, with the house (or English) sparrow, the house finch and the European starling being cases in point. The common starling was native to middle Europe and western Asia, and some hundred of the birds were released in New York City’s Central Park in 1890  and 1891, presumably part of the effort to introduce every species mentioned by William Shakespeare in his writings. 

The starling is a highly gregarious species, especially in autumn and winter.  Huge, noisy flocks - murmurations - may form near roosts and form a tight formation in flight, frequently expanding and contracting and changing shape, seemingly without any sort of leader. Each bird changes its course and speed as a result of the movement of its closest neighbors.  These flocks can be beneficial to agriculture by controlling insect pests; however, they can also be pests themselves when they feed on fruit and sprouting crops.

Because of the damage they do, there have been attempts to reduce the numbers of the introduced populations of starlings and no permit is required to remove nests and eggs or kill juveniles or adults.  In 2008, the United States government poisoned, shot or trapped 1.7 million birds, the largest number of any nuisance species to be destroyed, but still it is only a small percentage of the estimated 140 million starlings thought to be present.

The starling can eat grain, seeds, fruits, nectar and food waste but prefers insects and other arthropods such as earthworms, snails and amphibians.  For the most part, they forage close to the ground, taking insects from the surface or just underneath. Generally, common starlings prefer foraging amongst short-cropped grasses and are often found among grazing animals or perched on their backs, where they will also feed on the mammal's external parasites. 

Multiple releases of the house sparrow were also attempted from 1850 to 1870, and the bird soon became established as far south as the Carolinas and Texas, as far west as Iowa, and as far north as Montreal, Canada.  By 1880, it was found in isolated colonies in San Francisco and Salt Lake city, and during the following five years, the birds had spread across a million square miles. 

Originally the sparrow name was used for almost any small bird, but the house sparrow is actually a member of the weaverbird family.  It is native to central Eurasia, but is now one of the most widespread and abundant birds in the world.  It is highly gregarious, preferring cities and settled rural areas, and is rarely seen away from human habitation. It usually spends its entire life in a very small area, but flocks containing hundreds of birds may fly several miles to favorable feeding spots. They keep in touch with each other with various grating, twittering, or cheeping conversation, which can be quite loud when the birds are agitated.

The house sparrow weighs only about an ounce, but readily attacks bluebirds, swallows, wrens, chickadees and other cavity-nesters, driving them from their homes and then taking over the quarters for its own brood.  It builds a messy nest, often close to others of its flock, scattering droppings and scrap materials over the area.  And although it does feed on weed seeds, it often finds agricultural and garden crops more convenient and often does considerable damage.

The house finch differs in that it was originally native to western North America but was introduced to the eastern section of the continent in the 1940s.  The birds were trapped and sold illegally in New York City as "Hollywood finches" because of their attractive feathers and cheery warbling song, but were released into the wild when vendors were prosecuted under the migratory bird act. They have since spread across much of the eastern U.S., and their population is estimated to be close to two billion. 

Adult house finches are mostly brown with heavy streaking on their breasts and underparts.  Males have reddish heads, necks and shoulders, the color derived from the berries and fruits they eat and so varying in intensity with the seasons .  Their song is a rapid, cheery warble or a variety of chirps. Nests are made in cavities, including openings in buildings, hanging plants, and other cup-shaped outdoor decorations.  House finches forage on the ground but are frequent visitors to bird feeders throughout the year, particularly if stocked with sunflower or nyjer seed.  They are aggressive enough to drive other birds away and are known to damage orchard fruit and consume commercially grown grain. 

In an age when diversity and equal treatment for all individuals is of great concern, some people might feel it hard to justify our behavior with regards to some bird species. We provide housing, plant food crops, give legal protection, and assist many types in numerous ways, while doing our best to destroy others with guns, poison, and various types of harassment.  Still it would seem that the lack of foresight caused many of the problems and we must correct any problems as best we can. 


November 27, 2017:  Non-native Nuisances

Only the oak leaves continue to grace our woodland trees now that November is drawing to a close, and even those are brown and drying up. In our long past urban childhood one of the pleasurable tasks of autumn was to rake the fallen leaves into piles for burning, but this is no longer generally practiced, as their value has now been recognized.

Trees are effective mineral extractors, putting down deep root systems that absorb calcium, magnesium, potassium and phosphorus from the soil, transporting them up their trunks and branches and then moving them out into their leaves.  50-80% of all the nutrients trees extract from the ground end up in their leaves.  After one to three years on the ground, fungus will have broken the leaves down to release the minerals back into the soil. 

The leaf value extends far beyond the minerals they provide.  Because they’re a form of organic roughage, they can dramatically improve drainage and aeration, lightening heavy soils and helping sandy soils retain moisture.  They provide the perfect nutrition for earthworms and beneficial microbes and a blanket of leaves protects tender plants from winter wind and cold.

Valuable as they are after they die, living plant and tree leaves serve even more vital roles in our world. They provide food for all creatures from tiny fungi to giant elephants, and they also expire oxygen for us to breathe. Using light as an energy source, they split water into hydrogen and oxygen, using the hydrogen to make the carbohydrates they need to sustain themselves, while releasing excess oxygen into the atmosphere.

Simple leaves such as those on clubmoss evolved as extensions of their stems some four hundred million years ago. More complex true leaves appeared some fifty million years later after the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere had dropped significantly.  There are several structures that have important roles in the movement of nutrients and water throughout a plant.    A branched system of tubes called xylem is responsible for water transport from the roots to the leaves where it is used in photosynthesis.   Along with the xylem is another system of tubes called phloem, which transports the glucose formed in photosynthesis into the branches and fruit, and then back down trunk to the roots.

Although leaves can be seen in many different textures and sizes, a typical leaf is arranged on the plant so as to shade its neighbors as little as possible and is flat and thin so that it can receive maximum sunlight.  It is made up of three major systems -- the outer epidermis which covers the upper and lower surfaces, an arrangement of veins that support it and transport food and water, and the inner tissue which contains most of the working cells.

The outer layer of cells covering the leaf is waterproofed with a waxy cuticle which is impermeable to liquid water and water vapor but is supplied with minute openings called stomata that can open or close as needed.  In any square centimeter of a surface there may be from 1,000 to 100,000 stomata and they play the important role in allowing photosynthesis without letting the leaf dry out.

Chlorophyl is the term used for the green pigment which allows plants to absorb energy from sunlight. It uses light in the blue range of the spectrum, followed by the red portion. Conversely, it reflects the green portions of the spectrum rather than absorbing it, causing the leaf to appear green. In photosynthesis, chlorophyll pigment absorbs the energy from sunlight and converts it and deposits it in energy-storage molecules while freeing oxygen from water. It then uses these molecules to make organic compounds from carbon dioxide that can be used by the plant and by any animals that feed on it.

Photosynthesis must take place during the time when the sun is shining, and at night leaves experience respiration, which in plants is the conversion of carbohydrates into energy.  Special structures called mitochondria serve to parcel out the stored energy for metabolic functions in the cell and, thereby, to the whole plant.  The amount of oxygen required is less than the amount of oxygen produced by way of photosynthesis, leaving a surplus for animals and us to breathe.

As sunlight decreases in autumn, the veins that carry sap into and out of a leaf gradually close, causing the chlorophyll to fade and to allow yellow, orange or red (the carotenoids and anthocyanins also present) to show through.  A layer of cells forms at the base of the leaf stem and when this separation layer is complete, the leaf falls. (In many oak trees the separation layer never fully forms and the leaves remain on the tree through the winter.)  On the ground, fallen leaves are broken down by bacteria, fungi, earthworms and other organisms. The decomposed leaves restock the soil with nutrients, and become part of the spongy humus layer on the forest floor that absorbs and holds rainfall.

Evergreen trees -- pines, spruces, cedars and firs -- don't lose their leaves, or needles, in winter. The needles are covered with a heavy wax coating and the fluids inside the cells contain substances that resist freezing. Evergreen leaves can live for several years before they fall and are replaced by new growth.

There is a melancholy in autumn splendor, as we feel its fragility; still, this very feeling is what drives us outdoors to savor the season before it fades.  Soon the woods will be dark and still, and winter with its very different beauty will be upon us.


November 21, 2017:  Antlers

For less than $100, you can purchase a fine set of whitetail antlers on eBay -- evidently considered a bargain although its original owner was probably glad to get rid of the bulky load on stop of its head.  What is it about these strange projections that makes them prized? 

Most large grazing animals have either horns or antlers that are used for defense and in duels between males for possession of a female.  Although both have a similar purpose, they are very different structures. Most cattle, sheep and goats have horns. These are hollow horny sheaths made of keratin, the same substance as our fingernails and enclose pointed bony cores that arise from the front of the skull. Horns are unbranched, are never shed, are commonly found on both sexes, and continue to grow throughout the life of the animal.

Antlers, on the other hand, are usually found only on male deer and are the fastest growing tissue known. They begin to develop in early spring, starting as soft, swollen pads on the skull and lengthening into club-like structures. Antlers are live tissue, composed of bone and growing at an average of 1 to 2 inches per week. During this time, they are covered with a soft brown-haired skin called "velvet" that protects the many tiny blood vessels that carry food and minerals to the growing tissues. Antlers in velvet are delicate and easily bruised and will bleed if scraped against a tree or branch.

Its first fall, a young buck will grow small bumps, called buttons, and by the second fall, it will usually have one or two points on each small antler. At 2 1/2 years, a buck will usually have 3 to 5 points on a side, and a mature animal will usually grow medium to large antlers with additional points. A popular belief is that you can tell a deer's age by the number of points on each antler, but the only true way to tell a its age is by its teeth, as the size and shape of the antlers is greatly influenced by genetics and diet.

During the summer when a buck's antlers are growing, they act as air conditioners to help get rid of extra body heat. Then, after three or four months, the blood supply is cut off and the antlers harden. The dead and dry velvet peels off in strips, helped along by vigorous rubbing against trees and other sturdy uprights. During mating or rutting season, a buck uses his antlers to fight other males, lunging at any intruding stranger head on and sometimes even locking antlers. After a few minutes of shoving and pushing, during which pieces of antler may be broken, the weaker male will usually retreat, leaving any nearby females to the victor.

After the breeding season in January or February, bucks will shed their antlers, the growths separating easily from the skull bone and leaving smooth scars with no jagged edges. The discarded antlers are a welcome treat for mice, chipmunks, squirrels, and porcupines because they contain calcium, salt, and other minerals.

Prehistoric man used horns and antlers as tools, but they were also utilized in medical treatments in the Orient. The first written reference dates back to a scroll from the Chinese Hun Dynasty, 206 B.C. to 200 A.D., in which deer antler velvet was recommended for 52 different diseases. Chinese medical books claimed that the substance helped the kidneys, improved lung function, increased vitality, improved circulation, and sharpened mental awareness, among other things.

The term velvet originally referred to the fine hairs on the antler, but is now used specifically to indicate its immature stage before it calcifies. It has a cartilage-like texture and has a velvety feel. Velvet antler calcifies from the bottom up to the top and it must be harvested at the right stage, usually from a living animal that is not harmed by the operation. It is then dried and sliced or powdered. The most common use is for relief of rheumatism and arthritis, but it is also used for a variety of other purposes, ranging from sexual disorders to enhancing athletic prowess. Ossified antlers that fall off naturally are still valued but must be boiled to yield a gelatin that can be used for certain applications, such as easing swelling.

Today, there are some 35,000 deer farms in Korea, New Zealand, China, Russia, Mongolia, and, more recently, the United States. They produce animal meat to be used as food, and antlers that are usually exported to the Orient, though antler-based health products are now manufactured for domestic consumption around the world.

Traditionally, deer antler is sliced very thinly or ground to powder. The thin slices are made by removing the outer, hairy portion of the antler, soaking the antler in hot alcohol to soften it, and then carefully slicing it to produce round wafers. The slices are best suited for soaking in wine to make a "tincture" of antler. Very thin slices can be eaten directly. To make gelatin, ossified antlers are boiled for several hours to release the gelatin that also can be dried and ground into powder, and consumed directly.

According to one internet source, the old deer horns have become the latest aphrodisiac craze in California. Only the tips of the horns are used and make a powder that is then pressed into pills. While there is no scientific evidence regarding any supposed benefits, it doesn’t bother the deer as they have already discarded the antlers, and its use is both legal and safe. I think I’ll leave any antlers I find for the mice, however.


November 14, 2017: Sandhill Cranes

We continue to be surprised at the presence of the sandhill cranes in the fields along Highway 14 and even on Rainbow Road.  One would think that any sensible bird would be on its way south by now, but they seem to be very reluctant to set out even though many of the recent nights have registered temperatures well below freezing.  Not too many years ago we made a special trip to the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in northern Indiana to view the big birds, as we seldom saw many here in Wisconsin.  Now more and more are pausing here each year and we are seeing flocks from September well into November, some of them containing a thousand or more birds.

Sandhill cranes are primarily birds of open fresh water wetlands, but may be found in bogs, sedge meadows, open grasslands and even cultivated fields. They feed on a wide variety of plant tubers, grains, small vertebrates such as mice and snakes, and invertebrates such as insects or worms. Their long legs allow them to wade in shallow water, and they use their long necks and sharp beaks to probe down into the bottom muck for hidden food. They are fairly social birds that usually live in pairs or family groups throughout the year--foraging, roosting and migrating together, sometimes in the thousands.

Sandhill cranes raise one brood per year and nesting activity usually begins in April or May. Both members of a breeding pair build the nest using plant material from the surrounding wetland area, and the female lays one to three dull brown eggs with reddish markings. Both parents incubate the eggs for about 30 days and the chicks are able to leave the nest within a day of hatching. The parents brood them for up to three weeks and the chicks often remain with their parents until the nesting season the next spring.  They then join flocks with other juveniles and non-breeders until they pair up to breed at between two and seven years of age.

Sandhill crane eggs and chicks are at risk from foxes, raccoons, coyotes, wolves, bobcats and lynx as well as crows, ravens and hawks, and even the adults are sometimes attacked. These defend themselves and their young from predators by jumping, kicking and hissing with their wings spread and bill pointed. (A crane’s bill is powerful enough to pierce the skull of a small carnivore.)

There are six North American crane subspecies, three of which are migratory (the lesser, greater and Canadian) that are distributed across a broad breeding range in the northern U.S. and Canada, and three non-migratory (Mississippi, Cuban, and Florida) that have restricted ranges in the southern United States and Cuba.  Lesser sandhills are the smallest, weighing about 6-7 pounds and standing about three feet tall. Each spring and fall these pause on their travels between their breeding grounds throughout the arctic and subarctic regions of northern Canada, Alaska and Siberia, and their wintering areas in New Mexico, Texas, and northern Mexico. The sight of their migration has provided what as been touted as one of the country’s great natural sights as up to half a million of the big birds stop for up to six weeks on the river flats of the Platte and North Platte Rivers in Nebraska.

The greater sandhills, mostly in the Midwest, are the largest subspecies and can stand four feet tall, weigh ten pounds and have seven-foot wingspans.  Hunting, agricultural expansion and drainage of wetlands in the 18th and 19th centuries led to the almost complete disappearance of these birds from both breeding and wintering grounds in the United States, and in Wisconsin, they were reduced to about twenty-five breeding pairs in the 1930s.  Fortunately, protection has allowed their population to recover dramatically in recent decades. The main portion migrates through the east-central United States to wintering grounds in southern Georgia and central Florida, while birds from the western parts of the breeding range may migrate down the Mississippi Valley to wintering areas on the Texas Gulf Coast. 

Scientists generally divide the greater sandhill crane further into four distinct regional populations.  The prairie population includes perhaps 10,000-15,000 birds, and breeds in the marshes and wet prairies of northwestern Minnesota, southwestern Ontario, and southern Manitoba; the Rocky Mountain population has been estimated at 18,000-21,500, and breeds in parts of Montana, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado; the Colorado River Valley population is estimated at 1400-2100 and breeds in northeastern Nevada and southwestern Idaho; and, the group of most interest to us, the Eastern population is by far the largest and nests in south-central Canada, the western Great Lakes, and the Upper Midwest.

We have not heard any estimates of how many cranes are presently in our area but last year the count at Jasper-Pulaski was some 25,000.  I would guess that when winter catches up with us and snow covers their food sources in the next week or so, our visitors will take to the air and head south. Experts tell us the big birds circle up to heights of 5000 feet to catch the stiff northerly winds that will carry them through Indiana, Tennessee and Georgia into Florida.  Some will likely stop off at various hospitable locations but many will continue on to central Florida where they will enjoy vacation time until next spring.  We will miss them...


November 7, 2017: Quail

Most people are familiar with the voice of the northern quail and refer to the bird as a bobwhite.  Some years ago, we had a few visit us here on the farm, stalking up and down our split rail fence and calling, and even coming up on our deck.  It was obvious that they were not wild birds, and we learned later than neighbors down the road had raised and released them in an effort to start a local population.  They found it a difficult process however, the birds did not survive and we have neither heard nor seen any since.  Now another neighbor has called and reported a few appearing in his yard and he and we wonder about their status.

This small plump bird is only nine or ten inches long and weighs about six ounces. It has a short, stout beak and strong feet and claws, which are ideal for scratching through the ground debris to find seeds and other edibles.  Its body feathers are reddish-brown, mottled with black and white spots, and the male has a white throat and band on its forehead that extends back from the bill.  The quail's mottled coloring acts as a defense, and the bird often freezes when threatened or alarmed allowing its camouflage to blend into its surroundings.

Not too long ago, these small game birds would claim their territories along brushy fencerows and where woodlands met pastures and prairies in southwestern Wisconsin starting in early May. The males gave out with their distinctive sounds -- one or two slow and widely spaced whistled notes, followed by another rising in pitch a full octave that people heard as “bob-bob-white”.  When they attracted a prospective mate, the males would puff themselves up to look as beefy and hunky as possible. They would also fan their tails, bow their heads and offer to share a few bits of grain if the female showed any interest. 

Quail ate mainly vegetation, although insects were also very important in the diet of the chicks.  During the spring, summer and fall, adults would feed on fruits of the wild grape, bittersweet, sumac, seeds of native legumes, with crops like corn, soybeans and small grains being their favorites.  In late fall and winter, they relied on large weed seeds like ragweed, foxtail, smartweed and wild buckwheat, as well as waste corn and other grains.

Quail pairs would stay together throughout the breeding season, scratching out shallow nests in the tall grass and lining them with soft leaves and other materials.  The female laid an egg a day up to about a dozen, and both parents incubated the brood for about two weeks.  Both adults fed the young, and the chicks grew rapidly and could soon fly.  They typically stayed with their parents, however, and along with stray males and other unpaired individuals usually formed a covey of a dozen birds or more.  They were known for faking an injury or broken wing in an attempt to lure intruders away from the group. 

Coveys typically gathered in a circle to roost with their tails together to watch for predators and also for warmth. During feeding, they foraged together, moving only as far as necessary to find food and usually within a half mile.  They fed in the early morning and in the evening until dark, except when adults were raising broods and the chicks required constant tending. They took daily dust baths, working sand or soil into their feathers to remove parasites.

Bobwhites were susceptible to lice, ticks, mites, fleas, roundworms and tapeworms, and diseases like avian pox, ulcerative enteritis, tularemia and aspergillosis.  Predators of adults included red and gray fox, the great-horned owl, and several species of hawks and farm cats. Chicks and eggs fell prey to skunks, raccoons, opossums, ground squirrels, mink and weasels, and hay mowing and other agricultural activities that resulted in nest loss.  Extreme cold, sleet and heavy snowfall also resulted in quail mortality and an estimated sixty percent of the population in Wisconsin perished each winter.

In the mid-eighteen hundreds, quail were relatively common throughout the southern two-thirds of the state, although studies showed that these small birds are at the very northern edge of their range in southern Wisconsin.  Their numbers grew as farmers cleared away trees and planted crops providing food and cover but the settlers hunted the birds for food and then for sale, shipping huge numbers to the cities.  Such harvesting couldn’t last, especially in the eastern sections where farm fields became larger, hedgerows declined and urban development spread across their territories.  In 1932, restrictions were placed on their hunting and finally banned until the population began to recover some.  Natural resource managers have surveyed quail populations since 1949, driving roadside transects through the fifteen counties across the quail’s primary range.  On each route, surveyors made twenty stops approximately a mile apart recording the number of whistling males heard in a two-minute period. 

Some internet sources report that the bobwhite is still plentiful in the southwestern part of the state where farmland is mixed with brushy cover, woody pasture and unused grasslands, and that some 40,000 quail remain.  There is even a hunting season set from October 14 to December 6th this year with a limit of five birds a day.  On the other hand, the Wisconsin Conservation Congress Upland Game meeting made this statement in 2012:  “The bobwhite quail is all but gone. The decline is nationwide along with the habitat they need”.

What there is no doubt about is that quail populations have steadily and drastically declined since the late 1940s. They are so dependent on hedgerow and thicket habitat that the combined losses of brushy areas, fewer grasslands, decreasing numbers of small farms, grazed woodlots, browsing deer and invasive plant species all squeeze birds from shrinking habitat.  Mild winters and efforts to restore grassland habitats and buffers might help a bit, but their future remains in doubt. 


October 31, 2017

If you have ever seen a witch riding her broomstick across the full moon on a Halloween night, you probably noticed the large black crow perched on her shoulder. The American crow often appears in legend and mythology as an omen of doom, presumably because of its dark plumage, harsh calls, and tendency to eat carrion. In Native American folklore, Crow is often seen as a similar trickster to Coyote although its tricks tend to be nastier and it is never portrayed as a good guy. The crow is seldom appreciated in these days either, for it is well-known for getting into garbage, feasting on carrion and road kill, destroying crops, killing young birds, and being a noisy and messy nuisance.

Where available, corn is a favorite food; otherwise, the crow consumes a great variety of plant and animal food.  Most of us know that owls disgorge pellets containing indigestible remnants of their meals but many are not aware that crows, as well as many other species of birds, produce pellets as well. If one looks under a crow roost one can often find hundreds of clumps of grain, hair, and gravel that might be easily overlooked.

Kevin J. McGowan, a researcher at Cornell University, has been studying crow behavior since 1989. He and his student helpers have banded hundreds of four-week-old nestlings and followed their movements. Crows have only one successful brood a year as it takes up to four months from start until the young are independent. "Most young birds (of other species) leave their parents soon after leaving the nest… but crows stay with their parents for up to five years or longer.”  McGowan explained.  "Crows almost never breed before they're 2 years old and most don't leave home until age 4 or 5," he said. "While they wait for a breeding opportunity, most help their parents raise additional young. They help feed the incubating female, they feed the nestlings and fledglings, and they defend the nest and surrounding territory."

A surprising study from Cambridge University, suggests the cognitive abilities of crows are similar to those of chimpanzees, and concludes that, although they have very different brain structures, both crows and primates use a combination of imagination and thinking ahead to solve similar problems. It points out that a crow has an unusually large brain for its size, and "relatively the same size as the chimpanzee brain". The crow is probably Wisconsin’s most intelligent wild bird, having its own language with more than 20 sounds and even able to count up to four or five.  It has been taught to mimic words and short phrases (splitting its tongue is supposed to allow it to talk but this is a cruel myth) and one researcher was able to differentiate 23 distinct phrases used by a flock of crows he was studying.

Clarence Stevens, in his book Birding in Metro Halifax, records that his father was out looking for a lost cow early one foggy morning when he distinctly heard a voice say his name: "Hello Walter!" The second time he heard the voice, he saw the speaker – a crow sitting on a nearby fence. He was completely spooked, but later learned that a local man also by the name of Walter had taught the crow to talk. Stevens also recounted a second story that told of a crow that tormented a feeding gull by plucking at its tail feathers until the gull lost patience and attacked back, only to have the crow fly up over its head and swoop down to grab the food.

Another amazing account of crow behavior is found in the Firefly Encyclopedia of Birds, and tells about carrion crows on a university campus in Japan. They routinely place walnuts on the pavement at intersections during red lights. When traffic resumes, the walnuts are crushed by vehicle tires passing over them, and the crows return to claim their reward. If the cars miss any nuts, the birds sometimes hop back and move them to a better spot. Now California crows have been seen using the same technique, and it is believed that the observant birds had noticed cars driving over nuts fallen from a walnut tree overhanging a road. The birds already knew about dropping clams from a height on the seashore to break them open, but found this did not work for walnuts because of their soft green outer shell.

Even more impressive evidence of intelligence comes from New Zealand where researchers found that crows on New Caledonia Island make tapered serrated tools from leaves, and use them to prod and extract grubs and insects from holes and crevices. One captive New Caledonian crow, called Betty, was made famous when scientists at Oxford University filmed her making hooks from straight pieces of wire to obtain out-of-reach food.

The crow appears to be the biggest victim of West Nile virus, a disease introduced to North America. Crows die within one week of infection, and few seem able to survive exposure. Female mosquitoes, mainly of the Culex family, bite infected birds, carry the virus in their salivary glands, and infect other birds and occasionally mammals (including humans) when they bite again. There was evidence that showed American crow numbers were declining, most notably in the mid-Atlantic and in the Midwest regions. Despite their poor reputation, it would have been a great tragedy to lose these interesting birds.

Bird counts now indicate that populations of many bird species that had been dropping due to the virus are now leveling off or recovering and the steepest part of the crow decline seems to be over, allowing researchers and bird watchers alike to breathe a cautious sigh of relief. 


October 24, 2017: Winter Birds

We have said good-bye to a number of our summer birds such as the hummers and wrens, and now the first of the so-called winter birds are beginning to arrive.  Most are sparrows and finches that nest far to the north in Canada such as the juncos, siskins, redpolls and one of the nuthatches, and come south to spend the inclement months.  You can often identify which are sparrows, as they tend to be larger and bulkier with longer tails, have quieter colors, eat larger seeds and grains (they also have larger bills), and are usually single or in smaller groups.

First to appear in our farmyard this year was a dark-eyed junco, a sparrow with a slate-gray back and wings and a white belly.  The white outer tail feathers flash in flight and while hopping on the ground, and the males tend to have darker, more conspicuous markings than the females.  The very similar Oregon juncos have brown backs and wings and are sometimes seen here, although I read that they are more common in the west.  Both forage on the ground and mainly feed on insects and seeds.

Another expected arrival is the American tree sparrow, that looks much like our common chipping sparrow.  Its main identifying characteristics are a rusty cap and a small dark spot on the center of its plain grey breast.   Its breeding habitat is the tundra or the northern limits of the boreal forest in Alaska and northern Canada where it nests on the ground.  The bird's song is a sweet high warble descending in pitch and becoming buzzy near the finish.

The pine siskin is about the same size as our common goldfinch but adults are heavily streaked with short forked tails.  Most have varying amounts of yellow on their wings and tails, and sometimes white streaks on the wings.  They breed in open conifer forests but flock to backyard feeders offering small seeds, and they can often be seen on winter roads that have been salted to melt snow and ice.  Large numbers may move south in some years; hardly any in others, and it is one of a few species that is considered "irruptive" because of the high variability of their movements based on the success of food crops any particular year.

Another irruptive species is the the red-breasted nuthatch -- cousin to our common white-breasted -- and although it is primarily a full-time resident of northern forests, it sometimes migrates from year to year.  It looks and acts much like its relative, but has cinnamon underparts and a prominent white stripe above the black stripe through its eye.   It excavates its nest in dead wood, often close to the ground, sometimes smearing the entrance with pitch.  The common name of nuthatch comes from their habit of wedging seeds into cracks and hammering them open.

Pine siskins can survive in very cold temperatures with metabolic rates typically 40% higher than other songbirds of their size.   They also put on half again as much winter fat as the common redpoll and American goldfinch.  They protect their young from cold as well, insulating their nests with thick plant materials.  The females are said to never leave the nest while incubating eggs and hatchlings, and are fed by their male mates.  It is disturbing to hear that the pine siskin has suffered a significant annual decline in population since 1966, according to the Breeding Bird Survey.
The common redpoll is a small brownish-grey finch with dark streaks and a bright red patch on its forehead. It has a black bib and two pale stripes on the wings.  The male often has red on its breast as well.   These birds are remarkably resistant to cold temperatures and winter movements are mainly driven by the availability of food rather than the temperature.  Its range extends through northern Europe and Asia to northern North America, Greenland and Iceland and it is a partial migrant, moving southward in late autumn and northward again in March and April.
The purple finch has a short forked brown tail and brown wings and is about six inches long.  The male has a streaked back with raspberry red on the head, breast, back and rump while the female has light brown upper parts, dark brown streaks on white underparts and a white line above the eye.  Its breeding habitat is coniferous and mixed forest in Canada and the northeastern United States, but the population has declined sharply in the East due to the house finch and house sparrow.

Two other species, the pine and evening grosbeaks, are much larger finches that sometimes appear at our feeders.  The pine male has a rosy head, back and rump while the female is mostly olive-yellow and gray.  Both have long forked black tails, black wings with white wing bars and very large bills.  The male evening grosbeak has a bright yellow forehead and body while the female is mainly olive-brown.  They both have short black tails, black wings with white patches and large pale bills.

Watching for these visiting birds takes some of the sting from winter’s cold wind and enforced indoor hours, so install and fill your feeders and see what comes to partake of your offerings. 

October 17, 2017:  Black Birds

When I see telephone and power lines with scores of birds sitting tightly packed side-by-side, I am always reminded of the stories of the huge flocks of passenger pigeons that once lived here. These birds were somewhat similar to our present mourning doves but larger and more colorful, with slate blue heads and rump, gray backs, and red breasts. They fed on the nuts and seeds of chestnut, birch, oak, maple, and pine when available but otherwise would eat berries, wheat, oats, and corn, according to writings of John Muir.

Some estimate that there were three to five billion of these birds in North America when Europeans arrived, and it was said that a single nesting site might cover many thousands of acres. One large nesting in Wisconsin was reported to cover 850 square miles, and the number of birds involved was estimated at 136,000,000. During the late summer the flocks frequently moved about at random through the northern forests, but as fall approached they would move south for the winter.

As the early settlers cut the trees for farmland, the birds began raiding grain fields, causing serious damage. The farmers shot many but it was not until professional hunters began selling the birds in the city markets for as little as fifty cents a dozen that their numbers dropped noticeably.  Still, it was probably the loss of the large forests that ultimately doomed the bird.

The flocks of blackbirds that sit on our wires in the fall can not compare in size with those of the passenger pigeons, and they are usually made up of a mixture of species.  The majority are starlings, however, an introduced bird from Europe.  This is a chunky medium-sized bird, with a short tail and long, slender beak. In flight its wings are short and pointed, making it look something like a small, four-pointed star (presumably giving it its name). Although the starling looks black at a distance, it is an iridescent purplish-green with a yellow beak in the summer, and brown covered in bright white spots in the fall after molting.

All the European starlings in North America are thought to be descended from a hundred birds released in New York's Central Park in the early 1890s by a group of Shakespeare enthusiasts who wanted America to have all the birds mentioned in his writings. Today, more than 200 million range from Alaska to Mexico, and many people consider them pests.  Still, starlings will eat nearly anything, focusing on insects and other invertebrates when they’re available and so should be welcome visitors to our yards. The problem is they also eat fruits such as wild and cultivated cherries and blackberries, and gather in considerable numbers at feedlots where they feast on grain and livestock feed.

The birds have often been given a bum rap and accused of replacing native bird populations but according to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, a study found few actual effects on populations of 27 native species. Only sapsuckers seemed to show any decline due to starlings while other species appeared to be holding their own against them. At any rate, starlings are here to stay and since their population seems to be stable, we might as well enjoy them.

Common grackles also tend to congregate in large groups, (popularly referred to as “plagues”, a word some insist is very apt).  The males have yellowish eyes, long tails, and the black feathers on their heads are iridescent blue while their bodies have a bronze sheen.  The inconspicuous female is brown with no gloss and a shorter tail. They forage on the ground, in shallow water or in shrubs, and will eat almost anything that moves and is small enough to swallow, as well as berries, seeds and grain.

Grackles breed in open and semi-open areas across eastern North America and their nests are well-concealed cups in dense trees (often pine) or shrubs, often near water.  They frequently nest in colonies, some quite large. This bird’s voice is harsh and varied, especially when calling in a flock. It can also mimic the sounds of other birds or even humans, although not as well as the southern mockingbird.  One interesting fact is that the bird is known to practice “anting”, rubbing the insects on its feathers to spread the formic acid secreted by the ant.  The range of the grackle expanded as forests were cleared westward, but a recent count indicated that its populations have declined considerably from their peak.

A third black bird that frequents our telephone wires is the red-wing, and claims have been made that it is the most abundant living land bird on the continent.  Winter counts sometimes show that loose flocks can number in excess of a million birds per flock, and the full number of breeding pairs may exceed 250 million.  The male is all black with red shoulders and yellow wing bars, while the female is a nondescript dark brown.

The red-wing inhabits open grassy areas, generally preferring wetlands, where it builds its nest of grasses, sedge and mosses lined with mud.  It can also found in dry upland areas, where it feeds primarily on plant materials, including weed and waste grain.  It, like the other above mentioned black birds, migrates south for the winter and those from the Great Lake areas travel nearly eight hundred miles with the females going about a hundred and fifty miles farther for some reason.

The final black wire-sitter that we sometimes see is the brown-headed cowbird.  The male is distinguished by (what else?) its brown head while the female is a dull grey with fine streaking on its under parts.  These birds forage on the ground, often following grazing animals, and before European settlement, they followed bison herds across the prairies.  This nomadic lifestyle is thought to have caused their strange nesting behavior -- laying their eggs in the nests of other small bird species. The more robust cowbird chicks are tended by the host parents and fed at the expense of their own young.
There are two fascinating facts that have emerged from studying the cowbirds; the fostered birds somehow develop the calls, social and breeding behaviors of other cowbirds despite not having any examples, and it has been observed that the cowbirds periodically check on their abandoned eggs and young.  According to one study, if they found their egg had been removed from its nest, more than half of the birds ransacked the host nest to the extent that it had to be rebuilt.  They then laid their eggs in the new nests 85% of the time.  Wow!


October 10, 2017:  Two Bittersweets

One of husband Bill’s favorite wild flowers is the common chicory--a roadside plant that is a somewhat woody, perennial plant of the dandelion family, usually with bright blue flowers.  It lives as a wild plant in its native Europe, and is now common in North America, China, and Australia, where it has become widely naturalized.  Many varieties are cultivated for salad leaves, buds, or roots (which are baked, ground, and used as a coffee substitute) but common chicory leaves usually have a bitter taste, although by cooking and discarding the water, the bitterness can be reduced.

This week, along with the chicory and other roadside flowers, I spotted a welcome newcomer -- American bittersweet.  Its seed was probably dropped there by a bird, as this is not a typical spot for this native woodland vine, but its bright orange berries caught my eye and I clipped a few small branches to carry home.  Son Jim alerted me to another such out-of-place specimen on a power pole along a local county road and several others in trees above our barn.

American bittersweet is native to central and eastern North America and was given the name “bittersweet” by colonists in the 18th century because they thought its fruits resembled those of another familiar European plant called bittersweet -- the common nightshade.  I don’t see much similarity, for although nightshade is a semi-woody vine with poisonous berries, these are soft, juicy and red, and its leaves are roughly arrowhead-shaped, and often lobed at the base.  Nightshade belongs to the tomato family and the flowers are in loose clusters,  star-shaped, and have five purple petals. 

Our American bittersweet is an entirely different species and is a sturdy perennial vine that may have twining, woody stems that can stretch up to thirty feet and be an inch or more thick at the base.  It is commonly found on rich, well-drained soils in the woods and has tiny, inconspicuous flowers at the tips of the twigs in June, followed by pea-sized colorful, orange fruits in the fall. These fruits are poisonous to humans if eaten, but the roots were used by Native Americans and pioneers to induce vomiting, to treat venereal disease and to treat symptoms of tuberculosis, and they are favorites of birds.

In the late 1800s a relative of our American bittersweet was introduced into this country from Eastern Asia--probably because of its ornamental qualities.  It has been used in floral arrangements, and the plant has been recklessly introduced into states from Georgia to Wisconsin, and parts of the Appalachians.  Oriental bittersweet’s ability to grow in a variety of environments has proved to be disastrous to many other plant species along the Appalachian mountains and is gradually moving westward.

It is similar in appearance and habitat to our native species, and its abundant growth and prolific seeding have allowed it to spread on landscapes, roadsides, and woodlands to the point where it has been placed on Wisconsin’s invasive species list.  Given the name “Oriental bittersweet” to differentiate it from our American species, it is now banned from sale in this country.  It is eaten by mammals and birds which excrete the seeds to different locations so that it has endangered the survival of several other native species. 

Sunlight is one of the most vital resources for Oriental bittersweet.  As demonstrated by controlled experiments, it outcompetes surrounding vegetation, shading out other plant life.  Its stems are thin, spindly, and often less than an inch in diameter.  When it is near a tree or shrub, the vines twist themselves around the trunk and have been known to strangle the host tree to death; when growing without support, it will form a thicket.

The American bittersweet vines tend to be more woody, but a more certain method of distinguishing between the two bittersweets is to look at the flowers and fruit.  Those of the Oriental species have fruit and flowers located in the leaf axils along the length of its stems, while American bittersweet forms its fruit and flowers in terminal clusters.  There is a difference in the color of the capsules surrounding the ripened fruit -- the Oriental being yellow while those of the American are orange.  Also,  American bittersweet generally has larger fruit than the Oriental and if the berry has one or fewer seeds, it is 90% likely to be American, while five or more seeds have a 90% chance of being Oriental. 

Now, another major threat to the American bittersweet has appeared -- hybridization, and the resulting offspring seem fully capable of reproduction.  There is concern that this could genetically disrupt the entire American population, possibly rendering it extinct. 


October 2, 2017: snakes and such

As I walked up from the mailbox one day last week, I was startled to see a slender three-foot snake slither up the walk in front of me.  It was probably just as surprised as I was, as most of our snakes are shy and stay out of sight, but we are guessing that some baby bunnies that had been cavorting in the grass there had caught its attention.  This was evidently a young reptile, for although it had the typical smooth grayish-blue back and white chin and throat of an adult, it had quite a bit of growing to do to reach its possible length of four to six feet. 

I recognized the snake as a blue racer (officially known as Coluber constrictor foxii), one of a species of nonvenomous constrictors.  The Colubrida family includes about two-thirds of all known living snake species and are not a natural group but a "garbage bin taxon" for snakes that do not fit elsewhere. While most are harmless (to humans), a few groups will bite, and a few have even caused human fatalities.  When annoyed the racer can become very aggressive and strike out at its tormentor and will often vibrate its tail rapidly, making a buzzing sound that can be mistaken for a rattlesnake.

Blue racers have received their common name for their color and the fact that they are fast movers, slithering at a speed of up to four miles an hour. They are active during daylight hours and feed primarily on rodents, songbirds, and other snakes, and are even known to climb trees and shrubs in quest of them.  (The younger snakes have to be content with crickets and other insects.)  They themselves, are sometimes victims of the larger birds of prey -- hawks and owls -- as well as carnivores such as raccoons, foxes, and coyotes.  Dogs and cats are also known to hunt and kill juveniles. 

The blue racer female lays an average of fifteen eggs every two years, although some are known to reproduce annually.  Mating often begins in April and continues throughout May, and the eggs are laid in late June.  The female will usually choose a mound of decaying organic matter under a large rock or fallen log for her nursery, and sometimes adds her eggs to those of other females in a common nest.  The young hatch in August, and during the winter, blue racers often hibernate in large numbers with other kinds of snakes.

Blue racers prefer mostly open areas -- savanna, meadows, hedge rows, marshes, and weedy lake edges -- and can occupy an area of up to 25 acres; still, they are not territorial by nature and several often live in the same area. They are listed as a species of special concern in Wisconsin, and only seem to be found in South Dakota, the Midwest and the far Northwest in the United States.

A few years ago, I encountered another of our larger snakes, an Eastern hognose, whose most distinguishing characteristic is its upturned snout.  It is known to be quite shy and to panic if feeling threatened, sometimes flattening out its head presumably to look more like a cobra and then rolling over and playing dead.  I read that it will go so far as to emit fecal matter and a foul musk and let its tongue hang out, sometimes accompanied by small droplets of blood.  Anecdotally, if it is turned upright while in this state, it will often roll back as if to prove it is really dead.  I was disappointed that it must not have found me very threatening as it ignored me and just slithered away.

The favorite meal of the Eastern hognose snake is a toad which it digs up in sandy soil with its upturned nose, but it will also eat small birds, eggs, bugs, smaller snakes, other reptiles and even carrion.  Mating season is early spring and the female will lay up to forty eggs which will hatch some two months later.  This snake can be found throughout the United States including Wisconsin and is only slightly venomous.  Some people have even been known to keep one as a pet. 

Most people know that timber rattlesnakes live in this hilly section of the state, but we also have another species that is thought to be one of the largest snakes native to North America.  Adult bull snakes often weight about three pounds but have been known to reach up to ten pounds and are marked with yellow, brown, or black large blotches on top and sides, and bands of black on the tail.  They are very powerful constrictors and eat mice, voles, rats, gophers, squirrels and rabbits, as well as ground nesting birds, eggs and lizards. They are also great climbers and can scale trees and other structures to raid bird nests (and birdhouses) to eat the nestlings or a sitting mother. 

Snakes are among the least popular of creatures with many people, along with spiders, leeches and other 'creepy-crawlies'.   It is important to remember, however, that these long, legless reptiles play an important role in the natural environment. Effective hunters and ambush predators, snakes use their highly-developed senses of sight, taste, hearing and touch to locate, recognize and track their prey.  Some snakes use a lethal dose of venom, a modified saliva, to paralyze and kill their prey while others use their powerful muscular bodies to squeeze their prey to death.  Maintaining a high level of biodiversity is important to all life on Earth, and snakes are an important part of that biodiversity.   Still, husband Bill says, “But watch your step!”


September 25, 2017:  Hummingbirds and Lookalikes

We love almost everything about autumn in Wisconsin, the vibrant leaf colors, the pungent smells, the crisp morning temperatures, and the brilliant blue skies. One aspect we don't like is the fall departure of our hummingbirds. The pairs that set up housekeeping around the farmyard, and later their offspring, keep us entertained throughout the summer months and we will miss them sorely when they are gone.

It is hard to tell when the local birds leave for we know migrants from farther north pass through and stop briefly to recharge. We can recognize their tentative explorations in contrast to the confident proprietary attitude of the residents.  It is suggested that those of us who maintain nectar feeders for them continue well into autumn; in fact, some experts say to keep them up until the liquid begins to freeze. 

The Smithsonian magazine once had a fascinating article by Richard Conniff about hummingbirds and described one enthusiast in Arizona who had erected some 150 feeders using 150 pounds of sugar each week.  He hosted up to 10,000 hummers a day during the peak of migration but we are quite contented to watch the five or six mites buzzing around our farmyard.

Other interesting statistics from Richard's story included observations about hummingbirds' energy requirements and aggression. He stated that a human-sized creature with a comparable metabolism would need 200,000 calories a day to maintain a hummer-style life and that each bird must visit an average of a thousand flowers a day to meet its requirements. In other terms, it has to drink almost double its body weight in nectar every twenty-four hours.

Its heart has been measured to beat 1200 times and its wings execute 2300 revolutions a minute, and it is no wonder it seems to be always on the move at full throttle. Even at that it has been observed that a male will actually eat only a survival diet during the daylight hours because a full stomach would inhibit his aerodynamic antics. At dusk, however, he goes on a 20-minute binge to acquire the food his body requires to live through the night. The author's other contention was that if hummingbirds were the size of ravens, it would not be safe to walk in the woods because of their belligerent attitudes. He says most of us think they are sweet because of their tiny dimensions but called them "fighter pilots in small bodies", perhaps an apt metaphor. 

One evening, I spotted a look-alike creature feeding in the flaring white blossoms of an angel trumpet. It was a five-spotted hawkmoth, sometimes called the tomato hornworm, a sphinx moth that was easily as large as one of the hummingbirds and feeding in much the same manner, its long tongue extended and inserted deep into the flower's throat. Sphinx moths are large-bodied insects with long narrow wings that may have a span of up to four inches. There are some hundred species of various sizes that feed on a variety of plants such as birch, willow, catalpa, grape and potatoes, but the tomato hornworm is one of the largest.

I once found one of the larvae in my garden patch, a three-inch fat green caterpillar with chevrons down its sides and a horn on its tail segment. This so-called "worm" probably grew another inch, if some hungry bird didn't find it, before it buried itself in the ground and changed into a hard brown pupa for the winter. If you should dig up one of these objects you could see the head, antennae and tiny wings of the developing moth imprinted on its upper surface, and a protruding tongue case extending out from it in a loop.

If one of these big caterpillars is covered with small white oval objects you will know that a braconid wasp has also found it and laid eggs on its skin. The hatching wasp grubs burrow into the living caterpillar and grow to maturity in safety and comfort, then emerge and form their cocoons on its outside surface. The moth larva survives the infestation but lacks the resources to pupate and so eventually dies, while the wasps continue their development. I left my hornworm caterpillar in place to continue its growth, quite happy to contribute a few tomato leaves to this beautiful and none-too-common insect.

Another similar but much smaller hawkmoth flies in the daytime and is commonly known as a hummingbird clearwing.  It is often olive green and burgundy on its back, and has transparent wings bordered with reddish-brown.  Beating its wings rapidly, it often is confused with a hummingbird or bumblebee as it hovers to collect nectar from a flower. 

The clearwing caterpillar is yellowish green with bands of dark green and reddish brown to dark brown.  Its body is covered with small granules, white spots and has a white horn projecting from the its posterior.  It feeds on cherry trees, hawthorns, dogbane, and honeysuckle, and it burrows into the soil to overwinter as a brown, hard-shelled pupa. In the late spring, it emerges as an adult moth.

There are about 1450 species of hawkmoths worldwide, and while most live in the tropics, about fifty species are found in Wisconsin, including three clearwings.  Their narrow wings and streamlined abdomens are adaptations for rapid flight and they are distinguished among moths for their rapid, sustained flying ability.  So look carefully at any hummingbird-like visitor to your garden flowers; it just might be one of these interesting moths.


September 18, 2017:  Asters and Goldenrods

What do goldenrod, sunflowers, artichokes, lettuce, zinnias and thistles have in common? They all belong to the Asteraceae (from the Greek word for star referring to the shape of the blossom) or Compositae family, the largest group of flowering plants outside the tropics.  Botanists have brought some order to the multitude of varieties of plants that exist, dividing them into categories, beginning with families, then subdividing into genera, and finally into individual species.

Many members of the this family have a distinctive smell, and sagebrush, yarrow, tansy, and chamomile are quite aromatic. Some species are cultivated in our gardens for their beauty, including the marigold, chrysanthemum, calendula, and zinnia, while lettuce, artichoke, endive and sunflower seeds are used as food plants.   The most telling uniqueness of the family is in its blossoms, each of which is actually a composite of many smaller flowers usually backed by several layers of green modified leaves called bracts.

This composite nature is most easily seen in the head of a giant garden sunflower. Its center is a disk composed of hundreds of tiny individual florets, each of which has five tiny petals fused together around five stamens and the center pistil. Surrounding the disk is a single row of rays that look like large petals but are also individual flowers that are lopsided toward the outside. In sunflowers and their like, the florets are grouped into one large head while in others, such as the goldenrod, small heads are stretched out on its branches forming an extended array.

Goldenrod is probably the best known of the Asteraceae, and its appearance is usually one of the first signs that autumn is approaching.  There are some 120 species and these can be difficult to distinguish due to their similar flower heads, many of which are quite small and numerous.  Most have stems that are unbranched, but some display branching in the upper part of the plant, and all grow from woody rhizomes that can form large colonies of a single plant. 

One obvious sign of a goldenrod’s identity is the presence of a swelling on its stem.  When certain insects lay eggs on its vegetation, their resulting larvae hatch and tunnel into its stem tissues, and the plant responds by producing a rigid object called a gall.  Three types are caused by three different insects, and are quite different in shape.

Possibly most common is the apple gall, a bright green object mottled with purple that looks something like an apple.  It is formed when a small fly with spotted wings lays an egg on a goldenrod stem in late spring.  Its larva eats its way into the stem and when fall approaches, replaces much of its fluid with a natural antifreeze, glycerol, and slumbers until spring.  It then tunnels most of the way out, stops to pupate, and emerges in a few weeks as an adult fly.

Another goldenrod gall is caused by a moth that lays an egg on a leaf in the fall where it over-winters. The following spring the larva hatches and moves to a newly sprouted plant where it eats its way through a bud and into the stem, forming an elliptical gall.  When grown, it transforms into a pupa and, in the early fall, emerges as an adult moth, leaving behind an empty shell that is often winter quarters for small spiders and various insects. 

The third occurs when a midge lays its egg in a Canada goldenrod leaf bud. These plants seem to have an inbred susceptibility to such an invasion, and the presence of a grub stunts the stem, resulting in a tight, flower-like cluster of foliage. One other curious bit of trivia about this midge is that the female produces either male or female offspring, never both.

Goldenrods are generally considered weeds in North America, but they are prized as garden plants in Europe and Great Britain.  They did begin to gain some acceptance in America during the 1980s, but are often blamed for causing hay fever in humans.  It is now known, however, that most of the pollen causing this allergic reaction comes from ragweed that blooms at the same time.  Goldenrod pollen is too heavy and sticky to be blown about by the wind, and the plants are mainly pollinated by insects carrying it from one plant to another. 

One would think that our common asters would a major group in this discussion of Asteraceae, but botanists have now determined that our wild asters should not even be included.  This designation once referred to nearly 600 species in Eurasia and North America, but after research during the 1990s, it was decided that only one true aster has been found in all of North America, a subspecies of the Alpine aster that grows in spots in Canada and the United States.  I am sure we will continue to refer to those demoted species as “asters”, however, even if the scientists do not.

Most easily recognized is the New England aster, with showy deep violet flowers that have numerous rays and leaves that clasp its hairy stem. This plant often grows to three or four feet in height and is the parent of many of our cultivated asters. A second species with prominent violet flowers and silvery leaves goes by the name of silvery or silky aster and is much more delicate. Another type, the sky blue or azure aster, has leaves that are stalked, not clasping and the lower leaves in particular tend to be almost heart-shaped.  The panicled, heath and calico asters have small white blooms that are clustered near the top and can form a pyramidal shape reminiscent of some of the goldenrods.  Luckily, we do not have to be able to identify a plant to appreciate it.   With the notable exception of the sneezeweed, another composite that begins to bloom late in September, these likely will be the last flowers we will see until spring, so enjoy them.

September 11, 2017: Rattlesnakes

The arrival of a new generation of any of our “neighbors” is always a big deal -- even when they are rattlesnakes.  Bill and I don’t get around as we used to but a fine friend checked out a known den and discovered that there seems to be a bumper crop of babies.  Wisconsin has two species of rattlesnake, the massasauga and the timber rattlesnake. We encountered a massasauga (also known as the swamp rattlesnake) some years ago near the Duck Creek in Columbia County, while our local residents -- timber rattlers -- live among these rugged hills of southwestern Wisconsin. Fear has resulted in many of these snakes being routinely killed, which is the primary reason that the massasauga is listed as an endangered species and the timber rattlesnake is listed as a species of special concern and a protected wild animal.  These days, neither may be collected, dead or alive, without first having a valid permit, which is issued only for selected education, research and conservation activities.

Even the timber rattlesnake’s Latin name -- Crotalus horridus -- which translates into “repulsive rattler” reinforces its reputation, but the fact is that this snake is generally shy and will normally crawl away when it senses your presence if given the opportunity. It can be distinguished by its flattened, triangular head -- about twice as wide as its neck -- and if disturbed, it usually gives a warning hiss or buzz made by rattles consisting of interlocking rings, or segments of keratin at the tip of its tail.  A rattlesnake is born with a single button, and acquires a new rattle section several times a year each time it molts. 

It is a long-lived creature typically surviving twenty-five years in the wild and thirty-five in captivity, and can be more than four feet in length and weigh up to three pounds. It does not reach sexual maturity until it is at least six years of age and a female produces a litter only once every few years.  After shedding its skin around the first of July, the female will release pheromones to attract a mate and if successful, she will store the sperm in her body until fertilization occurs the following May.  At that point, she usually stops eating and lies about in a warm spot for the three months during which the eggs develop. She may lose up to 40% of her body weight, but finally late in August, the eggs hatch inside her body and six to eight babies emerge.  The young are able to care for themselves immediately, with fully functioning fangs and venom.  Recently, scientists have been surprised to observe that the mother shelters and protects her young for ten days or so, and have also determined that individuals recognize and prefer to stay close to relatives, showing the snakes to be much more aware than it was before realized.

A rattlesnake neither sees nor hears very well but has several other senses that more than make up for these lacks.  It has an exceptionally keen sense of smell, receiving olfactory stimuli both through its nostrils and by flicking its tongue, which carries  scent-bearing particles to an organ in the roof of its mouth.  It also senses vibrations in the ground, passed through its bones to the auditory nerve.  Most important is the presence of a heat-sensing pit organ located between the eye and the nostril on either side of the head which allows it to detect extremely small amounts of thermal radiation emitted by any warm-blooded creature. This radiation, in the form of infrared wavelength light, enters, passes through the opening of the pit and strikes the pit membrane located in the back wall.  Infrared cues from these receptors are transmitted to the brain, where they create thermal maps of the snake’s surroundings and any prey.

Its prey are mainly small mammals, as well as birds, amphibians, and even other snakes, and it often coils on an elevated perch from which to strike at passing prey.  Its large fangs are hollow and work like hypodermic needles to inject venom into the victim.   Adults shed their fangs every six to ten weeks and have at least three pairs of replacement fangs lying behind those in use.  The fangs are connected by ducts to large venom glands near the outer edge of the upper jaw, and when the snake bites, muscles on the sides of the venom glands contract, squeezing the venom through the ducts and into the fangs.  The venom has several lethal effects -- internal bleeding as well as preventing clotting and causing blood vessels to enlarge and blood pressure to fall.  The snake only injects the amount of venom it feels is needed when it strikes (sometimes none at all!), as it can take days to replenish its supply.

During the winter, timber rattlesnakes cluster together with other snakes in a sheltered den and enter a dormancy called brumation.  Similar to hibernation, it differs in that the snakes often wake up to drink water. The brumation period can vary considerably, depending upon the climate and the size, age, and health of the individual reptile. During the first year of life, many small reptiles do not fully brumate, but rather slow down and eat less often.

Rattlesnakes join other snakes in playing a very important role in the natural environment and food webs.  As effective hunters and ambush predators, they use their highly-developed senses to locate, recognize and track their prey, often destructive rodents that would otherwise overpopulate.  It is important to remember that although snakes usually prefer to retreat when encountered, they can become defensive if threatened and people who try to capture or kill a snake may be bitten.  When left alone, even venomous rattlesnakes present little or no danger to us.


September 5, 2017: A Tree Frog

The little creature was sitting on a raspberry leaf, frozen in place in an effort to blend into the greenery.  Husband Bill said it was no more than 9/16 of an inch long (nose to vent), and we thought it looked more like a bug than a frog; still, frog it was, and member of a wide-ranging family technically known as hylids and commonly referred to as “tree frogs and their allies”.  

Most hylids show characteristics suitable for living in trees, or at least off the ground, such as forward-facing eyes that provide binocular vision, and adhesive pads on the fingers and toes.  They feed on insects and other invertebrates, although some larger species can prey upon small vertebrates.

This particular frog was a young Eastern grey tree frog.  It undoubtably made its way to the raspberry patch from our little pond, as this hosts tadpoles each summer.  When mature it will be as long as 2 1/2 inches and if it survives two years it will return to its birthplace to mate.

The life cycle of a grey tree frog begins when a female lays many hundreds of eggs in quiet water. She deposits them in groups of 10 to 40 on plants, where they hatch into tadpoles in a few days.  As these mature, they gradually grow limbs (legs first, followed by the arms) and then absorb their long tails.  Lungs replace the gills that provided them with oxygen during their aquatic life, and the tadpole's small mouth designed for scraping algae changes into a large mouth for capturing prey.  In about two months the tadpoles have become miniature frogs that are usually bright green before taking on their adult coloration.

Adult Eastern gray tree frogs have very warty, rough skin.  They also have rather large toe pads that have flat, hexagonal-shaped cells surrounded by tiny openings which let each cell move around and present a flat face.  The cells then release a mucus-like liquid that flows between and over them, creating surface tension that helps the frogs cling strongly to any surface, but not so securely that they are unable to break the bond.

This amphibian also has considerable color-changing ability and the same frog can vary in color from light gray to brown to pale green at various times.  Changes like this are possible because of special cells in the skin called chromatorphores that contain yellow-red pigments, as well as colorless stacks of platelets that reflect and scatter light to generate hues such as blues, white and ultraviolet, and black melanin.  This latter type are large, star-like cells with long “arms” that extend towards the skin’s surface and when melanin pigment is clumped within the centre of the cell, the skin appears very pale, whereas when it is dispersed towards the skin’s surface, the animal appears dark.  Because the arms extend between and over the other types generating yellows, reds, blues, etc., the amount of melanin can help determine the animal’s color.

Gray tree frogs are solitary, except when they congregate to breed. The calling of the males is a loud, raucous trill, a song heard mostly during the breeding season, but also during warm, humid evenings, especially after a summer rain.  They produce these sounds by inflating part of their mouth lining under their throat with air through an opening in the bottom of the mouth. They then close off their mouths and nostrils and pump air between their lungs and this vocal sac over their vocal cords. The vocal sac of a calling male tree frog is clearly visible as a bubble under his throat. 
After the frog spends its summer eating insects and trying not to become a meal itself, it searches for a safe place to hibernate as the temperatures drop. Usually it settles down on the ground in dry leaves, under logs or loose bark, or in an animal burrow. When winter arrives, snow covers it, providing insulation from wind and the cold air.  About 40% of its body can freeze without harm during the winter while an antifreeze-like fluid called glycerol keeps its blood stream unfrozen.

The Eastern gray tree frog is most commonly found in our wooded areas, but a very similar amphibian, the Copes grey tree frog also may be present in old fields, and suburban yards.  Other than habitat, they are almost identical, although the former is usually slightly larger and has a bumpier skin. Also, the Eastern gray is known for its three-second trill, while a faster, more nasal song belongs to the Cope’s.

We do have three other hylid species in Wisconsin - the spring peeper, the boreal chorus and the cricket frogs.  The spring peeper is one of the first to begin calling in spring with a very shrill and repetitious "peep."  It has an irregular dark "X" marking on its light tan back and enlarged toe pads that allow it to climb on vertical vegetation. The chorus frog is pale green or tan with three long, broken brown stripes running lengthwise along the body. The cricket frogs are more aquatic than other members of the family, and are generally associated with permanent bodies of water with surface vegetation. Now that we have filled in our somewhat larger pool in our wild garden, we see fewer of these interesting creatures as most of their breeding water is gone, and we are pleased to discover that a few remain.


August 29, 2017: Chiggers!

The name “mite” is often used affectionately for a small child or other animal, but it is a misnomer as most mites are far from lovable.  They go largely unnoticed because of their extremely small size, but they are among the most diverse and successful of all creatures without backbones.  Mites can be found in a wide array of habitats including all types of soil and even under water.   Scientists have named some 48,200 species.

Mites are important decomposers, eating a wide variety of material including living and dead plant and fungal material, lichens and carrion.  Other mites are parasitic on plants and animals, such as those that live primarily in the nests of birds and animals, eating blood, skin and keratin (a type of protein found in the skin, hair, and nails).  Dust mites feed mostly on dead skin and hair shed from humans and are found in warm and humid places such as beds; there they can cause several forms of allergic diseases, including hay fever, asthma and eczema.  Plant pests include the so-called spider mites that live on the undersides of plant leaves where they may spin protective silk webs and suck leaf juices.  Among the species that attack animals are members of the sarcoptic mange mites, which burrow under the skin.   And then there are CHIGGERS! 

If you wander in the woods or open fields at almost any time of the year when the temperatures are above freezing, you may later discover red, itchy bumps on your skin around your waistband or on your ankles.  During the wet season, you are more at risk in tall grass and other vegetation.  During dry periods, the most likely problems appear underneath brush and shady areas.  Standing still for a time or lying in tall grass puts one particularly in jeopardy.

The villain in this situation is a common creature that goes by several names -- harvest mite, scrub mite or just red mite.  Like a tick or spider, this mite goes through several biological stages in its life cycle: it begins as an egg, hatches as a larva, develops into a nymph and finally becomes an adult.  Nymph and adult harvest mites feed mostly on plant life and don't bother people or other mammals, but it is the larval stage that causes the trouble.  A larva requires skin cells from a live animal to continue its development so it climbs up onto tall grass or other vegetation and waits with front legs extended to grab onto a passing animal. 

This stage is labeled “chigger” and has six legs, a reddish hue and is nearly microscopic, as it measures only about 1/60 of an inch.  It will choose any warm-blooded animal such as a rabbit, mouse or human and searches for a warm crease or constriction on the body such as tight sock, waistband, arm pit--whatever.   It does not actually "bite", but instead injects digestive enzymes into a skin pore that break down its cells, forming a hole.  It then sucks up the digested tissue through a tube formed by hardened skin cells.  (It does not burrow into the skin or suck blood, as is sometimes thought.)

The chigger’s digestive enzymes in the saliva cause "the insanely itchy welts" -- red bumps that may not develop immediately but whose effects are often at their worst on the second day and may last for days or weeks.  The larva remains attached to its host for several days to feed and then drops off to begin its nymphal stage, sometimes even before the host realizes it was present. 

The nymph more closely resembles an adult but is sexually immature.  It is initially inactive but then develops an additional pair of legs (for a total of eight) and feeds on small insects or spiders and their eggs as well as plant material.  It lives in soil, and is often found when digging in a gardens or in a compost bin.  In the final adult stage, the harvest mite finds a mate. The females lay three to eight eggs in a clutch, usually on a leaf or under the roots of a plant, and while some die, others overwinter in protected places slightly below the soil surface.

The length of a particular mite's cycle depends on its species and environment and in our temperate region, there might be three broods per year.  Mated females become active in the spring, and once the ground temperature is regularly above 60F, she lays eggs in vegetation, up to 15 eggs per day.  The eggs are round and lie dormant for about six days, after which nonfeeding prelarvae emerge, with only three pairs of legs.  After another six days, the prelarva grows into its larval stage and then is the time to beware. 

For temporary relief of itching, apply ointments of benzocaine, hydrocortisone, calamine lotion, New Skin, After Bite, or others recommended by your pharmacist or medical doctor.  Some use Vaseline, cold cream, baby oil, or fingernail polish. (The sooner the treatment, the better the results.).  According to the Mayo Clinic, hot showers or baths also will help reduce itching, and in cases of severe dermatitis or secondary infection associated with chigger bites, a doctor should be consulted.  Because chigger wounds are a complex combination of enzymatic and the resulting mechanical damage, plus allergy and immune responses, plus possible secondary bacterial infection subject to local influences, no one remedy works equally well for most people.


August 22, 2017: Caterpillar Miracle

All summer I have faithfully tended the growing caterpillars that hatched last June from eggs laid by a cecropia silk moth.  Some flourished under netting draped on live apple tree branches, while others resided in cages constructed from window screening to make observation more convenient, and had to be provided with fresh apple leaves almost daily for their burgeoning appetites.

The black caterpillars were scarcely a quarter inch long when they hatched but now are more then three inches in length, bright green, very fat and adorned with colored knobs of unknown value. The most advanced are entering the next stage in the seemingly miraculous process that many insects experience, and are encasing themselves in raw silk cocoons.  This material is a natural protein fiber consisting of filaments of fibroin coated with a glue-like layer of sericin and is produced in the bodies of spiders, the larvae of many moths and numerous other insects. These caterpillars have modified salivary glands that make the liquid silk which is drawn into threads by spinnerets next to their jaws.  The thread hardens when exposed to the the air and glues itself to anything it touches.

Once secure within its cocoon, the insect splits its caterpillar skin, revealing a brown hard case with the legs and wings outlined against the body.  This pupa does not feed nor can it move, and within the pupal case most of the caterpillar body breaks down.  Special groups of transformative cells which had remained hidden and inert during the larval stage now become the directors of the reconstruction and transform the caterpillar “soup” into a viable moth.  Once the metamorphosis is completed, the moth will remain at rest until the appropriate trigger signals the time to emerge.

Consider this amazing transformation: caterpillars have jaws for chewing leaves and eat continuously, while moths ingest fluids through a tube or have no mouthparts at all; caterpillars have several sets of prolegs for grasping twigs while moths have wings and can fly; caterpillars live for weeks or even over the winter while moths live only a few days.  Their bodies have the same basic parts, including a head, thorax and abdomen, but these parts look different because they’re suited for very different purposes.  In general, caterpillars are all about eating and moths are all about sex.

There are some indications that weaving was already known in the Paleolithic era, as early as 27,000 years ago. and  remnants of six finely woven plant fiber textiles and cordage found in a Peruvian cave and dated between 10,100 and 9080 BCE.  Silk fabric was first developed in ancient China over 5000 years ago and gradually became the most lucrative and sought-after luxury item traded across the Eurasian continent.  Now improved procedures and selective breeding have increased production dramatically.  The best known silk is obtained from the cocoons of the larvae of the mulberry silkworm reared in captivity.  The shimmering appearance is due to the triangular prism-like structure of the silk fiber, which causes incoming light to refract at different angles, thus producing different colors.  Such silk is produced by several insects, but generally only the silk of moth caterpillars has been used for textile manufacturing.

Several kinds of wild silk (that produced by caterpillars other than the mulberry silkworm) have been used in Asia and Europe but never very successfully.  The color and texture are inferior and many wild cocoons are covered in a mineral layer that prevents attempts to reel the silk thread from them.  A usable cocoon is made of a single thread up to 3000 feet long.  Up to 3000 cocoons are required to make a pound of silk and since at least 70 million pounds of raw silk are produced each year, this requires nearly 10 billion cocoons.  If the insect is allowed to survive after spinning its cocoon and through the pupal phase of its life cycle, it releases enzymes to make a hole in the cocoon so it can escape which seriously reduces its value.  To prevent this, silkworm cocoons are boiled to kill the pupa and make the cocoons easier to unravel.  Often, the silkworm itself is eaten.

We don’t have any interest in producing silk fabric but have been fascinated by the beauty and size of four species of wild silk moths that can be found in Wisconsin -- the cecropia, polyphemus, luna and promethea.  The cecropia is the largest and is commonly found on fruit trees; the luna with its long pale green tails is probably best known and can be found on nut or birch trees; the polyphemus has large colorful eyespots and feeds on a great variety of trees; and the promethea, the smallest but is unique in that the male and female are quite different in appearance.  All are impressive.

Eggs, caterpillars and cocoons are available for purchase and can easily be raised to adulthood and released.  I collected my first cocoon when I was elementary school and have continued this interesting and rewarding hobby ever since.


August 16, 2017: Hummingbirds

Mid August finds most of our birds have completed their family duties for the year, and while some adults still have young begging for handouts, most are independent. Only American goldfinches and cedar waxwings that are well-known for nesting late in the season may still have chicks in the nest.  This is an excellent time to watch your nectar feeders for hummingbirds, however, as their numbers are at their peak and they will come eagerly to your offerings.

Hummingbirds are found only in the western hemisphere, and then mostly in the tropics. While fewer than twenty-five different species have been recorded in the United States and fewer than ten in Canada, Ecuador has about 130 species and Columbia has more than 160. These vary from the giant hummingbird of the Andes Mountains with a length of about nine inches, to the tiny bee hummingbird, that is just two inches long and weighs less than a tenth of an ounce. 

With the exception of some insects,  hummingbirds in flight have the highest metabolism of all animals – a necessity to support the rapid beating of their wings that might reach up to 80 times per second.. Their heart rate can reach as high as 1,260 beats per minute, with a breathing rate of 250 breaths per minute, even at rest.  Hummingbirds have many skeletal and flight muscle characteristics which allow great agility in flight.  Muscles make up 25–30% of their body weight and their wing bones are hollow and fragile.  They have long, blade-like wings that connect to the body only from the shoulder joint allowing the wing to rotate almost 180.  This enables the bird to fly not only forward but backward, and to hover in mid-air, flight capabilities that are similar to insects and unique among birds. The metabolism of hummingbirds can slow at night or at any time when food is not readily available and the birds enter a hibernation-like, deep-sleep state known as torpor to prevent energy reserves from falling to a critical level.  During night-time torpor, body temperature falls from about 105 F to 65 F, with heart and breathing rates both slowed dramatically.

To supply their energy needs, hummingbirds drink nectar, the sweet liquid inside flowers.  Like bees, hummingbirds are able to assess the amount and type of sugar in the nectar they encounter; unlike bees who can utilize glucose and fructose, the hummingbirds make use only of sucrose.  (White granulated sugar is the best sweetener to use in hummingbird feeders as it is pure sucrose.  (Other types of sugar--brown, molasses, raw, or honey should not be used, according to experts).

Hummingbird beaks are flexible and the two halves fit tightly together with a pronounced overlap.  When the bird feeds on nectar, the bill is usually opened only slightly, allowing the tongue to dart out and into the interior of the flowers. The tongue has tubes which run down its length and high-speed photography has revealed that the tubes open down their sides as the tongue goes into the nectar.  They then close around the nectar, trapping it so it can be pulled back into the beak and the nectar moves up the grooves, like a pump action.

Small invertebrates are also an important source of protein, minerals, and vitamins in their diet, and they catch insects on the wing or glean them from flowers, leaves and bark.  Hummingbirds eat a variety of insects, including mosquitoes, fruit flies, and gnats in flight or aphids on leaves and spiders in their webs.  The lower beak is flexible and can bend as much as 25 degrees where it widens at the base, making a larger surface for catching prey. 

Ruby-throated hummingbirds comprise the only species that breeds east of the Mississippi River.  The male arrives in early May from his winter vacation far to the south and establishes his territory.  When a female flies by, he woos her with an aerial performance, mates with her if she is willing, and then immediately searches out additional conquests.  The female then constructs a tiny nest on a downward-sloping tree limb on an oak, birch, or other deciduous tree, using bud scales and lichen bound with spider’s silk.  She typically lays two white half-inch long eggs and produces one to two broods each summer, feeding the chicks by inserting her bill into their open mouths, and then regurgitating insects and nectar into their crops.  They leave the nest at about three weeks.

When food sources disappear in early autumn, many of the ruby-throats make an almost unbelievable nonstop flight across the Gulf, to Mexico or Central America, while others spend most of the winter in southern Florida.  Researchers have discovered the tiny birds double their fat mass in preparation for a Gulf crossing, then expend the entire calorie reserve from fat during the 20-hour non-stop flight.

Activities at our window feeders are constant because the ruby-throats are not social birds, other than during the few-minute courtship, and both males and females attack and chase any other hummers that enter their territories as they try to guard their food sources.   All of which makes for great close-up viewing for us bird enthusiasts.


August 9, 2017: Katydids and other insects

Did you know that if you added together all the people and animals on earth today, insects would outnumber them? Insects live in hot climates and sub zero climates. Some thrive in dry areas and others live under water. Insects can be any color as well as metallic, or iridescent. They range in size from an almost unimaginable 0.2 mm to almost 12 inches in length or wingspan. Some scientists estimate that just the 'social insects', such as ants, termites, bees and wasps, could make up an incredible 20% of the total animal weight of this planet. Add to that all the other non-social insect species, and you have to believe that we are grossly outnumbered. Some say that there may be as many as a billion billion individual insects alive on the earth at any given moment divided into perhaps 10 million species. 

An insect is described as an air breathing creature with a hard jointed exoskeleton or outer ‘skin’, and an adult body divided into three parts; the head with one pair of antennae, the thorax from which spouts three pairs of legs and usually two pairs of wings, and the abdomen which contains the digestive and reproductive organs. Spiders aren’t insects; neither are mites or centipedes or ticks, but a fantastic variety do meet those criteria.

Yesterday, while picking beans, I almost picked a katydid. It was almost two inches long, bright green, and had leaf-shaped wings with prominent veins tented over its back. It also had long antennae that arched over its body and beyond. These antennae are covered with sensory receptors that allow the katydid to find its way around in the dark, when most are active.

Usually katydids are heard, not seen. I often think that those who name any creatures after their sounds have very vivid imaginations, and that is certainly true with this insect. It has a hardened scraper on one forewing and a prominent, file-like vein on the other, which it rubs together to create sound. Unlike grasshoppers and crickets, both male and female katydids ‘sing’, and both have ears on their front legs. These are similar to our eardrums and consist of thin tough flexible membranes, stretched across rigid hollow frames. The membranes vibrate when struck by sound waves and the vibrations pass along cord-like structures and generate nerve signals that go to the brain.

Katydids breed in late summer and early fall, and the females deposit their eggs on twigs and plant stems. The eggs will hatch the following spring into nymphs, small green wingless creatures that molt their skin several times until finally they receive their wings and become adults. The wings seem more for show than extended flight as they can fly only short distances, preferring to walk. When threatened and they do find it necessary to fly, the insects often flutter downward to the ground, and then will walk to the nearest tree and climb up to safety.

High-flying insects like mosquitoes, bees and house flies have flight muscles that don't actually attach directly to the wings, but to the top part of the thorax, which fits onto its bottom part much like the lid fits onto a shoebox. The base of each wing is inserted just far enough between them so that when the top of the thorax is pulled down by the muscles, it pushes the wing base down with it. That flips the rest of the wing up, and when the muscles relax, the thorax snaps back into place, bringing the wing down. This unlikely mechanism allows these insects to flap their wings at incredible speeds.

Dragonflies have a much more ancient system as their flight muscles are attached directly to the wings. These cannot flap as rapidly as those of other flying insects but they are still able to hover, fly backwards, change directions on a dime, as well as make pretty good time in a straight line. Researchers, using wind tunnels and high-speed film, have recently discovered that dragonflies twist their wings on the down stroke causing the air to move faster over the upper surface of the wings, and generating enough lift to keep 15-to-20 times their weight in the air and giving them impressive agility.

Only fertile adult ants have wings.  All the others are earth-bound social insects that form highly organized colonies that may consist of thousands of individuals. These consist mostly of sterile, wingless females that are "workers" or  "soldiers", but usually have some fertile males called "drones" and one or more fertile females called "queens".  Each ant has a tough protective casing around its body to which its muscles are attached.  It has no lungs; instead oxygen and carbon dioxide pass through the covering via tiny valves.  It also lacks closed blood vessels and has a long, thin, perforated tube along the top of its body that functions like a heart, and pumps blood-like fluid circulating around the body.

Beetles are a whole subject in themselves, and their wings are usually folded up under cover.  Certainly the most noticeable species in our farmyard in recent years is the Japanese beetle.  Lovely to look at with its iridescent copper-colored wing covers, it has become a gardener’s bane. Like other beetles, this one has four life stages--egg, larva, pupa and adult.  Its larvae are c-shaped grubs that feed underground on roots and often do considerable damage to pasture and turf. These hibernate over the winter in the soil, and in the spring emerge as adults that feed on leaf and stem material. They use pheromones to attract other beetles and often overwhelm their host plants, skeletonizing leaves from the top downward.

It has been estimated that the average back yard contains over a thousand different kinds of these creatures, so have some fun and explore this huge world of insects.


August 2, 2017: The Underground World

The discovery of any animal hole in the ground raises lots of questions. Who made it? Is the digger still down there? Will it eat my garden plants, produce a flock of babies, continue to excavate tunnels?  Such a hole is really a door to another whole world that we seldom think about unless the digger causes some damage.

Most of the mammals that dig or appropriate underground burrows use them primarily as havens for raising their young. These tunnels also offer air-conditioned escape from summer’s heat and snug retreats away from the winds and cold of winter. Coyotes, woodchucks, badgers, skunks, raccoons, opossums, weasels, and rabbits all spend a part of their time underground.

In contrast, smaller rodents such as chipmunks, ground squirrels, voles, and gophers live most of their lives in their burrows.  The eastern chipmunk has a six-inch body plus a four inch tail. It has two white stripes down its sides and surprisingly large pouches in its cheeks for carrying food to its pantry.  It eats mostly seeds, bulbs, fruits and nuts of woody plants and sometimes insects, bird eggs, snails, and even small snakes, and constructs very complex tunnels with many hidden entrances. 

Thirteen-lined ground squirrels are a similar length but are more slender. They also have more stripes that run the length of its body, five of which break up into a series of spots.  Their diet includes insects, earthworms, small birds and anything else it can catch, rounded out with seeds, roots, vegetables, fruits, and cereal grains.

Most abundant are the meadow voles, often called field mice, that have small bodies with short legs, short furry tails, small eyes and partially hidden ears. They feast on all kinds of plant material including bulbs, tree roots and bark, and create inconspicuous two-inch door openings to their tunnels that are usually concealed by vegetation.  Typically there are several hundred meadow voles per acre, producing as many as nine young per litter with many litters each year.

Also sometimes present are pocket gophers which can be found in grasslands and agricultural land across the Great Plains, although we have never seen any of the fan-shaped soil mounds that are said to betray their presence. They have short, hairless tails and may be as much as fourteen inches long. They use their claws and teeth to dig, kicking away soil, rocks, and other debris with the hind feet and creating tunnels that may reach a depth of six feet and have a diameter of three inches.

Many people confuse moles with gophers but moles are carnivorous and generally eat worms, beetle grubs and cutworms instead of plant material.  It is said a five-ounce mole is capable of eating up to 50 pounds of worms and insects each year. Moles live their entire lives underground and have elongated, sensitive noses for negotiating in the dark and greatly enlarged front feet equipped with huge claws for digging. 

Then there is the relatively unknown predator in our gardens and wild areas -- the shrew.  Although it looks much like a long-nosed mouse, it is a much closer relative of the mole, and eats insects, earthworms, voles, snails and even other shrews with its sharp, spike-like teeth.  It is about five inches in length including its short inch-long tail and can inject its victim with a strong toxin capable of killing small animals. 

Smaller holes are often the work of earthworms, which may number into the millions and have a total weight of one-half ton on an acre of fertile soil, more than all other underground animal life combined. Earthworms literally eat their way through the soil, retaining what can be digested and passing out the remainder. These “castings”, plus the additions of the air and water that seep into their tunnels help to make the soil more fertile. Worms sadly are not always beneficial, however, as the recent introduction of alien worm species such as the jumping worms is a major concern.

Snakes, lizards, amphibians, and arthropods such as millipedes and centipedes also live at least part of their lives in the soil. Many insects pass the winter months underground either as eggs, larvae, pupae or adults. With the arrival of warm weather, most emerge to carry on their lives but there are exceptions such as the grubs which feed on plant roots and then emerge as adult cicadas, June or Japanese beetles. Then there are the ants that build and live in impressive networks of subterranean galleries.

Grasshoppers live above ground but bury their eggs, and crickets not only conceal their eggs in the dirt, but live underground themselves in the daytime, coming out at night to feed. Some caterpillars live above ground but burrow beneath the surface to rest in their pupal stage. Even some birds take advantage of the benefits of underground living, and kingfishers and colonies of bank swallows dig deep holes in steep sand or gravel banks in which they incubate their eggs and bring up their fledglings.

Each time I see an underground entrance of some kind, or sift through a shovelful of dirt in the garden, I marvel at the multitude of living things beneath my feet. I must admit this is with some trepidation, as many of the animals operate at cross-purposes with my plans, but always with interest. I also keep myself alert for any hobbit holes, but they seem to be in short supply in this part of the world. (source: J.R.R.TOLKIEN)


July 25, 2017:  Indian Pipe

One of the joys of writing these articles is discovering something entirely new about some familiar plant or animal or insect. Take, for instance, the Indian pipe. We have found specimens of this strange-looking plant almost every year and always marveled at its translucent, waxy appearance.   It grows only five or six inches tall and when fully developed has drooping white flowers and tiny, scale-like leaves.  It is only present a few weeks and as soon as blooming and seed making is completed, the aboveground parts turn black and wither away.

Each plant consists of a single stem bearing a five-petaled mostly-closed flower that hangs downward, reminiscent of a clay pipe whose stem has been stuck in the earth. Though it may not look much like a typical blossom, the Indian pipe flower has everything it needs to produce seeds, including nectar and pollen. Also, Dr. Olson, of the Department of Environmental Sciences at Nova Scotia Agricultural College writes that "the floral organs may be releasing other substances detectable to the insects alone" and that "insects may perceive colors (in the flower) that make the plant even more attractive, helping it to stand out like a beacon on the shaded forest floor".

Indian pipe doesn't need chlorophyll, the green substance employed by most plants to create carbohydrates using sunlight, since it obtains all needed nutrients from other plants; in fact, the entire Indian pipe is white and thrives in total shade where few other plants grow.  How it receives this required nutrition is a whole story in itself, and scientists continue to investigate the subject.

It was first believed that the Indian pipe was a parasite (an organism that obtains its nutrients from another living organism), but botanists observed that its thick, brittle cluster of roots didn't contact those of any other growing plant. Then they decided it must instead be a saprophyte, obtaining its food from decaying material in the soil.  Now, scientists believe (are you ready for this?) the plant is an "epiparasite" a parasite that forms a relationship with another parasite to obtain its nutrients; that is, it steals food from one plant which previously got it from yet another plant.

They have observed that its roots connect with the filaments (rootlets) of certain fungi in the soil, which in turn have penetrated into live tree roots.  Such arrangements in nature are usually two-way relationships where the tree sends carbohydrates that it manufactures in its leaves down into its roots and ultimately to the fungus, while benefiting from the fungus’s high capacity for absorbing water and mineral nutrients from the soil.  This ability is due to the fact that its rootlets are much smaller in diameter than the smallest plant root and usually spread over large areas. 

This relationship, called mycorrhiza, is far more common than one might think.  At least 80% of all land plant species (and over 90% of plant families) are said to develop it to some degree, and many depend on it for survival.  The orchid family is perhaps the most well known illustration of this as the proper fungi are critical for germination.  An orchid seed has virtually no energy reserve and obtains its carbon from the fungal partner, and many adult orchids also seem to retain this requirement although these benefits remain largely unexplored.

For such a relationship to become established, certain specific conditions must be met when a seed first germinates. In the case of the Indian pipe, its seeds are spread in bird droppings or are carried by an insect, animal, or the wind. To germinate, each seed must land on a filament of a particular fungus.  This reportedly gives off a chemical stimulus to the receptive seed and causes it to begin development.  First, a modified lateral root emerges from the seed that attaches to the host, forming a disc which glues itself firmly to a filament. The root tip then penetrates the host, and once inside establishes connections by attaching its conductive tissue to that of the invaded fungi.

Indian pipes favor deep woods, and often appear after a heavy, soaking rain in mid-summer. The plant shouldn't be picked because its flesh soon blackens when cut or even touched, and oozes a clear, gelatinous substance. Its white color and this tendency to liquefy earned it the name ice plant, but it is also called ghost flower, corpse plant, and wax plant. Native people employed it as an eye lotion as well as a medicine for colds and fevers, and early settlers used it to treat spasms, fainting spells, and nervous conditions, giving it such names as convulsionroot, fitroot, and convulsionweed. I understand that herbalists seldom recommend it now, however, as it has been found to contain toxic substances that have sometimes caused more harm than good.

When you see this little plant in the woods, remember the Native American legend from Cherokee Plants, a book by Mary Chiltosky.   She wrote that before selfishness came into the world, the Cherokee people were happy sharing the hunting and fishing places with their neighbors. All this changed when their chiefs quarreled with tribes on the east and could not reconcile despite smoking the peace pipe for seven days and seven nights. This displeased the Great Spirit because people should not smoke the pipe until they make peace.  He turned the old men into greyish flowers we now call "Indian Pipes" and made them grow “where friends and relatives have quarreled, and made the smoke hang over these mountains until all the people all over the world learn to live together in peace."



July 16, 2017:    Turkey Vultures

Two turkey vultures swooped down into the newly mowed hay field next to the house last week and I grabbed my binoculars.  These birds are common sights as they circle over the hill, but we seldom have the opportunity to view them so close at hand.  Presumably some animal had been killed by the mower and they had quickly recognized a feast. 

The turkey vulture is a gentle and non-aggressive bird that gets its first name from the similarity of its bald red head to that of the male wild turkey.  Research has indicated that the turkeys are so equipped because it is important in the courtship of females, but it is thought that the purpose of the vulture’s bald head is to avoid contamination when it feeds inside a rotting carcass. 

Turkey vultures are native to the Americas from southern Canada to the tip of Cape Horn and are thought to live around twenty years.  The typical adult has a six-foot wingspan, weights only about three pounds and has mostly brownish-black feathers on its body.  It is awkward on the ground with an ungainly hopping walk but is beautiful in flight.  While soaring, it holds its wings in a shallow V-shape and often tips from side to side, frequently causing the dark gray flight feathers to appear silvery as they catch the light.

Turkey vultures have been reported by aircraft pilots to rise to as high as 20,000 feet, and can soar up to six hours without flapping their wings.  They leave their perches after the morning air has warmed a bit and circle searching for warm air pockets that will carry them upward in rising circles.  Once at the top they can dive across the sky at sixty miles per hour, losing altitude until they reach another warm air pocket. 

Turkey vultures are very social birds that mate for life.  The female generally lays two cream-colored spotted eggs on bare rock or ground in a protected outcropping, a burrow, inside a hollow tree, or in a thicket.  Both parents incubate, and the helpless young hatch after about a month.  Adults feed the chicks by regurgitating food for them, and the young fledge at about nine to ten weeks, although family groups remain together until fall.

The turkey vulture does not have any vocal organs.  It hisses when threatened and grunts when hungry or when adults are courting.  Its primary form of defense is vomiting or coughing up semi-digested meat.  The corrosive vomit will sting the face and eyes of any predator, but is not known if this act is to specifically repel a predator or simply to lighten its load before fleeing and taking flight.

The turkey vulture has excellent eyesight and can see a dead animal from afar and also keep an eye out for other vultures that may have found a meal. It is particularly fond of dead snakes but will take advantage of road kill of any type.  When food is scarce, it has also been known to eat vegetables such as rotting pumpkins and sometimes fruit and grasses.  In addition to sight, the turkey vulture forages by smell, an ability that is uncommon among birds; however, any carrion needs to be at least 12 days old for them to smell and they prefer freshly dead animals to those that are more decayed. The olfactory lobe of its brain, responsible for processing smells, is particularly large compared to that of other animals. 

At night, the vultures roost communally, often using the same sites for generations. Come morning, they are often seen high in a tree with their wings outstretched to the sun. Their wings have long hollow bones filled with air and as the sunshine warms them, the air in their wing bones expands, making it easier to fly.

In the fall, turkey vultures migrate southward, soaring in great circles that steadily move through Mexico and Central America and other points further south. The winter is spent cruising the rain forest canopy searching for food, and in late winter, they begin movement back north. They often ride the winds of storm fronts, and have been observed flying as high as four miles. Come spring, they arrive in the Midwest on or about the Vernal Equinox (around March 20th), right in time for festivals in Ohio and Illinois held in their honor.  We saw the first arrival this year circling over the farm on March 21, so it was right on schedule.

In India, South Africa and Spain some years ago, vultures were maligned as undesirable ugly carrion feeders and their populations plummeted due to poisoning, shootings and an avian virus, until it was realized that their disappearance was accompanied by an increase in human disease and polluted waters.  Eventually, the governments of these countries established captive breeding programs to reestablish the populations, and today “vulture restaurants” have been created to ensure that these increasingly endangered birds survive. 

It is now well recognized that vultures play a critical role in the environment everywhere to recycle the bodies of dead animals. The corrosive enzymes in their stomachs and sophisticated immune systems are able to kill a number of deadly organisms, including salmonella and bacteria that cause anthrax, hog cholera, and botulism.  These birds are sometimes thought to be a danger around airports, but otherwise should be welcomed for the incredibly important service they provide.


July 11, 2017:  The Skunks

We share our farm with a variety of animals—some that we see regularly such as the deer, woodchucks, rabbits, and squirrels, while others are far more reclusive and seldom allow us a hint of their existence. One such species is the stripped skunk, and we are often alerted to its presence only by its distinctive smell.

The skunk was previously thought to be a close kin of the weasels, but recent research with mitochondrial DNA suggests that this is not true and it now is classified in its own family. There are four species in North America— spotted skunks, hooded skunks, the very scarce hog-nosed skunks, and striped skunks. Actually, all skunks are striped, even from birth. They may have a single thick stripe across back and tail, two thinner stripes, or a series of white spots and broken stripes (in the case of the spotted skunk). Still, only the species named “striped skunk” is common in Wisconsin. Its fur has a white strip that starts at the forehead and splits into a V shape as it travels down the back.

Striped skunks are born hairless, but their stripes are already visible, and the length and width of stripes varies with each individual. There are also some skunks that are completely black or completely white. Although they have excellent senses of smell and hearing, they have poor vision and cannot see objects more than about 10 ft away. Striped skunks are both solitary and nocturnal. They are also short-lived; fewer than 10% survive for longer than three years and roughly half of all skunk deaths are caused by humans, either by vehicles on the roads or as a result of shooting or poisoning.

Skunks have adapted to human habitation and are not above taking advantage of its benefits. Part of what has made them such a successful species is the ability to eat almost anything—insects, small mammals and birds, eggs, crustaceans, fruit, vegetables, carrion, and even human garbage. They are primarily active at dawn and at dusk and have a home range of about a square mile.  Although they mate in late winter or early spring, a female can store the male’s sperm and delay pregnancy for some weeks so that the kits are usually born in May. The mother is very protective of her offspring, and will often spray at any sign of danger, while the male plays no part in raising the young and may even kill them. The kits are weaned at about two months, but generally stay with their mother until they themselves are ready to mate, the following spring.

Skunks are slow and placid in their movements, but they can afford to be relaxed as each has special anal glands that hold about a tablespoon of a fetid, oily, yellowish musk that is a mixture of sulfur-containing chemicals that have a highly offensive smell (it has been described as a combination of rotten eggs, garlic and burnt rubber). When threatened, the skunk will face the intruder, elevate its tail, chatter its teeth, and stomp the ground with the front feet. If this doesn’t work, the skunk will twist around, raise its tail straight up, and spray with remarkable accuracy. The stream can travel 10 to 15 feet and in addition to the terrible smell, it causes intense pain to the eyes and even loss of vision as well as nausea and vomiting. Only the great horned owl (or an inexperienced young coyote or dog) will attack a skunk.

Skunks are reluctant to use their smelly weapon, as they carry only enough of the chemical for five or six uses and then require more than a week to recharge. Therefore, when possible, it is to a skunk's advantage to warn off a threatening creature without expending scent. Interestingly, skunks will not spray other skunks (with the exception of males in the mating season), opting to fight each other with tooth and claw.

Many of the same warnings that are given to avoid visits from bears and wolves also apply to skunks. Never leave pet food outside; never discard edible garbage where skunks can get to it; keep pets indoors at night and pet doors closed to block access by a skunk; keep fruit trees picked and don't leave rotted fruit on the ground; and don’t fill bird feeders in the summer as skunks may be attracted to them and to the birds and rodents that use the feeders. Incidentally, healthy skunks cannot “carry” rabies and only sick, rabid animals are able to transmit the disease and then only through bites, as the virus is in the saliva. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report about 1500 cases of rabid skunks each year but almost all recorded cases of human rabies have been traced to dogs or bats.

Should you have the misfortune to need it, there is a very effect antidote to skunk smell. Apply a mix of 1 quart 3% hydrogen peroxide, 1/4 cup baking soda, and 1 tablespoon liquid hand soap, let soak, and then rinse. Use immediately and don’t stopper up any leftover as the hydrogen might explode.  I hope you will never need it!

This final note has nothing to do with skunks, but I have a surplus of cecropia caterpillars and if any of you have an apple tree that could stand to lose some leaves for food and would like a few to raise, I’d be happy to share.  They will spin their cocoons in late August and then emerge as beautiful moths next June but will need care and protection in the meantime.  Ask me for suggestions or check the internet for explicit instructions <>. It is a fascinating process...


July 4, 2017:  The Magnificant Monarch

Some of the flowers in full bloom right now are the various types of milkweed that we grow in our garden.  We have several species -- the common pink, the purple, the bright orange butterfly weed, the white drooping poke and several cultivated varieties, and all are appreciated for their color and fragrance.  What is missing so far this year, however, is the main reason for having so many milkweed plants -- the monarch caterpillar.  For the first year in my memory, we have not seen a single monarch butterfly...and we have been looking.  It has been widely publicized that this common insect has been decreasing in numbers in recent years but they have continued to come to our garden.  Not this year...

A monarch’s life begins as a egg deposited on the underside of a milkweed leaf.  It takes about a week for the pale green larva (caterpillar) to hatch and it immediately eats its egg case and then begins to feed on the leaf.  All milkweed leaves contain a sticky latex sap which is fatal to many other varieties of caterpillars, but the monarch feeds in such a way that it is somehow protected.  It also ingests cardenolides from the milkweed that repel most of its predators and those that might attack the adult monarch butterflies as well. 

The larva sheds its skin when it outgrows it and acquires its more typical look -- white, yellow and black transverse bands across its body with a pair of slender black tentacles on the thorax and another pair on the abdomen.  The second time it sheds its skin, three smaller pairs of true legs appear near the head and several larger pairs of prolegs emerge further back.  After a total of five molts, it is about an inch and a half long, and it stops feeding and searches for a horizontal support for its pupa. The caterpillar then produces silk from its spinnerets to attach its hind legs securely to the support and hangs down resembling the letter "J". 

About 24 hours later, it splits its skin once again, revealing an opaque, blue-green pupa (chrysalis) enhanced with small gold dots.  It hangs there for a week or two depending upon the temperatures, and then the outside of the chrysalis becomes transparent and the butterfly’s characteristic orange-and-black wings become visible.  In few hours, the adult splits the pupal case, emerges, expands and dries its wings, and flies away.

During the breeding season adults reach sexual maturity in four or five days, but the late summer brood does not mature until the following spring after it has migrated and overwintered far to the South.  Millions of monarchs make the 3,400-mile migration from the United States and Canada each year, and they somehow find their way to the pine and fir forests west of Mexico City.  The butterflies depend on these relatively well-preserved forests, where they hang in tight clumps from the boughs and are protected from any cold rains and steep drops in temperature.  Come early spring they move north in gradual steps as the milkweed appears. 

As late as 1951, monarchs were thought to overwinter in northern latitudes as adults or pupae but it was discovered that they could not withstand freezing weather and were moving to warmer areas.  They could not breed there, however, as the milkweeds that their larvae needed for food were not present and the spring generation had to return back north where the plants are plentiful.  How long they have been doing this is unknown but the annual arrival of the butterflies in Mexico is part of Pre-Hispanic legends.

Now there are several threats to this amazing migration and the monarch numbers are dropping alarmingly. Several severe winter storms in the last ten years have affected their Mexican refuge and destroyed hundreds of acres of the sheltering trees.  Several million monarchs are known to have been killed and the others have less protection.  In addition to inclement weather, a big threat has been the illegal logging taking place despite all efforts to stop it.  Many of the local residents in these remote areas have to work hard to subsist and can earn much from cutting the trees in the sanctuaries.  While logging is illegal and efforts are being made to give the people other income, it still continues.  There is also the widespread herbicide spraying in this country that kills untold numbers of the caterpillars.

In addition to the Eastern population of which our Mid-west monarchs have been a part, there is a western population of migrating monarchs in California. They overwinter in various coastal sites in central and southern California, notably in Pacific Grove, Santa Cruz, and Grover beach as well as in Baja, California's central valley, and the Sierra Nevada foothills. Their numbers have also been declining, but it is reassuring to read that the monarch butterfly itself is not endangered. There are resident populations in California, Florida and Arizona that will continue to thrive, but in years to come we may have to travel south to see this once-familiar butterfly.


June 27, 2017

The Virginia opossum is the only marsupial (a mammal with a pouch) located in North America.  It originated in South America and entered North America about three million years ago following the connection of the two continents, and can now be found from the east to west coast with its northern range only limited by severe weather.  The English name "opossum" was borrowed from the Powhatan language (meaning "white dog or dog-like beast") and was first written down by John Smith and William Strachey in Jamestown Virginia in the early 1600’s. They described the opossum as a "beast in bigness and taste of a pig" and having "an head like a swine, a tail like a rat and of the bigness of a cat." 

The opossum has fifty teeth (the most of any mammal in the state) and will eat almost anything.  Apples and corn are favorites but it will also happily dine on carrion, insects, amphibians, earthworms, small mammals, vegetables, as well as other fruits and berries.  Surprisingly, rattlesnakes are also a part of its diet, as opossums are immune to the deadly snake venom. 

It is an adaptable, solitary animal that wanders in woody and open areas through farms and suburbs, and uses abandoned dens or man-made structures such as woodpiles and decks for shelter, lining them with grass and dry leaves.  There have been observations of an opossum gathering denning materials, bundling them with its hind feet and then dragging the bundle to its den in a loop of its long tail. The opossum is primarily active at night and forages for food shortly after dark; however, it may become active during daylight hours in the winter when food is more difficult to obtain and is needed to survive.

It has naked ears and tail that are often ragged and scarred by winter’s frostbite; it has opposable “thumbs” on its flat rear feet and a prehensile tail that is capable of grasping, both of which allow it to be an expert swimmer and climber; both tail and parts of the feet have bony external plates overlaid with horn called scutes; it has a small skull but its unusually shaped brain seems to serve it quite well; it does not hibernate, so when it appears during a premature spring thaw, it has not come out of a winter sleep, but is simply taking advantage of warmer weather.

Less than two weeks after mating, the female will typically produce a litter of eight or nine babies, although occasionally as many as twenty.  At this point they are little more than embryos and so small that even twenty could fit into a teaspoon.  Each infant is blind, hairless, and its hind legs are mere stumps.  It uses its more developed forelegs to climb through the thick fur on its mother's abdomen into her pouch where it latches onto one of her teats.  It is helped along by the mother who licks her hair and provides a moist path.  Only those that reach a teat and are able to hold onto it will survive.  The teat swells in the infant’s mouth helping it to remain attached as it continues to develop.

The young remain in the pouch for about seventy-five days.  At that point their eyes open and they are fully formed and furred.  As they become too large to fit in the pouch, they climb onto the mother’s back and are carried about as they learn survival skills such as finding food sources and predator avoidance. If one of the young becomes separated from its mother it will make sneezing sounds to call her.  The young are weaned at approximately three months of age and are on their own after another two months.  At this point they will be about eight inches long from nose to rump, excluding the tail.  The opossum lifespan is unusually short for a mammal of its size -- usually only two to four years -- as opossum populations have a high mortality rate from road kill and other hazards. 

This animal is quite shy and inoffensive, but will often hiss and bear its teeth when threatened.  At times it will mimic the appearance and smell of a sick or dead animal with lips drawn back, teeth bared, eyes closed, and secreting a foul-smelling fluid. The stiff, curled form can be prodded, turned over, and even carried away without reaction.  It is now known that this an involuntary reaction as compounds from the adrenal glands are released that constrict the blood vessels that supply blood to the brain.  Once the threat has passed, the blood flow returns and the opossum will revive and continue on its way.

(in the style of Ogden Nash)

 by writer Melissa Ann Goodwin

“Opossums are omnivorous,  not vegan or carnivorous
they play at night, don't like to fight
and if provoked
by other blokes
 pretend to be Oblivious...”


June 20, 2017:  Insect Wings

Insect wings are a marvel of beauty and engineering. They come in all shapes and sizes, but the ones I particularly appreciated these past several weeks were those of the cecropia and polyphemus moths that have hatched in my rearing cage out in the shed.  Half a dozen of the big silk moths have emerged from the cocoons in which they spent the winter months, the adult stages of the ravenous caterpillars that kept me busy last summer supplying them with sufficient food.

How such a larva could become a delicate moth has always seemed almost miraculous to me but scientists have uncovered some of the secrets that help us understand the process. The body of a caterpillar is divided into segments, each of which has paired openings in its side that lead into the respiratory system. Tiny wing discs replace the openings on the second and third segments behind the head, and when the larva is almost fully grown, the discs increase dramatically in size and a system of branching tubes develops inside them.

Finally, when the larva spins its cocoon and then sheds its skin a final time revealing the pupa or resting stage, internal pressure forces these budding wings to the outside and they adhere tightly to its surface. Within hours, the pupal skin hardens and the wings are firmly attached so as to appear to be a part of the whole.  While the developing moth is in the pupal stage, the wing forms a structure that becomes compressed from top to bottom and pleated from end to end as it grows, so that it can rapidly be unfolded to its full adult size. In most cases, a characteristic network of longitudinal veins with cross-connections that are extensions of the body's circulatory system runs throughout the wing tissue.

After the moth emerges, it hangs quietly from a support and pumps the insect equivalent of blood into these veins, expanding and firming up the wings into their proper shape. The veins provide strength and reinforcement during flight and their shape, texture, and arrangement are quite distinctive among the various insects and therefore highly useful as aides for identification. The spaces between the network of veins are filled with a transparent or brownish membrane only one or two cells thick that has its own special functions.

Most butterfly and moth wings are covered with a dense mosaic of tiny individually colored scales that form striking color patterns and designs. The scales grow out of the membrane between the veins and are comprised of a basal socket cell and a flattened scale cell. In the case of butterflies, these scales are organized into orderly rows that radiate out from the base of wing while most moths show a random distribution. These scales vary considerably in size, shape and structure and are generally held at a 45-degree angle to the wing membrane. Each scale cell is of a single color and may be pigmented with black and brown, or may show blue, green, red or iridescence because of the microstructure of its surface. The scales cling somewhat loosely to the wing and come off easily without harming the insect.

How and why insect wings evolved is not well understood. Some scientists theorize that they may have initially developed from multi-branched moveable gills on primitive aquatic nymphs. However they came about, biologists believe that all the various wings types initially had the same ancestor; in other words, insect wings evolved only once in history.  Fossil records show that the early insect wing had 8 pairs of main veins, each of which fused near the wing base and then diverged toward the tips, and all subsequent wings have shown some degree of reduction in the number of veins.

Wings may be membranous, parchment-like, hardened, fringed with long hairs, or covered with scales. They serve not only as organs of flight, but also may be adapted variously as protective covers as in beetles, thermal collectors as in butterflies, gyroscopic stabilizers as in flies, or sound producers as in grasshoppers.

The damselfly and dragonfly both have two pairs of clear wings that are about equal in size and shape, with five main vein stems. Grasshopper forewings are tough and leathery and cover membranous hind functional wings when at rest and are held out of the way in flight. A beetle's rigid wing covers are modified forewings and in flight, they are held out at an angle. At rest, the hidden hind functional wings are folded longitudinally and transversely, and when needed, are rotated forward on their bases into flight position, an action which spreads the wings. A fly has only one pair of functional wings and its hind wings are reduced to small club-like structures that vibrate rapidly during flight, acting as organs of balance.

Insects develop wings only at certain times of their lives, and not always then, and the process is one that has been the subject of much study. Take time to look at the various types on the bugs that might be flying around in your house and yard.  As our great grandkids often say, “They’re awesome!”


June 13, 2017

The baby woodchuck lay absolutely frozen in place and only a slight movement of the hair on his flanks proved that he was alive. It could not have been more than five or six weeks old and had no business being out by himself, and I’m sure it was regretting its daring. Mother and the rest of the family were probably watching to see what would happen from the safety of the den under Jim’s solar kiln, and she chirped her warnings for him to stay put. I posed no danger but certainly there were plenty of others around that would have relished such an easy meal.

This common rodent, that is actually a member of the squirrel family, will grow to more than two feet in length and weigh up to 14 pounds if he lives long enough. The woodchuck is almost a complete vegetarian, eating leaves, flowers and soft stems of various grasses, field crops, and herbs. It is very fond of garden crops like peas, beans and corn and will even climb trees for apples and other fruit, and I was glad that the den was some distance from my sprouting vegetables.

Woodchucks have burrowed under the cement floors of the kilns to make their dens ever since the kilns were installed, but more typically live along the edges of wooded areas that are bordered by open land. Several tunnels lead to an enlarged nest chamber, 3-6 feet underground, and the main entrance is usually conspicuous because of the pile of dirt and stones. In digging, the animal uses its strong front feet and claws primarily, but it also moves stones or cuts roots with its big teeth. The amount of subsoil removed in the course of digging one burrow averages an almost unbelievable 716 pounds.

In Wisconsin, woodchucks usually hibernate all winter, emerging around the first week of April if the weather allows. The breeding season soon begins and a litter of two to nine naked, blind and helpless cubs are born in early May. Their eyes open at about 4 weeks but they seldom venture outside until 6 or 7 weeks old. The woodchuck occupies an important niche in the wildlife community because skunks, foxes, weasels, opossums and rabbits all use its burrows for their dens and the countless generations of woodchucks have contributed much to the aeration and mixing of the soil because of the tremendous quantities of subsoil moved.

The Wisconsin legislature's outdoors committees just approved a bill that would remove woodchucks from the state’s protected species list and establish a hunting and trapping season that would run from July through December with no bag limits.  The Assembly's Natural Resources and Sporting Heritage Committee amended the measure Wednesday to establish a year-round open season on the animals and the Senate's Sporting Heritage, Mining and Forestry Committee passed the bill as well.  Committee approval clears the way for votes in the full Senate and Assembly.

Our woods and fields are home to all sorts of baby animals. The parents – those that are active throughout the winter like the coyote and fox, those that hibernate like the woodchuck and chipmunk, and those who just wait out the severe weather in their dens like the raccoon and skunk – breed as the winter storms wane and the temperatures moderate. With the exception of squirrel kits that are usually born high in trees, most of the young are cared for in dens underground. Gestation is only a couple of weeks long and so the babies are mostly naked, blind and deaf, and are only able to pull themselves to a nipple and nurse, and then often need their mother’s help.

They grow quickly, however, and in a month or so, they are venturing to the mouth of the den and peering outside. During their first weeks, all are fed on mother’s milk but the predator-types are quickly introduced to regurgitated meat that the father brings back to the den, and vegetarian mothers soon lead their young out to feed on nearby plants. Soon the dens are abandoned but the adolescents remain with their parents for their education and protection – sometimes until the next breeding season.

An exception to this scenario is the white-tailed deer as it mates in the fall and gives birth to one, two, or occasionally three fawns that are fully furred and are up on their feet within minutes of their birth. The small white spots on a reddish brown coat help camouflage the young fawn as it lies motionless in the grass or leaves, but it can jump up and run almost immediately to escape a predator. The spots disappear when the fawn gets its winter coat, at about five months of age.

As they leave the dens, all of the various babies are cute furry bundles with bright eyes and endearing faces. Few survive to adulthood, however, and most become just a meal for some larger animal. Even a quick look at the statistics indicates the logic in such a system, however unpleasant. When predators are absent for some reason, populations soar and the balance of nature quickly is lost to the detriment of all. Each parent must only replace itself during its lifetime to maintain the species, but any excess is vital to countless other species. Still, we enjoy each baby we discover and hope it will be the one to survive to share the bounties of our farm.


June 6, 2017

A few days ago I had a polyphemus push its way out of its winter home and spread its wings.  It was a beautiful moth, with a heavy body covered with hair-like scales and richly colored wings, each with a transparent eyespot.  This species with its four-inch wingspan is one of a family of about sixty such moths that live in North America, and like the others, is seldom seen and so is virtually unknown. 

Through the years I have had dozens of these creatures, discovering their whitish oval cocoons lying on the ground, or in one case floating down a stream, and bringing them home to await their emergence in late spring.  However, this particular insect was purchased as an egg and its caterpillar housed in a big cage last summer, and it spent the winter in a cocoon in the little stone building we have across the road.

The polyphemus was named after one of the cyclops (giants with a single large round eye in the middle of their foreheads in Greek mythology) because of the large eyespots in the middle of the hind wings.  These eyespots are ringed with prominent yellow, white and black rings and when threatened, the moth will flip its front wings forward and flap them to expose the large eyespots to hopefully startle potential predators.

Polyphemus moths are our most widely distributed large silk moths and can be found from southern Canada down into Mexico and in all of the lower 48 states except for Arizona and Nevada. It has one brood per year in the northern section of the country and two broods per year from the Ohio Valley southward.  The adult moth splits its pupal case and then secrets an enzyme to digest the silk at the end of its cocoon to weaken it. It then tears a hole in the end of the cocoon and crawls out.  At this point, the wings are small, soft and crumpled and the insect climbs up a nearby stem or other vertical surface and hangs quietly.  It then pumps fluid from its fat body into the veins that support the structure of its wings until they are fully expanded and taut. 

Males (distinguished from the females by their larger and wider antennae) usually emerge in late May and wait patiently until they detect the sex-attractant pheromone exuded by the females when they appear.  Mating pairs remain coupled for a day, and after separating, the female flies to a host plant (birch, willow, oak, maple, hickory, walnut, American elm and a number of the fruit trees) and begins laying eggs.  Adults have no mouthparts and soon die. 

Immediately after hatching, the tiny caterpillars eat their egg shells and then feed upon their host plant. When threatened they often rear the front part of the body in a "Sphinx" pose and make a clicking noise with the mandibles -- sometimes accompanied by defensive regurgitation of distasteful fluids.  When fully grown they are very fat, more than two inches long and translucent yellowish-green.  They spin silken cocoons around themselves in the leaves of their host plants or in leaf litter on the ground, and then after a few days, the caterpillars shed their larval skins and become dark brown pupas. The following spring, the cycle begins again.

A week or so after the polyphemus moths hatch, an even bigger more spectacular moth (a wingspan up to 6 inches) makes its appearance -- the cecropia, named for a tropical tree.  It has a hairy red body banded with white, and colorful wings embellished with crescent-shaped spots of red with whitish centers.  The bright green caterpillars are also unforgettable as they can reach up to 4.5 inches in length with prominent dorsal protuberances that can be red, orange, yellow and blue in rows down the body.  These are most commonly found on maple trees, but they have been known to feed on cherry and birch trees among many others.

Two other moths that can sometimes be seen in our area are the luna and promethea.  The luna stands out among other large moths, because of its lime green green color and long tails.  Their wing "tails" are expandable decoys that seem to be designed to trick hungry bats,  As the echolocating hunter comes in for the kill, the moth's moving tails presumably distract and fool the predator, knocking its attack off target; it may nab a bite of an extremity but seldom the whole insect.

The promethea is distinctive as the males are mostly dark brownish-black while the females are much like small cecropias with bright reddish-pink wings with strong borders and well-developed reniform spots.  Both have wingspans that  measure only about three inches.  I have found them exclusively on cherry trees where their cocoons hang from twigs and have a leaf tightly wrapped in the silk. 

Raising these various moths has always been an interesting and worthwhile hobby and after harvesting a few eggs, I have released them into the woods to add to a threatened population.  Eggs (as well as cocoons) can be obtained from Bill Oehlke of <> at a nominal price along with detailed instructions for housing and feeding.  I have half a dozen moths that are almost ready to emerge from their cocoons in the shed, and I will be happy to show you how we manage them if you would like to come visit. 

May 30, 2017: Those Pesky mosquitoes

Just when the weather finally seems to becoming more balmy and we enjoy being outdoors, the mosquitoes have appeared!  Wisconsin is host to more than 40 species and each has its own breeding locations, hatching seasons, and is active at different hours of the day. Some species can breed in less than two inches of water, and just one square foot of good habitat may produce up to 100 mosquitoes per day. That is more than four million adults per acre per day and clouds of the emerging mauradours may be carried many miles on favorable winds. It is no wonder that this buzzing scourge periodically descends on us with a vengeance, and that we sometimes find it difficult to concentrate on the beauties of nature while our lifeblood is being drained.

Mosquitoes are relatively fragile insects with an adult life span that lasts only a week or two, for the vast majority meet a violent end by serving as food for birds, bats, dragonflies and spiders or are killed by the effects of wind, rain or drought. You may find it hard to believe that mosquitoes rely on sugar as their main source of energy but both male and female feed on plant nectar and liquids that ooze from plants. Only the female mosquito sucks blood, from which she gets the protein that she requires for egg production. Her long needle-like proboscis contains six fine needles, some dagger sharp for puncturing the skin and some saw-edged for enlarging the wound. After piercing the skin, the mosquito pumps saliva into the puncture hole, a secretion that acts as an anticoagulant to prevent the blood from clotting and incidentally causes the itching that commonly follows each bite.

Of the four life stages of the mosquito--egg, larva, pupa, and adult--the adult is the only stage that doesn't inhabit standing water. The female lays up to 300 eggs on the water surface, and these hatch into larvae in one to three days. The "wigglers" float upside down, breathing through air tubes and filtering small aquatic organisms and particles of plant and animal material through their mouth brushes. The immature insects then transform into pupae or "tumblers", and although these don't feed, they are quite active and may be seen bobbing through the water. Inside the pupal skin, the adult mosquito is developing and will emerge in another two to three days. The complete life cycle, from egg to adult, can take as little as two weeks under favorable conditions, allowing populations to burgeon.

Any insect that feeds on blood has the potential of transmitting disease organisms. The female mosquito that imbibes blood from an infected animal or person often picks up some of its parasites which usually multiply and undergo further development.  Then when the mosquito seeks a second blood meal, it transmits the accumulated parasites to the next unwitting host. Malaria, encephalitis, yellow fever and now the Zika virus are spread in this manner and cause several million deaths a year. 

The heart worm parasite that sometimes invades the hearts of dogs begins as a stage small enough to develop in a mosquito. Fortunately, this organism does not mature properly in humans, but a closely relation produces human elephantiasis in tropical areas of the world. The only mosquito-borne illnesses seen here in Wisconsin are LaCrosse encephalitis, which can strike young children, and the heart worm among dogs, but in recent years the West Nile virus has also made an appearance. Mosquitoes become infected when they feed on infected birds and after an incubation period of 10 days or so, they can then transmit the virus to humans and animals.

Researchers are attempting to employ genetic engineering to the mosquito problem, but there are major concerns that eliminating an abundant species, even one so admittedly damaging, could have all sorts of unforeseen consequences. Mosquitoes are a vital link in the food chain of many creatures. Their eggs, larvae, and pupae are important food for fish and other predatory aquatic animals and insects. The adults provide nourishment for swallows, flycatchers, nighthawks and other insect-eating birds. Bats, amphibians, and predatory insects such as dragonflies and spiders also depend upon them for a considerable portion of their diet.

In addition to being food, mosquitoes act as pollinators for plants as they collect nectar. Entomologist Lewis Nielsen, of the University of Utah, asserts that mosquitoes are far more important pollinators than has been generally recognized. He has collected mosquitoes whose bodies were covered with pollen grains that could be traced to more than 30 species of flowering plants. There might be a solution, however. Since humans provide only about 1% of the blood used by mosquitoes, some researchers believe that these insects might be altered in such a way as to make human blood distasteful without seriously affecting their populations.

Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine researchers and others are now concentrating on the fact that female mosquitoes use their sense of smell to find a live source of blood.  They know that the insects have three pairs of receptors that they use to detect odors, each with a different function. Those located at each proboscis’s tip contain the neurons that receive tastes and neurons for recognizing odors and they are studying how the brains of mosquitoes process tastes and smells, in hopes of identifying a way to make human blood distasteful to the insects.
Their research is mainly focused on the malaria-causing anopheles mosquito but the hope is the other mosquito-borne illnesses can also be combatted once they discover a solution.  In the meantime, treating our bodies and clothing with repellent is our best recourse short of hiding under netting or staying indoors when the attackers are most active.

May 23, 2017: Wild Orchids

The showy lady slipper is the largest native orchid in North America, and when in bloom, the white flower with its delicate pink pouch is unmistakable.  For years I had hopes of establishing a colony of my own, but it was a frustrating procedure.  The first specimen I ordered arrived in the mail alive but bare-rooted and in full bloom. The poor thing never had a chance, and it was years before I tried again. My second effort failed because the plant was almost immediately dug up by a curious and no doubt hungry animal, despite my attempts to protect it. 

I then acquired a specimen from Bluestem Farm in the Baraboo Hills, where Scott Weber and Martha Barrett produced many native plants from seed.  At that time they were propagating several of the wild orchids, planting them in agar, a gelatin-like product of a certain seaweed that is enriched with nutrients like sugar and mineral salts.  (They tell me now that they no longer are able to do this profitably as it is too long and unreliable a process.)  Because showy lady slippers are found almost exclusively in wetlands in Wisconsin, I planted my precious acquisition in the damp area of my wild garden where it has settled in and hopefully will continue to flourish as it has seven stalks this year.

When I was in school, the word "orchid" almost always referred to one particular flower, a purple cattleya, and it was a treat to receive a corsage of one of these exotic blossoms. Few people thought of having such a plant in their homes, and it has only been in the last few decades that orchid culture has become sufficiently understood to make one an affordable house plant alternative to a geranium or African violet.  At that time, I did not realize that numerous varieties of orchids also grew wild in the woods and prairies in Wisconsin.

Orchids are thought to be one of the first of the flowering plants to evolve and appeared some 120 million years ago. While other early flora families appeared and disappeared from the landscape, the orchid family expanded, moving into every corner of the world except Antarctica. Some adapted to living in the ground or under it, some high in trees, on mountains and in bogs, in tropical rainforest or lush grassland. There are now around 35,000 different species of orchid, ranging from plants only a fraction of an inch tall with flowers the size of pinheads to others whose flower stalks stretch to fifteen feet.

Botanists have placed all these various species in the orchid family because of the structure of their flowers. They have an outer whorl of three sepals and an inner whorl of three petals, one of which is usually larger and more showy. More importantly, there is a fleshy, club-shaped column projecting from the center of the flower which is a fusion of the male and female reproductive organs. Orchids can be divided roughly into two types; those that grow in the ground (usually in temperate climates) and those that grow attached to rocks or trees (in the tropics).

Orchids produce masses of tiny seeds and a single pod can contain as many as four million. Each seed consists of an embryo of only 100-200 cells within a seed coat, and unlike most other seeds, contains very little stored food and must depend upon a special fungus to provide nutrition. The fungal filaments penetrate at the base end of the seed and enter its cells. The exact process seems to be poorly understood, but it is thought that the fungus digests organic materials and transfers the resulting nutrients into the cells of the orchid by simple diffusion. The embryo then expands and forms a tiny corm-like object that can germinate into a seedling. In a few orchid species, chlorophyll never does develop, so they must continue to rely on their associations with fungi for their food all their lives.

Some studies in the laboratory suggest that specific orchids require specific fungi, but few associations have been studied in the wild where fungi are difficult to isolate and grow. Certainly some orchids can establish successful relations with several different fungi. All of this leads botanists to believe that the habitat of the fungus may determine the habitat of the orchid; in other words, a particular species may live where it does because conditions are favorable for its fungus.  This trait made it very difficult for enthusiasts to propagate any type of these interesting plants until it was discovered that the seeds could be germinated using laboratory methods.

We have a number of native orchids growing on the farm in addition to that showy lady slipper mentioned above. Most spectacular are the yellow lady slippers that have exquisite blossoms that resemble bright lanterns hanging amid all the greenery of the woodland floor.  We discovered them originally in one wooded spot and have been successful in dividing and transplanting them in numerous spots around the farm as well as sharing them with landowners not so fortunate. 

The showy orchis is a much smaller gem of a plant and has an eight-inch stalk with purple and white blossoms, rising from two broad leaves close to the ground.  The twayblade is similar to the showy but has more numerous flowers that are purple and brown, each with a wide flattened lip.  Rattlesnake plantain spreads its rosettes of dark-green leaves netted with conspicuous white veins on the ground, and in August, puts up ten inch spikes with tiny quarter-inch flowers in a cylindrical arrangement near the top.  Puttyroot puts up a single leaf that carries over the winter and then a bloom stalk the following summer, and the coral root has no leaves at all and depends entirely upon a fungus for sustenance. 

With such varied forms in such a wide range of habitats it is no wonder that orchids are fascinating flowers.


May 16, 2017

A sure sign of spring at our farm is the appearance of the timber rattlesnakes.  They are mostly found among the rugged open bluffs of southwestern and western Wisconsin but a few have taken shelter in our son’s solar kilns, finding the warmth they need among the drying boards, plus plenty of prey such as rabbits, woodchucks and other small mammals in the surrounding fields.

Wisconsin has two species of rattlesnake, the endangered and now rare massasauga which inhabits damp habitats, and the timber rattlesnake that is the larger of the two, growing up to five feet in length. It is heavy-bodied and varies in background color from rust-orange to gray marked with dark brown crossbars. Both of these snakes are venomous and don't rank high on many people's favorite animal list.  Sadly, fear and misunderstanding have resulted in many being killed unnecessarily.

Along with the rattlers there are nineteen other non-venomous species in the state. The largest is the bull snake that can reach a length of six feet, and the smallest, the red-bellied which may be only eight inches long.  This latter snake is easy to identify as its belly is (you guessed it) bright red.  Another small similar snake is the prairie ring-necked that also has a similar-colored underside, but can be differentiated by a bright yellow ring around the back of its neck.

Snakes are shy creatures and all have certain characteristics in common: a long, thin shape; scaly, legless bodies, and unblinking, lidless eyes. The eyes are covered with transparent eyelids and most snakes have very well developed sight, although limited to a distance of only a half-dozen feet.  Snakes have limited hearing, but have the ability to detect the mildest vibrations in the ground.     Like all reptiles, snakes rely on the heat of the sun to control their body temperature and consequently head underground or crawl into protected spaces when it is very cold or very hot, but you might find one sunning itself on a warm rock on a cool morning.

Every vertebrate has a Jacobson's organ in its nasal cavity that contains special cells that can analyze various smells, but those in a snake are in the mouth and highly enhanced. When it flicks out its tongue it is gathering floating particles from the air, and it draws them back into the mouth. There it pushes the tips of its tongue into the two hollow, highly sensitive saclike structures that make up the Jacobson's organ. Since these pits are split apart from each other the tongue itself also has to split, explaining the snake's forked tongue. Many reptiles rely on this organ to track prey and find potential mates as it is so sensitive that the snake can usually differentiate the smell of any particular animal.

All snakes can climb, swim, grasp, and do all the other actions necessary for survival, using only their extremely flexible backbones. These may contain as many as 600 vertebrae, each featuring a pair of ribs that curve and attach to the inner surface of a broad scale on the snake's underbelly. These scales run crosswise like bulldozer treads and are essential for the animal's locomotion. The skeleton and belly scales are linked by muscles in complex overlapping layers, allowing the snake to crawl, climb, coil, and crush. The outer layer of a snake’s skin does not grow and must be shed periodically to allow for continued growth.

Many of the snakes are constrictors; that is, they kill by wrapping their coils tightly about prey until the victim can no longer breathe.  Although they often have teeth, these only function to hold the prey, and the mouse or rabbit is usually swallowed whole, head first, to be digested with very strong stomach acids. The top and bottom jaws are attached to each other with stretchy ligaments, which allow the snake to swallow animals much wider than itself.

The various species have a variety of lifestyles: the common water snake spends most of its time swimming in large lakes and open rivers in the southern half of Wisconsin; the gray rat snake can usually be found in a tree, especially on a branch of hickory or oak that is seven to fourteen feet off the ground; the blue racer is one of the fastest moving snakes in North America, slithering at a speed of four miles an hour.  Bull snakes are known for the ability to make loud hissing noises and to vibrate their tails in an imitation of a rattlesnake. With the raised head weaving from side to side, and pretending to strike, it hisses and snorts like a bull, but it is all bluff. Most species have been known to bite in self-defense, but are generally quite harmless to humans or other large animals.

Love, bull-snake style, involves the snake couple entwined in a tight writhing embrace in the grass, the female's head clamped tightly in the male's jaws. The big snakes seem to have no objection to observers, and we have seen one or more pairs performing their annual spring rites several times. The female is yellow-brown with black and brown markings while her swain was much darker, making a handsome pair…if you like snakes.  The mating completed, the female will dig a shallow hole in sandy soil or rotted wood and lay up to 20 cream-colored leathery eggs.  In about 10 weeks, 15-inch babies will cut slits in their shells with their egg teeth and crawl out. They seem quite capable of fending for themselves immediately, feeding upon small invertebrates until they are large enough to hunt for bigger prey. 

Snakes, like most other wildlife, are extremely valuable in nature as both predator and prey, consuming rodents, amphibians and insects and providing food for a variety of birds and mammals.  You should also be aware that it is illegal to take or kill a "protected" snake such as one of the rattlers unless you are in an immediate life-threatening situation involving human life or domestic animals.


May 9, 2017:  Bird Migration

Most Wisconsinites recognize at least a few of our common birds--robins, crows, English sparrows, perhaps goldfinches and cardinals.  Still, most are amazed to hear that about 400 different species of birds have been observed in the state and they have a major impact.  Many birds eat seeds; some eat fruit. Some insect-eating birds devour about 3,000 insects every 24 hours. Birds of prey consume large quantities of mice and other rodents, large insects, and other birds.

A number of birds remain in the state throughout the year, having adapted to the often bitter winter temperatures and lack of available food, but many visit us for only a few short summer months. Migrating birds can cover thousands of miles in their annual travels, often traveling the same route year after year. Many first year birds can migrate unescorted to a winter home they have never before seen and return the following spring to the area in which they were born. 

It is believed that birds migrate because this behavior expands the available nesting and food gathering areas of the world. Tropical days are only 12 hours long but northern summers have extended days that provide many extra hours for gathering food. It takes a great amount of effort and time to feed three or four youngsters, that must increase their hatching weight up to 50 times in just two weeks, and some species squeeze in several broods.

When nesting is completed and the weather is becoming cold and inhospitable, however, these birds return to their true homes. Often at least a month is spent in transit each way leaving only three or four months with us. Some species begin to leave as soon as their young have become independent, while others stay long into the autumn. Fall migration is a protracted, often individual process propelled by shortening daylight length, falling temperatures and north to northwest winds.

Birds have a number of unique characteristics. Feathers provide the insulation necessary to maintain a high body temperature, ranging from 107 to 113 F. Long wing feathers act as airfoils that help generate the lift necessary for flight. Well-developed pectoral muscles power the flapping motion of the wings and a streamlined body shape and lightweight skeleton composed of hollow bones reduce the amount of energy necessary to fly. They have hearts which proportionately weigh 6 times more than those of a human and can beat 1000 times a minute when in flight. The avian respiratory system consists of two lungs plus special air sacs, and takes up 20% of a bird's volume compared to 5% in a human.

In addition to these general characteristics, migratory birds exhibit specialized traits. Migrants generally have longer, more pointed wings than non-migratory species, a feature that further minimizes air resistance. Also, the pectoral muscles of migrants tend to be larger and composed of fibers that are more richly supplied with nutrient- and oxygen-carrying blood vessels. Migrants also possess internal annual clocks which are set by day length and weather, and among other things, these signal the bird to acquire and store an impressive quantity of fat.  A typical summer warbler weighs about 11 grams, but in the autumn it may increase its body weight to 20 grams. In human terms, this fuel strategy would be equivalent to a 150-pound person gaining 15 pounds of pure fat per day until tipping the scale at 300 pounds, and then shedding 1.8 pounds per hour through vigorous exercise.

There are about 200 species of migratory birds. The majority are songbirds such as warblers, thrushes, tanagers, and vireos, but there are also many shorebirds such as sandpipers, plovers, and terns, some raptors such as hawks, eagles and vultures, as well as a number of types of waterfowl. Migration distances vary greatly between species and even between individual birds of the same type. The shortest migrations are made by birds that breed in the southern United States and winter in Mexico or the West Indies, a trip that can be only a few hundred miles.

Some of the longest migrations are made by shorebirds that nest in the arctic tundra of northern Canada and winter as far south as the southernmost part of South America, a one-way distance of up to 10,000 miles.  Other birds that winter in South America include common nighthawks, Swainson’s hawks, red-eyed vireos, purple martins, barn and cliff swallows, blackpoll, cerulean and Connecticut warblers, scarlet tanagers, and bobolinks. A round-trip migration distance for many of these species is as much as 13,600 miles and the arctic tern travels 22,000 miles each year.  Since birds are so active and have high body temperatures they must eat almost constantly and some consume nearly their body weight in food each day.

It is estimated that 90 percent of songbirds hatched in any given year fail to reach maturity and migration is a major killer. Untold numbers of migrants die each year by striking plate glass windows, utility lines and towers, and automobiles, in addition to the millions of birds that fall prey to domestic predators such as house and farm cats.  Such human-related challenges come in addition to the natural risks of storms, water barriers, sudden temperature drops, and natural predation.

The Environment for the Americas celebrates the International Migratory Bird Day each year.  We in the Spring Green area are fortunate to have a dedicated group of bird enthusiasts who invites us to take part in the fifth annual Wings Over River Valley Bird Festival, May 12 and 13, that will be held at the Wisconsin Riverside Resort and the Spring Green Library.  They also host a popular guided bird walk at Tower Hill State Park.  See details on the internet @Wings Over River Valley - Town of Spring Green Bird City or in local publications.


May 2, 2017:  Spring birds, butterflies and such...

A wild garden is home to far more things than wildflowers, but whether creatures make their presence known depends upon their shyness, the time of day or sometimes the weather. Midday with the sun shining, butterflies visit the blossoms; birds are busy establishing their territories and feeding; and reptiles are emerging from their winter shelters. Warm evenings bring out the moths, singing tree frogs and toads, mice and other burrowing rodents, and often the larger animals like raccoons, possums and deer.

Some of the migrant birds have not yet arrived, but the chipping and song sparrows, as well as the phoebes, are here and busily setting up housekeeping. The chipper is a small gray-breasted sparrow with a bright rufous cap and a black line through its eye. The male claims his territory by singing a simple trill, all on one pitch, during most of the daylight hours. The female makes a nest of dead grass and weeds, but if horsehair is available as it was once here at the farm in copious amounts, she will sometimes construct the entire nest of this favored material. Chipping sparrow chicks develop at an amazing rate. Each starts as a blind, naked mite weighting about as much as two paper clips, and fourteen days later it is fully feathered and ready to fly.

The song sparrow is larger than the chipper and can be identified by its song (several phrases that typically start with two or three well-spaced notes and finish with a buzz), as well as its streaked breast that has a prominent blotchy spot at the center.  A pair, or perhaps a succession of pairs through the years, has often claimed our grape vines by the back porch for its nest and we often see one bathing at the little pond, singing from a fencepost, or feeding among the plants. Both sparrows are welcome in our garden as they eat untold numbers of insects and weed seeds. 

The Eastern phoebe, a flycatcher, also arrives early for one who depends upon flying insects for food, and I would think that it must go hungry on many cold spring days.  At such times, I read that it supplements its diet with fruits such as sumac, poison ivy, and wild grapes.  All of the flycatchers have wide, flat bills that have hairy bristles at the base, presumably to help them funnel insects into their mouths, and they fly out from a perch to snatch prey in mid-flight. We have several pairs that nest around the farm buildings, and a favorite sometimes builds under the eaves of the little stone building we used as headquarters for our plant sales. For many years the female used a niche directly over the doorway but she has since moved around to the back of the building, no doubt considering the human traffic too intrusive.

We have not seen any of the larger butterflies as of yet, but blues, painted ladies and cabbages have been out on warmish days much of the month.  Almost too delicate to believe is the tiny spring azure and its two “look-alike” butterflies—the summer azure and the eastern tailed blue.  Ten or eleven species of blues and azures occur in Wisconsin, and worldwide, they and their little relatives make up 30% of all the known butterfly species.

The spring azure is generally a metallic-blue above and gray below but exhibits large variations in color depending on where it is found.  It typically has a wingspan of only about an inch and seems to easily survive the frosty nights of mid-spring.  The pupa overwinters on the forest floor and the adult emerges in mid April and can be seen flying about in the farmyard. Males mate with any females they encounter within hours of their emerging and she lays her eggs the next day on the flower buds of host plants like maple-leaved viburnum, black cherry, and sumac.

When the spring azure eggs hatch, the minuscule caterpillars, which are greenish, segmented, and covered with white stubble, eat the flowers and then the developing fruits.  They produce a honeydew that is relished by ants that are present pollinating the flowers and these in turn protect the tiny creatures from any hungry birds. The larval stage takes about a month, but the resting/pupal stage begins in early summer and lasts until the next spring.

The American painted lady is considerably larger than the little blue and has two large eyespots on the underside of its hind wings.  It lays its eggs on food plants like the thistle or hollyhock and the caterpillars shed their skins four times before they are fully grown.  Each hangs downward from a leaf, changes into a chrysalis, and when this shell cracks open, the butterfly emerges to mate and continue the cycle. 

One recent year, as I was walking one of the paths, I scared a member of our pest control scurrying down a rodent hole.  The Eastern hognose snake has a thick body, a wide neck, and a slightly upturned snout, and if disturbed, it will inflate its neck, hiss loudly, and strike much like a cobra. If this does not work, the snake sometimes will play dead, rolling over with its mouth open and its tongue hanging out. I read that it will even stay limp if picked up, and if turned right side up, will flop right back over. This one reared up with neck expanded when I got too close but then retreated down a rodent hole. The hognose eats a variety of prey, but reportedly relishes toads if they are available. Like all snakes, the Eastern hognose is also an important control on mice and rats.

Lovely as our cultivated gardens can be, a wild area is often full of surprises and we hope you can find one nearby to explore throughout the coming summer season until the winter blasts return. 


April 25, 2017:  Spring Wildflowers

Trout lily, fawn lily, dog-tooth violet, adder's tongue: all are names for one of the loveliest but sometimes most frustrating of our spring flowers. These small lilies grow only five or six inches tall from small bulbs shaped like canine teeth. They have broad upright basal leaves mottled with brown (resembling a trout) and most of my patches consist of just that—leaves, with very few blossoms in sight. When they do bloom, however, all the waiting is worth while.

Trout lilies can be found all over the United States and two common species can be found in Wisconsin, the americanum and albidum, yellow and white.  Each bulb usually puts up a single leaf, but then several horizontal runners that form new bulbs at their ends. The result is a mat of leaves pointing upward, and it is only when a bulb develops enough strength to produce two leaves that a flower stalk develops. I have moved clumps into a variety of spots, hoping for better blooming success, but no matter where I have placed them, the leaves grow rampantly while the flower are sparse.
The vein framework of the leaves of most plants resembles that of a tree with central trunk, large diverging branches and a network of ever-smaller twigs. In contrast, lilies have parallel veins in their leaves coming together at the stem, a characteristic shared by a select number of our wildflowers. These typically sprout as a single leaf as in sweet corn, as opposed to two seed leaves as in beans.

Although orchids, iris, and gentian are common examples of parallel-veined plants, the largest family is probably the lily group and we have a number of wildflowers that belong in this category. Trillium, spiderwort, wild onion, Turk's cap, wood and trout lilies come to mind. First to bloom is the bellwort which has a yellow drooping flower hanging from the tip of its upright stalk. These often grow into large clumps and are distinctive, as the stems seem to perforate the leaves.

Flowering later are three other similar plants, the Solomon's seal, Solomon's plume, and starry Solomon's plume. Solomon's seal grows to three feet and has pairs of greenish blossoms at each upper stem node dangling beneath the leaves. These later develop into large blue berries that hang on for an extended period. Solomon's plume and starry Solomon's plume display their racemes of white flowers at the end of their stalks, the only noticeable difference between them being that the first is larger with more numerous flowerets.  Later, they are more easily distinguished, as the Solomon's plume has speckled white berries that turn ruby red while the other's fruit becomes almost black.

Much smaller is the Canada mayflower, growing only three or four inches high. Sometimes called wild lily-of-the-valley, it looks like a miniature version of the others and is topped by a fragrant cluster of 4-pointed flowers that become spotted white berries turning to red at maturity. This can form a dense ground cover in favorable areas, perfuming the woods when in bloom.

With so many beautiful plants under foot it is difficult to turn one's attention to the sky, but the birds are returning in ever-increasing numbers and we don't want to miss any. The tiny chipping sparrow is chattering away, and several robins and cardinals are singing from their chosen territories.  Most easily seen are the several vultures that persist in circling our hilltop above the barn. I have noticed this in previous years and have wondered if they were considering nesting among the rocks along the ridge, but if they have done so, we haven't found them.

Vultures lay their eggs in protected spots under vegetation or in hollow logs, rock caves or crevices and we have many such spots available. I read that such a nest becomes difficult to miss as the smell from the rotting meat brought to the young perfumes the neighborhood, but it's a big hillside to explore thoroughly. Vultures are huge birds, standing 30 inches tall and with wingspans of up to six feet. They are easy to identify as they soar high in the air, for they hold their wings in a shallow V, in contrast to the eagles and hawks whose wings are extended in a straight line. The big birds perform a valuable service as they clean up the decaying carcasses of road-killed and other dead animals.

The hummingbird is about as different from the vulture as a bird can be but we have begun putting out our nectar feeder even though we have not yet seen one.  The spring migration website shows that many have been seen in Illinois and a few in Wisconsin as far north as Door County, so we want them to be welcomed when they do arrive.  There are seventeen species of hummers that breed in North America, but here in the eastern half of the United States there is only one -- the ruby throated.  It is about 3 inches long, has a 4 inch wingspan and weighs only about .2 ounce.  We have found that they will become quite tame and will come for their sugar-water even when we hold the container, and the beauty of these tiny birds is breath-taking. 

We no longer have our annual wildflower sales but will be happy to have you come and visit our wildflower garden and perhaps walk our many trails through the woods.  Give us a call to come visit and enjoy.  


April 18, 2017: Jumping worms

Most of us have dug for earthworms as children, and perhaps as adults as well, when planning a fishing trip.  Then, we had no idea that what we were collecting were just one of some twenty species of earthworms in the Great Lakes region and certainly did not realize that none of these were native.  It is now believed that all this area’s indigenous worms were killed off during the Ice Ages hundreds of thousands years ago and that our forests and prairies were established without any being present.  Then, when European settlers brought plants to the New World with them, they inadvertently introduced their earthworms as well.

When they first appeared in our area, earthworms were viewed as pests and nuisances until 1881 when Charles Darwin published one of his most popular works, "The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observations on their Habits".   Darwin's research changed public perception of the earthworms, and they became thought of as friends to gardeners, farmers and composters.

It has been a basic ecological concept ever since that earthworms were good for ecosystems and that they mix and aerate the soil, but recent research on invasion of these seemingly benevolent creatures into previously earthworm-free hardwood forests of the Great Lakes Region has challenged this.  Fishermen and -women have often dumped unused night crawlers and other bait worms at the conclusion of their excursions, and now researchers at the University of Minnesota, and elsewhere, have documented dramatic changes in native hardwood forests in these fishing areas.

These include losses of native understory plant species and tree seedlings, changes in soil structure and declines in nutrient availability. There is also fascinating evidence emerging that small mammal, bird and amphibian populations are also being impacted,  and they have even encouraged invasions of other exotic species such as European slugs and exotic plants like buckthorn and garlic mustard.

Now there is a further complication.  If you saw the cancelation notice this week concerning the native plant sale to be held by the Wisconsin Hardy Plant Society in Madison, you may have realized the concern of that group about a new invasive earthworm species that has been discovered in Wisconsin. This is no ordinary creature as you might conclude by its common name -- jumping worm!  Its appearance, life cycle, biology and behavior are unique, and when they are disturbed, jumping worms thrash violently, slither like snakes and even jump into the air.

Jumping worms are darker and smoother than other earthworms and are relatively easy to identify by the band surrounding the body.  It is milky white to gray-colored, smooth and completely encircles the body; however, what makes jumping worms truly unique is their life cycle.  They are asexual, which means an individual can reproduce without a mate, and can reach maturity within 60 days of hatching. Then it produces eggs and dies, sometimes undergoing two cycles during a summer.   In the autumn they drop microscopic egg cases that survive the winter, hatch and start the cycle all over again the following June.

This destructive invasive species was found at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum for the first time in 2013 and has since turned up in many locations around the state. Originally from Asia, these voracious creatures are known to consume leaves and other organic materials faster than any other worm species.  They live on the surface of the ground and compact the surrounding soil.

Forest floor leaf litter is comparable to the skin on an animal. It retains moisture, protects roots, breathes, prevents erosion, deters pathogens and non-native plants and promotes seed germination. When leaf litter is consumed by earthworms it is like removing the skin of the forest floor.  Disturbance from earthworms exposes the soil and causes erosion, compaction and increased rainwater runoff.  This disturbance favors invasive plants, beginning a cycle of non–native invasions competing for critical resources. The result is less diversity of native plants and animals in our forests.

Where jumping worms are present, fallen leaves and topsoil are processed by the worms until the soil becomes granular, dry and looks similar to coffee grounds.  There has also been observed to be a decline in European earthworms where jumping worm populations are established, and no signs of woodland flowers in those forests.  In January 2015 the Department of Natural Resources organized a committee of representatives from the green industry, composters, master gardeners, cities and municipalities and the University of Wisconsin-Extension to develop management practices to minimize the jumping worm spread and educate the public.

 If you do come across jumping worms, you are asked to report them to the Department of Natural Resources by email at  You may also contact Phyllis Both by email at or by telephone on Monday mornings at the Sauk County University of Wisconsin-Extension office, 608-355-3253.  You will not notice these worms in the spring as they are not visible until late June or early July. (It’s ironic that this is when the Japanese beetles also appear.) You may find a second hatch in early fall.  Your help is needed...


April 11, 2017

We have been listening to returning songbirds and owls the past couple of weeks but another unlikely singer also has joined the chorus -- a frog called the spring peeper. This is a small chorus frog that is less than 1 1/2 inches long and weighs less than a quarter ounce.  It is called a chorus frog because it and its brothers and sisters join in what can be an ear-splitting choir any mild evening in any damp spot or wetland.  Spring peepers are marked with a dark cross that roughly forms an X on their backs and may be tan, brown, olive green, or gray. Females are lighter-colored, while males are slightly smaller and usually have dark throats. They can sometimes be found in breeding aggregations of several hundred individuals, and commonly breed wherever they can find water -- in wetlands, swamps and temporary pools and farm ponds.

Spring peepers spend the winter hibernating under logs, in piles of leaves or behind loose bark on trees where they can survive temperatures as low as -20F.  Ice crystals form in such places as the body cavity and bladder and under the skin, but a high concentration of glucose in the frog's vital organs prevents complete freezing.  A partially frozen frog will stop breathing and its heart will stop beating but when the temperatures warm up above freezing, the frozen portions will thaw, and its heart and lungs will resume activity. Many frogs can survive all winter like this, undergoing repeated cycles of freezing and thawing.

As its common name implies, male spring peeper has a high-pitched call, similar to that of a young chicken only much louder and rising slightly in pitch. It is among the first frogs to call in the spring and can be heard soon after the ice melts on the wetlands.  Even when calling, the little frog is often difficult to locate. Only males have vocal sacs located in their throats which expand and deflate like balloons to create the short and distinct peeping sound, and they use it to attract mates. The frog will also give an aggressive rising trill if threatened or when challenged by another male. The spring peeper has large toe pads for climbing, but it is more at home in the loose debris of the forest floor where it feeds primarily on small invertebrates, such as beetles, ants, flies, and spiders.

Spring peepers breed in northern areas between March and May, when warm rains fall.  After mating, the female will typically lay around 900 eggs, hiding the clusters under vegetation or debris in the water.  The eggs absorb moisture and consist of several layers of gelatinous material, a jelly that provides support and protection to the developing embryos. Tiny tadpoles soon hatch, with legless oval bodies and long flattened tails, and eat algae and small plants.  They grow hind legs, then front ones and then absorb their tails, as well as begin to breathe air. The mouth changes from being small and enclosed at the front of the head to large and the same width as the head, and the intestines shorten to accommodate a new diet of insects.  About eight weeks after hatching, the transformation is complete and the new frogs are ready to leave the water.  

Spring peepers, and other tree frogs as well as toads, have just one vocal sack located under the throat, while true frogs have a pair of vocal sacks on the corner of the mouth.  True frogs also produce croaks when air is pushed through the larynx in the throat, and the sound is amplified by vocal sacs that are elastic skin membranes.  In the various species, croaks can sounds like bells, cackles, trills, cuckoo calls, barks, whistles, flute, meows, grunts, buzzings, zooms, hums, started engine, hammer hitting an anvil, rowing, drum beats, metallic, and others.  They are basically love serenades meant to attract mates, and can be sung individually or in groups, although they can also be warnings or distress calls.  It is interesting that frogs living near flowing water in most cases have quiet croaks and lack vocal sacks, presumably due to the noise of flowing water covering any emitted sound.

All adult frogs have stout bodies, protruding eyes, cleft tongues, limbs folded underneath, and the absence of a tail. The skin has secretions ranging from distasteful to toxic.  Frogs' skins vary in color from dappled brown, grey and green to vivid patterns of bright red or yellow and black to advertise toxicity and warn off predators. They are widely distributed, ranging from the tropics to subarctic regions, but the greatest numbers of different species are found in tropical rain forests.  There are approximately 4,800 recorded species.

The American bullfrog is the largest frog that can be found in our state. This giant can measure 6 inches long and can weigh up to a pound and is native to much of eastern North America including Wisconsin (where it is designated a species of concern).  American bullfrogs are plain green with dark markings and have no ridges along their backs.  They inhabit permanent bodies of water and breed later than the peeper, usually in June through July.  The call is a deep bass similar to a foghorn; "jug-o-rum" or like drawing a bow across a bass fiddle.

Bullfrogs are able to jump distances up to ten times their body length and can hear both in the air and below water. They are voracious, opportunistic, ambush predators who feed mainly on invertebrates, but will prey on any small animal they can overpower and stuff down their throats such as a rodent, reptile, or bird.  They can capture large, strong prey because of the powerful grip of their jaws after wrapping it in their large sticky tongue. It has been introduced into some western states but it is considered to be an invasive species because of the concern that it seems to be outcompeting native species of amphibians and upsetting the ecological balance.  It is very common in California, where it is considered to be a factor in the decline of several vulnerable species.

All frogs are very sensitive to their environment, and any changes in their appearance or their numbers can warn us that there are problems that need addressing.   We would do well to watch them.


April 4, 2017

Anyone who enjoys listening to the birds has probably also heard a strange hooting from the woods these days. On our farm there are two large owls who make themselves heard, the great horned and the barred. The great horned has the characteristic owl face with yellow eyes and long tufts on its head, and can be found just about anywhere around the globe, even in the desert, tundra, and tropical rainforest.  Its song is a low-pitched ho-ho-hoo hoo hoo and is commonly heard in late winter, typically decreasing at the onset of egg laying in March. When disturbed, the owl also can put out a loud variety of hoots, chuckles, screeches and squawks. It is a large bird with a wingspan of up to five feet and preys upon anything it can catch, including those as large as a house cat.  After digesting its food, the owl regurgitates hard pellets of compressed bones, fur, teeth, feathers and other indigestible materials.

The barred owl is best known for its distinctive call, a series of eight accented hoots ending in oo-aw, with a downward pitch at the end. (The most helpful trick for remembering the call is to think "Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all.")  When agitated, this species will also make a buzzy, rasping hiss and click its beak together loudly.  Its principal prey are voles, followed by mice and shrews as well as rats, squirrels, rabbits and whatever it can catch.  It has light gray and rufous brown plumage with bars of light and dark brown and gray, which is why it is called the barred owl. It is about two feet tall and its wingspan can reach four feet. The pale face is round with a dark outline and the breast is white with gray and brown bars. It sometimes hunts during the day when it has a nest full of hungry chicks.

Along with the two large owls, there are two medium sized owls that resemble each other in many ways, the long-eared and short-eared owls. They are both quite vocal and make an incredible variety of hoots, squeals, barks, and other noises as well as low, breathy hoots and strange barking calls in the night. The long-eared owl has erect blackish ear-tufts in the center of the head and the short-eared has paler plumage and smaller ears that usually are held close. These birds are partially migratory and some move south in winter.

Much smaller are the eastern screech-owl and the northern saw-whet owl. The screech owl is strictly nocturnal, and roosts during the day in a cavity or next to a tree trunk. It can often be found in residential areas but due to its small size and camouflage, it is more frequently heard than seen.  Despite the name, its call doesn’t truly screech but has a descending, whinny-like quality that often ends in a monotone purring trill lasting several seconds.  The northern saw-whet owl makes a repeated tooting whistle sound that some have said sounds like a saw being sharpened on a whetstone.  It is one of the smallest owls in North America and is close to the size of an American robin.  It nests in a tree cavity or old nest made by another small raptor. Some are permanent residents, while others may migrate south in winter.

An owl that used to be quite common and now is almost never encountered is the barn owl with its distinctive heart-shaped white face.  In Wisconsin and most of the Midwest it is now listed as endangered and is seldom seen.  Some modern agricultural practices have reduced barn owl habitat by shifting from cover crops such as oats and hay to row crops like corn. This removes food and shelter for mice and voles and the owls then lose their main food source. Barn owls have a hard time surviving severe winters if they can't find enough food, since their bodies store little fat reserves.

Great gray owls, snowy owls and the reclusive little boreal owls breed farther north in dense coniferous forests near open areas, such as meadows or bogs but occasionally visit our state during hard winters. The great gray is documented as the world's largest species of owl by length, and the snowy is the heaviest, with bright white plumage, large yellow eyes and massive feathered feet.

Two other non-owl nighttime singers that will soon add their voices are the nighthawk and the whippoorwill.  Common nighthawks are not really hawks but are from the Nightjar family. These birds are so well camouflaged that you would have a hard time seeing them when crouched on the ground as they look like a pile of leaves.  It is easy to walk right by them unless they jump into the air and fly away.  Nighthawks are about a foot long with brown, black, and gray feathers and a tiny beak that opens up to a very large mouth. These birds fly around at night, often around streetlights, and can eat thousands of insects in a single evening.

The whippoorwill which is more properly named the common poorwill, is also part of the Nightjar family. These birds are very similar to nighthawks, and they hang out at night and eat insects too. However, they are less active and would rather sit on the ground, hidden in the leaves, and let the bugs come to them. Then, they will simply snatch them up with their huge mouths, only flying when necessary. The poorwill is a medium sized bird,  about ten inches long with a wingspan of around twenty inches. The female usually lays two eggs right on the ground and the male and female share the duties between them.
All the night birds rely on dull colored feathers and camouflaged patterns to keep them hidden from their prey and from other predators in the daylight.  All are carnivorous and the various species prey upon rodents, small or medium sized mammals, nocturnal insects, fish and other birds, including smaller owls.  It is of concern that there is some evidence to suggest that both common nighthawk and whippoorwill populations have declined significantly in the last 40 years. The night time chorus would greatly miss them.


March 28, 2017:   Bird Songs

The first thing you might notice when you step out for an early morning listen is the great variety of sounds produced by the singing birds. The redwing has little more than a “cha-reeeeeeeee” while the cardinal gives forth with “cheer-cheer-cheer-purty-purty-purty“. The song sparrow sings, “Hip; hip; hip hurrah boys; spring is here!” with its three similar introductory notes, while the bluebird, which seems as if it should have a lovely melody, comes out with a muffled twitter. Scientists tell us that birds produce five basic types of sound: call, song, territorial, fledgling, and alarm. The first four are used during their daily life and work, while the alarm notes are agitated and warn of a threat. Within each of these basic types, the particular of meanings of these sounds are based upon inflection, body language and background setting.

Most song is produced by the male bird and is usually delivered from a prominent perch adjacent to its nesting area. Songs are often longer and more complex than calls, and are usually associated with courtship and mating. Strangely, some species are nearly voiceless, but non-vocal sounds such as the drumming of woodpeckers and the "winnowing" of snipes’ wings in display flight are also considered songs. A female often seems to choose the male with the most impressive “song” as her mate, and experiments suggest that the quality of each bird’s song could be a good indicator of fitness. This may be because parasites and disease will affect the male’s song, or just because ability of a male bird to hold and advertise a good territory demonstrates his health.
We tend to think that birdsong is whistling, and we know that when we whistle, we produce that sound in the mouth. However, many of us with a farm background who have seen a chicken’s head cut off might have heard it continue to squawk as it flops headless on the ground. It can do this because the sound doesn't come from the head but from its body; in fact, birds have a song-making organ that other animals, including humans, do not, called the syrinx.
When air enters a bird's nostrils and mouth, it flows through the trachea to the lungs, as is the case with most higher animals. The bird's syrinx is shaped like an upside-down, hollow “Y” and is located where the trachea forks, with one branch leading toward each lung. If a bird wants to sing or squawk, it tightens up its syrinx muscles so that air moving through it is pressurized and causes a membrane inside to vibrate, creating sound. The bird can control the pitch by changing the tension on the membrane and both pitch and volume by the amount of air that passes over it. It can also control the two sides of the trachea independently, allowing some species to produce two notes at once.

When a male bird is raised in isolation, it still sings, but its song sounds distinctly different from others of its species. It appears that although the basic song is the same for all of the same type, young birds learn details of their songs from their fathers, and these variations build up over generations to form dialects. Zebra finches, the most popular species for birdsong research, have been observed to develop a version of the adult's song only three weeks from hatching, but it requires two to three months for the young bird to perfect its final version.

The language of birds has long been a topic for study, and it is obvious to all that most calls have meanings that are understood by other birds. Many species can even imitate human speech or other sounds, and a study by Irene Pepperberg, professor of psychology at Brandeis University and lecturer at Harvard University noted for her studies in animal cognition, suggested that some birds demonstrate considerable learning ability. She trained an African grey parrot named Alex to use words to answer complex questions such as "How many red squares?" with over 80% accuracy. It was trained by using two teachers, one to give instructions, and the other to act as a model who would give the correct response.

The bird copied the model’s answers and was able to identify objects by color, shape, and number at about the level of a chimpanzee or dolphin. Critics cited the “Clever Hans effect” (named for a horse who seemed to be able to count and do other intellectual tasks but was later proved to be receiving cues from the body language of the human trainer), but Pepperberg countered that her controls and tests made it impossible for Alex simply to recite words when she asked questions.

Such research has not been conducted with our local birds, but evidences of their intelligence keep popping up. Crows have been known to steal fish from ice fishermen by using their beaks and feet to pull up the lines when the men were not looking, and, in experiments, jays have been shown to remember exactly where they hid acorns. In one study jays were able to find seeds almost a year after they hid them and it was thought that they remembered these by forming and storing detailed image maps of the surrounding area. Other species may not be as clever, but each has its own song, and these are so distinctive that many birders routinely identify a bird solely by its sound. The next two months will be prime listening as all the birds set up housekeeping and raise their young. Enjoy the chorus.


 March 14, 2017:  All About Feet

Consider the foot. There are 26 bones in each of your feet, with two bones in your big toe and three in each of your other toes. The sole of your foot consists of five bones with seven tarsal bones behind them, two of which are larger and carry most of your weight. Despite this complexity, however, human feet are not vital to survival in most cases and I was amused to find this “news” item in the February 28, 2007 issue of The Onion, a parody newspaper published weekly online:
 “OXFORD, ENGLAND—A new report in the Journal Of The Anthropological Society Of Oxford reveals that human feet were likely once used as a means of extravehicular locomotion. "Apparently, as recently as 20 years ago, the foot was used in a process called 'walking,' by which the human body actually propelled itself," the report read. "Starting sometime in the late 1970s, these crude early feet gradually evolved into their present function of operating the gas and brake pedals on automobiles.”

While this report may be a bit premature and many humans manage pretty well without them for one reason or another, feet are very essential to most other mammals, reptiles, and birds.  All have at least two, and these are often uniquely suited to their owner’s lifestyle and environment. Even what an animal eats can depend on what kind of foot it has to help it get to that food.

Animals that hunt and kill their food need feet that are padded so they can quietly sneak up on their prey and sharp claws to catch and kill it. Other animals need feet that will allow them to escape predators by running or climbing. Animals that live in the water need feet that help them swim, and some have feet much like ours with toes and padded soles, but with toes that can curl round tree branches. Climbing claws are curved and sharply pointed to dig into tree bark while digging claws are broad and blunt, and burrowers often have wide, flat paws that that act like scoops or shovels, sometimes made wider by fur or bristles.

Climbers and burrowers are flat-footed animals that walk on their palms and all bones of the feet below the ankle. Most runners travel on the bones of their toes with their wrists and ankles held off the ground. Some types have specialized thickened nails called hooves and run on the tips of their toes. Therefore, all species can generally be divided into three types: those that place the full length of their foot on the ground such as humans and bears; those that walk with most of the length of their digits but not the soles in contact with the ground such as dogs and cats; and those that walk on their tiptoes, often on hooves, such as deer and horses.

Deer feet are actually two elongated toes comparable to the third and fourth fingers on your hand, with the second and fifth "fingers" located behind the hooves and called dewclaws. Their hooves are like big, thick toenails.  A dog walks on his toes like a deer, but its foot has four pads on the ground, each with its own toenail. Those parts of the foot that are similar to the human wrist and palm of the hand are held off the ground and we usually think of them as its lower leg.

Animals adapted for speed like deer, have relatively longer lower limb segments; however, their feet tend to be relatively useless as tools. On the other hand, a dog's paws are not as helpful in running as the feet of a deer, but can dig and hold some objects, while cats, still less adept at running, have arms and paws that that can grasp things.

All birds are toe-runners, and various species have feet designed for running, perching, grasping, wading, and paddling. Most songbirds have four toes with the first big toe turned backward while the other three forward as it needs opposing toes that wrap around a twig. Birds that usually run on the ground often have the backward toe higher up the leg out of the way, and possess thick, powerful toes with well developed nails. Swifts, that can hang on vertical surfaces, have all their toes turned forward, while woodpeckers are equipped with two toes forward and two backward to help them grasp the bark of trees and balance while they hammer. In ducks, the three front toes are connected with a web of skin.

The wonderment is that despite the varieties of feet possessed by mammals, reptiles, and birds, they have a very similar fundamental bone structure. In 1998, a fossil was unearthed in central Pennsylvania from 400 million-year-old rocks.  It was that of an ancient fish that scientists have dubbed as lobe-finned, a bony creature that had paired rounded fins that were very suggestive of limbs. The bones in its forelimb included what looked very much like an upper-arm bone, two forearm bones, and many little bones connected by joints to the forearm bones in the positions of wrist and finger bones.
There the similarities end, however, as the finger-like bones look more like fin rays than the jointed finger bones, but this is still the closest we have come to understanding the origins of our feet and hands.


March 14, 2017

Driving down Rainbow Road Sunday morning we came upon a thrilling sight -- six bald eagles were cavorting in a field near the road!  In past years we have seen small numbers of the majestic birds at the river near the dam at Sauk City and a single bird or two near our home, but this is the first time we have seen a “convocation” (that name given to a group of bald eagles).

Historically, the eagle had been used as a symbol of governmental power since Roman times, and this bird was officially adopted as the emblem of the United States in 1787.  Its distinctive "bald" white head, tail, and dark brown body make it instantly and universally recognized.  Eagles were abundant throughout Wisconsin until 1800 when immigrants settled the state.  Then habitat disturbance, destruction, and shooting caused their numbers to drop until laws were enacted, such as the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1916 and the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940.  In 1972, the eagles were listed as endangered in Wisconsin, and the pesticide DDT was banned because it was determined to have been the cause of defective egg shells.

At that time, there were only 108 occupied eagle territories in the state.  Protection of law and banning of the pesticide caused a rapid recovery, however, and the species was removed from the endangered list in Wisconsin in 1997 and from the federal list in 2007.  Recently, aerial nesting surveys in the state found 1,465 occupied eagle nests, which is the highest number ever recorded.  Observers reported 1,248 nestlings and a statewide nest success rate of 66% during productivity surveys that occurred in May and June.  Nest success by survey area for eagles ranged from 56-95%. Occupied eagle nests were observed in 69 of 72 counties surveyed.

With a seven-foot wingspan, the bald eagle dwarfs most other raptors, including the turkey vulture and any of the hawks.  In flight, it holds its broad wings flat like a board.  Immatures lack the white heads and tails and have mostly dark heads and tails; their brown wings and bodies are mottled with white in varying amounts.  Young bald eagles can be mistaken for golden eagles, but have smaller heads, larger beaks, and yellow eyes.  They attain their adult plumage in about five years.

The greatest number of bald eagles can usually be seen at open-water areas in the mornings as they soar, searching for their first meal of the day.  Since lakes and rivers freeze over in winter, dams and power plants provide areas of open water in which the eagles can fish. Wintering eagles also feed on carrion and later in the day can frequently be seen searching for and feeding on dead deer and other animals in the countryside. Late in the afternoon, the eagles head to their favorite night roosting areas – places with large trees that provide protection from cold winds and severe weather.

Active nests have been found both in inland nesting areas and along most of the major rivers in Wisconsin.  Eagles usually build their nest in a tall tree, often a live white pine, creating a foundation of large sticks and lining it with softer material.  On average, the nests are about four feet in diameter and three feet deep.  The same nest is often used over and over, with the adults just adding new materials each year instead of building a new one.  Females lay two or three white eggs in March a day or two apart, with both adults incubating the eggs.  About a month later, a fluffy white chick will emerge from the first egg and any others follow a day or two later.  Adults then feed the chicks bits of fish and protect them from severe weather and predators, like great horned owls, raccoons, and ravens. 

Modern technology allows us to have many experiences that would otherwise be impossible and one such is a visit to a nesting eagle and perhaps even watching an egg hatch.  Two web cams have been set up in Decorah, Iowa; one, dubbed the Decorah North, shows a very large nest located in a white oak tr