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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.

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

This is a copy from CNN.com/travel 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."

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 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!



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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.


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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...

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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!

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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. 

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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.


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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.

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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.


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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.


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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.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                  
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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.

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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...

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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.

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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.


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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...

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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.

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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.

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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...



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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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, <dnr.wi.gov> for large mammal observation form.  

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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.

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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?


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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.


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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...

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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.



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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.

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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? 

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 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 <https://www.almanac.com/content/woolly-bear-caterpillars-and-weather-prediction>.

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...


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 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! 
 

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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.

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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...


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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. 

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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!


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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.


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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.

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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. 



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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.


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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.


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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...


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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. 

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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. 

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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!

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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. 

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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!”


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.




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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.


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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.

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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.

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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)


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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."

Amen.
 

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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.


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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 < https://www.prairiehaven.com/?page_id=9857>. It is a fascinating process...

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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.


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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.

ODE TO THE OPOSSUM
(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...”

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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!”


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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.

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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 <http://silkmoths.bizland.com/indexos.htm> 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.


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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.


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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.

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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. 

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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.  

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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 dnr.wi.gov/topic/invasives.  You may also contact Phyllis Both by email at pboth@charter.net 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...


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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.


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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.


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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.


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 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.


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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 tree on private property on the Upper Iowa River.  It is in a small forest bordering a valley with a stream and is located just across a field where cattle are pastured.  The second is just called Decorah Eagles and is located near the Decorah Trout Hatchery.  The adult eagles began courtship last October, mated in late January and both pairs produced three eggs in late February.  You can call up this link to watch the nests in live time: <https://www.raptorresource.org/birdcams/decorah-eagles>.  Hatching usually begins in late March to early April, and the eaglets should fledge in mid-to-late June. While young usually disperse between August and October, the adults remain on territory year round.

Wisconsin offers numerous opportunities to view eagles and to learn about these majestic birds.  Next January you can visit Sauk Prairie’s Bald Eagle Watching Days and next March Ferryville will hold its Eagle Watching Day, with a variety of activities and opportunities, both annual events.  If you want to visit a nest, there is one on Highway 23 north of Plain quite close to the highway and another in the marsh along Highway 60 east of Spring Green.  You can even adopt an eagle nest by donating $100 to the Endangered Resources Fund and help pay for surveys, rehabilitation, research, protection and education.  What a fine thing!


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March 7, 2017

A few weeks ago I mentioned that my Missouri granddaughter had mice in her house; this week I want to tell about other residents that she and her Colorado sister have adopted -- lizards -- specifically, bearded dragons.  In the wild, these Australian reptiles live in rocky and arid regions and can be found basking on rocks, or staying cool in bushes and other shaded areas.  They have large triangular heads and flat bodies with pointed scaled ridges along their sides and can grow to be two feet long.  I understand that they are now popular as pets.

Lizards are much smarter than commonly believed as all reptiles have been assumed to be only concerned with survival and to operate by instinct.  Now research among scientists and the experiences of pet-owners have demonstrated that this is not true; in fact, reptiles show advanced social behavior with pair bonding, recognition of family and care of offspring. They have displayed social learning, play behavior, and cooperation. Some owners report that they have taught pet lizards to come when called and to do simple tricks.  If you can believe what you read on the internet, many enjoy interactions with their owners, and can be taken out of their housing and allowed to explore. With a leash, bearded dragons can even be taken for walks.

The human brain has long been the standard to which all other creatures’ brains are compared, but many animals show unique talents far beyond those of Homo sapiens.   A recent article in Psychology Today reported the discovery of advanced capacities in birds, lizards and even bees that have very small brains with no cortex (that portion of the human brain that is responsible for higher thought and function).  These beings have completely different brain structures than humans and brainstems which perform the functions of the hippocampus and frontal cortex using human like neurons. Recently, laboratory lizards have demonstrated counting, advanced learning and problem solving. They did even better than crows, learning more quickly.  They required fewer attempts in opening caps to obtain food and remembered their methods days later. They often invented techniques that they don’t use in the wild.

There are more than 4,600 lizard species worldwide that range in size from the half-inch dwarf gecko on an island in the Caribbean, to the giant Komodo dragon from Indonesia that can reach ten feet in length and weigh up to 200 pounds.  Most rely heavily on body language, using specific postures, gestures, and movements to claim territory and entice mates.  Sight is very important for most lizards, both for locating prey and for communication, and many have highly acute color vision.  (The bright colors are often hidden on the underside or between scales and only revealed when necessary because these colors would be highly visible to predators.)  Many have a dewlap, a brightly colored patch of skin on the throat, usually hidden between scales. The lizard can erect the hyoid bone of its throat, allowing the large vertical flap of brightly colored skin beneath the head to be displayed.  Each species has specific colors, including patterns only visible under ultraviolet light.

All lizards rely on their surrounding conditions to control their body temperatures which is why so many are found in warm climates.  Still, Wisconsin is home to four lizard species -- two skinks, a glass lizard and a whiptail lizard (the six-lined roadrunner), but let me point out that all are protected species and none would make good pets. Wisconsin's lizards have several things in common. They all need sandy soil in which to dig as they hibernate underground from early September until late April or May.  Then they must lay their leathery-shelled eggs in a moist place because the eggs need to take up water as they develop.  Many lizard females leave their eggs after they are laid but the females of both Wisconsin skinks and the slender glass lizard remain with their eggs.  The female curls itself around them to keep them moist and if the eggs become too cool, the female may go out and bask in the sun, and then return to warm her eggs.

Lizards, like snakes, are covered with dry scaly skins that reduce water loss and increase the ability to take in solar heat. Most have patterns that help them to blend in with their surroundings but many undergo color changes during the breeding season.  In Wisconsin, the males of the five-lined skinks develop orange-red colored heads while prairie skinks develop bright orange throats and chins; and male six-lined racerunners turn a bluish color on their chins and bellies. The colors attract females and warn other males to stay away.

A fascinating characteristic of some of our lizards is the ability to lose their tails.  If one is attacked or grabbed by the tail, it has muscles that cause the tail to break off and continue to wriggle wildly. This often distracts a predator, allowing the lizard to escape.  It will grow a new tail, although it will never be as long or useful as the original and the process takes a toll on the animal. 

The few habitats that can support lizards in Wisconsin are limited and are increasingly altered by a growing human population. The slender glass lizard, which calls the central Wisconsin sand plain its home, is an endangered species and the other species are of special concern.  We are very fortunate here as the Spring Green Preserve is just across the highway and harbors some of Wisconsin's rarest plant and animal communities and one of the lizard species -- the six-lined racerunner.  This 6-9 inch slender-bodied lizard has six yellowish stripes that extend down its dark body from head to a long tail.  Take a hike at the 1100 acre preserve when the weather warms and look for it.


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February 28, 2017:  titmice, spring beauties

All experienced Wisconsinites know that mild days in February and early March are not "springtime", no matter if the thermometer reads sixty degrees, the sun is shining, and the breezes are balmy.  Still, had you visited last week, you would have found me in the wild garden, diligently searching among the dried leaves for any brave sprouts that might be emerging.  And, as any person familiar with the habits of our wildflowers would predict, I was looking for the first bent-over stems and clusters of buds of the spring beauties.  How they manage to appear with the ground solidly frozen is beyond me and I suppose it is possible that they have been there all winter, but they appear pristine and vulnerable. I choose to believe that they know when spring is eminent and are preparing themselves to burst into blossom at the very first possible moment.

Spring beauties belong to the purslane family and grow from tubers that look something like tiny potatoes. These reportedly have a sweet chestnut-like flavor and must have been a welcome addition to the diets of Native Americans and early settlers after a long winter.  Spring beauties seldom grow more than three or four inches in height and display tiny flowers composed of five whitish petals, striped inside with dark pink.  Each stem has a succession of buds that allows for a long blooming period. The variety we have here has leaves that are almost grass-like, while another type found farther north has more oval foliage. The blossoms give way to small capsules containing seeds that self-sow readily when the site is to their liking and the plants often spread into large colonies on favorable sites.

Also hiding under the dried debris in the wild garden are the brown or maroon leaves of another prized early bloomer -- the hepatica. In the next weeks, these leaves will wither away and numerous hairy four-inch stalks will push up, each bearing a single blossom.  The pink, violet or white flower usually has six petal-like sepals and numerous white stamens surrounding a green center.  New three lobed leaves will then appear and persist until next spring when the cycle begins again.  We have two variations of this plant that differ only in the shape of the leaf lobes, either rounded or pointed.

Another sign of the changing of the season this year are the raucous conversation of the titmice. Other years it has seemed that the chickadees were the most vociferous in their proclamations of springtime, but now they are finding themselves almost drowned out by their louder cousins. Titmice are social birds and, especially in winter, join with small mixed flocks of chickadees, nuthatches, and small woodpeckers. Insects are a large part of their food, but they readily take seed and nuts from a feeding station, sometimes caching any excess in nearby bark crevasses.

The tufted titmouse is a plump five-inch bird, overall gray with a lighter breast and rust flanks, with prominent black eyes and a perky crest on its large head. An acrobat like the chickadee, it flits endlessly about in the trees and shrubbery, searching up-side-down as often as right-side-up along branches and trunks for insects and other goodies. Its song is a loud repeated “pe’-ter, pe’-ter, pe’-ter”, but these days it is calling with a peevish "tseep-tseep-tseep" or sometimes a more melodic "tshew-tshew".  It chooses a cavity for its nest -- a woodpecker hole, bird house, even a pipe or other convenient site -- and furnishes it with a soft cup of wool, cotton, leaf fibers, even hairs plucked from live animals. The female usually lays five to six brown-speckled white eggs that hatch in two weeks, and the young fledge in about 18 days.

The tufted titmouse's range has grown steadily northward throughout the eastern United States. In the first half of the twentieth century, it was found primarily along the Mississippi and Ohio River basins, but by the 1970s, its range had expanded into New England, the upper midwest, and Canada. This expansion is guessed to be linked to the growing number of people feeding birds each year, a theory which seems to be substantiated in our experience as the population on our farm has increased as we have expanded our seed offerings. 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.

Nature watching is a crazy mix of rooting for the predator one moment and the victim the next, as one of the titmouse's favorite treats is the pupa from a Promethea cocoon about which I wrote recently.  Its sharp beak manages to penetrate the tough silk, and many of the cocoons one finds have been opened by one of these birds. Similar conflicts of interest are rampant: coyotes versus fawns and ground birds, bunnies versus sprouting flowers, nighthawks versus silk moths. Everything eats something and the something is often as precious to us as the eater.  Sometimes, all we can say is "That's the way it is!"

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February 14, 2017:  Courting in the Wild

It may seem like the middle of the winter to us and time to huddle before a warm fire, but our wild neighbors are switching into high gear for the mating season. If you doubt this, take a look up in the trees on any sunny, relatively mild day and watch the squirrels. Chances are you will catch sight of at least one and often several males hot on the tail of a “come-hither” female as she races up and down in the upper branches.

A male squirrel will chase a female for hours, often turning off to repel any other suitor who draws too close, and since males are notoriously polygamous, the chase will often draw every male in the neighborhood into a noisy melee.  Although seemingly unwilling to mate, the female leaves scent marks along the branches, enticing her suitors on, and it is believed that the female's protests serve mainly to intensify the competition between males; the stronger the competition, the better her chances that the strongest, most dominant male will persevere.

The basis for all mating is a chemical called a pheromone, which is produced by one creature and broadcast widely for a potential partner to taste, smell, or absorb. But while this may attract a possible mate, competition and other factors may make the process far more complex.  Enter courtship; it has one goal--to attract, win, and mate with the most suitable partner. Would-be suitors show off their finery and their good points. They may sing or dance or offer gifts. They may change colors, leave scented notes and use suggestive body language to show their intentions.

The timing of courtship is important, particularly in cold areas such as Wisconsin, and individual species respond to such signals as length of daylight hours, changing moon phases, and temperatures. These stimulate courtship, and therefore time births for the most favorable conditions for the survival of both mothers and their young; that is, when food is likely to be plentiful and the weather moderate.

It is usually the male who struts his stuff and the female who chooses who to accept. Presumably this arrangement evolved because of the relative number of sperm and eggs that males and females produce. Because the female of most species will only generate a relative few eggs in her lifetime while a single male will usually produce billions of sperm, she is likely to be far more selective in choosing a mate to give her eggs the best genetics possible.

The courting activities of the squirrels may be the easiest to observe, but most of the wild male animals have females on their minds right now. Of course, larger mammals such as the deer completed their wooing last fall as it takes many months to produce their young, but others such as the coyotes are active now. It has been observed that most coyote pairs remain together for years, but during early winter unpaired males will follow any available female, trying to cozy up to her with wagging tails and eager advances until she chooses one of them. The two will then hunt and play together for two or three months, when the female will come into estrus.  At that time, they will mate, and after a nine-week gestation period, the female will have a litter of three to seven pups.

While female coyotes, and many of our other animal neighbors, come into heat only once each year, breeding season for cottontails begins each year in February or March and continues until September.  Gestation lasts about 30 days, allowing the rabbits ample time to produce four or five litters a season.  Common as the cottontail is, I have never seen one of their courtship dances but I understand that it can be quite a display. The male and female typically crouch facing each other until the male leaps straight up into the air, making an about-face turn, while the female runs under him so that she is facing him when he lands. She will then perform the leap while he moves under her. These back and forth aerial spins are said to continue for a period of time until both are properly stimulated, at which point they mate. Male rabbits will mate with as many receptive females as they can find, and the female may find another male the day following giving birth.

Sue Carter, a zoologist at the University of Maryland, has studied what goes on in the brains of male and female prairie voles.  When a male approaches a female, her brain releases a dose of the hormone oxytocin which acts as a chemical messenger in the brain's nerve cells.  At the same time, the male vole's brain releases vasopressin, a hormone that prompts him to bond with his mate and guard and protect her and their young.  Carter says, "They spend most their time sitting quietly touching each other. The release of hormones seals the bond."
So, this Valentine Day, when surprising your significant other with flowers or candy, remember the male bowerbirds in Australia that build elaborate chambers made of twigs, decorated with blue feathers and yellow flowers, the tail-wagging coyote, the dancing cottontail, and even the lowly mouse, and realize we’re not so different after all.



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February 7, 2017

Our college age granddaughter lives in a rented house at her Southern university and complains that it is currently infested with mice.  It is to be hoped that this not a problem in the reader’s home and only occasionally in this writer’s house, but these little animals have been more than a nuisance for a long time.

House mice are found just about everywhere humans live, in or near their houses or fields. Originally native to Asia (probably northern India), they spread to the Mediterranean Basin about 8000 BC, and later into the rest of Europe around 1000 BC.  It is thought that it took this long because the mice require human settlements above a certain size to flourish, preferably with cultivated fields.  As human populations have risen, house mice have since spread to all parts of the globe.  It is interesting that these mice were thought to be the primary reason for the taming of the domestic cat. 

The house mouse has a pointed snout, small rounded ears, and a long naked or almost hairless tail.  Although a wild animal, it mainly lives in association with humans.  It is about four inches long plus another three inches of tail and typically weighs less than two ounces.  You may find it uncomfortable to believe, but it and a few other small animals such as rabbits and shrews are more closely related biologically to primates such as humans than many of the larger mammals. 

Mice are good jumpers, climbers, and swimmers but usually run, walk, or stand on all fours. When eating, fighting, or orienting themselves, they rear up on their hind legs with additional support from the tail.  The tail is also their main organ of heat regulation along with the hairless parts of the paws and ears.  Blood flow to these body parts varies in response to changes in the surrounding temperature and increases or slows to lose or gain heat. The tail is also used for balance when the mouse is climbing or running, or as a base when the animal stands on its hind legs.  In addition, it is used to convey information about the dominance status of an individual when it encounters other mice.

House mice live in a wide variety of hidden places near food sources, and construct nests from various soft materials.  They are territorial, and one dominant male usually lives together with several females and young. Dominant males respect each other's territories and normally enter new territory only if it is vacant.  They primarily feed on plant matter, but will eat almost anything as well as their own feces, which gives them nutrients produced by bacteria in their intestines.

House mice rely mostly on chemical pheromones for social communication, produced by both sexes and detected mainly with a small organ located at the bottom of the nose.  Recently it has also been discovered that male mice emit ultrasonic vocalizations when they encounter female mice -- in other words, they sing!  It has even been determined that these vocalizations have the characteristics of a true song, consisting of several different syllable types with repeated phrases which vary with the individual.  Based on these findings, they suggested that male mouse courtship vocalizations are structurally similar to bird songs and proposed that they serve similar purposes.  How about that!

Besides the ability to sing, does any mouse have any other characteristic that justifies its existence?  According to outdoors columnist Scott Shalaway of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “Unless you live in the heart of downtown, at least five and maybe all seven species of common mice live within a 100-yard radius of your living room.  Most weigh less than one ounce, and their populations can range from one to hundreds per acre.”  Shalaway goes on to assert that plants may form the foundation of all ecology but that mice are among the most important plant eaters and in turn become the prey of weasels, foxes, coyotes, hawks, owls, skunks, shrews, bobcats and bears.

He contends that a surprising diversity of mice roam local fields, forests, and even kitchen cupboards and counter tops: deer mice and white-footed mice are classic -- brown fur, white bellies, long tails, prominent ears and big black eyes, and live in old fields, forest edges and in the woods itself; meadow voles and woodland voles have small beady eyes, tiny ears concealed by fur and short tails, the former requiring unmowed, ungrazed fields and meadows, and the latter living in the forest where they spend most of their time underground; southern bog lemmings -- poorly named as they occupy old fields and woodland clearings as well as wet meadows; meadow jumping mice -- long-tailed rodents with long hind legs that allow them to hop on the ground in old fields, thickets and along forest edges; and, often most common, the house mice.  Though rarely appreciated, mice are the major connection that bind plants to carnivores in every terrestrial ecosystem.

Domestic mice are sold as pets and can grow used to being handled. They are careful groomers and as pets they can be interesting and playful and never need to be bathed.  Most of these are members of the same species but often differ substantially from the common house mouse because of selective breeding and the different conditions in the wild. The white lab mouse is the most well known strain, and has many uniform traits such as a shared ancestry of structures with many other creatures that make it appropriate for use in biology and psychology research.  (A common example is the forelimbs of vertebrates, where the wings of bats, the arms of primates, the front flippers of whales and the forelegs of dogs and horses are all derived from the same ancestral four-legs.)

We may not be happy to find that we are sharing our quarters with a mouse, but rest assured that it is an important member of our wider community and that with a little care, we can restrict it to its own territory while still allowing it to fulfill its destiny as a critical part of our environment.


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January 31, 2017:  Winter bugs

Unless your home is extremely well constructed and tightly sealed, you are probably having to vacuum up nuisance bugs on the insides of the windows and sills on bright sunny days.  Last autumn as the temperatures dropped outside, many adult insects left their summer feeding sites in yards, fields and forests and hunted for protected places to spend the winter. Unfortunately, our homes and other heated buildings are convenient and often accessible. 

Cluster flies, Asian ladybugs, and boxelder beetles are three such species that gather on the warm sides of buildings in late summer.  When the sun goes down and the temperatures cool, they crawl into the building through cracks under the eaves and around windows or through gaps in the siding and find protected hiding places indoors.  As these insects warm throughout the winter, and especially in the early spring, they come out and find their way into our living spaces by way of electrical outlets, window pulley holes, and small openings around windows, moldings and base boards.  Unfortunately, there is little that can be done for bugs already inside the attic and walls except to sweep them up as their appear, as preventing winter insects is a job for the summer and fall. As much as possible, one has to seal cracks and openings around the outside of the house, especially under the eaves, as would be done for energy conservation.

Outdoors, other insects are making their presence known, particularly when a fresh layer of snow covers the ground.  On a sunny winter day, it is not uncommon to come upon clusters of springtails on the path. Usually such creatures go unnoticed, but surprisingly, our northern winter is their primary season of activity.  Although most insects are cold-blooded and either die or become inactive when their surroundings freeze, a few specialized species regularly perform at cold temperatures, and how and why they do this is one of the challenges biologists face. It is easy to theorize that winter emergence has the advantage of little competition and that there are reduced numbers of natural enemies like birds, toads, and parasites. It is also true that snow and ice are superb insulators for both plants and the animals, but the critical factor seems to be that the bodies of these insects, like those of some other winter and high-altitude creatures, contain a natural antifreeze which allows them to function at low temperatures.

Springtails are inconspicuous, wingless insects and received that name because of the forked structure clasped tightly to their underside, which acts as a catapult to flip them into the air when danger threatens. They feed on rotting plant material and pollen and usually remain buried in leaf litter until snow inexplicably brings them to the surface. On bright days their bodies absorb enough heat from the sun to keep them active, although at night they lie frozen. They measure barely one-sixteenth of an inch and sometimes resemble specks of soot, yet what they lack in size, they make up for in numbers, with populations of up to tens of thousands per square yard.  Hordes of these tiny primitive insects may blacken sunken patches of snow, such as footprints and tire tracks, or they may assemble at the base of a tree on a sunny day.

Another winter insect, the snow fly, is a crane fly whose summer relatives resemble giant mosquitoes; not this winter species, however, which lacks wings and has long fuzzy legs, and looks like a spider. Most of the winter it remains in leaf litter or under logs and stones, but on mild, sunny days, it will emerge in search of a mate. After mating the female will burrow down close to a tree trunk and deposit her eggs.

On the hilltop, I noticed other tan specks sprinkled across the snow surface, many of them cross-shaped. Close inspection disclosed that there were two different types of debris, crosses and others with butterfly-like shapes (thick center sections with delicate "wings" on each side).  They were obviously seeds, and a nearby birch pendant proved to be the source. Each winter storm erodes the end of the cluster, dropping its seeds and hulls onto the snow. Finches, especially redpolls and pine siskins are particularly fond of these and it’s not uncommon to see the little birds hanging upside down on these natural hanging feeders.

Paper birch trees aren't native to southern Wisconsin, but we certainly have lots of them and their white, curling bark and their habit of growing in picturesque clumps makes them stand out clearly among the other trees. One hundred and fifty years ago, our hills were covered with prairie grasses and flowers, most of the trees being held at bay by frequent fires that killed back any growing sprouts. Then, when early settlers controlled the fires, the trees grew up thickly in all the untilled areas, mostly on steep hillsides. The paper birch has mostly survived as multiple clusters of smaller stems because the first trunks often succumbed to the bronze birch borer, but it is still valued for its beauty, as firewood, and as wildlife food, if not its lumber.

The other birch common to our area is the river or yellow birch, distinguished by its ragged-looking cinnamon-colored bark. Despite its usual preference for wet soil, we have several relatively large specimens halfway up one of our hillsides. The bigtooth aspen, with its pale greenish bark, and the less-common quaking aspen, are also relatively short-lived cousins and, although many have died, some have matured and are being harvested as a clear-grained lumber source. We have one bigtooth aspen whose trunk must be twenty-four inches in diameter, but we know that its days are numbered, as disease will surely strike it before long.

Most surprising of the winter discoveries are the caterpillars that we sometimes see on top of the snow. Curiosity led me to call the university extension, and I was told these were probably the larvae of a geometric moth, an unobtrusive common insect that winters among the leaves and grass and perhaps mistakenly took the warmth of the sun on its dark body for the end of winter.
They, like us, can't wait for spring! 

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January 24, 2017:   Coyotes

According to an old Native American folk tale, when the world was new there was no one living in it except Old Man Na-pe, Coyote, and a few buffalo for food.  Old man was lonely and he thought how nice it would be to have someone to smoke with around the campfire.  He found a little pool of water, and after studying his reflection in it, he gathered some clay and old bones and assembled them into a figure of a man like himself.  It wasn't exactly what he had wanted, but it was better than nothing and he blew smoke into its eyes, nose, and mouth, bringing the figure to life.  Na-pe made several more companions to smoke with, but Coyote didn’t think much of the newcomers.  Using leftover bones and scraps of this and that, he helped Na-pe to create another figure that looked quite different.  When smoke was blown into its eyes and nose and mouth, they found they had made a woman.  Pleased, they made several more, but the women immediately began to talk and even to this day, men will want to sit by the fire and smoke but the women will talk. Whether this was because the women were made out of dry leftover bones, or whether it was because it was the work of noisy Coyote, no one can say.

This is a much shortened version of an old legend featuring Coyote, a mythical animal that was said to be responsible for many things, including the Milky Way and the diversity of mankind.  Such stories usually focused on the coyote’s crafty intelligence, stealth, and voracious appetite, although its character varied widely from a revered hero who created, taught, or helped, to a sort of antihero who demonstrated greed, recklessness, and arrogance.  Sometimes, also, he was a comic trickster character, whose lack of wisdom got him into trouble, requiring cleverness to save himself.

Since the earliest American history, such tales have abounded and seem to indicate how the coyotes who inhabited the wilds around any humans were recognized as unusually smart and interesting animals. The coyote is about the size of a medium-sized dog, half way between a fox and a wolf.  It weighs between 25 and 40 pounds, has long thin legs, a tapered muzzle, yellow eyes, pointed ears and a bushy, black-tipped drooping tail.

Although they were once concentrated in the Southwest part of the country, coyotes had spread into Wisconsin by the time the first settlers arrived. They were both predators and scavengers.  Deer carcasses were the main source of carrion but they also hunted small rodents, rabbits, birds, large insects and sometimes cooperated to bring down a vulnerable deer.  Most of the time they moved around by trotting or loping, but they could run up to 25 miles per hour if chasing prey or when being pursued.

We had a den close by on our farm in years past and always enjoyed hearing the pup chorus as they ranged the hills following their parents on the hunt.  Their yipping must have alerted any prey to the disgust of mom and dad, but it gave a wilderness feel to the area that we liked. I think our old collie Gus was intrigued as well because one day I saw him out in the field getting acquainted with three what I assume were young ones, until I became nervous about their intentions and called him in.

Coyotes are doing well in Wisconsin, although in areas farther north where the gray wolf is established, their numbers seem to be declining. The size of a coyote's home range is generally between five to ten square miles depending upon on how much cover there is, food availability, and the number of other coyotes in the area. They are very sociable animals and sometimes play together or even with other species. Coyotes advertise their presence with smells and sounds such as howling or yapping, and mark their territories during the denning season with urine, feces, and glandular scents.

Coyotes typically mate in late February and it is during the breeding, denning, and pup rearing season that they can become more of a problem.  They will use abandoned badger, fox, woodchuck, or skunk burrows as den sites, adopt an old coyote burrow, or less often, dig a new one.  Dens are typically placed in secluded areas, although now in urban areas they have been known to dig underneath decks or patios.  The den usually consists of two or more tunnels leading to a three-foot deep hole in the ground and has an entrance about 10 inches wide by 13 inches high. The female coyote often prepares more than one before the pups are born so that the young can be moved if predators threaten or if fleas get too bothersome. Many dens also have two openings so that they can escape through the back door if necessary.

Pups are born with short, yellow-brown fur, and after about ten days, their eyes open and they can crawl around.  The adult male hunts for food while the female stays with the pups for the first 2 months.  By then the pups are weaned and the den is soon abandoned. The pups learn to hunt by following the parents and in August or September, they usually establish their own territories, although sometimes they stay with the parents and form a hunting pack.

The coyote is a highly adaptable animal and can now be found even in large urban areas like Milwaukee and Madison.  They soon seem to lose their innate fear of humans if they can move about without challenge, or are tempted by food left outdoors for pets or unsecured garbage.  If we are to have a safe coexistence with these wild neighbors it is important to understand that we must avoid enticing the animals with attractive food and must frighten off any who venture close.  Hazing can be dangerous near an active den, however, because adult coyotes may then counter attack, and any visibly sick or injured animal should be reported to authorities so it can be removed safely.  Coyotes are important members of the wild community along with other scavengers and predators and should not be killed with impunity; instead, they should be treated with careful consideration and respect for their contribution to our Wisconsin experience and even appreciated for their presence.

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January 17, 2017:  The Wilie Coyote

The composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart kept a pet starling, a common wild bird in Salzburg, Austria.  He bought the bird in a pet store in 1784, after hearing it sing the opening theme of a piano concerto he had just completed a few weeks earlier.  Mozart made an entry in his diary about the bird, jotting down the seventeen-note phrase it sang.  According to his description, the starling incorrectly inserted a “hold” on the last beat of the first full measure, and sang G-sharp instead of G in the following measure -- otherwise it was exact. When the bird died three years later, Mozart buried it in his back yard with an elaborate funeral.

The European starling is a chunky, blackbird-sized bird, with a short tail and long, slender beak. In flight, its wings are short and pointed, making the bird look rather like a small, four-pointed star and presumably giving it its name.  It has glossy black plumage with a metallic sheen which is speckled with white at some times of year, and is a noisy bird, with an unmusical but varied song. Its gift for mimicry has been noted in literature beginning in the earliest prose literature of Britain in the 12th century from earlier oral traditions, and the works of Piney the Elder and Shakespeare.  Its words have no meaning for the starling, so it often mixes them up in its songs, but the mimicry is so astounding that strangers have looked in vain for the human they think has just spoken.

The complicated song of the starling consists of a wide variety of both melodic and mechanical-sounding noises.  It usually begins with a series of pure-tone whistles, followed by a number of variable sequences often made up of snatches of song mimicked from other bird species and other noises - natural or man-made. Starlings are distantly related to mockingbirds and mynas, and are often heard sitting in a tree making a series of chirps, creaks, chatters, and rising whistles, and occasionally calls of other birds such as the killdeer, flicker, wood pewee, and crow.  The sound clip is repeated several times before the bird moves on to a number of repeated clicks followed by a final burst of high-frequency song, again formed of several types.  Each bird has its own repertoire with older birds having a range of up to 35 variable song types and as many as 14 types of clicks.  Females appear to prefer mates with more complex songs, perhaps because this indicates greater experience or longevity. Having a complex song is also useful in defending a territory and deterring less experienced males from encroaching.

The bird has no vocal cords and its calls are produced by the syrinx, a muscular organ that surrounds the base of the windpipe and splits into the bronchial tubes. The sound is created by vibrations of the walls of the syrinx and connecting tissues and its muscles modulate the sound shape by changing the tension of the membranes and the bronchial openings.  Its location also allows some birds to produce more than one sound at a time, thus creating a solo duet.

The starling has about a dozen subspecies across its native range in temperate Europe and western Asia, and it has been introduced all over the world.  After two failed attempts in the United States, sixty European starlings were released in 1890 into New York's Central Park by the American Acclimatization Society which pledged to introduce all bird species mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare into North America. The original sixty birds have since swelled in number to 150 million, and now can be found from southern Canada and Alaska to Central America.  The global population is now estimated at more than 310 million.

The starling is a highly gregarious species, especially in autumn and winter.  Although flock size is highly variable, huge, noisy flocks (murmurations) may form near roosts.  When in a flock, the birds take off almost simultaneously, wheel and turn in unison, form a compact mass or trail off into a wispy stream, bunch up again and land in a coordinated fashion, seemingly without any sort of leader. Each bird changes its course and speed as a result of the movement of its closest neighbors.

Starlings typically live around people, using mowed lawns, city streets and agricultural fields for feeding, and trees, buildings and other structures for nesting.  They will eat almost anything, but focus on insects and other invertebrates using enlarged muscles for opening the jaw that help with probing in the ground for prey and a narrow skull that allows the eye to look downward.  They also eat wild and cultivated fruits as well as grains, seeds, nectar, livestock feed, and garbage.

From a pest control perspective, starlings are highly beneficial. They consume large numbers of clover beetles, cutworms, Japanese beetles, grasshoppers, ants, bees, wasps, and other insects; however, because they add fruits and a variety of other crops to their diet, their agricultural damage in the United States is estimated to cost about $800 million annually. They are also cavity breeders, and are aggressive competitors for nesting sites with native birds such as flickers, bluebirds and woodpeckers.  Starlings are exempt from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act which prohibits the taking or killing of migratory birds and many attempts have been made to control their populations. In 2008, the government poisoned, shot or trapped 1.7 million birds, the largest number of any nuisance species ever destroyed, but it is clear that starlings have found a permanent home in North America.

Its numbers and habits make the starling an unwelcome guest in our country and give it a significant negative impact on our environment with its habit of joining together in large wintering flocks with their accompanying noise and mess, its competition with native species, and because of damage to crops and orchards.  Still, the starling can be an intelligent, attractive, and interesting pet or backyard resident.  Perhaps as the years progress, it will become less of a problem and can become a permanent and useful member of the avian community.  We hope so.


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January 10, 2017: The Mississippi Kite

Area bird watchers will have a new reason to scan the sky this spring as an unusual (for the Midwest) bird called the Mississippi kite has now been found to nest in northern Illinois and has been spotted in Wisconsin.  “Kite” is the common middle-English name for buzzard-like birds-of-prey that were long thought to be a unique variety, but in 2015, genetic research showed that many of the kite families are related to the European honey-buzzard.  The Mississippi kite has plumage in varying shades of gray, long, narrow wings and soars with them stretched out flat like an eagle.
Mississippi kites typically breed across the central and southern United States but their territories have expanded to the north and west in recent years and they are now regularly recorded in New England and even near Rockford, Illinois. Then too, in the past century, they have undergone changes in nesting habitat, moving from forest and savanna to urban areas.  The bird is about fifteen inches beak to tail and has a wingspan averaging three feet.  Its call is a high-pitched squeak, sounding much like a squeaky toy.  Its diet consists primarily of insects which it captures in flight but it has also been known to prey upon birds, amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals.

Mississippi kites nest in colonies and both parents incubate the eggs and care for the young, although only about half successfully raise their one yearly brood. Bad weather and predators such as raccoons and owls are thought to be the main threats and it has been noticed that they produce more offspring in urban than rural areas, perhaps because of the reduced number of predators there.  The birds protect their nests by diving at any perceived threats including humans, making them a nuisance when they nest in populated urban spots such as golf courses, parks or schools.  They migrate to South America in the winter.

The presence of the Mississippi kite in this state was recorded during the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II, an ongoing survey that has just wrapped up the second of its five-year span.  Nick Anich, DNR bird specialist, reported that the kite’s appearance was one of eleven new species discovered in these past two years.  Surprisingly, 239 different species of birds were counted, including 220 pairs that were nesting in the state.

During its seventy-five year history, the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology has sponsored birding field trips, hosted annual conventions, and published a quarterly journal and monthly newsletter.  Throughout its first decades the organization focused on education, research, and conservation practices, but recognizing the threats to some bird populations, it eventually realized that to do its work it had to determine more accurately what birds depended upon Wisconsin’s fields and forests to breed and raise their young. 

In 2000, with the cooperation of the Department of Natural Resources and the Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory, the first Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas survey was completed and the results tabulated.  Birds are an essential part of Wisconsin’s culture and ecology, yet many species face threats and nearly one-third are thought to be imperiled or will be without help. 

To accomplish this, each USGS topographic quadrangle unit in Wisconsin (approximately fifty-five square miles) was named and further divided into ten-square-mile blocks.  Within a given block, volunteers (atlasers) were asked to record each bird species observed, along with its location and whether it was nesting.  Certain blocks in each quadrangle were given special treatment as it obviously would not be possible to visit every area, and efforts were made to be sure that a wide sample was surveyed.

Now, a second effort is in progress, begun in 2015 and slated to run until December of 2019.  At this point, more than 1,100 volunteers have submitted over 54,000 checklists documenting the whereabouts and behavior of three million birds.  This information recorded any changes in bird populations since the last survey and also provided a base to measure future changes.  Each atlaser was asked to complete a new field card for every block he or she surveyed, and a record of field visits was kept containing date of each survey trip, whether the trip was a night survey, number of hours spent in the field each trip, the number of other observers if any, the total number of hours spent traveling to and from field sites, and total mileage. Additionally, each atlaser completed a casual observation form to record species in blocks the atlaser was not formally surveying.

The  Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II coordinators invite all interested persons to take part in this survey.  They encourage experienced birders to sign up as the principal atlaser for an atlas block, but gladly accept sightings across the state from anyone who can identify a bird showing breeding behavior.  Aaron Holschbach is the current contact person for Sauk, Iowa, and Richland Counties and can be reached on line with the eBird team.
Check out the WBB Atlas II webpage for all the details. This is an opportunity for us to be part of a larger project -- possibly the largest citizen science project ever in the state -- and one that will inform conservation and protect birds and wildlife in Wisconsin for decades to come.




January 3, 2017

The reintroduction of the whooping crane to Wisconsin has received much publicity the last few years, but there is a another on-going effort to save another bird of which few are aware. The focus of this work is the barn owl, a bird that was placed on the Wisconsin Endangered Species List in 1979 because of a marked decline in sightings during the last half of the twentieth century.  During the six-year period of the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas (1995-2000), observers reported only three confirmed breeding records; however, the barn owl has likely always been present at low densities in Wisconsin. It may be that Wisconsin winters historically have limited the number of barn owls that inhabit even the southern portions of the state, and when combined with habitat loss, may have made the species very rare. Barn owls are found in temperate and tropical regions nearly worldwide, but their bodies store little fat and if they cannot find sufficient food, especially during cold spells, they do not survive.

The barn owl is sometimes called a "monkey-faced owl" because of its white, heart-shaped face and dark eyes. This crow-sized bird has a rusty back speckled with black, light underparts, and long legs, as well as stiff facial feathers. At night it appears completely white as it flies about, and its appearance and moth-like flight earned it the nickname “ghost owl” and led to its reputation of bringing bad luck. Like other owls, it has large eyes with binocular vision that allow it to distinguish small objects in almost total darkness.  It also has exceptional hearing and its round facial disks are thought to help direct sound into its ears. The bird is able to sense direction and distance to its prey by differences in the intensity and time of arrival of any sound that reaches each ear.

The barn owl inhabits open rural lands or grasslands, most often with some combination of wet meadow, pasture, old fields, grain crop, hayfield, and fencerows, and usually relatively close to permanent water -- wherever small rodents can thrive. The quantity and quality of dense grass habitats are significantly correlated with barn owl nest activity.  One year of poor meadow vole abundance can result in a rapid population decline while one year of substantial meadow vole abundance can result in rapid population recovery. In addition to habitat loss, most of their nesting sites are disappearing in Wisconsin as modern, windowless metal farm buildings replace barns with open windows and cracks, and as large, dead nesting trees are removed from woodlots.

Throughout their history in Wisconsin, pairs usually mated in April and chose a nesting site in a natural cavity or in an accessible building such as an old barn, church steeple, silo, water tower, or manmade nesting box.  Five to seven eggs were laid on bare wood or on any debris on the bottom if the nest was used the previous year. The female laid an egg every two days and began incubating immediately, resulting in owlets of varying ages. Often the younger weaker nestlings starved, and sometimes were eaten by the older ones. Both parents brought prey to the owlets, usually mice that were swallowed whole. (A barn owl will consume one and-a-half times its weight in food each day and a nesting pair with six young might eat over a thousand mice during the three-month nesting period.)

In an effort to save the species, the Milwaukee County Zoo started a barn-owl breeding program in 1981. The Department of Natural Resources released some eighty of these birds, but despite the radio transmitters attached to some that were supposed to allow their movements to be monitored, they were not ever seen again nor radio signals detected. The Bureau of Endangered Resources decided in 1987 to discontinue the captive-breeding program since there was no evidence that it had enhanced the state’s barn owl population. Fortunately, habitat enhancement and nest box programs have been proven to be somewhat effective.

In 1990, another organization joined the effort when the Raptor Education Group, Inc. was founded by Marge and Don Gibson of Antigo, Wisconsin. Marge was a field biologist who worked with the California condor recovery team and the Bald Eagle Capture Program in Valdez, Alaska, while Don was a retired pathologist. In the beginning, they focused on public education programs and supporting field research on avian species, but they soon found that rehabilitation would be a major part of their work, particularly of large raptors and swans. During the course of a single day they and other members of their staff often act as animal caretakers, nutritionists, behaviorists, emergency medical technicians, educators, specialists in the capture and transport of injured wildlife, as well as providers of assistance to the public with wildlife issues.

Initially the group received several groups of barn owlets from the Cincinnati Zoo, offspring of captive parents. The young owls were initially fed frozen mice but as they matured, they were taught to fly and hunt live prey in a large flight training building.  The group reported on their webpage that “they continued to receive information on barn owls sightings in the release areas, and are looking forward with cautious optimism to more such sightings and perhaps evidence of reproduction after the winter season”.

Barn owls are considered as accidental summer residents in southern and central counties, and occur primarily south of a line from Platteville to Port Washington (Grant to Ozaukee counties).  They have been also been found occasionally north of this line in Pierce, Sawyer, Shawano and Oconto counties, and a recent Breeding Bird Atlas notes confirmed breeding in Langlade County. Such field work is often limited and barn owls can be very difficult to detect since they are secretive and nocturnal, so chances are that there are more barn owls in these areas than detected, and that other counties may harbor them.



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We are not likely to have one take up residence in the barn on our heavily wooded farm, but we wish others with more suitable habitat good luck in one day hearing a harsh hissing screech or scream, often described as “shrrreeeee”, that is the common call of the fascinating barn owl.December 27, 2016



December 27, 2016

Archeologists tell us that approximately 20,000 years ago, the extremely cold climate resulted in the formation of vast ice sheets across the Earth's northernmost and southernmost latitudes. As these formed, sea levels dropped and land beneath the Bering Strait was exposed, uniting the eastern and western hemispheres. Hunters from Asia traveled across Siberia and migrated across this land bridge to enter and populate North America.  About the same time, it is thought that Southeast Asians in boats followed the coastline and also entered the new lands.  Some 2000 years later, Earth began to warm up and the ice sheets began to melt, causing sea levels to rise. Fourteen thousand years ago, the land bridge again lay submerged beneath the Bering Strait. 

By 10,000 BCE, the two-mile thick Wisconsin ice sheet that covered Canada and blocked any movement into the interior had broken up into two smaller ice sheets. These created an ice-free passage from Alaska to the Montana-North Dakota border and invading populations pursued caribou, mammoths, and other terrestrial mammals into what would become the upper Midwest. These early people are thought to have lived primarily as small, mobile groups of big game hunters, traveling light and moving frequently as they searched for new sources of plant foods and wild game.  A thin population of humans spread over both Americas and by 8,000 BCE the wandering populations began to settle down. The large Ice Age mammals were replaced by animals found in the state today and people lived in small family groups in caves, rock shelters, along rivers, and around lakes and wetlands. They harvested wild plants, nuts and acorns. They hunted smaller animals such as deer and elk.

About 3,000 years ago, during the Woodland Period, people gathered into villages and began to use bows and arrows to hunt. It was during this period that many mounds, including effigies or mounds built in the shape of turtles, birds, bears and other animals were created throughout Wisconsin. These people were the state’s first potters and gardeners. Their ancestors would have seen many changes in the countryside through the centuries; the climate would have become colder and warmer for extended periods, trees would have invaded the grasslands to which they were accustomed, and then possibly died off, only to appear again.  Certainly these wooded hills and cultivated river bottoms that we know would seem strange to them, even as it is hard for us to visualize the land as treeless prairie and oak savanna. 

As we shiver in our heavily padded jackets and boots in the Wisconsin winter and retreat home to a toasty living room, it is difficult to believe anyone could have survived in the area without supermarkets, department stores or insulated homes. They would have been dressed against the cold in skins from animals they had killed and processed, probably worn fur side in.  Shirts, leggings and skirts were fashioned from pieces of hide that they laboriously scraped of flesh and rubbed with quantities of wood ash, then crudely stitched into shape with narrow rawhide strips.  Protection for the feet would have been obtained by wrapping them in skins and tying with thongs. 

Buffalo, elk, deer, and bear hides would have been treasured but these larger animals were undoubtedly difficult prey for the individuals or small family groups. Perhaps hunters banded together and were able to drive a herd over one of the steep cliffs to fall to their deaths as was reportedly done farther west, but we lack the broad adjacent tablelands where such animals might have been found grazing.  As it was, they probably had to rely on spearing an unwary deer or cornered raccoon and snaring smaller animals such as rabbits or opossums. Imagine the patience and perseverance that would have been required to wait unmoving for long periods over the door of an animal den or along a well-used trail, particularly in below freezing temperatures. Also, consider the difficulties of drying one’s leather clothing when it became soaked in melting snow or rain.

Obtaining sufficient food would have been a constant struggle, and they probably knew the location of every source of edible root, berry, fruit, nut, or stalk of grain in the area, no matter how marginally palatable. Birds of all sizes would have been taken with traps, and perhaps the hunters would attract them within range of rock or missile with seeds as bait.  Amphibians and any reptiles they could catch such as snakes and turtles would have been welcome additions to the summer diet, and of course, they must have spent considerable time along the river and any streams fishing, perhaps even through the ice if it were not too thick.

Come spring, they would have planted maize, beans and squash in any available tillable spot, drying all surplus for later use. They evidently used few tools and these had to be laboriously fashioned from the chert that they would have found lying in exposed rock areas or from the bones of animals. In our years of hiking around the farm we have found small spear points, hide scrapers and rough chippers, as well as bits of broken pottery and sharpened bones -- small glimpses into these daily activities. 

They probably lived in small family groups, father, mother, and children, with unattached adults joining them at times.  Few evidences of villages of any size have been discovered in the area, and conditions may not have been suitable to support larger numbers until the more developed cultures of the eastern tribes moved into the area. They were evidently nomadic peoples, spending the summers in areas where crops could be planted, autumns in harvesting and drying every available scrap of food, and winters roaming the hills searching for game and sheltering in the rock caves that abound.

Perhaps once a year, it was thought the families would gather to trade, renew relationships, find mates, and keep touch with the wider community.  There are large mounds as much as twenty feet high and forty or fifty feet across, dating before those of the effigy culture, that may be remnants of these early assemblies. The bones of any family members who died during the year seemed to have been brought along to the meeting place and placed on this mound and a new covering added, the growing mound providing a sense of permanency and an anchor for the whole tribe. Walking these hills and thinking of their timelessness and the fleeting existence we share with a long succession of “owners” is an exercise in humility and wonder.

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December 20, 2016:  Reindeer and Caribou
 
Perhaps you have wondered how reindeer were chosen for the important role of pulling Santa’s sleigh on Christmas Eve.  Some have suggested that their role might have originated from ancient Norse mythology of Thor, the god of thunder, who was believed to fly through the stormy skies in a chariot pulled by magical goats named Gnasher and Cracker.  Others simply point to the importance of the animal to Laplanders of northern Scandinavia who were some of the first people to tame them, using the animals’ rich milk and nourishing meat as well as harnessing them to pull their sleds through the arctic snows. They followed the reindeer on their migratory journeys between their summer and winter habitats, moving all of their possessions on reindeer-pulled sleighs.

These facts may have been in the back of his mind when Clement C. Moore, in early 19th century, wrote "Twas the Night Before Christmas".  Moore's conception of St. Nicholas was partially borrowed from his friend Washington Irving’s writing, but he also drew from the stories of the historical St. Nicholas as well as the character of a local Dutch handyman.  At the same time Moore created many of the features that are still associated with Santa Claus today, he also borrowed other aspects such as the names of two of the reindeer.  He must have had considerable knowledge of these animals before choosing them to pull Santa’s sleigh, because they have a number of qualifications that make them well suited for the job.

Usually called caribou in North America, reindeer are the northernmost members of the deer family and are the only deer species that has been successfully domesticated.  At one time, they could be found in Scandinavia, eastern Europe, Greenland, Russia, and northern China, as well as Canada, Alaska and as far south as what is now Nevada and Tennessee in North America. Today, about one million still live in Alaska, and a comparable number live in northern Canada. In addition, there are an estimated five million in Eurasia, mostly semi-domesticated, and the last remaining European herds of wild reindeer are found in central Norway, mainly in the mountainous areas.  Reindeer have never been considered fully domesticated, as they generally roam free on pasture grounds and have never been bred in captivity.

Caribou are sturdy, short-legged animals, with brownish coats that are dark in the summer and light in winter. The coat has two layers of fur, a dense woolly undercoat and longer-haired overcoat. This outer coat consists of hollow, air-filled hairs that not only provide superb insulation but also give the animal such buoyancy that it can easily swim across large lakes or broad rivers on its travels.  Some populations of the North American caribou migrate the farthest of any terrestrial mammal, traveling up to 3,000 miles each year over 400,000 square miles. Normally moving about twelve to thirty miles a day while migrating, the caribou can run at speeds of up to fifty miles per hour.  (Caribou fauns can outrun an Olympic sprinter when only a day old.)  During the spring migration smaller herds will group together to form larger herds of 50,000 to 500,000 animals, but during autumn migrations the groups become smaller, and the reindeer choose mates.

The stag stands about 36 in tall, measured at the shoulder, while the doe is somewhat shorter. Both sexes grow large sets of antlers, a unique characteristic among deer. An interesting fact is that the females retain their antlers from one spring till the next, while mature males shed their antlers in the fall, something to remember if you catch a glimpse of the team on Christmas Eve. While you might take this to prove that Santa's deer must be all females, one astute observer has pointed out that it is entirely possible that a male with the ability to fly also has the power to keep his antlers through the holidays.

Reindeer are ruminants, having four-chambered stomachs. These are vital as the animals feed mainly on lichens in winter, especially reindeer moss, supplemented with any willow and birch leaves, sedges and grasses they can find. They have also been observed to occasionally feed on lemmings and bird eggs. Reindeer have specialized noses that have curled spongy bone shelves shaped like elongated seashells which protrude into their breathing passages and dramatically increase the surface area within the nostrils. Incoming cold air is warmed by the animal's body heat before entering the lungs, and moisture is condensed and captured before the deer's breath is exhaled.

Reindeer have remarkable hooves that adapt to the season. In the summer, when the tundra is soft and wet, the footpads become wide and spongy to provide support, while in the winter, the pads shrink and firm up so that the hoof bites into the ice. Reindeer can are strong yet gentle, will pull heavy loads across miles of drifted snow, are extremely sure-footed on ice, and are small enough for Santa to handle. What better choice could there have been for animals to pull his sleigh?

Santa’s reindeer are always drawn to resemble white-tails rather than caribou, however – perhaps because they are thought to be more attractive -- but it is very fortunate for children everywhere that these skittish animals were not chosen for his transportation. I’m sure the sleigh and all the presents would have ended up in a snowdrift, as white-tails would probably not stand for being harnessed and driven, even by Santa Claus.



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December 13, 2016:  All About Black Bears

More than 109,000 hunters applied for one of the 11,520 permits to hunt black bear in Wisconsin in 2016, with long waits to receive a harvest permit in most of the bear management zones.  Still, some of the biggest black bears in the country (600 or 700 pounds) are taken in Wisconsin, and when one finally receives a permit, the opportunity to harvest one is better than 40 percent for most zones.

An average adult male black bear weighs about 300 pounds while a female is smaller at about 150 pounds. They have round bodies, short sturdy legs, and stand about three feet at the shoulder. Their fur is usually glossy black (although sometimes brown or cinnamon colored) except for a tan patch across the nose, and about a third have irregular white markings on their chests. Black bears can run over 30 miles per hour and are also agile in the water, able to swim more than a mile at a stretch. The population of black bears is quite healthy in Wisconsin and their increasing numbers are causing more sightings in our part of the state.  June is the breeding season and most bear sightings received in southern counties occur during May and June when young males and an occasional female are forced out to search for a new territory. 

Bears eat all the food they need for the year in about seven months, and in early fall they further gorge themselves with nuts, berries, carrion, insects and small mammals before stuffing themselves into cozy dens and falling into deep winter sleep. They live off the body fat they have accumulated and their body temperature, heartbeat, and respiration decrease, but dormant bears can be easily awakened and so are not in true hibernation.

Most black bears are sexually mature at three years of age and females will breed every other year from then on. Mating takes place from June to early July but the fertilized eggs experience delayed implantation until late November. Then, in early February, females give birth to two or three tiny cubs, only stirring from deep slumber to nurse, tend and keep the cubs warm.  Cubs remain with their mother through the summer and usually den with her the following winter. In the springtime, however, the sow will chase them off so she can breed again.

Black bears are most active around dusk, but may be out and about any time of the day or night. Home ranges are about 27 square miles for males, and about 8 square miles for females. They like large forested areas with swamps and streams mixed in, similar to what is found in the northern two-thirds of Wisconsin. In the last few years, however, they have been seen more frequently further south as they are finding that these wooded hills, valleys, creeks and river bottoms also provide abundant food and cover as well as potential winter den sites.

The black bear has played an important part in the history of Wisconsin. The Native Americans honored it as a supernatural being and treated the bear hunt with great ceremony and respect, using skins for robes and the meat and oil for cooking, fuel and medicines. The early white settlers also depended upon the bears, but as more humans moved into the state, woodlands were degraded by logging, bounty systems were set up to encourage killing of the "noxious pests" and fur traders paid high prices for bearskins. Large-scale killing and habitat destruction caused the bear population to plummet.

The black bear is a predator that sits at the top of the food chain and as such is vital to a healthy ecosystem.  It helps to keep the population of grazing animals in check benefitting the forest growth, and tends to prey on the weak or sick, leaving the remaining population healthy and strong for the next generation.  It cleans up dead carcasses and feeds on large numbers of insects.  Its scat turns into fertilizer and contains seeds of berries and other plants that are then spread.  Their heavy bodies break up downed logs and speed up the process of decay and nutrient return to the soil.

Today, wildlife biologists study bear populations and their habitat and have developed management plans to ensure that nuisance bears are relocated and that population levels remain healthy. Tetracycline surveys had been used to estimate black bear populations in Minnesota and Michigan and their success led the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to conduct a like study from 2006 to 2008. Wildlife biologists placed thousands of baits throughout the hunting zones, each laced with the traceable antibiotic. They then examined a small piece of rib bone and a tooth from each animal taken in the hunt, and using the "marked/recapture" method were able to estimate how many bears were present in the wilds of our state.  There were thought to be 9,000 bears about twenty years ago but this new procedure indicates the current bear population may be closer to 30,000.

 "Black bears and people have coexisted for centuries in northern Wisconsin and there's no cause for alarm," explained Dodgeville area DNR wildlife biologist, Bill Ishmael. "They are normally very timid and usually avoid contact with people.  However, they may cause problems by damaging bird feeders or foraging through unsecured garbage containers and they may return to the same area if food is readily available.”  If you encounter a bear -- stay calm, walk away and watch from a distance -- and prepare to be thrilled. 


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December 6, 3016:  Black Bears

The last few weeks we have been thrilled to see a soaring bald eagle almost daily in the sky overhead and it is difficult to remember that just forty years ago, this magnificent creature was in danger of extinction. When the United States adopted it as its national symbol in 1782, the country was thought to have had about 100,000 nesting pairs but their numbers began to decline in the late 1800s.  Although they primarily ate fish and carrion, bald eagles were thought to prey upon chickens, lambs, domestic livestock and even small children, and were usually shot on sight.  In 1940, noting that the species was disappearing, Congress passed the Bald Eagle Protection Act, which prohibited killing, selling, or even possessing one of these birds.

Then DDT became popular after World War II to control mosquitoes and other insects and its residues washed into nearby waterways, where aquatic plants and fish absorbed it.  Birds, including the bald eagles, feasted on the contaminated fish, and chemicals in the flesh interfered with their ability to produce strong eggshells with the result that these often broke before the chicks could hatch.  In addition, some bald eagles died after feeding on fish and waterfowl containing lead shot.
 
By 1963, with less than 500 nesting pairs of bald eagles remaining, the species was again in trouble.  Since then, however, habitat protection afforded by the Endangered Species Act and the federal government’s banning of DDT and lead shot has allowed the eagles to recover again and their numbers are now growing.

Distinguished by white heads and white tail feathers, bald eagles are powerful birds that may weigh 14 pounds and have a wingspan of eight feet. The name was applied not because observers thought the birds had no feathers on their heads but in response to an older meaning of word bald -- white headed. They can usually be found near rivers, large lakes and reservoirs where they can find fish, their staple food, altho they will also readily feed on carrion, as well as waterfowl and other small animals where available.  They regularly exploit water turbines which produce battered, stunned or dead fish, hence the numbers seen at the waters below the dam in Sauk City, and after deer hunting season, they can be found feasting on any residues.  In winter, the birds congregate near open water in tall trees for spotting prey and for night roosts for sheltering.

Eagles mate for life, choosing the tops of large trees to build their stick nests, which they typically reuse and enlarge each year.  (There is one in the marshland south of Highway 60 just east of its intersection with Highway C.)  Breeding bald eagles lay one to three eggs each spring that hatch after about 35 days. The young eagles are flying within three months and are on their own about a month later.  Disease, lack of food, bad weather, or human interference can kill many eaglets but recent studies have shown that approximately 70 percent survive their first year of life.

Based on the most recent population figures, the government estimates that there are now close to 9,800 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the contiguous United States.   Although they have recovered to the point that they no longer need the protection of the Endangered Species Act, the birds are still covered by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act that prohibit killing, selling or otherwise harming eagles, their nests, or eggs.

In Wisconsin, the Department of Natural Resources staff completed statewide aerial nesting surveys for bald eagles in cooperation with WDNR pilots in spring and early summer 2015, making it the 43rd consecutive year that these important wildlife surveys have been completed. Most nests were found along the Wisconsin, Chippewa, Wolf and Mississippi rivers, mainly in northern two-thirds of state.  The surveys found 1,465 occupied eagle nests, which is the highest number ever recorded. Observers also reported1,248 bald eagle nestlings and a statewide nest success rate of 66% during productivity surveys that occurred in May and June of that year.

Bald eagles are mostly dark brown until they are four to five years old when they acquire their adult plumage, and are sometimes confused with golden eagles.  Although they appear quite similar, there are a few distinctions between the two species; only the tops of the bald eagle’s legs have feathers while the legs of golden eagles are feathered all the way down.  Also the baldie soars with its wings held flat out, while the wings of the golden have a slight dihedral or “V” shape.  It was often thought that the golden was the larger, but any size difference is probably between male and female as the female is considerably bigger in both species.

While the bald eagle is native only to North American, various races of the golden eagle can be found all around the northern hemisphere. The breeding territory of the American golden race ranges through Alaska, western Canada and the western United States and they can be found in the eastern United States only during the winter. Until 1999, a pair of golden eagles was still known to nest in Maine but now searchers find nests only in Quebec. These birds often move south in the fall, however, and it is becoming apparent that the bluffs and coulees in Wisconsin and Minnesota are home to a significant wintering population.  Keep your eyes on the skies for both of these beautiful eagles. 

(A few years ago we drove to northern Indiana to the Jasper-Pulaski Wildlife Area to see migrating sandhill cranes.  Now, for the past month or so, a thousand or more have been gathering on Rainbow Road just east of Highway 14 outside of Spring Green.)


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November 29, 2016: Wolves

When we bought the farm some 40 years ago, it seemed reasonable that increasing human population and construction in rural areas would negatively affect the wildlife that we found here, but the opposite seems to have occurred.  Not only do we now routinely see sandhill cranes and turkeys that were then rare, but deer are plentiful, coyotes and foxes are relatively common, and there are increasing sightings of bobcats, and even an occasional grey wolf, bear, or mountain lion.

In the nineteenth century, the grey wolf was abundant in the Midwest, but it was considered a nuisance and a public danger, and in 1865, bounties were offered for each wolf taken.  By 1957, only about seven hundred wild wolves remained in remote areas of Minnesota and in Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior, and as recently as 1970, there were no wolves in Wisconsin. However, the value of these carnivores in the natural ecosystem was eventually recognized, and as a few moved into the state from Minnesota, they were protected. The Department of Natural Resources started a program of radio collaring a few of these and now has equipped  at least one adult animal in about 20 percent of the state’s packs and so are able to follow their activities.

The result has been a three-decade accounting of the wolf’s progress across the state.  The first recovery plan with a goal of 80 wolves was reached in 1995 requiring a revision approved in 1999 that set a new goal at 350 animals.  This rapid recovery caused the DNR to establish a full range of controls, including public harvest, to manage the wolf population.  Landowners were able to hunt down any problem wolves on their land and government trappers removed problem wolves from depredation sites.

This seemingly workable situation was upset in December 2014, when a Michigan federal court put the gray wolf back on endangered species list in the Great Lakes states including Wisconsin. Under this protection, the population rose to an estimated 750 animals and continues to go up. The DNR reimbursed those who suffered wolf damage, and the state set aside $35,000 a year for wolf compensation (from endangered resources vehicle license plates), but the actual costs have run much higher, and losses of valuable animals and pets are not easily tolerated.  An appeal has been instigated by Wisconsin and several other states and a rider was attached to a federal appropriations bill introduced to Congress this summer rescinding this protection. A wolf harvest is set now to be reinstated in Wisconsin beginning on the first Saturday of November every year once the endangered species case from this Michigan federal judge has been resolved.

Wisconsin is now one of about a dozen states in the country with a wild gray wolf population. The average adult male weighs about 75 pounds while the female is somewhat smaller at about 60 pounds. They have many color variations but tend to be buff-colored grizzled with gray and black.  Wolves generally run holding their black-tipped tails straight out or down from the body in contrast to coyotes and dogs.

Wolves are social animals, living in a family group or pack that may claim a territory of twenty to eighty square miles, depending upon habitat. The pack usually is made up of six to ten animals - a dominant male and female (the breeding pair), pups from the previous year and the current year's pups.  The dominant pair is in charge of the pack, raising the young, selecting denning and rendezvous sites, capturing food and maintaining the territory.  A wolf that trespasses into another pack's territory risks being killed.

A Wisconsin study indicated that whitetails comprise over 80 percent of the wolf’s diet much of the year, although beaver become important in spring and fall when they come on shore to cut trees for their food supply. Wolves' summer diet is more diverse, including hares and other small mammals. They breed in late winter and the female digs a den for her pups or uses a hollow log, cave or abandoned beaver lodge.

At birth, wolf pups are deaf and blind and weigh about one pound but grow rapidly, gaining about three pounds each week. Pups begin to see when two weeks old and can hear after three weeks. When about six weeks old, they are weaned and the adults begin to bring them meat.  The pack leaves the den when the pups are six to eight weeks old and the female carries the pups to the first of a series of rendezvous sites or nursery areas. The pack abandons these in September or October and the pups, now almost full-grown, follow the adults.

The Wisconsin DNR continues to monitor the wolf situation and has determined that northern Wisconsin has about 6,000 square miles of habitat that could support 300-500 wolves.  Recent studies suggest the entire state could perhaps support 700 to 1,000 wolves, but this level is not likely to be tolerated by the residents as wolves require a lot of space in which to live, a fact that often causes conflict with humans.  They are fierce predators that find livestock easy prey and usually kill any dog that ventures into their territory.

UW Professor Lisa Naughton and her husband, assistant professor Adrian Treves, have formed the Living with Wolves project, an effort, she says, “to find a fair and ecologically sustainable approach to coexistence” with wolves.  “There’s a real and growing difference among people who feel strongly about having wolves in the state,” says Naughton and as that difference grows, the Living with Wolves project is working to bring the various parties to an understanding. “Wolves have recovered beyond our expectations,” says Naughton. “But now comes the hard part — how do we live with them?”

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November 22, 2016: All About Acorns

I have heard from several woodland walkers that acorns are scarce this year, a situation of concern because they are a very important wildlife food. Birds such as jays and woodpeckers, small mammals like mice and squirrels, and even large animals such as bears and deer depend upon them. It has been estimated that acorns may constitute up to 25% of the diet of some deer in the autumn.

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, and their acorns usually require two years to mature. The white type, that includes the alba, swamp white, and bur oaks have leaves with rounded lobes and their acorns mature in one year. The bur oak, a large spreading, fairly slow-growing, long-lived tree typically grows in the open and its presence in our woodlands indicates that the area was once open grassland. It is also fire-resistant, and possesses significant drought resistance because of a long taproot.

The acorn consists of a single seed enclosed in a tough, leathery shell and attached to a cup-shaped cap.  It is especially important because it is relatively large, rich in nutrients, and can be stored for later use. Percentages vary from species to species, but all acorns contain large amounts of protein, carbohydrates and fats, as well as the minerals calcium, phosphorous, potassium, and the vitamin niacin. Red oak acorns are 18% to 25% fat, while white oak acorns are 5% to 10% fat.  Acorns also contain bitter tannins, the amount varying with the species -- red oaks containing 6-10% tannin while white oaks acorns are less than 2% tannin. While many insects, birds and mammals seem to metabolize tannins with few ill effects, others reportedly favor the milder varieties, while still others store those that are less palatable until the weather has leached out some of the bitterness.

Acorn production typically starts when the tree is about twenty-five years old, and it eventually produces a yearly crop of about 2,000 acorns.  Production varies year to year, as not even the healthiest and largest oak can seem to produce strong yields two years in succession. In addition, a late spring frost can damage the flowers, or drought and insect infestations can reduce their numbers.

White oak acorns sprout the first autumn, while red oak seeds lie dormant until the following spring. Once they begin growth, they become less nutritious, as the seed tissue converts to indigestible chemical compounds (lignins) that form the root. Periodically, there is an especially abundant crop of nuts, and it has been suggested these “mast” years are necessary as so many acorns are produced that the acorn-browsers can’t eat them all, leaving the excess to guarantee a new generation.

Acorns were a traditional food of many indigenous peoples of North America. They used rock grinders to break open the acorns, and would soak them in a stream for many days to leach the tannins.  Another method was to bury the shelled acorns in mud for several weeks. Because some species germinated in the fall, the women had to shell and pulverize those 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.

Possibly the early people to whom acorns were most important were the California Indians. They did not practice agriculture, and 60% of their diet came from the nineteen different species of oaks found in the area.  It is thought that they even developed acorn gathering etiquette and individual trees were claimed by certain families while particular groves might be owned by a village that would even go to war to protect them. In times of surplus, the people would trade acorns for things like pine nuts, obsidian, soapstone, and pigment minerals.

Grinding was done using various mortar and pestle type devices including some formed in bedrock.  Such mortars were immovable and very fire-resistant, and they are one of the few tangible pieces of California Indian life that can still be seen.  Grinding and leaching would have had to be done nearly every day, with the resulting mush baked or steamed in an oven or pit to make bread or be cooked on a stone griddle to make a tortilla. It also was probably eaten as a porridge or soup.

When the Spanish conquered coastal California, they forced the natives to abandon their hunter/gatherer lifestyle, but modern California Indians still sometimes connect with their history by harvesting, preparing, and eating acorns. They now collect the acorns in plastic bags, grind them in food processors, leach the meal in cloth-lined colanders in kitchen sinks, store the mash in the freezer, and cook it on an electric stove, but the spirit of the tradition lives on.

There is one certified oak 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. Our oaks are not record-holders, but most are well past the century mark and a few bur oaks are magnificent specimens. We treasure them.

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November 15, 2016:
Seeds and More Seeds

Most of our plants have completed their growth processes and have either died or are going dormant, and Mother Nature has developed some fascinating techniques for the survival of each species. In much of the world, plants grow, produce seed and die, their main problem being the availability of moisture for germination. Where deep freezes occur, however, seedlings would often be killed before they could become sufficiently established if they all sprouted immediately.

Many perennials and woody plants, therefore, have developed mechanisms that keep their seeds inactive until the following growing season or even longer. The seed coat may be so tough and hard that moisture cannot penetrate and may need to be broken, scratched or otherwise altered. The plant embryo may be immature and have to undergo one or more cold, moist periods to develop sufficiently to germinate.  Other seeds need a warm period of at least three months in which a root develops, followed by several cold months that trigger stem development before a growing tip will emerge.  Still others may have a chemical inhibitor and must experience considerable washing to have it removed.

After all of these problems have been solved for the plant, moisture is the next critical factor, as a seed must absorb several times its weight in water before germination can occur. In addition, the temperature of the medium in which the seed finds itself often must be within certain limits for each particular species. Light or complete darkness is sometimes necessary, as is the presence of certain fungi in the soil. With all of these various conditions to be met, seeds often germinate over a considerable period, giving each species a greater chance for survival for at least some of its offspring.

Seeds are present in a wide variety of forms.  Some seeds resemble dust, others are large and flat, still others wrinkled and pea-like, but all are fundamentally alike. Pollen containing the male genetic material is deposited upon the female flower part, where it germinates and sends a pollen tube down into the center of the blossom. This provides a way for the sperm to pass and fertilize the ovules that then develop into seeds.

Each seed is simply an embryo with a budding root and growth tip surrounded by nutrient and protected by a coating. When internal conditions are right with the proper balance of moisture, temperature, light and air, enzymes are set into motion that convert the stored carbohydrates into the sugars which the embryo needs to grow. The enlarging root bursts the seed coat and anchors itself in the ground, followed by the emergence of the growing tip with the seed leaves (one or two depending upon the type of plant).

Although many of the year’s seeds have already dispersed, a number remain prominently displayed on the prairie. Indian grass and big bluestem have full seed heads that tower above the other plants.  Little bluestem grass almost sparkles in the sun from its more modest position. Most of the autumn blooming flowers such as sneezeweed, Joe-pye-weed, blazingstar, and the various sunflowers have dropped their petals as November days come and go, but their seed heads remain standing tall and available to any hungry bird that passes by. 

Some seeds develop inside fruits; for example, Wisconsin’s wild grape has berries that range from medium blue to nearly black and contain up to six oval seeds.  The vine carries alternate, lobed leaves, although there can be wide differences in the lobing pattern from one leaf to the next.  In addition, there are well-developed tendrils that wrap around nearby plants or other objects to help the vine climb.

Virginia creeper, another plant in the grape family, is a prolific climber that can reach the treetops, holding on with its small forked tendrils tipped with small adhesive pads. Its compound leaves are composed of five leaflets that turn a bright red in the fall and it is sometimes mistaken for poison ivy, despite having five leaflets in contrast to poison ivy’s three.  The flowers are small and greenish, produced in inconspicuous clusters in late spring, and they mature in early fall into small hard purplish-black berries.  These contain oxalic acid, which is toxic to humans although birds eat them without harm. 

Canadian moonseed, a woody vine that climbs any nearby support or otherwise runs along the ground, has fruits that are similar to those of the wild grape, but are reported to be poisonous with potentially fatal consequences.  An easy way to distinguish between them is that the wild grape usually has tendrils and moonseed does not. It is always wise to refrain from eating any wild fruits if not absolutely sure of the identification.

More colorful are the miniature "persimmons" or perhaps "orange tomatoes" that are decorating the trailsides. These fruits are arranged in clusters of two to four at the leaf nodes of the feverwort, a common wildflower. The various names, tinker's weed, wild coffee, feverwort, wild ipecac, and horse gentian resulted from former uses of the plant and there are records that tell us that its leaves were steeped in hot water for a fever-reducing drink by Native Americans. It is a waist high plant with large opposite leaves which meet and surround the stem.

Also of note are the blue clusters of berries on the greenbrier vine often found on roadside fences, now visible as the leaves have fallen. Greenbriers are mostly prickly vines that have roundish parallel-veined leaves and are woody members of the lily family. The berry clusters are interesting additions to dried arrangements if one can get them before the birds eat them all. Even in November, usually the darkest month of the year, there are treasures to seek out.

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November 8, 2016:
Cedar Waxwings

Despite our efforts to fend off any birds that think our living room windows are open flyways, several strike the glass every year, often with fatal results.  One memorable such accident at our home in Madison involved a cedar waxwing, and we have had a special fondness for this bird ever since.  We found the bird in question lying on the patio, alive but unable to fly.  Since we obviously could not release it, we placed it in a large finch cage in our downstairs family room.  I had a supply of blueberries in our freezer and found the waxwing would eagerly take one from my fingers, swallowing it whole.  The bird survived several weeks, but its head injury seemed to worsen and one day we found it lying lifeless on the bottom of the cage. 

The cedar waxwing has a sleek, brown body, a perky crest, a black mask and a yellow band across its tail.  Its fondness for red cedar berries and the red tips at the ends of its secondary wing feathers give the bird its name as the tips look like drops of bright red sealing wax.  (The red color comes from a carotenoid pigment found in many of the fruits consumed as part of a waxwing’s diet.)  The number of such colored tips increases with age and since our patient had none, it was most likely from that year’s crop of youngsters.

Cedar waxwings are social birds that form large flocks and often nest in loose clusters of a dozen or so.  In summer, the birds feed on fruits such as serviceberry, mulberry, dogwood, and raspberries, and supplement these with protein-rich insects, and any others that are available. The red cedar berries often make up the major part of their winter diet, and most will stay year-round where these are plentiful.  In recent years, waxwings have also turned to ornamentals such as crabapple, hawthorn, Russian olive, and especially non-native honeysuckle as winter food sources. It is interesting that the tail bands of the birds that have dined heavily on honeysuckle have gradually changed from yellow to orange, thought to be the result of eating the pigments contained in the fruit of this introduced plant.

A waxwing pair nests later in summer than most other birds since it needs fruit to feed the chicks.  Both sexes gather nest material but the female weaves the twigs, grasses, cattail down, horsehair, and similar materials into a bulky cup and lines it with fine roots, grasses, and pine needles.  Construction is a major undertaking and often takes five or six days and more than 2,500 individual trips for materials. The female then lays four or five pale blue-gray eggs and incubates them for twelve days. Nestlings spend two weeks in the nest before fledging and once they are up and flying the parents may raise another brood if there is time. 

Cedar waxwings call constantly with their soft whistled trills, and we never know just when they will appear or how long they will stay.  They are not always welcome, as a flock can be destructive to the flowers of fruit trees, and later to the ripening fruit, especially of cherries. The bird’s appetite is so extraordinary that it will devour every fruit or berry it can find, sometimes gorging itself to the extent that it is unable to fly. Such birds have been found to have their stomachs and throats full of berries, with still more in their mouth waiting to be swallowed. In 1908, disgruntled fruit growers in Vermont introduced legislation that would have allowed waxwings to be shot as agricultural pests but the effort was defeated and the birds remains protected by national law.

Although most of their diet is plant material, they also ingest a variety of destructive insects such as carpenter ants, sawfly larvae, tent caterpillars, beetles, and cankerworms, a particular favorite. It has been estimated that a single flock can eat 90,000 of these caterpillars in a season, and many think this is a modest estimate, given their voracious appetites. They are also adroit flycatchers and are frequently seen flying out from high vantage points to snatch up insects and then returning to their perches after each capture.

Cedar waxwing populations have been relatively stable since 1966, and in some areas have even showed increases, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey.  These increases are due at least in part because of the widespread use of berry trees such as mountain ash in landscaping. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 52,000,000, with 70% spending some part of the year in the U.S., 55% in Canada, and 18% wintering in Mexico.  Cedar waxwings are vulnerable to window collisions as well as being struck by cars as the birds feed on fruiting trees along roadsides.  Falcons, hawks, and common grackles are predators of adult waxwings while blue jays and house wrens consume juveniles and eggs.

Look for cedar waxwings where there are fruiting trees or shrubs, and listen for their high-pitched call notes. Waxwings are similar to starlings in size and shape, and often form big flocks that grow, shrink, divide, and rejoin like starling flocks.  In past centuries, these birds were shot for food, and the slaughter of great numbers was made easy by their habit of flying in close flocks. James Audubon was quoted as saying, “Cedar waxwings fatten, and become so tender and juicy as to be sought by every epicure for the table.”  We’re glad those days are over and we can enjoy watching these fascinating birds, even as we protect our cherry tree from their raids.

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November 2, 2016

There are a number of birds in the thrush family who share our woods and fields but only two are well known by most people -- the American robin and the Eastern bluebird.  Both feed on insects, but like most other thrushes, also eat worms, snails, and fruit.  Both build cup-shaped nests, sometimes lining them with mud, although the female robin places hers exposed on a tree branch or building while the bluebird chooses a cavity of some sort and appreciates a man-made house for her nursery.  The young of both have speckled breasts as do those of most other thrushes.

An oft-told legend of the Pima Indians tells that the bluebird was originally drab and ugly. However, it lived near a lovely blue lake and was determined to take on its color. It bathed in its waters repeatedly for four days, while singing a magic song: "There's a blue water. It lies there. I went in. I am all blue."  On the fourth morning, the bird lost all its feathers, only to have them replaced with brilliant blue plumage.

The biologist’s explanation of the bird’s color may not be quite as whimsical, but it also contains an element of the unlikely, for the bluebird’s feathers contain no blue pigmentation.  Most of the color we see in nature is due to substances that absorb some light wavelengths and reflect others; for instance, plant chlorophyll absorbs most wavelengths of the spectrum but reflects back those of the green portion.  However, most creatures that appear to be blue (and sometimes other colors) employ a completely different process.

A Chinese research group has used the powerful electron microscope to examine the barbules, tiny feather tip structures that come off of barbs on either side of the central stem. What they found were structures of equally spaced tiny crystals—each hundreds of times thinner than a human hair, that reflected back a particular wavelength. It was determined that different spacing between the crystals caused the structures to reflect light of different wavelengths and thus different colors. Such color mechanisms are often much brighter and visible over longer distances than pigments and may be a definite asset in breeding.

Bluebirds feed primarily on insects, crickets, spiders and beetles in the spring and summer. They often sit on high perches such as fence posts, treetop branches or telephone wires to watch for passing insects, but can also be seen hovering much like a hawk in search of prey. Come fall, they add the fruits of eastern red cedar, sumac, honeysuckle, winterberry, wild grapes, and seeds to their diet as their normal prey becomes scarce.

Bluebirds naturally nest in hollowed-out areas in dead or dying trees, and because they cannot excavate their own cavities, they often use abandoned woodpecker holes.  The population of the Eastern bluebird declined drastically in past years because most mature or dead trees were cut down as areas were turned into farmland or commercial property, thus destroying much of their housing. Providing nest boxes in suitable places has allowed the population to recover considerably.

The American robin does not have the brilliant color of the bluebird but it is well known for its red breast, its beautiful song (the bluebird’s has been described as short and wavering), and for its habit of hunting for worms on village lawns.  It usually sings from a high perch in a tree and is often among the first birds singing at dawn and last in the evening.  In addition, it has a number of harsh calls to warn other birds at the approach of danger.

There is a large robin population, estimated at about 320 million individuals.  At one point, the bird was killed for its meat in the southern states and thought to be very good, but it is now protected throughout its range in the United States by the Migratory Bird Act.  There are seven subspecies around the continent, and the one that occupies the Midwest has the descriptive name of “migratorius”. There are only minor differences in color and size between them but each has its own range.

American robins are one of the first birds to begin laying eggs each spring and they normally have two broods of three to five eggs laid in each clutch. In northern areas the first nest is generally placed in an evergreen tree or shrub while the second is often constructed in a deciduous tree.
The American robin is a known carrier for West Nile virus.   While crows and jays are often found dead in an area with West Nile virus, the American robin is suspected to be a key host, and may be more responsible for the transmission of the virus to humans. This is because, while crows and jays die quickly from the virus, the robin survives the virus longer, hence spreading it to more mosquitoes which then transmit the virus to humans and other species.

As the days turn colder, many of the bluebirds and robins leave us for southern fields and forests; still, flocks of both of these birds often remain to forage for wild fruits and berries in our fields and along the edges of our roadsides and woods. We have even seen groups on mild days in midwinter, for both bluebirds and robins are only partially migratory and often leave their northern homes only when food sources become scarce or when conditions become intolerable. Keep you eye out for these beautiful thrushes this winter.

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October 25, 2016: Ladybugs are too much of a good thing!

A warning to those of you who are unhappy with the numbers of ladybugs that have been flying about outdoors and even indoors at your house: nearly all cultures have believed that they should be welcomed as harbingers of good fortune and that killing one will bring sadness and misfortune.

(From the website, Ladybug Facts and Legends: “If a ladybug has less than seven spots, the harvest would be good; if it has more than seven, there would be famine. People in France believed that if a ladybug landed on someone, it would take away whatever ailment the person had when it flew away.  In Norway, if a man and a woman saw a ladybug at the same time, romance would blossom between them.  In folk medicine, ladybugs were ground up to cure toothaches, measles, stomach aches, and crying babies.”)

The ladybug is familiar to people around the world.  There are nearly 5,000 species of which some 400 can be found in North America. It comes in a wide variety of colors, including red, orange, pink, yellow and black and can have as many as twenty spots or none at all. It is also one of the insects who hibernates during the winter months, emerging in the spring to mate and lay its eggs. 

Its scientific name is Coleoptera, meaning "sheath-winged” followed by Coccinellidae, meaning "little red sphere" so it is little wonder that it has been given a shorter, easier-to-say name.  One persistent story is that in Europe during the Middle Ages, a heavy infestation of plant-sucking insects was destroying the crops.  Fervent prayers for help were offered to the Virgin Mary by the Catholic population, and the petitions appeared to be answered with the arrival of another insect that quickly cleaned up the damaging hoards. The farmers began calling these insects "The Beetles of Our Lady", which soon was shortened to "Lady Beetles" and then, “ladybugs”. The red wings were said to represent the Virgin's cloak and the black spots her joys and sorrows.

The female ladybug will lay clusters of orange oval-shaped eggs in the early spring, sticking them to the undersides of plant leaves. When the larvae hatch they look very much like miniature blue-black alligators; in fact, some gardeners kill them because they don't recognize them as ladybug offspring.  The larva is very small but ravenous and immediately begins gorging on aphids as well as mealybugs, scale insects, and other soft-bodied pests.  It will grow quickly, splitting and shedding its skin several times over the next three weeks, at which point it will fasten itself to some sort of firm object to begin its transformation into an adult insect.  In a week or two, depending upon the particular species, its skin will split a final time and a new soft, dull creature will emerge that will soon harden into our familiar ladybug.

The ladybug has fascinating wings. When it flies, each wing is rotated forwards on its base, raising the rigid protective forewing out of the way and spreading the longer delicate hindwing that is folded beneath and does the work. The flight wing consists of a thin membrane supported by a system of veins (the patterns created by these veins in used in differentiating between species) as well as creases along which the wing can fold up. There is also a spring mechanism in the wing structure that ratchets up the wing as it refolds and then holds it in the folded position when at rest.

The ladybug’s bright colors warn predators that the insect they are about to eat might not be a good choice, and if attacked, they will often ooze a yellow, foul-smelling liquid (the insect version of blood) from their leg joints that tastes and smells very bad.  Because ladybugs have chewing mandibles, it means that they can bite; however, their jaws are very small and any bites are more like pinches.  These don’t break the skin, and many researchers feel the bugs are just exploring the skin when they land on a human.  Also, since they do not have poison glands or saliva, only those sensitive to contact with the “blood” are likely to feel any real discomfort.

In the 1880s, a destructive scale insect was introduced to the West Coast of the United States from Australia and killed large numbers of lemon and orange trees.  It was known that a particular species of ladybug controlled the insects in their former home, so California citrus growers imported thousands of Australian ladybugs. The success of this enterprise led to other introductions around the world to help control and conquer outbreaks of crop-destroying pests.

The multicolored Asian lady beetle was imported to this country in the early 1900s to help naturally control pest populations that were damaging such diverse crops as alfalfa, pecan and citrus trees.  Over the past twenty years, federal, state and private agencies have released this ladybug in a number of locations around the country, and the beneficial aspects of this insect have been quite useful in reducing the need for pesticides.  However, I understand that such releases are no longer taking place because of the ladybugs’ unexpected proliferation.  They have settled in so successfully that they have become a major pest themselves by their very presence every fall. 

In Shakespeare's As You Like It, he speaks through Rosalind: “Why then, can one desire too much of a good thing?” and perhaps the answer might be “Yes, when it is a multicolored Asian lady beetle!”

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October 18. 2016:  Wild Wind and Rain

According to the National Hurricane Center’s data, the largest number of major hurricanes in the United States per decade occurred in the 1940s with ten, and the second largest in the 1890s and 1930s, both with eight.  There were six in the 1850s and only five in the 1990s, the last full decade on the chart.  The point is that hurricanes are nothing new in this country nor are they getting worse, and all the present wildlife has survived and most has even thrived despite them.  

Our North Carolina niece who lives on the Outer Banks described the distressing situation: “We have been hit recently with two hurricanes . . . so there has been a lot of flooding and tree damage -- an initial loss of over $42 million.  We have tried to keep food accessible for the birds, but all our feeding and water cups were blown down.  The other challenge to the birds is the loss of tree canopy as so many leaves are shredded or torn off of trees.  Salt spray that comes on the backside of hurricanes will kill off any unprotected vegetation, turning it all brown within days.  Many birds depend on the fall berries to help sustain them on migration, but my lawn was littered with berries knocked off by the wind and rain. . .. We still had many sea turtle nests that had not hatched and those covered in flood waters will drown.  Florida reported the loss of 800 turtle nests and I don’t know of our losses yet. . .   The wild horses in the northern beach area probably found protection in the deep woods or under houses, but that area received close to 18 inches of rain and is still mostly inaccessible . . .  Before the storm, we noticed many butterflies in the yard and I don’t think I have seen any since the storm passed.”

During major storms, sea birds and waterfowl are most exposed. Songbirds and woodland birds, however, are specially adapted to hold on and ride things out. Their toes automatically tighten around their perch and this holds them in place during high winds or when they sleep; however, many species have very specialized niches in these forests that are lost to heavy winds.  Specific foods can be taken away as high winds can often strip fruits, seeds and berries from bushes and trees.

Woodpeckers and other cavity nesters will, unless their trees are blown down, ride out storms in tree holes.  Shorebirds often move to inland areas: however, the eye of the storm with its fast-moving walls of intense wind can form a trap holding birds inside the eye until the storm dissipates and carries them far from their homes. Birds are not the only species affected by the winds as sea mammals can be harmed too.  While many can seek shelter in open water or in protected areas near shore, some dolphins and manatees have been blown ashore during major storms.

The sustained and powerful winds of a hurricane will cause salty ocean water to pile up and surge onshore.  In addition to the physical damage this causes, the salt contained in sea water often shifts the delicate balance of freshwater and brackish wetland areas.  Marsh grasses, crabs, minnows, fish hatchlings, insects, and other creatures of freshwater and estuaries that are less salt-tolerant will be harmed and many will not survive this influx of sea water.  The reverse is also true too as the heavy rains generated by hurricanes will dump fresh water into coastal area river basins  and can send vast amounts surging downstream into coastal bays and estuaries, upsetting their freshwater/salt water balances.

Hurricanes generate massive waves and violent action on the surface.  A few years ago when Hurricane Andrew hit Louisiana the government estimated that more than nine million fish were killed offshore while the same storm killed some 180 million fish in the Everglades Basin in Florida.   Still, while some habitats and species may never fully recover after devastatingly powerful hurricanes, other areas may be improved for wildlife.   According to some reports, when trees get knocked down by strong winds, it can open the canopy causing an explosion of plant growth on the forest floor, which can provide an abundance of food, as well as cover, for animals as diverse as mice and deer.

In Wisconsin, we do not worry about hurricanes although occasionally the state has been impacted by heavy precipitation and flooding that were remnants of a tropical storm; what we do have are tornadoes.  The impact of a hurricane is easier to evaluate because of its broad spread and slow movement, but a tornado typically appears suddenly and moves fast—making it harder to detect and study.

Like hurricanes, tornados are hugely destructive.  Trees where birds nest are ripped from the ground, and debris from shredded structures and vegetation obscures underground burrows.  Any creatures caught up in the storm may be killed—although there is no real way of measuring this as their numbers were not likely known before the storm.  A wildlife biologist with the USDA Forest Service points out that direct mortality is usually less of a concern to conservationists than changes in habitat since trees are often removed making way for different species to move in to an area.

The overall impact of major storms on natural ecosystems and wildlife communities is believed to be minimal in the long run. Despite the worst weather-related natural disasters--floods and tornados, as well as hurricanes, droughts, and forest fires--the ancestors of all our native wildlife evolved to deal with them. Although temporarily gone from wind-ravaged or flooded areas, birds and other animals will soon return. Native trees that have been destroyed will soon be replaced by seedlings of the same species and no healthy native species of plant or animal is likely to be lost because of tornadoes or floods.  It has happened before; it will happen again.


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October 11, 2016: Pesky Bugs and Others

There have been many complaints in Spring Green and Madison of the plague of mosquitoes this year.  We have been spared, perhaps because of the large bat population that hangs out in our barn, but now we are becoming reacquainted with two other insects showing up in considerable numbers -- boxelder and Asian lady bugs.

True bugs are an order of insects comprised of some thousands of species such as the cicadas, aphids, plant-hoppers, leafhoppers, and shield bugs. They range in size from being almost invisible to around six inches long, and share a common arrangement of sucking mouthparts.  Many insects commonly known as "bugs" belong to other orders; for example, the ladybug is not a bug but a beetle.

Some true bug species are dreaded agricultural pests, damaging crops by sucking their sap and sometimes, in doing so, spreading serious viral diseases.  Others such as the bedbug feed on human blood.  Still, a few such as the cicadas are welcomed by some humans who eat them. 
The boxelder, another of the true bugs, has been very much in evidence here the past week.  Adults are about a half inch long, black with red markings, and their wings lay flat over their bodies, overlapping each other to form an ‘X’. These highly specialized insects feed almost exclusively on the seeds of some maple species, particularly the boxelder, a type of maple that has compound leaves with three to five notched or lobed leaflets. 

Boxelder bugs are primarily a nuisance because they gather on the sunny sides of homes and other buildings, often in large numbers, and may enter any crack they can find as the weather cools.  Fortunately, they do not bite or do any damage, although they may occasionally stain walls and other surfaces with their excrement. We often find many on the plants in the greenhouse during the winter but they don’t seem to harm them either. 

Boxelder bugs survive the winter as adults and emerge as the weather starts to warm up.  They feed on detris and seeds on the ground and soon begin looking for mates.  By mid‑July, most have moved to female seed-bearing boxelder trees, (occasionally other maple or ash trees) where they lay their eggs on trunks, branches, and leaves.  The immature nymphs are tiny and bright red when they first hatch.  As they grow older and larger, they become red and black and may form large aggregations while sunning themselves on rocks, shrubs, trees, and man-made structures. 

In the early fall, boxelder bugs start to leave the trees where they were feeding to find protected areas for the winter. Although nymphs may be present in the fall, only fully grown adults survive the winter and they may travel as far as two miles to find suitable protection.  They like warm spots and are especially attracted to buildings with a sunny southern or western exposure.  Most individuals die but enough of the insects find sufficient shelter to survive the winter. Boxelder bugs are most abundant during a hot, dry summer when followed the next year by a warm spring.

Another often irritating insect in the early fall is the Asian ladybug.  This beetle was introduced to the United States in 1916 to help control aphids, and its numbers were slow to increase until 1988 when a large population was observed in New Orleans. Since then, the areas claimed by the Asian lady beetle have continued to increase and they have been in Wisconsin since 1994.

These beetles can be beneficial as they do a great job of controlling aphids that can damage many types of plants, but their numbers make them a problem as they collect on the outside of buildings and often land on and give a bite-like pinch to any bystanders.  They also enter houses and can be found at sunny windows all winter.

These Asian lady beetles look like our native ladybugs but generally have more spots.  They can go through their four stages of life in less than three weeks, starting as eggs, hatching into larvae, changing into pupas and then adults with wings. One of these beetles has been known to eat about 300 aphids as it develops, can live as long as two to three years and can produce up to five generations in a year.

Be careful if you disturb or squash either the boxelder or ladybugs as they both emit pungent and bad-tasting compounds designed to keep predators away.  Some homeowners resort to spraying their outside walls where the beetles have congregated, but they will soon disappear, and it is better to spend time sealing any cracks or crevasses where they might enter your home. 

Several species of flies can also be seen in and around homes in the fall as they seek sheltered sites to overwinter.  Some of these end up in attics, wall voids and other spaces, where they hibernate. Some of these will find their way outside when spring arrives, while others are trapped indoors and die.

All these insects can be a nuisance in the house on sunny days during the winter but seldom do any damage.  Consider them to be just part of our Southern Wisconsin wildlife experience.


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October 4, 2015:
The Elusive Fox

We have lived in Wisconsin for some fifty years, almost thirty of that on the farm, and yet have seen only two or three foxes in all that time.  Probably this is because they are only active and do most of their hunting at dusk and at night, curling their long bushy tails around themselves to keep warm and hiding away in a secluded spot during the daylight hours.

Foxes can be found all over Wisconsin, especially in the southern, central and western parts of the state.  Each has its own clearly marked home range that it will defend from intruders, and uses a threat display with charging and growling to chase them off.  A fox will often claim several hundred acres, but in less productive areas, it might need up to two or three square miles to survive and breed.  It is interesting that the fox is unlike wolves and other dogs in that it doesn’t move in packs.  It generally stays alone except in raising a family, and that is also the only time it uses a den.

The fox is a great hunter, and not only because it is fast.  Mice, especially meadow voles, are a popular food, but the favorite prey is the cottontail rabbit. It will also eat berries and insects when available, along with squirrels and songbirds and any discarded garbage it comes across.  Its large, upright ears allow it to easily locate the rustling sound of a mouse, and it can hear one squeal from 150 feet away.  It will slowly creep toward its prey, stretching its head high to spot it and then pounce with its forefeet.

We have two fox species in the state -- the grey and the red.  It was long believed that the red was not native to the New World and was introduced on the Eastern seaboard by Europeans, but a recent DNA study published in the Journal of Mammalogy indicated that they probably have always been in the boreal and western mountain portions of North America.  European red foxes were certainly introduced into the eastern United States during Colonial times, however.

The red fox is now the most widely distributed canid in the world, probably because it is capable of living in densely populated human areas.  They have been seen around the Capital building in Madison and on several college campuses around the state.  About three to four feet in length and long-legged, it only weighs between twelve to twenty pounds fully grown,  although it looks a lot bigger because of its thick fur.  Its color can range from deep brownish red to sandy blonde, it has black legs and feet and white underparts and a white tip on its tail.  Sometimes, red foxes can even be all black or black tipped with white (then called “silver”), or have a dark brown “cross” across their backs.  They are lean mean hunting machines that are built for speed.

Red foxes breed in mid-January and have five or six pups in an abandoned badger or woodchuck burrow in mid-March. The kits start hunting with their parents when they are three months old, and are ready to strike out on their own in by autumn.

The gray fox is the smallest canine found in Wisconsin.  It ranges from thirty to forty inches in total length of which twelve to eighteen inches is tail, and it typically weighs around twelve pounds.  It is distinguished from most other canids by its grizzled upper parts, cinnamon to buff neck and under parts, black tipped tail, and mane of black tipped hairs. (The grizzled appearance comes from individual guard hairs that are banded with white, gray, and black.)  It has a black stripe down the top of the tail and does not have the white tip like the red fox. 

Breeding activity occurs from mid February through March and the gestation period is about seven weeks.  Litters of three or four are most common, and pups weigh three ounces at birth, are dark-skinned, blind, and naked. Fuzzy fur begins to develop and the eyes open around ten to twelve days.  At three months, the pups accompany parents away from the den to forage, and by four months they begin to range independently and disperse from their parents in fall.

The gray fox spends much of its time in the woods, and but prefers habitats with a large amount of edge.  Old fields are used most during summer and fall when fruits and insects are numerous.  The gray is unique because it has semi-retractable claws which allow it to climb trees, and it is one of only two canine species in the world that can do so. Its strong, hooked claws allow it to scramble up the bark to escape a predator or to reach food sources in the branches. It can climb vertical trunks to heights of sixty feet and jump from branch to branch with ease.  It descends primarily by backing down slowly as a domestic cat would do.  Its tree den may be located thirty feet above the ground.

The top three causes of mortality for the foxes in Wisconsin are hunting, trapping, and road kills with most caused by hunting and trapping.  I found one internet site claiming that prices for fox skins were currently high, so that more animals were being harvested for their pelts, rather than just shot as “pests”.  And, of course, vehicle collisions are always fatal. 

If you look along fence rows, gravel roads, paths or tree lines after a light snowfall this winter, you might be able to find some fox tracks. They resemble those of a small dog, about one-and-a-half to two inches long, but narrower and with smaller toe pads and more fur marks.  You will then have proof that the wily animal exists and lives in your area, even if you haven’t spied it.


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September 28, 2016:
The Amazing Ant

Daughter Chris became reacquainted with fire ants on a recent visit to Mississippi where her mother-in-law’s yard is infested with half a dozen nests.  Luck for us, the pesky creatures are restricted to warmer climates and so neither she in Montana nor we in Wisconsin have to deal with them.

Fire ants are a reminder that all ants are believed to have evolved from ancient ground-nesting wasps.  They first appeared in the fossil record when dinosaurs roamed the earth but did not flourish until about 100 million years ago when plants began to blossom and fruit, providing new food sources and habitats. There are now some 12,500 identified species with another estimated 10,000 still to be documented.  Some are capable of biting, stinging and spraying formic acid and other irritant chemicals and a few can cause injury or sometimes even death.  Also, like their wasp relatives, these ants are capable of stinging multiple times.

An ant's body is divided into three main parts--the head with two large compound eyes plus three smaller simple ones, the thorax with six legs and sometimes wings, and the abdomen that contains the vital organs and reproductive parts. It has a hard, waterproof exoskeleton made of chitin and two antennae used to recognize nest mates and detect enemies.  An ant uses its powerful mandibles to grasp and carry as well as for cutting and biting, and is exceptionally strong for its size, able to lift more than ten times its own weight.

An ant takes in oxygen and discharges carbon dioxide through tiny holes all over its body. Its heart is a long tube that circulates colorless blood from the head throughout its body and then back up to the head again. The nervous system consists of a long nerve cord that runs from head to rear with branches leading to the parts of the body. It also possesses a special gland that secretes an antibiotic-like substance that is believed to prevent bacteria and fungi from infecting the nest despite the large number of residents living together in close contact.
 
At the proper time for each species, winged and fertile male and female ants emerge from each established anthill and join hundreds of other like insects in a communal nuptial flight.  After mating, the males die and each female, (now a queen) searches for a likely spot, loses her wings, and excavates a small chamber for a nest. There she begins to lay eggs that soon hatch into grub-like larvae. The queen must leave the nest to search for food to feed herself as well as the blind, helpless larvae, and must also maintain and defend the nest.

After several weeks, the grubs spin silk-like cocoons and pupate while their bodies change into their adult forms. These first grubs mature into sterile female workers that take over all the work of the nest, leaving the queen free to lay more eggs. She continues to do so for the rest of her life, thus expanding the colony until it may have as many as a million individuals.

After a number of years, depending again upon the species of ant, the colony produces its first generation of fertile females and males.  It is fascinating to learn that these winged insects will emerge and fly on the same day and and even the same hour from a number of colonies in a given region, enhancing their chances of meeting in the nuptial flight. This happens a number of times over several years until the colony queen finally dies, at which time the colony fades and disappears.

Ants have a very keen sense of smell and each foraging worker randomly searches the surrounding area for food which may consist of small living or dead invertebrates, plant sap, insect eggs, various fruits, whatever, and if it invades your home, almost anything it can find. Worker ants deposit a minute amount of a chemical pheromone as they range about, inadvertently creating trails that lead back to the colony. When an individual discovers a source of food, it becomes excited and returns to the nest releasing a heavier track of the chemical -- the better the find, the more intense the excitement and the stronger the trail. When other scouting ants cross such a trail, they will follow it adding their own pheromone until it becomes a highway.  These worker ants have two stomachs, a larger one where they liquify and then store any gathered food to carry back to the nest and another smaller one for their own needs.

Many ants relish the sweet fluid excreted by aphids, called honeydew, and some species have domesticated the tiny insects to maintain a steady supply. Worker ants of the honeypot species in the southwestern United States somehow choose certain members of the colony to serve as living containers for the honeydew and feed them great quantities until their bodies become engorged. These handy receptacles remain motionless in the nest, tended by other workers, and dispensing droplets to all comers.

Ants are among the planet’s most abundant insects, an estimated one quadrillion (1,000,000,000,000,000), and they have a big impact on their local environment. They aerate the soil allowing oxygen and water to reach plant roots, and accidentally increase the level of nutrients in the soil as they drag food and seeds around.  They act like decomposers because they feed on organic waste which helps keep the environment clean, and without ants serving both as effective predators and prey, the delicate balance of nature would be affected.
“Go to the ant, thou sluggard, consider her ways, and be wise” Proverbs 6:6



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September 21, 2016:
"V" Formations: Why Do They Do It?

The sight of a “V” formation of geese flying overhead, often calling to each other, is one of those experiences that I associate with the coming of autumn and good times in the wilds of Wisconsin.  It is then easy to forget that these days the big birds are most likely to be seen on trips to Madison where they are abundant and often present year round, leaving messes and getting into trouble.  Canada geese breed over a broad range of habitats from low Arctic tundra to prairies, lakes, meadows, golf courses and city parks in much of United States. If open water and food are available, many will remain over winter on northern territories but the rest continue on to the southern states and Mexico. 

Migration for these and other birds is a major undertaking, as many are large; sandhill cranes weigh around five pounds, geese weigh up to fifteen pounds, swans up to twenty-five pounds and pelicans thirty pounds.  That birds can fly at all has been a source of wonder for scientists through the ages, and a bird wing is a complicated object.  Each has a airfoil shape and is composed of three limb bones and a “hand” of three digits that serves as support for flight feathers. 

Fundamentals of bird flight are similar to those of aircraft; lift is produced by the action of air flow that provides an upward force on the wing while the movement of air is directed downward, and drag which is the force opposite to the direction of motion, and the cause of energy loss in flight.  When a bird flaps its wings, the lift is rotated forward to provide thrust, allowing it to stay aloft or to climb. Flapping involves two stages: the down-stroke, which provides the majority of the thrust, and the up-stroke, which can also (depending on the bird's wings) provide some thrust. At each up-stroke the wing is slightly folded inwards to reduce the effort required. 

Shapes of bird wings can be grouped roughly into four types -- elliptical wings, high speed wings, high aspect ratio wings (the aspect ratio is equal to the square of the wingspan divided by the wing area) and soaring wings with slots.  Elliptical wings are short and rounded, allowing for tight maneuvering such as might be found in dense vegetation, and are common in forest raptors such as the smaller hawks and many songbirds. They are also common in species that use a rapid take off to evade predators, such as pheasants and partridges. 

High speed wings are short, and pointed. The hummingbird is probably our most common bird of this type, but also the peregrine falcon, as well as most of the ducks.  Other wings are far longer than they are wide and are used for slower flight. These allow soaring flight, particularly in seabirds which take advantage of wind speed variations above ocean waves to provide lift.  Larger species of inland birds, such as eagles, vultures, swans, pelicans and storks have slots at the end of the wings that reduce the drag and wingtip vortices by utilizing the energy in air flowing from the lower to upper wing surface at the tips.

A wide variety of birds fly together in a coordinated formation, especially during long distance flight or migration.  As each bird flaps, a rotating vortex of air rolls off each of its wingtips. These vortices cause the air immediately behind the bird to be pushed downwards, while the air behind it and off to the sides gets pushed upwards.  If another bird flies in either of these upwash zones, it gets free lift.  In one study, the authors claimed that each bird in a V formation of 25 members can increase its range by 71%.

Scientists calculated how air should flow around a flying bird based on what is known about airplanes, but almost no one had taken any  actual measurements.  Then, Henri Weimerskirch fitted pelicans with heart-rate monitors and found that birds at the back of the V had slower heart rates than those in the front, and flapped less often.  But it took the Royal Veterinary College, UK, to discover scientific proof why or how they do so.  First the researchers developed tiny data-loggers that were light enough to be carried by a flying bird and sensitive enough to record its position, speed and heading, several times a second.

These devices were attached to hand-raised northern bald ibis -- an endangered European species that was being trained to migrate behind an ultralight plane, much as the whooping cranes were in this country.  The flock stopped at fixed places along its route, giving plenty of chances to fit the birds with loggers, record every flap of their wings, and retrieve the data a few hours later. 

They found that each bird somehow sensed the upwash trail of the one in front of it and adjusted its own flapping to keep its wings within this zone.  Also, as they switched places in the air and found themselves directly behind another bird, they changed their flapping so that they’re doing the opposite of what the bird in front did.  It was clear that this wasn’t a skill the ibises were born with as it took time for them to learn the technique, and they had to learn it without a parent to teach them.  And flying in a V isn’t just about staying in the right place. It is also about flapping at the right time. They found that the ibises changed their behavior very quickly, flying almost perfectly out of phase. “It’s almost like taking evasive action,” said one researcher. “They seem to be able to instantly respond to the wake that hits them.”

Scientists do not know how each bird finds the best spot in the formation, but they suspect that they align themselves either by sight or by sensing air currents through their feathers.  Alternatively, they may move around until they find the location with the least resistance.  In future studies, the researchers say they will switch to more common birds such as pigeons or geese. They plan to investigate how they decide who sets the course and the pace, and whether a mistake made by the leader can ripple through the rest of the flock to cause traffic jams.  Birds are far more complex creatures than we ever realized.


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September 14, 2016: Good News about the Monarchs 

An Associated Press release in Mexico City last February made a welcome announcement: “Monarch butterflies have made a big comeback in their wintering grounds in Mexico after suffering serious declines...and the area covered by the orange-and-black insects in the mountains west of Mexico City this season was more than three and a half times greater than last winter. The butterflies clump so densely in the pine and fir forests they are counted by the area they cover rather than by individuals.”

The bulletin went on to explain that the number of monarchs making the 3,400-mile migration from the United States and Canada had declined steadily in recent years but began to recover in 2014. This past winter was even better as the butterflies covered a total of 10 acres, compared to 2.8 acres in 2014 and a record low of 1.66 acres in 2013.  (While the news was good, the monarchs still face problems as the butterflies covered about 44 acres twenty winters ago.)

Lincoln Brower, professor of biology at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, has studied the monarch migrations for decades and cites three major factors for the monarchs’ decline -- deforestation in Mexico, bouts of severe weather, and the growth of herbicide-based agriculture destroying crucial milkweed plants in the Midwest.  He says that the forests just west of Mexico City serve as a winter reserve for the millions of the butterflies that migrate there each year, protecting them from rain and freezing temperatures as they cluster in the trees. 

Despite recent efforts by the Mexican government, logging, first legal and currently illegal, has destroyed much of the butterflies’ forest refuge.  Some 27,000 people live in the area in small farming communities and while commercial loggers can be caught and prosecuted, dealing with local impoverished residents who cut and sell wood for survival is much more difficult.  That situation has improved somewhat as some of these communities now earn income from tourist operations or working in reforestation nurseries, while others receive government support.

Weather has also been a factor in the decline, such as the severe Mexican storm in 2002 that froze an estimated 250 million monarchs.  Besides these problems, there has been a concerted effort in the United States to eradicate the only plant upon which their caterpillars can feed -- the milkweed.  This perennial plant is common in fields, meadows and along roadsides throughout the United States and Canada, but is considered a nocuous weed in most areas that not only spreads seeds widely but propagates from underground rhizomes.  It also contains chemicals called cardenolides, naturally occurring toxins that can poison cattle, sheep and even horses if present in corrals or pasture, or is cut and dried in forage. 

There is a constant battlefield between plants and those creatures that feed upon them. The milkweed plants employ several strategies: their leaves are covered with tiny hairs that make them uncomfortable to eat; they weep a sticky latex that can even glue shut a young caterpillar’s mouthparts; and then there is the poison that repels all but the most hungry feeders.

Even monarch larvae are affected by the toxins in these plants, and in one study in which some 700 monarch eggs were followed halfway through the larval stage, they were found to have only 3 to 11% survival rates.  The researchers also determined that about 30% of larvae were killed when mired in the milkweed latex.  They did observe, however, that the caterpillars appeared to use a variety of techniques in feeding.  They often shaved off the hairy bits before eating the rest of the leaf and tended to feed on those milkweed species that were less hairy.  Then, too, the young larvae often chewed a small circle through the surface of the leaf, making a circular area into which latex could not flow, while larger larvae cut through the mid-vein of a leaf, cutting off latex flow to the entire leaf.  Both of these behaviors provided protection from the sticky latex, and possibly also from the toxins, which are more concentrated in the latex.

In an effort to stem the monarch decline, the United States is working to reintroduce milkweed on about 1,160 square miles within five years, both by planting and by designating pesticide-free areas, but the danger from animal poisoning has to be taken into account when considering the monarch’s needs.  It remains to be seen if any detrimental effects outweigh any benefits, but growing milkweed in private yards seems to be a compromise that is feasible and, as long as the gardeners are aware of the toxins, beneficial to everyone. 

There are five species that grow in Wisconsin: the common milkweed, a tall perennial has large balls of pink or purplish flowers that have an attractive odor and blooms from June to August; the butterfly weed that has large, flat-topped clusters of bright orange flowers and blooms May to September; two deep pink varieties -- the swamp milkweed, that blooms from May to July in moist wetlands, and the endangered purple milkweed that blooms from June to October on higher ground; and the much smaller whorled milkweed that has narrow, linear leaves whorled along the stem. Small, greenish-white flowers occur in flat-topped clusters on the upper part of the stem and bloom May to September.

By planting at least one milkweed type in your own garden, you can help reverse the fortune of these beautiful insects.  Hopefully, with the halting of the destruction of the forest in the Mexican winter refuge and the provision for more caterpillar nurseries in our backyards (we haven’t been able to control the weather), we will enjoy monarchs for years to come.


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September 7, 2016: Songs from Insects?

Our year is sprinkled with many “firsts” -- the first snowflake, the first blooming crocus, the arrival of the first robin, the first ripe tomato, the first insect song, -- all marking the passage of time and often the beginning of a new season.  The high-pitched calls of crickets, katydids, grasshoppers, and cicadas are signs of the winding down of summer and the beginning of early fall across most of North America.  It is a bit of a stretch to call these sounds “songs”, as they are more properly chirps, clicks, zips, rattles, and scrapes, but that the insects make any sounds at all is one of those interesting facets of our wild world.

Singing insects produce sounds in a variety of ways.  For example, crickets are soft-bodied insects that spend the day hidden in cracks, under bark, under stones or fallen logs, or in leaf litter. There are 900 species around the world, and all have cylindrical bodies, long antennae, abdominal spikes (males) or ovipositors (females), and enlarged hind legs that enable them to jump.  Some species can even fly with delicate hind wings that they carry folded up under their tough, leathery fore wings.  Crickets are best known, however, for the loud, persistent, chirping songs of the males.

Most male crickets have leathery organs at the base of their forewings that can produce sounds that range from melodic trills to chirps.  A sharp edge or “scraper” is located on the upper surface of the lower wing and is rapidly rubbed against a row of bumps known as the “file” on the underside of the upper wing.  The central part of the organ consists of a thick membrane which resonates and amplifies the sound.  Crickets chirp at different rates depending on their species and the air temperature, generally about one chirp a second at 55 degrees Fahrenheit and faster as the temperature rises.  According to one source, counting the number of chirps produced in 14 seconds by one tree cricket and adding 40 will approximate the air temperature in degrees Fahrenheit.

Crickets have several songs in their repertoire: a loud aggressive sound that is triggered by the presence of another male cricket; the calling song that attracts females and repels other males; the courting song used when a female cricket is near; and a victory song produced for a brief period after a successful mating.  The singing species have good hearing by way of eardrums on their front legs.

Katydids are close relatives, and are well camouflaged to hide among the tree leaves where they usually feed.  The call sounds more like a rasp than the insect’s name implies, and the sound-producing organs are located on the hind edge of its front wings.  Katydid songs are variously described as being noise-like and composed of atonal shuffles, rattles, scrapes, swishes, buzzes, or ticks, depending on the species, and many are nearly inaudible if the listener has high-frequency hearing loss.  Some species sing more or less continuously while others leave long periods of silence.

Our native grasshoppers also sing, scraping short peg-like bumps on the inside of their hind legs against the edge of closed wings. They can only produce sound on the downward motion of the leg against the wing as the pegs would snag on the edge of the wing on up stroke, and singing males can be recognized by this rapid up-and-down motion of their hind legs, one going up while the other is going down.  Some species of grasshoppers may also snap their wings taut or clap their wings together over their bodies to create a crackling or buzzing sound.

Cicadas produce the loudest of insect sounds, far surpassing the volume and range of the crickets and grasshoppers; in fact, experts have contended that the song can cause permanent hearing loss in a human should a cicada sing just outside the listener's ear.  To protect its own hearing, a male cicada contracts a small muscle that covers the exposed eardrums located on its abdomen when it starts to sing.  It is a large insect with prominent eyes set wide apart, short antennae, and transparent front wings but surprisingly is closely related to the much smaller aphids and leafhoppers.

The song of the male cicada is produced by unique structures called tymbals on each side of its abdomen.  These are complex organs with thin, membranous portions and thickened ribs, and the alternating contraction and relaxation of internal muscles buckles them inwards and outwards producing a clicking sound. By rapidly vibrating these membranes, a cicada combines the clicks into an apparently continuous call that is amplified by enlarged chambers in the thorax and the largely hollow abdomen.  Each species produces its own distinctive mating songs and acoustic signals, ensuring that the song attracts only appropriate mates.

In nearly all species of crickets, katydids, and grasshoppers, the eggs are hatched in the spring and the nymphs require several months to become sexually mature adults, explaining why these insects don’t begin to sing until late in the summer.   In contrast, cicada eggs typically hatch in late summer or early autumn, and the nymphs fall to the ground and burrow into the earth where they may subsist on roots for up to several years.  Just before becoming adults, they emerge from the ground, crawl up tree trunks, and then shed their skin a final time.  (The periodic cicada with its seventeen-year-long lifestyle is unique and emerges in the Spring.)  If the robin is to many the harbinger of spring, then the cicada is perhaps an advance scout for autumn, warning all who hear its song to "enjoy the summer while you can for the end is near."


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August 30, 2016:  The Hated Mosquito

Mosquitoes are very much in the news these days with the outbreak of the Zika virus.  Its name came from the Ugandan forest where the virus was first isolated in 1947 and at that time it was found to occur within a narrow belt from Africa to Asia.  In 2007, however, it was identified in South America and now has spread to the United States.  The infection usually causes no or only mild symptoms, but it can be transferred from a pregnant woman to her fetus, sometimes resulting in severe brain malformation, or other birth defect.

While the arrival of this new virus is disturbing, mosquitoes have caused human suffering throughout history.  One genus harbors the malaria parasite that causes many millions of people a year to contract the disease, of which about one million die.  Other types also spread yellow fever, dengue fever, Rift Valley fever, and West Nile virus.

Depending upon the species, the female mosquito lays her eggs in standing water or on damp soil in a flood plain. Most eggs hatch within 48 hours although some can lie dormant until conditions become favorable. The larvae live and feed in water and most hang upside down from the surface, breathing through siphon tubes. They eat microorganisms and organic matter and shed their skins four times, growing larger after each molt.

The larva then changes into a pupa, a non-feeding stage that floats on the surface but can tumble about to avoid a predator. In a few days when development is complete, the pupal skin splits and the adult mosquito emerges. The new adult rests on the water’s surface for a short time to allow its body and wings to dry off and harden, and then flies off to feed.  How long each stage lasts depends on both temperature and species characteristics.  Under perfect conditions, one species might go through its entire cycle in ten days but more commonly, it requires several weeks.

All mosquitoes survive by feeding on flower nectar and sweet juices, but the females of some of the species also require the nutrition in blood for the development of their eggs.  Carbon dioxide produced by humans and other animals is the key signal to mosquitoes that a potential blood meal is near.  A mosquito's wings beat 300-600 times per second which explains that irritating buzzing sound just before a mosquito strikes.
Wisconsin is home to 56 of the 3,500 named mosquito species but fortunately not all feed on humans.  Some attack birds almost exclusively, and others are known to feed on reptiles and amphibians.  White-tailed deer are favorite hosts for those that do feed on mammals and people are often a close second. 

In the flurry to fight the new virus disease, there has been renewed pressure to eradicate mosquitoes entirely.  Besides the fact that this would be almost an impossible project, scientists have questioned what would be the impact on the natural world.  It is well known that mosquitoes play an important role in a variety of ecosystems. 

Each year when the snow melts in the Arctic tundra, the clouds of mosquitoes make up a significant segment of all the living creatures.  They serve as an important food source for migratory birds and even have an impact on the migratory routes of caribou. As these deer move through the Arctic, they take certain routes specifically to avoid avid mosquito swarms. These migratory routes then affect plant distribution and dictate the feeding behavior of wolves.

In lakes and streams, mosquito larvae serve as an important food source for fish. Aquatic entomologist Richard Merritt, at Michigan State University, points out that were mosquito larvae to be eradicated, hundreds of species of fish would have to change their diet to survive, and the loss of these or other fish could have major effects up and down the food chain.  In other wild areas, spiders, salamanders, frogs, reptiles, and other insects consume tons of mosquitoes.  Mosquitoes themselves feed on decaying leaves, organic debris, and microbes and often serve as pollinators as well.

Still, experts are divided on whether or not their loss would have a dramatic effect on most ecosystems.  "Mosquitoes have been on Earth for more than 100 million years," says Jittawadee Murphy of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, "and they have co-evolved with so many species along the way...  Wiping out a species of mosquito could leave a predator without prey, or a plant without a pollinator.”  Other biologists believe that other organisms would just move in and assume the mosquito’s role as a food source, a feeder on dead organic material, and a pollinator.
The problem is that mosquitoes are unusually efficient at sucking blood from one individual in the population and then transferring that blood to another individual. This makes mosquitoes very good at spreading pathogenic microbes. As a consequence, if mosquitoes were eliminated, the spread of certain diseases might halt—but there is a downside to such an outcome. While the population might become healthier, its numbers would swell and overpopulation would eventually become much more of a concern.

Entomologist Joe Conlon, of the American Mosquito Control Association in Jacksonville, Florida, says, "If we eradicated them tomorrow, the ecosystems where they are active will hiccup and then get on with life. Something better or worse would take over."


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August 23, 2016 
Migration has Begun

If you feed the hummingbirds, you may have noticed that most of the individuals you see these days are youngsters along with a few older females.  It seems that the male ruby-throats stick around only for courtship and mating and then they’re off on their own, and may begin moving south in late July or early August.  The females follow when their family work is completed, and then the young eventually mature and leave.  By early in October, all will be gone.

Many ruby-throats travel south through the Florida peninsula, then island hop to Mexico, while others follow the Texas coast.  Though it has never been proven, many experts believe a large number migrate straight across the Gulf of Mexico.  A hummingbird beats its wings about 53 times a second and flies at about 27 miles per hour if there is no wind, and this would mean that the long 500 mile flight across the Gulf of Mexico would take more than eighteen hours.  Another amazing thing about hummingbird migration is the fact that, after that such a long journey, so many of them find their way back to the same location every spring.  One writer in Mississippi reports that in early March the first ruby-throat to arrive each year hovers at the exact nail where a feeder had been hung the previous fall.

Up to eighty percent of our breeding birds in North America migrate south in fall, some only going as far as necessary to find food while others travel thousands of miles.  Short-distance migrants spend the non-breeding season (our winter) in areas north of the Tropic of Cancer. (The Tropic of Cancer is the most northerly circle of latitude on the Earth at which the Sun may appear directly overhead when that part of the planet is tilted toward it.)  These are generally insect-eaters, but most can also eat seeds and fruits.

Neotropical migrants are birds that migrate to areas south of the Tropic of Cancer (S. Mexico, Central and South America and the Lesser and Greater Antilles in the Caribbean) in the fall.   A more correct term that is now used is Nearctic migrants, since these birds spend more time in the tropics than on their North American breeding grounds.  It is believed that they may be what were once tropical birds that have learned to fly north to exploit the plentiful insect food resources here for feeding their young.

To prepare for migration, birds eat as much food as possible, storing it as fat for their long journey.  Some species deposit an additional 30-50% to their body weight; for instance, a wood thrush can gain, going from about 40 grams to about 65 grams.  Most songbirds don’t fly to their non-breeding grounds nonstop, however, but halt a number of times to rest and feed, remaining for varying amounts of time based on the weather and how much fat they have been able to store. The Arctic tern may hold the record for longest migration distance since it flies approximately 18,600 miles each year traveling between its Arctic breeding ground and its non-breeding area in the Antarctic. This amazing feat is possible because terns eat fish and can feed during their long journey.

Those migrants who travel by night seem to navigate by the position of many of the constellations in relation to the North Star, even though the constellations appear to move to different spots in the sky during the year.  Presumably, the lower night temperatures and quieter air make better flying conditions; also, the birds can then spend the daylight hours resting and searching for food in the unfamiliar places that they find themselves. Day migrants rely on visual landmarks such as mountains, rivers, coasts and even large buildings as well as the positions of the sun in the sky, such as using the setting sun as an indication of due west.  In addition, many birds have tiny grains of a mineral called magnetite just above their nostrils that are believed to tell them the direction of true north using the Earth’s magnetic field.

One of the hardest to believe migrations is that of the blackpoll warbler, a common North American species. It leaves from New England or eastern Canada and flies south across the open ocean to the Caribbean in one long swoop, and then after a rest, makes the last leg of the journey to South America.  Researchers a few years ago verified this by equipping a number of the birds with geolocator devices that weighed half a gram and recorded the length of each day. The following summer, they recovered five of the recorders and discovered that the birds had accomplished transoceanic journeys that took up to three days of continuous flying -- some 1,720 miles.

Some geese and ducks fly at incredible heights.  Bar-headed geese have been recorded as high as 29,000 feet when they migrate over the Himalayas!  Most night-migrating songbirds fly below 2,000 feet when flying over land, although some have been seen at more than a mile high, presumably to take advantage of favorable winds.  In still air, most songbirds fly at 20-30 miles per hour, while waterfowl and shorebirds can fly at 30-50 mph.

On these hot humid summer days, we sometimes find it difficult to remember that summer is almost over and big changes are coming.  The birds, who pay more close attention to their surroundings than do we, are well aware that they must be preparing for travel.  Through the coming days, more and more will be leaving us for greener pastures, but we will also be welcoming visitors from farther north.  Most will continue on south but a few who consider us “south” such as the juncos, white-crowned and white- throated sparrows, pine siskins and purple finches will stay around to brighten our dark winter days.

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August 16, 2016:
If You Want to be a Badger...

We have lived in the Badger State for almost sixty years -- visited almost every part, owned a farm and a cabin on a creek, hiked many miles of its trails, cheered its football team -- but the only live badgers we have seen have been in the zoo.  The story is that back in Wisconsin's history in the 1800s, miners dug tunnels into hillsides as they searched for lead and then lived in them during the winter months to keep warm.  It is said that they compared themselves to the strange animals that also lived in holes in the ground nearby and so called themselves “badgers”. 

The badger has a rather flattened body, a thick neck with a weasel-like head and short, stout legs. It has a distinctive facial pattern which is mostly brown, apart from two white cheek areas and a black triangular patch in front of each ear.  It has shaggy fur and a short, bushy tail, and, and its skin is tough and loose, especially around the shoulders, chest and back, enabling it to turn around in small spaces.  The badger name is thought to refer to the prominent white mark that runs like a badge down its forehead.

It is found throughout our state but because it stays hidden inside its den during the day and usually comes out only at night to hunt, it is seldom encountered.  As an adaptation to this mostly underground lifestyle, the badger has a third eyelid -- a thin, tough, transparent membrane -- which can be drawn across the eye to protect it when digging in the soil.  Still, its eyesight is poor, although its hearing and sense of smell are acute.

Badgers are meat-eaters and hunt for small animals found in grasslands, like pocket gophers, ground squirrels, rabbits and small birds.  It can sniff out live food almost as well as most dogs and has a lower jaw that is firmly locked into a long cavity of the skull, allowing it to drag prey into its underground burrow without losing hold. 

A badger burrow is conspicuous and almost always found on a hillside.  The animals are amazing diggers, capable of displacing five bushels of soil at a single site while searching for prey.  Its big front feet have backward-curving two-inch claws, while the smaller rear feet have short, shovel-like claws.  It typically has several holes, a breeding burrow that can be up to thirty feet long and ten feet deep, and several shallower retreats used at other times of the year.   Each usually has a single entrance, which is partially covered in soil. 

Males badgers usually do not breed until their second year but most females become pregnant the summer after their first birthday.  The female experiences delayed implantation, which means the embryo begins development but then quickly ceases to grow and merely floats around in the uterus for several months.  Growth resumes in late winter and a litter of two to five cubs are born from late March to early April.

Badgers are born blind, furred, and helpless but by the time they are five to six weeks old they emerge from the den.  Families usually break up and juveniles disperse later in the summer.  The average longevity in the wild is nine to ten years although many are killed by vehicles long before that. 

A Wisconsin study in 1975 concluded that the badger population was roughly estimated at 8,000 to 10,000 animals.  They were more commonly found on grassy agricultural areas in the central and west central parts of the state, but surveys found badgers in all but a few counties in the northeastern forests.  Two decades later, the DNR compiled observations from field personnel and reported the animals were present in every county except Milwaukee, with highest observation rates in northern and central Wisconsin.  The study concluded that this broad statewide distribution suggested the badger population was relatively healthy. 

In the decade since, annual surveys show a slight decline in the long-term average of badger sightings, so DNR researchers have been partnering with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee on the Wisconsin Badger Genetics Project. The study hopes to answer such questions as where badgers live, how many badgers there are in Wisconsin and how badgers move across the landscape.  The study employs genetic sampling that is increasingly used to study challenging species. 

Road-killed badgers are sampled by clipping a small triangular piece from the animal's ear and hairs are collected from burrows.  DNA extracted from these sources is used to generate a unique genetic profile for each animal and allows subsequent identification if it is encountered again, or can establish if a live animal was related to one of the road killed specimens. Using GPS coordinates, or other mapping information, researchers hope to get a better handle on distribution, the kinds of habitat badgers occupy across the state and perhaps identify features of the landscape that may be helpful or detrimental to their continued success. 

Son Jim saw a badger two weeks ago here by his sawmill, so we are alert to the presence of at least one on the farm.  Since the project relies on the help of anyone who sees one, its burrow, or a carcass on the side of the road they ask that a call be made to (414) 229-4245 or E-mail badger@uwm.edu giving your name and contact information.  The very characteristics that made the badger our football team mascot make it important to avoid direct contact with one, however; this animal is a ferocious fighter with an attitude and should not be accosted.


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August 9, 2016: Native and True "Sunflowers"

August is often considered to be sunflower time and the Wisconsin wild prairie is in full bloom.  Some of its flowers are spectacular, particularly the compass plant and prairie dock that can grow ten to twelve feet tall and have numerous sunflower-type blossoms.  Neither of these belong to the sunflower family, however. 

Almost all true sunflowers (Helianthus) are native to the western prairie as well as parts of Mexico, and have blossoms only two to three inches wide.  They were widely cultivated and used as a food source by Native Americans, and when European settlers arrived, they also grew them for their oil and appearance.  Rather than long, sturdy stalks with a single large flower head as cultivated sunflowers possess, these wild sunflowers were shorter and much branched.  Wisconsin’s only true member of the family is the rather bland woodland sunflower.

The compass plant, prairie dock and rosinweed are members of a related family called Silphium that differs from native sunflowers in at least two important ways: they are hardy in our climate and the seed head has a unique arrangement.  Both Helianthus and Silphium produce a number of flowerheads made up many tiny blossoms, but in the former, all form seed while in the latter, only those on the outer edge produce seeds.

The compass plant has a thick central stem and its basal leaves are up to two feet long and have deeply indented margins.  The stem puts out many branches and carries three-inch yellow composite flowers that resemble wild sunflowers in overall size, shape, and structure; however, like other Silphium, only the ray florets are fertile while the small tubular disk florets are sterile.  The large central taproot can extend fifteen feet into the ground and the plant can live up to a hundred years.  The seeds are contained in fairly large hulls, but are flat and light, and can be carried several feet by the wind.  It takes several years for a seedling to develop into a full-sized mature plant but once mature it can resist drought and is not bothered by competition from other plants.
Prairie dock has a vase-like rosette of large basal leaves that are spade-shaped on six-inch stalks. Each leaf has a thick sandpapery texture, particularly on the underside, and is up to a foot wide and almost twice that long. The overall appearance is similar to a rhubarb plant, but a naked flower stalk emerges from the base of the plant and holds a panicle of yellow composite flowers and spherical green buds.  Prairie Dock usually blooms later than other Silphium and has a stout taproot that can penetrate the soil up to twelve feet or more.  It may form offsets only a short distance away from the mother plant and produces small, dry, one-seeded fruits protected by hulls. 

The rosinweed is the shortest of the Silphium family with a height of only three or four feet and grows a single stem that branches near the top to flower.   The common name comes from the resin produced during blooming and it was reportedly chewed by Native Americans.

Evidence suggests that the sunflower was cultivated by American Indians in present-day Arizona and New Mexico about 3000 BC, perhaps even before corn.  Its seed was ground or pounded into flour for cakes, mush or bread and was cracked and eaten for a snack. They also used the oil in baking and on the skin and hair.  Spanish explorers introduced it into Europe some time around 1500 and the plant became widespread mainly as an ornamental.  By 1716, an English patent was granted for squeezing oil from sunflower seed but it wasn’t until 1830 that the manufacture of sunflower oil was done on a commercial scale.

In 18th century Russia, the church forbade the eating of most oil foods during Lent; however, sunflower oil was not on the prohibited list and therefore became very popular.  Soon, Russian farmers were growing over 2 million acres of sunflowers divided into oil-type seed for oil production and a larger variety for eating.  It wasn’t until the late 19th century that Russian sunflower seed eventually found its way into the United States, and even then the first commercial use of the sunflower crop here was as silage feed for poultry.  Finally, in 1926, the Missouri Sunflower Growers' Association began producing oil.

Canada started the first official government sunflower breeding program in 1930 and by 1946, acreage had spread into Minnesota and North Dakota.  So it was North Americans who put the finishing touches as hybridization after the early plant genetics by the Native Americans and the Russians.  In 2013, world production of sunflower seeds was 44.5 million tonnes, with Ukraine and Russia accounting for half of the total.  (A tonne is equal to 1,000 kilograms and equivalent to approximately 2,204.6 pounds.)
 
Over the past decades sunflower oil has become popular worldwide. The oil is used as is, or is processed into polyunsaturated margarines, and the protein-rich cake remaining is used as a livestock feed.  According to the US Department of Agriculture, recent figures show that sunflower production in the United States had a farm-gate value of $669 million and is concentrated in the upper midwest.  About a quarter of sunflower seed is used in birdseed, and another 10-20 percent is sold directly for snacks and baking products. 

So while we enjoy Silphium in our wild garden, it is the Helianthus products that we have in our kitchen and its seed that feed our birds.  They (and the squirrels) mob our feeders in the winter and enjoy the feast offered on our cultivated sunflowers in the garden in the summer and we will continue to feed these delicious and nourishing seeds. 


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July 31, 2016:  The Story of a Caterpillar

Some people confuse butterflies with moths but they have distinctive differences: butterflies drink nectar from flowers through their tongues while most moths live off fat reserves stored during the larval stage; the antennae of butterflies are long and thin with a knob at the end while those of moths are short and feathery; butterflies usually rest with wings closed while most moths hold their wings open and flat; butterflies use the sun to warm themselves while moths flutter their wings; the resting stage of a butterfly is a chrysalis that hangs from a branch or other support, while moths spin cocoons or pupate underground; butterflies typically are brightly colored while moths are usually camouflaged or dull; most butterflies use sight to select mates while moths use scent; and finally, butterflies are mostly active during the day while moths are mostly active at night.  All, however, pass through the four insect stages of egg, larvae, pupa and adult.

The larval stage of both butterflies and moths can last from about two weeks to a month or even longer in those who live over the winter such as the woolly bear (the Isabella tiger moth).  During this period, the caterpillar will spend most of its time eating leaves and can grow in size more than 30,000 times; for instance, a tobacco hornworm has been found to increase its weight ten-thousandfold in less than twenty days.  It has powerful jaws that have very sharp cutting surfaces to bite off plant material, two smaller mouth parts that guide the food into its mouth and chemical detectors that determine if a particular leaf is appropriate food.  Most caterpillars are very limited in their diet and many species will eat only the leaves of a single type of plant.  Their bodies are stuffed with intestines that quickly digest the food and then eject leftovers of solid excrement.

Unlike most other organisms, a newly hatched caterpillar has the same number of body cells as one fully grown and ready to pupate.  When its exoskeleton becomes too small, hormones are produced that cause the skin to split and be cast off.  Then, while the new skin is still soft, the caterpillar swallows air to expand its girth and when the new cuticle hardens, it releases the air leaving room for growth. Caterpillars molt four or five times as they grow.

Caterpillars take in oxygen through holes in their sides which then circulates directly to their tissues. They have six pairs of simple eyes composed of light-sensitive cells and pigments that can detect changes in light intensity, but cannot form an image.  Their sense of touch is accomplished through tiny hairs that grow through holes in the exoskeleton and are attached to nerve cells that relay information to the insect's brain.  Some caterpillars also have spinnerets, tube-like structures on their lower lip that contain silk glands. The silk is made in the salivary glands and dries when exposed to the air, and is used to make webs and cocoons and sometimes as a lifeline to drop from one place to another.

A caterpillar moves by contracting the muscles in its rear segments, pushing blood into the forward segments, which lengthens the front part of the body. The front legs latch onto the forward position and then the front muscles contract, pulling the rear segment forward.  Caterpillars have two types of legs -- small jointed legs on the thorax to hold onto their food, and several pairs of stumpy prolegs on the abdomen that are equipped with circles of hooks that allow them to grasp and climb, even up vertical surfaces.  Prolegs disappear in the adult stage.

Caterpillars are soft bodied, slow moving and their bodies are rich in protein, making them easy prey for predators like birds, wasps, and mammals.  As a result, caterpillars have evolved various means of defense.  Some caterpillars get toxicity from the plants they eat and taste bad (monarchs) or are poisonous (tussock moths which are more allergenic than poisonous). Others blend into their surroundings, hide in folded leaves or resemble bird droppings.  A few (swallowtail butterflies) have an orange, y-shaped gland behind their heads that can be displayed when the caterpillar is threatened, looking something like a snake’s tongue and emitting a strong, unpleasant odor. 

The transformation of one of these larvae into an adult butterfly or moth seems almost miraculous. One day, the caterpillar stops eating, hangs upside down from a twig or leaf and molts into a chrysalis or spins itself a silky cocoon. Within this protective casing, the caterpillar radically transforms its body.  Ferris Jabr, writing in Scientific American in 2012, explained the process. First, he says enzymes are released to dissolve all of its tissues into a soup-like substance.  He contends that certain highly organized groups of cells (imaginal discs) are retained within this “soup” that have been present since the caterpillar was still developing inside its egg.  Those discs begin rapid cell division fed by the protein-rich soup and form all the features of an adult -- eyes, wings, legs and so on.  When the transformation is complete, the new butterfly or moth splits its skin a final time and emerges as a new creature capable of flight.  

Butterflies and moths have long been the subject of folklore and legend in a variety of societies and cultures.  If you'd like to attract more of these magical creatures to your yard, try planting a garden with nectar plants, such as heliotrope, phlox, coneflower, catnip and butterfly bushes, as well as hosting plants for caterpillars such as milkweed, clover and violet.  You can also join the Southern Wisconsin Butterfly Association to obtain more information and to meet others who share your interest.  It has made a life-long hobby for me.


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July 26, 2016:  What is Metamorphosis?

When a bird hatches from an egg, it gradually grows and changes day by day until it becomes an adult bird; however, when an insect hatches from an egg it grows and changes by distinct stages.  Its outer skin does not grow as it develops, and before an insect makes a change into the next growth stage, it has to shed this outer restricting skin.  The insect then can grow a little larger and change somewhat different in form.

There are, in general, three types of insect development; direct or gradual metamorphosis, incomplete metamorphosis, and complete metamorphosis.  Perhaps the best way to describe these is by considering a representative of each -- a grasshopper, a dragonfly and a butterfly.

A grasshopper (with direct metamorphosis) has three life stages of egg, nymph and adult.  When the nymph emerges from its egg, it looks much like the adult with the exception of the lack of usable wings.  With each molt, it takes on the body proportions of an adult and gradually develops its wings.  Nymphs and adults both eat the same kind of food.

A dragonfly (with incomplete metamorphosis) has somewhat similar development with egg, naiad and adult; however, the adult insect lays its eggs in or near water and the young develop in it.  (The name “naiad” name was taken from classical Greek mythology referring to nymphs that lived in lakes, rivers and springs.)  The naiads leave the water, molt into a creature with wings and fly to catch their prey.  The naiad and the adult usually differ considerably in appearance and do not eat the same kind of food.

The complete metamorphosis is more complex and has four distinct stages: egg, larva, pupa and adult. The larval stages do not look like the adult and are often worm-like.  They molt several times and grow larger each time, but otherwise change little. They have different mouthparts, eat different types of food and live in different places from the adult.  When fully grown, the larva splits its skin revealing a very different stage, then called a pupa.

Most pupae are inactive and are largely defenseless.  Many are covered in hard protective coatings, and some are encased in silken cocoons.  A few have the capability of making sounds or vibrations to scare potential predators while others use chemical defenses including toxic secretions.  Some have legs and wings attached immovably against the body and most use camouflage to hide from potential predators.  They may remain in this state for a few weeks or as long as a year but major changes are occurring inside, and when these are completed, the case splits a final time and the fully formed adult emerges.  Most insects with complete metamorphosis are winged in the adult stage and may be as diverse as a butterfly, a house fly, a mosquito, or any of the various types of beetle.

Most people are familiar with the silk moth cocoon or the monarch butterfly chrysalis but a friend found an object last week on a blueberry bush leaf that required identification by an expert.  Phil Pelletteri, of the UW Entomology Department (now retired but a longtime source of good information) suggested that the strange object was probably the pupa of a lady beetle.

A ladybug larva looks nothing like the adult with its familiar orange shell with black spots.  It is long and black with brightly colored spots or bands (it has been described as alligator-like) and feeds continuously through four molts until it is ready to pupate.  It will then attach itself to a leaf or other surface and remain seemingly dormant for up to two weeks.  In its pupal stage, the ladybug usually has a segmented yellow or orange covering with black markings, a strange collection of black projections at its ‘head’ and has to be seen to believe.  In this form it undergoes a remarkable transformation, directed by a biochemical process through which the larval body is broken down and reformed into the adult ladybug.

Newly emerged adults have soft shells, making them vulnerable to predators until their cuticles harden. They also appear pale and yellow when they first emerge, but soon develop the deep, bright colors for which ladybugs are known. Adult ladybugs feed on soft-bodied insects, just as do their larvae, and usually hibernate in aggregations over the winter.  They mate soon after becoming active again in the spring.

Insects are creatures with a clearly defined set of characteristics -- a hard exoskeleton made of chitin, a body composed of three parts (head, thorax and abdomen), three pairs of jointed legs, compound eyes and one pair of antennae.  They may be found in nearly all parts of the world under almost all conditions. Fossilized insects of enormous size have been found from the Paleozoic Era, including giant dragonflies with wingspans up to 28 inches.

Insects are the most diverse group of animals on the planet, including more than a million described species (of perhaps an estimated six to ten million).  They represent more than half of all known living organisms, and potentially represent over 90% of the differing animal life forms on Earth. We spend untold billions of dollars trying to eradicate some insects, but carefully tend others for their value in pollinating our crops, the silk industry and in medicine.  We would be pressed to survive without them.

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July 19, 2016: Poison Plants

"Leaves of three, let them be” has always been a popular phrase warning about poison ivy, poison oak or poison sumac, and as a child growing up in the suburban Chicago area when vacant lots were common and the forest preserve only a few blocks down the street, I learned the hard way to avoid them.  A substance called urushiol oil is to blame for the notorious itchy rash that develops in most people who blunder into them, and the U.S. Forest Service reports that up to 85 percent of people exposed to the urushiol oil will experience an allergic reaction. Unlike other allergies that people may outgrow, sensitivity to this oil gets worse with each additional exposure.  The rash often doesn't appear for 12 to 24 hours after contact so people may not recognize the danger and may continue touching the plant and spreading the oil. 

Now we are warned to beware of a couple of newer hazards along the roadside and in waste places -- poison hemlock and wild parsnip.  Both of these plants are members of the carrot family and surprisingly are closely related to our edible carrots, parsnips and parsley.  Poison hemlock has tall, hollow, branched stems with reddish-purple mottling, and leaves that are finely divided and broadly triangular.  Its numerous tiny white flowers are arranged in flat-topped umbels up to six inches across and a single plant can produce over 30,000 seeds.  It is said that the Greek philosopher Socrates was executed for his then-thought-to-be heretical teachings by being forced to drink the juice of poison hemlock, but the sap from the plant also contains chemical compounds known as neurotoxins that can be absorbed through the skin.  Although not fatal, when human skin is exposed to the sap in the presence of sunlight, it can cause severe rashes and blisters.

Wild parsnip looks like a large dill or Queen Anne's lace plant with yellow flowers and grows about 4 feet tall, and it is of concern because humans develop a severe skin irritation from contact with its leaves. The plants have chemicals called psoralens and once these are absorbed by the skin, they are energized by UV light on both sunny and cloudy days destroying cells and skin. Parsnip burns usually occur in streaks and elongated spots, showing where a damaged leaf or stem moved across the skin.  They differ from the rash caused by poison ivy as plant sap from broken parsnip leaves or stems must contact the skin.  In cases of mild exposure, affected areas turn red and feel sunburned, but in severe cases the skin first turns red and then blisters.  Mowing does not kill wild parsnip plants but cutting them just below the soil surface will reduce seed production.

The species is native to Eurasia and may have been spread around as a vegetable as the plants have long, thick, yellowish taproots that are edible. During much of July, large patches can now be seen in road ditches, fields, along bike trails and in prairie areas.  It may be that its numerous seeds have been spread by birds and small mammals as they move from site to site, but it is also likely that the official roadside management policy of not mowing roadsides until mid summer allows this plant to produce ripe seeds that then germinate.

As if poison ivy and wild parsnip were not bad enough, we are now told that another toxic plant is spreading across the country. A native of the Caucasus region of Eurasia between the Black and Caspian seas, giant hogweed was first bought to the United Kingdom and then in 1917 to the United States as an ornamental plant.  Also a member of the carrot family, it is surprisingly pretty, with thick leaves stretching five feet wide and large clusters of white flowers gracing the top of the plant in an umbrella pattern.

Fast-growing, the plant invades roadsides, the edges of woods and empty lots. It prefers shade, especially in damp areas, and the plant's sap contains toxins that, like wild parsnip, can cause a skin reaction that's extremely sensitive to light.  A blister may form within two days and the sap can even cause blindness if it gets into the eye.  Giant hogweed can reach up to fourteen feet tall when in flower and has hollow, ridged stems with reddish-purple mottling and covered in coarse white hairs.  In its first year, it grows as a lowing-laying bushy rosette but will usually stretch up quickly in its second year to flower.  The plant dies after spreading its seed.

Giant hogweed is considered a noxious weed by the federal government. It is most commonly found in New England, the Mid-Atlantic region and the Northwest, often growing along streams and rivers and in fields, forests, yards and roadsides.  The first confirmed reports in Wisconsin were in Waupaca and Manitowoc Counties in 2004, and now hundreds of plants were reportedly discovered in Sheboygan in early June, according to the Department of Natural Resources. The plants were sprayed with a herbicide by workers wearing extensive protective clothing.

"It's a big deal, from my perspective, because it's a prohibited species that is not yet widespread," said Kelly Kearns, a conservation biologist with the DNR. "When we find the plant, we try to get it under control."  The good news in Wisconsin, Kearns said, is that authorities think they have been able to control all known populations.

Health officials tell us that it is always wise to wear long sleeves, pants and boots in weedy ditches or other spots with mixed vegetation to avoid poisonous plants.  When in doubt about any contact, instructions are to get out of the sun immediately and wash any exposed skin areas with soapy water.  It is also safest to wash possibly contaminated clothing with hot water and detergent, and to remember that pets can carry the sap to you if they get it on their fur...  It’s a wild world out there!

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July 12, 2016: Pesky mites

What creature can lift up to 1200 times its own weight as well as boast of a cousin that is the fastest animal on Earth?  Both are species of mites, small invertebrate animals that mostly go unnoticed because of their microscopic size.  They are most common in moist soil with high organic content and are important in breaking it down, but can also be the cause of considerable problems.  Classed along with spiders, ticks and scorpions, it is estimated that 48,200 species of mites have been identified, many of which live freely in the soil or water while others are parasitic on plants and animals.

The majority of mite species are harmless to humans, but a few live in human houses and feed on organic debris, such as flakes of shed human skin.  Their digestive systems contain potent enzymes that persist in their feces and are a major cause of allergic reactions.  House dust mites measure only about 0.01 inch in length and are barely visible to the unaided eye.  A mated female house dust mite can live up to ten weeks, laying up to 100 eggs and producing approximately 2,000 fecal particles and an even larger number of partially digested enzyme-covered dust particles.

Another group of mites that caught my attention very forcefully this past week are commonly called “chiggers".  Adult females spend the winter in protected sites such as cracks in the soil and leaf litter on the ground, and once the ground temperature is regularly above 60 F, they begin to lay eggs -- up to 15 eggs per day. The eggs lie seemingly dormant for about six days, but then nonfeeding prelarvae emerge with two body parts and three pairs of legs.  After about a week, the prelarvae develop further into the parasitic larval or the "chigger" stage.  These creatures are very small, requiring a hand lens or microscope to see and have hairy orange to light red bodies and also six legs.  They typically congregate on the tips of plants and other objects and wait with legs extended to grab onto a passing victim. 

The larvae are said to be attracted to the carbon dioxide exhaled by a likely host, and once aboard, they usually crawl around looking for a protected spot before settling down. On animals, chiggers are likely to attach themselves in areas without fur, while on humans, they prefer to attach where clothing fits tightly such as underneath belt lines and sock bands, or where skin is wrinkled such as behind the knees. The larvae pierce the skin around hair follicles and inject a digestive fluid that disintegrates the skin cells and forms raised bumps, each containing a feeding tube that lasts for many days.  The intense itching, caused by the digestive enzymes, may persist days after the chigger dislodges, but contrary to popular belief, chiggers do not burrow into the skin nor do they feed on blood. 

After feeding for several days, the larvae drop to the ground and change into a non-feeding pupa-like second larval stage followed by a free-living nymphal stage.  There are two nymphal stages (one feeding, one non-feeding), and after a month or two, the mite becomes an adult.  The free-living nymphal and adult stages are not parasitic and feed on insect eggs, small insects and other organisms in ground litter where they occur and so are not problems to humans.

Chiggers tend to be more prevalent in the hot and humid regions, and in the United States, they are found mostly in the Southeast, the South, and the Midwest. References to these mites go as far back as sixth-century China, however, and by 1733, the first reference was made to them in North America. It is interesting that most information about chiggers, however, was not circulated until the middle of the twentieth century, during and after World War II. 

Chigger “bites” are a complex combination of enzymes and the resulting mechanical damage, plus allergy and immune responses, so that no one remedy seems to work equally well for all people.  Most sufferers depend upon the use of over-the-counter topical corticosteroids and antihistamines, but scratching can cause a secondary bacterial infection that may require antibiotic treatment.
According to Mayo Clinic, the chigger bites normally heal on their own within one to two weeks, and in the meantime, hot showers or baths will help reduce itching.   Some suggest medicinal ointments such as hydrocortisone, while other sufferers apply calamine lotion, Vaseline, cold cream, baby oil, or even fingernail polish. (Whatever is used, the sooner the treatment, the better the results.)....

I have only had a couple of bad infestations in the almost forty years we have had the farm, and I wonder if this year’s problem has arisen because of the large numbers of rabbits and other rodents that seem to be around in unprecedented numbers.  It would seem that a large number of available hosts is likely to result in a large number of parasites, but whatever the reason, I will be very glad when the season comes to an end. 


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July 5, 2016: Threats to Our Bats

A survey taken over the winter shows that white-nose syndrome has spread to new sites in Wisconsin, and is taking a rising toll on the state’s bat population. Bats may be the most misunderstood animals in the United States and are extremely beneficial, as just one bat can catch hundreds of insects in an hour, and colonies catch tons of insects nightly. Until recently, Wisconsin's bat population was relatively stable, but two major threats have appeared -- this disease, and the installation of wind turbines in ever increasing numbers around the country.  Although there have been a number of studies documenting the turbines’ effects on birds, only recently has it been understood that they are killing far more bats.  

The white-nose syndrome has been spreading across the country from New York and is now found in 28 states and into Canada.  Estimates are that as many as six million bats have died from this fungal disease as it causes hibernating bats to wake frequently, depleting their energy and causing them to die of starvation or the cold. Tests over the winter have found the fungus has been found in 42 of 74 sites examined in the state and shows a 94 percent drop in the bat population in Grant County where the disease was first found in the state in 2014.  Most of the dead are little browns, but all four species of hibernating bats in the state are susceptible: little brown, big brown, northern long-eared and Eastern pipistrelle.

“White-nose syndrome is the biggest wildlife catastrophe in America in the last 100 years,” said Rob Mies, executive director of the Organization for Bat Conservation – a national advocacy group focused on the preservation of bats and based in the Cranbrook Institute of Science in Michigan.  “Bats have a crucial role in the ecosystems in the Great Lakes and globally.  They are the primary predators of nighttime insects, feasting on corn earworm moths and emerald ash borer beetles – two insects that could wreak havoc on Great Lakes region crops if uncontrolled.”  A 2011 study estimated that U.S. farmers save anywhere from $3 billion to a little more than $50 billion on insect control costs because of bats.  They also keep forest ecosystems healthy – something vital to states dependent on outdoor tourism such as Michigan and Wisconsin.

This disease is not the only threat to bats.  Fatalities have now been observed at most wind facilities in the U.S. and Canada, and it is estimated that up to a hundred thousand die at wind turbines in North America each year.  A bat can easily navigate around a stationary object but the spinning turbines (the blade tip can be moving at 175 miles per hour) are deadly. Then, too, even if the bat avoids the blades, the dramatic air pressure change surrounding it can cause serious internal injuries, including eardrum ruptures that impair its ability to navigate and hunt.  Now, it appears that the turbines are not only damaging to bats, but in what may to be the first of its kind ruling in the United States, the Board of Health in Brown County, Wisconsin, where Green Bay is located, has declared a local industrial wind plant to be a human health hazard.  (That specific facility consists of only eight 500-foot high, 2.5 megawatt industrial wind turbines while newer installations may have hundreds.)

Bats belong to a special mammal group called Chiroptera (Greek for "hand-wing"), as they fly with their modified hands. The bones in a bat's wing are very much like those in a human arm and hand, with thin membranes of skin extending between the "hand" and the animal’s body, and between each elongated finger bone. The "thumb" extends out of the wing as a small claw, which the bat uses to climb trees and other structures.  They are divided into two main groups, the mega-chiroptera also called fruit bats because most of them eat fruit, nectar, and pollen, and the micro-chiroptera that are insect eaters.  All Wisconsin bats are from this latter group.

Wisconsin has seven species of bats but only three are easily observed -- the little and big brown and the long eared. The little brown weighs less than half an ounce, is only 3 inches long, has a wingspan of about nine inches and is the most common.  It can sometimes be found in buildings during the summer, where the females gather to form large maternity colonies, while males roost singly in tree hollows or other sheltered spots. The northern long-eared bat is similar in appearance to the little brown bat, but far less abundant.
The big brown bat is about twice the size of the little brown and is found throughout the state, roosting in colonies in tree hollows, wall spaces, and buildings such as our barn. More tolerant of cold conditions than other Wisconsin bats, it is the only one that sometimes overwinters in walls and attics.  The bats mate in the fall and experience delayed fertilization until the spring. The length of pregnancy varies by species, and can be between 50 to 90 days, and results in a single pup.

"Bats eat massive quantities of insects. One single big brown bat that is nursing will eat 110 percent of its body weight in insects every night," says DeeAnn Reeder, associate professor of biology at Bucknell University, and a recent national study put the bats' value to Wisconsin's agricultural industry between $658 million and $1.5 billion a year.  That doesn't include the mosquito control at backyard barbecues, camping trips, and ball games, and we would be wise to take seriously any threat to their well-being.  For more information on Wisconsin bats and monitoring, visit the Wisconsin Bat Program website: http://wiatri.net/inventory/bats.


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June 28, 2016:  Endangered, Threatened, and Protected

Last week’s discussion about owls and the efforts to prevent one species from displacing another in a particular area led to some research in just how common a phenomenon this might be.  In biology and ecology, extinction is the end of an organism or of a group of organisms, normally a species.  According to Kunin, W.E.; Gaston, Kevin, eds. The Biology of Rarity: Causes and consequences of rare—commondifferences, more than 99 percent of all species, amounting to over five billion species, that ever lived on Earth are thought to be extinct.  Estimates on the number of Earth's current species range from 10 million to 14 million, of which only about 1.2 million have been documented and over 86 percent have not yet been described.

Through evolution, new varieties of organisms arise and thrive when they find themselves in a place where they have favorable conditions of food and shelter—and species become extinct when they are no longer able to survive in changing conditions or against superior competition.  A typical species becomes extinct within 10 million years of its first appearance, although some species have survived with virtually no observable change for hundreds of millions of years.

Mass extinctions are relatively rare events; however, isolated extinctions are quite common. Only recently have extinctions been recorded and some scientists have become alarmed at the current high rate, even though most species that become extinct are never scientifically documented. Some scientists (Leakey, Richard, The Sixth Extinction : Patterns of Life and the Future of Humankind et al) estimate that up to half of presently existing plant and animal species may become extinct by 2100.

Just what are the distinctions between endangered, threatened, and protected species in the United States and Wisconsin, and which take precedence?  The latter question was in the news this past year when the Fish and Wildlife Service reaffirmed the grey wolf as endangered and protected despite the report released by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources that there were a minimum of 866 to 897 gray wolves in 222 packs in the state in the winter of 2015-16, representing a 16% increase from the previous year and almost three times the stated population goal set by the state. 

The Federal Endangered Species Act of 1973 describes two categories of declining species of plants and animals that are determined to need protection – endangered species and threatened species – and provides these definitions: endangered - any species that is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range; and threatened - any species that is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range. 

All of the protections of the Act are provided to endangered species, although many are also are available to threatened species at the direction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  In fulfillment of its mission, the national Service performs the following functions: “Acquires, protects, and manages unique ecosystems necessary to sustain fish and wildlife such as migratory birds, resident species, and endangered species”.  As of last October, those protected as endangered include 103 mammals, 99 birds, 46 reptiles, 35 amphibians, 163 fish, 261 invertebrates, 861 flowering plants and 37 non-flowering plants.

In Wisconsin, the State Conservation Commission (the predecessor of the Natural Resources Board) created the Conservation Congress in 1934 to give Wisconsin citizens a voice in conservation issues.  This is an independent organization of citizens of the state that serves in an advisory capacity to the natural resources board on all matters under the jurisdiction of the board. The 7-member Wisconsin Natural Resources Board sets policy for the Department of Natural Resources and exercises authority and responsibility in accordance with governing state laws.  Board members are nominated by the Governor for 6-year terms with the advice and consent of the state Senate.

Since 1972, the endangered list has been revised 11 times, most recently in January 2014. The DNR's Natural Heritage Conservation Program policy recommends that the list should be reviewed at every five years or earlier, as needed, based on changes in species population condition.  

In 2010, a comprehensive list review began that resulted in adding eight species and removing 15 species from the list, effective January 1, 2014.  The only Wisconsin endangered mammal at this point was the American marten, a long, slender-bodied weasel about the size of a mink with relatively large rounded ears, short limbs, and a bushy tail.  Endangered birds included the piping plover, black, Caspian, common and Forster’s Terns, the peregrine falcon, the worm-eating, yellow-throated, and Kirkland’s warblers, the loggerhead shrike, and the red-necked grebe.  Also listed were one endangered amphibian, six reptiles, ten fishes, eleven mussels,  two snails, 19 insects, and 74 plants.  “Threatened” were four bats, twelve additional birds, one reptile, ten fish, eight mussels, two snails , four insects and sixty plants. 

Some people believe that all species have an inherent right to exist and that it is morally wrong for humans to cause the extermination of any other species that occupy the planet.  Others look at the history of the natural world and observe that all species compete for their space and sustenance, and question why and how humans should or could live by different rules.


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June 21, 2016:  Wisconsin Owls

An owl has many physical characteristics that make it distinct from other birds, including exceptional sight and hearing and silent flight.  Its face is distinctly shaped with a disk-like structure that surrounds the bill and eyes, and the bird can use its facial muscles to alter the shape of this disk and funnel sound more efficiently to its ears. In some species, one ear is also higher than the other to enhance its ability to pinpoint any sounds by sensing the minute difference in the time that sound reaches each ear.

Owls have forward facing eyes that give them binocular vision with improved depth perception and the ability to judge distances. Their eyes are large and are often locked in the skull, which means such an owl has to turn its head in order to move its eyes, although these owls can rotate their heads up to 270 degrees for a wide field of vision.  They also have developed special feather adaptations for quiet flight; for instance, the leading edges of their primary feathers have stiff fringes that reduce noise while the trailing edge of their primaries have soft fringes that help to reduce turbulence.

Owls feed on a wide variety of prey but their main food source consists of small mammals such as mice, squirrels, voles and rabbits. They also supplement their diet with birds, insects and reptiles. Owls cannot chew their prey since, like all birds, they do not have teeth; instead, they usually swallow small prey whole and must tear larger prey into small pieces before swallowing. They later regurgitate pellets of indigestible material such as bone and fur.   Owls create a wide variety of sounds or vocalizations that travel well through the night air, enabling them to locate mates and declare territories.  Not all species are able to hoot and other sounds include screeches, hisses, and screams.    

There are two families of owls in Wisconsin; barn owls -- with large heads and heart-shaped faces, long wings and short, squarish tails when seen in the air, an undulating flight pattern and dangling, feathered legs -- and “true” owls, with large forward-facing eyes and ears, hawk-like beaks and conspicuous circles of feathers around each eye.  The barn owl is a bird of open country with some interspersed woodland while the true owls most often keep to the forests.  Chances are you have never seen a barn owl as it is now rare in Wisconsin. although it is the most widely distributed species of owl worldwide and found almost everywhere except polar and desert regions.  Unfortunately, most of their nesting sites are disappearing in Wisconsin as modern, metal farm buildings are replacing barns and row crops are now planted where rodents once flourished in pastures and hay.

There are eleven species of true owls that can sometimes be seen in southernWisconsin.  Snowy, hawk, burrowing, great gray and boreal owls occasionally move into the area when food is scarce in their northern homes, and migrants such as saw-whets, long-eared and short-eared owls sometimes nest here.  Only the eastern screech-owl, great horned and barred owls are persistent yearlong residents.

The eastern screech owl averages about 8 inches in length with an average wingspan of about 21 inches.  It has either rusty or dark gray patterned plumage, a large round head with prominent ear tufts, yellow eyes and a yellowish beak, but is more often heard than seen  --  making a descending, whinny-like sound followed by a purring trill. During the breeding season, they feed mostly upon large insects but otherwise catch whatever is available.  Most dangerous of its predators is the great horned owl, which has been known to destroy much of a local screech owl population.

The great horned owl also has prominent ear tufts, but is two feet long with a wingspan that averages four feet.  It is an extremely adaptable bird that hunts any animal or bird it can snatch, but preys primarily on rodents. It is heavily built, with a barrel-shaped body, a large head and broad wings and powerful legs, feet and talons.  Almost all prey are killed by crushing with the feet or by stabbing with the talons, and is swallowed whole when possible. Due to their poor sense of smell, great horned owls are the only predators to routinely attack skunks. The great horned owl's song is normally a low-pitched but loud ho-ho-hoo hoo hoo, but is known to make “an indescribable assemblage of hoots, screeches and squawks”.

Almost as big is the barred owl, with a pale face and dark rings around the eyes, a yellow beak and brown eyes. Its chest is barred horizontally while the belly is streaked vertically (hence its name "barred owl") and its head lacks ear tufts.  Its usual call is a series of eight accented hoots ending in oo-aw, with a downward pitch at the end. During the past century, barred owls have expanded their range from the eastern woodlands throughout most of central and western North America and are now suspected for being partly responsible for the recent decline of the northern spotted owl in the northwest part of the continent.
 
In 2007, the US Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to shoot 4650 barred owls over a ten year period to reduce the threat they are thought to pose to the spotted owl at a cost of a million dollars annually, but such a radical plan is worrisome and many environmentalists fear that putting most of the blame for the declining spotted owl numbers on barred owls will result in the resumption of logging in protected spotted owl habitat and less environmental protection.  The effort is currently under way, however, and only time will tell if the destruction of so many of these beautiful predators will have the desired benefits and is worth the cost. 

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June 14, 2016: Beetles and More Beetles

There are more kinds of beetles than any other creature type -- upwards of 350,000 species worldwide.  They are set apart because they have shell-like coverings on their backs (thickened outer pairs of wings), but otherwise come in many varied shapes, forms and colors.  They live all over the world from the tropics to the polar regions, so it is no wonder they have a varied biology.

The world's largest beetle is Titanus giganteus, a longhorn beetle native to the Amazonian forest in South America. It can measure more than seven inches in length and can inflict painful bites with its powerful mandibles.  The biggest in the eastern forests of North America is the Eastern Hercules Beetle that measures almost two and a half inches long including the prominent horns which project forward from the thorax and head on the male.  Hercules beetles are notable because the largest of the species is the strongest creature on earth given its size (note its name!), able to carry 850 times its own body weight.  Some of these beetles are as big as mice and can drag a wood piece weighing more than twenty pounds!

Another fascinating species is the bombardier beetle which typically lives in woodlands or grasslands in the temperate zones and can be found wherever there are moist places to lay its eggs. It can fire a mixture of chemicals from special glands in its posterior and can point the jet with high precision towards a possible enemy.  A specimen of amber dated as older than 100 million years was discovered in 2006 in the Hukawng Valley in Myanmar containing a bombardier beetle deploying chemicals to repel an attacker. 

Bombardiers store hydroquinone and hydrogen peroxide in their abdomens which are released through two tubes, together with catalytic enzymes, resulting in a violent heat releasing chemical reaction. The hot foul smelling liquid emits a gas with a loud popping sound and is deadly to insects and other small animals and painful to humans.  The shots can be repeated around a dozen times, but after that the beetle needs an hour to recover its chemical "bomb" supply. 

Click beetles are almost as large, but are interesting for an entirely different reason.  Each possesses a spine on the first of the three segments in its thorax that can be snapped into a corresponding notch on the second segment, producing a sharp "click" that also bounces the beetle into the air.   Clicking is mainly used to avoid any approaching predator, although it is also useful when the beetle is on its back and needs to right itself.

Neighbor Tracy brought a specimen for me to see last week.  It was black and white and nearly two inches long, and had startled her by flying around her making a loud buzzing sound. She placed it in a small bottle and it lay quietly feigning death, but quickly revived when dumped out. There were two huge eyespots on its upper back, making it easily identified as a dark-eyed click beetle. Few of the 800 or so species of click beetles in North America are as dramatically patterned.

Far more well known than any of the above is the firefly, which despite the name is not a fly but also a beetle.  It is unique because it can produce bioluminescence, not only in its adult form but also as larvae and even eggs, without using bacteria as do fishes, squids and shrimps.  Firefly lights are the most efficient lights in the world—100% of the energy is emitted as light. Compare that to an incandescent bulb, which emits 10% of its energy as light and the rest as heat.  The process requires the enzyme luciferase which acts on the luciferin, in the presence of certain other ions and oxygen. 

Fireflies emit light mostly to attract mates, although they also communicate for other reasons as well, such as to defend territory and warn predators away.  Usually, the male will fly, while females will wait in trees, shrubs and grasses and signal their presence. Their larvae (called glowworms) hunt slugs, snails, worms, and other insects, injecting any prey with digestive enzymes to immobilize it and liquefy its remains. They have long, slender hard bodies, and the dorsal segments are flattened and extend to the back and sides, like overlapping plates.

Most species of fireflies thrive as larvae in rotting wood and forest litter at the margins of ponds and streams.  A growing problem in America and throughout the world is that our open fields, marshlands and forests are disappearing, and as their habitat disappears under housing and commercial developments, firefly numbers are dwindling. Logging, pollution and increased use of pesticides may also contribute to destroying firefly habitat and natural prey.

Scientists don't know enough about fireflies to be certain but it seems that light pollution may also be a major factor in the disappearance of fireflies all over the world.  Light from homes, cars, stores, and streetlights may all make it difficult for fireflies to signal each other during mating—meaning fewer firefly larvae are born next season.  Fireflies are fascinating creatures that light up our nights and bring a sense of magic and mystery to our environment, and if they disappear, it will be a great loss to habitats and generations of people all over the world.

Other beetles pose an opposite problem, as the Japanese beetle, Asian lady beetle, the Asian long-horned beetle and now the emerald ash borer among others have taken up residence in the United States and have thrived. They are now major economic and societal pests and all of us should be aware of any that might be a threat in our area and obey any regulations or quarantines that might be in effect.  Most beetles are good neighbors but beware of those that are not.

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June 7, 2016: Silk Moths

Most children have heard stories of the silk moth -- an insect that spins pure silk thread, winding it into a cocoon that protects it during the time when its body changes seemingly miraculously from a fat larva into a winged insect. They know that Japanese women once tended the caterpillars throughout their development and then dipped the cocoons into boiling water before unwinding the thread onto spools and then weaving it into a beautiful soft material.  What many children and their parents don’t know is that close relatives of these moths live in our woods and continue to make their silken shelters. 

The majority of giant silkmoth species occur in wooded tropical or subtropical regions, with the greatest diversity in the New World tropics and Mexico, and that forty-two species reside north of Mexico and Southern California.  Adults have large, heavy bodies covered in hair-like scales, and large overlapping wings often held out flat in an impressive display. These moths are sometimes brightly colored and often have translucent eyespots or "windows" on their wings.  Most adults have wing spans between one and six inches, altho some tropical species, such as the Atlas moth, may have wing spans up to twelve inches.

As a child walking down our suburban Chicago sidewalk to school, I would sometimes discover a cocoon or two hidden in the shrubbery and take it home to watch the moth emerge.  I have no idea why these mostly tropical insects were so common in that urban area but their presence sparked a lifelong hobby and even today I am tending three species of tiny caterpillars with the aim of raising them through their life cycle. 

The moth species in that Chicago suburb was usually the cecropia -- North America's largest native moth with a wingspan of up to six inches or more.  The moth has a fat red body with white stripes and reddish-brown wings with crescent-shaped white marks and eyespots on the upper tips and light tan edges. Like all members of the giant silk moth family, it lives only a week or two as an adult as it lacks mouthparts or a digestive system and survives only long enough to mate and produce eggs. 

When a moth emerges from its cocoon, its wings hang down, crinkled and limp, and its first job is to correct that situation.  The wings contain a complex system of hollow veins connected by a membrane, and a moth must pump body fluid into this system, stretching out the veins to their maximum so that the wings are taut and firm.  Once the wings have fully expanded, the fluid will be pumped back into the body and the wings will dry and harden.  

The wings, as well as the head and parts of the body, are covered with minute scales, most of which are are blade-like and attached loosely with a small stalk, while others may look similar to hairs.   These are arranged like shingles and come in an extraordinary variety of colors and patterns.  They function as insulation, produce pheromones in some males and aid in gliding flight, but their most important value is in helping the moth protect itself with camouflage or mimicry. 

The female moth has a large rounded abdomen that is full of eggs when it emerges from its cocoon and it immediately begins to emit chemical signals called pheromones which give its location to any roving males.  Male moths possess large feathery antennae which can detect these signals up to a mile away and the males may fly up to 7 miles while searching for a female. Mating begins in the early morning hours and lasts until the evening.  Afterward, the female lays up to one hundred eggs, which hatch into tiny black caterpillars.

These larvae feed upon the leaves of many common trees and shrubs, including maple, birch, and apple.  As they grow larger, it becomes clear that the black color actually comes from small black hairs growing from small projections all over the body, which at early stages is yellow-green. As the larvae grow, the coloration becomes green to bluish-green, with the tubercles becoming blue, yellow or orange, depending on body location, while the black hairs are gradually lost. By autumn, the caterpillars, now four or more inches long, spin their cocoons on twigs or other supports and emerge as adults the following spring.

Life is full of danger for the developing caterpillars.  All are tasty for hungry birds, and squirrels and other rodents are significant predators as they open the cocoons and then eat the pupae.  Then, too, some species of wasps and flies lay their eggs in or on the young caterpillars. The eggs then hatch into wasp larvae, which consume the internal organs and muscles of the caterpillars.  When the wasp larvae mature, they release chemicals that cause the caterpillar to spin its cocoon and then die, and the wasps themselves pupate and eventually emerge as adults.  

The two other species I am tending are the polyphemus, a large tan moth whose most notable features are the prominent, purplish eyespots on its two hind wings.  These give it its name – from the Greek myth of the Cyclops Polyphemus. The eyespots are thought to be a form of mimicry, and are meant to misdirect predators by resembling the head of the great horned owl.  Lastly, I have babies of the luna moth -- perhaps the best known of the silkmoths.  Their wings are a beautiful lime green and the hindwings have long curving tails.

In a couple of months, my duties in the care and feeding of my caterpillars will be over and I will store the resulting cocoons safely in their cage in an outbuilding over the winter.  Next spring, my reward will be a crop of beautiful moths that will help to repopulate our woods with a new generation of three of these ever more rare silkmoths.




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May 31, 2016   Dangerous Plants

When we think of flowers and their supporting plants, particularly in the spring time, it is usually because of their beauty, and we plant them in our yards and bring them into the house to brighten our surroundings.  Many plants are less appealing, however, and many protect themselves with sharp thorns, strong poisons, or prolific reproductions. 

This was recently brought to my attention when I tried to photograph the blossom on one of the cacti in our greenhouse.  In trying to find the best angle for the shot, I accidentally brushed up again a neighboring specimen and realized too late that this was a big mistake.  My arm from shoulder to elbow is still peppered with red spots, despite the efforts of Bill to extract the tiny spines.

Almost all cacti are succulents, meaning they have thickened, fleshy parts adapted to store water. Unlike many other succulents, the stem is the only part of most cacti where this vital process takes place. Most species of cacti have lost true leaves, retaining only spines, which are highly modified leaves.  As I belatedly discovered, in addition to normal-length spines, some have relatively short spines that are barbed along their length and easily shed. These enter the skin and are difficult to remove, causing long-lasting irritation.  

You may not have any cacti in your home but you can see some in their native haunts, plus lizards, sand dunes and dry grasses without going far from home.  Visit the Spring Green Preserve located north of Jones Road just off of Highway 23, as it harbors some of Wisconsin's rarest plant communities. It was established in 1971 and its more than eleven hundred acres are owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy.  Here you can find Wisconsin’s only native cactus--the brittle prickly-pear. 

Stinging nettles do not have spines or thorns but do have stinging hairs that cover its stems and leaves, each equipped with a bulbous, fluid-filled base and a stiff translucent point. When touched, the tip of the “stinger” breaks off, leaving a sharp, hypodermic-like point that injects formic acid, a simple carboxylic acid that is also found in the stings and bites of many bees and ants. Luckily, these usually cause no lasting problems, but produce a painful rash that persists for several hours and sometimes even overnight.

Thorns and spines are usually visible and relatively easy to avoid but not so are many of the surprising number of plants that produce poisons.  The U. S. Forest Service lists more than 500 species in this country that can cause problems when ingested or sometimes even touched. In many cases, only one part of the plant is dangerous, and then only at certain seasons of the year or under certain conditions and to some victims.

It seems strange that poisonous plants are scattered through many plant families in which most of the members may be harmless. Socrates was condemned to die by drinking a brew of poison hemlock, a member of the parsley family. The nightshade family which has a number of poisonous species also includes our potato and tomato. A few plants, like nettles, poison ivy, and the poison sumac which grows in bogs, do not affect animals but cause severe rashes and blisters when touched by many people. Occasionally, humans are found who are sensitive to chemicals in some fruits such as strawberries or to foods made from wheat flour.

Certain plants are safe to eat in certain seasons or stages of growth but are poisonous at other times. For example, the leaves of the pokeweed are edible when it first starts to grow, but it soon becomes toxic. Other plants, such as tomatoes, rhubarb, potatoes, blackberries, elderberries and mayapples, produce fruit or other parts that are perfectly edible when ripe, although the rest of the plants as well as any immature fruits are not. Sometimes the fruit is safe but its seeds are not, such as apricot, peach, and even apple seeds that contain cyanide.

We have always kept a careful watch for the poison ivy that is along our woodland paths. These plants contain an oily chemical resin called urushiol that causes a contact dermatitis in susceptible people. The oils are secreted on the surface of the plant's leaves and are easily transferred to clothing and skin when the leaves are touched. The urushiol binds to the skin cell surface and triggers a series of immunologic responses that ultimately result in an itchy rash.

Contrary to popular belief, the rash itself does not "spread" like an infection but gives that impression because the oil can be transferred to other parts of the body by the fingers, cloth, or other items. Once the oil is completely removed from skin and clothing, no further rash will result. Urushiol resin remains stable, even in dead or dried plants, and therefore is equally hazardous in the winter as in the summer, and can be vaporized and carried by smoke with dire effects if the plant is burned.  We all would do well to educate ourselves about the many plants in our surroundings, so that we can enjoy their beauty and benefits without worrying about any harm they might cause to us or our pets.


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May 24, 2016: Calcium is for the Birds

We have always enjoyed feeding the birds in the springtime, but have never considered providing additional calcium.  However, at the bird symposium at the library last week it was emphasized that the calcium necessary for producing strong eggshells can sometimes be difficult for birds to obtain. 

All female creatures produce eggs and those types that are expelled and develop outside a mother’s body must be contained in a protective covering.  Insects and other arthropods lay a variety of styles and shapes of eggs, often with gelatinous or skin-like coverings made up mostly of protein.  Eggs which must survive in dry conditions usually have hard eggshells, composed mostly of dehydrated or mineralized proteins with pore systems to allow respiration.  Fish and amphibians also lay eggs which are usually surrounded by membranes rather than shells.  These are often in the form of thick, leathery coats, especially if they must withstand drying out or physical stress.  Snakes also lay eggs with leathery shells, while many other reptiles produce eggs with other flexible, calcified coverings. 

The bird egg is a fertilized cell located on the yolk surface (its main food supply) and surrounded by albumen or egg white whose primary purpose is to protect the yolk and provide additional nutrition for the growth of the embryo. The albumen in turn is surrounded by inner and outer membranes and then an eggshell. These eggshells are composed of up to 97% calcium carbonate crystals stabilized by a protein covering. Without the protein, the crystal structure would be too brittle to keep its form. 

Proper calcium is vital for birds' health, and if they don't get enough in their diet, a range of different health problems can result. Eggshells may be too thin and the eggs could never hatch, or young birds may have bone or bill deformities. Nesting females may lay fewer eggs, or some calcium could be drawn from the female's bones in order to make the eggshells, and they change their diets during the nesting season to seek out calcium-rich foods.

I read that our garden songbird birds families do not ‘store’ the extra calcium in their skeletons needed for egg laying in advance. Perhaps that would make them too heavy, less agile and therefore more easily caught by a hawk or other predator. Instead they have to find a dietary source of calcium and eat it.  A study in Great Britain showed that female great tits were found to deposit 60% of the calcium in the shell in less than eight hours prior to laying, while the eggs’s fat and protein was obtained over a four day period.  So at this very critical time, females forage and collect calcium specifically for the eggs.

Wild birds can take advantage of a range of different calcium sources. Most insects and seeds have only a small amount of calcium, so they concentrate on calcium-rich arthropods such as millipedes and other similar creatures.  Still, these alone are not rich enough to meet all of a bird's nutritional needs.  Additional calcium sources wild birds will consume include snail shells, sand, dirt or ash (also valuable as grit for proper digestion), bones from carrion carcasses, shed deer antlers, and even mortar and lime from between bricks.  Many adult birds will also consume the discarded eggshells from their first chicks as a fine source of calcium,when producing broods later in the season.

Birders who add extra calcium to the foods they offer backyard birds can ensure that birds have adequate calcium available. Eggshells are the easiest option, and roasted chicken eggshells are rich in calcium carbonate that wild birds can easily absorb. To provide the shells, rinse them thoroughly and dry them in an oven until they are brittle but not browned or burned. I set the oven at its lowest setting and give them a half hour or so.  When cool, the shells should be crushed to seed-sized pieces and offered in tray or platform feeders, or sprinkled directly on the grass, patio or garden for birds to find. If the shells are crushed to dust or powder, they can be mixed into homemade suet as well.

Along with eggshells, crushed oyster shells or snail shells can be offered for birds to consume. Some high quality seed and suet blends already incorporate shells or other calcium supplements, and while those mixes are more expensive, they can be a useful option for birds. Ideally, calcium sources should be offered in spring and early summer when nesting is in high gear. Because birds lay their eggs at night and the shell is formed in the last few hours before the egg is laid, calcium should be offered late in the day, but leaving it available all day gives birds more opportunities to take advantage of the supply as needed.

With so many birds eager to take advantage of calcium sources, you can attract even more birds than normal to your feeders if you offer eggshells or other calcium sources. By providing birds this mineral supplement, you can help ensure a safer, more effective nesting season for these backyard visitors.



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May 17, 2016:
Warbler Time

Unless you are an enthusiastic bird-watcher, you may not even be aware of the fact that this is warbler time. Robins, blue jays and red-winged blackbirds get our attention with their loud calls and songs but most warblers are small and fast-moving, and slip in and out of our area quickly with hardly a sound to betray their presence.  And, sitting on the porch with the binoculars to watch for them is a lovely way to spend a quiet hour on a sunny May afternoon.

The great mass of warblers passes through our area around the middle of May, and then most will be gone until fall.  They have travelled hundreds and even thousands of miles from their winter homes in the southern states, Mexico and even from South America and pause only briefly on their way north to their breeding grounds in Canada. Our little pond in the backyard with its small waterfall and stream seems to act as a powerful magnet for these birds, and allows us to see many more than we might otherwise.

Wisconsin is a birdwatcher's paradise as it contains evergreen and hardwood forests, grasslands, extensive marshes, sandy and rocky shores on both large and small lakes, and major rivers with their adjoining wetlands and bottomland forests.  These varied habitats host more than 400 species of birds at some time during the year and an enthusiast willing to search can expect to see well over 300 without undue effort. Warblers are high on the most-desired list and there are over 20 species nesting in the state, mostly in the northern part. Their names often provide a clue to their species: yellow-throated, bay-breasted or yellow-rumped, for example, and a number have striking markings in the spring such as black faces or yellow patches that help identify them.

Almost half of the bird population of Canada’s vast evergreen forest is made up of warblers, and many of them migrate through Wisconsin. Few stay with us for more than a few days as they have only the short northern summer to raise their broods and they are eager to get at it. We do have pairs of yellow throats and blue-winged who usually nest in the shrubbery behind the pond, and sometimes see or hear a redstart, ovenbird or yellow warbler during walks in the woods. We tend to think of warblers as residents that leave for a short winter vacation, but in reality, they are tropical birds that spend just four months in northern areas and the rest of the year in Central and northern South America and the islands of the West Indies.

Until recently, ornithologists have conducted their warbler studies during the breeding season, partly because Latin American countries do not fund extensive bird-monitoring efforts and because it is easier for North American researchers to study the birds close to home. It is also true that identifying a warbler is much more difficult during the winter, as both the familiar breeding plumage and courting song are often absent.

The traditional method of counting birds where hundreds of volunteers record what they see and hear at selected points has not proved workable in the Tropics, and a new system has had to be devised. Now, scientists bring the birds to them with a CD player. When the recorded songs of breeding redstarts and black-throated blue warblers were broadcast in Jamaica, for instance, researchers detected 3 times as many of these birds as they did with the simple "stop-look-listen" approach, and saw ovenbirds, parula warblers and prairie warblers as well. More importantly, they were also able to discover several sizable populations of some species that were thought to be rare.

In this country we spend millions of dollars a year on migratory bird research and study how birds are affected by forest fragmentation, cowbirds, pesticides, microwave and wind towers, even pet cats. But it is just as important to understand the conditions they experience during the rest of the year, and the quality of winter habitat has been shown to influence breeding success months later. One study involving redstarts found that those who wintered in lush mangrove swamps had detectable elements in their blood that were different from others that were forced to live into poorer, dryer habitat.

Taking a tiny sample of blood on the breeding grounds allowed the researcher to determine where the individual bird had spent the winter, after traditional banding or radio tagging proved to be unfeasible. It was determined that birds from the more favorable habitats arrived on the breeding grounds as much as a month earlier than those less fortunate, and this seems to be the most important factor determining reproductive success.

Data analysis from the U.S. Breeding Bird Survey in the 1980s, led scientists to the conclusion that warblers as a group were in trouble. They speculated that clear-cutting in tropical rain forests was the primary cause, and were also concerned about conditions on the breeding grounds in North America. "The good news," says Stanley Temple, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Wisconsin, "is that the initial data analysis was misleading. Researchers were unable to confirm the conventional wisdom that warblers as a group are declining."

Some warblers do require pristine rain forest habitat in winter, but most do not and it has been observed that the many shade-grown coffee plantations can be excellent habitat for many species. Three species are on the endangered list and another 14 are being watched, but for most warblers the picture apparently is not as dim as was once thought. Still, the time to protect these birds is before the situation becomes critical and we applaud these efforts.

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May 10, 2016

Getting something for nothing is always fun, no matter what the something is. In the case of discovering delicacies like morels, mushroom hunters have developed an entire culture around the search, including special clothing, equipment, festivals, and a whole body of folklore. Part of the excitement is caused by the unpredictable behavior of this highly prized fungus, and it is only recently that some of its secrets have been uncovered.

To better understand morels, we need to understand a few facts about all fungi. It was long thought that they were members of the plant kingdom, but the invention of the microscope allowed scientists to see that they were quite different. First, the body of a fungus is not a organism composed of various types of tissues such as stem, roots, and leaves, but is a mass of fine, branching threads or tubes, called mycelium. Some species, like the recent reports of a honey mushroom in Michigan, have mycelia that stretch for miles underground.

Fungi also lack chlorophyll, the substance used in photosynthesis to produce nutrients with the help of sunlight. Instead they feed themselves by releasing a variety of powerful enzymes which break down organic matter into simpler water-soluble compounds which are then absorbed into their cells. Another major difference is that the cell walls of a fungus are composed of chitin, the material that also forms the exoskeletons of insects and crustaceans, rather than cellulose as in plants.

Morels are unique among most fungi in that they exhibit an additional growth stage. When conditions are right, tiny knots of fibers form in the mycelium that gradually develop into walnut-shaped objects called "sclerotia". These can grow up to 2 inches in diameter and are composed of large cells with very thick walls that allow the fungus to survive the winter and other adverse natural conditions. In the spring, each sclerotium does one of two things: it grows on to form a new mycelium or it forms a fruiting body.

The morel mushroom is actually only the reproductive part of the fungus and is sometimes described as an apple, as picking it has no more effect on its mycelium than picking a fruit from a tree.  For this reason, you need not fear that gathering too many will harm the organism in any way. Its wrinkled and pitted cap contains millions of tiny spore containers which physically eject the spores, shooting them out. Once a spore is launched into the air, it often travels long distances before eventually settling on the ground. Researchers have found that the spores germinate readily (at least in the lab) but unless conditions are just right, they seldom grow into mycelium. What, exactly, these "right" conditions might be is not completely clear.

There are a few scientific reports on success with growing morels from as early as 1883 using such varied materials as Jerusalem artichokes, apples, and pumpkin. There are also some people who have had successes in their own backyards by simply throwing out the wash water from collected morels onto their compost piles or their lawn. Nevertheless, all attempts to control fruiting were hit-and-miss until 1986 when Ronald Ower of San Francisco, in conjunction with a team at Michigan State University, received a patent which described a process for formation of sclerotia that consistently produced fruiting bodies.

According to Ower's patent, there are two essential steps. First, "the environment of the fungus is altered from a nutrient-rich environment to a nutrient poor environment"; second, the sclerotia must be exposed to "high quantities of water in the substratum in which the fungus is growing."  The researchers inoculated relatively poor soil with morel mycelium that was adjacent to a nutrient-rich substance. The mycelium grew into the rich area, then transported the nutrients back into the original growth where it formed sclerotia as storage units. When these objects matured, the nutrient source was removed and the medium drenched with water. After 10-12 days, small fruits appeared, and, if all the conditions were correct, the morels would mature in 12-15 days.  Simple as this might sound, even small variations disrupted the process and caused a crop failure.  Presumably, in the wild, the death of a host tree followed by ample spring rains meets these requirements.

All who collect mushrooms for eating must do so with care. Many hang on to folk beliefs that have no scientific basis and sometimes become ill when their enthusiasm outruns their knowledge. DON'T BELIEVE ANY OF THE FOLLOWING "RULES”: a poisonous mushroom will tarnish a silver spoon; if it peels, you can eat it; all mushrooms growing on wood are edible; mushrooms that squirrels or other animals east are safe for humans; all mushrooms in meadows and pastures are safe to eat; all white mushrooms are safe; poisonous mushrooms can be detoxified by parboiling, drying or pickling.

There is an old saying, "There are old mushroom hunters, and bold mushroom hunters, but there are no old, bold mushroom hunters." Be sure of your identification and even then, eat only a small amount the first time. Even morels, generally considered to be excellent and safe, may cause illness in some persons. Our oldest son became very ill after eating a dish containing morels, although he had previously eaten them for years. It is interesting to understand that a good picking year for us indicates that the morel itself has had a bad year and is attempting to reproduce itself before it starves. Luckily, the fungus is widespread and others will hopefully take over for the loss.

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May 3, 2016:
Chiggers and Ticks, Oh, My!

Working outdoors invariably brings one in contact with a group of creatures that are less than welcome.  Tiny mites and their cousins, the ticks, are everywhere, sometimes even on our bodies. What sets them apart is that they have but one part to their bodies (in contrast to spiders with two and insects with three).  Larval mites and ticks have three pairs of legs, while nymphs and adults have four pairs.

Mites can be found anywhere.  Some, including the chicken mite and the tropical fowl mite, migrate to humans from birds.  Others, such as grain mites and mushroom mites, are found in food materials or stored products. The follicle mite is found in the skin pores of humans, especially around the nose and eyelids, and it is likely that most people harbor this species without knowing it.  The straw itch mite and furniture mite come from plant material, and the chigger mite is found in lawns and open woodlands. 

The chigger mite is probably the best known and most hated of the mite group.  Adults overwinter in the soil feeding on decaying matter and emerge in the spring to lay their eggs. These hatch into tiny, oval, orange-colored larvae that normally feed on other wildlife but when a human comes by, the larvae are happy to climb aboard.

The larval chigger attaches by its mouthparts and first pair of appendages to its host and injects a fluid that liquefies the tissues so it can suck them.  The surrounding cells become hardened and form a tiny tube through which the larva continues to feed causing a severe itching and a dermatitis which may last for a week or more.  After feeding for a few days, it drops to the ground, transforms into a nymph and later into an adult (neither of which feed on humans).  Chiggers are not known to cause disease in the United States.

Ticks, unlike mites, are efficient carriers of disease.  This is due to their tendency to feed on several hosts during their lifetime and thus to have ample opportunity to acquire and transmit pathogens. They are hardy and long-lived and easily survive periods of unfavorable conditions.  They feed slowly and attach to the host for relatively long periods.

There are generally two types: “hard” ticks have a solid upper surface called a shield that covers the entire back of the male and partly covers the female, their mouthparts are visible, and they attach securely and may feed for extended periods, using a different host in each life stage; and “soft” ticks that do not possess a shield so the sexes look alike, their mouthparts are beneath the anterior end of the body and are not visible from above, and principal hosts are birds, domestic animals, bats and other small mammals.
 
Hard ticks are responsible for transmission of the majority of tick-borne diseases of humans in the U.S. such as babesiosis, Colorado tick fever, Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and tularemia.  Hard ticks are quite resistant to environmental stresses and may live for many years. They have few natural enemies and have a wide range of hosts. 

Hard ticks seek their hosts by climbing vegetation and waiting with front legs extended for vibrations or shadows to announce the arrival of a host.  If heat or carbon dioxide is detected, the tick will seek it out and climb onto the host as it passes.  The tick uses its “teeth” to cut into the victim's skin and insert its feeding tube.  This is equipped with many rows of recurved barbs that become cemented in and are very hard to remove.  Blood is sucked out by a muscular organ, and the salivary glands produce an anticoagulant that keeps the blood flowing.

The adult female mates and attaches to its final host where it feeds on blood to gain the nutrients for its egg mass to mature.  When fully engorged, it drops to the ground and over the next weeks lays up to 6000 eggs onto moist vegetation.  Thousands of tiny larvae, commonly called "seed ticks," hatch from an egg batch and crawl about in search of a small mammal.  Feeding time is generally short, but during feeding, the host wanders and the larva is transported to a new location where, when engorged, it drops off and molts, and is transformed into a nymph.  The nymph climbs grass leaves or plant stems and awaits a new host. Because it is higher than ground level, it tends to attach to a larger host than its previous one.  After attaching and feeding, it too drops to the ground and molts into an adult.

The most commonly encountered ticks in Wisconsin are the deer tick, the dog (or wood) tick and now, reportedly, the Lone Star tick.  The deer tick is notorious for transmitting several diseases, notably Lyme’s, while the Lone Star tick carries a bacterial pathogen called ehrlichia which causes muscle aches, fever or nausea, and also can make its victim allergic to red meat.  The dog ticks have mottled brown and white markings on their shields and are twice the size, both in the pre-fed state and when engorged, of the plain brown deer ticks. The female Lone Star tick has a distinctive white star-like marking on its shield.

Ticks reportedly cannot infect a host until they have been embedded at least 36 hours so there is usually little danger of disease.  However, removing an embedded tick can be a challenge as the mouthparts can easily break off and be left in place, and squeezing can force more saliva into the wound.  The recommended method is to insert a pair of fine-tipped forceps into the skin at the base of the mouthparts and then gently pull out the entire tick.  Good luck.


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April 26, 2016: Wild Orchids

Wild orchids come in all sizes and shapes.  Some have grass-like leaves, some wide fleshy leaves; some large showy blossoms, some with a number of tiny insignificant flowers.  There are some 18 types of orchids in Wisconsin but we seldom see any at all.  Just what makes an orchid an orchid?

There are over 25,000 species of the orchid family, but all orchids have these things: three sepals and three petals, one of which has a fancy lip; seeds that are very small -- almost dustlike; pollen that is held in bundles attached to what look like threads; and most unique, male and female parts that are combined into one structure called the column.  Other plants have some of these characteristics but no others have all of them.

Perhaps the most beautiful of Wisconsin’s many orchids is the arethusa, or more commonly called the dragon's mouth orchid.  It is named after a water nymph of Greek mythology, perhaps because it is usually found in acidic, boggy conditions. In Wisconsin it can be most commonly found growing in floating mat bogs ringing northern lakes.  It has one grass-like leaf that appears late in the season after the bright magenta flower blooms in June.

Also typically growing in a marsh or bog is the calopogon or grass pink, with its stalk carrying up to a dozen small magenta flowers; the calypso or fairy slipper orchid, which bears a single pink and white flower on a  dainty purple stem; the rose pogonia or snake-mouth, a pink blossom with one leaf located midway up the stem; and the moccasin flower, with its two basal leaves and single large purplish-brown “lady slipper” flower.  

The Corallorhiza or spotted coralroot, on the other hand can be found in rich deciduous woods.  There are four species in Wisconsin and all are leafless saprophytes, meaning that they live on dead or decaying organic matter.  Its single stalk rises directly from the duff bearing several dozen small greenish flowers.

Rich woods are also the home of our much admired yellow and showy ladyslippers, the putty root, the showy orchis and the rattlesnake plantain.  Lady slipper orchids are characterized by the slipper-shaped pouches of the flowers – the pouch traps insects so they have to climb up past the organ which holds the pollen and thus fertilize the flower.

The showy lady's-slipper (Cypripedium reginae) has a lovely pink pouch and white petals and grows in fens and open wooded swamps.  It is quite rare, and is considered “vulnerable” in Wisconsin although we have been able to establish a group in our wild garden.  The yellow lady-slipper, that has a bright yellow pouch backed by three narrow twisted brownish purple petals, was found here on the farm when we arrived.  

The putty root orchid (aplectrum hyemale) has a short spike carrying up to ten small flowers.  Its large single leaf emerges in late fall and persists through winter until the flowers appear in late May or June.  The name comes from the mucilaginous fluid in the tubers that was used by early American settlers to repair broken pottery, and by Native Americans for medicinal purposes.

The little showy orchis (galearis spectabilis) has two basal leaves and a short stalk bearing up to ten tiny pink and white flowers, while the rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera) is perhaps the most common orchid in southern Wisconsin, and has a basal rosette of dark green leaves with prominent white markings, and a dense spike of flowers in late July. 

"I usually say there's an orchid for every habitat in Wisconsin," says Scott Weber of Bluestem Farms, a native plant nursery in Baraboo. Many orchids choose to bloom in humid spots, with moisture aplenty. Several other species of Wisconsin orchids grow in dry habitats.”  Fire helps orchids thrive against the competition although Weber notes evergreen species like rattlesnake plantain can be damaged. "The biggest problem may be encroaching brush," he explains. "Fire seems to stimulate most orchids. So some kind of prescribed burn program on a large area helps."

Gene Smalley, orchid enthusiast and professor emeritus of plant pathology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, recommends rattlesnake plantain for the garden.   "I've had big success with Goodyera," he says. "It's a very pretty plant with variegated leaves that looks good even without blooms."   Smalley points out that providing the right habitat is essential to success. "To keep plants going, I locate places where I can satisfy most of their requirements," he says.

To begin propagating orchids at home, you can raise them from seed, transplant existing plants, or purchase plants from a nursery. Collecting plants or seed requires the owner's permission on private land and is illegal on public land without a permit. One seedpod can offer a million chances for germination, so growers trade seed among themselves using networks like the Orchid Growers Guild.  Joining the guild could also offer some guidance when embarking on growing orchids from seed.   In general, overseeing germination and the early years of a plant's life is only for the avid enthusiast.

Yellow lady-slippers and rattlesnake plantain have done well enough for us to offer a few for sale at our wild plant open house this weekend.  This will be our last sale as Cindy and I are moving on to other projects, and we hope you will come see the wild garden and perhaps take home a few wild flowers.

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April 19, 2016:  Spring Courtings

While many birds are well known for their spring songs, other birds use come-hithers to their prospective mates with their feathers, feet, wings or tails.  Turkeys, grouse, pheasants and woodcocks typically make less than musical sounds but have other methods for courting.

The turkey flock that has been hanging around across the field all winter has a different look to it as there are large dark shapes among the familiar smaller ones, a sure sign that the toms are courting. It is a rather strange affair in many ways, as there often are several toms, each doing its own thing and ignoring the others. Each stalks about, feathers fluffed to make its body double in size, tail fanned, and wings held stiffly out, while the females feed quietly, seemingly unimpressed by the display.

Wild turkey males breed with as many different females as they can entice, and their iridescent feathers and bright red waddles and combs all play an important role in courtship. The iridescent colors are the result of the bending of light rays caused by the microscopic structures of the feather barbules which act as gratings.  Light reflecting off of a grating is concentrated at very small and well-defined angles and a very small range of wavelengths will be visible to the viewer at any particular angle.  If the viewer changes his or her angle, then the wavelength will also change causing it to appear to change color in a shimmering iridescent display.  Since disease and parasites can affect the color of these features, females presumably are able to determine a suitor's overall health and choose the best mate.

The ruffed grouse, on the other hand, has no eye-catching plumage and its feathers are designed to camouflage it as it crouches in the underbrush; consequently, it uses an entirely different method to court a mate.  It perches on a fallen log, preferably hollow, spreads its tail and presses it against the log, and then begins a series of strong wing strokes. As the wings compress the air, they produce a thumping noise which sounds like a distant motor. It starts out slowly, but rapidly increases to a drum roll which can be heard for a quarter mile or more.

The ruffed grouse is a chicken-like bird with rather short, rounded wings and a prominent six inch tail.  Its feathers are mottled brown and the male has a prominent collar of feathers on its neck and a small crest on its head that can be erected with its tail during drumming, courtship, or as a sign of aggression.  Once the drumming attracts a female, the male begins walking forward slowly with tail erect and fanned. This is followed by flaring of the ruffs on the neck, hissing, head-shaking, and finally, a run forward with the wings dragging, procedures designed to impress any reluctant watcher.  

The sharp-tailed grouse is native to Wisconsin's prairies and, while it was once found statewide, it is currently found only in isolated areas.  It closely resembles a greater prairie chicken or a female ring-necked pheasant, but has a distinctive pointed tail edged in white.  An adult is about sixteen inches long, weighs about two pounds and has a wingspan of approximately twenty inches.   The male performs his courtship dance by cackling and jumping into the air, then flying a few feet forward before landing again. It also may include make squealing sounds, whining and gobbling, as well as the "cooing" display that is similar to the booming of the greater prairie chicken.  

Ring-necked pheasants are not native but were introduced from Asia in the 1880s, and quickly spread across the country.  The male sports iridescent copper-and-gold plumage, a red face and crisp white collars, while the brown females tend to blend in to their background.  Each male lays claim what it believes is a good territory and protects it vigorously until several females and assemble to watch the shoe.  The cock then strutting around, spreading his tail and the wing closest to one, and erecting the red wattles around his eyes and the feather-tufts behind his ears. He also poses with head low while calling and offering a prospective  mate a morsel of food.   While she may prove reluctant at first, she eventually succumbs and soon the male is off looking for a new conquest. 

The American woodcock is much less known than the other ground birds as it is usually found near wetlands with streams, rivers, and marshes. It weighs in at less than a half-pound, and is a short, squatty buff-colored bird, superbly camouflaged to match fallen leaves on the forest floor.  It has large eyes are set high on its head, giving it almost 360 vision for detecting predators while feeding. It also has a long bill for probing soft, wet soil for earthworms, which make up over three-quarters of their diet, along with other invertebrates, like insects, snails, spiders and millipedes.

Beginning in late March, male woodcocks seek out woodland openings and clearings at dawn and dusk to sing and display for females.  They stake their claim and begin to seduce females with a series of buzzing “peent” sounds.   After several peents, the male takes off into a spiraling flight, singing a warbling song on the way up that mixes with a “twittering” sound on the way down, as wind rushes through the three outer primary wing feathers, and returning to the same spot after each spirally flight. Interested females enter the clearing, and males display with a bobbing, bowing strut, complete with a fanned tail. Females visit many males, and males mate with as many females as possible.

Stop, look, and listen. The wild world comes alive in the springtime and you don't want to miss it. Then, come walk our trails and view the birds and wildflowers during one of our open houses coming up April 23 and 24th and April 30 and May 1st.   We also will have a variety of wildflowers for sale.   (My Montana daughter just wrote that they have eight inches of snow on the ground and well below freezing temps.  Their weather often comes this way.  YIPE!)


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April 12, 2016

The sight of a mourning cloak butterfly in the farm yard last week reminded me that it was the first such insect I had seen this typically strange year, with its unusually cold days and nights.  Most years we see a few of these hardy butterflies sunning themselves or flitting about some weeks earlier. 

Most Wisconsin butterflies that survive the winter do so either as eggs or in their chrysalids, but as the days shorten and temperatures begin to drop, mourning cloaks begin secreting natural antifreezes such as ethylene glycol into their body fluids.  Then, before the snow flies, they take shelter in a crack or crevice in rocks, a tree or outbuilding.   Although the body temperature of a hibernating butterfly may drop to well below zero, the glycol in its body fluids prevents the formation of ice crystals which would rupture its cells.  It can therefore survive the very low temperatures, become active again when the weather warms in the spring and complete its life cycle. It lives eleven or twelve months, one of the longest life-spans for any butterfly.

I have always wondered why butterflies or moths would emerge at a time when little flower nectar was available to feed them, but I read that their preferred sustenance rather comes from sap or decaying fruit. When the sap starts to rise in spring it often seeps out of the bark in places where the tree has been damaged over the winter or where woodpeckers have been drilling. Also, like many other butterflies, they will extract micro-organisms, salts, or other nutrients from mud puddles or even from animal droppings. In addition, many of our spring-active butterflies have dark colored bodies and wings to aid in solar heating, as butterflies must be warm to fly. Most butterflies bask, opening their wings and angling their bodies toward the sun, to increase their body temperature before flight.

Many people are aware of the monarch butterflies and their annual migration to Mexico, but we seldom hear about other butterflies that also make long journeys.  The painted lady, a butterfly that is common in southern states and Mexico is active there year around and some migrate north to Wisconsin every spring.  None have been spotted here as far as I know, but two were sighted in Ames, Iowa on March 10th and another near Leamington, Ontario on March 16th, perhaps a month earlier than is typical for that area. 

Every few years we see great numbers of painted ladies when unusually heavy rainfall occurs on their breeding grounds and the desert greens up and bursts into bloom.  The butterflies take advantage of these conditions by producing great numbers of offspring.  Their caterpillars often strip much of the vegetation bare by the time they are ready to pupate and when the next generation emerges, there may not be enough food plants left for them. When this happens, the vast majority migrate outward from the source area to seek other areas with more abundant food for their offspring.  Those years, they temporarily colonize the northern United States and Canada south of the Arctic, laying their eggs on nettles, burdock, thistles, and a variety of other plants in their new locations.

It is too cold here in Wisconsin for either the chrysalis or the adult to overwinter, so the painted ladies must find their way south again before cold weather sets in. For many years it was believed that the progeny of these sporadically migrating butterflies never made the return trip, but researchers have realized that this would be a reproductive dead end. Obviously some individuals must make their way back to sustain a migrating population, and by looking more closely, observers were able to provide proof. Southward migrations apparently are not as large or conspicuous to casual observers as the northward ones, but the number of painted ladies flying southward is evidently substantial.

Research on how migrating butterflies find their way indicates that a mixture of the awareness of sun position, a sensitivity to the earth's magnetic field, and the internal programming of the insect are all important factors. Combining these with the extreme fragility of the creature, the unpredictability of the winds, and the suddenness of changes in the weather, it is a wonder that any of these butterflies arrives at their destinations.

Then there are spring azures, tiny bright blue butterflies with wings barely an inch across, that have wintered in chrysalids.  They are among the first butterflies seen in the spring that have not hibernated or migrated.  The adults don’t live long, feeding a bit on the liquid and minerals from any mud puddles and then hunting a mate. The female will join up with a male within hours of emerging and lay her eggs the following day on the flower buds of host plants like maple-leaved viburnum, black cherry, and sumac. By the time her eggs hatch, the parents are dead but their tiny babies are tended by ants which care for and protect the caterpillars.  The larval stage takes about a month, but the pupal stage lasts until the next spring.

Spring azures are one of several butterfly species whose caterpillars have evolved a symbiotic relationship with ants. Their larvae have special organs that secrete a liquid containing chemicals (called honeydew) that are very attractive to ants, and researchers have found that adult females of these butterflies lay their eggs on plants where ants are present.  The ants stimulate the caterpillars to secrete droplets of the liquid by stroking them with their antennae and so are rewarded for their care.

A mourning cloak, painted lady or spring azure may visit your yard or garden in the next few days if the promised warm-up occurs, and I hope knowing more about them will make you look at them more closely.  I have been captivated by butterflies since my earliest years, and their beauty, strange transformation of egg into caterpillar into adult and variety of life styles never ceases to fascinate me and hopefully you. 

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April 5, 2016: Benefits of Fire

We spent a number of hours setting fire to our prairie remnant this spring. Burning does a number of things. It removes all the standing and matted dried plant material, allowing the warming sun to reach the ground and the new sprouts to grow unimpeded. It also helps retard the growth of unwanted trees and shrubs. According to David Hartnett, professor of plant ecology with Kansas State University, “Fire is not just beneficial; it’s absolutely essential in maintaining the health of the prairie”. He calls it the equivalent of "spring cleaning“.

Untamed fire scares me. In a fireplace or campfire it is beautiful and calming, but unbridled and free ranging, it can become a terrifying event that kills more people every year than any other force of nature. My first real experience with its more frightening aspects happened here at the farm shortly after we had come from the city. The small brush pile I was burning suddenly took off under the influence of an errant breeze and spread quickly through the surrounding grass. In the frantic minutes before I was able to contain the blaze, I learned a real respect for its potential for disaster and a better understanding of the dangers inherent in its use. 
 
Technically, fire is a chemical reaction between oxygen in the atmosphere and some sort of fuel such as wood, dry leaves or grass. When this material is heated to its ignition temperature, usually about 500 degrees Fahrenheit, its cellulose begins to decompose and the molecules break apart, recombining with the oxygen to form water, carbon dioxide and other products; in other words, it burns. The igniting heat can come from an already flaming object such as a cigarette or match, a spark, friction or lightning.  A side effect of these chemical reactions is a lot more heat and this is what sustains the fire until the fuel is used up or something, such as water, cools and stops the process.

In spite of its more dangerous aspects, fire is a part of the natural ecology. Professor Hartnett stated that “Before man started fires, by accident or intention, lightning sparked fires on the prairies. Those fires not only kept the plains open but stimulated important microbes that released nutrients in the organic matter left in the soil. An important finding of the Kansas State research was that landowners need not limit their controlled burning to just a couple of weeks during April but can begin as early as February and continue into early summer if conditions are right.

“Our long-term data indicate that the abundance of many prairie wildflowers is increased by summer burning, while burning earlier in the year generates a boost in grass production. Before settlers arrived, there was typically a fire every other year or two on any given section of prairie and the ideal is to duplicate this.

Hartnett states that if a site goes four years or more without burning, there is likely to be an increase in the number of woody plants and weeds but he suggests that it is best to burn limited areas at varying times. During prescribed burns, most animals find cover by withdrawing into their burrows, flying away or retreating to surrounding areas. If only a portion is burned in any given year, safe areas are left into which the animals can take refuge and from which any affected populations can regenerate.

We only burn a half acre or so in the area we call our prairie garden and the fire does not burn hot enough to kill out the sumac, blackberry and other undesirable “weed” growths that creep into the area. We must still pull or cut these out by hand, but the burned area is already covered with tiny green shoots and before many days the first of the prairie wildflowers will be sprouting. 

Already in the woodland (which we never burn, incidentally), hepatica, spring beauties and bloodroot are opening their first delicate blossoms, and Virginia bluebells and blue phlox are pushing up through the leaves.  We are busy digging and potting wildflowers in preparation for the wildflower sale that will be held the weekends of April 23 and 30th.  I must warn you, however, that we will be folding our tents after this year so this will be our final sale period. 

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April 2, 2016:  Worms; Oh, My!

Most people have little to do with worms other than when digging in their gardens, while fishing for bluegills or walking down a road after a rain. They sometimes even confuse one with a small snake, although the snake is a reptile with a spine and scales, and hunts living prey. 

Invertebrate animals commonly called worms include earthworms, roundworms, flatworms, and marine worms, and they typically have long cylindrical tube-like bodies and no limbs. They may vary in size from microscopic to over three feet in length for some marine worms, twenty feet for the African giant earthworm, and almost two hundred feet for one marine ribbon worm.  Some types live inside the bodies of other animals, many live in the fresh or salt water, and still others live underground.  They may be parasitic, herbivorous, carnivorous, cannibalistic or omnivorous, and play an enormous role in most of the processes of the ecosystem.

The most familiar is the earthworm. These worms have been around for 120 million years and have been divided into three main categories: leaf litter- or compost-dwelling worms that live on or near the surface of the ground and eat decomposing organic matter; topsoil- or subsoil-dwelling worms that feed on soil, and create horizontal burrows near the surface; and worms that construct permanent deep vertical burrows which they use to visit the surface only to obtain plant material for food.

Each individual earthworm is covered with a thin cuticle over its skin that has bristle-like hairs and specialized cells that secrete mucus to keep its body moist. Under the skin is a layer of nerve tissue and two layers of muscles—a thin outer layer of circular muscle, and a much thicker inner layer of longitudinal muscle.  Earthworms travel by the means of waves of muscular contractions which alternately shorten and lengthen the body, using its stiff hairs to anchor it to the ground between waves.  Earthworms also force air through their tunnels as they move thereby aerating and mixing the soil.

Under the muscle layer is a fluid-filled chamber that provides structure to the worm's boneless body. Its mouth is located in the first segment and has a fleshy lobe above it which seals the entrance when not in use, and is also used to explore the worm's surroundings. The worm ingests dead organic matter as well as soil and sand particles into its gizzard, where all is ground and mixed into into a fine paste which is then digested in the intestine.

When the worm expels this material, minerals and plant nutrients have been changed to a useful form for plants. Research shows that fresh earthworm excretions are five times richer in available nitrogen, seven times richer in available phosphates, and 11 times richer in available potassium than the surrounding upper 6 inches of soil. In conditions where humus is plentiful, the weight of excretions produced may be greater than ten pounds per worm per year. Recent research has produced figures suggesting that even poor soil may support 250,000 worms per acre, while rich fertile farmland may have up to 1,750,000 per acre, meaning that the weight of earthworms beneath a farmer's soil could be greater than that of the livestock upon its surface.

A nerve bundle located at the front of the worm serves as a brain and it also has a dual circulatory system in which both the fluid and a closed circulatory system carry the food, waste, and respiratory gases. The circulatory system is powered by five valved chambers that regulate blood flow and produce a pulse. Branching off these are both a dorsal (forward flow) and a ventral (backward flow) blood vessel that transport the blood and nutrients through the body. The circulatory system also transports urinary waste, which is diffused through the outer covering.  Earthworms do not have eyes (although some worms do); however, they do have specialized photosensitive cells that are distributed in most parts of the skin but are more concentrated on the back and sides.

Mating occurs on the surface, most often at night. Earthworms have both male and female sexual organs, and copulation and reproduction are separate processes.  A mating pair overlap front ends and exchange sperm, at which point the thickened section of the body wall near the head becomes very reddish in color and forms a ring around each worm. The worm then backs out of the ring, injecting its own eggs and the other worm's sperm into it.  The ends of the cocoon seal to form a lemon-shaped incubator and in several weeks, small but fully formed earthworms emerge.  They reach full size in about one year and are thought to live an average of four to eight years.

Despite the important service they provide in farm fields and gardens, earthworms have proved to be of questionable benefit.  Any native worms were killed out of the northern forests in North America during the ice ages when glaciers scoured the landscape down to the bedrock.  Consequently, a deep detritus layer was laid down in succeeding centuries and our many native trees, ferns, and smaller ground plants evolved to rely on it.  Recently when earthworms were introduced into areas where they previously had not been found, they began to break up the organic layer, mixing the nutrients into the soil, out of the reach of all but the deeper tree roots and wiping out many of the beautiful native plants.  Consequently fishers are urged to refrain from dumping unused bait worms and gardeners are asked to carefully handle purchased compost worms.

Earthworms was Charles Darwin’s last book published on October 10, 1881.  He wrote “It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures (writing about earthworms).”


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March 22, 2016:  Bulbs, Corms, Rhizomes, Tubers, and whatever?

All forms of life use some strategy to survive the winter, and the method a plant uses depends upon whether it is an annual or a perennial.  Annuals only live for one growing season so they grow fast and produce seeds for a new generation before dying.  Perennials keep their roots and part of their stems for a number of years and to do so must somehow store starch, a complex carbohydrate that can be broken down into glucose for the plant to use to grow in the next year. 

Some of our earliest spring wildflowers seem to appear miraculously as soon as the frost leaves the ground.  They can do this because many plants have evolved various methods of storing food through the winter or periods of drought, so that they can spring into life when conditions are again right.  Our early plants use bulbs, corms, tubers, rhizomes and sometimes just fibrous roots.  What is the difference between these objects and what plants use them?

The only true bulb among our early wildflowers is the dogtooth violet, named for the toothlike shape of its white underground bulb, even though it is not a violet but is in the lily family.  It has a pair of brownish-mottled leaves and a single, nodding flower, yellow inside, bronzy outside on top of its stalk.  It is also called trout lily because the leaf markings and shape are those of the brown or brook trout.

All lily bulbs are more or less rounded and pointed on the top from which leaves and flower stems appear. They have flat bases from which the roots grow and also from which offshoots sprout. Bulbs are made up of thick scales, which are modified leaves that store food, and these surround a stem and flower bud.  Perennial bulbs add new rings of scales each year from the inside, while old rings on the outside are used up. Many have a papery skin such as an onion which helps protect the bulb from drying out when it’s resting.
 
Often confused with a bulb is the corm, which looks something like a bulb with a pointed growing tip and basal base, but is made up of solid tissue rather than scales.  The spring beauty is a prime example.  Its fleshy four-inch stem has opposite clasping leaves and terminates in a floppy raceme of small pink-striped white flowers with five petals.  All corms are stem tissue that is modified and developed to store food.  It withers away at the end of the growing season, but is replaced by one or more new corms that contain the food reserve for the dormant plant until it’s time to grow again.

Tubers are modified, undifferentiated stems; they lack basal plates, but root from the bottom and have a number of growing points called eyes.  I know of no spring wildflowers that grow from tubers but tuberous begonias and cyclamens among other flowers are examples, and of course, there is the potato.  Tubers don’t make offsets or produce new tubers but just get bigger each year, making more growing points.  Organized tubers, such as tuberous begonias, have their eyes at the top while anemones aren’t so orderly and it is difficult to tell the top from the bottom.

Tubers and corms are examples of modified stems, but two other storage techniques are modified roots. Tuberous roots are modified, enlarged, specialized roots that store food, and are used up during the growing season to be replaced by new storage units. The tuberous roots cluster together, joined to the bottom of a stem. The stem contains the new growing point for the next year — a piece of root alone won’t grow.   Dahlias and day lilies have tuberous roots as does alumroot in the wild garden.

Hepaticas are some of the first flowers to show and they exhibit a very different method.  They have fine hairlike roots that form a thick mat below the surface (as do native grasses, sedges, and rushes as well as many other colonizing wildflowers) but they retain their leaves all year and into the next spring. Thus the leaves are still present and ready to begin full photosynthesis as the weather warms and they can produce flowers before the leaves of other plants have even appeared. The old leaves wither only after the flowers have begun to form fruits and then new leaves are produced.

The hepatica is named from its leaves which have three lobes like the human liver. It was once used as a medicinal herb owing to the ancient doctrine of signatures which contended that herbs that resemble various parts of the body can be used to treat ailments of those parts of the body.  The flowers are most commonly blue or lavender, although there may be various shades of pink.  Each flower comes up from the ground on its own stem, which is covered by long fine hairs and is several inches tall. What appear to be the petals are technically the sepals and three bracts that surround each flower. The number of sepals on each flower can vary between six and twenty.

Bellworts, mayapples, trilliums, wild geraniums, wood anemones, bloodroot and many more wildflowers grow from slender, horizontal root stalks called rhizomes.  Rhizomes are stems that grow sideways rather than up, running along the surface of the soil or just below it. They branch out, and each new portion develops roots and a shoot of its own. Rhizomes usually have scaly reduced leaves along their surface and resting buds where they emerge. A rhizome may be propagated by division, and these resting buds will grow and produce leaves for a new plant.

Many people in the northern states treasure the first emerging flowers more than any of the subsequent blossoms no matter how extravagant because they signal the end of the months of ice and snow.  Soon the tree leaves will begin to turn the woodlands green and spring will arrive in all its splendor. 


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March 15, 2013:  What About Birds' Eyes?

For birds, glass windows are worse than invisible as they reflect foliage and sky and look inviting.  According to a recent study, up to a billion birds die from window strikes each year in our country.  Often a collision will temporarily stun a bird and it will fly off, but these birds often suffer internal bleeding or bruising on the brain and die later.  Dr. Daniel Klem of Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania has researched this issue and writes, “Intensive studies at single homes reveal one out of every two strikes results in a fatality.”

A bird’s eyesight is its most important sense. Those with eyes on the sides of their heads such as song birds have a wide visual field, essential for avoiding predators, while those with eyes on the front of their heads, such as owls, have binocular vision and can estimate distances when hunting. The American woodcock probably has the largest visual field of any bird, 360 in the horizontal plane, and 180 in the vertical plane.

In some ways, the eyes of  birds most closely resemble those of the reptiles, a clue in their evolution.  A circle of bony plates surrounds the eye and holds it rigid, but the lens is pushed further forward, increasing the size of the image on the retina.  A bird’s eyelids are not used in blinking; instead the eye is lubricated by a third concealed eyelid that sweeps horizontally across the eye like a windshield wiper. This also covers the eye and acts as a contact lens in many aquatic birds when they are under water.

The main structures of the bird eye are similar to those of other vertebrates. The outer layer consists of the transparent cornea at the front, and two layers a tough white collagen fibre layer which surrounds the rest of the eye and supports and protects the eye as a whole. The eye is divided internally by the lens into two main segments. The front chamber is filled with a watery fluid called the aqueous, and the posterior chamber contains the vitreous, a clear jelly-like substance.

The lens is a transparent convex with a harder outer layer and a softer inner layer and focuses the light on the retina. The shape of the lens can be altered by muscles, and some birds also have a second set of muscles that can change the shape of the cornea, thus allowing birds to focus over a wider range of view than is possible for mammals. The iris, a colored diaphragm in front of the lens, controls the amount of light entering the eye, and at its centre is the pupil, the opening through which the light passes to the retina.

The retina is a relatively smooth curved multi-layered structure containing the photosensitive rod and cone cells with the associated neurons and blood vessels.  Humans have about 200,000 receptors per square millimeter but the house sparrow has 400,000 and the common buzzard about 1,000,000.  Rods are better for night vision because they are sensitive to small quantities of light, while cones can detect specific colors (or wavelengths) of light. Each cone contains a colored oil droplet which contains high concentrations of carotenoids. These act as filters, removing some wavelengths and narrowing the absorption spectra of the pigments. This reduces the response overlap between pigments and increases the number of colors that a bird can discern.

Most birds are not only able to perceive the visible range but also the ultraviolet part of the spectrum, and other adaptations allow for the detection of polarized light.  The kestrel is able to recognize the presence of voles by perceiving the ultraviolet reflectance of their scent urine marks on their trails. The plumage of many bird species and secretions from some of their preen glands show specific color features that cannot be seen by the human eye, and are important in recognizing and courting potential mates.  An ultraviolet receptor may even give an bird an advantage in foraging for food, as the waxy surfaces of many fruits and berries reflect UV light that reveals their presence.

Migratory songbirds use the Earth’s magnetic field, stars, the Sun, and polarized sky light patterns to determine their migratory direction.  In some studies, birds moved their heads to detect the orientation of the magnetic field, and studies on the neural pathways have suggested that birds may be able to "see" the magnetic fields.  Then, too, an American study showed that migratory Savannah sparrows used polarized light from an area of sky near the horizon to recalibrate their magnetic navigation system at both sunrise and sunset. This suggested that skylight polarization patterns are the primary calibration reference for all migratory songbirds.

Perhaps the most fascinating fact about birds is that they use their right and left eyes independently.  A bird’s brain is divided into two hemispheres, as in humans, but contrarily, each eye is connected to a single hemisphere.  Interestingly, the more biased the sidedness at both the individual and species level, the more proficient those individuals are at particular tasks.  Scientists also tell us that birds can sleep with one eye open, thereby resting the other side of the brain and remaining alert for predators. They evidently can even sleep while they are flying, as observers have seen migrating flocks moving all night long.  Such abilities may seem impossible to us, but ornithologists continue to discover more facts about these amazing creatures. 

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March 8, 2016: Feathers

We use feathers in high-end winter jackets and sleeping bags.  We enjoy feather pillows, blankets, and mattresses.  They have long been used on arrows and some fishing lures.  Feathers are considered the most complex structures found in higher creatures, so just what are these strange objects and how and why do birds make them?
 
Tiny follicles in a bird’s outer skin layer produce keratin proteins -- the feather’s building material.   Each new feather grows from a small outgrowth of skin, and proteins are laid down around the surface of this bump of skin to form branches.  These fuse at the base to thicken it and the branches then form smaller branches (barbules) which fuse into barbs and the barbs fuse into a stalk -- a pin feather.  As the feather grows, it forms more branches, barbules and barbs but stays curled in a tubular shape until its protective sheath disintegrates near the tip, allowing the feather to unfurl. 

Throughout the year, the bird maintains its feathers through regular care, using its beak to pick through its feathers to remove any debris, arranging any that are out of place, and spreading a special oil that is secreted from a preen gland at the base of the tail.  Water birds usually have huge preen glands, for if their feathers were not oiled, they would quickly become waterlogged.

There are two basic types of feather: vaned feathers which cover the exterior of the body, and down feathers which are close to the skin.  A typical vaned feather features a main shaft and a series of branches which have barbs which are also branched and form barbules. These barbules have minute hooks for cross-attachment. Down feathers are fluffy because they lack hooks, causing the down to fluff up and trap air to provide thermal insulation. 

The primary and secondary wing feathers permit birds to fly. Unlike other feathers, flight feathers are anchored to bone with strong ligaments so they can withstand the demands of flight and be precisely positioned. The primaries are longest of the flight feathers. They occupy the outer half of the wing, can be controlled and rotated like rigid fingers, and provide most of the bird’s forward thrust. While secondaries cannot be controlled as extensively, they provide most of the lift by overlapping to form an efficient airfoil. Tail feathers are also classified as flight feathers as they are essential for steering.

Feathers lose their blood supply and die when they mature, and gradually abrade so that they need to be replaced at least once a year. The bird will shed some old feathers (molt) which will be replaced with pin feathers, and as the pin feathers mature, other feathers are shed. Because feathers make up to 12% of a bird's body weight, it takes a large amount of energy to replace them, so molts often occur immediately after the breeding season while food is abundant. 

Consider the male goldfinch.  For six weeks in the early fall, it will gradually lose all its feathers and regrow a new drab set. In the spring, it will shed its body feathers and replace them with bright yellow ones for the breeding season, while the wing and tail feathers remain.  By September, the wings look all black as the white edges are worn off and the full molting cycle begins again. Buntings, tanagers, and warblers also follow this schedule, while bluejays and cardinals molt only once in the fall and marsh wrens and bobolinks go through two full molts each year. 

The number of feathers on a bird varies according to the species, its age, and the season.  Most songbirds possess 2,000 to 4,000 feathers, of which 30 to 40 percent are located on the head and neck.  This concentration of feathers reflects the need to protect the brain against temperature extremes, and as a rule, the colder the climate a bird species lives in, the greater its number of feathers.  A tundra swan was found to have about 25,000 feathers, of which some 80 percent were on the head and neck.

Some birds also have a supply of powder down feathers which grow continuously, with small particles regularly breaking off from the ends of the barbules. These particles produce a powder that sifts through the feathers on the bird's body and acts as a waterproofing agent and a feather conditioner.  Pigeons and parrots have powder down scattered throughout their plumage while others such as herons have it in localized patches on the breast, belly, or flanks.  The feathers of cormorants soak up water and help to reduce buoyancy, thereby allowing the birds to swim submerged.

From the fossil record, we know that birds evolved from dinosaurs.  Scientists postulate that feathers likely appeared as simple tufts that originally evolved on those early reptiles for insulation; later, small species that grew more complex feathers might have found them helpful in gliding, leading to the evolution of more bird-like creatures.  The first major clue was Archaeopteryx, unearthed in Germany in 1861. Perhaps the most famous fossil find of all time, the Archaeopteryx specimen is 150 million years old and contains impressions of feathers that look like modern flight feathers. Then, in Northeastern China in 2009, archeologists discovered another feathered ancestor they named Anchiornis.  It was some 10 million years older than Archaeopteryx, proving that feathers evolved long before it was thought.
 
It was long believed that feathers could not have evolved from dinosaur scales as they are composed of two distinct forms of keratin; however, a study published in 2006 confirmed the presence of feather keratin in the scales of immature alligators. The presence of similar keratin in both birds and young alligators reinforced the theory that reptile scales and bird feathers were related.  Think of this as you watch the birds in your backyard or flying by up in the sky...



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March 1, 2016:  Swans in our Valley

Son Jim has a good eye for unusual sights and called our attention to some special visitors feeding in a field off Neuheisel Road last week.  A flock of perhaps twenty large white birds that could only be swans was scavenging the corn stubble along the road, and although most flew away as we approached, four adults and two juveniles remained.  (Juvenile swans are sooty gray with black-tipped, pink bills and do not become all white with a black bill until about a year old.)

Trumpeter swans were once fairly common throughout most of the northern United States and Canada until the 1880s, and in Wisconsin, they may have nested in all but the northeastern forested regions.  Market hunting and the use of swan skins in powder puffs and feathers in ladies’ hats rapidly reduced their numbers however, and by 1900, it was believed that the species had become extinct, a situation that fortunately wasn’t quite accurate.

A few were eventually discovered in the Northwest, and in 1935, the U.S. government established Montana’s Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge to protect them. Their numbers gradually increased, and by the late 1950s, the swans in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming had increased to 640 birds.  We now know that there was also a flock of trumpeter swans that survived in remote parts of Alaska and western Canada, and those flocks have grown and now make up the most secure population of trumpeters in North America.  The trumpeter was removed from Wisconsin’s endangered and threatened species list in 2009, and the state's biologists counted 1,500 birds in the state in 2015.

The trumpeter swan is the largest native waterfowl species in North America and has a wingspan of more than 7 feet, a height of about 4 feet, and may weigh as much as 30 pounds.  It has a broad, black bill with a narrow, salmon-red stripe along the base of the lower bill (the bill strip is often not visible in the field, however), with fine tooth-like notches along the edges that helps it strain aquatic plants and water as it feeds. The bird’s long neck and strong feet allows it to uproot plants in water up to 4 feet deep.  Trumpeters mate for life although if one member of a pair dies, the survivor will find another mate. They nest in large, shallow wetlands with a mix of vegetation and open water.

Nest building begins in mid-April and the pair will pile sedges and cattail tubers on top of a muskrat or beaver lodge if available or otherwise build a mound in shallow water. Then the pen (female) uses her body to form a depression in the nest and lays five to nine eggs, one every other day.   She incubates them for a month while the cob (male) protects the nest against intruders, sometimes Canada geese.  The cygnets (chicks) hatch in late May or early June, and after a day or two, they take to the water and start feeding on plants and invertebrates.  They are fully feathered by 9-10 weeks, although they can't fly until they are about 15 weeks old.

In late September, the cygnets can make short flights and before the water freezes, they head south to ice-free streams and ponds with their parents, migrating back north to their breeding area in the spring.  Shortly afterwards, they are driven away by their parents, but stick together until they're about two years old at which time they seek mates. The largest concentrations of Wisconsin trumpeters now nest in large flowages and isolated wetlands such as Crex Meadows, Fish Lake, Mead, Meadow Valley, Wood County, Sandhill Wildlife Areas and Necedah National Wildlife Refuge.

The trumpeter is often confused with the more common tundra swan, which is seen in Wisconsin during spring and fall migration, and is the only other native swan found in North America.  One difference between the two is the distinct yellow spot in front of the eye found on about 80 percent of tundra swans but the best way to distinguish the two species is by their calls -- the trumpeter call sounds deep and trumpet-like while the tundra swan has a high-pitched, quavering call.

Tundra swans vary in size, but are usually between 3 and 4 feet long with a wingspan of about 7 feet. They breed and nest in the tundra and in sheltered marshes on the Alaskan and Canadian coast near the Arctic Circle and pass through Wisconsin in large flocks on their way to the East coast in the fall. They overwinter on shallow ponds, lakes and estuaries near the Chesapeake Bay and in the marshes of Virginia and North Carolina, returning to their nesting grounds in early March through late May.

In Wisconsin, tundra swans eat mostly wild celery and arrowhead tubers, using their long necks to reach roots which they knock loose from the mud in shallow water with their large feet. On their wintering sites along the East coast, they will also eat small shellfish. Once they arrive on their nesting grounds, they gather mosses, sticks, and grasses to build a large, raised nest that rises safely above the water and lets the swan have a good view of any predators coming its way.

A third swan species -- the mute swan -- is an Eurasian species that escaped from domestic flocks and is now naturalized across the country. Close to a trumpeter in size, the mute swan is easily distinguished from other swans by its orange bill and prominent black fleshy knob extending from the base of the bill to the forehead.  Mute swans are considered an undesirable species, however, because they harass native ducks and geese and uproot large amounts of aquatic vegetation.

We could not tell which of the native swans we were seeing but guessed they were trumpeters as it would be early for tundras to be passing through, but it was thrilling to see them so close and we hope they will continue to visit our neighborhood in the future.


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February 23, 2016:  Pesky Squirrels

This is the best time of the year to observe our tree squirrels.  Three of the five Wisconsin species are usually regular visitors at bird feeders; the gray and fox squirrels all day -- every day -- and the Southern flying squirrel that will come after dark if there are many trees in the area.  The other two species, the red and Northern flying squirrel, seldom venture into southern Wisconsin.

Squirrels worldwide may range in size from three inches in length and weighing just a third of an ounce (the African pygmy squirrel), to twenty-nine inches long weighing eighteen pounds (the Alpine marmot). They typically have large gnawing incisors that grow throughout life and grinding cheek teeth set back behind a wide gap, and are predominantly herbivorous, subsisting on seeds and nuts with some insects or small vertebrates.

Most tree squirrels have slender bodies with bushy tails and large eyes.  They typically possess hind limbs that are longer than the fore limbs, and have four or five toes on each paw. Their paws include an often poorly developed thumb, and have soft pads on the undersides.  Unlike most mammals, tree squirrels can descend a tree headfirst. They do so by rotating their ankles 180 degrees so the hind paws are backward-pointing and can grip the tree bark.

As their large eyes indicate, most squirrels have an excellent sense of vision which is especially important for tree-dwelling species. They also have very versatile and sturdy claws for grasping and climbing.  Many also have a good sense of touch with sensitive hairs on their heads and limbs.  Most squirrels in the wild die in the first year of life but those that survive to adulthood can have a lifespan of 5 to 10 years.

Eastern gray squirrels are by far the most common species and are found in just about every wooded area in the state, even in urban situations. They are 18 to 21 inches long counting a bushy tail that is very important for balance when climbing and jumping. It also acts as a shield from wind and rain when the squirrel is curled up. Gray squirrels often have white hair behind their ears and on the chin, throat and belly.  Sensitive whiskers are found above and below the eyes, in front of the throat and on the nose and they also have very good eyesight even in dim light, with a wide field of vision. They also have a good sense of smell and hearing.

The other squirrel that may frequent your feeder is the considerably larger fox squirrel, whose length may measure up to 28 inches.  It is more brownish orange than the gray, and is an impressive jumper, easily spanning fifteen feet in horizontal leaps and free-falling twenty feet or more to a soft landing on a limb or trunk.  It spends more of its time on the ground than most other tree squirrels and usually comes together with others of its species only during breeding season.  It has a large vocabulary of clucking and chucking sounds, and will warn the whole neighborhood of approaching threats.

Researchers have recently recognized that squirrels show considerable intelligence, believing that the best way to judge animal intelligence is how well it adapts and makes use of the world around it.  They have noted that the gray squirrel in particular has been proven to be capable of living almost anywhere, so much so that in some other regions where it has been introduced such the UK, it has all but replaced the native red squirrel.

Squirrels have shown they are capable of remembering where they have buried nuts. In a study performed at Princeton University, grey squirrels were capable of using spatial memory to retrieve nut caches they had buried and remembering good sources of food from year to year. They are also capable of memorizing the easiest route up a tree to get back and forth from their nests.

To deter would-be robbers, squirrels will rebury a cache of nuts over and over.  They have been observed to pretend to bury a nut if they know they are being watched and wait until they are alone to actually hide it.  Being capable of actively deceiving another animal is a form of tactical deception, a skill once thought exclusive to primates. 

Researchers recently reported that the squirrels put on elaborate shows of deceptive caching to thwart would-be thieves. The behavior increased in a lab experiment after squirrels observed humans stealing their peanuts. The researchers concluded that the finding might well be a sign that squirrels can interpret intentions of others. Other studies have shown the critters make three-dimensional maps to recall where they cache their nuts, and squirrels in California have been seen to cover their fur in the scent of rattlesnakes presumably to mask their own scent from predators.

Squirrels are quick studies, capable of learning by observation. In studies performed at the University of Exeter, squirrels would watch another squirrel remove a nut from one of two pots. The squirrels learned quickly that if the squirrel they watched took the nut, the pot would be empty and that going for the opposite pot was the better bet.  Another test provided a box with 12 identically covered sunken wells, four of which were hollow and diagonally across from each other.  Nuts were placed in the hollow spaces and the squirrels quickly worked out that if one well contained a reward, another nut would be located in the well diagonally opposite it.  It was concluded that the grey squirrels were fast learners, capable of adapting tactics to improve efficiency and being able to learn by observation.

If you have ever hung a reportedly squirrel-safe bird feeder in your garden only to find it quickly emptied, you already know the pesky rodents are smart, but you will have to admit their antics are fun to watch. 

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February 16, 2016:  A Collection of "Woodies"

Most children and many adults are familiar with Woody Woodpecker and his “ha, ha, ha, Ha, ha” call, but the real-world bird is much more intriguing.  A woodpecker often courts his lady-love by banging his head against a solid tree, usually collects goodies by stabbing them with an amazingly long barbed tongue, and navigates up vertical tree trunks with no difficulty.  No other birds exhibit all these unique behaviors.

There are at least 16 types of woodpeckers in North America plus four kinds of sapsuckers and two flickers (close relatives in the family), and ten of these can be seen in Wisconsin, at least occasionally.  Wisconsin's County Forest Association says that sixteen million acres of the state is covered with forests (almost half its total acreage) so it is not surprising that so many woodpeckers live here and others visit.

Seven species of woodpeckers breed in Wisconsin.  At our feeders, both the the hairy and the downy woodpeckers are regular visitors.  The downy is the smallest woodpecker in North America and is mainly black on its upper parts, wings and tail, with a white back, belly and outer tail feathers, and with white spotting on the wings.  Adult males have a red patch on the back of the head, and in winter they and their mates often join roving mixed flocks of chickadees, nuthatches, and other birds in the woods.

A surprising fact is that the downy woodpecker is virtually identical in plumage pattern to the much larger hairy woodpecker.  Besides its size, it can only be distinguished by its bill, as that of the downy is shorter than its head, whereas the hairy woodpecker's bill is about equal to head length.  They may be lookalikes but ornithologists tell us that the two species are not closely related. Their outward similarity is a spectacular example of convergent evolution, where there are similar features in species of different lineages. 

Another regular visitor at our feeders is the red-bellied woodpecker.  Its common name is somewhat misleading, as the color on its belly is much less noticeable than the red on its head (in contrast to the red-headed woodpecker, a rather close relative that otherwise looks quite different).  Adults are mainly light gray on the face and underparts and have prominent black and white barred patterns on their back, wings and tail. Adult males have a red cap going from the bill back to the nape while females have a red patch on the nape and another above the bill.  Our pair stays close to home and raises its young in the huge old willow in our farmyard that is hollow and full of decay.

Many of the foraging, breeding and signaling behaviors of woodpeckers involve drumming and hammering using the bill.  To prevent brain damage from the rapid and repeated impacts, woodpeckers have evolved to possess a number of adaptations to protect the brain.  One is a self-sharpening, chisel-like beak that drives itself into wood rather than stopping abruptly.  The woodpecker also has strong neck muscles, and a small brain that fits snugly into a reinforced skull so that it can’t move.  The orientation of the brain itself is also important, as it allows the force to be spread over a larger surface area.  Then too, a millisecond before contact with wood, transparent membranes close over the eyes, shielding them from flying debris. The nostrils are also protected as they are often slit-like and have special feathers to cover them.

Another fascinating tool of the woodpecker is its tongue. Unlike a human tongue which is primarily muscular, that of a woodpecker (and other birds) is rigidly supported by a cartilage-and-bone skeleton called the hyoid.  Two horns of the hyoid project backward and laterally from the base of the tongue and when the hyoid apparatus is moved forward, the tongue is extended. The greater the length of the hyoid horns, the farther the tongue can be extended, and the tongue can be several times longer than the bill.  In some cases, the tongue is so long it forks in the throat, goes below the base of the jaw, and wraps behind and over the top of the head, where the forks rejoin and insert in the bird's right nostril or around the eye socket.

Downy, hairy, red-bellied, and red-headed woodpeckers have barbed tongues that are intermediate in length as they feed on a variety of foods.  Flickers, which relish ants, have a very long flattened tongue with few barbs and rely on sticky saliva to capture their prey.  Sapsuckers have a more unusual tongue than any of the woodpeckers: it is short and terminates with brush-like bristles that absorb sap through capillary action.

A final adaptation of the woodpecker involves its feet; while most birds have one toe pointing back and three pointing forward on each foot, woodpeckers have two sharply clawed toes pointing in each direction.  This arrangement helps them grasp the bark of trees and balance while they hammer.  Many species also have stiffened tail feathers, which they press against a tree surface to help support their weight.

Other woodpeckers in our woods that do not frequent our feeders are the red-headed and pileated woodpeckers.  The gorgeous red-headed has an entirely crimson head, a snow-white body, and half white, half black wings. It often seems to move farther south in the winter but also has declined greatly in the past half-century perhaps because of habitat loss and changes to its food supply.  The pileated is here and healthy and we more often see the results of its excavations than the bird itself.  It is nearly crow-sized and is black with bold white stripes down the neck and a flaming-red crest.  The Northern flicker and yellow-bellied sapsucker also breed here but migrate south when cold weather arrives.   We are much blessed.


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February 9, 2016: The Much Maligned Weasel

There are three species of weasels in Wisconsin, the short-tailed, long-tailed and least weasel, and all belong to the family Mustelidae which also includes polecats, ferrets, minks, badgers, otters and wolverines.  The pelts of all three are brownish and are replaced by winter white coats that begin to appear by the first of November.  The long-tail and short-tail sport a black tip on their tails--an attribute which may confound the striking accuracy of an attacking owl or hawk. 

The long-tailed and short-tailed weasels are quite similar and it is often difficult to distinguish between the two.  The long-tailed is often larger, however, but both weasels have well-developed anal scent glands for defense which give out a strong and musky odor produced by several sulphuric compounds. Scent glands are also present on the cheeks, belly and flanks and the animal rubs its body over surfaces in order to scent mark its territory.

Weasels are fearless and aggressive hunters and may attack animals far larger than themselves.  They hunt small prey such as mice by rushing at them and killing with one bite to the head, while with large prey, such as rabbits, they grab the nearest part of the animal and climb upon its body to inflict a lethal bite to the neck.  They eat all kinds of rodents, but also small birds, eggs, and almost anything that moves. They occasionally surplus kill, usually in the spring when the kits are being fed, and again in autumn. Some of the surplus kills may be cached but are sometimes left uneaten.

Weasels mate in July or August and make their nests in a hollow stumps, rock piles or under buildings.  They, along with approximately a hundred other different mammals in seven or eight different orders, experience what is called delayed implantation or embryonic diapause.  This is a reproductive strategy where the embryo does not immediately implant in the uterus but becomes dormant in the mother’s body.  Little or no development takes place while the embryo remains unattached to the uterine wall until the following March.  At that point, the actual embryonic development begins and four weeks later the kits are born, an adaptation to timing births for spring, when small mammal prey is abundant. 

Litter size generally consists of five to eight naked, blind kits, each weighing about the same as a hummingbird.  Growth is rapid, however, and by the age of three weeks, the kits are well furred, can crawl outside the nest and eat meat.  They are fully grown by autumn and the females are able to breed at three to four months of age, while males become sexually mature at fifteen to eighteen months.

The short-tailed weasel has the common name “stoat”, a designation that seems to come from the old Dutch word stout (meaning naughty) or the Gothic word stautan (to push). When tackling large prey, the stoat bites the back of its target, bringing it down by damaging its spine.  Small prey typically die instantly from a bite to the back of the neck, while larger prey, such as rabbits, seem to die of shock, as the stoat's canine teeth are too short to reach the spinal column or major arteries.  The stoat’s white winter coat which is called ermine is especially treasured for its beauty.  It is a luxury fur often used by British peers of the realm and Catholic pontiffs and cardinals who sometimes wear capes made from it. 

The least weasel is only about 6-inches long,with a short tail, and is the smallest living carnivore in the world.  Unlike the other two weasels, least weasels don't have black tips on their tails, though they may have a few black hairs.  Their reproduction is similar, as is their diet, preying primarily on small mammals and birds. It is much less common than the other species and is categorized as of special concern in Wisconsin.

All the weasels reportedly perform a fascinating “weasel war dance” when they have their prey cornered. Scientists aren’t totally sure why they do this, but one theory is that the twisting, hopping and darting around distracts, confuses, or even hypnotizes prey animals.  In one case, some researchers concluded that a number of rabbits had actually “died of fright” after being subjected to the weasel war dance.  Others have believed that this behavior might be the result of a nematode infection as sometimes there is no prey in sight, and a weasel is just dancing on its own.

Weasels are easiest to detect in winter when leaf cover is gone and tracks on the snow will show that one has passed that way. The little animal will leave staggered pairs of little footprints placed in a bounding gait fashion.  Its intense curiosity and insatiable appetite leads it to range widely in a seemingly erratic fashion, and it seldom travels far in any one direction as it pokes into every hole, nook and cranny it passes. Its slender body can squeeze into lairs and runways of mice and its sensitive nose and ears will quickly locate any tenants.

Weasels have voracious appetites, and each may eat about 30 percent of its weight each day. They have from time to time been considered vermin, since they occasionally take poultry or rabbits from farms but they perform a valuable service in removing untold numbers of rodents from fields and gardens. 


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February 2, 2016  All About Trees

Ever wonder why some trees have leaves that live only a few months and then drop off, while others seem to hold their leaves throughout the year?  Two distinctive types of trees are found growing around the world. Deciduous forest communities have formed under conditions where the temperature can drop as low as minus twenty degrees with leaf drop and dormancy during cold winters, and tropical trees that have developed in response to seasonal rainfall patterns rather than temperature variations. The converse of deciduous is evergreen, where foliage is shed on a different schedule from deciduous trees, therefore appearing to remain green year round.

In our area, leaf loss coincides with winter.  Leaves on deciduous plants have several processes taking place during their short lives. Many remove nitrogen and carbon from their foliage and store them as proteins in their roots and the inner bark. These will be used as a nitrogen source during the growth of new leaves or flowers in the spring.  During the summer months the plants continually replenish the supply of chlorophylls in their foliage needed for photosynthesis, but as days grow shorter or when plants are drought-stressed, the chlorophyll pigment production steadily decreases.   Also, several layers of special cells are formed between the leaf petiole and the plant stem. These cells receive the support of a plant hormone called auxin in the leaf during favorable weather, but in autumn or when under stress, the auxin production decreases, allowing the cell layers to separate and causing the leaf to fall to the ground.

Many deciduous plants flower during the period when they are leafless, as this increases the effectiveness of pollination.  The absence of leaves improves wind transmission of pollen for wind-pollinated plants and increases the visibility of the flowers to insects in insect-pollinated plants.  Also, there is much less branch and trunk breakage from winter ice storms when leafless, and plants can reduce water loss due to the reduction in availability of liquid water during cold winter days.

On the other hand, evergreen trees are scattered from central Wisconsin to the North (although they have been planted throughout the state).   Evergreen trees do lose their leaves, but not all at once.  New leaves are constantly being grown as old ones are shed, some every few months, while others such as the bristlecone pine may hold them for years.  In the winter, photosynthesis stops, the water in the ground is frozen, and sometimes the water inside tree cells freezes.  Evergreens combat the severe threat of freezing and winter water loss by developing tough cell walls, antifreeze-like sap, and a waxy coating on the needles. The tough cell wall prevents splitting when ice crystals form inside the cells; the waxy coating reduces water loss by evaporation. Cessation of photosynthesis also retards water loss.

Plants with deciduous foliage have advantages and disadvantages compared to plants with evergreen foliage. Since deciduous plants lose their leaves to conserve water or to better survive winter weather, they must regrow new foliage when warmer weather returns; this uses resources which evergreens do not need to expend.   However, losing leaves in winter may reduce damage from insects as repairing leaves and keeping them functioning may be more costly than just losing and regrowing them.

Evergreens suffer greater water loss during the winter and they also can be damaged by browsing animals, especially when small.  However, evergreen leaf and needle litter has a higher carbon-nitrogen ratio than deciduous leaf litter, contributing to a higher soil acidity and lower soil nitrogen content. These conditions favor the growth of more evergreens and make it more difficult for deciduous plants to persist. In addition, the shelter provided by existing evergreen plants can make it easier for younger evergreen plants to survive cold and/or drought.

Evergreen trees give us vibrant green color in winter when the rest of the world has turned brown or is covered with a blanket of white.  Wisconsin has one conifer that is not evergreen; the tamarack, commonly found in swamps, fens, bogs, and other lowland areas, changes color (to yellow) and sheds all of its leaves each fall.  The rest of the conifers remain green year-round and will lose brown needles occasionally as the tree grows. Evergreens are able to make food throughout the early and late parts of the growing season.

Peter Wohlleben, a German forest ranger has become an avid supporter of trees of all kinds.  He has set forth the supposition from his own observations and from what he says is scientific research that trees in the forest are social beings.  He contends, in highly anthropomorphic terms, that they can count, learn and remember; nurse sick neighbors; warn each other of danger by sending electrical signals across a fungal network known as the “Wood Wide Web”; and, for reasons unknown, keep the ancient stumps of long-felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots.  He explains the he found that, in nature, trees operate less like individuals and more as communal beings, working together in networks and sharing resources.

Whatever your opinion of his theories, there is no doubt that trees are far more interesting than we might have thought.   


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January 26, 2016: Procyon lotor (Raccoon)

One morning last week, we discovered one of our small bird feeders lying on the ground below its feeder pole with what remained of its contents spread around, to the obvious delight of our bird freeloaders.  The feeder itself was equipped with a threaded screw that went through the lid, secured with a decorative nut -- or so we thought. The lid was lying on the ground to one side with the nut some distance away.  Who could have accomplished such a raid?

Our best guess was a raccoon, an animal that even looks the part of a thief with its beady eyes, agile fingers and black mask. This creature is recognized just about everywhere because of its distinctive face and tail and can be found in forests, prairies, farms and even in cities.  It usually walks, but can run at speeds of up to 15 miles an hour, is a great climber which allows it to access food and shelter that would otherwise be out of reach and is also a good swimmer. 

In the natural world, raccoons catch many of their meals in the water. Their hand-like front paws can grab crayfish, frogs, and other aquatic creatures, and on land, they snatch mice and insects from their hiding places and raid nests for eggs.  They will also eat fruit and plants—including those grown in our gardens and farm---and will even raid garbage cans to see what might still be edible inside.  Raccoons seldom attack larger or aggressive birds and mammals, prefering easier prey.

One aspect of raccoon behavior is so well known that it gives the animal part of its scientific name, Procyon lotor; "lotor" is neo-Latin for "washer".  In the wild, raccoons often dabble for underwater food near the shoreline, examining any catch and sometimes rubbing it all over to remove unwanted portions.  Their sensitive front paws are protected by a thin horny layer which becomes pliable when wet and are supplied with large vibrissae, a type of hair that has follicles that are well supplied with nerves connected to the cortex in the brain. The tactile sensitivity of raccoons' paws is increased if this rubbing action is performed underwater, since the water softens the hard layer covering the paws. 

Raccoons also possess nimble digits that give them the ability to open doors, jars, bottles and latches. Only a few studies have been undertaken to determine their mental abilities, most of them based on the animal's sense of touch. In a study by the ethologist H. B. Davis in 1908, raccoons were able to open 11 of 13 complex locks in fewer than 10 tries and had no problems repeating the action when the locks were rearranged or turned upside down. Davis concluded they understood the abstract principles of the locking mechanisms, and their ability was equivalent to that of rhesus macaques, monkeys that have demonstrated the ability to make judgments, understand simple rules, and show self-awareness.

Raccoons are mostly nocturnal and usually solitary, except for mothers with their young.  In the winter they may sleep in their dens through periods of extreme cold or deep snow, but they do not truly hibernate.  While males usually reach their sexual maturity their second year, female yearlings are often bred and are thought to be responsible for about 50% of all young born each year. They become fertile for a three- or four-day period between late January and mid-March, and the males roam their home ranges in search of receptive females.  

Raccoons do not construct their own den sites and will nest almost anywhere -- a hollow tree, barn, attic, old squirrel nest, crawl space under a house or shed, or groundhog hole. Two to five blind and deaf kits are born five to six weeks after the mating with the mask already visible against their light fur.  In about two months, they will weigh about two pounds and begin to explore outside the den, consuming solid food for the first time. 

A raccoon’s life expectancy in the wild is only two to three years, mostly because of vehicle accidents, hunting and trapping.  Bobcats, coyotes, and great horned owls prey on the young kits, and distemper can occasionally reach epidemic proportions and spread throughout the local raccoon population.  Raccoons can carry rabies although, according to the Center for Disease Control, only one person has ever died from a rabid raccoon bite. 

Suzanne MacDonald, a comparative psychologist who studies raccoon behavior at York University in Toronto, has compared the problem-solving skills of rural and city raccoons and reports that urban animals outperform their country relatives in both intelligence and ability.  One particularly persistent urban raccoon even learned to open doors leading into MacDonald’s garage, where she keeps her garbage bins. It stood up on an overturned flowerpot, and kept pulling and pushing on the round knob of the door handle with its paws until it turned.  She observed that urban raccoons seem to be more adventurous and innovative while the rural animals were more fearful and suspicious of new experiences.

We saw no prints or other evidences of the identity of our raider and the feeder seemed to hang too high for a raccoon to reach, but I read that while the average animal measures about 28 inches, head to hindquarters, some are longer and one well might stand upright and bat it down with its paws.  It certainly has the ability to do the deed so we will assume it guilty until proven otherwise.



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January 18, 2016: All About Rodents

What do coyotes, shrews, snakes, hawks, foxes, bobcats, owls, and raccoons have in common? They all relish a tasty mouse dinner. In fact, mice and the other rodents provide the main food source directly or indirectly for a large portion of the wild world. Of the 4000 species of mammals, rodents number well over 1600, and just the family that includes mice and rats has more than 1100 species. Add to these numbers the fact that many have prodigious capacities of reproduction, and it is easy to understand the importance of this link in the food chain.

Everyone is familiar with mice, rats, hamsters, and guinea pigs, which are commonly kept as pets, but beavers, muskrats, porcupines, woodchucks, chipmunks, squirrels, prairie dogs, marmots and voles are also rodents. Incidentally, rabbits are not, differing in having an extra pair of incisors plus a few other bone differences, and neither are shrews or moles, as they are classified among the insect-eaters.

Most rodents are herbivorous, but otherwise show a wide range of lifestyles. Gophers live underground while squirrels live in trees; muskrats and beavers spend most of their time in the water while kangaroo rats live on the desert; porcupines are solitary while prairie dogs have highly social colonies; woodchucks hibernate while mice are active all winter. Despite this diversity, all rodents share certain common features.

Both their upper and lower jaws have a single pair of incisors (teeth adapted for cutting) which have thick enamel layers on the front but not on the back, causing them to retain their chisel shape as they are worn down. They gnaw with their incisors by pushing the lower jaw forward, and chew with the molars by pulling the lower jaw backwards. These grow continually throughout the animal's life so it must gnaw every day or risk having its teeth become overgrown and useless.

Native rodents are found on all continents except Antarctica. The capybara is a South American species that is about the size of a pig and may weight as much as 110 pounds, making it the biggest modern rodent. Even this would have been dwarfed by the extinct giant beaver that was as large as a bear. The modern beaver is the biggest rodent in North America, growing three to four feet long and weighing up to sixty pounds. Its impressive incisors have chisel-sharp edges capable of cutting down a large tree. It also has a flat sixteen-inch tail that can be used as a rudder while swimming and as a tool to slap on the water to warn other beavers of danger.

The beaver is a skillful architect, first damming a stream to create a pond and then building a large, partially submerged home. To beavers, a pond is security, and one seldom ventures far from its shore. I had always considered beavers rather dull and uninteresting aside from their talent in construction, but some years ago on a visit to Canada we saw a pair in a museum display that changed my mind. They were housed in a natural-looking habitat, complete with small pond, lodge, and lounging area. The most fascinating part of the exhibit was the beavers' obvious interest in the visiting children. The big male climbed as close to them as he could get so that they could reach over the wall and pet him, a mutual-admiration society of the first order.

Perhaps the strangest of our North American rodent species is the porcupine. This slow moving vegetarian readily climbs trees to eat their twigs and buds, sometimes girdling and even killing them. It can weigh 30 pounds or more in summer but its weight drops dramatically during the lean months of winter when its diet is restricted to needles, buds and the bark of pines, maples and birch. How this animal can survive on foods with a protein content of only two to three percent is truly amazing.

Its real claim to fame, however, is its wooly fur undercoat from which emerge some 30,000 loosely attached quills. Each five-inch quill has a barbed tip that makes it extremely difficult to remove once imbedded in an attacker, and is surrounded by eight-inch-long guard hairs. Porcupines are one of the few rodents that have almost no predators (because of this very effective defense), and it generally lives a peaceful life. On a camping trip in northern Wisconsin, one ambled past me and climbed a tree nearby, never acknowledging my presence, as I stood transfixed.

When we think of rodents, however, we don't usually have beavers or porcupines or woodchucks in mind, nor even the numerous species of native rats and mice. Far more well known are the rats and mice that have been introduced to our continent from Europe and Asia since the earliest days of our nation. The Norway rat, which can reach a length of 20 inches including its bare, scaly tail, has traveled the world on ships since men began to sail the seas and has established itself anywhere it found food to survive.   Untold numbers of humans have died because of diseases carried by these successful stow-a-ways, and billions of dollars of damage is done to food stores throughout the world.

Then there is the much smaller house mouse, which eats only about 3 grams of food per day but because of its habit of nibbling on and discarding partially eaten items, destroys considerably more food than it consumes. Also these relative newcomers tend to stay close to human establishments, and must be guarded against in homes, warehouses and other establishments.  Despite the problems associated with these imports, all rodents are important members of our natural community and fascinating creatures. 



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January 13, 2016:  The Wiley Coyote

“The last two months have been packed with news about coyote conflicts in Wisconsin,” Canid Project researchers posted on their Facebook page recently, citing reports from Madison, Milwaukee, Neenah, Mequon, and more.  They tell of coyotes following and attacking pets even in fenced yards or being walked on a leash.  Now, a mobile app called Safe Pet Alert has been developed that enables users to report and receive notification of local sightings and attacks by coyotes using location-based technology.

The coyote usually weighs from 25 to 30 pounds and looks much like a small German shepherd dog, with gray brown fur, long legs, a pointed nose, erect pointed ears, yellow eyes, and a bushy, black-tipped tail. It also has a relatively large brain, and exceptional senses of smell, sight and hearing. Coyotes prey mostly on rodents, pouncing and sometimes catching their prey as they go. We have watched an animal stop short, listening as it cocked its head from side to side, and then jump straight up in the air, all four feet coming down where the prospective dinner was thought to be hidden in the grass or under the snow.  Often it required several attempts, but a surprising number of times it was successful and gulped down the mouse whole. 

Coyotes have been found to be highly intelligent, and some researchers contend that they are the smartest of all the wild creatures. For years, man has tried to annihilate them with guns, poisons, traps, and hunting by helicopters, but coyote numbers continue to increase even though about 100,000 are killed yearly in the U.S.A. alone. In Wisconsin, trapping and hunting are legal year-round without a DNR license, but no matter how cleverly man devises new methods to eliminate the elusive coyote, it always finds a way to outwit its hunters and even thrive.  In fact, humans are probably responsible for developing today’s larger, faster, smarter, more cunning and very adaptable animal. 

Coyotes require a minimum of shelter during most of the year. They usually curl up in a concealed, protected spot, although they do use dens for whelping and rearing pups. A coyote seldom digs its own den, instead using a natural cavity or an abandoned woodchuck or badger den. We have found two den sites through the years, one an excavation under a big downed tree and the other an impressive digging halfway up a wooded hillside. That hole, which was about 15 inches across, entered the ground under a tree root, and continued as an extensive tunnel with a pile of sand at the entrance six feet long, four feet across, and 12 inches deep.

 Although coyotes avoid wolves and dogs under normal conditions, they occasionally mate with them and create hybrid offspring that are usually larger than a typical coyote. A few years ago, we were concerned to see our big male collie out in the middle of the field surrounded by three curious coyotes, the animals alert and sniffing each other warily. There are no reliable records of hybrid coyotes in Wisconsin but they can be found in the Northeastern states.

Coyotes have long been one of the most controversial of all non-game animals. Agricultural interests have urged their control by whatever means necessary so that actual and potential livestock losses may be eliminated.  Also, some sportsmen feel the coyote is responsible for the declines in some game species. On the other hand, environmentalists firmly believe that the coyotes are necessary to preserve the balance of nature, and biologists agree that while individual animals preying repeatedly on livestock and poultry should be removed, the coyote is generally beneficial as much of its diet is made up of destructive rodents.

Pairs usually mate in February, and produce five or six pups in April. The pups join their parents on hunting trips at eight to ten weeks of age and begin to disperse in the fall, although some may stay together for a year or two. When a pup leaves the family group it usually relocates within five to ten miles, although records show some have traveled more than a hundred miles.  As many as 50 to 70 percent of all juvenile coyotes die before they reach adulthood and those that become adults typically live three to five years, with 30 to 50 percent of the adult population dying each year.

A growing population of gray wolves also now is present in Wisconsin, one of about a dozen states in the country where they exist in the wild.  Wolves are social animals, living in family packs whose territory may cover 20-80 square miles. The gray wolf was removed from the state endangered species list in 2004 and was federally delisted on January 27, 2012, only to be relisted in December 2014.  The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources reports that as of last winter there were about 750 wolves in 206 packs, 30-plus loners, and 29 wolves on Indian reservations in the state.  The closest packs to our area are in Crawford, Adams and Juneau Counties and as the wolf numbers increase, it is likely that coyote numbers will fall, although perhaps we would agree that coyotes are the safer neighbors.

To the farmer, the coyote is often an enemy, a predator that may kill young livestock and poultry; to the hunter, a threat to his sport; to others, it is a romantic wild dog -- until it attacks a pet.  There is no doubt that it is a predator that kills to survive and that some coyotes choose valued animals as their prey. The coyote is also a fascinating, intelligent creature, and is a valuable component of the wild landscape, an important part of the balance of nature, and adds fascinating sights and sounds to our outdoors experience.





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January 5, 2015:  Winter Avian Visitors

Chickadees, cardinals, English sparrows, goldfinches, titmice, bluejays, several woodpeckers and many other birds remain at the farm all winter and their presence brightens dreary days.  Joining them, however, are a number of northern birds that surprisingly consider Wisconsin as their winter vacation from their Canadian and arctic breeding grounds. 

Least hospitable in the winter is the arctic tundra that has a permanently frozen subsoil, called permafrost, which makes it impossible for trees to grow.   Since the sun does not rise for nearly six months of the year, it is not unusual for the temperature to be below -30F in winter.   In summer, a thin layer of topsoil thaws and creates many pools, lakes, and marshes, a haven for mosquitoes, midges, and blackflies.  More than 100 species of birds are attracted there to breed by the insect food and its safe feeding ground.

The dark-eyed junco does not go as far north as the arctic, but nests in coniferous or mixed-coniferous forests across Canada.  This “snowbird” is probably the most common of the winter migrants at our feeders and is easily identified by its slate gray head and back and white underbelly and outer tail feathers.  When foraging, a dark-eyed junco typically hops (rather than walks) on the ground, pecking or scratching at the leaf litter, or flits very low in underbrush gleaning food from twigs and leaves.  It becomes social during the fall and winter, moving around in small flocks of fifteen to twenty-five birds, and the flocks tend to return to the same areas each winter.

Other small birds frequent our feeders such as the redpoll, the purple finch, the tree sparrow, the red-breasted nuthatch and pine siskin.  This latter finch is an uncommon summer resident in northern Wisconsin nesting in conifer forests, but can be found statewide in winter.  Its plumage is heavily streaked and shows a flash of yellow in its wings and tail.  Also characteristic is its wheezy "chleep" and "shreee" calls.

The redpoll behaves and flies much like the pine siskin (or a goldfinch), but has a red crown and black chin.  Males have rosy breasts and they do breed on the arctic tundra and in boreal forest areas in Canada.  Another reddish bird, the purple finch is the bird that Roger Tory Peterson described as a “sparrow dipped in raspberry juice.” For many of us, they are only irregular winter visitors to our feeders, although these chunky, big-beaked finches also do breed across northern North America and the West Coast.

American tree sparrows can be identified by their plain grey breasts with the single spot in the center, as well as their orangish caps and eye stripes.  They peck the ground in small flocks, trading soft, musical twitters and sometimes clinging to bent weeds to knock down hanging seeds.  The red-breasted nuthatch is a smaller version of our common white-breasted type, but has blue-grey upper parts with cinnamon flanks, a white throat and face with a black stripe through the eyes. 

Until recently, we also watched for the arrival of a larger visitor -- a rough-legged hawk.  It returned to the same utility pole on Rainbow Road for many years and we enjoyed watching it hover over the adjacent field, wings flapping, while searching for a meal.  Its name comes its feathered legs all the way to its toes, and as this particular bird was a “light” version, it was easily identified by its pale underwings with dark patches at the bend of the wing and on the tips of the tail feathers.  When hunting, these hawks often face into the wind and hover, scanning the ground below for small mammal prey. They often perch on fence posts and utility poles, and sometimes on slender branches at the very top of a tree and they soar with their wings raised in a slight dihedral, or V-shape.  “Our” hawk didn’t return last winter and we miss it.

Much more press is given to great gray and northern hawk owls when they occasionally make their way south during the winter months but I could find only one report of a northern hawk owl just south of Eau Claire this year and none of the great gray.  The latter bird is the tallest American owl with the largest wingspan (33 inches with a five foot wingspan) while the northern hawk owl is only about 14 inches tall. 

Numbers of the snowy owls seem to have dropped off precipitously the past month after some sixty-five were reported in the state in October and twenty-two in November, and only a handful of the owls have been seen in recent weeks.  Snowy owls are usually found in open spaces such as coastal beaches, open grasslands and agricultural fields similar to the arctic tundra they call home, but can sometimes appear in suburban or even urban settings.  They usually feed on small lemming-like rodents but also will also take ducks, rabbits and pigeons.  They are most likely to be seen in Milwaukee and other lakeside communities where they can most easily find food.

Most of the information on the presence and numbers of our winter birds comes from the Christmas Bird Count that is held by the Audubon Society between December 14 to January 5 each year.  Anyone can participate but it is necessary to register with a volunteer coordinator who is in charge of each particular 15-mile-diameter area.  It is over now, but there is next year... 



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December 29, 2016:  Where Have All the Critters Gone?

The woods are quiet at this time of year, although we sometimes glimpse the turkey flock and see signs of coyote and deer. Most of the other mammals that live here have taken shelter underground, a few hibernating but others venturing out on these past mild days and retreating only when it turned nasty. 

We tend to think of all the farm’s inhabitants as ours, even though we know that it is the wildlife that really owns the land and we who are just temporary caretakers.  Many of them are firmly rooted in the territories where their families have lived for many generations while others come and go following their own agendas. It is intriguing to conjecture just where all of these various “family members” are right now, as we sit snug and warm in our living room. 

The birds, of course, are the widest ranging, and many have traveled thousands of miles since we last saw them.  The killdeer and woodcocks, along with the whip-poor-wills, are probably down near the gulf coast in Florida or Texas.   Also making that trip, although they may have stopped at inviting spots along the way are the phoebes, sapsuckers, kingbirds, tree swallows, wrens, catbirds, and kinglets.  If the fact that a tiny bird can travel south a thousand miles and find its way back again is amazing, how much more so is the knowledge that many other species cross the Gulf and keep going.

The ruby-throated hummingbirds that sipped from our feeders all summer are probably now in Central America, while the bobolinks from our back field are even further down in South America.  The northern orioles that nested in the big willow are now basking in the tropics, and the yellow warbler that sang in the big oak along the road is possibly in Peru. The scarlet tanagers may be splashing in the Amazon River, and the indigo buntings could be flying about in the West Indies.

On the other hand, robins, geese, bluebirds, meadowlarks, some of the warblers and many of the sparrows probably went no farther than necessary to escape the worst of the winter weather, and a few may even have holed up in protected spots here in the state. We are seeing small flocks of bluebirds regularly and I would guess that there are some robins in the woods.

The monarch butterfly that we watched emerge from a chrysalis last September may have caught a strong north wind and made its way into Texas or even Mexico. The giant swallowtail, red admiral, and painted lady butterflies that were flitting about the zinnias just weeks ago as well as the darner dragonflies that patrolled our fields are also most likely hundreds of miles to the South.  Most of our insects that will survive the winter, however, are tucked into some crevice or under a stone or log where they have become dormant and frozen until spring breathes new life into their virtually lifeless bodies.

The spring peepers and other tree frogs are also probably frozen, lying hidden in the leaves and brush in the woods.  How the bodies of these amphibians can thaw unharmed when spring arrives is another of those mysteries of life that scientists and we lay-people find so fascinating.  It is known that they accumulate a considerable quantity of glucose in their cells which seems to act as an antifreeze and limits dehydration, and that water in their body cells migrates out into the spaces between them, but just how the process can work as it does is not fully understood. 

Most other frogs and toads spend the winter underwater in the mud of the pond or buried in the soil in the woods, as their bodies are not able to withstand freezing and so must somehow reach frost-free spots.   The snakes are able to go deeper underground, taking shelter in tunnels below the frost line that were acquisitioned from a variety of excavators that may or may not have given up ownership willingly. 

Snakes cannot survive freezing either, but their metabolism gradually slows as the temperature drops. Scientists at one time did not believe this process to be a true hibernation such as some mammals experience, but now I read that they are revising their conclusions and some contend that it is.  We have an ancient oak stump that has harbored a variety of these reptiles for years, and I have always wished that we could thread a tiny camera down one of the many tunnels beneath it and see what might be hidden there.

Although many of the travelers as well as some of the stay-at-homes will not survive to see another spring, enough will so that each species will survive, and in a few months we will again witness their almost magical reappearance. The days have already begun to lengthen, the larger owls are courting as evidenced by their nighttime serenades, and the babies that are growing inside the does are beginning to look like fawns.   Another year has begun.



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December 22, 2015: Christmas Trees
   
In our hustle and bustle this week, we may have missed an important date in our year -- the winter solstice.  It occurred about an hour before midnight on December 21st, that time when our hemisphere was leaning farthest away from the sun, and therefore the sun made its lowest arc in the sky and we had our fewest hours of daylight.  Solstice means “standing-still-sun”, and ancient and not-so-ancient people considered it a very significant time of year.

Egyptians believed that Ra, the sun god, became sick and weak each year, and at the solstice, he would begin to recover. They made it a time of celebration that symbolized the triumph of life over death, and they filled their homes with greenery. Plants and trees that remained green all year had a special meaning for many of the early peoples, and in many countries it was believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness.

As the Christian message was spread across these lands, many of the pagan festivals and customs were given new meanings. Tradition credits Martin Luther as being the first to attach burning candles to an indoor tree, in an attempt to recreate the sight of shining stars through an evergreen forest. A 1605 diary found in Strasburg describes a tree decorated with paper roses, apples and candies, and Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition, as we now know it.

In the New World, the Puritans believed that decorated trees desecrated the holy day, and as late as the 1840s, most Americans still considered Christmas trees as pagan objects. Today, however, the tree is seen as a symbol of the Christmas spirit by most Christians and a fitting center for family and religious gatherings. It is interesting that it is non-Christian groups in America who now object to calling it a Christmas tree.

There were few native evergreen trees in southern Wisconsin suitable for this use until white men planted them, although there were tamarack or larch -- deciduous trees that lose their needles yearly, as well as arborvitae and red cedars, both trees with small scale-like leaves instead of needles. Conifers were the dominant tree farther north, however, and pines and spruce were eventually established throughout the state.

The distinctive characteristic of conifers is not that they are evergreen and bear needles, but that they bear cones instead of real fruits. They are often thought of as a step between spore producing plants such as mosses and tree ferns and flower-producing plants, as they produce flower-like pollen and seeds, but they don't have real flowers. Small, bright yellow stamens emerge from male cones among the needles and often hang down in clusters, producing pollen that is carried by the wind to the tiny female cones.

Like the blossom on a flowering plant, the cone is actually a highly modified branch; unlike the flower, it does not have sepals or petals but consists of a central axis surrounded by overlapping, scale-like, modified leaves. The numerous scales of the male cone bear pollen sacs and those of the female cone bear ovules in which egg cells are produced.

In the spring when the pollen is released, the scales of the female cone separate slightly and exude a sticky substance that traps the airborne pollen grains and draws them down into the ovule. The scales then close to protect the developing ovules and it is usually a year or two before the seeds have developed. At that point, the scales again separate, allowing the mature, winged seeds to be dispersed. The female parts of junipers, tamarack, and yews differ in that they produce fleshy cone scales that fuse to form a berrylike structure.

Most conifers have a central trunk and a tiered or whorled arrangement of branches, and except for the few deciduous types, the conifers are evergreen, meaning that the leaves function for more than one season. Conifers have proved to be very successful survivors.  Some grow to heights as great as 200 ft. and may reach an age of more than 3000 years, while a few bristlecone pines are thought to be some 4000 years old.

In the United States, there are more than 15,000 Christmas tree farms growing approximately 350 million Christmas trees.  Almost twenty-five million farm-grown trees are purchased in the United States each year, with a real market value of more than a billion dollars.  Probably one of the most famous is the tree at Rockefeller Center in New York City. Since 2004 the tree has been topped with a 550-pound Swarovski Crystal star, and in keeping up with the times, since 2007, the tree has been lit with 30,000 energy-efficient LED's which are powered by solar panels.

Artificial Christmas trees were developed in Germany during the 19th century and later became popular in the United States. These "trees" were made using goose feathers that were dyed green and attached to wire branches that were in turn affixed to an upright pole.  Today, about eleven million artificial Christmas trees made from PVC plastic are purchased in the United States each year and can be amazingly realistic.

Whether we prefer a natural tree or take the much easier route of decorating our home with a manufactured one this holiday time, we will be joining a long tradition of believers. In the words of Tiny Tim: “God bless us, every one”.


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December 15, 2015

Those of us who enjoy winter sports or just the beauty of pristine snow and sparkling ice may feel that this tardy winter is getting a bit tiresome.  There are members of our wild community who seem to be very happy with the situation, however, such as the sandhill cranes, the moles, and even the bats.

The spectacle of hundreds of sandhill cranes feeding and lolling in the fields along our roads proves that they are in no hurry to make the long journey south just to find a good meal, and now I read that “our” birds are just a fraction of those spending December along the Wisconsin River.  Anne Lacy of the International Crane Foundation opines “there might be 10,000 birds on the river right now”, but even these are only part of a larger migrating population of some 70,000 that move from their breeding grounds in Canada and the Midwest to the southeastern states for the winter. 

Then there is the mole.  This little animal is seldom seen but its tunnels and mounds of dirt give plenty of evidence of its presence and it is wise to beware these days of tripping over them as you walk across any grassy area. The mole has an amazing appetite and must eat about twenty-five percent of its body weight each day in earthworms, insects, snails, centipedes, spiders, other small creatures just to keep going.  People who study such things report that a five-ounce mole will consume 45 to 50 pounds of worms and insects each year.

A mole is an interesting animal for a number of reasons:  its body contains twice as much blood and twice as much red hemoglobin as other mammals of similar size, allowing it to breathe easily in its underground environment of low oxygen and high carbon dioxide;  its fur is short and very dense and has no particular direction to the nap, making it easy to move any way underground; and its saliva contains a toxin that can paralyze its catch, making it possible to store still-living prey for later consumption, and researchers have discovered such pantries with over a thousand earthworms in them.

Eastern prairie moles do not hibernate during the cold season and ordinarily by this time, they have been forced far underground below the frost line to feed, but since the ground is not frozen, they continue to excavate near the surface.  One can tunnel about 18 feet an hour because of specialized bone and muscle construction, and can exert a lateral digging force equivalent to 32 times its body weight.  We are told that as a comparison, a 150 lb. man would be able to exert a 4800 lb. lateral force.

While moles may not be commonly seen, a bat flying outside the kitchen window in the middle of the day has caught my attention several times.  I immediately wrote to a couple of bat experts and Heather Kaarakka of the DNR bat project replied “I'm not terribly surprised that you saw a bat out even at this time of year. I think the weather is really playing with them. With it being low 40s for the past few weeks, they've been able to stay active. I did see a few insects out this weekend, and the water is still open so they can get a drink outside”.   David Drake, Extension Wildlife Specialist, replied, “Given the warm weather we've had so far this "winter" I am getting quite a few calls/emails about bats being active still.  I wouldn't worry about the bat you see.  Because it has been warmer than usual there is still insect activity and that is keeping the bats active.” 

While some Wisconsin bat species migrate south for the winter, others hibernate.  During the summer, they store up fat and when the weather turns cold, the soon-to-be-hibernating bats look for a place to sleep until spring.   For hundreds of years, bats have been viewed as dirty and diseased animals and common practice has been to kill any bats found in homes or buildings.   New research and monitoring capabilities developed in the last fifty years have shown that bats are some of the most fascinating and ecologically important animals in the world.

Today, bats face major threats: pesticides sprayed on insects can collect in the fat deposits of the bats causing birth defects and death; a fungus has recently appeared that causes a disease called white-nose syndrome that has decimated populations of bats in American and Canada; wind turbines are killing all species of bats in Wisconsin, although they seem to affect mostly those migrating; and if bats are disturbed during hibernation, they can run out of stored energy and starve before spring..

The good news is that scientists have recently discovered a successful treatment for the white-nose syndrome.  In 2012, Dr. Chris Cornelison and colleagues at Georgia State University found that a common bacterium had the ability to inhibit the growth of the fungi, and this spring they released back into the wild some of the first bats successfully treated for the disease. 

The bats hunting outside our windows this week are probably big browns, as they are the only species that has been found hibernating in buildings in Wisconsin.   We trust they will find a warmish spot when the weather changes for the worse -- as it always has -- and that they and the cranes and moles will survive to live another year. 


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December 8, 2015: Should We Be Killing Owls?

If you step outside on a quiet evening, you may hear the love song of one of our largest avian residents -- the great horned owl.  This impressive bird is perhaps the earliest nester in North America and begins courting in late fall so that it can produce its offspring weeks or even months before any others.  Although this bird makes its presence known with its hooting -- a low-pitched but persistent ho-ho-hoo, hoo, hoo -- many people have never seen one.  Like most owls, the great horned makes great use of stealth and roosts in its camouflaged plumage during the daytime, only becoming active when darkness falls.  Owls are extremely important in the natural world as they prey primarily on the prolific small rodents that plague us and do considerable damage.

The male owl selects the nursery site -- often an open nest that has been abandoned by some other large bird.  The female can successfully incubate in very cold temperatures, even as low as –25 F, and eggs may survive an absence of the mother for over ten minutes at –10 F.   Brooding the chicks is almost continuous after they are hatched, but by six weeks, they move onto nearby branches and soon learn to fly.  Still, catching one’s own dinner is a difficult skill to acquire and the young birds have been seen still begging for food from an adult six months later.  Most do not live on their own until their parents begin to prepare for their next brood the following December or January.

Almost as large as the great horned is the barred owl, a streaky, dark-eyed, chunky-looking bird that is not as fierce-looking and lacks its ear tufts.  This owl's nest is often located in a tree cavity created by a woodpecker, or if none is available, atop a previously-used hawk, crow or squirrel nest.  Its usual call is a series of eight accented hoots ending in oo-aw, with a downward pitch at the end, a call some birders suggest sounds as if the bird is saying, "Who cooks for you, who cooks for you..all."   It is noisy in most seasons, and when agitated, it will make a buzzy, rasping hiss and click its beak together forcefully.  While calls are most common at night, these birds do call during the day as well.

Barred owls are much appreciated in eastern North America, but only recently have spread to the Pacific Northwest, where they are thought to be overwhelming the much publicized Northern spotted owl, a bird listed as threatened under the Environmental Protection Act.  The numbers of these similar but slightly smaller birds are dropping noticeably, and the Fish and Wildlife Service suggests that the barred owl is one of two primary threats to their continued existence, the other being habitat loss from logging. 

They propose to kill approximately 4650 barred owls over the next ten years at a cost of an estimated $700 per bird for the first year and $2800 per owl for each subsequent year.  An experiment was recently undertaken to count the barred owls in spotted owl habitat, then exterminate the newcomers and monitor the effects on spotted owl populations.  Since fall 2013, 130 barred owls have been shot in one California study site, and the removal of barred owls is slated to begin next in Oregon and Washington.

Dr. Lowell Diller, senior biologist at Green Diamond Resources Company, leads a team that has removed barred owls from a 150-mile stretch of coastal redwood forest in California in the past five years, and reports that the spotted owl population has rapidly recovered.  He tells of one location where a spotted owl pair took up residence just two weeks after the barred owls were killed; however, many environmentalists fear increased blame on barred owls for declining spotted owl numbers will result in less attention being paid to habitat protection and resumption of logging.

Killing the barred owls was made legal through The Endangered Species Act that was passed in the 1970s. This law has brought about some real and tangible change in the 40 years of its existence; however, only 28 of its protected 2000 species have been delisted even though it has instituted strict laws and restrictions that make building or using land particularly challenging, along with assessing harsh penalties for destroying habitat and species.  The law is based on the belief that all species of plants and animals can and should be saved, even though I read that extinction has been the fate of 99.9 percent of all organisms that have ever existed on Earth.

The Act expired in 1992 but continues to be enforced and funded on an annual basis.  There are calls for some reforms, however, as costs are often high, and individual projects may not always be the best use of available money.  The law often restricts the growth and expansion of some businesses, sometimes hurting local economies, and some suggest that the strict provision of “whatever the cost” might be more prudently applied on a case by case basis depending on the situation and value of the species.

The U.S. federal and state governments spends about two billion dollars each year to conserve endangered and threatened species, and costs continue to rise at more than $100,000 each year.  From the environmentalists' perspective, the benefits of preserving the northern spotted owl and its habitat far outweigh any of the costs, even though it is admitted that the species’ long time survival still hangs in the balance, due to the ongoing threat of habitat loss.

The spotted owls are relatively vulnerable as they are very territorial and intolerant of habitat disturbance.  Each pair needs a large amount of land for hunting and nesting and they prefer old-growth forests which are becoming more and more scarce.  Spotted owl pairs are monogamous, rarely re-nest after failed breeding attempts and have the additional problem that they do not normally breed every year.  Should their numbers continue to decline after all the barred owls have been removed, the populations of rodents will certainly sky-rocket.  Our efforts to manage our wildlife has had mixed success, and it would seem that any major projects such as using public funds for the destruction of thousands of beneficial birds should be undertaken very carefully.


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December 1, 2015:  What is a Prion?

The specter of the chronic wasting disease continues to hang over us as the deer hunting season has drawn to a close again.  It is a worrisome problem that was thought to be found only in a relatively small area in the West, but has recently been found in commercial game farms and in the wild in new areas across the North American continent.

An animal’s body (and a human’s) is made up of trillions of cells that are separated into a variety of types, such as muscle cells, brain cells, blood cells, and many more.  Inside those cells, there are long strings of joined-together amino acids called proteins that allow the body to break down food to power its muscles, send signals through its brain and transport nutrients through its blood, as well as power almost all of the other internal processes. 

What makes the body’s protein operate in its individual manner is the way in which the amino acids are arranged in its cells.  Even though those of each type are connected in long strings, they fold up to make compact blobs of a very specific shape, with some sections near the center and others outside, some close together and others far apart.  The problem with the disease seems to be that the string of amino acids can become folded in such a way that not only does it affect the brain and nervous system of its host, but it replicates itself so that it is infectious.  Dubbed a prion, this infectious agent causes the commonly called “mad cow disease” in cattle and scrapie in sheep and is now understood to be the culprit in CWD as well.  It produces small lesions in brains of infected animals and is characterized by loss of body condition, behavioral abnormalities and inevitably death.

Prions are very different from all other known infectious agents such as viruses, bacteria, fungi, or parasites as they are not considered living organisms.  If a prion enters a healthy organism, it causes properly folded proteins in it to convert into the misfolded prion form.  (However, the propagation of the prion depends on the presence of normally folded protein in which the prion is able to induce misfolding.)  Prions are extremely stable and accumulate in infected tissue, causing tissue damage and cell death, and this structural stability has made any attempted treatment very difficult.  In humans, the prion has been thought to cause very rare but fatal diseases such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, Gerstmann-Straussler-Scheinker syndrome, and fatal familial insomnia, as well as kuru, a degenerative disorder endemic to tribal regions of Papua New Guinea.

CWD was first identified as a clinical disease in captive mule deer at the Colorado Division of Wildlife Foothills Wildlife Research Facility in Fort Collins, Colorado in 1967.  The facility attempted to eliminate the threat by treating the soil in their pens with chlorine, removing the treated soil, and applying an additional chlorine treatment before letting them sit vacant for more than a year.  These efforts were unsuccessful in destroying the prions, however, and the subsequent moving about of captive animals evidently spread the disease to other states and Canada.

In 1985, the disease was detected in a wild elk in Colorado, and in 2002, a whitetail deer was diagnosed in western Dane County. The disease has since been found in eighteen counties in the state, both in the wild and on game farms, and Wisconsin has spent more than $35,000,000 to combat it.  The biggest outbreak on a deer farm occurred in Portage County, where 82 deer tested positive in 2006, and is believed to be the highest infection rate for a captive deer herd in the U.S.   Authorities killed all the deer in that herd, but not before officials discovered a hole in the fence through which an estimated 30 deer escaped and were never found.

Hopes for a control arose when the testing of a vaccine began three years ago at a research center in Laramie, Wyoming.  Thirty-eight elk were confined in a CWD-contaminated outdoor enclosure, half receiving two initial doses of vaccine plus an annual follow-up, while the rest received a saline solution.  Sadly, twelve of the nineteen vaccinated elk began to show physical signs of CWD in 797 days, while only four of the unvaccinated elk showed symptoms and these in 855 days, indicating that many more treated animals became ill faster than those left untreated. 

Bryan Richards, CWD project leader for the National Wildlife Health Center at the U.S. Geological Survey’s office in Madison, has commented that “this vaccine tries to stimulate the immune system to recognize prions.  It created a response, but it obviously created the opposite response they were seeking.  That doesn’t mean they didn’t learn anything...and research over time (should) start providing wildlife managers with tools that could be used to combat this disease”.

Although CWD is a contagious fatal disease among deer and elk, research suggests that humans, cattle and other domestic livestock are resistant to natural transmission.  While the possibility of human infection remains a concern, it is important to note there have been no verified cases of humans contracting CWD; however, public health officials recommend that human exposure to the CWD infectious agent be avoided as they continue to evaluate any potential health risk. 



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December 1, 2015:  Seeds

The first terrestrial plants on earth many millions of years ago, are thought to have looked very much like flattened moss.  These early plants grew only inches tall because they did not have conducting tissues that could transport water and nutrients throughout their cells.  They could only grow in moist locations, and they reproduced by releasing spores -- minute, one-celled units that were capable of creating new individuals without sexual fusion.  

It took many million additional years before true mosses and liverworts appeared, possessing thin stems that supported the one-celled leaves and the spore capsules.  These still could not transport fluid, and the tallest moss in the world today can only grow to about twenty inches in height.  Ferns first appeared in the fossil record 360 million years ago and differed from the mosses by having water-conducting vessels, and more substantial stems and leaves.  They continued to reproduce by spores but had roots in the soil and could grow as tall as sixty feet and more.  Some types have been so successful that they have remained unchanged for at least 180 million years.

Flowering plants appeared rather suddenly in the fossil record, and their origin is not known, nor is whether they were at first woody trees or shrubs, or small herbs.  What made them unique was that they produced seeds that could sprout just about anywhere under the proper conditions, in contrast to the spores that required a marsh or a swamp to germinate.  Seeds are considered more advanced than spores, not only because of their larger size, but because most have the capability of nourishing and defending the baby plant, much improving its chance of survival.

A flower blossom is a plant’s nursery and is quipped with female reproductive organs that contain the egg cells that will develop into embryos when fertilized (pollinated) with sperm cells.  Pollen grains are typically single cells, and have tough coats that have a form characteristic of the plant producing them.  Insects, birds and the wind often play an important role as they pick up and redistribute the pollen from plant to plant.  Once deposited in a flower, a pollen tube germinates from each pollen grain and grows until it reaches an egg cell where it bursts and releases two sperm cells.  One sperm unites with the egg cell to produce the embryo of a new plant, while a second unites with a second cell that goes on to produce the tissue that will surround the embryo and provide its nutrition.
 
Seeds may be dispersed in a number of ways including by moving air, water, and animals. Some are light and have hairs or wings that help them to float in the air. Others can float on water and spread by traveling down rivers and streams. Still other seeds are encased in attractive fruit that animals eat and then are deposited in the animals' droppings.  Spores, in contrast, must float slowly to the ground or be carried about by air currents.

Many structures commonly referred to as seeds are actually dry fruits.  Sunflower seeds are sometimes sold commercially while still enclosed within the hard wall of the fruit, which must be split open to reach the seed. Different groups of plants have other modifications such as the hardened fruit layer fused to and surrounding the actual seed of so-called stone fruits such as the peach.  Nuts such as the acorn or hazelnut must split to release its contents.

Seeds can very in size from the dust-like orchid seeds with about one million seeds per gram to the seed of a particular tropical palm that can be a foot long and weigh up to 40 pounds.  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.  Perennials and woody plants often have larger seeds and can produce seeds over many years.  Larger seeds have more energy reserves for germination and seedling growth and produce larger, more established seedlings after germination. 

Some seeds will germinate as soon as they absorb moisture, but many require a combination of factors.  This is a survival technique to prevent germination during unsuitable conditions such as coming winter or drought when the probability of seedling survival would be poor.   Many species of plants have seeds that delay germination for many months or years, and the oldest documented germinating seed was nearly 2000 years old based on radiocarbon dating. 

A number of different occurrences can break seed dormancy.  Scarification allows water and gases to penetrate into the seed by breaking down its hard seed coat, either artificially by gardeners or in nature by freezing and thawing, rodent chewing or microorganisms in the soil.  Stratification involves the addition of moisture to the seeds, then subjecting them to a period of moist chilling, either by planting in the fall and allowing them to overwinter or under other cool conditions.   Leaching in water also removes chemical inhibitors in some seeds that prevent germination while other seeds germinate best after a fire. For these, fire cracks hard seed coats, while in others, chemical dormancy is broken in reaction to the presence of smoke.

Nearly all of our food comes from flowering plants; grains, beans, nuts, fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices almost all come from plants with flowers, as do tea, coffee, chocolate, wine, beer, and cola.  Much of our clothing comes from them as well as rope and burlap and many commercial dyes. We also owe them credit for a large number of our drugs, including over-the-counter medicines such as aspirin, prescribed drugs such as digitalis and atropine.  Seeds are objects of wonder and vital to our lives.

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November 17, 2015:  Little Insects That Can Kill Trees

A tree is a sturdy plant, often withstanding frigid winter temperatures, hot sun, and high winds almost up to hurricane strength; still, tiny insects called borers can attack and eventually kill it. Some are beetles or clearwing moths, and the immature or larval stages of these insects feed on wood rather than leaves or plant juices. The adults lay their eggs on or inside tree bark, and their young larvae eat their way through living tissues severing vital transport lines.  Most borers are attracted to trees that are weakened through drought, injury or disease, but some species can attack healthy, vigorous trees.  Insecticidal sprays can be successful only if they are applied to the tree when the adult borers are present and laying eggs, and all the woody parts of the tree from the buds and twigs to the trunk and roots are susceptible to borer attack.

The most obvious first signs of tree borer damage are the tiny holes they cut into trunks, branches and stems. These holes may be perfectly round or slightly oblong, and connect to a long series of inner tunnels.  In many cases, it is the activities of the insect itself which causes the damage, but in others, such as those that carry Dutch Elm Disease, it is fungi that they carry in.  In an attempt to block the fungus from spreading farther, the tree reacts by plugging its own tissues with gum and bladder-like extensions of the cell walls, often eventually killing itself.

Borers have always been a common problem in some tree species, but one particular invader is highly publicized these days -- the emerald ash borer.  The half-inch-long adult beetle is dark metallic green, and when it spreads its wings, one can see a violet abdomen. The larvae are flat, cream-colored grubs with wide heads.  It is native to the Far East where it isn't a major pest, but it has now hitchhiked its way to Wisconsin and most of the eastern states, as well as Ontario and Quebec. Researchers think it first arrived in Detroit around the turn of the century, probably as a stowaway in wooden packing materials aboard a ship, and offspring were then transported around neighboring states.

In Wisconsin, there are millions of ash trees in our forests, and about as many in our towns and cities.  It was once a very popular city tree because it was hardy, had few insect or disease problems, and could be planted from Zones 2 to 9.   Ash trees are easily identified as they show two distinctive characteristics -- opposite branching and compound leaves -- and only the maple, dogwood and horse chestnut in our landscapes and forests also have opposite branching.  Ash is not likely to be confused with either the much smaller dogwood or the horse chestnut that is not seen in the wild, and its compound leaves typically have up to nine leaflets while the maple has simple leaves.

Since its discovery, the emerald ash borer has killed millions of ash trees in southeastern Michigan alone where it first appeared, with tens of millions more lost in other eastern states including Wisconsin.  Research is being conducted at universities and elsewhere to understand the beetle’s life cycle and contain the infestation. The USDA and state regulatory agencies are enforcing quarantines and fines to prevent potentially infested ash trees, logs or hardwood firewood from moving out of infected areas.

While the emerald ash borer was introduced to this country, other borers are native to North America, and have been found in many tree types.  The red oak borer, a long-horned wood boring beetle, permanently damages the wood of living oak trees and can cause a decrease of up to 40% of their lumber value.  The sugar maple borer, a similar insect, is a common pest of sugar maple throughout the range of the tree. Although borer-caused mortality is rare, infestations lead to value loss because of larval galleries, discoloration, decay, and twisted grain.

Many native trees (birch, oak, honeylocust, basswood, maple and ironwood) are also attacked by native flatheaded borers.  The two most damaging are the bronze birch borer and the two-lined chestnut borer, and the latter will attack both native and introduced oaks that are under stress.  Most white-barked birch trees that are planted in yards are very susceptible to attacks by the bronze birch borer, while natives, such as the paper and gray birches have evolved with the borers and are more resistant. Yellow and sweet birch are also generally resistant to bronze birch borer unless stressed, and river birch appears to be immune.

Fruit trees are attractive to a variety of borers -- both beetles and moths -- and most should be sprayed when the adults are flying.  The flatheaded and roundheaded appletree borers and shothole borers are very common and attack apple and pear, as well as a wide variety of shade and forest trees.  Young trees can be girdled and killed, and larger trees can be seriously injured through the loss of large portions of bark.  The dogwood, peachtree and lesser peachtree borers are native moths and occur throughout most of the United States and Canada.   They prefer peach, but can survive on wild and cultivated cherry, plum, apricot and nectarine.

Not all borers attack trees and other outdoor plants.  The larvae of some of these insects live in and consume dry, seasoned wood and can be serious pests of structures. The most common types are powderpost beetles but other wood-infesting pests are “old house” borers and carpenter bees.  This damage is not usually seen until the wood disintegrates, but emergence holes and powderlike frass that sifts from the holes sometimes alerts the building’s owner.

Despite the damage that they do, woodboring insects in the wild are important in the scheme of things by culling weak trees and allowing new growth to occur. They are also important agents in the recycling of nutrients locked away in the relatively decay-resistant woody material of trees.

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November 10, 2015:  A Whooping Crane Visitor

Keep your eyes pealed for any new additions to the sandhill crane flocks that have been gathering along Highway 14 east of the Wisconsin River and around the area.  Two groups of immature whooping cranes have been released in the last month by the International Crane Foundation, and son Jim spotted one individual last Saturday in a field bordering Neuheisel Road north of the highway. 

Most bird enthusiasts are aware of the heroic efforts on the part of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership to establish a new flock of the big birds, guiding them from Wisconsin to Florida with ultralights, but all may not know of a second technique of releasing young adult birds with the hope that they would make their way south on their own.  Eight “Direct Autumn Release” birds were officially set free on November 3rd from Horicon National Wildlife Refuge.

This began last spring when eggs were collected from the captive breeding facilities at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland and then sent to the International Crane Foundation's chick-rearing facility in Baraboo, Wisconsin.  The chicks were then hatched and isolation-reared for their first three weeks, and then transferred to the isolation-rearing facility in the field at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge.  During the summer, the chicks lived in specially-constructed facilities in the field, penned next to adult whooping cranes to facilitate proper imprinting. When they were old enough they were allowed to roam freely within the refuge, but always under the watchful eyes and supervision of costumed handlers.

The Necedah Wildlife Center also received three chicks that were initially raised by their crane parents at Patuxent.  These were released near potential surrogate whooping crane pairs in September but all three set off on their own.  One is reportedly associating with sandhills in the fields and marsh areas near the Wisconsin River here in Sauk Co., one has been found dead, and the third has had an interesting story.

He was tracked briefly in Monroe Co., but then appeared in Dubuque, IA.  He was alone and frequently seen in the parking lot outside a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant in a heavily populated area.  Brian Preston, director of the Dubuque County Conservation Board alerted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, who then contacted the International Crane Foundation.  Workers from ICF captured the bird and brought it to Spring Green, where they introduced it to a flock of sandhill cranes.  The day after his re-release he disappeared and later turned up in Madison Co., Louisiana, still a loner with no other whooping or sandhill crane nearby.

For those of you unfamiliar with the whooping crane saga, you should know that there are two cranes in North America -- the sandhill, a relatively common bird that we see in large numbers during migration, and the whooping crane, an endangered species named for its strange whooping sound.  At one time, the range for these birds extended throughout midwestern North America, but by 1941, the wild population had been reduced to just twenty-one birds, the result of unregulated hunting and habitat loss.  Now, with protection, the Canada/Texas wild flock numbers are improving with 304 whoopers in the primary survey area, including 39 juveniles.  Lest you feel that the problem has been solved, however, know that biologists tell us that the population must reach at least 1000 birds before they can feel relatively certain that the flock will survive.

In an effort to establish a new flyway east of the Mississippi River, the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership consisting of over nine government and private sector organizations was formed in 1999.  Following the pioneering experiment of Bill Lishman and Joe Duff when they led Canada geese in migration from Canada, to Virginia and South Carolina with ultralight aircraft, the parnership focuses on isolation rearing of young whooping cranes and training them to follow ultralights. This is an expensive and time-consuming procedure but has had some success, and the direct release method will hopefully add additional birds to the growing flock.

An adult whooping crane is all white with a red crown, a long, dark, pointed bill and black wingtips.  It can stand up to five feet tall and has a wingspan of up to eight feet. While in flight, its long neck is kept straight and its long dark legs trail behind.  Immature birds have brown on their necks and heads, as well as other spots on their plumage.  The only other very large, long-legged white birds in North America are the great egret which is over a foot shorter, the great white heron, which is a variation of the great blue heron in Florida and the wood stork.  These latter birds are at least 30% smaller and herons and storks are also quite different in structure from the cranes. 

Whooping cranes forage while walking in shallow water or in fields, sometimes probing with their bills. They will eat almost anything alive and are more inclined to feed on animal material than most other cranes.  Studies have reported that blue crabs are a significant food source for the whooping cranes wintering at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, constituting up to 90 percent of their energy intake in the study period.  However, waste wheat, barley and corn are important food for migrating whooping cranes, although their digestive systems work less efficiently than those of sandhills because they don't swallow gizzard stones.

The whooping crane was declared endangered in 1967.   Although believed to be naturally rare, the crane has gone from an estimated 10,000+ birds before the settling of Europeans on the continent to 1,300-1,400 birds by 1870 to 15 adults by 1938.  Now, through captive breeding, wetland management, and the innovative program that teaches young cranes how to migrate, numbers of these magnificent birds have risen to about 600 today, so watch for one in your neighborhood.


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November 3, 2015:  Why Migration?   

Have you ever wondered why and how more than half of the 650 species of North American breeding birds travel considerable distances to warmer climes to spend the winter, only to return again in a few months to raise their young? The obvious answer is that our winters are too cold for many species to survive and sustenance is difficult if not impossible to obtain.  Still, many fly much farther than necessary to find warmth and food, such as the Arctic tern that travels 25,000 miles from its Arctic breeding grounds to its wintering grounds off Antarctica, and the bar-tailed godwit, a migrating wader bird, that makes an annual migration from Alaska to New Zealand.

We are told that the pattern of the world’s continents was different some 50 million years ago: South America was some 600 miles from North America; India was 1200 miles away from the rest of Asia; and Africa was close to Eurasia on a front 3000 miles long.  Ancestors of our modern birds lived in these lands, and many were already performing short flights between safe breeding and feeding areas.  Continental drift caused these areas to slowly diverge, and some of these species modified their behaviors, continuing to use familiar areas in new locations because of their well-developed homing instincts.

Perhaps more significant in establishing migration patterns has been the succession of ice ages that have repeatedly affected the landscape. There have been half a dozen very cold/warm periods over the last two million years in which temperatures fluctuated widely in cycles lasting as many as 100,000 years.  These cycles have repeatedly altered the birds’ habitats but the birds have proved that they are able to cope with change as long as it is slow and gradual.

After the ice finally retreated some 10,000 years ago, many generations of tropical birds are thought to have gradually dispersed from their southern breeding sites northward, taking advantage of the seasonal abundance of food and longer day length.  They continued to return to their tropical homes each winter, however, forced by freezing weather and lack of food.  Supporting this theory is the fact that most North American vireos, flycatchers, tanagers, warblers, orioles, and swallows seem to have evolved from forms that originated in the tropics.

If I had to choose the bird whose departure I most regret each fall, it would probably be the ruby throated hummingbird, not only because I am fascinated by its tiny size and beautiful plumage, but also because it or one of its family is always around the house all summer at our flowers and feeders.  We have removed the nectar now to replace it with seeds for our winter free-loaders, but often wonder where the hummers are now and if they are safe and warm. 

Although hummingbird migration is not well documented, ornithologists do know a few facts and have drawn some logical inferences.  The only way to identify an individual hummingbird is to band it; that is, to trap it and wrap a tiny numbered strip of aluminum around one leg.  Any species is studied by gathering data on large numbers of individuals, and since only a few dozen people in North America are licensed to handle hummingbirds, progress is slow and the odds of recapturing a banded bird are very low.  Still, until technology provides radio transmitters small enough for a 3-gram hummingbird to carry safely, banding is the best tool available to collect data.

As with most of our migratory birds, hummingbirds are thought to have 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, the birds gradually expanded their ranges, filling unoccupied niches in the United States and southern Canada.  However, when their supply of insects and flowers dwindled in the fall, hummingbirds had to return to their ancestral homes in Mexico and Central America or risk starvation.

The initial urge is thought to be triggered by the shortening hours of daylight rather than a dwindling food supply, as hummingbirds migrate south at the time of greatest food abundance. I read that some adult males start migrating south as early as mid-July, but the peak of southward migration is late August, and by mid-September almost all of the ruby-throats at our feeders are migrating through from farther north.  Banding studies have suggested that individual birds probably follow a set route year after year, often arriving at the same feeder on the same day.   For a young hummer, there's 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.  Once it learns a route, however, a bird may retrace it every year as long as it lives.

Another very noticeable migrator these days is the greater sandhill crane.  Adults cranes stand about four feet tall with wingspans up to seven feet.  They are gray overall with red foreheads, white cheeks and long pointed bills, and in flight, their long, dark legs trail behind, and their long necks keep straight.  These big birds have been gathering in the fields along Highway 14 for the past month, and one recent day I estimated there might have been a thousand birds present.  They will move on to northern Indiana soon, eventually spending the winter in Texas or Mexico. That number pales, however, when compared with the half million lesser sandhill cranes that congregate in the Platte River basin in Nebraska each spring and fall, after breeding in Canada and Siberia or wintering in Texas and Mexico.

Despite the long trips some birds undertake, many of our migrating birds go no further than necessary to find food, and flocks of robins and bluebirds may sometimes be seen in our woods on mild winter days, feeding on wild grapes and other berries.  And, of course, we know that chickadees, cardinals, goldfinches and bluejays remain with us all year, visiting our feeders and gladdening our hearts.


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October 27, 2015: The Baraboo Hills

Just about everyone who has driven through the Baraboo Hills in the autumn has exclaimed over their beauty, but many are not aware of their uniqueness.  These hills of Sauk and Columbia counties are all that remain of one of the most ancient rock outcrops in North America.  In addition, the colorful oak, maple, and basswood trees that carpet them constitute the largest block of upland forest still standing in southern Wisconsin and provide habitat for more than 1,800 kinds of plants and animals.

The North and South Baraboo Ranges form an oval ring of hills approximately 30 miles long and ten miles wide, and are an example of a buried mountain range exposed and then eroded.  They are composed mostly of quartzite, a sandstone altered through heating and pressure, and the material appears to have come largely from the erosion of the Penokean Mountains that arose almost two billion years ago south of Lake Superior.  (Rib Mountain is thought to be a remnant of this ancient range). The rocks consist mainly of gray to pink Baraboo quartzite and red rhyolite. While pure quartzite is usually white or gray, Baraboo quartzite is typically dark purple to maroon in color, due to the presence of iron and other impurities. Rhyolite is an igneous volcanic rock formed through the cooling and solidification of magma or lava and looks something like granite.

The sandstone would have originally been laid in horizontal layers but it was compressed and folded into a syncline, a series of folds that formed as the result of movement between tectonic plates.  Some 1.65 billion years ago a cataclysm of mountain building to the south may have provided the necessary force for the folding in the Baraboo region.

There followed a long period of erosion, and about 570 million years ago the sea level rose and submerged most of Wisconsin. This sea existed for about 200 million years leaving sediments and precipitates at its margins, and after it disappeared, weathering, rivers and glaciers stripped off overlying rock layers.  However, the quartzite proved extremely resistant to this assault and formed this distinctive ring of hills in the present landscape of Wisconsin.  There are also remnants in fairly small, isolated hills or buttes throughout the area such as Gibraltar Rock near Lodi, a flat-topped butte that rises 200 feet above the surrounding fields.

The Wisconsin River, previously traveling in a north to south direction, turns to the east just north of the range before making its turn to the west towards the Upper Mississippi River on the southern edge of the hills.  Also, the Baraboo River divides the range in half and travels onto its confluence with the Wisconsin River downstream from Portage through the Lower Narrows. About 2 miles due west of Devil's Lake, where HWY13 cuts through the South Range, there is a spectacular example of rock ripples formed in the original sandstone by the running water that laid it down.

Parfrey's Glen is cut through early rocks that form the South Range and could well be as recent as ten thousand years old, formed perhaps by meltwater from the ice sheet. Certainly the present creek lacks the power to have had anything to do with it.   In Parfrey's Glen, experts point to indications that the Baraboo Hills once formed islands in the sea and supplied the material for at least some of the local sediments which later formed beds of shale, limestone, dolomite and sandstone.

An accumulation of loose glacial soil and rock, called the moraine belt, marks the furthermost extent of ice cover during the last glaciers and almost divides the ranges north to south. To the west of the moraine is the famous "Driftless Area", an area that remained unglaciated throughout the Ice Age, even as surrounding areas were overrun by ice several times in the past two million years.  Glaciation created landforms and deposits around the eastern half of the ranges that is quite different from the unglaciated western half.

In the South Range there is the Devil’s Lake gorge, certainly the product of river erosion.  It is generally believed that the Wisconsin River flowed through here prior to that last glaciation but it was then plugged by glaciers at each end creating Devil's Lake. The hills surrounding the Devil’s Lake gorge are covered with a spectacular accumulation of broken rock debris, the result of longtime weathering and frost action on the quartzite during glacial periods.

The Baraboo Range Preservation Association works with other groups in the Baraboo Range, such as The Nature Conservancy and The Aldo Leopold Foundation to educate the population about the Range.  It sponsors the Cabin Fever Lecture Series held each year in late winter and also distributes detailed information about the special qualities of the area.   It also also provides information regarding impending natural and man-made threats to the environment.  They welcome support so look them up and volunteer.


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October 20, 2015:  The Amazing Honeybee, Part 2

Most wasps and bees in northern areas have annual colonies--that is, only the queens survive the winter in protected spots in a type of hibernation, and the workers die with heavy frost.  In the spring she awakes and begins a new family, building a new small nest, laying eggs, and then raising the larvae until they become adults to help her.  Honey bees are a noteworthy exception as new colonies are established not by solitary queens, but by swarms which consist of a mated queen and a large contingent of worker bees. They build substantial nests, store sufficient food to sustain themselves thought the winter, and continue until the hive produces more offspring than it can hold. This type of nest founding is not seen in any other type of bee.

There is normally only one mated queen in a hive, and the other bees will usually follow and fiercely protect her.  A queen bee’s sole function is to serve as the reproducer.  A well-mated and well-fed queen can lay about 1,500 eggs per day during the spring build-up—more than her own bodyweight in eggs every day.   She is continuously surrounded by worker bees who feed her and dispose of her waste. The attendant workers also collect and then distribute queen mandibular pheromone, a chemical that inhibits the workers from starting queen cells. 

The queen bee is able to control the sex of the eggs she lays, laying a fertilized (female) or unfertilized (male) egg according to the width of the cell.  The queen fertilizes the egg by selectively releasing sperm from her sperm sac as the egg passes through her oviduct.  Drones, on the other hand, usually develop from eggs laid by unfertilized worker bees and are raised in cells that are significantly larger than those used for workers.  The drones leave the hive when they emerge from their cells and congregate at gathering sites to await the arrival of virgin queens.

During the first year of a queen's life the colony operates well but during her second spring, she seems to be programmed to cause a swarm, the process by which new colonies are formed.  Worker bees create special cells throughout the year, (queen cups) that are larger than the cells of normal brood comb and are oriented vertically instead of horizontally.  When the queen somehow feels that the time is right to swarm, she lays eggs into the queen cups and these larvae are fed entirely on royal jelly, a protein-rich secretion from glands on the heads of young workers.  All bee larvae are fed some royal jelly for the first few days after hatching but only queen larvae are fed on it exclusively. When the young queen larvae pupate, the workers cap the queen cells with beeswax.

The hive may swarm as soon as the queen cells are capped and before the new virgin queens emerge from their cells.   A laying queen is too heavy to fly long distances so the workers will stop feeding her and she will stop laying eggs.  Meanwhile, scout bees search out a nearby location for the swarm to gather and the queen and many of the workers will then leave the hive and fly to it.  A swarm of bees can be frightening to humans, but the bees are seldom aggressive when not defending a nest and their main interest is in finding a new nesting location for their queen.

At the gathering site, the bees cluster about the queen and send out experienced forager scouts to find new permanent nest locations.  Each individual returning to the cluster reports a suitable location using a precise waggle dance which involves running through small figure-eight patterns in specific directions.  A site directly in line with the sun is demonstrated by runs in an upward direction while any angle to the right or left of the sun is shown by a corresponding movement to the right or left.  The farther the site, the longer the waggle dance.

The more excited the bee is about the location, the more rapidly it will waggle, so if multiple bees are doing the dance, it is quite a competition to convince the observing bees to follow their lead.  Competing bees may even disrupt other bees' dances or fight each other off.  Eventually, the scouts somehow agree upon a single location which is often a hollow tree trunk or other cavity, and lead the whole bee cluster to it.  A good nest site has to be large enough to accommodate the swarm, has to be well protected from the elements, receive a certain amount of warmth from the sun and not be infested with ants.

Back at the old hive, the hatching queens immediately try to kill each other off, and any survivors will fly out to one of the drone congregations where each queen will mate with up to a dozen different males.  Mating occurs in flight and the young queens store up to 6 million sperm from multiple drones in their body sacs.  One mated queen will return to the hive where she begins egg laying in two to three days supported by workers who did not swarm, and she will selectively release sperm for the remaining 2–7 years of her life.

Africanized bees (known colloquially as killer bees) are hybrids between European stock and an African subspecies that was introduced in South America.  They are often more aggressive than European bees and do not create as much of a honey surplus, but are more resistant to disease and are better foragers.  They have spread to North America but these strains do not overwinter well, and so are not often found in the colder, more northern parts of the country.

Beekeepers in Western countries have been reporting slow declines of honey bee stocks for many years, and in early 2007, die-offs of up to 70% of hives of European honey bee colonies occurred in North America.  The phenomenon has been dubbed "colony collapse disorder" and research has so far failed to determine what is causing it -- a major issue of concern for beekeepers, farmers and all of us.  We would certainly miss enjoying honey on our biscuits and in our cooking.


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October 13, 2015: The Amazing Honeybee

Few insects have a more interesting story than the honey bees.  There are only seven species of bees with the twin abilities to make and store honey and to produce wax with which to build their nests, and they represent only a small fraction of the roughly 20,000 known species of bees.  The first of these particular species appears in the fossil record some 38 million years ago in European deposits.  Few fossil deposits are known from South Asia, the suspected region of honey bee origin, and fewer still have been thoroughly studied.  The only fossil species from North America is a single 14-million-year-old specimen from Nevada.
 
Honey and beeswax have been used by humans throughout known history but only two species of honey bees have been truly domesticated.  One of these was documented from the time of the building of the Egyptian pyramids, and only that species has been moved much beyond its native range.  It is called the European or common honey bee in different parts of the world and seems to have diverged from its eastern relatives only ten million years ago.

Honey is the complex substance made when the nectar, a liquid high in sucrose produced in plant glands, is gathered and stored in the honeycomb by honey bees as a food for the colony.  One bee culturist estimated a quart of honey represented bees flying over an estimated 48,000 miles to gather the nectar needed to produce it.  The worker bees also collect pollen that adheres to their legs and carry it back to the hive where it is used as a protein source necessary during brood-rearing.

Worker bees around 6-12 days old have four pairs of wax glands on their abdomen segments, and produce thin, clear wax scales that consist of organic compounds of fatty acids and long-chain alcohols.  Other workers collect these scales and chew them up, adding their saliva and perhaps pollen, until they become opaque and workable.  The wax is used to form cells for honey storage and for housing new larvae and later, pupas.  After many daily flights, these glands begin to atrophy and the bees move on to other tasks. 

Worker bees begin to build the comb from the top of each section. When a cell is filled with honey, the bees seal it with wax.  The hexagonal grid of wax cells on either side of the nest are slightly offset, increasing the strength of the comb and reducing the amount of wax required to produce a strong structure. The shape of the cells is such that two opposing honeycomb layers nest into each other, with each facet of the closed ends being shared by opposing cells.  The closed ends of the honeycomb cells are also an example of geometric efficiency, as their shape allows the minimum surface area for the volume contained.

Worker bees also make “bee bread” and “bee glue”.  The first is a mixture of pollen, honey and glandular secretions that is allowed to ferment in the comb. The fermentation process releases additional nutrients from the pollen and can produce antibiotics and fatty acids which help prevent spoilage.  Bee bread is eaten by younger workers who then produce the protein-rich royal jelly needed by the queen and developing larvae.

Bee glue or propolis is created from resins, balsams, and tree sap.  Those species of honey bees that nest in tree cavities use propolis to seal cracks in the hive and defend against ants by coating the branch from which their nest is suspended to create a sticky moat. Propolis is consumed by humans as a health supplement in various ways and used in some cosmetics.

A bee colony generally contains a fertile female (the queen), tens of thousands of sterile female worker bees and a great number of fertile males (drones) at times.  Drones develop from unfertilized eggs and contain one set of chromosomes, while females (queens and worker bees) develop from fertilized eggs and have two.  Larvae are initially fed royal jelly, a substance secreted from the glands of the worker bees, later switching to honey and pollen. The exception is a larva fed solely on royal jelly, which will develop into a new queen bee. The larva undergoes several moltings before spinning a cocoon within the cell, and pupating.

Young worker bees produce wax, clean the hive and feed the larvae. When their royal jelly-producing glands begin to atrophy, they begin building comb cells.  They progress to other tasks within the colony as they become older, such as receiving nectar and pollen from foragers, and guarding the hive.  Later still, a worker takes her first orientation flights and finally leaves the hive and typically spends the remainder of her life as a forager.  Worker bees cooperate to find food and use a pattern of "dancing" to communicate information regarding the location of discoveries with each other; this dance varies from species to species, but all exhibit some variation of the same behavior. If the resources are very close to the hive, they may also exhibit a less specific dance commonly known as the "round dance".

In cold climates, honey bees stop flying when the outside temperature drops below about 50 F and consume their stored honey to produce body heat throughout the winter.  The workers crowd into the central area of the hive where they huddle around the queen, shivering to keep the temperature between 81F at the start of winter and 93 F once the queen resumes laying as spring approaches. The worker bees rotate through the cluster from the outside to the inside so that no bee gets too cold. The outside edges of the cluster stay at about 46–48 F. and the colder the weather is outside, the more compact the cluster becomes.   Next week, we will look at more of the story of the amazing honey bee.


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October 6, 2015:  Pollinators and Predators

The New England aster is particularly beautiful this year.  This early autumn wildflower can stand four feet tall and
has stout, hairy stems and clasping, lance-shaped leaves.  Its dozens of small flower heads can range from a deep purple to pink and have yellow disc florets at the center, but what are even more noticeable and encouraging are the numbers and varieties of wasps, flies and bees that are feasting on its nectar and pollen.  These insects are vital in the natural scheme of things as predators of destructive pests and as pollinators of all types of plants.

About 75,000 species of wasps are known, most of them parasitic. They are characterized by two pairs of delicate wings and a tube for laying eggs that is modified into a stinger in many species. The larvae of parasitic wasps consume the bodies of other insects and therefore are an important organic pest control on gardens, farms, and crops, and in addition, the adults pollinate the flowers as they feed on their nectar.

Female solitary mud wasps are up to an inch long and construct their nurseries from mud or clay, some placing them in the ground while others apply them to walls, buildings and under bridges.  They seal their eggs in tube-like cells supplied with paralyzed insects and spiders for food and where the larvae grow up and emerge as new adults.  Social wasps, on the other extreme, can have up to 5000 members in a multilayered nest.  Probably most notorious for their aggressive protection of their nests are the yellow jackets that are generally found nesting in holes in the ground. Yellow jackets can sting repeatedly, do not lose their stingers as do many bees, and do not die after stinging.

Paper Wasps gather fibers from dead wood and plant stems which they mix with saliva to form a gray or brown papery material, and use to construct water-resistant nests. The large paper balls seen hanging in trees are the work of the bald faced hornet (a yellow jacket wasp, not a true hornet). Colonies contain 400 to 700 workers that feed on nectar, tree sap and fruit pulp (particularly that of apples) and prey on insects and other arthropods, chewing them up and feeding them to the larvae.  Other paper wasps build smaller open nests that look something like honeycomb and contain fewer than 30 members.  All wasps have finished their reproductive activities by late autumn and only the queens overwinter.

Another group to be seen on the asters are the flies.  They can be readily identified as they have but a single pair of wings, are relatively hairless, have short stubby antennae and large bulging eyes.  Flies do not actively collect pollen, but some plant species have evolved to rely on them for pollination as they visit flowers to drink nectar.

Though we think of bees as social insects that live in hives with highly-organized social structures, most bee species are more solitary and almost 70 percent of native bee species nest in or near the ground.  The female bees either excavate nest tunnels with a series of brood chambers or use existing holes or burrows created by insects, worms or rodents. They place a mix of pollen and nectar in each brood cell, lay an egg and plaster over the cell with mud or little bits of leaves. The eggs hatch, become larvae, pupate and emerge as adults either the same year or the following season depending on the species.

Bees are the most important pollinators of plants worldwide as they collect both pollen and nectar to feed to their young. They have two pairs of wings and long antennae, and are relatively hairy.  Many people think “honey bee” when they think of bees but there are nearly 4,000 other wild bee species native to the continent and some 500 species are found in Wisconsin, ranging from the tiny sweat bee to the bulky bumblebee.

Sweat, carpenter and mason bees often have bright metallic green or blue coloring and are relatively small: sweat bees are known for being attracted to the salt in human sweat; carpenter bees are so named as they will excavate their nests from pithy stems or reeds; while mason bees do not create their own nests, but rather use above-ground cavities such as hollow twigs, logs, beetle burrows and man-made holes. 

Bumble bees are considered very important pollinators of many native plants and cranberries because they will fly in cooler temperatures, damper conditions and lower light levels, extending pollination by several hours each day.  They are much the largest of the bees, have very hairy black and yellow bodies and legs and establish underground nests.  Each nest is begun in the spring by a single female and is usually located in a abandoned cavity in the ground. The mining bee is similar to the bumblebee but has a relatively hairless abdomen and nests in long underground tunnel.  It is said that (like many types of bees) the bumblebee species have been declining.

Honey bees are a non-native social species that originally came from Europe, and managed hives are carted around the country to pollinate berries, vegetables, fruit trees, flowers and agricultural row crops.  This industry is worth roughly $20 billion annually in North America but is suffering populations declines caused by disease, habitat loss, habitat fragmentation and pesticide use.  This situation has emphasized the importance of our native wasps, flies and bees as our agriculture and wildlife depend on all these natural predators and pollinators both as prey and for fertilizing the plants upon which they rely for cover and sustenance.

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September 29, 2015: Leaf Color and More

You may not have been aware of it unless reminded by a meteorologist, but last week we celebrated (or not) the autumnal equinox.  The earth's axis is always tilted at an angle in relation to the imaginary plane of the earth’s path around the sun, and twice a year on the two equinoxes, the sun is directly overhead at the earth’s equator.

On the equinox, night and day are nearly exactly the same length – 12 hours – all over the world. This is the reason it's called an equinox, derived from Latin, meaning "equal night".  In the northern hemisphere, the September equinox marks the start of autumn and many cultures and religions celebrate or observe it with festivals and holidays.

The past few weeks we have been exploring the effects of night length on our wildlife in this column -- insects, mammals and birds, but it also has a profound effect on plant life.  All summer, with the long hours of sunlight and a good supply of water, plants have been busy making and storing food, and growing.  They take carbon dioxide from the air and turn water and carbon dioxide into food and oxygen.

A tree or shrub leaf is green because of the presence of a pigment known as chlorophyll. When it is abundant in the leaf's cells during the growing season, the chlorophyll’s green color dominates and masks out the colors of any other pigments that may be present.  Chlorophyll captures the solar rays and utilizes their energy in the manufacture of simple sugars -- the plant's food.  In the process, the chlorophylls are being continually used up, but the plant replenishes them so that the supply remains high and the leaves stay green.

In late summer, as night hours lengthen and temperatures cool, the veins that carry fluids into and out of the leaf are gradually closed off with a layer of special cork cells at the base of each leaf.  Water and mineral intake into the leaf is reduced, slowly at first, and then more rapidly.  Chlorophyll in the leaves degrades into colorless chemical compounds and the formerly hidden pigments of carotenoids present in the leaves turn them bright yellow and orange. The colors created by carotenoids remain fairly constant from year to year because they are always present in leaves and the amount does not change in response to weather. 

The reds and purples come from another group of pigments in the cells that are produced towards the end of summer called anthocyanins.  During the summer growing season, phosphate is at a high level and has a vital role in the breakdown of the sugars manufactured by chlorophyll.  But in the fall, phosphate, along with the other chemicals and nutrients, moves out of the leaf into the stem of the plant and the sugar-breakdown process changes, leading to the production of anthocyanin pigments. 

Some scientists think that the anthocyanins may help the trees keep their leaves a bit longer by protecting the leaves from the sun and lowering their freezing point, while other suggest that when the leaves decay, the anthocyanins seep into the ground and prevent other plant species from growing in the spring in competition with the parent tree or shrub.  (Brown fall foliage colors come from tannin, a bitter waste product in the cell walls, which may be evident when no coloring pigment is visible.) Different combinations of these pigments give us a wide range of colors each fall.

Aspen is the most widely distributed tree species in North America, and is the first to change color.  Ranging from Alaska to Newfoundland and down the Rocky Mountains to Mexico, the states of Utah and Colorado are home to the largest portion of aspen in the World.  In the eastern United States, however, the red maple is even more spectacular.  Every season the tree shows red with red buds in winter, red flowers in spring, red leaf stems in summer and red leaves in fall color.   Yellow and red foliage often develops on the same tree.

We are told that the best place in the world for viewing fall colors is probably the eastern United States. This is because of the climate and the presence of a wide variety of deciduous trees.  The brightest colors are seen when late summer is dry, and autumn has bright sunny days and cool (low 40's F) nights. Then trees make lots of anthocyanin pigments. A fall with cloudy days and warm nights produces drab colors, and an early frost quickly ends the beautiful fall foliage color display.

A deciduous tree's roots, branches and twigs can endure freezing temperatures, but their leaves are made up of cells filled with water sap and will freeze in winter.  As sunlight decreases in autumn, the bottom cells in the cork layer form a seal between leaf and tree, and the cells in the top begin to disintegrate. They form a tear-line, and eventually the leaf is blown away or simply falls from the tree.  Some oak leaves are the exception as the cork layer never fully detaches, and they often remain on the tree through winter.

On the ground, bacteria, fungi, earthworms and other organisms attack the fallen leaves.  Their actions result in the breakdown of the simple carbon compounds back into carbon dioxide and water, and they release chemicals such as nitrogen and phosphorus into the soil where the surrounding plants can then reabsorb them through their roots.   In this way, leaf fall becomes an important part of the nutrient cycle that sustains forest environments. The decomposed leaves restock the soil with nutrients, and become part of the spongy humus layer on the soil that absorbs and holds rainfall.  


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September 22, 2015: 
Lions and Tigers and..Cougars?

A common rumor circulating has it that the DNR has released several cougars into Wisconsin in an effort to control the deer herd.  Reports of the big cats usually show up in the form of pictures caught on trail cameras but almost all have proved to be bogus upon investigation.  The cougar is known locally as mountain lion, panther, catamount, American lion, puma, mountain screamer, painter, etc.: mountain lion was a term first used in writing in 1858 from the diary of George A. Jackson of Colorado; painter is thought to be a regional variant on panther; catamount is thought to be a contraction from "cat of the mountain"; and the first English record of the name puma was in 1777, where it had come from the Spanish, who in turn borrowed it from the Peruvian language in the 16th century, where it meant "powerful". 

Wild cougars once roamed throughout Wisconsin, one of three wild cats native to the state, along with the bobcat and Canada lynx.  It had probably disappeared from the state by about 1910, but reports of sightings began to surface again in the 1940s and were believed to be of escaped captive cougars or misidentifications.  Since 1991, the DNR has conducted a standardized system of collecting reports of cougars and other rare mammals, but while there have been several verified sightings of cougars in Wisconsin in recent years, there is currently no evidence that they are breeding here.  DNA testing of biological samples and other evidence has confirmed that at least six cougars have visited Wisconsin since 2008, and biologists believe these are males dispersing from a breeding population in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

The cougar is the largest wildcat in North America north of Mexico.  An average male weighs up to 160 pounds and is almost five feet long plus a three foot tail, although the female is somewhat smaller.  Its coat is mostly tawny with creamy underparts and there is some black on the muzzle, the back of the erect ears, and the tip of the tail.  Its powerful forequarters, neck, and jaw serve to grasp and hold large prey, and its large hind legs give it great leaping and short-sprint ability.  It is able to leap as high as 18 feet in one bound, and as far as 40 to 45 feet horizontally.  The cougar's top running speed ranges between 40 and 50 mph but is best adapted for fast sprints rather than long chases.  It is also adept at climbing and can swim.

It is not typically classified among the “big cats”, as it cannot roar, lacking the specialized larynx and hyoid apparatus.  Cougars can only give low-pitched hisses, growls, and purrs, as well as chirps and whistles, many of which are comparable to those of domestic cats, but they are well known for their screams, as is obvious from some of their common names.

The cougar pursues a wide variety of prey but its primary food sources are grazing animals, although it will also eat creatures as small as insects and rodents.  It mostly avoids people and fatal attacks on humans are rare, but have been increasing in recent years in North America as more people enter their territory.  The cougar typically stalks its prey before leaping onto its back and killing with a neck bite.   A large deer is thought to last the hunter about two weeks.

Females breed at about three years of age and typically average one litter every two to three years.  Female cougars are fiercely protective of their cubs, and have been seen to successfully fight off animals as large as black bears.  The cubs are weaned at around three months of age and as they grow, they begin to go out on forays with their mother, first visiting kill sites, and after six months beginning to hunt small prey on their own.  Young adults attempt to establish their own territory at around two years of age, and life expectancy in the wild probably averages eight to ten years.

There are thought to be around 50,000 cougars on the continent and in recent decades, breeding populations have moved east from the Rockies into the far western parts of the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. Transient males have been verified in Minnesota, Missouri, Wisconsin, Iowa, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and Illinois where a cougar was shot in the city limits of Chicago, and, in at least one instance, observed as far east as coastal Connecticut.

Regulated cougar hunting is permitted from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean with the exception of California, and in Texas where they are listed as nuisance wildlife.  Attacks on humans may occur when a cougar becomes used to humans nearby or is starving. 

The increasing number and frequency of verified cougar sightings in recent years are likely due to three factors: the growing popularity of trail cameras used to monitor wildlife activity in the woods; additional transient cougars moving east from established populations in western states as they seek new territory; and the cooperation of the public in reporting cougar sightings and sharing their photos. The Wisconsin DNR site reports three verified cougar sightings in July of this year in Langlade and Marinette Counties -- possibly the same animal.  Not to worry, however.

This from Dave MacFarland, DNR Wildlife Specialist: “The DNR releasing animals is a persistent rumor in Wisconsin.  We regularly hear that we release cougars because we want to kill deer, we release rattlesnakes because we want to kill turkeys etc. etc.  None of them are true.  Wildlife reintroduction efforts are very large endeavors which require coordination between multiple states and local governments (for example the current elk reintroduction).  It would be very difficult to keep quiet, and all the records on such a project would be publically accessible through the states open records law.   The DNR has never released cougars in Wisconsin and we have no plans to do so.”


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September 15, 2015

It is common knowledge that robins, wrens, swallows and hummingbirds leave us in the autumn and spend the winter in more moderate climates.  It is less well known that a number of insects also migrate significant distances.  A major difference, however, is that while our birds will return to their nesting areas in the spring, the migrating insects reproduce and then die in the South and it is a new generation that comes back. 

Migration is usually defined as traveling to a specific destination which requires the ability to plot a course and to recognize one’s  position in relation to one’s surroundings.  Day-flying insects primarily make use of the sun for orientation, although this requires that they compensate for its movement across the sky.  Most are also capable of sensing polarized light and they are able to use the polarization of the sky when the sun is occluded by clouds.  A flying insect needs to make corrections for crosswinds and it has been demonstrated that many migrating insects sense windspeed and direction and make suitable corrections, and recent studies suggest that some migratory butterflies are equipped with magnetite particles and may be sensitive to the Earth's magnetic field. 

Locusts (the swarming phase of short-horned grasshoppers) have been notorious throughout history for their devastating migrations. They usually little problem but under certain conditions of drought followed by rapid plant growth, chemicals in their brains cause them to start to breed with great enthusiasm, resulting in numerous wingless nymphs followed by swarms of winged adults.  These are powerful fliers and the swarms travel great distances, destroying green vegetation wherever they settle.  These flights are often irregular, however, and are related to food availability, and so do not fit our definition of true migration. 

Now consider certain dragonflies.  Although the majority of these insects live their lives around the ponds where they were born, some of the common green darners make a one-way trip south to Florida, Texas or Mexico in the fall. These darners are some of our largest dragonflies and easy to recognize with their three-inch long bodies, large multifaceted eyes and two pairs of strong transparent wings that are held flat and away from the body.  Very little is known about the migration, however, because they move over such a broad area, but it is recognized that their migration is a one-way trip. 

The wandering glider, a medium sized dragonfly, is widespread in North America but even less is known about its migration.  We do know that it moves northward from the tropics and subtropics in spring, breeding along the way, with some finding their way as far north as the Canadian border in summer before returning south again in the fall.  There are eleven additional species suspected to migrate but information is scant enough that scientists are sure that more species will be added to this list.

According to the North American Butterfly Association, each spring, cloudless sulphurs, little yellows, gulf fritillaries, painted ladies, red admirals, common buckeyes, skippers and several others from Mexico and the southern states fly north to repopulate the northern regions.  For most species these northward dispersals are gradual, but in especially good years, one can see hundreds of these butterflies streaming northward along migratory routes. The painted lady, a beauty with orange and brown on its upper wings and splashed with dots of colors on its under wings, lives year-round in the tropics, but when weather conditions are right or perhaps when southern populations reach large numbers, some will migrate northward and expand their range temporarily. These sometimes occur in great numbers filling the skies with butterflies, but it is a one-way trip as they will not survive a northern winter and none return to the South.

In the fall, other species such as question marks and queen butterflies can sometimes be seen moving south in groups of thousands.  Exactly where all of these butterflies go is not known or how they reappear in the spring.  Monarchs are the most well-known of the migratory butterflies but even here knowledge is limited. We know that most of the monarchs from west of the Rocky Mountains spend the winter along the California coast while those from central North America spend the winter in roosts in the mountains of central Mexico.  Some think that monarchs from the Atlantic seaboard also migrate to the same Mexican mountain overwintering sites, but other experts suggest that the butterflies may travel on to undiscovered sites in the Caribbean or the Yucatan Peninsula.

Midwestern monarchs continue south all the way to the Sierra Madres of central Mexico where they spend the winter among fir forests at high altitudes, feeding when possible but not reproducing.  In early spring they will head north to breed and lay eggs at the first area where milkweeds are present, usually in northern Mexico and southern Texas. Their offspring will continue the trip north over several months until they reach their northern starting point.

There were thought to be fourteen major butterfly colonies located in these rugged forested Mexican mountains in past years containing an estimated billion individuals. Now there is considerable concern for their future as in January of this year it was determined that the population was 80% below historic levels and half of the monarchs were concentrated in only one of the overwintering sites.  Lincoln Brower, professor of biology at Sweet Briar College who has studied the monarch migrations for decades offers three reasons for the catastrophic drop; deforestation in Mexico, recent bouts of severe weather, and the growth of herbicide-based agriculture destroying crucial milkweed plants in the Midwest.  Migration is a dangerous solution for insects to survive northern winters but concerned people are doing their best to provide help to those who attempt it. 

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September 8, 2015:
Walking Sticks and Praying Mantids

Chances are you have never seen a praying mantis or a walking stick--not because these insects are so scarce but because they are so perfectly camouflaged.  Still, look around your garden carefully, for although most insects are nearing their end of their life cycles, these strange looking creatures are busy producing their eggs for next year.  The two are often thought to be related and are found in similar locations, but are quite different; primarily, mantises are predators and walking sticks are herbivores, and they have completely different needs and instincts when it comes to feeding, mating, raising young and surviving.

Northern walking sticks are most common and their resemblance to twigs is striking.  They have brown or greenish-brown cylindrical stick-like bodies, (although others in the family have flattened, leaflike shapes); their bodies often have the ridges and budlike protuberances of tree bark; a few species are able to change color to match their surroundings; and some species are even covered in mossy-looking outgrowths. They are wingless and molt several times as they grow to adult size, then eat their discarded skins.  All have long slender antennae and chewing mouthparts that project out from the head, and long thin legs that are capable of regrowing if lost. 

Most American stick species grow up to four inches in length, but one in Texas reaches almost seven inches, and there is even a tropical species that can grow to a total length of twenty-two inches measured with the front legs fully extended.  Walking sticks feed primarily on leaves, and when numerous, have been known to injure forest and shade trees.  Indeed, they have occasionally posed a significant problem in parks and recreation sites in Wisconsin when they attack oaks and other hardwoods. 

At this time of year, the female lays hundreds of eggs, sticking them to vegetation or simply depositing them on the ground.  (Many of the females are able to lay eggs without requiring a mate if none is available, although such eggs are all female and exact copies of their mothers.)  The eggs resemble tiny plant seeds and some have a fatty, knoblike cap that attracts ants, a similar substance that is present on some wildflower seeds. The ants take the eggs into their nests underground and remove the caps to feed to their larvae leaving the eggs to hatch.  The young nymphs, which initially resemble their ant hosts, emerge from the nests and climb the nearest tree to safety in the foliage. 

Walking sticks mostly depend upon their camouflage to protect them, but a number of species are also equipped with paired glands that release chemical compounds with an unpleasant odor and will cause a stinging, burning sensation in the eyes and mouth of a predator.  Stick insects, like their distant relative, the grasshopper, can also discharge the contents of their stomachs through vomiting when harassed, often causing predators to spit them out.

Many stick insects are easy to care for in captivity, and almost 300 species have been reared in laboratories or as pets.  The most commonly kept, the Indian stick insect, is easily cared for at room temperature and requires only a tall jar with a few holes punched in the top and some leaves (usually bramble, ivy or privet) for food. During the winter months when such vegetation may be scarce, organic lettuce is often used as a substitute.  

Now consider the praying mantis.  It is a ferocious solitary predator, and has two grasping, spiked forelegs in which prey is caught and held securely while eaten. Its large eyes are situated on a triangular head that can swivel a full 180 degrees to give it binocular vision and allow it to hunt down its prey primarily by sight.

The University of Wisconsin lists three species of mantis that can be found in Wisconsin; the native Carolina mantis and the European and Chinese mantids that were introduced to the United States in the late 1800s as pest controls. The Chinese mantis is the most widespread and is usually found on leafy plants and woody shrubs in fields and woodlands near water, as well as in gardens.  Consuming mostly insects, mantids are ambush predators that wait frozen until prey appears, and then strike.  They mostly feed on other insects although larger specimens may also prey on small frogs, lizards or even hummingbirds.

Adult mantids are green to grayish brown and may reach two to three inches in length.  They have well-developed wings although males seldom fly and females never do so that the size of their territory is mainly restricted to the distance they can walk.  Praying mantids are experts at concealment, however, using their protective coloration to blend into any foliage.  When threatened, they will stand tall, spread their forelegs, and fan their wings out wide to appear larger, and if further provoked will strike with their forelegs and attempt to pinch or bite.

In the fall after mating, female mantids lay several hundred eggs in a frothy mass which hardens to a tan or gray foam-like case.   Nymphs hatch in the early spring and by late summer they have developed wings, mated and reproduced before they die with the first frost.

Praying mantids can be purchased for garden duty or kept as pets, as they are mostly harmless to humans and are very easy to care for as long as you are willing to feed them the live insects they require.  Egg cases are available on the internet or in pet or gardening stores.


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September 1, 2015: Day-length and Night-length

Autumn is fast approaching and it is not only air temperature that signals the change in the seasons; flowering plants often give the first warning, with some birds close behind.  Goldenrod lives up to its name by spreading its bright yellow sprays in August, and chicory decorates the road ways with its sky-blue blossoms soon after.  Swallows swoop before one’s vehicle when driving the back roads, flocking up and preparing for their long journey to South America, and hummingbirds empty feeders building up fat for migration.

Have you ever wondered how plants and animals “know” when to do what they do -- to flower, produce offspring, prepare for winter?  Photoperiodism is the technical name for the bodily reaction of all organisms to daylight, or more properly, to the numbers of hours of light or darkness. 

All plants and animals have photoreceptor cells, specialized types that receive, process and transmit information through electrical and chemical signals.  In animals, these are present in the retinas of their eyes where the inner eye contains a light-sensitive layer.  In plants, the photoreceptor cells are present throughout their stem and leaf tissues.  These typically consist of a protein part and a non-protein photopigment that senses and responds to light and other forms of electromagnetic radiation.

Day-neutral plants such as cucumbers, roses, and tomatoes are able to flower after attaining a certain overall developmental stage or age.  Many other plants, however, have photoreceptors that sense seasonal changes in night length, and require either long or short periods of darkness before flowering.  Originally it was believed that it was the length of daylight that was critical, but it was later discovered that it was the hours of darkness that were the controlling factor.  Now modern biologists believe that it is a combination of the responses created by light or lack of it, as well as the innate basic physical, chemical and behavioral characteristics of the individual organism -- the so-called circadian clock.  The circadian clock -- with its 24 hour rhythms -- is fundamental to most cellular metabolic processes. 

(Long-night plants flower when the darkness lengths exceed their particular photoperiod limit, such as many fall plants like goldenrod, chrysanthemums, poinsettias and Christmas cactus.  Goldenrods are probably the most widely recognized with its bright, golden-yellow flowers. The flower heads usually contain up to 35 distinct ray and disc florets, and propagation is by wind-carried seeds or by spreading underground rhizomes which can form colonies of a single plant. Goldenrod is often unfairly blamed for causing hay fever in humans.  Its pollen is too heavy and sticky to be blown far from the flowers, however, and is spread by insects and birds, while the pollen causing allergy problems is mainly produced by ragweed, blooming at the same time and widely wind-blown.  Goldenrods are considered weeds by many in North America, but they are prized as garden plants in Europe, where British gardeners planted them into their gardens long before the Americans. Goldenrod only began to gain some acceptance here (other than as wildflowers) during the 1980s.)

Horticulturists and home gardeners manipulate the day and night length (indoors with lights) to get plants to bloom at times other than when they would naturally.  For example, chrysanthemums, short day plants, naturally set flowers and bloom with the long nights of fall, but by covering them for at least 12 hours a day for several weeks, one can simulate the light and darkness pattern of fall, thereby stimulating summer blooming.

Conversely it is possible to bring a long-day plant into bud formation and eventual bloom early by putting the plant under grow lights for a few hours a day beyond natural day length for a few weeks.  Manipulating day length to stimulate early  or late blooming is a common practice in the nursery and fresh flower industry, especially around various holidays.

Animals and birds, too, experience a number of biological and behavioral changes with photoperiodism.  These typically trigger shedding or molting, changes in the color of fur and feathers, migration, entry into hibernation and sexual behavior.  In the spring, when the nights shorten, the sexual organs of our songbirds enlarge and secrete hormones that initiate singing in the males and receptivity in the females as well as all the related nesting behavior. 

At the same time, some mammals such as foxes, coyotes and mice bred and produce their young.  Come fall, whitetail deer respond to the lengthening hours of darkness by seeking out mates, while other animals prepare for winter by storing food and seeking shelter.  Interestingly, the ubiquitous artificial lighting to which humans and their pets are subjected all their lives negates any such effects photoperiods might have on them.


August 25, 2015:  The Weird Cicada

It looks like a creature from a sci-fi movie -- a pair of prominent red eyes set wide apart on a black mask, three smaller eyes arranged high on its head, a beak sharp enough to pierce wood or flesh and a bulky body equipped with grasping spiked legs and long wings -- and it can suddenly appear in large numbers around the yard.  The red-eyed species is not present this year, but you may see one of its close relatives, the “dog-day” or annual cicada.  This type has a greenish body and wings with black markings, but you are more likely to discover the insect’s empty shell clinging to tree bark or other vertical surface.  Cicada emergence is relatively synchronized, with most nymphs emerging within a few nights.

Cicadas live underground as nymphs for most of their lives, at depths ranging from about one to eight feet. Their nymphs have strong front legs for digging and feed on xylem sap from tree roots that contains water and dissolved minerals.  In August, those that are sufficiently mature construct exit tunnels to the surface and emerge. Their skins dry, harden and then split down the back and the adult cicadas crawl out, leaving their abandoned exoskeletons clinging empty.  The annual cicadas have two to five year life cycles, and their broods often overlap at a given location, allowing some to appear every year.

Cicadas do their most enthusiastic singing during the hotter hours of a summer day.  This sounds like a loud humming, somewhat similar to that of crickets or other such insects although produced by quite a different apparatus.  Instead of rubbing together certain body parts, male cicadas have structures called tymbals below each side of the abdomen consisting of complex membranes supported by thickened ribs.  The insect repeatedly contracts muscles which buckle the tymbals inwards, then relaxes, producing almost continuous clicks.  Its largely hollow abdomen acts as a sound box and by rapidly vibrating these membranes a cicada combines the clicks into an seemingly continuous tone.  Researchers have found this “song” can reach 120 decibels, in contrast to loud rock concerts that often register at 115 dBs.  That is loud enough to cause permanent hearing loss in humans should the cicada sing just outside a listener's ear.

In addition to the mating song, many species have a distinct distress call, usually a broken and erratic sound that the insect emits when seized or panicked; at the same time it is likely to squirt waste liquid from the sap that it had been sucking, possibly distracting certain classes of attacker.   Males also produce encounter calls, whether in courtship or to repel other males. 

After mating, the female cuts slits into the bark of a twig with her ovipositor, and deposits several eggs in each.   She may lay several hundred eggs and when these hatch, the ant-like nymphs drop to the ground, where they burrow down to the tree roots.  Cicada nymphs suck sap from the xylem of the roots of various species of trees, including oak, cypress, willow, ash and maple.  As with several other members of the insect world, the adult cicada has a rather short life span, compared to its exceptionally long term juvenile stage.  It is not known to feed although it possesses a rather formidable looking mouth part that has been used in defense if carelessly handled.

Nine species are found in Wisconsin, but they often go unnoticed until the appearance of the periodic cicada.  These so-called “seventeen-year locusts” are black and have reddish-orange eyes and legs, and have clear wings with orange veins that are positioned over their bodies like a roof or canopy.   These emerge in massive numbers after living underground for seventeen years in the northern part of the country although different broods emerge somewhere nearly every spring.  The last adult emergence in Wisconsin was in 2007 and it was hard to miss the numbers of the big flying insects, their persistent humming which could be heard from almost every tree, and the dying twigs on trees from the egg-laying. 

Cicadas are sometimes mistakenly called locusts, a term properly used to describe certain migratory grasshoppers. This error originated when early European settlers encountered large instances of periodical cicadas in the Northeast and likened them to the locusts described in the Bible.  Cicadas belong to a completely different insect order from locusts, however, and are related to leafhoppers and spittlebugs.  They do not cause destructive plagues as some locusts do, though many thousands of the insects may crowd into a single acre.  Large swarms can overwhelm and damage young trees by feeding and laying eggs, but older trees usually escape without serious damage.

Cicadas are commonly eaten by birds and sometimes by squirrels but you might be interested to know that many people around the world also regularly eat them. Most experts agree that cicadas are a rich source of protein with about the same amount per pound as red meat. They are also said to be full of vitamins and minerals, low in fat, and they have zero carbs. Female cicadas are prized for being meatier and can contain up to 600 nutritious eggs, and a quick “google” of the subject on the web will find detailed instructions for preparing and cooking them. 

Perhaps the idea of feasting on a bug doesn’t appeal, but if you think about it, shrimp and lobsters are just cicadas without wings; in fact, crawfish, lobster, crabs, shrimp, and insects are all part of the same biological phylum of arthropods.   In 2011, cicadas were incorporated into a batch of ice cream at Sparky's in Columbia, Missouri, a popular ice cream shop. The shop was advised by the public health department against making a second batch, but it only added to their fame in the area.   You may have to wait until 2026, however, for the next emergence of the periodic cicada to try this for yourself.




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August 18, 2015: Wild Canaries?

We spend many quiet hours these days sitting on our back porch and watching the birds that come to drink and bathe in our small pond.  I keep my bird guide handy as I like to know who is visiting, and it can be challenging to identify the many immatures at this time of year.  This is not the case with the goldfinches, however, as they are just entering their most active period -- nesting and raising their young -- and the brilliant yellow of the males is quite distinctive.

The eastern goldfinch belongs to a group of small, short tailed finches which includes the other American goldfinches and the siskins. These birds are also closely related to the redpolls and have traits in common; they collect in flocks during most of the year and constantly give their characteristic call notes as they flit from place to place. They fly in a distinctive undulating pattern, creating a wave-shaped path which normally consists of a series of wing beats to lift the bird, then folding in the wings and gliding in an arc before repeating. Birds often vocalize during the flapping phase of the pattern and then go silent during the coasting phase.

Goldfinches are adapted to eat off seed heads, with conical beaks to remove the seeds and agile feet to grip the stems while feeding.  They wait to breed and nest until July and August, after plants like milkweed and thistle have produced their seeds for food and fibrous stalks which goldfinches use for building nests. Thus, this species generally produces only one brood each year.

The courtship ritual includes flight displays as the male pursues the female who flies in zigzagging evasive patterns.   He advertises his good qualities -- bright yellow plumage and acrobatic skill -- and if a female accepts him as a mate, the pair will fly in wide circles, the male warbling his eagerness.  He then selects a territory, flying from perch to perch and then tucking his wings close to his body, plummeting earthwards and catching himself as he spreads his wings to glide upward in a series of loops. Two or three pairs often group their territories together in a loose colony.

The nest is built by the female in the branches of a shrub or tree.   She collects nesting materials, sometimes helped by the male, but she does the major construction.  The outer shell is built of bark, weeds, vines, and grass bound by spiderwebs and caterpillar silk, and the cup is lined with plant down from milkweed, thistle, or cattail. The nest is so tightly woven that it can hold water, and occasionally nestlings have drowned during a rainstorm when the female didn’t cover the nest.

The male brings food to the female as she incubates her eggs, and the chicks hatch in 12–14 days.  The nestlings are fed regurgitated seeds and insects and develop quickly, soon opening their eyes and acquiring their olive-brown juvenile plumage.  For up to three weeks after fledging, they are still fed by the male, who locates them by listening for their fledging call.  In the fall, males loose their bright yellow plumage and become drab like the female, leading some people to conclude that they have migrated out of the area for the winter.

It is often thought that the domestic canary was developed from the Eastern goldfinch but its ancestor was a bird that is unique to the Canary Islands, Azores and Madeira in the eastern Atlantic Ocean.  The canary was named after the Islands, not the other way around -- the name derived from the Latin Insula Canaria meaning "island of dogs" due to its "vast multitudes of dogs of very large size".  The birds were first caged and bred in the 17th century by Spanish sailors and canaries became fashionable in royal courts of Spanish and English kings.  Originally, the birds were only owned by the rich but eventually the local citizens started to breed them and they became very popular.  The wild Atlantic canaries are mostly yellow-green, with brownish streaking on the back but a number of color varieties have been bred as well as singers with more elaborate songs.

Their ease of domestication led to an unusual use.  Caged canaries were commonly kept in coal mines as an early warning system.  Toxic gases such as carbon monoxide, methane or carbon dioxide in the mine would kill the birds before affecting the miners, and healthy birds underground assured the miners that conditions were safe.  This practice was only ended in England in 1987.

Canaries also have been extensively used in research to study neurogenesis, or the birth of new neurons in the adult brain, and also for basic research in understanding how songbirds encode and produce song. Thus, canaries have served as model species for discovering how the vertebrate brain learns, consolidates memories, and recalls coordinated motor movements.

When I was young, caged canaries were common fixtures in many homes.   My grandmother enjoyed breeding them, specializing in a white variety, and our family always had one in our dining room.  Canaries are not as popular as pets these days although they are still displayed in nursing homes, restaurants, and other public places.  There are even canary competitions of three types -- colorbred, type (meaning shape and conformation), and song -- and birds are judged in shows around the world.   One large show is held in Europe each year attracts thousands of breeders and some 20,000 birds are brought together for this competition.  These days I much prefer watching their wild cousins as they come to our feeders and little pond.




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 August 11, 2015: Backyard rodents

When we speak of rodents, we usually are thinking of mice or rats, and generally those who invade our homes or other buildings.  The most widely known species is certainly the house mouse with its pointed snout, small rounded ears, a long scaly naked tail and a high breeding rate.  Originally native to Asia, it spread to the Mediterranean Basin about 8000 BC, into the rest of Europe around 1000 BC and eventually around the world.  Rats are typically distinguished from mice by their size, and the best-known rat species are the black and brown rats that also originated in Asia. 

Rodents are the largest order of mammals and include mice, rats, gophers, squirrels, porcupines, beavers, and chipmunks.  Some species, like most squirrels, spend much of their time in trees, while other such as beavers, spend a lot of time in the water. The defining characteristics are their specialized teeth for gnawing -- pairs of sharp, chisel-like upper and lower incisors that are continuously growing.  The front of these teeth is covered with thick protective layers of enamel while the back side is bare, and as rodents gnaw their food, the back side wears away, keeping the edges of the teeth sharp.

The house mouse is one of the most successful types of mammals living today because of its remarkable ability to adapt to almost any environment.  It not only is found around the world but has been domesticated as a pet and used as a laboratory animal in biological and medical research.  In Wisconsin, certain native mouse species such as the American white-footed and the deer mice are also locally prolific and known to invade homes for food and shelter.   Those in the wild build long intricate burrows equipped with several escape tunnels and breed year around, beginning at about seven weeks of age.  Mice are largely herbivores, consuming any kind of fruit or grain but are known for eating almost any food scraps and garbage.

There is some confusion about other small wild rodents that live in our gardens and fields.  The vole resembles a mouse but has a stouter body and a shorter, hairy tail. There are approximately 155 species of voles around the world and they are often called meadow or field mice in North America.  Voles can have five to ten litters per year and since litters average five to ten young, a single female can birth a hundred offspring in a year.  Fortunately for us, their average lifespan is only three to six months and as many as 88% are estimated to die within the first month of life.  Voles thrive on small plants but will eat carrion and almost any nut or fruit.  They girdle small trees much like a porcupine, and will eat succulent root systems and bulbs as they burrow underground and travel their extensive tunnel systems. 

The mole may have a similar sounding name to the vole but is quite a different animal.  It has a cylindrical body with velvety fur, small, inconspicuous ears and eyes, and short, powerful forelimbs with large paws adapted for digging.  Moles have been found to tolerate higher levels of carbon dioxide than other mammals and are able to reuse the oxygen inhaled when above ground, and as a result, are able to survive long periods without emerging from their underground burrows.

Their diet consists primarily of earthworms and other small invertebrates that fall into their tunnels.  Because their saliva contains a paralyzing toxin, moles are able to store still-living prey for later consumption, and researchers have discovered larders containing over a thousand earthworms.  They are solitary creatures, coming together only to mate.  Breeding season is generally February through May, and males search for females by letting out high-pitched squeals and excavating new areas.   Three to five young are born in March and early April, and the pups leave the nest about a month after birth to find territories of their own.

The shrew is the mole's closest relative and although it resembles a mouse in many ways, it is not a rodent at all and has a longer nose and shorter tail.  It also has sharp, spike-like teeth and forages for seeds, insects, nuts, worms, and a variety of other foods in leaf litter and dense vegetation.  It is very active with a voracious appetite and can eat up to double its body weight every day.  It does not hibernate, but is capable of entering torpor, and in winter, shrews can lose between 30% and 50% of their body weight.

Shrews are unusual in several other respects.  Many produce a venom that is lethal enough to kill a mouse and the chemicals the poison contains have been investigated for use in the treatment of high blood pressure, migraine, and even ovarian cancer.  Also, along with bats and toothed whales, some species emit ultrasonic squeaks in their hunting.  Shrews live one to two years and females can have up to 10 litters a year.

Chipmunks and ground squirrels are commonly mistaken for each other, but chipmunks prefer woodland borders and have adapted to suburban neighborhoods, while ground squirrels prefer open grasslands.  The chipmunk has five dark brown stripes, which run from its head to its rump and always runs holding its tail upright while the 13-lined ground squirrel has 13 alternating brown and whitish longitudinal lines (sometimes partially broken into spots) on its back and sides and carries its tail straight out behind it when running. They both excavate extensive tunnels which may extend to thirty feet or more, and carry food back to their dens in large cheek pouches. 

All of these small mammals that live in our yards and occasionally visit our homes can be problems as they dig and eat, but their activities of harvesting and hoarding seeds play a crucial role in spreading trees and other plants and dispersing important fungal spores.  They are also important members of the food chain and a few entertain us as well.                               


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August 4, 2015:  Good Beetles

Beetles in general have a bad name.  When we