These are stories from the last few weeks...                           

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Timbergreen Trails I & II
A Catt in Our House
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Timbergreen Forestry

September 29, 2020

Along the path on the upper prairie here at the farm is a bustling mound almost two feet in diameter and several inches high. Through the years we have found a number of these ant communities containing many thousand individuals, but have always been surprised at their fairly-limited life span.  Now I have learned that when the heart of the colony, the queen ant, expires, the entire population gradually dies off.

There are thousands of species of ants found all over the world and in just about every type of terrestrial environment. Ants are so successful at living that in many natural communities their total weight exceeds that of any other creature. The tiny black ant and its close relative, the sugar ant, invade our kitchens, and the carpenter ant sometimes chews on our buildings giving us the impression that these are nuisance creatures; however, all species have important roles in the natural scheme of things. Even the ancient biblical writer uses them as an example: “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.” (Proverbs 6:6). What is it about this small insect that makes it so special?

Their life story begins in an established anthill where a group of fertile male and female ants has hatched. Both sexes have wings and they leave the colony where they were raised and join hundreds of other like insects in a communal nuptial flight. After they mate, the males die, their only purpose in life completed. Each female, now called 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, often incorrectly called ant eggs, 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. The bodies of many of the ant larvae secrete an edible substance that the workers seem to savor and many scientists believe that this encourages them to care for the grubs. In return, their ministrations stimulate the larvae to produce more such secretions, a relationship that benefits everyone.

Many ants also relish the sweet fluid excreted by aphids, called honeydew, and some species have even domesticated aphids to maintain a steady supply. Worker ants of the honeypot species in the southwestern United States 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.

After a number of years, depending 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 hour from a number of colonies in a given region, enhancing their chances of meeting in the nuptial flight. When the colony queen finally dies, the colony is able to survive just a short time, as the workers are sterile and new queens always establish their own colonies.

Ants communicate with each other using touch and sight, but also by use of a chemical pheromone. Worker ants deposit a minute amount of this substance as they range about, inadvertently creating trails that lead back to the colony. In addition, when an individual discovers a source of food, it becomes excited and returns to the nest releasing a heavier track of the chemical.  The larger the concentration of food, the more intense the excitement and the stronger the trail.

The most recent revelation about ants was the announcement from a team of researchers from the American Museum of Natural History that have discovered 92-million-year-old ants preserved in amber.   Besides the fact that these pre-date any known ant fossils, the scientists were able to discern the presence on the fossils of special glands like those found on present-day ants.

These secrete an antibiotic-like substance that is believed to prevent bacteria and fungi from infecting the ants' nests and is thought to be the reason that great numbers of them can live together underground safely.    These few examples only scratch the surface on the many amazing stories about the tiny ant, leading me to echo, "Go to the ant…".


September 22, 2020

When I sat on the deck at dawn, three hummingbirds argued over the nearby feeder, ignoring me but fighting among themselves.  That was when I realized that all had white throats and there was not a ruby throat in sight.  It would seem that the migration has begun and the males must be on their way south. The females and immature birds hang around another couple of weeks to build up their stamina, but the males move toward the Gulf, their summer work done.

If we had to choose one creature that we most treasure on the farm, it would have to be the hummingbird. We eagerly await their arrival each spring and anticipate their departure with regret come September.  Many of our greenhouse plants spend the summer on the deck and we maintain three feeders (out of sight of each other) so there is much nectar for them to eat and we spent many hours observing their antics.

Hummingbirds collect nectar as a source of energy. Plants produce the sweet syrup as a reward for potential pollinators so it is a win-win situation for both the bird and the flower; the bird receives food, and the flower has its pollen spread and its ovules fertilized. The secretion of nectar usually begins when the flower opens and increases each time the flower is visited.  After pollination, the nectar is frequently resorbed.

Flower nectar is produced in glands called nectaries. These can be located on any part of a plant, but the most familiar types are those located in flowers. Depending on the species, a flower's nectaries can be situated on almost any part of the blossom, but most commonly are at the base of the petals and sepals so that any visitors looking for nectar must brush the flower's pollen onto its reproductive organs. Common nectar-consuming pollinators include bees, butterflies, and moths, hummingbirds and bats.

The composition of nectar varies from plant species to plant species, but carbohydrates make up the largest fraction by weight.  The various types of nectars can be ordered into three equal groups according to sugar content: predominately sucrose, predominately glucose and fructose.  Some nectars also contain amino acids, and all twenty of the normal amino acids found in protein have been identified in various nectars, as well as other substances such as organic acids, alkaloids, flavonoids, vitamins and oils.

In addition to the floral nectaries which attract pollinating creatures, many plants have extrafloral nectaries which provide a nutrient source to animals which in turn provide protection from harm. These are highly diverse in form, location and size, and have been found in leaves, stems, fruits and virtually all aboveground plant parts. They range from single-celled fine outgrowths, hairs and scales, to complex cup-like structures.  Extrafloral nectaries have been reported in thousands of species of plants, almost all of which flower as well.

Extrafloral nectaries were originally believed to rid the plant of waste products but now it is understood that their nectar attracts predatory insects that will eat both the nectar and any plant-eating insects around, thus protecting the plant.   Foraging predatory insects show a preference for plants with extrafloral nectaries, particularly some species of ants, wasps and lady bugs, and these have been observed to directly defend the plants.

Interestingly, sugar concentrations from these extrafloral nectaries varies greatly depending on their type and location--particularly the amount of vascular tissue beneath them. If the transportation cells laid end to end throughout the plant that carry sugars and other molecules (called phloem) make up most of the vascular tissue, the nectar may contain up to 50 percent sugar. On the other hand, if xylem predominates (the system of tubes and transport cells that circulate water and dissolved minerals), the sugar content may fall to as little as 8 percent.

A hummingbird in flight has the highest metabolism of all creatures except for some insects and so has the greatest need for stored energy.  Its heart rate can reach as high as 1,260 beats per minute, and it must consume more than its own weight in nectar each day. Nectar is a poor source of some vital nutrients, however, so hummingbirds meet their needs for protein, vitamins, and minerals by preying on insects and spiders.

To avoid the cold and the scarcity of food when flowers stop blooming and insects stop flying, ruby-throats go south. Some adult males 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-throated we see at feeders are migrating through from farther north.

For a hummer that just hatched, there's no memory of past migrations, only an urge to put on much weight and fly in a particular direction for a certain amount of time. Once it learns its route, however, the bird may retrace it every year as long as it lives. The initial urge is triggered by the shortening days as autumn approaches, and the birds start south when they have accumulated sufficient fat.  It has nothing to do with temperature or the availability of food; in fact, hummingbirds migrate at the time of greatest food abundance. Do maintain your feeders until the syrup begins to freeze, however, as you may save some late travelers.


September 15, 2020

The woodlands and edges are entering their most colorful period, with the walnuts and sumac leading the way. Few flowers in the forest bloom now with one notable exception, the white snakeroot, that seems to be able to flourish despite fierce competition for water and sunlight. This is an erect, branched plant usually about 3 feet tall with small clusters of white blossoms.

White snakeroot is described as a native perennial, but in our woods it seems to act more like an annual for we see no sign of any until the young plants reach blooming size in September. Then, the numerous heads of tiny white flowers at the top of each stem and the ends of the branches are visible throughout the wild garden, looking almost exactly like the flower heads of the familiar garden ageratum, except for color. Although the plant is a member of the daisy family, its blossoms consist only of tubular disc flowers such as are in the centers of asters and sunflowers, and possess no rays (petals) at all.

An interesting fact about this plant is that it is very poisonous, both to grazing animals and to humans who might drink milk from cows that have eaten it. Nineteenth century pioneers sometimes abandoned their land after observing the spread of “milk sickness” which caused a number of deaths, assuming the disease was present in the soil. The sickness reached epidemic proportions before the true cause was discovered, and it is thought that this was the cause of the death of Nancy Hanks, mother of Abraham Lincoln. All parts of the leaves and stems are toxic and remain so even when dried in hay. 

Many of our plants, both wild and in our gardens, contain chemicals that are toxic. Most only become harmful as part of the digestive process, but some affect humans and animals when simply touched or even breathed in. Their harmful chemicals are products of the very proteins and amino acids that are necessary to all living cells, most of which are highly beneficial. Deadly poisons such as those in the amanita mushroom or in the algae known as red tide are created if more than two chains of amino acids are joined in a particular fashion.

Some alkaloids are nitrogen-bearing chemicals that are derived from amino acids and are useful medicines, but others are bitter-tasting and destructive such as baneberry, nightshade, and some spring flowers. Other compounds which can become toxic are glycosides such as those found in foxgloves and some roses, oxalates that are present in philodendrons and even rhubarb, phenols such as those found in poison ivy and nettles, and resins and volatile oils, derived mostly from chemicals composed of hydrogen, carbon & oxygen, and present in many unrelated plants.

It takes little imagination to understand the benefit to plants offered by poisons in their leaves, for they are the foodstuffs at least indirectly for every living creature on earth, and those who possess such toxicity often survive to produce offspring while their nearby neighbors are consumed. Certainly, for a late blooming plant like the white snakeroot that stands tall and inviting among plants that have completed their growth and are fading, it would be very important to be as unappetizing as possible.

Another poisonous plant is also just opening on the prairie, most often where the soil is moist and water is plentiful. The common sneezeweed can reach 60 inches in height, and is usually identifiable by its oval or heart-shaped toothed leaves arranged opposite to each other up its winged stems, but it is the numerous flowers that make it stand out. I’ve always had a fondness for this particular plant as its scientific name is “helenium” or Helen’s flower. In its long-ago past, tradition links the plant with Helen of Troy, and depending upon the source, either Helen carried the flower when Paris took her to Troy or else it sprang from her tears.

Even a disease found in sheep that have eaten the plant is named for the flower--helenatin. Sneezeweed has many bright yellow flowers that consist of prominent buttons surrounded by turned-back rays, each with two or three notches in its lower edge. This plant is very bitter, but like many other of the toxic plants was used in small quantities to treat many ailments in years past. Its common name was derived from the practice of treating respiratory illnesses with a snuff of dried and powdered plants as it induced sneezing.

All of this talk of plant toxins should underline the general rule that no part of an unknown plant should be tasted, or even picked without using caution. It is a modern myth that all things "natural" are more healthful to use. Some of the most deadly poisons known come from natural sources, and most of these are plants.


September 1, 2020

Were it not so common a sight, if it didn’t sprout up unbidden and in considerable numbers around our yards or prairie plantings, if it didn’t invade and threaten to crowd out our carefully tended garden plants, chances are that Queen Anne’s lace would be one of our favorite flowers.

Each plant when mature displays a dozen or more blossom heads, and each 3-4 inch head is made up of some 45 tiny bouquets which themselves often have more than 30 florets each. This arrangement is called an umbel by botanists, who sometimes liken such a flower head to a tall stalk of blooms squashed down into a flat disc. Displayed in a vase, it is a long-lasting cut flower; dried on the stalk, it curls up into a “bird’s nest”; pressed, it retains its shape indefinitely and can be used in all sorts of decorations; ground up, it has been used throughout history as a herbal remedy for numerous ailments.

Queen Anne's lace, or wild carrot, is native to the Old World but naturalized and weedy throughout North America.  It probably came across the ocean in sacks of grain with the Pilgrims and has been here ever since and has established itself in every state. Similar in appearance and smell to our garden carrot and believed to have been its early ancestor, it has feathery foliage but a woody inedible root. It is biennial and so grows a rosette of very finely divided leaves its first year and then stretches up to bloom and set seed the second summer before dying. However, it is such a prolific seeder, it does spread rapidly, and is almost impossible to eradicate.

Close examination of a blossom using a magnifying hand lens, or better still a binocular microscope, reveals aspects of this complex bloom one would never suspect. Each individual flower stalk terminates in a green ball studded with what seems to be a random arrangement of emerging stems.  Around the bottom of this orb hangs a row of bracts, stiff narrow branched leaves that once protected the bud but now form its base.

Emerging above these from the rest of the surface are stems of graduated lengths that end in much smaller balls that in turn support the tiny florets. Each small bouquet of blossoms mimics the shape of the larger flower head, making the view of the underside of the arrangement as interesting as that of the top surface.

The creamy floret, itself, which with its neighbors may number well past a thousand in an average flower head, has a central organ equipped with a double protuberance which eventually develops into two seeds. Surrounding this are five petals, many of which are folded around the bases of scarlet-brushed stamens that hold the pollen and are too small to be seen with the naked eye. Most of the heads also have a deep red floret displayed in the center, and we found one that had split itself into four, dividing its color unevenly among its parts.

Queen Anne's lace is the American name for the European flower and stories of how it came to be so called are varied and obscure. Some cite an English legend that this plant was a cultivated novelty in the royal gardens when the future queen Anne arrived from Denmark to marry King James I.   She was enamored with the plant and challenged the ladies in waiting to a contest to see who could produce a pattern of lace as lovely as this flower. None succeeded.

Other storytellers contend that the tiny dark floret in the center represents the queen while the white florets make up her lace collar. Another legend states that the deep reddish flower is a drop of blood from Queen Anne who pricked her finger while making lace.  In contrast, one historian suggests that the name of the plant comes not from the Queen of England but from Saint Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary and the patron saint of lace-makers.

It is amazing that, like snowflakes, the flowers of no two plant species are exactly alike, and a stroll around the garden proves the point.   All contain male and female reproductive organs, usually surrounded by protective petals and sepals, but color, shape, size and arrangement vary tremendously.  Some of the earliest flowers were very simple with no petals and pollinated by the wind, but many have developed a wide variety of elaborate mechanisms for attracting pollinators.

Duckweed, a tiny aquatic plant that resembles a floating leaf may have the smallest blossom known and a parasitic flowering plant from Asia boasting a flower that can be more than three feet in diameter is the largest. I think it is interesting that humans have played an important role in the survival and diversification of flowering plants, bringing them into their homes and gardens, demanding ever more colorful and unique forms, and protecting them from the dangers of a life in the wild.

August 25, 2020

Hummingbirds patrolling their domains around our front feeder have been a common sight this summer, but now a similar activity by quite a different creature is going on at the little pond under the birch. The ten-spot skimmer is a common dragonfly with dark spots across the upper edges of its wings and a long slim body. Males also have patches of light blue between the dark spots and such a one has staked out its territory in our yard. We don’t know if any females have yet appeared to share this small puddle and lay their eggs, but he diligently chases away any other males that approach.

Few creatures are more fascinating to watch than those graceful hummingbird-like insects. They are the acrobats of the insect world and are capable of spectacular aerial maneuvering as well as motionless hovering. The bodies of most species are vividly colored with the males usually having more brilliant metallic hues than the females, and the beautifully veined cellophane-like wings are often adorned with spots or stripes.

 The adults eat enormous quantities of mosquitoes, gnats and other flying insects that they scoop out of the air in a "basket" formed by their legs and thorax. With their voracious appetites and swiveling heads equipped with great jeweled eyes that constantly scan back and forth, they evidently reminded early observers of strange flying dragons and were so named. They were also called "horse-stingers" or "devil's darning needles" but they neither sting nor bite and are quite harmless.

Dragonflies are a very ancient order of insects and fossils exist from more than 300 million years ago. They are relatively large insects even now, but in the past they were much bigger and fossil remains of one species had a wingspan of two feet. The largest living dragonfly is from Costa Rica with a wingspan of 7 1/2 inches and a body length of almost 5 inches.

A dragonfly has a large head on a flexible neck and is equipped with two huge compound eyes that contain up to thirty thousand hexagonal simple eyes, each with its own lens. These can distinguish objects many feet distant, and can detect even small movement over a wide area. Dragonflies have strong biting mouthparts and are active and aggressive carnivores, both as adults and as young, preying mostly on other insects. Their legs are weak, suited to perching and to holding prey but not for walking.

Dragonflies have two pairs of long thin wings that are supported by an intricate lacework of cross veins. Unlike bees and butterflies that flap both pairs of wings in unison or beetles that flap only the hind pair, dragonflies can beat their wings independently. This means the front wings can be going down while the back ones are coming up. Dragonflies are excellent fliers and can loop-the-loop, hover and fly backwards with ease. They flap their wings relatively slowly, though, at less than 30 beats per second compared to 300 bps for a honeybee. The wing veins are pathways for the flow of blood, and also carry nerves and tracheae that provide air exchange.  Wings are living tissue, and they become dry and brittle if blood circulation ceases. In general, blood from the thorax enters the wing and flows to the wing tip through the large veins and moves down through cross veins toward the lower margin where it returns to the body.

Mating is an elaborate process. The male clasps the female by the head and the pair then flies together in tandem, male in front, female behind. The female bends her abdomen forward to connect with a section of the male’s abdomen that was previously charged with sperm to complete the process. A mating may last from several seconds to several hours, according to species, and eggs are then laid into plant tissues, onto water, or into mud. These hatch into tiny six-legged nymphs that feed underwater for several months and grow rapidly, molting a number of times.

The most obvious characteristic of a dragonfly nymph is its conspicuous grasping lower lip used for capturing prey. At rest this is held folded underneath head and thorax, but in use it is shot rapidly forward, its paired, hand-like organs grasping the prey and pulling it back into the mouth to be chewed by strong mandibles.

A nymph will eat any animal it can overpower, including its own species. At maturity, it does not enter a dormant pupal stage that many insects experience, but simply crawls out of the water onto a twig or grass stem. The skin splits down the back for a final time, and the adult emerges, its wings limp and crumpled. Fortunately, this usually happens at night when most of its predators are not active, for it is at this point that the insect is most vulnerable.  In an hour or so, however, the wings unfold and stiffen and the adult is ready to fly and go about its business of ridding our yard of mosquitoes and gnats, and finding a mate. 


August 14, 2020

I was startled to hear an ominous buzzing by my foot, and nervously searched for a rattler, only to discover an irritated bull snake instead. Non-poisonous snakes are very quiet reptiles but can produce loud hissing sounds by forcefully expelling air, or rattle-like buzzes by vibrating their tails against dry leaves or wood.

If actually captured, snakes may resort to thrashing about and biting, and some garter and water snakes emit a foul smelling fluid from the anal glands. Wisconsin is home to over 20 species of snakes and most are very useful in helping to control insects and rodents, but many people fear them and go out of their way to kill them. As a result, many beneficial creatures are indiscriminately eliminated.

There are five large constrictors in the state that eat large quantities of rodents. These include the bull snake, a blotched yellowish reptile which often reaches a length of more than five feet; the fox snake, similar in color and pattern except for a less mottled head; and the milk snake, one of the "king" snakes. Smaller than the previous two species, milk snake is spotted with three rows of reddish blotches. Young milk snakes are more brightly marked and appear to feed almost exclusively on other snakes. They can even eat poisonous young and seem to be immune to the venom.   Adult milk snakes are often found around farm buildings and rubbish heaps where they hunt for the rodents which are the mainstays of their diet. The name "milk snake" derives from an old folk tale about a snake supposedly suckling milk from a cow, a highly improbably event. There are also black rat snakes and blue racers, but these are less common.

In contrast to these large constrictors, Wisconsin also has four small, secretive snakes which spend most of their time underground, inside rotting logs, or in leaf litter, feeding on invertebrates such as slugs, earthworms, and beetle larvae.  The 15-inch northern ringneck snake is found in moist, cool woodlands and is gray -blue above with a yellow to orange belly which extends upwards at the neck to encircle it in a ring. The prairie ringneck is similar except that the belly is redder, and it lives under cover on dry prairie hillsides.  The northern red-bellied snake resembles the ringneck but has a single light stripe down the back and 2 light spots at the base of the skull, while the brown snake is found in wet prairies, old fields and oak savannas.

Probably best known among the snakes are the garters, easily identified by their three nose-to-tail yellow stripes. Their favorite food seems to be earthworms, but they eat insects, amphibians, and mice, catching them and swallowing them whole and wiggling. The ribbon snake is a type of garter that is semi-aquatic and seldom wanders far from streams, bogs, marshes or lakes.  The only green snake in the state is named appropriately "green snake" and is a small, slender animal reaching 20 inches in length and occurring in grassy areas in old fields, prairies and forest edges.

Then there is the comic eastern hognose. This medium-sized, stocky snake with the funny nose reacts to a threat by coiling and hissing. It flattens its neck that is prominently marked with two cobra-like eyes, and lunges in mock strikes. If the threat persists, the hognose will often writhe in seeming agony, with the mouth agape and tongue protruding limply, finally rolling onto its back as if dead. The hognose snake is one of the few major predators of adult toads, whose poisonous skin secretions normally protect them.

The last two non-poisonous snakes in our state are found near water. The queen snake, an endangered species, is found only in clear, spring-fed streams while the northern water snake occurs near large rivers, ponds, and marshes. Water snakes often bask on rocks or logs but instantly slip into the water at the first sign of danger. If cornered and captured they will bite fiercely and expel large quantities of foul smelling musk. Despite the fact that there are no venomous water snakes in Wisconsin and never have been, large numbers are slaughtered annually by misinformed persons believing them to be venomous "water moccasins."

Only two of Wisconsin snakes are venomous, the timber rattlesnake and the eastern massasauga, easily identified by their elliptical eye pupils, a rattle on their tails, triangular wide heads and small depressions in their snouts, half way between the eye and nostril to help them sense heat to locate prey.  Both of these snakes are only found in specific habitats in the the southwestern part of the state.

Snakes eat lots of rodents and other small pests and we need them. Unfortunately, many people kill snakes because of fear or they mistake a nonvenomous snake for a venomous one. Actually, until 1975 there was a bounty (a fee paid to people who kill "pest" species) in Wisconsin on rattlesnakes, paying up to 5 dollars a tail. In 1975 the bounty was lifted and the eastern massasauga was placed on the Wisconsin Endangered and Threatened Species List.


August 4, 2020

Most of the thirty-some years we have owned our farm just a few miles outside of Spring Green, we have had collies to keep us company.   These fine pets have always felt it was their job to keep the premises free from any wild animals, but now that the dogs are gone, it did not take these former residents long to reappear.   A coyote, fox, wolf, even a puma or wildcat occasionally have passed through, but white-tail deer, squirrels, all sorts of rodents, and woodchucks have claimed possession.  We have not stemmed the tide one bit by placing a corn feeder on the deck, and now the squirrels and woodchucks join the cardinals and sparrows feasting on handouts right outside our windows.

The woodchuck’s name has always intrigued me as the animals never seem to show any connection with wood.   Best guess about the name is that English settlers heard Native Americans (the Algonquin tribe) calling them “wuchak.” and in trying to use that word, came up with the  name “woodchuck.”  Other areas used names such as groundhogs, land beavers and whistling pigs. 

Woodchucks are officially rodents in the family Sciuridae, and belong to the group of large squirrels that live on the ground.  Other relatives are known as marmots and many of these live in rocky and mountainous areas, while the woodchucks are lowland creatures and are found through much of the eastern United States up into Alaska.  They are one of the few species that enter into true hibernation and often build a separate "winter burrow" for this purpose. This burrow is usually in a wooded or brushy area and remains at a stable temperature well above freezing during the winter months.  In northern latitudes, the animals hibernate from October to March or April.

Male woodchucks tend to be slightly larger than females and, like all in the family, are considerably heavier during autumn than when emerging from hibernation in spring.  Both attain progressively higher weights for the first two or three years, after which their weight settles to an average of about ten pounds.  By 1950, the woodchucks had been almost killed off in agriculture and dairying regions of Wisconsin by those who overestimated the damage they caused to crops but were then given protected status in the state of Wisconsin until 2017.  In the wild, woodchucks can live up to six years with two or three being average.

Woodchucks have four incisor teeth which grow continuously but are worn down by constant usage.  They also have short, powerful limbs and curved, thick claws well-adapted for digging,  Unlike other squirrels, the groundhog's tail is only about one-fourth of body length.   They construct dens about two to three feet below ground in well-drained soil, and use them as retreats in bad weather or when attacked by predators.  They also use their dens to hibernate or just to sleep, as a love nest and nursery, with an excrement chamber on the side.
Usually woodchucks breed in their second year, from early March to late April.   As birth of the young approaches in April or May, the male leaves the den.  One litter is produced annually, usually containing two to six blind, hairless and helpless young.  Woodchuck mothers introduce their young to the wild once their fur is grown in and they can see. By the end of August, the family breaks up to burrow on their own.

Woodchucks are generally territorial among their own species and may skirmish to establish dominance.  Outside their burrow, individuals are alert when not actively feeding and it is common to see one or more nearly-motionless individuals standing erect on their hind feet watching for danger.  When alarmed, they use a high-pitched whistle to warn the rest of the colony, hence the name "whistle-pig".   They may also squeal when fighting, seriously injured, or caught by a predator.   Other sounds are low barks and a sound produced by grinding their teeth.

Clover is a preferred food source but they also eat wild grasses and other vegetation, including berries and agricultural crops when available--more than a pound of vegetation daily.   Regrettably, they are also fond of insulation covers on vehicle wiring and in buildings.   Beginning in early June, their metabolism slows, and while their food intake decreases, their weight increases by as much as 100% as they produce fat deposits to sustain them during hibernation and late winter. 
The most famous woodchuck lives in Pennsylvania and each spring on February 2, he (or she) is famous for predicting the weather by looking for its shadow.  This isn't the only weather-predicting rodent in this quirky American tradition, but according to the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, his prediction is the only one that matters.


July 28, 2020

The sight of several Sandhill Cranes flying overhead as we drive into town or catching glimpses of a few eating in the fields along the road is always a treat at this time of year.  The bird is easy to identify because of its size, and each adult sports a red patch on its forehead, long black legs and neck, and plumage of varying shades of grey and brown, while juveniles have all cinnamon-brown feathers.  A crane fossil found in Nebraska from the Pliocene period (5.3-2.6 million years ago) appears structurally identical to the modern Sandhill Crane, making it one of the oldest known bird species!

These cranes frequently give a loud, trumpeting call that can be heard across a long distance.   Their large wingspans, typically 5 to 7 ft, make them very skilled soaring birds, similar in style to hawks and eagles.  Using columns of rising air to obtain lift, they can stay aloft for many hours, requiring only occasional flapping of their wings.  They fly south for the winter where they form communities of over 10,000 birds, and migratory flocks can create clear outlines of the normally invisible rising columns of air they ride.

Much as we enjoy the Sandhills, we also keep a sharp eye out for any that are white--Whoopers--the rarest species of crane in the world. There are now approximately 665 Whooping Cranes in North America, in one wild and two reintroduced populations. One of these reintroduced populations is known as the Eastern Migratory Population, which summers in Wisconsin, and winters in the southeastern United States.   This was the work of the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin.

The story of the International Crane Foundation began in 1971 at Cornell University with two Ornithology students who shared a passion for cranes. George Archibald and Ron Sauey envisioned and then managed to create an organization that would combine research, captive breeding and reintroduction, landscape restoration and education to safeguard the world’s 15 crane species.  Ron Sauey has since died but George Archibald continues to publish papers on the Foundation’s work.

The first group of captive-reared cranes released into this population was raised in 2001 by costumed caretakers and taught to follow an ultralight aircraft from Wisconsin to their wintering home in Gulf Coastal Florida. Since that inaugural flight nineteen years ago, the foundation has released around 300 Whooping Cranes into the eastern U.S., has changed their rearing and release methods, and has had wild-hatched chicks fledge! The reintroduction effort is ongoing, and they are learning new things about Whooping Cranes and reintroduction techniques along the way.  All the released birds are color-banded so they can keep track of who is who during field observations.

Archibald pioneered several unique techniques to rear cranes in captivity, and  spent three years with a female Whooping Crane he named Tex.  Can you believe he acted as a male crane – walking, calling, dancing – to shift her into reproductive condition?   Through his dedication and the use of artificial insemination, Tex eventually laid a fertile egg.  As Archibald recounted the tale later, he had to include the sad end of the story – the death of Tex shortly after the hatching of her one and only chick.  Still, when it hatched, the male chick was named Gee Whiz, and he carried the precious genetic treasure from his mother.   Now at 38 years old, Gee Whiz lives at the International Crane Foundation and is the founder of many generations of Whooping Cranes.

Archibald recently wrote "The International Crane Foundation has been a leader in the historic effort to re-establish Whooping Cranes in the middle of the United States. This population now numbers about 100 birds that breed in Wisconsin and migrate each year to winter across the southern United States”.

He continued; "This spring, three young Whooping Cranes established a territory in a marsh less than ten miles from my home in Wisconsin. They spent the spring sorting out their relationships, nesting and hatching a chick! From mid-March through the summer of 2020, I studied the breeding behavior of these Whooping Cranes and their interactions with five breeding pairs of Sandhills in this wetland.” 

In order to protect the watersheds and grasslands where cranes live and to help increase migratory flight paths, Archibald has visited remote areas, including parts of Afghanistan, Cuba, India, Russia and the Korean Demilitarized Zone, a strip of land running across the Korean Peninsula that serves as a buffer zone between North and South Korea.

The Foundation boasts a Wildlife center featuring all 15 species of cranes, plus nature trails, guided tours & a gift shop but recently responded to the COVID-19 Virus by temporarily closing, so if you want to visit them, be sure to check the current status.Our headquarters in Baraboo, Wisconsin, is TEMPORARILY  CLOSED. Save the date for our Grand Opening on May 1, 2021!


July 21, 2020

NOTICE:   Last chance!   Spring Green Timber Growers Store Outdoor Retirement Sale: slabwood tables, chef' boards, plaques, wooden gifts: Saturday July 25:  9am - 4pm or by appointment:      608 588 7342

There are many species of animals around the world that have decided to live in a collective way; that is, they have determined that the most effective means of survival is to live in a group. This undoubtedly provides great advantages from warmth and protection against predators, as well as to finding mates. Still, threats, attacks and stress are commonplace in these animal groups, as it requires dominant members as well as submissive individuals to function.

We have two illustrations of dominance right on our front porch and outside our living room window, while feeding our wild neighbors.  Mostly ear corn with an occasional apple or other treat thrown in has provided hours of entertainment, as well as a feeder of sugar water.  Kingpin of the visitors is a “family” of grey squirrels, and although all squirrels seem to be identical and it is often difficult to tell them apart, behavior can be the key. 

The eastern gray squirrel is (what else?) predominantly gray with a white underside and a large bushy tail, although both white and black-colored individuals are sometimes found. A prolific and adaptable species, it is native to the eastern and midwestern US, and to the southerly portions of Canada, where it is very important to the forest as an essential regenerator.  It is one of very few mammalian species that can descend a tree head-first. It does this by turning its feet so the claws of its hind paws are backward-pointing and can grip the tree bark.
This squirrel is estimated to make several thousand food caches each season.  It hoards food in numerous small caches for later recovery, although some caches are quite temporary, while others are more permanent and are not visited until months later.  The squirrels have very accurate memory for the locations of these caches, and use landmarks to retrieve them.  

Squirrels sometimes pretend to bury food if they feel that they are being watched.  They do this by digging a hole or widening a crack, miming the placement of the food, while actually concealing it in their mouths, and then covering up the "cache" as if they had deposited it. They also have been seen to hide behind vegetation while burying food or hide it high up in trees. Such a complex behavior implies thinking and is thought to be a key to their intelligence.

In one study of grey squirrel behavior, social rank was observed to increase with age, and males were dominant over females.  Other researchers have determined that juveniles are dominant over non-resident juveniles and attack them, while friendly towards litter-mates. Similarly, mothers are friendly towards their kittens, but will chase away unrelated young.   Most can breed twice a year, with the first litter born in February or March, the second in June or July.  Competing males will form a hierarchy of dominance, and the female will mate with multiple males.

Then too, at the humming bird feeder on the living room window, individual hummers chase away all comers and it is difficult to know how many are visiting. A dominant hummingbird may first confront the intruder at a feeding area, before charging at them and chasing them far away from the feeder accompanied by angry chirps and other sounds.  Fighting hummingbirds use their needle-like bills and and sharp talons as weapons.

A great variety of creatures live in social groups: land animals such as elephants, wolves, chimpanzees, lions, gorillas and horses; water animals such as killer whales and dolphins; birds such as parrots and pigeons; even insects such as bees and ants.  Social groups present several benefits to their respective members, and one of them is that any offspring stand a better chance at survival due to communal efforts in their upbringing.  Herbivores living in social groups receive protection against predators through strength in numbers.  Additionally, predators living in social groups are better suited to bring down large prey than those living solitary lives.

Dominant behavior can lead to significant benefits -- greater reproductive success, and a higher survival rate. They are less likely to suffer predation, as they often inhabit the least dangerous areas. On the other hand, subordinate individuals, who tend to inhabit the most peripheral territories, are far more exposed to predators.

In spite of the advantages, the aggressive behavior of the dominant animals often requires them to face a greater number of fights, as they always protect the subordinates (they defend the whole group in reality). This means that if the leader is absent at some point, the subordinates will have a lower survival rate and, consequently, the viability of the community will be compromised.

Public radio recently offered information on this subject on its current Nature series using spy animals. (Spy animals are amazing robotic creatures equipped with camera eyes that are placed where live groups are active.)  The researchers
observed that the offspring of dominant individuals often grew up to display dominant behavior, but sex, age, physical size and habitat also were very important.  Their conclusion after recording activities of a variety of species was that their subjects were more like us humans than we ever realized.


July 13, 2020

This past week we have become intimately acquainted with one of the most ancient groups of terrestrial creatures still living today, going back more than 400 million years -- the millipede.  (They are placed in the animal phylum Arthropoda that have exoskeletons rather than inner backbones, segmented bodies and paired jointed walking legs.)  They look something like hard-covered earthworms with legs, are coldblooded, and related to insects, spiders and crustaceans.

 According to the internet, there are 12,000 described species of millipedes worldwide, divided into two sub-classes, 16 orders, and 145 families, but there may be 70,000 more species out there waiting to be described!  North America has just under 1,000 species in 52 families and it is thought that there could be hundreds of undescribed species here.  The biggest millipedes in the U.S. live in the Southwest and can grow to be 6 inches long.

A few humid days ago, after finding a few of the inch-long creatures crawling across our living room floor, and dispatching them outdoors, we found ourselves looking at untold numbers on our outside walls.  Millipedes have two pairs of legs on every abdominal segment (one pair on each side) and a single leg on each side of each thoracic segment.  No actual 1000-leggers (the reason for the millipede name) have been found, and the present record belongs to an individual with 750 legs.  Some observers think that each segment does have only a single leg on each side, but because a hard shield covers every two segments, it just looks like there are two legs on each side on each segment.

Millipedes invented “The Wave”; that is, their legs raise and lower in order down the length of their bodies. When a millipede is attacked, it can coil up to protect its soft underbelly and legs. Many millipedes have stink glands along the side of the body; some species produce a prussic acid/cyanide compound to discourage or ward “off” their predators.

They are fascinating critters that come in a surprising variety of sizes, shapes and colors.  They don’t bite and they’re not slimy. Most of them are not carnivores. They tend to shun living plants and feed on rotting organic material.  They don’t give us diseases. The tough exoskeleton allows them to push their way through the soil by brute force, rather than eating their way through like earthworms have to do.  Some actually glow in the dark, and there is even a species in South America that has moss growing on it.

Most are cylindrical and have chewing mouthparts, simple eyes, and sensory organs on their antennae that help them detect light levels and possibly humidity.  Air passes through pores near the legs on each side of the body on its way into the tracheal system, and a millipede’s heart is as long as its body. Their legs are seven-jointed, and males have longer legs than females.

In spring, millipede courtship is minimal. The male may walk along the female’s back and use the modified legs toward the front of his abdomen to hold her as he inserts a sperm packet into an operative opening.  The female then lays a few hundred to a few thousand eggs in an underground nest and often dies afterwards, her purpose in life completed. The young have six legs when they hatch and add more each time they molt.  They grow and leave the nest, feeding on plant material and on the microorganisms their guts require to digest plant fibers and take a few years to mature before living a few more years.

Millipedes assist in the natural recycling process by making big pieces of organic material into smaller ones, and are an important determiner of soil composition.   In areas where earthworms are scarce, they may fill the earthworm’s niche, capable of creating two tons of fertilizer per acre per year.  The largest numbers of millipedes are seen in areas close to large sources of organic matter such as old fields, vacant grassy areas, and wooded areas with accumulations of leaf litter.   They live in the soil and often come out during the night and crawl around.  When the sun comes up they look for moist, sheltered sites and if they do come indoors, they often die in 2 to 3 days because of a lack of moisture and can then be vacuumed or swept up. 

Millipedes are often confused with sowbugs, pillbugs and centipedes.  Sowbugs and pillbugs range in size from 1/4 to 1/2 inch long and are dark to slate gray. Their oval, segmented bodies are convex above but flat or concave underneath. They possess seven pairs of legs and two pairs of antennae (only one pair of antennae is readily visible).  Sowbugs also have two tail-like appendages which project out from the rear end of the body, while pillbugs have no posterior appendages and can roll up into a tight ball when disturbed, for which they are sometimes called "roly-polies".  Centipedes. on the other hand, have only one leg on each side of each body segment.   Their legs tend to be longer than those of the millipede and they wriggle when they travel because they are moving the legs on one side and then on the other. They are carnivores that stun their prey with venom delivered through the front legs, and they can deliver a painful bite to humans.

Interesting millipede facts: some of the larger species are sold as pets; they have been used in tribal rituals; in folk medicine they are used to treat fevers, hemorrhoids, wounds, and earache;  suitable species have been used to make poison-tipped arrows; and despite or perhaps because of all these, few populations have ever made them part of their diet.

NOTICE:  A special announcement from Timbergreen Farm:  Spring Green Timber Growers Store Outdoor Retirement Sale: slabwood tables, chef' boards, plaques, wooden gifts: Saturdays July 11, 18, and 25:  9am - 4pm or by appointment:      608 588 7342

July 7, 2020

When you think of an orchid, you may picture a purple cattleya such as is commonly used as a gift corsage.  This tropical flower comes from Costa Rica south to Argentina and can also be grown as a potted plant in Wisconsin. 

What is not often understood is that there are twenty to thirty thousand different species of orchids growing on every continent except Antarctica and they come in almost every color, shape, and size.  The high volume of orchid varieties is due to the fact that in highly competitive plant environments like tropical areas, orchids are competing with numerous other plants for space and to attract pollinators.  Even in Wisconsin, there are 40 species of native orchids growing in our wilds, although many are rare or becoming so because of loss of their habitat.

An orchid is widely considered to be the most highly evolved of all flowering plants because it contains several unique reproductive characteristics.  All orchids have both the male and female reproductive structures fused into a single structure commonly called a "column".  Most also share a highly modified petal called a lip, and a highly efficient system of insuring that self pollination never takes place. 

The type of orchid that grows in a particular spot depends upon the soil moisture, pH content, sunlight and many other soil properties. Interestingly, orchids have a symbiotic relationship (where two species rely on one another) with various types of fungi.  Actually, orchids and fungi have a mutualistic type of symbiotic relationship in which both species benefit from the relationship. Each species of Wisconsin orchid can have its own symbiotic species of fungi, so there could be up to 40 different fungi species.

The orchids rely on the fungi for food and nutrients when they do not receive enough sunlight to produce photosynthesis for their small seeds.  Besides lack of proper fungus, habitat disturbance caused by humans or animals as a result of construction, destructive erosion, burning, draining, etc. is also devastating to their existence, although some of these disturbances can be positive. When deer and other wild animals come across a field, they can just about clear it of excess vegetation. This allow orchids to thrive in an area where they could not normally compete, although it is also known that deer like to eat orchids as they eat just about every native plant in the state.

Stantec botanist Melissa Curran recently gave a presentation at Woodland Dunes Nature Center and Preserve at Two Rivers about an orchid restoration project going on there to bring up the orchid numbers in Wisconsin. Volunteers and workers have been reintroducing 25 orchid species, although this is a complicated project as many orchids are very particular and their seeds are extremely small.

Two of the species they hope to restore include the grass pink orchid, and the showy lady’s slipper.  The grass pink is a formerly abundant plant with a single leaf near the base of a two foot tall stalk. This terminates in a zig-zag spike of a dozen or so one-to-two-inch pink to deep rosy pink blossoms.  The root system consists of a corm with fibrous roots below.  The blooming period usually occurs from early to late summer, lasting about 3-4 weeks and the flowers bloom sequentially from the bottom to the top of the floral spike.  Afterwards, fertile flowers are replaced by seed capsules that are about ¾" long that eventually break open to release numerous tiny seeds, which are distributed by the wind. The structure of the flower for this orchid is highly unusual because its lip is located at the top rather than the bottom, causing the flower to appear upside-down (even though it is actually right-side up).

Another favorite species is the showy lady’s slipper that grows in wetlands such as fens, wooded swamps, and riverbanks. We have a particular affection for this beauty as we have managed to grow several purchased plants in our small wild garden.   It thrives in neutral to basic soils but can be found in slightly acidic conditions. The plants often form in clumps by branching of the underground rhizomes with roots typically within a few inches of the top of the soil. It prefers very loose soils and when growing in fens it will most often be found in mossy hummocks.  It flowers in early to midsummer, usually with 1 to 2 flowers per stalk.

This ladyslipper depends on insects for pollination although the structure of the flower creates a tight space through which insects have to squeeze. A pollinating insect first passes by the stigma, and upon exiting the trap rubs against the anther. Pollination typically occurs in June and the seed pod or fruit is ripe by September and spreads its seeds by October. Although a single seed pod can produce over 50,000 seeds, low germination and a seed-to-flowering term of about 8 years indicate that sexual reproduction is inefficient and division of the from rhizomes is the common means.  This summer, make it a challenge to discover wild orchids in our woodlands and be amazed at what you may find.


June 30, 2020

Last week we considered the possibility that at least some bird species demonstrate “intelligence” and in recent years, the brains of these birds have been studied extensively.   There is no doubt that some of birds display unusual abilities but is this intelligence? If you are willing to concede that this is possible, what about insects?

An insect has many different sub-brains in different parts of its body, which can be controlled by a slightly larger central brain but can also operate separately. The antennae of an insect has its own brain. So does the mouth, the eyes, and each leg. Even if the central brain of an insect stops working, its legs still have their own sub-brains, and can keep walking.

The three groups that are the smartest bugs, according to some investigators, are the bees, the ants, and the cockroaches. Partially that’s biased because these are some of the best-studied insects of all, and it’s further biased because these insects behave, in some ways, more like humans than any other. “They have to recognize nest mates and communicate with them often.” The challenges of living within a large community require intelligence.

Take the common black garden ants.  They have tiny brains, and probably because of assumptions about the limitations of tiny brains, researchers generally avoid seeking human abilities in them.  Each ant’s brain is simple, containing about 250,000 neurons, compared with a human’s billions.  Ants don’t have complex emotions such as love, anger, or empathy, but they do approach things they find pleasant and avoid the unpleasant.   Their exoskeleton has sensory hairs on their outsides and can smell with their antennae, and so follow trails, find food and recognize their own colony. 

They use a variety of cues to navigate, such as sun position, polarized light patterns, visual panoramas, odors, wind direction, slope, ground texture, step-counting … and more. Indeed, the list of cues ants can utilize for navigation is probably greater than for humans as they possess different and distinct modules dedicated to different navigational tasks.. 

Researchers from the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Brussels, Belgium found that the much-maligned cockroach has its own personality and even displays different character traits. The discovery could explain why cockroaches are considered such great survivors and able to adapt to inhospitable surroundings..

Then there is the honey bee that is capable of observation, learning, and memory to solve problems. A bee has no instinctive knowledge about how to store nectar or pollen from flowers and each different flower will need an entirely different method to exploit, and it’s up to each individual bee to figure out how to attack each different flower.

Perhaps the best-known bit of intelligence from bees is what’s known as the “waggle dance.” This is how a bee tells other bees in the hive the location of a flower or source of food. Here’s how it works: a bee performs the dance on a vertical surface inside the hive. The dance is shaped like an oval with a line down the middle. Dancing straight up means to fly in the direction of the sun, straight down means away from the sun, and left and right mean to fly to the left or the right of the sun.

The bee travels in a figure-eight pattern, tracing the line in the middle before performing the loops around the outside.  a one-second loop means, roughly, that the food source is a kilometer away and the longer the loop, the farther away the food source is.  The bee will repeat this dance many times to indicate the quality of the food source: a really great one will find the bee doing this over and over again.  A decent but not quite as good source might find the bee repeating the message only a few times.

It has been determined that insects, and animals in general, demonstrate more intelligence when they are equipped to adapt to all kinds of food sources and habitats.   Everything it sees can be a potential home, threat, or food source, and the animal has to constantly evaluate new stimuli to see if it can make use of it.

A bee can feed on dozens of kinds of flowers, and must figure out the best bang for its buck as well as figuring out how to take advantage of it. The same goes for ants, which can feed on a wide variety of plant and animal matter. Ants leave scent trails for other ants to follow, a clear demonstration of social intelligence. Beetles don’t do that kind of thing; a beetle is a lone creature that doesn’t need to work with others for survival.

This all ties in with the “social brain hypothesis,” a theory put forth by anthropologist Robin Dunbar in 1998. The social brain hypothesis states that intelligence evolved in animals, including humans, specifically to work within and survive with social groups, not in order to solve any particular ecological problem. In other words, living in a group forces an individual to become smarter, rather than a smart individual choosing to live in a group.


June 23, 2020

All our lives we have watched animated birds in cartoons and movies that can accomplish human-like activities, but most of us think deep down that they have little intelligence in contrast to us humans.  Some scientists have questioned this and have been studying them for years, particularly the corvids (ravens, crows, jays, etc.) as well as parrots and cockatoos.

Fourteen years ago, a New Caledonian crow, captured from the wild on a South Pacific island off Australia, amazed scientists at Oxford with her ability to invent and use tools.  When shown a tiny basket of meat trapped in a plastic tube, the crow (they named her Betty) bent a straight piece of wire into a hook and retrieved the food.  Researchers contended this was evidence that these crows could invent new tools—a demonstration of understanding and intelligence.
They already knew that some crows could use twigs that had barb-like ends to extract grubs from rotting logs and make rake-like tools from pine twigs.  But in this case, they were impressed that Betty had fashioned a hook from a unknown material into the correct shape to retrieve the meat.  However, years later, research showed that New Caledonian crows in the wild bend tools all the time. It seems that they have evolved to make hooked tools from soft twigs as part of their usual foraging activity.

Humans and other primates have a particular structure in our brains called the neocortex that allows us to think.  In contrast, birds have evolved densely packed clusters of neurons in their brains that give them specific but limited skills. They also have relatively large brains compared to their head sizes allowing the various species to have a variety of visual and auditory talents. They typically communicate using visual signals as well as calls and song, and any testing in birds is therefore usually based on studying responses to sensory stimuli.

In recent years, the brains of these birds have been studied extensively and there is no doubt that some of them display unusual abilities. But is this intelligence?  You might think that humans are without doubt the most intelligent of all the animals, but that doesn’t mean we are the best at every mental task. For example, chimps have been shown to possess better short-term memories than humans, perhaps to help them to remember where food is located in the forest. Social life has been considered a driving force for the evolution of intelligence, and social behavior requires individual identification. Most birds appear to be capable of recognizing mates, siblings, young and others of their species. Other behaviors such as play and cooperative breeding are also considered indicators of intelligence, and birds communicate with their flockmates through song, calls, and body language.

Counting has traditionally been considered an ability that shows intelligence and some studies have shown that parrots can count up to 6, while crows can count up to 8. One researcher observed Chinese fishermen who used cormorants to catch their fish and allowed the birds to eat every eighth fish they caught as a reward. Once their quota of seven fish was filled, the fisherman would loose the neck ring that prevented a bird from swallowing any of the fish and if he failed to do this the researcher observed that the birds would not continue to work until they received their reward. 

Crows and ravens have a natural curiosity, and researchers suggest “clever” animals can sometimes perform tasks beyond those strictly caused by nature.  Caledonians were trained to recognize that a box at one end of a table contained more food than a box at the opposite end. Then, the crows were presented with a box in the middle of the table and birds that had recently used tools to retrieve food from a container approached the mystery box more quickly than those that had not used tools. This seemed to indicate that tool use made the crows more optimistic, a mood that allowed behavior that wasn’t necessarily essential for survival.  The crow studies show a natural curiosity, and young birds especially love to play. Such mental exertion undoubtably keeps the mind sharp and reinforces one’s abilities to survive.

Using rewards to reinforce responses is often used in laboratories to test intelligence; however, the ability of animals to learn by observation and imitation is considered more significant by the researchers, and crows have been noted for their ability to learn from each other. Then too, hoarding behavior proves the ability to recollect the locations of food caches while studies of some jays suggest that they even cache food according to future needs.  Birds also are sensitive to day length, an especially important talent for migratory species. The ability to orient themselves during migrations is typically attributed to birds' superior sensory abilities, rather than to intelligence.  Maybe the important point of intelligence is how well each creature is adapted to its place in its environment.

Studies with captive birds have given insight into which birds are the most intelligent. While parrots have the distinction of being able to mimic human speech, studies with a parrot named Alex have shown that some are able to associate words with their meanings and form simple sentences.  Parrots and the corvid family of crows, ravens, and jays are considered the most intelligent of birds and neuroscientists at the University of California San Diego who have studied the physiology of birds, have discovered that the lower parts of avian brains are similar to those of humans.  How about that!


June 16, 2020

The ground in much of the wild woodland garden is carpeted with blue phlox, the result of planting a few seedlings years ago. Sprinkled in among them are trillium that have continued to flourish throughout these past several weeks of cool spring and are now changing into their pink garb, making some look as if they were entirely new plants. Best of all are the yellow lady slippers whose brilliant yellow orbs shine like beacons in the greenery.  However, all of these beauties have been difficult to appreciate this week because THE MOSQUITOES HAVE ARRIVED!

It may or may not be some comfort to know that not all the mosquitoes you see are bloodsuckers and in those species which are, it is only the females which bite and then only because they need blood to nourish their developing eggs. Adult mosquitoes are small, fragile insects with delicate bodies, a pair of narrow wings, and long, slender legs. Depending on the species, they vary in length from 3/16 to 1/2 inch.

Mosquitoes often are confused with other insects such as midges and crane flies, but can usually be distinguished from them because the others are either larger or smaller. The female locates her victims by the chemicals they emit and is sensitive to several, including carbon dioxide, amino acids, and sex hormones.  Convection currents around warm, perspiring humans are particularly attractive. She has an elongated proboscis with piercing mouthparts to penetrate the skin of animals while the male feeds only on plant nectar.

There are four stages in the life cycle of a mosquito, and the first three must have standing water to complete development. The eggs are deposited in batches or 50 to 400 on a water surface or a place where water is likely to accumulate. Most hatch in 2 to 3 days, but may remain dormant for many months under dry conditions and hatch minutes after being flooded by rain. 

Mosquito larvae, or "wrigglers," feed on bits of organic matter in the water and spend considerable time just under the water surface where they take in oxygen through a specialized breathing tube. In 7 to 10 days the larvae molt into pupae, often referred to as "tumblers" because of their characteristic actions when disturbed.  Adults emerge from the pupae in 2 to 3 days. Mating must occur quickly because the mortality rate is sometimes as high as 30% each day so the females compensate by producing large numbers of eggs.

Many people fear snakes, scorpions and spiders, but in fact the mosquito is the animal kingdom's true serial killer. Of course it is not the insects themselves that cause the damage but the disease organisms they carry and transmit. Malaria is the most common hitchhiker and there are about 300-500 million cases diagnosed annually, resulting in up to 2.7 million deaths. Some epidemiologists calculate that, excluding wars and natural disasters, mosquito borne malaria is implicated in 50% of all the human deaths since pre-history. In addition, mosquitoes carry viruses such as dengue, encephalitis, yellow fever and recently the West Nile virus, to say nothing of dog heartworm.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Bruce Christensen, a professor of animal health and biomedical sciences, had a whole room filled with mosquitoes. His team used their virulent menagerie in trying to figure out what permited them to carry deadly pathogens. Somewhere in the mosquito genome are the coded rules that determine whether the insects can use their own immune systems to kill off infectious parasites or to allow them to be passed on. Christensen had hopes that this line of investigation would lead to a "mosquito vaccination strategy".

Molecules that trigger an immune response in mosquitoes could be introduced into the laboratory specimens and these 'immunized' insects would be released into areas with high infectious disease rates where the parasite resistance could then be passed on to the wild population.  "We're not trying to produce a 'super-mosquito' with a foreign gene that would make it radically different from its counterpart as much as helping mosquitoes express genes they already have," explained Christensen.

In the meantime, as you scratch yet another bite, console yourselves with the knowledge that mosquitoes form a vital link in the food web. Larval and pupal mosquitoes are an important source of food for fish and aquatic insects, while many types of birds and other predatory insects eat the adults.  Nothing is all bad!


 June 9, 2020

You may not be aware of the fact but June has been designated as Invasive Species Awareness Month in Wisconsin. It is well known that such plants as garlic mustard, buckthorn, wild parsnip and Canada thistle damage our lands and waters, so read on:

Garlic mustard is a non-native species that originated from Europe and parts of Asia and is believed to have been introduced into North America for medicinal purposes and food.  Many people find the raw leaves delicious in salads or its tender flowering shoots when stir fried, but it is best to pull any you don’t eat.  Then dispose of the plants and revisit the sites several times to destroy any that sprout from left-behind root fragments.

Garlic mustard requires two growing seasons. Seedlings emerge in early March, forming a rosette of leaves the first year and flowers during the second year of growth. The leaves are alternate, have scalloped edges and give off an odor of garlic when crushed.  In March and April of the second year, plants send up a flower stalk, topped with a cluster of white four-petaled flowers.  The seeds form in narrow, green seed pods that originate from the enter of the flowers and turn brown as the seed matures. The plant dies after producing seed and the brown, dried out stem with the brown seed pods remains through winter.

The earliest known report of it growing in the United States dates back to 1868 on Long Island, NY and it has since spread throughout much of the country over the past 150 years, becoming one of the worst invaders of forests in the American Northeast and Midwest. While it is usually found in the undergrowth of disturbed woodlots and forest edges, recent findings have shown that it has the ability to establish and spread even in pristine areas. This spread has allowed it to become the dominant plant in the undergrowth of some forests, greatly reducing the diversity of species.

More difficult to fight is the common buckthorn, a shrub/tree up to 20-25’ tall, often with several stems arising from the base and a spreading crown. Its bark has prominent light-colored raised pores, and its twigs often end in stout thorns.

It was brought to North America in the early 1800s as an ornamental shrub, primarily to serve as a hedge, but it soon escaped from yards and landscaped areas, and invaded forests, oak savannas and other natural areas.  It leafs out very early and retains its leaves late into the growing season, giving it a longer growing season than native plants, and produces chemical compounds that inhibit the growth of other vegetation.   Buckthorn is also extremely hardy and able to thrive in a variety of soil and light conditions, out-competing native plant species with its fast growth rate.  It also has few predators and even deer avoid it, instead preferring our native species.

Then there is wild parsnip which also invades prairies, oak savannas, and fens as well as roadsides, old fields, and pastures.  At least it does not grow in shaded areas.  Its tiny yellow flowers are arranged in flat clusters up to 8 inches across, at the end of branching stems.

Wild parsnip begins life as a rosette close to the ground.  It usually (but not always) can grow to a five foot flowering stage the next year.  The time to attack it is just as it flowers but before it can drop its seeds, which is usually early July.  Its heavy seeds can live in the soil for at least 4 years, so it is very difficult to eradicate .

Wild parsnip roots are edible, but the fruit, stems, and foliage contain high concentrations of toxic chemicals that soak into the skin, react to sunlight (even on cloudy days) and damage the DNA in every cell it comes into contact with.  The result is painful blisters, leaving dark purple scars that will last for years.  Wear gloves, long sleeves, and long pants if you dare to attack it.

Most people can identify Canada thistle.  It was native throughout Europe and western Asia, (it is not of Canadian origin) but has been widely introduced elsewhere.  The plant is beneficial for pollinators that rely on nectar but is one of the worst invasive weeds worldwide, perhaps because each plant has branched stems, with one to five flower heads per branch and each head containing an average of 100 florets.   Average seed production per plant has been estimated at 1530, with each seed making a plant that can bloom from seed the following year.

Control of any of these damaging plants requires continual repeated cutting at the ground level, and many people resort to the use of either organic or chemical herbicides in large areas in desperation.  These are but four of the dozens of the invasive plant species in Wisconsin so keep your eyes open for them and join the fight.

June 1, 2020

The rattlesnakes have emerged, but there is no need to worry!  Every spring we watch for the several large timber rattlers that sun themselves on a big rock down the road, while others take up temporary residence under piles of drying lumber in one of the solar kilns.  The truth is that only one human fatality has resulted from timber rattlesnake venom across its entire range during the past century, and only two or three bites are reported each decade. We also understand that less than half of all bites to humans by poisonous snakes contain venom, as rattlesnakes can control the amounts injected when biting. We treat our rattlesnakes with considerable respect, but find them to be interesting and relatively docile neighbors despite their forbidding unblinking glower.

Wisconsin has two poisonous snake species, the massasauga and the timber rattler but only the timber rattlesnake lives among our rugged open bluffs of southwestern Wisconsin.  It is a heavy-bodied snake with a broad triangular head, a narrow neck and a thick black tail tipped with a tan rattle.  Adults average about 40 inches in total length and have dark cross bands extending along yellow, brown or rust-orange backs. Fear and misunderstanding has resulted in many being killed, which is the primary reason that it is listed as a protected wild animal.

The timber rattlesnake feeds primarily on small mammals and typically coils alongside a trail and waits for prey to come to it.  The snake's heat-sensing pits, located between the eye and the nostril on each side of the face, warn of an approaching rodent., and snake bites it injecting venom that kills it almost immediately, and then swallows it whole. Timber rattlesnakes breed near the den site before moving into the woods for the summer.   A female often mates only a few times during her life, requiring at least seven years to become sexually mature and then reproducing only every third or so year.  In Wisconsin, litters of 6-15 young are born from late August to mid-September but their mortality is high.
Snakes appeared in the fossil record 100 million years ago and vipers evolved during the Miocene period, some 35 million years ago, and they are not the only organisms at the farm that have ancient predecessors.

Long before dinosaurs walked the earth, there were horsetails. Perhaps you have never noticed this rather unassuming plant, but it is found locally in swampy areas, heavy soil, in ditches, and along the edges of farm fields. Fertile stems emerge first, resembling jointed, leafless tubes and topped by a yellowish, club-shaped, spore-bearing head. The green, sterile shoots develop later, by which time the fertile stems usually have wilted. These are jointed, hollow shoots, bearing up to 20 whorls of slender branches with insignificant leaves, and terminating in a long, naked point. Common horsetail grows a foot or two tall while giant horsetail may stretch up to seven feet. A major problem is its far-ranging root system that produces thick stands of shoots that can choke out other plants.

Horsetail is a plant left over from prehistoric times when it grew to the size of our present-day fir trees and there were huge forests full of them. It does not flower but reproduces from spores, as do ferns. The whole plant has a hard grainy texture, and when crumpled in the hands makes a good scour, like fine-texture sandpaper. In the Middle Ages it was used as an abrasive by cabinetmakers, to clean pewter, brass, and copper, and for scouring wood containers and milk pans.

Some people cook and eat the young fertile shoots as a sort of asparagus substitute, but this seems risky as livestock have been poisoned by consuming the gritty weed. It is an interesting fact that horsetail picks up compounds such as selenium, mercury and gold from the soil in which it grows. In some areas, it has been found to accumulate up to 4.5 ounces of gold per ton of fresh plant material, but its value is primarily as an indicator plant rather than as a commercial source of gold. Early Romans wrote of using the plant to staunch bleeding in wounds, and at various times it was even employed as a folk remedy for kidney and bladder troubles, arthritis, bleeding ulcers, and tuberculosis.

There are other primitive plants in our woods and fields. One is lichen, which consists of two life forms, a green algae or blue-green bacteria that is photosynthetic, and a fungus. Others are liverworts and moss that lack true roots and must absorb water and nutrients through their surfaces. Club moss, which is not a true moss, also had ancient predecessors that included giant tree-sized plants and contributed to the coal deposits then being formed.

Ferns were known to live as early as 300 million years ago, and cone bearing plants, which today include pine, cypress, spruce, cedar, juniper, and redwood, were more diverse when dinosaurs roamed the earth.  A fern does not have stems but the leaves arise directly from a below ground rhizome or very short vertical stem near the soil surface. Those in Wisconsin may be as small as one inch long, or as large as three feet long in other species and most die back at the end of each growing season while the stem overwinters below the soil surface. The frond may be undivided divided into smaller parts and perhaps each part is again divided, etc.  Ferns do not produce flowers or seeds, but rather reproduce by spores,  minute, typically one-celled, reproductive units capable of giving rise to new individuals without sexual fusion. 

The structures of all these plants have changed little through the centuries, and our woods and hills are full of organisms-- both animal and plant--that are fascinating in their diversity.


May 19, 2020

Our barn has been a home for bats possibly all its lifetime, along with many other old similar structures around the state.  Two bat species (little brown bats and big brown bats) form large maternity colonies in summer in Wisconsin and both are known to roost in bat houses, attics, barns and other buildings where it stays warm over the course of the day and through the night.  Little brown bats sometimes form maternity colonies of up to thousands of individuals while big brown bats tend to form smaller colonies, but roosts of up to 200 big brown bats are sometimes reported.

Most of bats’ reproductive cycles begin in the spring after hibernation, when females become fertilized with sperm they have stored in the uterus over the winter. Reproductive females form a maternity roost with other members of the same species, and give birth to usually a single pup in June after about a 60-day gestation period. Young are naked, blind, and small at just three grams . The pup nurses for about a month and is left at the roost nightly while the mother leaves to feed. The pup begins to fly and explore on its own at three to five weeks old. Maternity colonies disperse in late July and August, and bats mate before they hibernate.   Some males may become mature by their first autumn, whereas females may not reach maturity until after their first year.

In addition to the little and big brown bats there are six other less known species that spend part of their time in Wisconsin.  The Silver-haired bat gets its name from its black to dark brown fur frosted with silver on its back. It survives the winter by migrating south to central and southern states where it hibernates in rock crevices and tree hollows.

The Northern long-eared bat is similar in appearance to a little brown bat with duller hair.   Not as abundant in Wisconsin as the little brown bat, the northern myotis winters in abandoned mines and small caves.  The Eastern red bat is a solitary species with fine, silky red-orange to yellowish fur.   It is often overlooked in the woods because it can appear to be a dead leaf.

The Hoary bat has dark yellowish fur tipped with white and is one of the largest and most widely distributed bats in the United States but is most common in the prairie states.   It roosts in tree foliage, mostly in evergreens.   Both the hoary and red bats, feast on moths and may migrate to subtropical areas when the temperature drops.  Lastly, the Eastern pipistrelle is Wisconsin's smallest bat with a body length of 3 inches or less and a wingspan rarely exceeding 7 inches.  Pips, as they are called, emerge earlier in the evening than most other bats and have a rather slow erratic flight pattern.

Facts you may not know about bats:  bats are the only mammals that can fly;  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; and although they provide vital environmental and economic services, the world is a dangerous place for bats and their populations are declining.  The International Union for Conservation of Nature, an organization working in the field of nature conservation and sustainable use of natural resources reports that of the 1,296 bat species they are watching, almost a third are considered endangered or at best vulnerable.  Because bats reproduce slowly with females of most species giving birth to only one pup per year, recovery from serious losses is painfully slow.

In much of the world, bats are still casually killed because of harmful myths and misplaced fears. In Latin America, whole colonies of beneficial bats are routinely destroyed in the mistaken belief that all bats are vampires.   Also, In regions such as Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands, bats are hunted, both as bush meat for local consumption and commercially for markets and restaurants, with large, fruit-eating bats being the primary targets.

Environmentalists also attribute the drop in numbers to a fatal disease that is passed from bat to bat.  The white-nose syndrome appeared in Wisconsin about six years ago and some counties have lost an estimated 90 percent of their bat population.  Others contend that injuries from wind turbines are the single greatest human threat to migratory bats, which live in different habitats during summer and winter months. Some, like the hoary bat, fly south to Mexico during the winter as insects become scarce in North America. In 2017, scientists warned that the hoary bat could become extinct if the expansion of wind farms continues.

Knowing the locations and approximate sizes of our bat colonies helps concerned environmentalists gather baseline data about statewide distribution, population estimates and roost preferences.  Bat roost monitoring is simple and at Timbergreen Farm we have participated for several years, sitting outside the barn in the evening to count the bats as they emerge.   Bats will start to exit the roost just after sunset, and will emerge one or two at a time making counting easy.  They will continue to exit for about 40 minutes and volunteers should make at least two counts - one in early June and one in late July, dates chosen based on the flight of  the young born in June. Ask around to find a bat colony and join the fun.  Our Wisconsin DNR bat contact is Heather Kaarakka.  

May 12, 2020

Perhaps the most beloved wildflower of spring is the trillium, and this beauty is just now coming into bloom in all its various versions.  More than three dozen Trillium species are native to North America, with the greatest diversity of species found in the southern Appalachian Mountains.  Through the years they have been known as wake robin, tri flower, butcher’s blood and birthwort but the name trillium was eventually chosen for all because the parts of all the plants are in threes.

Trilliums grow from underground plant stems called rhizomes that send out horizontal roots and shoots from their joints.  They have three large bracts (sometimes called leaves but technically different) arranged in a whorl about long, flowering stems rising directly from the ground. The bloom is commonly a single flower with three green or reddish sepals and three petals in shades of red, purple, pink, white, yellow, or green.

Initially the Trillium genus (a genus is a category that botanists rank above a species and below a family) was placed in the lily family but they considered that too large already and created a new family, Melanthiaceae, with a common name Bunchflower in the late 1980s.   As part of the Melanthiaceae family, the Trillium genus has traditionally been divided into two subgenera, based on whether each flower is on a separate stem.

The nodding trillium is the most northerly species in North America, occurring as far as Hudson Bay.  Its range extends across Canada from Saskatchewan in the west to Newfoundland in the east, and as far south as Minnesota to Ohio, down to Tennessee.  It can be found on rich, moist soils in both broadleaf and coniferous woodland and its most significant characteristic is that it has a  solitary white or rarely pink flower hanging below the leaves on a short stem. 

The trillium grandiflorum is also easily recognized by its single attractive three-petaled white flower.   It opens from late spring to early summer, and is most common in rich, mixed upland forests, often occurring in dense drifts.  One spectacular area is in the Blue Ridge Mountains and is renowned for its extensive stand that blooms each spring.  Over a two square mile area along the Appalachian Trail there is a spectacular annual display estimated at nearly ten million individuals.

Trillium recurvatum (red trillium, butcher’s blood) is a Missouri native that grows up to 15″ high and has mottled leaves, and maroon stemless upright flowers.  They can live up to 25 years and usually do not flower until they are several years old.   They bloom in April & May and are found growing wild in the understory of deciduous woods in the upland temperate forest of the Midwest and eastern United States.

To accurately identify any adult trillium plant one must observe its flower, leaves, and other characteristics.  The first step is to determine whether or not each flower has a stem.  In eastern North America, jack-in-the-pulpit is often mistaken for a bare-leaved trillium because both species are about the same height with three leaflets, but they are not symmetrical in the jack and it has different leaf veining.

Trilliums are spread by ants that are attracted to the fleshy structures that are attached to many trillium seeds called elaiosomes.  They carry the seed back to their nest to feed their larvae, althougha sometimes beetles interfere with the dispersal process by eating the elaiosomes off the seeds, making them less attractive to ants.

Like many forest perennials, trilliums are slow growing plants. Their seeds have double dormancy, meaning they normally take at least two years to fully germinate.  The seeds are dispersed in late summer and germinate after a cold and then a warm period, producing a root.   After another winter the seedlings cotyledon emerges from the soil.  Like most species of Trillium, flowering age is determined largely by the surface of the leaf and volume of the plant’s rhizome instead of age alone. Because growth is very slow in nature, some species require seven to ten years in optimal conditions to reach flowering size.

Picking the blossom off a trillium plant can kill it even if the rhizome is left undisturbed. Some species of trillium are listed as threatened or endangered and collecting these species may be illegal. The old Wisconsin wildflower law that protected plants such as orchids, trillium and bittersweet was taken off the books in 1978.  Except for wild ginseng, wild rice and endangered or threatened species, all other plants are unprotected on private lands and may be taken, transported or sold - with the exception of noxious weeds and nuisance weeds. On state property, you cannot take any plants or plant parts except for edible fruits, edible nuts, wild mushrooms, wild asparagus, and watercress. These may be removed by hand without a permit for the purpose of personal consumption by the collector.

 A high white-tailed deer population has been shown to decrease or eliminate trillium in an area, and deer even prefer T. grandiflorum, to the exclusion of others.  Also, I read that the vast majority of plants and rhizomes in commerce are collected in the wild, and such heavy collecting, combined with other pressures such as habitat destruction and grazing, may effectively endanger the plants in some areas.  Let’s enjoy the ones we have.


May 4, 2020

After a period of enjoying the emergence of one wildflower after another, we have switched our attention to those invaders that may threaten their existence.  Wind, water, wildlife and humans disperse the seeds of these problem plants, which compete with and are capable of overwhelming our native species.   Some are commonly sold landscape plants such as barberry, burning bush, shrub honeysuckle, multiflora rose and oriental bittersweet, while others were introduced either intentionally or accidentally as medicinals or agricultural crops, such as garlic mustard, buckthorn, and reed canary grass.

In addition to these nuisances, our wet cool spring has encouraged a cool-season perennial grass weed commonly known as quackgrass to invade our flower gardens.  When young it can easily be confused with common lawn grass such as ryegrass and even crabgrass, but it spreads by continuously growing horizontal underground stems that put out lateral shoots and roots at intervals.   Any broken or cut roots immediately start to form individual plants that grow and spread below and above the surface.

We also watch for a biennial herb here at the farm called garlic mustard that has entered our woodlands across our north and east fence lines. This is a rapidly spreading woodland weed that can dominate the forest floor and displace most native plants in just a few years. Unlike other plants that invade disturbed habitats, garlic mustard readily spreads into high quality forests and is a major threat to the survival of Wisconsin's woodland plants and the animals that depend on them. It is a cool season herb with stalked, triangular coarsely toothed leaves that give off an odor of garlic when crushed.

First-year garlic mustard plants appear as a rosette of leaves close to the ground that remain green through the winter and develop into flowering plants the following spring. Viable seeds are produced a short time later, and by late June, they can be recognized only by the erect stalks of dry, pale brown seedpods that remain through the summer.  This plague was introduced from Europe in the 1800s, presumably by early settlers for its supposed medicinal properties and for use in cooking, and is now widely distributed throughout the northeastern and Midwestern U.S. from Canada to South Carolina, and as far west as Colorado and Utah.  It is in full bloom in April and May and easy to identify as its clusters of small white flowers on upright stalks are unique at this time of year. We are told that not only must these plants be pulled, but also they must be bagged and carried off as seeds are reported to continue to develop.
We also notice alien barberries that are compact, spiny shrubs that usually grow from two to three feet tall and have been widely planted as clipped hedges around urban yards. They have attractive bright-red berries that mature in mid-summer and hang on for several months, and their leaves turn lovely shades of red and yellow in autumn. The problem is they are eaten by many species of birds that then spread their seeds across the landscape. The only plus about the barberry is that it is vulnerable for months instead of a week or so, and therefore we can hold off our attack on its populations until we have dealt with other problems.

Then there is the Canada thistle, a misnamed plant since it was also brought to this continent from Europe. Unlike most of the other nuisance plants, its potential for trouble was recognized almost immediately as it caused difficulties even in its native habitat where natural enemies were present.  Canada thistle has a deep and wide-spreading root system so that dense patches can be formed from a single plant. Small fragments of the roots can sprout new plants, so cultivation only spreads the plants into new areas. In addition, an individual plant can produce up to 1500 seeds and about 90% of the seeds will germinate within one year. Some can remain viable for up to 20 years. To be certain that its seeds are dispersed, the plant provides them with parachutes that can be blown a half-mile in the wind. Pulling such a plant is ineffective and each stalk must be cut and treated with a chemical herbicide.

Landowners with wetlands can have several other species attacking their properties. Purple loosestrife was introduced to North America in the early 1800's from Eurasia and has found its way into wetlands in nearly every province and state in North America. It is a very hardy perennial plant with a dense mat of roots that can out-compete cattails, sedges, rushes and the other native aquatic plants on which wildlife depends. Reed canary grass is also increasingly dominating wet meadows as it is a prolific seed producer and spreads through rhizome growth at an amazing rate.
Then, should you have escaped all of the above, there is buckthorn, honeysuckle, multiflora rose, etc. etc. etc. With all these immigrants, I wonder if we will ever be able to just sit back and enjoy the scenery.

April 28, 2020:  Male bird courting

Having a cardinal bashing its head over and over against the windows from dawn to dusk is a rather unnerving experience.  Our living room has glass on three sides to satisfy our desire to be close to the outdoors, but what to us is a window on the world was obviously a perceived threat to this particular bird.   He would gather himself together and attack, clawing and batting his wings as well as his beak against the intruding cardinal he could see mirrored in the glass. Dropping to the deck, he would rest a second and then fly to the railing where he would perch to sing his song of victory -- certain that he had chased the stranger away. After a short rest he would fly to the window again, only to see his opponent coming right at him good as new. You had to feel sorry for him!

Wild birds need sufficient space for feeding, mating and raising young, and they claim that territory in a variety of ways. How much area is needed depends upon the bird species; a typical suburban song bird such as an American robin is contented with only a small backyard to raise its young, while a pair of black-capped chickadees will chase off trespassers in an area anywhere from 8 to 17 acres.

Singing is probably the most common way a bird announces that a particular location belongs to him.   A song will carry quite far, and a bird will perch near the edge of his territory to broadcast his claim as far as possible. At the same time, he is hoping to attract a mate. So strong is the urge to sing in some birds that some such as the red-eyed vireo have been known to sing more than 20,000 songs a day.

A male house wren will claim an area by taking over as many of the nesting sites as he can. He will build multiple token nests in any suitable cavities throughout his territory, and then wait until a female, lured by his singing, investigates and chooses one, and him along with it. Later, they often rebuild the nest to the female’s specifications.

Woodpeckers and several types of game birds claim territory by drumming as an alternative to singing. A pileated woodpecker often drums on a tree up to 15 beats per second. Such low-pitched sounds – whether made by pounding on a hollow tree or by using air sacs – will carry considerable distances and alert competing birds that the territory is taken, as well as let females know that a fine strong male has laid claim to a good spot to raise a family. We traced down a metallic sound last week by the kilns and found a downy woodpecker beating time on an aluminum ladder leaning against a building.

Visual displays such as puffing up colored feather patches, tail flicking or fanning, wing spreading and other behaviors are all part of claiming territory and are also designed to show off a bird's strength and health to a potential mate. A woodcock dives through the air, the feathers on its wings vibrating to produce a winnowing sound.

As a last resort, some more aggressive birds may try to chase intruders or competitors away. Territorial behavior directed at windows and automobiles, such as we have just experienced, occurs most often by birds such as the American robin and Northern cardinal, and occasionally by an American goldfinch, wild turkey, and ruffed grouse.  When one of these sees its image in a reflective surface such as a window or in a car mirror, it perceives the sight as a rival and tries to drive the other bird away.  For robins and cardinals, the breeding season may total seven or eight weeks so the "window fighting" may continue off and on between April and August as two or three broods are produced during that time. Despite the violent appearance of this behavior, the birds very rarely injure themselves, all though there is occasionally damage to the bird's beak if the behavior continues.

The first  line of defense in protecting one’s home or vehicle from an attacking bird is to cover the reflective surface. Some suggest draping a plastic painter’s drop cloth over the outside of the window so that the bird can no longer see itself. We are told not waste money on fake owls or rubber snakes, which reportedly frighten birds. The rival bird will still be visible in the window, and the territorial birds quickly learn that these artificial critters pose no threat. We also found that hanging streamers from suction cups on the windows had absolutely no effect on the bird.

What did work for us was spraying the windows with water to which baking soda had been added. It took two attempts to do the job but by then there was sufficient residue to prevent the attacking bird from seeing himself and he sang a victory song and went elsewhere. We unwisely cleaned the unsightly windows, only to have the bird back in hours, so that we were forced into to reapply the solution.

One would think that stopping the reflections would always eliminate the behavior, but we understand that sometimes nothing will work. When one window is treated, the bird may go searching for its imaginary rival at other windows, and not surprisingly, it will find the intruder at every window it encounters. There are reports of robins attacking as many as fifteen windows on both the first and second stories of homes. For this reason, some experts advise that it is probably best to be patient and do nothing, or if bedroom windows are being attacked and the occupants are being awakened at dawn, cover just those windows. They obviously have not suffered very many determined birds!


April 21, 2020:  Butterflies

There are not many people anywhere who don’t enjoy seeing butterflies in their yard, but few realize how interesting they are.  These insects rely on external sources for body heat, and in the morning and throughout cooler days, they must spend time in the sun with their wings spread, raising their body temperature before they can fly.  A few minutes of basking in the sunshine raises their temperature as much as 20 degrees above the surrounding air.

Butterflies have four wings, two on each side of their body. The wings can move independently, allowing a wide variety of flight patterns. Some species soar slowly, with only a few wing flaps, while others seem to dart in every direction at once. Experienced butterfly watchers can often identify a species from a distance just by noting the pattern of its flight.  Butterflies usually rest with their wings closed and the undersides of the wings are patterned to provide camouflage, allowing them to land and seemingly disappear from sight—a grest way to elude predators.

Most butterfly species drink nectar from flowers, but some prefer fruit juices, tree sap and even dung or carrion, drawing up the liquid through their tubelike proboscis, which curls up when not in use. Butterflies also need salts and other nutrients, which they get by drinking from puddles or muddy spots, an activity known as puddling.

Most butterflies have only a few short weeks to mate before they die. A male finds another butterfly of the same species by sight, then determines its sex by flying close to detect chemical pheromones.  A male and female mate by clasping the ends of their abdomens together, presumably remaining that way for up to 12 hours so the male can be sure no competitor has a chance to fertilize “his” eggs. The female often flies off to continue feeding, carrying the male still attached.  In a day or two, she will begin laying her eggs one at a time on an appropriate host plant.

Monarchs perform one of the most famous migrations in the world, but most butterflies and other insects don’t migrate, using various mechanisms to make it through the brutally cold months.   Many slow their metabolisms down by ridding their bodies of nearly all its water and replacing it with chemicals.  Mourning cloaks, question marks, commas and others do this, tucked away behind loose bark or in fallen leaves, and hibernate through the winter as adults.

Our well-known swallowtails reach full size and form pupas or chrysalises before winter sets in. Other butterflies such as fritillaries, crescents and many skippers hatch in the fall and sleep through winter as caterpillars.  Still others, like the Coral hairstreaks and Karner blue butterflies, overwinter as eggs and hatch the following spring.

The more habitat you supply for butterflies, the more you will host in your garden.  Dried plant stalks and seed heads offer hiding spots, so go easy on deadheading.  Then you need to choose the right plants.  Nectar plants feed adult butterflies, while caterpillars may require different specific host plants.  In addition, you need to provide shelter and sunshine.  Grasses, shrubs and piles of rocks or branches give butterflies places to rest, and flat rocks let them bask in the sun.  Avoid pesticides (including “natural” ones) even if you have to tolerate a few pests to allow butterflies to thrive.

As the temperatures rise in the next few days, several are likely to visit our yards if they haven’t already.  First will likely be the mourning cloak, a large easily distinguishable butterfly, with a wingspan up to four inches. The dorsal side of its wings are usually a dark maroon, with pale-yellow edges and iridescent blue spots, while the ventral side of the wings has the same pale-yellow edges lacking the spots.  It can live 11 to 12 months, one of the longest lifespans for any butterfly, and rarely nectars on flowers, instead preferring tree sap, which often runs in the early spring. 

Other butterflies you may encounter now are much smaller: the spring azure, a fairly common butterfly that may be found mud puddling on the gravel drive or flying along woodland edges (both the male and female are bright blue with the female’s wings having a wide black border), the tortoiseshell (its upper side is orange-brown with darker wing bases and black spots while its underside is mottled gray and brown), and one of the green or eastern commas (known for their wing camouflage that resembles tree bark and their irregular wing edges).

If you want to see butterflies up close, visit the Bolz Conservatory, a striking glass pyramid, some 100 feet by 100 feet, that is a showpiece for wildlife and plants in Olbrich Park in Madison, Wisconsin.  A 20-foot high waterfall with rock outcrops drops to a flowing stream and peaceful pool, and the temperature in the Conservatory is between 65 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit year-round.  More than a dozen species of butterflies, native to Wisconsin can be seen at various times during the year, as well as birds, small animals, and all sorts of insects.  If you have not visited this marvelous spot, put that on this year’s bucket list for sure. (check to be sure it is open in this upset time before going)

April 7, 2020    Robins

Sing a song of sixpence a pocket full of rye,
Four and twenty robins baked in a pie…robins in a pie?

This would have been the American version of the old nursery rhyme, as our robin is closely related to the European blackbird, and robins flock in such large numbers during the winter months in the southern states that they once made easy prey for hunters. The early English immigrants named our bird after the robin redbreast of their former home because of the color of its feathers, but our robin is more similar to their blackbird in all but plumage. The European blackbird is also a true thrush, and the two birds have very similar habits, body shape, and song, and even share the inelegant genus name of “turdus”.

You have to be an early riser to beat the robin. The sky is just beginning to lighten at this writing, but an enthusiastic male is giving forth from the top of the maple that overhangs our deck. The song is made up of phrases with short pauses between them that are repeated, alternated, or otherwise arranged in groups of two to five. Individual robins differ in the phrases they use and the order in which they sing them, and often will incorporate one or two of its own. Even those who can barely distinguish between a crow and English sparrow recognize this large thrush on sight and often by sound, and enjoy watching it as it hunts for earthworms on their lawn. A robin will stand with head cocked to one side as though listening but it is actually watching for a telltale glimmer of moist skin. It then will grab the worm and pull steadily until free of its hole and then carry it off.

Before this country was settled by colonists, robins were birds of the forest and much shyer than those around our yards. But when settlers created lawns and gardens that were rich breeding grounds for earthworms, the robins discovered this bounty and their numbers increased at about the same rate as the human population. In addition, the birds began building their nests on man-made structures, welcome alternatives to the sometimes-unreliable tree branches or other natural sites. Today, there are probably many times as many robins breeding in the United States as there were in Colonial days.

Although considered a harbinger of spring, robins sometimes winter in Wisconsin, where they shelter in low-lying wooded areas out of sight.  Most, however, migrate to the southern states every autumn but return to their nesting areas in late March, following very closely the advance of the average daily temperature of 37F. They usually appear at the same nest site year after year and are one of the first songbirds to nest, with two or three broods each season.

The male robin is a highly excitable, aggressive character, always on the lookout for an intruder into his territory, chasing it off with loud squawks and determination. He is not too discriminating, however, and sometimes mistakes his own image reflected in an automobile hubcap, patio door, or other reflective surface for an interloper.  Anyone who has watched one of these birds attacking such an object can attest to the fact that the bird will sometimes persist for days, sometimes even becoming bloodied, though unbowed. He also courts a likely mate with the same intensity, often chasing her until she submits to his advances.

The female builds a sturdy nest of twigs and grasses, lining it with mud that she forms into a smooth 3-inch cup by pressing down firmly with her body. I think it is interesting that she will often add decorative touches like scraps of cloth, bits of paper, and other items that evidently attract her. She lays three or four eggs of (what else?) robin-egg blue and in less than a month the baby birds leave the nest. They can barely fly, however, and are often killed by cats, snakes, and other predators. The male continues to feed and nurture the fledglings for another two weeks, while his mate lays a new batch of eggs. A few years ago we watched a large bull snake climb up into the rafters of our machine shed and swallow a nestful of half-grown chicks, one after the other.

Although it is often thought that robins live on earthworms with a dessert of ripe cherries, their diet actually consists of only 40% animal foods and the other 60% fruits and berries. They feed on a large variety of both wild and cultivated fruits, berries, earthworms, and insects such as beetle grubs, caterpillars, and grasshoppers--whatever is most available.

Wisconsinites have named the robin to be their state bird and will no doubt continue to enjoy its colors and cheerful song in their yards indefinitely, particularly in urban areas where other birds may be scarce.   And I am certainly glad that they no longer appear in pies.

March 31, 2020:  Hepatica

The first flowers to appear in our gardens are all introductions from Europe and Asia that don’t know that even the end of March can still be quite winter-like in Wisconsin. Our native plants understand that it is risky to push the season, but crocuses, daffodils and snowdrops are amazingly hardy and usually survive the almost certain freezes and even snow storms that sometimes continue to plague us well into April.

Crocuses are native to central and southern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, across Central Asia to western China.  Daffodils come from the Mediterranean region, in particular to the Iberian Peninsula, as well as Northern Africa and the Middle East.  Snowdrops can be found across a large area of Europe, stretching from the Pyrenees in the west, through France and Germany to Poland in the north, Italy, Northern Greece and European Turkey.

Some of our native plants here in the southwestern hills of Wisconsin sometimes do appear in late March—the first usually being the hepatica.  (Skunk cabbage is often earlier but can only be found in the wet marshes). Our plants thrive in the rich soil on the wooded hillsides and each year we marvel at how they have spread but it may grow in a wide range of conditions from deeply shaded deciduous woodland and scrub to sunny grassland. 

Hepatica received its name from its leaves, which, like the human liver, have three lobes (the Greek word for liver is hepar). Before the advent of modern medicine, humans found that some plants seemed to help a variety of maladies and diseases. Such uses were probably first recognized in ancient China, where they correlated plant features to human organs.

Yang (primitive male) was associated with strongly acting plants and ailments of the upper half of the body and so were treated with upper parts of plants, while ailments of lower parts of the body were treated with below-ground plant parts.  Yin (primitive female) was associated with plants having moderate action and those with bitter, sour, salty, and sweet tastes.  Furthermore, yellow and sweet were associated with the spleen, red and bitter with the heart, green and sour with the liver, and black and salty with the lungs.

In Western cultures, the use of plants for medical purposes emerged during the Middle Ages, when people believed that human destiny was determined by the stars.  They believed that plants were placed on earth for the good of mankind and that God would have provided visual cues to their use.

This led to the Doctrine of Signatures (a plant’s use was hidden in the form (signature) of the plant itself).  The most famous advocate of signature plants was Philippus Aureolus von Hohenheim, a Swiss citizen who later adopted the Latin name Paracelsus.  During the first half of the 16th century, he traveled throughout Europe and to Asia and Egypt, treating people with his concoctions.

The Doctrine of Signatures was highly popular during the Renaissance, and many plant names indicate how plants were once used—some of them highly imaginative.   In general, long-lived plants were used to lengthen a person’s life, and plants with rough stems and leaves were believed to heal skin diseases. Plants with yellow sap were cures for jaundice, and roots with jointed appearance were an antidote for scorpion bites while flowers shaped like a butterfly became cures for insect bites.
Thus we have plants named liverwort, snakeroot, lungwort, and maidenhair (supposedly a cure for baldness!). 

Not too long ago, hepatica was viewed as the cure-all for many ailments including freckles, indigestion, and cowardice.   Although It is no longer popular as an herbal remedy, it does act as a mild astringent and diuretic and has limited success as a laxative.   Hepatica reaches a height of 4 inches and produces lovely flowers. The leaves rise on short stalks and are dark leathery green, each with three lobes. The flowers may be white, bluish purple or pink and appear singly on hairy, leafless stems.   In autumn, the leaves turn shades of russet and purple and persist through winter and the plant continues to use them as a source of nourishment. 

As soon as the ground thaws, one can often find hepatica buds pushing up through the debris from the crowns of old leaves and several sunny days will encourage them to open their fragile blossoms. If you don’t have any in your garden, you should find a spot for these treasures.

March 24, 2020

We have an impressive weeping willow tree between the road and our driveway that has seen many better days.  It had a trunk divided into two large branches when we first moved here but we lost both of them to the wind some years ago leaving a huge hollow stump from which eventually another top branch sprouted.

The tree’s predecessors were first described in the 1700s when they were imported from China.  They presumably were spread along ancient trade routes, and then eventually to and across America.  These trees grow rapidly up to 80 feet and more, but have short lifespans, between 40 and 75 years.  Their flowers are arranged in catkins and produced early in the spring while the leaves are narrow and light green, with finely serrate margins and long tips.  These turn a gold-yellow in autumn before dropping to the ground.

The condition of this ancient relic has attracted several birds -- the red-bellied, as well as downy and hairy woodpeckers.  The first are noisy birds, and both sexes have many varied calls described as sounding like churr-churr-churr with an alternating br-r-r-r-t sound, while the drum sounds like 6 taps.    Often, these woodpeckers "drum" to attract mates, tapping on hollow trees, and even on aluminum roofs and metal guttering to communicate with potential partners.

Adult red-bellied are medium sized birds, mainly light gray on the face and underparts and black with white barred patterns on their backs, wings and tail.  Males have a red cap going from the bill to the nape and are sometimes mistaken for red-headed woodpeckers, while females have a red patch on the nape and another above the bill. The reddish tinge on the belly that gives the bird its name is often difficult to see.

These birds eat a variety of foods -- insects, fruits, nuts and seeds and can usually be found in forests or at their edges. They nest in the decayed cavities of dead trees, old stumps, or in live trees that have softer wood such as elms, maples, or willows, and both sexes assist in digging nesting cavities.   Although the species is not globally threatened, it depends on large trees for nesting and the birds will sometimes utilize those in gardens or yards, but will not be present there in any numbers.

The red-bellied woodpecker uses its bill for foraging as a chisel, drilling into bark or probing cracks on trunk of trees, and then uses its long barbed tongue to pull out beetles and other hidden insects.  (It is a major predator of the invasive emerald ash borer in the U.S. midwest, and has been known to remove up to 85% of borer larvae in a single infested ash tree.)   To prevent brain damage from the rapid and repeated impacts, woodpeckers have compressible sponge-like bone which is concentrated in the forehead and the back of the skull and relatively small and smooth brains.

The bill's chisel-like tip is kept sharp by the pecking and consists of three layers; an outer sheath made of keratin proteins, an inner layer of bone which has a large cavity, and a middle layer made of porous bone which connects the two other layers. Furthermore, the tongue-bone (or hyoid bone) of the woodpecker is very long, and winds around the skull through a special cavity, cushioning the brain.

Downy Woodpeckers are considerably smaller, have black upper parts checked with white on the wings, boldly striped heads, white outer tail feathers and a broad white stripe back down the center of the back. Males have a small red patch on the back of the head. In spring and summer, these woodpeckers make lots of noise, both with their shrill whinnying call and by drumming on trees.  These active little birds can be found in orchards, city parks, backyards and vacant lots as well as in open woodlands as they clammer around tree limbs and trunks or drop into tall weeds to feed on galls.  Their swooping flight style is distinctive of many woodpeckers.

The hairy woodpecker is a larger version of its downy cousin—about nine inches from the tip of its bill to the end of its tail. (To compare, the downy woodpecker is about six and a half inches long.) The size difference is surprisingly hard to see, except when they are side by side.  The bird supposedly looks hairy due to small feathers on its legs, head and over its upper mandible, giving it is name. The proper name for such long thin feathers is “filoplume” and Bill Glanz, a professor at the University of Maine, reports that these have sensory cells at their base that are thought to . help the woodpecker find its prey — insects, insect eggs, larvae and pupae — which are under the bark or in the wood.

Woodpeckers all possess characteristic feet consisting of four toes, the first and the fourth facing backward and the second and third facing forward allowing them to walk vertically up tree trunks, which is beneficial for activities such as foraging for food or nest excavation. In addition to their strong claws and feet, woodpeckers have short, strong legs. The tails of almost all woodpeckers are stiffened, and when the bird perches on a vertical surface, the tail and feet work together to support it.

Woodpeckers range from tiny piculets (found in Central and South America and measuring less than three inches in length) to large woodpeckers which can be more than 20 inches.  Their plumage varies from drab to conspicuous and while they reach their greatest diversity in tropical rainforests, they occur in almost all woodlands around the world.  If you have trees in your yard, offer them suet and these fascinating birds will happily visit you.

March 17, 2020

No one is sure just how long people have been collecting the sap from maple trees in North America, but legend hints that maple syrup and maple sugar were being made well before recorded history.  Some historians maintain that Native Americans did not have the technology or tools to perform the necessary boiling of sap to make either product, but others believe that early peoples had discovered that they could use a sharp tool to make incisions in the tree bark, and then could insert a hollow reed or concave piece of bark into the hole to obtain the sap.

Eventually they must have found it possible to collect the sap into containers made from birch bark or animal skin, and later into clay pots. Such liquid would have been a treasured commodity for its sweetness, and also as a drink when water was scarce. It is thought that collectors might have learned to concentrate the sap somewhat either by adding hot stones or else by repeatedly allowing it to freeze overnight and disposing of any ice that had formed on top, but with the development of clay pots, these less-than-efficient methods would have been replaced by boiling.

The first white settlers and fur traders introduced wooden buckets to the process, as well as iron and copper kettles, and during the 17th and 18th centuries, the syrup was a major source of high quality pure sugar. Later, they would learn to bore holes in the trees and hang their buckets on spouts, but since it required some 40 gallons of sap to obtain a gallon of maple syrup and the process required careful tending over an open fire to avoid burning, it always was a major undertaking. A single tap can produce about 10 gallons of sap each year and yield approximately one quart of finished syrup. 

There have been a number of theories on the mechanics of this out-flowing of maple sap through the years, but only recently has the process been adequately explained. All that was obvious up to now was that sap flow was definitely temperature dependent, and required freezing temperatures at night followed by sunny above-freezing days.

The Massachusetts Maple Association tells it this way: A rise in temperature of the sapwood to above 32 degrees F. causes a positive pressure within the wood that produces the sap flow. Many people assume that maple sap flows up from the tree's roots on warm days. Actually, on warm spring days the internal pressure of the tree causes the sap to flow out, much the same way blood flows out of a cut. The exact mechanism of this pressure is not completely understood, although several hypotheses have been advanced and individual trees differ in the rate of response to temperature. When the temperature falls to near, or below freezing, the pressure may become negative in relation to atmospheric pressure. As the maple tree begins to freeze, sap is actually sucked up into the tree through the large wood pores that connect with the tree's roots so that the tree is actually recharging itself with liquid from its roots. Unfortunately, even this explanation does not make much sense when one considers that water expands as it freezes. If this is true, the trees ought to push out sap when they freeze and suck it up when they thaw. This is the case for most hardwood species; however, maples suck sap as they freeze and drip sap when they thaw.

Scientists at Cornell University at Ithaca NY now add this further explanation: Sap flows through cells in the sapwood, which is the relatively thin, youngest, outer part of the woody stem of a tree. These cells act as pipes to transport water and dissolved materials from the roots to the branches of the tree and back again. During the day, activity in the cells of the sapwood produces carbon dioxide that is released into both the intercellular spaces in the sapwood as well as into the spaces between the cells, causing pressure to build up in the cells. A third source of pressure is called osmotic pressure, which is caused by the presence of sugar and other substances dissolved in the sap. When a hole is made through the bark of the tree, the pressure forces the sap out, but when temperatures go below freezing, the carbon dioxide cools and therefore contracts, as does the cooled sap. This creates suction in the tree that causes water from the soil to be drawn up into the roots and travel up through the sapwood, ready to flow again when the temperatures rise.

March brings us other signs of spring besides rising sap. The sandhill cranes have returned to the marshes, redwings are calling from our treetops, and bluebirds and robins are being sighted on sunny days on the wires above the houses along the road. Any snow which falls these days will be short-lived and in the next few weeks, our winter birds will be leaving us for their nesting grounds up North, to be replaced by old friends who have been on vacation to the south. Can there be a more exciting time of the year?


March 10, 2020

Spring is almost here, and that means the return of our bats, and we look forward to watching their evening flights around the barn and garden beginning in late March and early April.  Bats are not rodents. They are in fact more related to primates than to rodents and they are members of their own order, Chiroptera which means "hand-wing".   As the only mammal that can fly, there's no doubt that bats are exceptional creatures. Common misconceptions and fears about them have led many people to regard bats as nothing more than frightening biters and disease carriers, but they are crucial for a healthy environment as they disperse seeds, eat untold numbers of harmful insects and help pollinate plants.

There are more than 1,300 bat species distributed across six continents; about 50 bat species live in national parks across the United States, and Indonesia hosts 219 bat species -- more than any other country.  Bat Conservation International claims that bats make up one-fifth of the mammal population on Earth.

Bats are divided into two main types: megabats and microbats.  Megabats include flying foxes and Old-World fruit bats, and, as the name suggests, at they tend to be larger than microbats.  Flying foxes are the largest and some species have wingspans of five to six feet and weigh more than two pounds.  None of these are found in Wisconsin; in fact, they live in the tropics and subtropics of Asia, Australia, East Africa, and some oceanic islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Microbats, on the other hand, are found around the world except in the Arctic and Antarctic.   Besides their smaller size, they lack tails, have larger ears, smaller eyes, and they use echolocation--a biological sonar that emits calls and then listens to the echoes that return to avoid obstacles and to capture food. 

We are told there are eight species in Wisconsin, all microbats, and we regularly recognize both the little brown and the big brown types.  The little brown is the most common bat species in the northern two-thirds of the United States and is frequently found near rivers, lakes, or marshes where it roosts in tree hollows and buildings during the summer. In winter, it flies to the nearest suitable cave or abandoned mine to hibernate.  The Northern long-eared bat is similar in appearance to the little brown bat although its hair color is somewhat duller.  Not as abundant in Wisconsin as the little brown, it prefers abandoned mines and small caves for hibernation.

The big brown bat is also one of the most common and widespread species of bats in North America. It roosts in colonies in tree hollows, wall spaces, and buildings and is more tolerant of cold conditions than other Wisconsin bats.  It is the only one that commonly overwinters in walls and attics, although it also hibernates in caves and abandoned mines.   It ranges in color from pale brown to dark brown with a black wing membrane.

Other species in the state are the silver-haired bat that gets its name from its black to dark brown fur frosted with silver on the back.  It lives in wooded areas of the U.S. and Canada and migrates south to central and southern states where it hibernates in rock crevices and tree hollows and feeds in forest openings and along forest edges.  The Eastern red bat is a solitary species found most often in deciduous tree foliage during the summer. It migrates south to the central and southern states where it probably hibernates in tree hollows. The red bat has fine, silky red-orange to yellowish fur. and is often overlooked because it can appear, at quick glance, to be a dead leaf. They are rarely seen far from forested areas, and moths are their favorite food.

The hoary bat is one of the largest bats in the United States and is also widely distributed.  This species has dark yellowish fur tipped with white and is more common in the prairie states than in the eastern U.S.  It roosts in tree foliage, mostly in evergreens and like the red bat, eats moths. Northern populations may migrate considerable distances to subtropical areas when the weather gets cold.  Wisconsin's smallest bat is the Eastern pipistrelle, with a body length of three inches or less and a wingspan rarely exceeding seven inches. Pips, as they are called, are found in wooded areas and emerge earlier in the evening than most other bats and have a rather slow erratic flight pattern.   And finally, a newly arrived species has been identified, the tree bat, and we’ll have to wait a bit before much information is available for that one.

Bats spend their daylight hours hiding in roosts such as cracks and crevices that keep them out of sight and protected. The most common roosts are existing structures such as caves, tree hollows, and old buildings, depending on the time of year.
For example, in the winter, some may hibernate in caves, and in the summer, they’ll return to an attic. Because good roosts can be hard to find, many live in large colonies with thousands of other bats.

No matter where they spend their seasons, all bats roost upside down hanging from their hind feet and legs. Scientists still aren’t sure why they do this, but one theory is that since bats have to fall into flight, hanging upside down is thought to allow them to escape any danger quickly.  

Despite all the misconceptions surrounding bats, they are very important to humans and the environment.  Insect-eating microbats eat millions of bugs a night, and thanks to bats, farmers can rely less on pesticides costing them millions of dollars each year.  Nectar-drinking bats pollinate fruiting plants and  fruit-eating bats disperse seeds.  They may have sharp teeth and not be pretty, but welcome them into your yard if not your house...


March 3, 2020

It is sometimes hard to remember that although the days are getting longer and the temperatures are sometimes rising, the last frost date for our area will not come for more than two months, on May 7;  still, there are encouraging signs of winter’s passing. 

In boggy areas, the first native wildflower of the year is beginning to emerge through the snow.  Skunk cabbage may not be your favorite plant, but it fascinating and deserves a mention as it uses a special property called “thermogenesis” to heat its nearby soil, enabling it to be one of Spring’s earliest bloomers.  First the green outer coverings push through the ground and open to expose the brown to purple 3-6 inch flower spathes that contain club-like spikes covered with tiny yellow florets.  Skunk cabbage exudes a strong odor of decaying flesh to attract early flying insects that smell something carrion-like and inadvertently pollinate the flowers.

Another early sign of the changing season comes from one of everyone’s favorite bird -- the cardinal.  Go outdoors almost any day now and chances are you will hear at least one singing its love song.  The intricacy and variety of the song is thought to show the singer’s degree of desirability, and triggers the secretion of sex hormones in a female, encouraging her into breeding condition and prompting her instincts to mate and build a nest. 

Some other birds can be heard early despite a still snowy landscape and frigid temperatures.  The great horned owl begins its breeding season as early as December and its deep hoots are all about courtship and pair bonding.  (The deeper hoots are the males and the slightly higher pitched hoots are the larger females.)  Another big owl, the barred, announces itself with deep “who cooks for you” hoots a few weeks later and is breeding by mid-January.  

Other birds also begin nesting early. Bald eagles have been working on their nests for a month and many may be incubating eggs.  Common Ravens are constructing large stick nests on cliffs and artificial structures such as transmission towers and football stadiums and their loud croaks declare their presence from a long distance.  Ravens once were exclusively birds of mountain forests, but now nest in agricultural areas.

By mid-March, most woodpeckers are in breeding mode and are drumming--their version of a love song.  It is challenging to identify the various species of drumming woodpeckers, but worth the effort, and it is easier to see them early in the season rather than after leaf-out.  The loud, resonating sound of the large pileated woodpecker can be heard from long distances but even the little downy can easily make itself heard.  

Several other resident birds also start singing in mid-March, already beginning to set up territories and attract mates, including such popular backyard and forest songbirds such as Carolina chickadees and tufted titmice. Black-capped chickadees mate a bit later, by mid-April if not earlier, but many males begin singing on bright winter days.

Ruffed grouse are drumming and the woodcock is ‘sky dancing’ by early April. Both species are of great interest to the conservation community and reports of the presence of these species are very much appreciated by ornithologists.
The “eBird” internet site has been a tremendously successful “citizen science” program and urges every watcher to report sightings in his or her area to its site.   It is constantly evolving and improving and offers breeding codes for observers to use.  The goal of eBird and sponsoring state organizations is to collect information about the timing and locations of bird nesting, and is the first continuous, year-round, worldwide, breeding bird atlas effort.

Although many people don’t think of crows when they think of bird courtship, crows have a courtship that entails in-flight performances and, as the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection describes it, “a dance involving bowing, strutting with spread wings and tail and a general puffing of the feather coat.” Due to the wariness of such intelligent birds, this behavior is seldom observed.

Many birds, especially in the New World warbler family, rely more on vibrant colors and elegant songs rather than physical displays.  Emerging from a much less colorful non-breeding plumage, male warblers court with sweet songs and contrasting flamboyant colors. The yellow warbler, is known to sing nearly 3,240 songs in one day of breeding season, according to BioKIDS!  The red-eyed vireo, can sing up to 20,000 songs a day (Cornell Lab of Ornithology)!  Amazing!

Bird courtship behavior, whether song, color change, physical performances or whatever, is primarily used to attract a receptive member of one’s species and to prove mating availability, strength and health.  This allows for the potential mate to ensure that she is selecting the best!  Once a potential connection has been established, these strange behaviors can also let other suitors know that a particular female is spoken for.  Spring will soon be here but in the meantime, watch for all the activities going on around us.

 February 25, 2020

It is well below zero this early morning as I write this, but as the world begins to wake up, so do all our birds.  First to appear are the slate colored juncos.  (I would guess this is because they are refugees from the northland and tend to ignore the weather.)  Then the woodpeckers descend upon our Charlie Brown spruce at the deck with its bits of suet remaining from yesterday’s offerings.  

We have seen three woodpecker species this winter at our feeders: several pairs of downies, at least one hairy, and several red-bellied; and two species of titmice--both tufted and chickadees.  There are also a number of bluejays, two pairs of cardinals, and several house sparrows. 

Perhaps you have seen the Birds and Blooms internet site that comments on myths concerning winter birds, but I felt it is information might answer some common questions, and so want to repeat some of them:   

Birds will freeze to death when temperatures drop far below zero.  This is not true, as birds are well equipped to survive the coldest of temperatures.  They can fluff up their feathers to trap body heat and slow their metabolism to conserve energy.  They also store up fat in their bodies and look for good places to roost, whether it’s a birdhouse, natural tree cavity, grass thicket, evergreen or shrub.

American robins always fly south for winter. 
If there is sufficient food on their breeding grounds, American robins, bluebirds, and a host of finches and owls remain in the area where they spent the summer. As these birds often eat insects, they will instead forage under tree bark for overwintering bugs rather than on the frozen ground, where you’re more likely to see them in spring and summer.

You should take birdhouses down in winter because birds don’t use them and other creatures will move in.  A birdhouse makes a great roosting house in winter. Eastern bluebirds will pile into houses to spend cold nights. One photographer once even snapped a picture of 13 male bluebirds in a single house!

If you stop feeding during winter, the birds that rely on the food from your feeders will starve.  Research has proven this one wrong.  Scientists have shown that chickadees, for example, will eat only 25% of their daily winter food from feeders, finding the other 75% in the wild.  In addition, with so many people feeding them nowadays, birds in your yard will simply fly to a nearby neighbor to get their food until you return home.

Birds’ feet will stick to metal bird feeders and suet cages.   Most suet cages have a laminated covering, so you don’t have to worry about birds’ feet sticking to it, as they have a protective scale-like covering on their feet, and special veins and arteries that keep their feet warm.

All hummingbirds migrate south for winter.  Though most hummingbird species in North America do migrate south for the winter, the Anna’s hummingbird remains on its West Coast breeding grounds.

Birds always migrate in flocks. Though many birds migrate in flocks--common nighthawks, American robins, swallows and European starlings, for example--other species migrate alone. The most amazing example of this is a juvenile hummingbird that has never migrated before, yet knows when and where to fly,  how far to fly and when to stop.

Migration means north in the spring and south in the winter. Some bird species migrate to higher elevations in the spring and down to lower elevations in the winter.

Peanut butter will get stuck in birds’ throats, and they will choke. Peanut butter is a very nourishing food for birds, especially in winter and the myth that it will stick in their throats simply isn’t true.

American goldfinches are bright yellow year-round.  As fall approaches, American goldfinches replace their bright-yellow plumages, replacing them with dull, brownish-green feathers making them hard to identify.

If you have warm water in a birdbath in winter, birds will bathe in it and freeze to death from wet feathers.   Birds will drink from a heated birdbath, but if the temperature is well below freezing, they will not bathe in it and get their feathers wet.

Attracting birds to your porch or yard is not only a pleasurable winter-time hobby but has evidently been beneficial to many as well as they have increased their numbers and ranges through the years. 


February 18, 2020

You would think any sensible raccoon would be snug in an underground den during the depth of winter but the truth is that raccoons don't sleep away the winter as do some of our other native animals.  Certainly when storms strike or temperatures plunge they may stick close to home through the worst of the inclement weather, but as soon as it improves they often venture out to forage for a meal. Then, too, January and February make up the bulk of the raccoon mating season across the northern part of the country and during warm spells the males travel about searching for hollows where females might have denned. When he locates one, he often moves in with her for a week or two before mating occurs, then leaves to search out others.

An ideal den site provides water nearby and offers protection from wind, rain, and snow. The most favored is usually not underground at all but a tree cranny. Even though the raccoon is surrounded by only a thin wall of wood, it is able to stay reasonably warm as its thick fur and layers of body fat provide excellent insulation.  The cubs are born in April and May, and they begin to forage for food with their mother at ten weeks. Young raccoons can live independently by autumn but sometimes remain with the mother until the following spring.

The mask of black fur that covers its eyes is the raccoon’s most familiar feature and is thought to help reduce glare and enhance the nocturnal animal’s night vision.   Otherwise, the species has grayish brown fur, most which is dense underfur to insulate the animal against the cold.  Five to eight light and dark rings alternate on its tail, and because its hind legs are longer than the front legs, a raccoon often appears hunched when it walks or runs.

The raccoon’s hand-like paw consists of five agile "fingers" that allow the animal to unhook latches, open drawers, pry open garbage cans, turn screws, and clutch birds and crayfish. It can open holes into old buildings, pick insects from rotting tree stumps, and peel the husks from fresh corn. Each finger has millions of receptors on its underside and a large part of the raccoon brain is dedicated to computing and evaluating the information gathered by them.  Matt Gompper, an assistant professor of mammalogy at the University of Missouri-Columbia writes, "If you look at the portion of a raccoon’s brain that is dedicated to the forelimbs, it's disproportionately large compared to other species".

One of the common myths about the raccoon is that the animal always washes its food before eating it. Some observers suggested that it might lack saliva glands and need to moisten its food but this has been proved false.  The story evidently arose from observations of the animal using its sensitive paws to feel for prey under shallow water, but scientists who study such things contend that there are no reliable records of a wild raccoon actually washing anything. It is true, however, that captive animals often dip their food into any available water. 

Originally raccoons lived in the tropics where they could be found foraging along riverbanks as they hunted frogs and crustaceans. Over time they moved north up the continent, successfully adapting to new territories and expanding their diet.  Barns have aided their northern migration, offering refuge from cold northern winters, and now raccoons have been found as far north as Alaska.  The first city sighting was in Cincinnati during the 1920s and populations do very well in urban areas, primarily due to the lack of hunting and trapping, a general lack of predators, and an abundance of available human food. The size of a raccoon’s home range varies depending on habitat and food supply. 

In Wisconsin, like most of the country, raccoons’ adaptability has allowed them to move from their wild habitat to an urban life style. University of Wisconsin Professor David Drake writes, "When you think about all the open garages, all the decks we have on our houses, or sheds in the backyard, there are plenty of places where these animals can live.  Also, there is the great variety of food available to them as they will eat pretty much anything they can get their paws on, be it meat or vegetation.  They'll raid your trash cans and compost pile, in addition to their natural diet of nuts, berries, insects, bird eggs and small mammals like mice and voles," Drake continued.

Despite its troublesome reputation, Wisconsin author Sterling North offered a different picture of a raccoon in his 1963 autobiography about his childhood experiences adopting a raccoon cub he named Rascal.  The little animal moved into the house and gave the motherless child the affection and care he craved, and it proved to be an almost unbelievably intelligent and adaptable companion for many years. 

Years past when our corncribs were filled and inviting, we were sometimes awakened in the middle of the night by the raucous squabbling of a coon family as it made its way to the feast.  Now that we no longer stow corn, we seldom see them, but their tracks and occasional encounters prove they are still neighbors.  It’s true we don’t welcome them into the garden, but enjoy seeing their bright eyes reflecting back our headlights or flashlights, and matching wits to keep them out of the birdseed.


February 18, 2020

You would think any sensible raccoon would be snug in an underground den during the depth of winter but the truth is that raccoons don't sleep away the winter as do some of our other native animals.  Certainly when storms strike or temperatures plunge they may stick close to home through the worst of the inclement weather, but as soon as it improves they often venture out to forage for a meal. Then, too, January and February make up the bulk of the raccoon mating season across the northern part of the country and during warm spells the males travel about searching for hollows where females might have denned. When he locates one, he often moves in with her for a week or two before mating occurs, then leaves to search out others.

An ideal den site provides water nearby and offers protection from wind, rain, and snow. The most favored is usually not underground at all but a tree cranny. Even though the raccoon is surrounded by only a thin wall of wood, it is able to stay reasonably warm as its thick fur and layers of body fat provide excellent insulation.  The cubs are born in April and May, and they begin to forage for food with their mother at ten weeks. Young raccoons can live independently by autumn but sometimes remain with the mother until the following spring.

The mask of black fur that covers its eyes is the raccoon’s most familiar feature and is thought to help reduce glare and enhance the nocturnal animal’s night vision.   Otherwise, the species has grayish brown fur, most which is dense underfur to insulate the animal against the cold.  Five to eight light and dark rings alternate on its tail, and because its hind legs are longer than the front legs, a raccoon often appears hunched when it walks or runs.

The raccoon’s hand-like paw consists of five agile "fingers" that allow the animal to unhook latches, open drawers, pry open garbage cans, turn screws, and clutch birds and crayfish. It can open holes into old buildings, pick insects from rotting tree stumps, and peel the husks from fresh corn. Each finger has millions of receptors on its underside and a large part of the raccoon brain is dedicated to computing and evaluating the information gathered by them.  Matt Gompper, an assistant professor of mammalogy at the University of Missouri-Columbia writes, "If you look at the portion of a raccoon’s brain that is dedicated to the forelimbs, it's disproportionately large compared to other species".

One of the common myths about the raccoon is that the animal always washes its food before eating it. Some observers suggested that it might lack saliva glands and need to moisten its food but this has been proved false.  The story evidently arose from observations of the animal using its sensitive paws to feel for prey under shallow water, but scientists who study such things contend that there are no reliable records of a wild raccoon actually washing anything. It is true, however, that captive animals often dip their food into any available water. 

Originally raccoons lived in the tropics where they could be found foraging along riverbanks as they hunted frogs and crustaceans. Over time they moved north up the continent, successfully adapting to new territories and expanding their diet.  Barns have aided their northern migration, offering refuge from cold northern winters, and now raccoons have been found as far north as Alaska.  The first city sighting was in Cincinnati during the 1920s and populations do very well in urban areas, primarily due to the lack of hunting and trapping, a general lack of predators, and an abundance of available human food. The size of a raccoon’s home range varies depending on habitat and food supply. 

In Wisconsin, like most of the country, raccoons’ adaptability has allowed them to move from their wild habitat to an urban life style. University of Wisconsin Professor David Drake writes, "When you think about all the open garages, all the decks we have on our houses, or sheds in the backyard, there are plenty of places where these animals can live.  Also, there is the great variety of food available to them as they will eat pretty much anything they can get their paws on, be it meat or vegetation.  They'll raid your trash cans and compost pile, in addition to their natural diet of nuts, berries, insects, bird eggs and small mammals like mice and voles," Drake continued.

Despite its troublesome reputation, Wisconsin author Sterling North offered a different picture of a raccoon in his 1963 autobiography about his childhood experiences adopting a raccoon cub he named Rascal.  The little animal moved into the house and gave the motherless child the affection and care he craved, and it proved to be an almost unbelievably intelligent and adaptable companion for many years. 

Years past when our corncribs were filled and inviting, we were sometimes awakened in the middle of the night by the raucous squabbling of a coon family as it made its way to the feast.  Now that we no longer stow corn, we seldom see them, but their tracks and occasional encounters prove they are still neighbors.  It’s true we don’t welcome them into the garden, but enjoy seeing their bright eyes reflecting back our headlights or flashlights, and matching wits to keep them out of the birdseed.

February 18, 2020

You would think any sensible raccoon would be snug in an underground den during the depth of winter but the truth is that raccoons don't sleep away the winter as do some of our other native animals.  Certainly when storms strike or temperatures plunge they may stick close to home through the worst of the inclement weather, but as soon as it improves they often venture out to forage for a meal. Then, too, January and February make up the bulk of the raccoon mating season across the northern part of the country and during warm spells the males travel about searching for hollows where females might have denned. When he locates one, he often moves in with her for a week or two before mating occurs, then leaves to search out others.

An ideal den site provides water nearby and offers protection from wind, rain, and snow. The most favored is usually not underground at all but a tree cranny. Even though the raccoon is surrounded by only a thin wall of wood, it is able to stay reasonably warm as its thick fur and layers of body fat provide excellent insulation.  The cubs are born in April and May, and they begin to forage for food with their mother at ten weeks. Young raccoons can live independently by autumn but sometimes remain with the mother until the following spring.

The mask of black fur that covers its eyes is the raccoon’s most familiar feature and is thought to help reduce glare and enhance the nocturnal animal’s night vision.   Otherwise, the species has grayish brown fur, most which is dense underfur to insulate the animal against the cold.  Five to eight light and dark rings alternate on its tail, and because its hind legs are longer than the front legs, a raccoon often appears hunched when it walks or runs.

The raccoon’s hand-like paw consists of five agile "fingers" that allow the animal to unhook latches, open drawers, pry open garbage cans, turn screws, and clutch birds and crayfish. It can open holes into old buildings, pick insects from rotting tree stumps, and peel the husks from fresh corn. Each finger has millions of receptors on its underside and a large part of the raccoon brain is dedicated to computing and evaluating the information gathered by them.  Matt Gompper, an assistant professor of mammalogy at the University of Missouri-Columbia writes, "If you look at the portion of a raccoon’s brain that is dedicated to the forelimbs, it's disproportionately large compared to other species".

One of the common myths about the raccoon is that the animal always washes its food before eating it. Some observers suggested that it might lack saliva glands and need to moisten its food but this has been proved false.  The story evidently arose from observations of the animal using its sensitive paws to feel for prey under shallow water, but scientists who study such things contend that there are no reliable records of a wild raccoon actually washing anything. It is true, however, that captive animals often dip their food into any available water. 

Originally raccoons lived in the tropics where they could be found foraging along riverbanks as they hunted frogs and crustaceans. Over time they moved north up the continent, successfully adapting to new territories and expanding their diet.  Barns have aided their northern migration, offering refuge from cold northern winters, and now raccoons have been found as far north as Alaska.  The first city sighting was in Cincinnati during the 1920s and populations do very well in urban areas, primarily due to the lack of hunting and trapping, a general lack of predators, and an abundance of available human food. The size of a raccoon’s home range varies depending on habitat and food supply. 

In Wisconsin, like most of the country, raccoons’ adaptability has allowed them to move from their wild habitat to an urban life style. University of Wisconsin Professor David Drake writes, "When you think about all the open garages, all the decks we have on our houses, or sheds in the backyard, there are plenty of places where these animals can live.  Also, there is the great variety of food available to them as they will eat pretty much anything they can get their paws on, be it meat or vegetation.  They'll raid your trash cans and compost pile, in addition to their natural diet of nuts, berries, insects, bird eggs and small mammals like mice and voles," Drake continued.

Despite its troublesome reputation, Wisconsin author Sterling North offered a different picture of a raccoon in his 1963 autobiography about his childhood experiences adopting a raccoon cub he named Rascal.  The little animal moved into the house and gave the motherless child the affection and care he craved, and it proved to be an almost unbelievably intelligent and adaptable companion for many years. 

Years past when our corncribs were filled and inviting, we were sometimes awakened in the middle of the night by the raucous squabbling of a coon family as it made its way to the feast.  Now that we no longer stow corn, we seldom see them, but their tracks and occasional encounters prove they are still neighbors.  It’s true we don’t welcome them into the garden, but enjoy seeing their bright eyes reflecting back our headlights or flashlights, and matching wits to keep them out of the birdseed.


 February 11, 2020

What makes a sparrow a sparrow?  This family is generally divided into two groups in this country.  American sparrows are mainly New World birds that are often similar in both appearance and habit to finches, have conical bills, are brown or gray in color, and many species have distinctive head patterns.  In addition to these native birds, two species of Old World sparrows now share the Americas -- the house sparrow and the Eurasian tree sparrow. 

The so-called English or house sparrow was introduced into Brooklyn, New York, in 1851 and by 1900 it had spread to the Rocky Mountains. Two more introductions in San Francisco and Salt Lake City had aided the bird’s spread throughout the West and house sparrows are now common across all of North America except Alaska and far northern Canada.  Its intentional or accidental introductions to many regions, including parts of Australasia, Africa, and the Americas, make it the most widely distributed wild bird.

The house sparrow is strongly associated with human habitation, but can live in both urban or rural settings.  It prefers to nest in manmade structures such as eaves or walls of buildings, street lights, and nest boxes instead of in natural nest sites such as holes in trees. Because of its numbers and association with human settlements, the house sparrow is often persecuted as an agricultural pest.  

A less familiar imported relative is the Eurasian tree sparrow.  It somewhat resembles our house sparrow but has a white face topped with a reddish-brown crown.  Immigrants to the Missouri area wanted some of their familiar European songbirds in their new homes and introduced a number of species including a dozen of these sparrows in 1870.  These became established but remained localized to northeastern Missouri, west-central Illinois, and southeastern Iowa until recent decades, but now it has spread into adjacent areas of the Midwest. 

Eurasian tree sparrows are most frequently associated with wooded urban parkland, farms, and rural woodlots,  and eat grains, seeds, fruits, flowers, and invertebrates. They forage on the ground in grasses and bushes and in the lower parts of trees, usually by picking and gleaning.  On occasion they fly after insects.   Around agricultural areas they will eat grain, sunflowers, and sorghum, as well as ripe berries, flowers, leaf buds, and new plant shoots.  In spring they forage on large quantities of insects as well as mites, ticks, spiders, particularly when feeding their young.

As plants produce seed in late summer and fall, Eurasian tree sparrows pick up fallen seeds on the ground or strip the seed heads while perched on a plant’s stalk. This species wanders singly, in small groups, or in large flocks, especially after the breeding season. When foraging in grasses as a large flock, the birds in the rear of the flock fly together to the front of the moving flock in a kind of leapfrogging pattern.

Eurasian tree sparrows form pair bonds in their first breeding season and remain monogamous once paired, provided both male and female survive.  (Even with these long-term pair bonds, DNA studies have revealed that 10–20% of offspring are from copulations outside the pair bond.)  Males select the nest site, which may be in a tree cavity, building, or bird nest box.  Both male and female build a cup nest of grass and straw lined with feathers and plant matter, which is usually stuffed inside a large bundle of intertwined grass and roots.  The overall nest may be up to 18 inches across and 17 inches tall and entered by a side entrance.  In spring, males sing from nest sites and display to females by fluffing the plumage, drooping and vibrating the wings and tail, bowing, and darting in and out of the nest cavity, to invite the female to inspect it.  Displaying males sing or give a strange rattling call.

Although this species often nests in small colonies with nests very close to one another, males vigorously defend the nest and defend the female against rivals.  Because males and females look very similar, scientists studying this species had to color-band individuals to learn that females likewise confront and attack other females during the courtship period, both spring and autumn.  Both males and females incubate the eggs, and care for the young.   After raising a brood, pairs stay together and commence an autumn courtship period very similar to the spring. Afterward, these birds gather into larger flocks for foraging and roosting. They frequently forage and roost miles away from their natal areas.

Because North America’s Eurasian tree sparrows are all descended from just 12 individuals, and because these have been isolated from the Eurasian population ever since, North American birds have developed differences in size, genetics, and even song from the ancestral population in Germany.  Outside of North America, the Eurasian tree sparrow shows considerable variation in plumage and size and have been classified into as many as 33 subspecies.  These birds do not migrate so look more carefully at the sparrows that visit your feeders these days and perhaps you may discover that you are hosting one or more of these interesting birds.


February 4, 2020

Many of us who have always lived in the east or midwestern parts of the United States think of bluejays as loud, bossy, and unwelcome visitors at their feeders.  We didn’t know that these birds aren’t common elsewhere in the country, and now are being welcomed in the northwestern states where they are still a novelty.  People traditionally didn’t like blue jays because they believed they were too aggressive, and bullied and chased smaller birds away.

Blue jays are corvids, in the same family as crows and ravens, both well known for their intelligence.  The blue jay uses a wide range of vocalizations, and is well known for imitating the calls of other species, particularly red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks.  Some have guessed that they do this to scare any competition away from food while others think they are trying to intimidate a potential threat, but no one actually knows.

Another oft-repeated claim about blue jays is that they are well known as nest robbers, gobbling up songbird eggs and hatchlings. The fact is that a number of studies conducted over the last hundred years have found that eggs and birds make up only about 1% of the blue jay’s diet, the remainder being insects, seeds and nuts. They actually stash lots of acorns and don’t return for many of them, making them significant planters of these trees in the eastern forest.

It turns out that blue jay interactions at the bird feeder are complex and fascinating, too.  Ken Rosenberg of the the Cornell Lab of Ornithology references a Florida study that found blue jays were not the rulers of the feeders: “Red-bellied woodpeckers, red-headed woodpeckers, Florida scrub-jays, common grackles, and gray squirrels strongly dominate blue jays at feeders, often preventing them from obtaining food.”

The only way to find the true picture of interactions at a bird feeder is by collecting data, and the citizen science program Project FeederWatch is doing just that.  A thousand participants have watched their feeders for tens of thousands of hours and have collect enough data to justify the opinion that bigger is usually more effective but not always better, for a bird. 

Post-doctoral Research Associate Eliot Miller at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is conducting on ongoing study on the subject.  After sifting through 7,685 observations, Eliot had some answers as to how feeder birds relate to one another.  He organized observations between 136 species at over 1500 FeederWatch sites and ranked each species based on how often one would displace other species and how often it itself would get displaced. The most dominant species turned out to be the wild turkey, but then there aren’t any other feeder-visiting species big enough to displace one, while the Eurasian tree sparrow, a introduced bird similar to our common house sparrow, is most often chased off.  

This general conclusion of size dominance is in question in many instances because Miller also found that doves, buntings, and grosbeaks are less dominant than we would expect based on their body mass, whereas crows, jays, woodpeckers, and blackbirds are dominant more often than we might think.  At this point, he can only say that for some unknown reason doves are peaceful, and jays are feisty.  Other strange findings were that European starlings are dominant to red-headed woodpeckers, red-headed woodpeckers are dominant to red-bellied woodpeckers, and red-bellied woodpeckers are dominant to European starlings. Go figure!

Miller also offers another aside about blue jays for which there is as yet no explanation: most blue jays don’t migrate, but watchers in the Great Lakes region and along the Atlantic Coast report large flocks of blue jays migrating each fall.  But then too, even among the migratory jays, not all make the journey every year.  One thing we do know.   Despite all the recent reports that there have been massive declines in North American bird populations recently, the numbers of jays  have increased 28 percent between 1966 and 2015.  

Grassland-dwelling birds such as sparrows and meadowlarks have been hit especially hard by this decline. According to one Cornell study, more than 700 million birds across 31 species that make their homes in fields and farmlands have vanished since 1970.  It is thought this is the result of changing agricultural practices such as the increased use of pesticides that kill insects that the birds rely upon for food, and the continuing conversion of the grass and pastureland to cropland.  Data from weather radar stations which track migratory birds each year has reported similar declines, particularly along the U.S. east coast, an important migratory route for warblers, thrushes, spoonbills and many other North America birds that travel to and from the Caribbean or Central or South America.

As nature photographer Andrew Thompson writes, “If they were not so common, blue jays – with their unique color and markings – would almost certainly be considered among the most beautifully adorned birds.”  So, even if blue jays are the most common and conspicuous birds at your feeder, take another look.  Seen with fresh eyes, you might gain a new appreciation for this raucous bird.  And your observations of their fascinating behavior can help us better understand what’s happening at our feeders, and assist in bird conservation across the continent.  if you enjoy observing backyard birds, join Feeder Watch and your observations may help ornithologists better understand bird behavior.


January 28, 2020

Snow may curtail your outdoor activities but it can also help you identify some of the plants and animals that you did not realize were common neighbors.  In the plant families, most are so-called weeds (the definition of a weed is a plant growing where it is not wanted).  There are many with unrecognized bloom stalks sticking out of the snow now that do not branch, such as common plantain, some that have minimal branching at their tops such as goldenrod and tansy, those that branch on opposite sides of the stem such as St. Johnswort and teasel, and others with sparse branching such as milkweed and asters, but you get the idea.  An identification book is a definite tool for this effort.

Animal tracks in deep snow can become distorted and expand dramatically as snow melts.  While trackers usually depend upon the number and shape of the toes or the presence of claws to make identifications, in snow it is often necessary to look for other clues. The manner of walking, stepping, or running is one of the best tools to ID such tracks and some species are easily recognized from a distance simply by the patterns made by their tracks.

Birds often can walk on top of deep snow, leaving clear marks.  If the tracks are arranged in pairs, the bird was hopping and was probably a goldfinch, nuthatch, chickadee, titmouse or cardinal.  If the tracks in each pair look staggered, it is called skipping and is common in sparrows and other birds that forage on the ground.  Single footprints in a line are made by a walker such as a grouse, gull, duck, mourning dove, or starling.

Most perching birds such as sparrows, cardinals, jays, and finches have three toes in the front and one in the back, and the smaller ones usually have long toes to grip slender twigs. Doves and pigeons usually have wider footprints while herons and egrets need broad feet and long toes to stand in muck.  Eagles and hawks have four-toed tracks with three toes in front, and their feet are bulkier to help them capture prey.

Grouse, pheasants, turkeys, and ptarmigans along with some shorebirds and waders have hind toes that are very small and might not touch the ground to leave a mark.   Ducks, swans, geese, and gulls have webbing marks between their front toe prints and owls and woodpeckers have two front toes and two in the back to allow them to more stability as they grip tree bark.   Despite the variety of bird tracks, we are most often likely to see tracks of mammals and it helps to learn the most common species you’re likely to encounter.  In Wisconsin these are rabbits, squirrels, domestic dogs and cats, and in rural areas, deer. 

Rabbit tracks probably make up the most commonly seen trails after a snow.  Rabbits have five small fur-covered toes on both the hind and front feet, but so do many other animals, so look for repeating track patterns. Each group of four tracks tends to form a tall, thin rectangle.  Hoppers such as rabbits move by placing their rear feet slightly ahead of their front feet and pushing off so their front feet land first and their back feet land in front. This pattern of leapfrogging is also found in rodents like mice, red squirrels, and chipmunks.

Squirrels also have five toes on both the hind and front feet but they have long fingers compared to the rabbits and their bound patterns tend to be much more blocky.   Squirrels keep their feet next to each other as they hop, unlike rabbits who stagger their feet. Follow their tracks and they will eventually lead to a tree or other structure for them to climb.

House cats are everywhere, sometimes surprisingly far from people. They have four toes on both their front and hind feet and in snow tend to walk with their hind feet landing in the front tracks.  They retract their claws when they're walking presumably to keep them sharp for killing, so claw marks usually will not be visible in cat tracks. The rear pads of cats’ paws are not triangle-shaped, as are canine paws, but instead have three round lobes.   In the wilderness, dog tracks are sometimes misidentified as mountain lions. A dog has four toes on each foot, claws that usually show, and a triangular shaped heel pad. Dog heel pads tend to be fairly small (about the size of three of their toes) while cat heel pads tend to be larger (about the size of four toes).

Deer tracks are usually easy to identify; however, their hind feet tend to step on top of their front tracks leaving distorted and confusing marks.  Look for heart-shaped deep holes in a line.  One problem is that there are often several deer, each following in the tracks of the one ahead of it and almost completely obliterating them.

Other common inhabitants that may have visited your yard especially if you live in a rural area are mice, coyotes, foxes, raccoons, opossums, an occasional weasel, bobcat or or even a porcupine.  The corn was not picked in a small area in the field next to our house this year because of muddy ground during the harvest period, and it is obviously very popular with the tracks of various birds and animals converging on it.  It gives us a good area to explore and see who has been living in our woods and fields unnoticed...

January 21, 2020

Everyone recognizes an owl when it hoots, but because of its nocturnal and elusive habits, we seldom catch a glimpse of one.  We have two families of owls that can be found in Wisconsin, the barn owls with only single species because of its unusually large head and characteristic heart-shaped face, and the so-called typical owls that contain another eleven species.  Some of these are small while others are large but all have large forward-facing eyes and ears, hawk-like beaks, and conspicuous circles of feathers around each eye called facial disks.

Most common are two large and one small species--the great-horned, the barred and the screech owls,  Another recognizable but less well-known is the medium-sized long-eared owl, so called because of the long blackish feather tufts atop its head that look like ears.  Long-eared owls are the slimmest of all North American owls and when one is perched, it stretches up its body and flattens its feathers to make itself look like a tree limb, presumably to help it hide from danger.

The long-eared owl has streaked gray plumage, pale eyebrow patches on its face and below the bill, and prominent golden yellow eyes. The female stands about 15 inches tall with a 39” wingspan, while the male is slightly smaller.  The main call of the male is a low "hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo,", repeated 10 to 200 times, with one note every 2 to 3 seconds. The female responds with a raspy buzz call, and often duets with the male.  They fly moth-like, often hovering and fluttering while looking for mice, their usual prey.  Long-eared owls have long, rounded wings and long tails.  Their wings are so long that they cross each other in the back when the bird is perched and may stretch to three feet or more when spread.  

Long-eared owls are found throughout the northern hemisphere and their range extends throughout temperate North America, through Europe and the former Soviet Union as far east as Japan.  They inhabit forests and shrub lands that are near to open areas, such as grasslands and are common in tree belts along streams in dry habitats. They can also be found in small tree groves, thickets surrounded by wetlands, grasslands, marshes and farmlands.  Some years ago neighbors down the road discovered a hatchling and called us, concerned that one of their cats might find it, and I referred them to a local rehabilitator who adopted and later released it in the same area it was found when it was old enough to survive.

Long-eared owls have clutch sizes up to 8 eggs, laid from one to five days apart. The female begins incubation when the first egg is laid, so that the eggs hatch over a period of several weeks.  Older nestlings begin to climb out of the nest onto nearby branches at about 3 weeks of age as the nest becomes crowded. They leave the nest by walking, and the male brings food for the family until the chicks become independent. They cannot fly until about two months old, and sometimes fall or are blown to the ground, as evidently happened in the above instance.  They become independent at about three months and the average lifespan for a wild bird is about 11 years.

Perhaps you have never encountered a long-eared owl, but you probably have seen a great-horned or barred owl along the road at some time, or at least heard one’s eerie hoots. Owls have a very wide range of vocalizations, ranging from hoots to whistles, screeches, screams, purrs, snorts, and hisses. They also make clicking noises with their tongues, and clap their wings. Most calling occurs from dusk to about midnight and then again just before dawn.

Like those of other birds, owl calls vary by their species. The Northern saw-whet owl has a short, monotonous one-note whistle; the Eastern screech owl’s call is a cross between a soft whistle and a whinny; the great horned owl’s call is the classic “hoot—hoot-hoot” while the call of the barred owl is a series of hoots ending in a dying caterwaul. All of these sounds come from much the same apparatus – in fact, the same organ possessed by all birds – a syrinx. This is the avian version of the human voice box and is located at the point just where the windpipe divides.

An interesting bit of research was reported in the American Naturalist about ten years ago, concerning owl hooting. French scientists Christian Bavoux and Guy Burneleau had been studying owl communication for twenty years and one of their conclusions was that the pitch of a male’s vocalization reflects its body weight. Males were shown to be much more likely to respond to and attack other owls with higher pitched voices (presumably because they felt more confident in being able to prevail over a smaller rival), and resident birds were observed to lower their own responses to heavier males, probably attempting to sound more imposing than was actually the case. Secondly, females were much more likely to choose a male with a lower pitched voice (presumably because he would probably be a healthier and stronger mate).

As you drive along our rural roadways these snowy nights, be on the lookout for any owls that might be feeding, as vehicle collisions are a major cause of death. Then stop and listen for their calls, as some are already staking out territories and advertising for mates.   December through February is the normal time for courting and territory establishment for  several of our owls and you may be surprised and pleased at how many are sounding off.  


January 13, 2020

Animals such as raccoons, skunks, and opossums often join the squirrels and bunnies as they forage for food these days. You may find one visiting your bird feeders, you may see its tracks in the snow, or sadly, you may see a body along the road where one has suffered a collision with a vehicle. Why do they emerge from snug dens where they were safe and warm? The answer is that in contrast to those that actually hibernate, these creatures cannot survive a northern winter without replenishing their inner stocks and must take advantage of any period of milder weather to hunt. 

Raccoons are known to winter together in communal "piles" of up to 23 individuals in a single den. They use hollow trees, empty buildings, woodpiles, abandoned badger and coyote dens and sometimes venture into attics—to the dismay of the homeowner. With the cooler temperatures of fall, they fed intensively to build fat reserves for winter on energy-rich foods including nuts and grain such as corn and high protein foods, until some third of their body weight was stored fat. They can den for a month or more during severe weather, living off these stores, but then must arouse and emerge any time the temperatures become more hospitable.

Several skunks, usually a single male and several females, often share a winter den, plugging the entrance hole with nesting material. They huddle together to share body warmth and live on stored body fat, while solitary skunks usually must undergo daily torpor to conserve energy to survive. Skunks come out during warmer periods to feed, raiding garbage cans, hunting mice, and eating virtually anything they can find. They will also take the opportunity to breed.

As recently as the early 1800’s, the opossum was not found in the upper Midwest and was mostly thought of as a southern species. Its territory has kept expanding, however, and today it can be found into northern Minnesota and Wisconsin.  Opossums are not well adapted to life in northern latitudes as they have no fur to cover their tails or their ears leaving these two areas prone to frostbite, and since they don’t hibernate, the search for food and water during the cold winter months often leads this animal outdoors during poor conditions, causing frozen extremities.

The opossum is North America's only marsupial; that is, the female carries her newborns around in a belly pouch.  These animals have been dated back to the time of the dinosaur, and the species has survived virtually unchanged for over 60 million years. The opossum will eat almost anything, including food scraps in garbage, insects, rodents, bird eggs, fruit, and acorns. In the fall, opossums devote much time to feeding, adding a layer of winter fat, but they do not grow winter fur and their normal coat provides poor insulation. In February and March, opossums also become active in search of mates.

All of these animals increase their weight in the fall by accumulating fat, but in contrast to us humans, much of their fat is brown. Everyone is familiar with white fat tissue which provides insulation and, by storing triglycerides, serves as an energy depot. Triglycerides play an important role in metabolism as they contain more than twice as much energy potential as carbohydrates and proteins. Still, despite its value, most of us accumulate far too much white fat and spend much energy and money trying to avoid or eliminate it from our bodies.

Brown fat, on the other hand, is quite different and its primary purpose is to regulate body temperature. Brown fat tissue contains a much higher number of fuel cells called mitochondria (which contain iron and make them dark red to tan), and they are designed to burn high quantities of sugar--the body's fuel--and release that energy as heat. Brown fat also contains more capillaries than white fat, since it has a greater need for oxygen than most tissues.

Raccoons, skunks and opossums are well supplied with brown fat, and it takes the form of two large masses on the back between the shoulder blades with additional amounts around the aorta and the kidney. This brown fat generates heat that is sufficient to keeps the adjacent internal organs if not actually warm, at least able to function. Research has found that the heat-producing breakdown of the brown fat is so effective, that a well-fed tiny shrew can actually gain weight during winter.  It has also been shown that its brown fat reaches its maximum heat-generating capabilities in mid-January, when the outside temperatures are coldest.
It has long been known that human infants possessed brown fat to help them stay warm but now multiple studies in The New England Journal of Medicine tell us that brown fat is also present in adults. They suggest that it may prove to be of help in a potential treatment for obesity, and point out that cold temperatures, particularly during short winter days enhance its fat burning action. Until a magic pill for weight loss is developed, therefore, perhaps we, too, should spend more time outdoors this winter.


 January 6, 2020

"Most people think feeding the birds helps them. But many ornithologists and wildlife biologists say it does very little good--and even does some harm."   So began an article by James Sterba some years ago in the Wall Street Journal that really caught my attention.   He went on to write: "Attracting wild birds to feeders spreads disease, aids predators such as house cats, and lures the birds close to houses and roads where tens of millions of them fly into windows and cars". "With their handouts of food, (people who put out feeders) helped create huge populations of so-called welfare wildlife".

What Sterba asserted had some truth to it but many of his concerns were overstated and these problems could be minimized with some thought and care. He also ignored the fact that people who feed birds have played a vital role in the recovery of a number of species of songbirds.   According to statements by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, populations of black-capped chickadees and ruby-throated hummingbirds have risen through the years.  Bluebirds have made an impressive comeback in numbers and range, and cardinals and other more southerly species are known to have expanded their territories into more northerly climes.  Also, Daphne Solecki in the BC Naturalist pointed out that as land disappears under houses, food sources for birds disappear.  Providing shelter, safe resting areas, water and dependable food supplies during migration and in winter helps to ensure a future for many birds.

There are a number of considerations for those of us who choose to feed, however, and the first concerns our yards, as birds are more attracted to food near good cover than to that located on an open lawn. Substantial plants ranging from conifers to nectar-, nut-, berry-, and acorn-producers plus a healthy mix of vegetation can provide a natural food supply all year.  Such plants also afford shelter for birds that may need to escape from predators, and provide resting spots for socializing.  It is also important to be sure that any feeding areas can be readily seen from the house.

Feeding wild birds carries much responsibility to address James Sturba's warnings.  A comprehensive report on the subject was written by Dr. Aelred Geis, the Director of Research for Wild Bird Centers of America, and clearly demonstrates the superiority of oil-type sunflower over black stripe sunflower seeds and explains problems with many of the other seeds sold as bird food. He also feels that the use of mixes is inefficient and impractical because it is difficult to find one that fits all birds and much is wasted. Different species have definite preferences in feed and how it is presented; for example, birds that prefer small, elevated feeders will remove the few appealing seeds from the mix and scatter the rest. 
Dr. Geis suggests that the most universally attractive method is to place the food on the ground or on a large platform which in effect simulates ground feeding.  He recommends scattering white proso millet in open areas close to dense cover as this draws many species. He also advocates spreading oil-type sunflower seeds, but only in quantities that will be eaten before nightfall to avoid attracting rodents. This method of feeding requires considerable maintenance, particularly during snowy weather, so many people find it more convenient to offer sunflower and niger seed in hanging feeders.
Cat predation can be minimized by keeping the immediate area around ground feeders open, and most squirrels can be discouraged by hanging feeders from long wires or using efficient guards. Visiting hawks are also sometimes considered pests, but I feel they must be accepted as a natural part of the feeding experience. If birds tend to strike your windows, you can hang predator bird silhouettes inside or closely spaced streamers outside, or if all else fails, install a frame covered with garden netting a foot away from the window. This will usually solve the problem.
Finally, keep records of what birds come. It's fun, and you can even take part in national research by contributing to Project Feeder Watch, an internet project sponsored by Cornell Lab of Ornithology in partnership with the National Audubon Society.  Project FeederWatch turns your love of feeding birds into scientific discoveries.  It is a November to April survey of birds that visit feeders at backyards, nature centers, community areas, and other locales in North America. Participants periodically count the birds they see at their feeders and report their counts. Your bird counts help you keep track of what is happening in your own backyard and help scientists track long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance.

Anyone interested in birds can participate. FeederWatch is conducted by people of all skill levels and backgrounds, including children, families, individuals, classrooms, retired persons, youth groups, nature centers, and bird clubs. You can count birds as often as every week, or as infrequently as you like: the schedule is completely flexible. All you need is a bird feeder, bird bath, or plantings that attract birds, and a computer to keep in touch with their site.


December 17, 2019

Our cardinals could vie with the most professional models for honors in posing for a photographer. We have several that visit our feeders regularly, and each bird seems to make a habit of choosing a perch where it can best survey the area. It then will sit there for many minutes, turning its crested head this way and that, as if to find the best pose.

If you want to get the best photograph of one of these birds, try thinking about color like a painter with a canvas, making use of the surrounding area.  Don’t let twigs or branches compete with the bird, even if out of focus. Some photographers will even hang a large cloth behind the feeder that is a specific color or out-of-focus pattern.
Determine if there’s a natural perch the bird prefers and place a feeder nearby.  Or you may need to create a perch. Find an appealing branch, preferably one with interesting bark and good twig arrangement to make a standard bird portrait more artistic.  You can also take a walk through nearby woods, and find one covered with moss or lichen. With a clamp, attach the branch to vegetation already near the feeder or on a stake in the ground.  Put the perch on a slant—straight across is less visually interesting.

A bird’s color results from either the pigments in its feathers or their structure. Buffs, red-browns, dark browns and blacks are caused by melanins, pigments synthesized by the bird and laid down in granules. Yellows, oranges, and reds come from carotenoid or lipochrome pigments that mostly come from the bird’s food and are deposited in the skin and feathers. Most greens come from addition of yellow pigment to the structural blue color. The blues are much more difficult to understand, for the color that is perceived by our eyes is caused by light waves that have passed through a thin porous layer of keratin overlying melanin pigment.

A pigment is a chemical compound whose molecules vibrate at one particular frequency and consequently absorb incoming light rays of a matching frequency. Should these be short and rapid in the molecule, the shorter (violet and blue) visible light waves will be absorbed, causing the compound to appear yellow or orange. Red-appearing substances, having slightly longer resonant values, absorb light from the blue and green spectrum, and black compounds absorb all the wavelengths of visible light. It is interesting that researchers studying cardinals have discovered that brighter red males hold territories with denser vegetation, feed at higher rates, and have greater reproductive success than duller males.
Most birds are on the move constantly. Chickadees, titmice and juncos seldom even pause for breath and one must snap their pictures quickly, hoping that there will be a bird in the frame when it is viewed later on the computer. Blue jays seem to pause only when their mouths are full and even then their heads bob up and down as they reach for more seeds. The cardinal, on the other hand, is content to pose endlessly, to the point where we have many similar pictures.

Other photographers obviously take advantage of this trait, as the red birds are prominently pictured in many of the Christmas cards we received. Of course, another reason is that their brilliant color is appropriate to the holiday season, particularly again a snowy background. Looking through the stack of cards that have been arriving this week, I couldn’t help noticing that our native wildlife is often used, either as the main theme or as decorative accents.

Birds were the most common. and of the identifiable ones. the cardinal and chickadee were by far the most popular. Although both live here year around, they are usually associated with winter because they are more readily seen as they come to feeders. We also received cards with goldfinches, red bellied and downy woodpeckers, a blue jay, two swallows, a red-breasted and white-breasted nuthatch, an owl, and even a penguin.

Among the mammals pictured, the rabbit, squirrel, and mouse were the most common, and these too are animals most people see in their yards during the winter. There were also deer (often fawns), raccoons, chipmunks, three bears, a fox and two beavers. There were even several mice, and one might think they would not be popular subjects, considering the zeal with which most people work to eliminate them from their premises. There is something endearing about all of these creatures, even those usually considered nuisances, as they are often pictured as cuddly babies.

So what is it that causes us to use these images on holiday greetings that we send to friends and family? Birds and animals seem to have little to do with the celebration of Christmas; neither do they seem to have much connection to human relationships or friendship or love. To the contrary, they should remind us of a world that is fundamentally one long battle of survival for its inhabitants. But perhaps that is what brings us again and again out and away from our everyday lives that are so swamped with petty worries and trivial irritations, to walk the trails and breathe the clean cold air and hear the night sounds. What matters in the wild are the essentials—food, shelter, producing and caring for the young; still, a baby, even a mouse or sparrow, is the future of the species and embodies hope and promise.

December 10, 2019

There was encouraging news this summer from the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo.  Any of you who have followed the ups and downs they have suffered in their efforts to save the North American Whooping Crane from extinction know that the various methods that have been tried have had limited success. 

The Whooping Crane is the tallest bird in North America with snowy white plumage, crimson cap, bugling call, and graceful courtship dance.  Weighing fifteen pounds, the Whooping Crane has a wingspan of more than seven feet and is as tall as many humans, reaching a height of around five feet.  Its walking is as spectacular as its flight with leaping, kicking, head-pumping, and wing-sweeping.

 Also measuring five feet in length is its trachea, which coils into its sternum and allows the bird to give a loud call that carries long distances over the marsh. The Whooping Crane probably gets its name from either its single-note guard call or its courtship duet.  The oldest Whooping Crane on record, banded in the Northwest Territories in 1977, was at least twenty-eight years, four months old, when it was found in Saskatchewan in 2005.

In the mid 1800s, the Whooping Crane population in North America was estimated at approximately fourteen hundred, but it suffered major declines due to habitat loss and over-hunting.  By 1941 there were thought to be only twenty-one Whooping Cranes left: fifteen were migrants between Canada and Texas while the rest lived year-round in Louisiana. The Louisiana population went extinct, and today’s population are all descended from that small flock that was nesting in Texas.  Now, through captive breeding, wetland management, and an innovative program that teaches young cranes how to migrate, numbers have risen to about six hundred today (about four hundred forty in the wild and one hundred sixty in captivity).

Three reintroduced populations existed with the help of captive breeding programs but only one of these was migratory--the naturally occurring flock that nested in Canada and wintered in Texas.  In 2001, with ultralight aircraft leading the way, a new wild flock was introduced to the eastern U.S with a goal of having 25 breeding pairs from 125 birds by 2020. The plan was to teach young cranes to migrate between Wisconsin breeding grounds and Florida wintering grounds but these birds have had limited success in nesting, despite an investment of some twenty million dollars.  In 2016, officials of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that that season's ultralight-guided flights to the birds' winter home would be the last. 

Nearly 250 Whooping Cranes have been released in Wisconsin since 2001, and Fish and Wildlife officials say about 93 are currently still living.  The big problem is only ten chicks have survived to fledge, and experts in crane biology have concluded that the use of aircraft and other human interaction are also having a negative impact.  Since 2005, the chicks that fledged and were born in the wild came from only five pairs of adults.

The good news is that earlier this spring, a whooping crane chick named Balerion was hatched at Crane City near Baraboo and was raised by a seasoned pair of adult Whooping Cranes at that captive breeding facility.  She spent the summer with them – learning how to be a Whooping Crane -- and when Balerion was old enough to fly, she was released at White River Marsh in Wisconsin near a pair of adult Whooping Cranes.  The wild pair adopted her and now they are always together.  The youngster is learning to fly and seems to be getting ready for migration and the hope is that the pair will take her south with them. 

The other good news from the Crane Foundation is that they are in the process of a $10.4 million site renovation opening  on May 2, 2020! There will be over ten acres of new exhibits and experiences for all ages.  They report that transformation is truly extraordinary, with new exhibits that are large, inviting spaces with ponds for their wetland-dependent cranes. Six large murals are steadily emerging, featuring scenes from regions that cranes call home.

Quoting their announcement, “Since the dawn of time, cranes have touched the human spirit, and this connection is captured at our new Cranes and Culture plaza. Visitors will enjoy an oasis highlighting the spiritual and artistic expressions of the many cultures that co-exist with cranes.   The natural materials used to construct our new George Archibald Welcome Center evoke a sense of place and history.  Wood ceiling and beams from Wisconsin forests and stone walls are harmonious with the surroundings.  And soon, we will fill our new spaces with engaging and interactive exhibits about our global work. We can’t wait for you to take flight with us!”


December 2, 2019

The most hazardous period in the life of a wild animal, providing it survives infancy, is when the time comes that it must leave its mother and strike out on its own.  Mice and other small species must do this only weeks after birth, while woodchucks, skunks, and foxes leave home during their first autumn.  For larger animals, the young often remain with a parent through the first winter and sometimes don’t leave until they become sexually mature. Whenever it comes, dispersal is almost always vital to the survival of the species because too many animals in one place can lead to starvation, disease, and struggles for dominance.

Ideally, about the same number of new individuals in a species become adults each year as are needed to replace older members who have died. Any excess is often removed by accidents with motor vehicles, hunters or it becomes food for other animals.  Some may try to move into newly formed territories, such as grassland that grows trees, or forest that is converted into grassland, or perhaps another species or crop has been introduced that provides food, or the animals themselves are able to adapt to new conditions.  

There has been more concern recently that wolves, coyotes, bears and bobcats have expanded their numbers and begun preying upon farm animals and pets. Of course, one simple reason for this is that we have built more and more homes in their territories and, always opportunists, they welcome any source of available food.  Before Wisconsin was settled in the 1830s, there was an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 wolves in the state, and as more people moved in with domestic animals, the predators found the livestock to be easy meals. The state eventually placed bounties on the them and their population was depleted by hunters, until by 1999 it was thought that only about 200 wolves remained in the state. 

More recently, the remaining wolves received federal protection with the Endangered Species Act, were later classified as "threatened" in 1999 and as "protected" in 2004, allowing their numbers to rise.   New residents apparently dispersed from Minnesota and the wolf packs again operated in Juneau, Adams, and Monroe Counties.   Now they are even becoming more common in our area each year and the Wisconsin DNR monitors them by radio-collaring and tracking them, surveying for winter tracks, and conducting summer howling surveys.  A state wolf management plan was approved in October of 1999 setting a what was thought to be a management goal of 350 wolves (outside of Indian Reservations).

This goal has been a point of contention between farmers who want to protect their livestock, and environmental groups and experts who want to preserve the wolf population.   Although wolf numbers may fluctuate from year to year it is estimated that now over 550 wolves live in the state, far more than the target numbers that were determined to be tolerable. While the rebounding wolf population is an ecological success story, it undoubtedly is creating problems for farmers who lose livestock and pet owners who suffer losses. There have been an average of 67 wolf attacks in Wisconsin in each of the past six years and although farmers can use many methods to deter wolves and other predators such as electric fencing and bright lights, the animals often find a way around such barriers. 

Then there are the coyotes.  Prior to European settlement, southern portions of Wisconsin made up the eastern edge of coyote distribution in North America, but today they are found throughout all of Wisconsin as well as most of North and Central America.  As the larger predators such as wolves and cougars were eliminated, the coyotes were able to move in and expand their numbers.   They can now be found living in almost any habitat type including highly populated cities such as Chicago and New York.

Coyotes are not typically aggressive toward humans except in early spring when they mate, and then only around the areas where they rear their young.  Dens are usually found in ground burrows, tree stumps and rock outcroppings,  but the animals will also adopt even such places as underneath decks and patios.  These are generally abandoned in early summer, and starting in September and through January, young coyotes begin dispersing in search of  new territories, and may wander travel 100 or more miles in search of a new territory with sufficient prey and shelter.  We had one memorable instance when our old collie stood in the hay field near the house surrounded by three young coyotes, all four animals with interested expressions on their faces and wagging tails. 

Wisconsin is also home to thriving black bear and bobcat populations.  There are an estimated 28,000 bears and although their primary range is located in the far northern third of the state, the animals are becoming more common in the lower two-thirds as well.   At this point their numbers are being successfully controlled with a strict quota/permit system.   Currently, bobcats are the only known breeding wildcats in the state, with a autumn population of about 3000.   A bobcat is about twice the size of a large house cat and usually weighs 20 to 30 pounds.  It has a tan to grayish-brown coat streaked with black and dark bars on the forelegs and tail, yellow eyes, pointed ears with short black tufts and a stubby 6-inch tail that has a "bobbed" appearance.

We really need a population of wolves, coyotes, bears and wild cats in Wisconsin for a healthy ecosystem, and it is hoped that owners of domestic animals will accept that predators will happily consider their pets and livestock as prey and offer adequate protection.  Particularly, small and young domestic animals must be confined with adequate fencing or kept in safe quarters, and no other attractants should be left where it might attract hungry unwelcome visitors. 


November 26, 2019

A few years ago, one of the major newspapers featured a Thanksgiving feast featuring young pigeons that it touted as a “going native” meal.  It seemed rather strange that the writer ignored the fact that wild turkeys certainly were native and roamed the New England woods when Europeans arrived, but perhaps she did so because these choice birds had been killed off in most areas of the East by the beginnings of the 20th century and were only recently being reintroduced.  Still, her choice of young pigeons (squabs) for the main course seemed rather unusual.

There is really only one native pigeon in most of the country that is present in any numbers – the mourning dove. ('pigeon' is from French, pijon, and 'dove' is English, but both names are always used somewhat interchangeably). The mourning dove is plump-bodied and long-tailed, with a head that looks particularly small in comparison to the body. Its call is a distinctive, plaintive cooOOoo-woo-woo-woooo, uttered by males to attract a mate, and is sometimes mistaken for the call of an owl. It is abundant and widespread and is also the leading game bird across the country, with more than 20 million birds shot each year. It weighs only an average of 4.5 ounces live and even less when dressed, however, so it would require a number of birds for a Thanksgiving meal.

The mourning dove is considered to be closely related to the passenger pigeon, another native species that disappeared in the early 1900s. (For this reason, the possibility of using mourning doves for cloning the extinct bird has been discussed.) Some estimate that there were 3 to 5 billion passenger pigeons in the United States when Europeans arrived, although others have argued that their numbers only exploded after European diseases caused Native American populations to crash which reduced predation and competition for food. The passenger pigeons were hunted widely for meat, sport, and by farmers who were protecting their crops, and the last one died at the Cincinnati Zoological Garden in 1914.

It is more likely that the author was thinking of using the young of domestic pigeons for her meal, as these birds are larger and more easily obtained for the average cook. These are the descendants of the rock dove -- originally found across Britain, Europe, Central Asia, India, and up into China and Mongolia. They were domesticated thousands of year ago as a meat bird and eventually carried to the New World where escapees quickly established spreading populations. Now their descendants can be found in almost every farmyard and many city parks, and domesticated varieties are raised for sport and meat. The adult pigeon is about 14 in. long and can weigh as much as 13 oz., with iridescence along its neck and wing feathers, and a conspicuous off-white waxy covering at the base of the upper beak.

Male pigeons fluff their glossy neck feathers, reflecting shimmering green, bronze, and purple, when courting a female. They spread their tail feathers and parade in circles while cooing loudly. It is thought that this courtship behavior may also serve to strengthen the lifelong bonds of an already-mated pair, as most pigeons form strong pair bonds and sometimes may remain together throughout the winter.

Doves and pigeons build flimsy nests from sticks and other debris, and prefer to place them in hard-to-reach places, such as covered crevices along building ledges or in barns or under bridges. The female lays one or two eggs, and both parents care for the young, rarely leaving the nest unattended. When flushed from the nest, an incubating parent may perform a broken-wing display, fluttering on the ground as if injured. Unlike most other birds, members of the pigeon family produce "crop milk", a high-fat, high-protein substance that is secreted by a sloughing of fluid-filled cells from the lining of the crop. Both sexes produce this highly nutritious substance to feed to the young.

The baby pigeons grow very fast. They walk well at about 18 days of age and start exercising their wings about a week later. The birds are often bigger than their parents by the time they start to fly because they have been well fed and haven't done much exercising. Pigeons, especially homing or carrier breeds, are well known for their ability to find their way home from long distances but wild rock doves are sedentary and rarely leave their local areas.

Seeds and fruit form the major component of the diet of most of the family but they also feed on insects, grain, and even garbage. They generally eat enough to fill their crops and then fly away to digest while resting, often swallowing grit or sand to help break down the hard portions. Pigeons are also unique in having the ability to suck up water, using their beaks like straws, in contrast to most other birds that have to take small sips and tip their heads backwards to swallow.

The mourning dove has been designated as the Wisconsin symbol of peace, but that doesn’t save it from being hunted and eaten. Knowing that, and interesting as we may find the pigeon family, it will always be a domestic turkey that graces our Thanksgiving table. I am content to leave the pigeons out in the barn or sitting on the telephone wire along the road.


November 18, 2019

November is prime time to search for evidences of the flying squirrel, a common but rarely seen resident of our woods. Its nocturnal habits allow it to live its life in relative secrecy, but it often leaves empty nutshells that have a distinctive look about them in its dining spot. 

It feeds on fruit and tree nuts but also dines on insects, buds, berries, mushrooms and other fungi, carrion, bird eggs and nestlings.  Acorns and hickory nuts are favorite foods and the tough outer casings are usually discarded with a smooth circular or oval opening laboriously cut into the side or end. Such leavings are unique to flying squirrels because other tree squirrels typically break up the shells to get at the meats, and mice tend to avoid the more robust nuts.

There are two flying squirrel species in Wisconsin, the Northern which prefers coniferous boreal forests and the Southern that is found among mixed hardwoods, and their territories tend to overlap. They are easily distinguished from other tree squirrels by their smaller size and by the folds of skin that extend from the wrist of the front leg to the ankle of the hind leg, their gliding membranes. When the legs are extended, the membrane forms a wing-like surface and the furred, horizontally flattened tail serves as a rudder and stabilizer.

Both species have soft, rich brown fur above and creamy white beneath, and very large black eyes. The few individuals we have seen through the years have been the smaller Southern type that weigh about three ounces and grow only to about nine inches in length including the tail.  Flying squirrels produce chirping sounds, some of which are above the frequency range of the human ear.  Researchers have speculated that they might use high-pitched sounds for navigation as do bats but since they do not have a similar specialized hearing system, this seems unlikely.
The gliding of a flying squirrel is spectacular. It will climb to a high treetop perch and search for a landing site by moving its head up and down and from side to side, apparently triangulating to judge distance. It then launches itself with all four legs extended from the body, stretching the flying membranes.  Most maneuvering around branches or other obstacles is accomplished by use of the tail, but squirrels can also vary the tension on the membranes to steer and to control speed.

They usually alight on the vertical trunk of another tree, invariably upright with the hind feet touching first. Upon landing, they scurry to the opposite side of the tree to elude any pursuing predator. Flying squirrels can glide up to three horizontal feet for every vertical foot of drop, and can travel anywhere from a few to 150 feet!

The work of establishing the nest and defending the several-acre territory seems to fall to the female.  She often produces two litters of three or more young each year, tiny newborns that are hairless with eyes and ears closed that weigh less than a quarter-ounce each.  Their ears open in a few days, their eyes open in about three weeks, and they are weaned in about two months. The young become fully independent at around 120 days of age, but typically remain together until the birth of the next litter.

Our most memorable encounter occurred when we dismantled an old well pump in the back field and found a nest, complete with mother and young. I don't know who was more surprised but when she found herself pulled up into the sunlight, she grabbed a baby and carried it off into the weeds. Braving our fascinated presence, she returned again and again until her family was safely stashed in the new hideaway.

Winter brings flying squirrels together and they often form groups in a common nest to conserve warmth. One tree cavity in Illinois was reported to contain 50 squirrels. They do not hibernate, although they may remain in their nests for several days during severe weather. The shortening of day length triggers the urge to store food, and nuts are buried individually or are cached in nest cavities or other cracks and crevices.  In good nut-production years, the stored nuts easily carry the squirrels through the winter and even into spring and summer.

Southern flying squirrels are highly social and have been observed flying and foraging together in large groups.  Particularly as temperatures decline in autumn, they gather together in dens, often with other family members.   Compared to individuals who nest alone in winter, squirrels in aggregates can save 30 percent more energy, and although they do show a preference for relatedness, they are tolerant of other familiar individuals in their hideaways. 

Southern flying squirrels require mature food-producing trees such as oaks, hickories and walnuts to provide them with nourishment and sufficient tree cavities for shelter in southern Wisconsin. The new push toward sustainable forestry will hopefully replace the indiscriminate logging that has degraded so much of the state's woodlands, and allow our forests to continue to provide these necessities of life to these and our many other woodland creatures.

Bulletin: Several hundred sandhill cranes are frequenting the harvested fields on either side of Rainbow Road just east of Highway 14 near Spring Green, Wisconsin these November days, providing unusual opportunities for close sightings.


November 11, 2019

If you want a neat, simple project for the week you might want to put together a bird-feeding "scare-crow". The more elaborate commercial types are not at all necessary, and I used a steel fence post to which a wooden cross piece had been wired, with a plastic gallon milk carton inverted over the top. This formed the crude foundation for an old jacket and floppy straw hat and voilà, "George" was created! He has a tuna can wired to one "hand" and when sunflower seeds were added, it took only a very short time for the chickadees to start frequenting his offerings. Soon, many of the other birds followed their lead, as the other feeders contained only finch mix and sunflower seeds are evidently like chocolate cake in comparison.  

After a week, I donned the jacket and hat and sat next to George. Chickadees visited my hand-held can almost immediately, and as long as I was quiet, the birds came almost as freely as they did to him. Yesterday a goldfinch took possession, planting himself firmly in the middle of my can and warding off all comers. I had birds sitting on my knees, my hat, my shoulders and my other hand waiting their turns, and it was fascinating to have them fighting for seeds just inches from my face. The goldfinch squared off belligerently, his wings raised and beak wide, facing down each comer that dared to challenge his possession. He held his ground until he evidently could stuff in no more seeds and finally quit the field. After a week of feeding, I have discarded the jacket and have the birds eating from my hand. I still use the hat, however, as they often land on my head and somehow it is more comfortable to have them on the hat than in my hair.

The most intriguing visitors so far were the pine siskins, as I had not noticed these perky and sociable birds in the neighborhood this year. These are small buffy finches that are broadly streaked with dark brown both on their backs and breasts. They have blackish wings and tails, with some yellow at the bases. Pine siskins are the most frequently encountered members of the irruptive winter finches—those finches that breed in the northern portions of North America and periodically stage major winter invasions into central portions of the United States.

One of the interesting tidbits that have emerged from those who study these things is that the siskins' numbers seem to fluctuate on a biennial cycle. What is peculiar about this irruption is that it is different in one area from another; that is, when siskins irrupted into Southern California they were not appearing in the East and vice versa. Then, too, sometimes the bird's population numbers remained low in a year that the pattern would prescribe them to be high, while at other times the bird's population numbers remained high in a year when the pattern would prescribe them to be low.

It is unknown precisely why pine siskins migrate some years and not others, but for other closely related finch species there appears to be an association with food production on their normal wintering grounds. For example, the catkin production cycle in birches appears to be correlated with invasions of common redpoll, another of the northern finches. When birch catkin production is high, redpolls remain in Canada, but when catkin abundance is low, they move southward into the United States. There is speculation that this variation in food production is an evolutionary strategy that forces these birds south every few years, thereby reducing their long-term impact on the plants. The same may be true for pine siskins and perhaps in years when pine siskins appear in the states, food abundance in their typical wintering grounds may be low.

The experience of having a tiny, bright-eyed bird sit trustingly (well, within limits) on one's hand with its little claws clutching a finger is well worth the small effort it takes to erect the setup. Give it a try!


November 5, 2019

Why is it that two particular birds, the crow and the owl, are often associated with witches and Halloween?  The owl’s preference for nighttime hunting and spooky hooting probably earned it its place, but what about the crow?  Down through the ages, crows and ravens have been linked with paganism and witchcraft and were considered omens of death or bad fortune.

Among the ancient Greeks and other early European peoples, crows were believed to sense future catastrophes and the caw of a crow was a powerful signal that one could not ignore lightly. In our day and place, crows no longer are considered bad luck but just pests, mostly because of their numbers.   In cities, they congregate by the hundreds and even thousands on communal roosts, while in farm fields they raid sprouting corn crops, feast on ripening ears, and dine at livestock feed troughs. Furthermore, they are hard to deal with because they are among the smartest of birds, and thwart most efforts to expel them.

The American crow is ubiquitous. With individual life spans of 15-30 years, crows maintain an intricate social system of extended family groups and have a distinct language encompassing some 35 different calls. Caws may be long or short, loud or relatively soft, given singly or in sequences, made by one bird alone or by a whole chorus of voices. Researchers have found that there can be considerable variation in how the caws sound within the same group, as well as in different parts of the country.

While we usually associate crows with their cawing, they are also very good mimics of the sounds made by other animals, and researchers have reported that crows can even reproduce sounds of the human voice. The ability to mimic sounds stems from the flexibility of its vocal cords, and crows have12 muscles controlling their syrinx or voice box while most other songbirds have eight. Scientists are currently analyzing their sounds using sonograms, basically graphic pictures of sound frequencies, to discover patterns in these vocalizations. 

Crows become remarkably secretive and quiet during the nesting season. They often build several partial nests before settling on the actual site and their large, clumsy-looking structures high in the trees are carefully lined with grasses, fur, shredded bark and pieces of cloth and yarn. They raise a single brood each year, tended by both parents as well as other non-breeding crows in the family, a cooperative strategy that distinguishes the crow from most birds.

 Nestlings take about five weeks to leave the nest, as they mature slowly compared to other songbirds, and offspring may remain with their parents for one to six years. In one study, family size reached 15, with young crows from five different years present. All members of the family assist in chasing predators away from their territory as well as caring for the young.

Crow and raven intelligence is evident as they often let others do the work for them. Ravens have been seen to call wolves and coyotes to a dead animal to open up the carcass, making the meat accessible. Crows have been observed to team up and divert otters or herons with a catch, while others snatched the prize. In Finland, some ice fishermen reported that a crow learned to fly to their tip-ups and pull up the line to get the fish.

The most impressive evidence of their intelligence has come from a research group at Oxford University who have worked with young crows captured in New Caledonia. These birds are known to make and use complex tools in the wild using a number of different materials. They remove the leaves and side branches from twigs, and also make tools from other bits of material they find, such as their own molted feathers by removing the barbs, and cardboard by tearing it into strips.

In one experiment, the researchers provided a pair of crows with two pieces of wire—one straight, one hooked. They put food in a small bucket and dropped the bucket into a tube so that the only way to retrieve it would be to pull it out with the hooked wire. After the older male tried and failed, he flew off with the hooked wire, leaving the female with the straight wire. She immediately bent it into a hook, pulled out the bucket, and then repeated the behavior in nine out of ten subsequent trials.

The crows are so adept at using tools that researchers have run into some unexpected challenges. The birds, which usually fly freely in the lab, have disassembled the fire alarms, poked wires into electrical sockets, and inserted small stones into every available opening. These are often such a tight fit that they can’t be removed. They also play at rolling pebbles inside a tube for minutes on end, slowly lifting one end so that the pebble rolls to the other end and makes a nice noise.

The avian brain is built on its own unique plan.  Instead of relying on the cortex as do mammals, birds have developed another part of the forebrain, the hyperstraiatum, which mammals lack, as their chief organ of intelligence. The larger the hyperstraiatum, the better the birds fare on intelligence tests, and the largest are found in crows and ravens. Think about that when you malign the common crow!

October 22, 2019

We’ve always known that we live in a very special place.  Winter isn’t always welcomed, it is true, but the duration of its pristine snows and crisp cold air are limited and the first hints of its approach in October can be breathtaking.

All through the summer months most tree leaves are green because of the presence of a pigment known as chlorophyll.  This captures the sun’s rays and uses the resulting energy to manufacture the plant's food -- simple sugars which are produced from water and carbon dioxide -- and is stored in specialized subunits that keep its ions, proteins and other molecules where they are needed.  In their food-manufacturing process, the chlorophylls continually break down, but all summer the plant has replenished the chlorophyll so that the supply remains high and the leaves stay green and mask out the colors of any other pigments that may be present in the leaf.

Now as daylight hours have shortened and temperatures have gradually dropped, the oaks, maples, walnuts and aspens in our woods have been preparing for the season change.  A layer of special cork cells has formed at the base of each leaf and the veins that carry fluids into and out of their leaves have gradually been closed off.   As this cork layer developed, water and mineral intake into the leaf has been reduced, slowly at first, and then more rapidly, preventing the replacement of the chlorophyll from further production.  

This loss of chlorophyll is allowing hidden pigments of yellow and orange called carotenoids to be revealed.  These pigments are present throughout the year, and are produced by plants and algae, as well as several bacteria and fungi.  They are common in many living things, giving characteristic color to carrots, corn, daffodils, egg yolks, bananas, even canaries, and are the dominant pigment in coloration of about 15-30% of tree species.

The reds and purples, and their blended combinations that decorate autumn foliage come from another group of pigments in the cells called anthocyanins.  Unlike the carotenoids, these pigments are not present in the leaf throughout the growing season, but develop in late summer in the sap of the cells of the leaf.  During the summer growing season, phosphate is at a high level. It 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. When this happens, the sugar-breakdown process changes, leading to the production of the anthocyanin pigments. The brighter the light during this period, the greater the production of anthocyanins and the more brilliant the resulting color. When the days of autumn are bright and cool and the nights are chilly but not freezing, the brightest colorations usually develop.

Anthocyanins temporarily color the edges of some of the very young leaves as they unfold in early spring.  In addition, they color such common fruits as cranberries, most apples, blueberries, cherries, strawberries, and plums. They also are present in the leaves of maples, oaks, and combine with the carotenoids' colors to create the deeper orange, fiery reds, and bronzes typical of many hardwood species.  The brown color of leaves is not the result of a pigment, but rather cell walls, which may be evident when no coloring pigment is visible.

Although some autumn coloration occurs wherever deciduous trees are found, the most brightly colored autumn foliage is found in the northern hemisphere, such as in southern Canada, some areas of the northern United States, north of the Alps in Europe, as well as parts of Russia, China, Korea and Japan.  Scientists have long conjectured about the reasons this color phase has evolved with several theories.

According to the photoprotection theory, anthocyanins protect the leaf against the harmful effects of light at low temperatures when the process of reabsorbing nutrients is less efficient, and according to this theory, the tree manages to reabsorb nutrients (especially nitrogen) more efficiently by shielding the leaf with anthocyanins.

In the coevolution theory, the colors are warning signals to insects like aphids that use trees as a host for the winter. If the colors are linked to the amount of chemical defenses against certain insects, then the insects will avoid red leaves and increase their fitness; at the same time, trees with red leaves have an advantage because they reduce their parasite load. 

The coevolution theory of autumn colors was proposed in 2001 as an example of the evolutionary signalling theory.  With biological signals such as red leaves, insects, mammals and birds all benefit the signallers in various ways.  The change of leaf colors has also been suggested as a help to affect the camouflage of herbivores.   Many plants attract birds with especially visible berry or leaf color, particularly bright red. The birds get a meal, while the shrub, vine, or typically small tree gets some of its seeds carried off and deposited with the birds' manure.

It is of note that autumn leaf color has become a major economic factor for many communities, as tourism has provided income for them they otherwise might not attract.   Nationwide Travelers, a bus company providing tours for older persons, visited our farm twice this past week, undoubtably including its surrounding colorful woodlands as an added bonus to the interest in our son’s wood-based business. 


October 15, 2019

What kind of organism is a fungus? Certainly not a plant, although until recently even scientists believed that was the case.   However, most fungi build their cell walls out of chitin, the same material as the hard outer shells of insects, and plants do not make chitin.   Now it has been determined that they are more closely related to animals, and have been placed in their own Kingdom.  The body of the fungus is made up of a web of microscopic filaments that are buried in the soil, in wood, or in another food source.   These webs live on and grow unseen until they develop mushrooms, puffballs, truffles, brackets, cups, “birds nests,” “corals” or other fruiting bodies.

The fruiting bodies often seem to sprout up overnight. They can do this because when they begin to enlarge they already contain their full complement of structural cells. It requires only a heavy rain to fall, at which time the fungus body pumps water into these cells, and almost overnight some mushrooms can go from pin-head size to full size.

Generally, we avoid picking the numerous mushrooms we find along our hiking trails as we don’t have the expertise to be confident in identifying the edible varieties. Two exceptions are the morel and the sulfur shelf.   Most Wisconsinites are familiar with the morel, but unless you frequent the woods you may not have seen a sulfur shelf.   This large fungus, which is also known as “chicken-of-the-woods”, announces its presence with a bright orange top and gorgeous sulfur yellow underside.  Called a bracket or shelf mushroom because of the way it extends from a tree trunk, the sulfur shelf is often found on or around an oak tree and often comes back year after year.   One year, we discovered a huge specimen growing in the farmyard on our old willow.

Young sulfurs are moist, rubbery, and easily broken, while more mature specimens become pale, tough, and are often dotted with insect holes. Many think that the texture and even flavor is reminiscent of chicken, but those who would like to try it should be aware that, as with any mushroom, some individuals have a bad reaction, including light-headedness and nausea. "The neat thing is that it is impossible to misidentify," said Greg Mueller, curator of mycology at Chicago’s Field Museum. "It's the only big, bright orange bracket mushroom with sulfur pores growing on wood out there." This was pretty much the accepted wisdom well into the 1980′s, but as allergic reactions seemed to become more numerous, it was found that specimens growing on certain trees and in certain areas sometimes did cause problems and gastric distress. Eucalyptus, evergreens, and locust in particular were suspect and the advice now given is to avoid any sulfurs collected from these trees.

The sulfur shelf grows in large flattened fans that lie in horizontal tiers, sometimes becoming huge and weighing as much as a hundred pounds. It is more accurately called a polypore because, rather than having gills underneath its cap like many other mushrooms, it has tubes, or pores -- tiny holes dotting the underside. These are lined with spore-producing organs, as fungi must produce enormous numbers of spores so that at least a few will land on favorable surfaces for germination.

All polypores have two or three kinds of cells -- the rapidly expanding inflatable generative cells, along with two kinds of reinforcing cells, referred to as ‘binding’ or ‘skeletal’. The hard woody conks you see on trees have all three and will persist on their hosts for several years. The sulfur shelf has but two -- the quickly expanding (and edible) generative type, and the more rigid, slower growing binding kind. These latter cells give the fruiting body strength and rigidity and can even hold it together for a time after the softer tissue dries out and collapses.

The sulfur fungus may grow inside a tree for some 50 years in order to build up enough energy to form the colorful fruiting bodies, and during that time it is feeding upon the tree's inner tissues, causing decay. All wood is composed mostly of two substances -- cellulose which is white and forms the primary wall of all plant cells, and lignin which makes up the brown inner wall in some cells, especially those of trees.

Polypores, such as the sulfur shelf, harbor both brown rot fungi that degrade only the white cellulose leaving the brown lignin to crumble to dust, and white rot fungi that decompose the lignin and leave the white stringy cellulose behind. As the decay proceeds, hollows are created that house all sorts of creatures, and eventually the fungi will accomplish the transformation of the tree into soil.

Meanwhile, springtails, nematodes, and other tiny beings graze on the fungi inside the tree, while fungus gnats, fungus flies, pill bugs, and various fungus beetles feed on the shelf fungus itself and are in turn picked off by birds. These fungi play an important role in the health and vigor of the forest but harvesting their fruits will cause no harm, and we can enjoy discovering the eye-catching color amidst all the green, and have it for supper, as well.


October 8, 2019

It is known that bird migration has been going on for millions of years, and that many have developed a superb sense of direction and seemingly endless endurance.  These abilities, plus light-weight frames and powerful wings allow many birds to accomplish almost unbelievable fetes almost on a regular basis.  Millions of tiny songbirds—many weighing less than an ounce—migrate thousands of miles to Central and South America each year at speeds that range from 15 to 55 miles per hour, depending on the species, prevailing winds, and air temperature, and typically fly from 15 to 600 miles each day.

Migratory birds can remember and return to the exact location where they were born.  Scientists know that they navigate using the sun, stars, and Earth's magnetic field, but exactly how they do this remains a mystery, partly because migrating birds use a combination of senses, including smell.  Now researchers can accurately track these travels thanks to the use of tiny geolocator backpacks that carry personal bird-sized computers that transmit the birds' locations as they journey across states, countries, and oceans.  Raw data of dates, times, and light levels can be run through a software program to find where and when the birds have travelled.

Scientists for years assumed that songbirds followed the same well-known “flyways” that ducks, geese, and shorebirds used to travel up and down the continent: one flyway along each coast, one up the Mississippi River valley, and one in the center of the continent.  Now, new research has proved that this is not the case.  Cornell Lab’s eBird project collected data between 2004 and 2011 and analyzed thousands of sightings, developing for each of 93 species an aggregate picture of where a species was seen during spring and fall migration.  They found that many migratory
October 8, 2019

Even the most disinterested observers know that many of our birds leave us at this time of year for warmer climes, and that this migration happens twice a year.  But many of the details of this phenomenon are amazing.  Probably the champion for high-altitude fliers is the Bar-headed Goose that breeds in colonies of thousands near mountain lakes and winters in South Asia, as far south as peninsular India.  Its route takes it through the Himalayas and these birds have been seen by aircraft at 23,000 feet -- an altitude where humans require oxygen masks and heavy clothing.  Then there is the Arctic Tern that flies more than 49,700 miles each year when it travels between its Arctic breeding sites and Antarctic summering grounds, although the title for longest nonstop flight goes to the Bar-tailed Godwit, which covers nearly 7,000 miles without a rest.
birds fly at night, navigating in the dark.  Colder air temperatures reduce the danger of overheating and allow birds to fly further without having to stop and cool down. Equally important, dark skies tend to hold fewer predators. They then used computer models to sort species with similar movement patterns into groups and compared migration routes with seasonal patterns of prevailing winds at night.

The study revealed that most land birds fit into three main groups, a Western group consisting of 31 species, a Central group of 17 species, and 45 species in an Eastern group, but they noted these flyways are much more spread out across the continent, and routes in the Central and Eastern groups overlap considerably.  Many species in the Eastern and Central groups take southbound routes far to the east of their northbound routes, resulting in a clockwise migration loop that puts some of them out over the Atlantic Ocean on their way to their wintering grounds.   The analysis also revealed that many more land birds than previously realized follow different routes in spring and fall—particularly in the East, where many species cross the Gulf of Mexico in a single overnight flight.

By shifting routes, birds are taking advantage of stronger tailwinds in spring and less severe headwinds in fall. Tailwinds represent a huge advantage for birds heading back to their breeding grounds while finding weaker headwinds in fall allows southbound birds to make the best of a bad situation.   All these species migrate at night at high altitudes, but when the sun comes up in the morning they have to find somewhere to land and then can be counted.

Hummingbirds are a special case as they migrate by day and will leave while nectar-rich flowers are still in bloom and feeders are full.  They will start feeding as early as forty-five minutes before sunrise and keep eating until dusk for days. Fueled by the nectar, hummingbirds double their weight as they prepare to fly hundreds or even thousands of miles.

Fewer hours of daylight trigger hormonal changes that cause the urge to fuel up and fly south.  Males leave first, females follow, and then the juveniles who migrate for the first time all alone. They land while it’s still afternoon if they see a good place to fuel up for a few hours and then find a safe place to sleep. They must also do a lot of feeding again in the morning before they take off.  By August and September,  Ruby Throats gather in Florida, Louisiana and along the South Texas coast in September in preparation for the final push to the south, either over the Gulf of Mexico or via an overland route through Mexico.  Other species travel south down the Rocky Mountain chain into Mexico and Central America.  We have not seen a hummer since last Wednesday now but will continue to tend our feeders for another week for any latecomers.

An aside: should you see a white hummingbird, we read that there are two types: true albino hummingbirds and Leucistic hummingbirds (an abnormal plumage condition caused by a genetic mutation that prevents pigment, particularly melanin, from being properly deposited on a bird's feathers). True albino hummingbirds have white feathers, pink eyes, feet, and bills. Leucistic hummingbirds still have their “normal” black eyes, feet, and bills.  However, the feathers of Leucistic hummingbirds are pure white, tan, or gray instead of their “normal” plumage colors.  Both are very rare and a real treat to see. 


October 1, 2019

Our roadsides are celebrating the arrival of autumn, and most of the members of the Aster family have come into full bloom.  The Asters are the largest family of flowering plants in the northern latitudes with 19,000 species found around the world, including more than 2600 species in the U.S. and Canada. Only the Orchid family is larger, but those are mostly found in the tropics.  The most fascinating facet of this statistic is that I read that only one of these Aster species is native to North America, an alpine subspecies that is found in the mountains. 

This one “native” Aster, commonly called Alpine Aster, is a subspecies of a plant mostly found in the Alps mountains of Europe and does better in generally cooler climates.  It grows to be about 6–12 inches tall and its blossoms may be purple, pink or blue and usually appear in early summer.  Many other flowers from the Aster family have now been cultivated as ornamentals, including Marigolds, Chrysanthemums, Calendulas, and Zinnias.  Some are grown as food such as lettuce, artichoke, endive, plus the seeds and oil of the Sunflower.

Wisconsin currently has about 30 common Aster species, escaped or introduced in the wild, many of which have formed hybrids. All have a similar flower structure and bloom after midsummer.  Only a few are actually called Asters; others now have names such as Chicory and Goldenrod, and strange ones such as Joe-pye weed.  The uniqueness of the Aster family (also called “Composite”, “Daisy” or “Sunflower” family) is that what first seems to be a single large flower is actually a cluster of many smaller flowers.  This is easiest to see if you look closely at a giant Sunflower in bloom, and you can see that it is made up of many dozens of little flowers growing on a disk, each producing just a single seed.  Each "disk flower" has five tiny petals fused together, plus five stamens fused around a pistil with antennae-like stigmas.  

Then look closely at the big "petals" that ring the outside of the flower head, and you will see that each petal is also a flower, called a "ray flower," with it's petals fused together and hanging to one side.   All plants of the Aster family will have either disk flowers, ray flowers, or both.  Another characteristic is that the Aster flower head is typically wrapped in green sepal-like modified leaves called bracts, while its sepals (found around each individual flower) have been reduced to small scales, often transformed into a tuft of hairs or sometimes eliminated altogether.. 

First to bloom and almost certainly the most widely known member of the family is the Dandelion.  Each composite flower has very small flowers collected together into a head consisting entirely of ray florets and borne singly on a hollow stem.  Generally considered noxious weeds in America, their flower heads mature into spherical seed heads sometimes called blowballs containing many single-seeded fruits equipped with “parachutes”.  ---------

Although Dandelions can cause significant economic damage as an invasive species, they are one of the most vital early spring nectar sources for a wide host of pollinators, and their stems and leaves exude a white, milky latex when broken.  Using modern cultivation methods and optimization techniques, scientists in Germany have developed a cultivar that is suitable for commercial production of natural rubber with its same qualities.

Chicory is a blue-flowered plant in the dandelion group, and its roots have been cultivated and used for food and medicine as far back as ancient Egypt.  In 19th century France, a trade blockade caused a major coffee shortage and to make their limited supplies of coffee stretch, the French began roasting, grinding and mixing Chicory root with coffee.  Though Chicory root lacks caffeine, it shares a similar flavor to coffee when roasted, making it a logical additive.  Some even used chicory as a substitute for coffee altogether.  In the United States, however, it wasn’t until the Civil War that coffee and Chicory became truly popular. When Union naval blockades cut off coffee imports, desperate drinkers began mixing Chicory with coffee to stretch out their supply. Even after coffee became readily available again, the practice continued, giving way to one of our favorite coffee traditions.

Goldenrods are a genus of about 100 to 120 species of flowering plants in the aster family and are typically found in open areas such as meadows, prairies, and savannas.  The many Goldenrod species can be difficult to distinguish, due to their similar bright, golden-yellow flower heads that bloom in late summer.  They have long woody stems topped with loose branching clusters of small heads of golden yellow flowers each of which is often only about 1/8” inch wide.  The flowers are usually typical daisy flower heads with distinct ray and disc florets but sometimes with only disc florets of mixed types.

In the 1700s, Joe Pye was a native American herbalist who used concoctions from a wild plant found growing in his nearby woods to treat typhoid fever.  His brew was said to have halted an epidemic that raged in colonial Massachusetts, and this plant became forever known as Joe-pye weed. The plant can grow about six feet tall and has lance-shaped leaves that grow in whorls around a purplish-green stem.  The compound flowers are composed of up to 8 florets and bracts in pale pink, giving the appearance of large clusters.

The list of Aster species is a long one and their flowers along our roadsides bring welcome color to the fast-browning grasses and their promise of winter drabness.  It takes a good resource to identify all the many species but it is a fine way to spend these often lovely autumn days. 


September 24, 2019

The whooping crane is one of two crane species native to North America and it depends on large, open wetlands to eat, roost, and nest. In 1900, there were an estimated 1,500 whooping cranes across North America, but by 1950, as a result of habitat loss and unregulated hunting, there was only one small population left that migrated between Texas and Canada.  Whooping cranes stand nearly five-feet tall and their wingspans measure between seven and eight feet. They eat aquatic insects, crustaceans, mollusks, small vertebrates such as fish, reptiles, amphibians, as well as roots, acorns, and berries.

The nesting season in Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada begins in late April, and it takes about 30 days for the eggs to hatch and a whooping crane pair will nest again if the first clutch of eggs is destroyed.  Initially, chicks are cinnamon brown color, but by four months of age they have emerging white, adult-like feathers that produce a mottled appearance.  Young whooping cranes are capable of flight when they are about three months old and acquire adult-looking plumage as they approach one year of age.  Young migratory whooping cranes become independent from their parents during northward migration or shortly after arrival on the breeding grounds.  They are known to live at least 22 years in the wild and perhaps as long as 40 years.

In 1975 biologists started an ambitious project to establish a migratory whooping crane population in the Rocky Mountain states – the first reintroduction attempt for this endangered species. They hoped that wild sandhill cranes would act as surrogate parents for the whooping cranes, and placed whooping crane eggs in sandhill nests at Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Idaho.

Whooping cranes lay two eggs per clutch but usually only raise a single chick.  In order to collect eggs for restoring the population, scientists believed that one egg could be removed from each new nest without decreasing the productivity of the wild population.  In 1975, the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland began successfully breeding whooping cranes in captivity, and these eggs became the foundation for future release programs in North America.
The sandhill cranes brooded and raised the whooping crane chicks, and the chicks learned the migration route to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico from their surrogate parents.  However, when the chicks reached breeding age they did not pair with other whooping cranes, as they identified with their sandhill crane foster parents. As a result, the project was ended in 1989, and by 2002 no whooping cranes remained in that region.

Then a project to create a new population was conceived at the International Crane Foundation at Baraboo, Wisconsin.  Bill Lishman and Joe Duff, two artists-turned-aviators, proposed a method of teaching a new group of birds a migratory route to the South.  Using bird-costumed attendants and ultralight aircraft, they would act as surrogate parents and lead young captive-hatched and imprinted whooping cranes south from Wisconsin to Florida.

The first migration flight of seven birds, dubbed Operation Migration, occurred in the fall of 2001, and although one chick was lost, the others survived the winter period in Florida and returned north to central Wisconsin the following spring.  Each of the next 15 years, additional birds were led south with varying degrees of success until 85 birds were migrating in the flock.  Despite these growing numbers, however, few produced viable eggs and only a very few new chicks were wild-hatched. 

The aircraft-guided migration method was ended in the fall of 2015 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service claimed the method was “too artificial.” and suggested that cranes raised by costumed handlers resulted in inattentive parents that did not adequately protect their offspring.  After three additional years of effort on the part of some members of Operation Migration, they too gave up their efforts but felt their work had at least raised awareness about the vulnerable cranes. 

Starting in 2017, a novel strategy was introduced: eggs in the process of hatching, taken from captive birds, were swapped into Louisiana nests in place of infertile eggs, allowing the chicks to be raised by substitute whooper crane parents in the wild.   In 2018, a combination of naturally-laid and substituted eggs added five wild-raised juveniles to the population, all of which survived to fledge.   As of the first of September this year, 72 whoopers have been sighted in Wisconsin, four are in Michigan, one is in Iowa, and one is in Illinois. The remaining birds’ locations are unknown.

So this is the current situation: in 2007, the Canadian Wildlife Service counted 266 birds at Wood Buffalo National Park, with 73 mating pairs that produced 80 chicks, while a United States Fish and Wildlife service count in early 2017 estimated that 505 whooping cranes, including 49 juveniles, had arrived at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge that season.  In 2019, only three eggs hatched wild, and all three are still with their parents in Juneau County.   A March 2018 Fish and Wildlife Service report counted an additional 161 cranes in captivity at twelve different sites, and an estimated 177 in three reintroduced flocks, putting the total current population at over 800. 
There are two migrating populations of whooping cranes, the Eastern migratory population that migrates between Wisconsin and the southeastern U.S., usually departing Wisconsin in mid-November, and the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population, beginning in late October.  The birds find wintering habitat in many states of the southeastern U.S., including Florida, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama.  As always, keep your ears open and your eyes on the sky...


September 17, 2019

Many things may alert you to the coming season change -- shorter days, dropping temperatures, the appearance of flowers such as chicory, goldenrod and sunflowers, and now, if you have been outdoors any evening this week, you may have heard the crickets singing.  Many experts point out that crickets technically can’t sing, as cicadas are the only insects that have a physical mechanism capable of producing a song.  (The cicada sings by contracting internal tymbal muscles that cause sounding membranes to buckle inward, then pop back to their original positions when these muscles relax producing the sound.)  In contrast, grasshoppers and crickets produce a chirping sound by scraping one body part against another. 

Grasshoppers and crickets are closely related and all as adults have two pairs of tough outer wings on the thorax as well as membranous underwings which are folded in a fan shape when at rest.  They also have three pairs of legs with the hindmost adapted for jumping. The most noticeable difference between them is that most crickets have long antennae, while grasshoppers’ antennae are short.

More than 900 species of crickets are distributed all around the world with the greatest diversity being in the tropics. They are mainly nocturnal, and are best known for the loud, persistent, chirping sound of a male trying to attract a mate.  Each of its fore wings has a large vein running down its centre with comb-like serrations along its edge forming a file-like structure.  At the rear edge is a scraper and as these wings are rhythmically raised and lowered, the scraper on one wing rasps on the file of the other. The central wing part is a thick membrane which resonates and amplifies the volume of the sound.    

Crickets chirp at different rates depending on their species and the temperature--the warmer the air, the faster they chirp (often about 62 chirps a minute at 55 °F but each species has its own rate).  There are several types of calls: one fairly loud come-hither chirp to attract a female from a distance and repel other males; an aggressive chirp triggered when another male cricket is detected; a courting chirp used when a female cricket is near and to encourage her to mate; and a triumphal chirp produced for a brief period after a successful mating, thought to encourage the female to lay eggs rather than find another male.

The folklore and mythology surrounding crickets is extensive--sometimes favorable, sometimes not. Their chirping is sometimes taken to be a sign of coming rain, or in some countries, of a financial windfall.  In one community in Brazil, a black cricket in a room is said to warn of illness; a gray one, money; or a green one, hope.  In contrast, in another area in northeast Brazil, a cricket announces death, and is quickly killed if it chirps in a house.  Still, in Barbados, a loud cricket means money is coming in and must not be killed.  Generally, though, crickets are most often considered good luck and are even kept as pets.  In China and Japan, they have been kept in cages or in hollowed-out decorated gourds for thousands of years and they are still sold at pet shops.

Male crickets usually are quite protective of their territory and lash out at any interlopers with their antennae and mandibles. They then resort to grappling, at the same time each emitting calls that are quite unlike those uttered in other circumstances.  Cricket fighting is a traditional pastime that dates back to the 1600s and although it was originally an entertainment for the rulers, it later became a popular sport in many places around the world.

Female crickets are generally attracted to males by their calls. After the pair has made antennal contact, a courtship period may occur during which the character of the call changes. The female mounts the male and a single capsule containing motile sperm cells is transferred to her external genitalia. Sperm flows from this into the female's passageway to her ovaries. The female may mate on several occasions with different males.

Most crickets lay their eggs in the soil or inside the stems of plants, and to do this, female crickets have a long, needle-like egg-laying organ called an ovipositor. The egg hatches into a nymph about the size of a fruit fly which then passes through about ten larval stages.  With each successive molt, it becomes more like an adult until the final molt at which time the genitalia and wings are fully developed.

Crickets are sold to feed carnivorous pets and zoo animals in America, but are used as human food in Southeast Asia, where they are sold deep-fried in markets as snacks.  In Thailand, there are 20,000 farmers rearing crickets, with an estimated production of 7,500 tons per year.  The United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization is working in Laos to improve cricket farming and consequently food security.  Animal husbandry is the branch of farming concerned with animals that are raised for meat, milk, eggs, hides, or other products, and the UN determines a rate of measuring the efficiency with which the bodies of livestock convert their feed into a usable product.  (For example, in animals raised for meat such as beef cows, pigs, chickens, etc, eatable flesh is the output.)  They report that the food conversion efficiency of house crickets is 1.7, some five times higher than that for beef cattle, and if their ability to produce an abundance of offspring is taken into account, 15 to 20 times higher! 

Cricket flour can be used as an additive to consumer foods such as pasta, bread, crackers, and cookies and is being used in protein bars, pet foods, livestock feed, dietary supplements and other industrial uses. The United Nations contends that the use of insect protein, such as cricket flour, could be critical in feeding the growing population of the planet while being less damaging to the environment.   Remember that when you hear their evening concerts...


September 9, 2019

Driving down the highway a few days ago, we found ourselves surrounded by a cloud of large flying insects -- green darners.  These big dragonflies are common sights around the country but it is only recently that much has been learned about their life style, and it now turns out that the monarch butterfly isn’t the only insect that flies long distances in migration up and down North America.  Ecologist Michael Hallworth and his colleagues of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center headquartered in Washington, D.C. have discovered an equally impressive story about these large dragonflies. 

The fossil record reveals that giant relatives of the modern dragonfly had wingspans of nearly 3 feet, making them the largest insects ever. They were probably the first insects to fly, and the dragonflies as we know them today had already evolved by the time of the dinosaurs, 180 million years ago.  There are two general types at this point -- the larger, stouter true dragonflies that are easily recognized by their long membranous wings, huge compound eyes, and slender abdomens, and the smaller, daintier damselflies that hold their wings together over their backs.  More than 5,100 species have been described of these and there are about 110 different species here in Wisconsin. What is not generally known is that these dragonflies spend almost all of their lives under water as aquatic nymphs.

In biology, a nymph is the immature form of an insect which undergoes gradual changes before reaching its adult stage. Dragonfly nymphs are ferocious predators, feeding on other aquatic insects, crustaceans, worms, small fish and tadpoles.  They also have a unique characteristic-- a lower lip that is long and hinged. This is folded under the head most of the time, but it can be suddenly extended like an arm to grab unsuspecting prey.  These nymphs forcefully expel a jet of water to propel themselves.

When it matures, the nymph crawls out of the water onto a emerging stalk, stops feeding and, over the period of about a week, its eyes become translucent, its wing pads swell and its adult color patterns begin to develop under the skin.  Finally its skin splits revealing the adult insect, and the veins that support the membranes of its wings are pumped full of fluid and the wings spread. 

Many adult dragonflies have brilliant iridescent or metallic colors produced by structural coloration often a combination of yellow, red, brown, and black pigments, making them conspicuous in flight.  Blues are typically created by microstructures in the cuticle that reflect blue light, while greens often combine a structural blue with a yellow pigment.

Dragonflies are powerful and agile fliers, and can propel themselves in six directions: upward, downward, forward, backward, to left and to right. They also have four different styles of flight: counter-stroking, with forewings beating 180° out of phase with the hind wings, is used for hovering and slow flight; phased-stroking, with the hind wings beating 90° ahead of the forewings, is used for fast flight; synchronised-stroking, with forewings and hind wings beating together, is used when changing direction rapidly, as it maximizes thrust; and simply gliding, with the wings held out, is used in other situations.  The wings are powered directly with the flight muscles attached to the wing bases, and in general, large dragonflies have a maximum speed of 22–34 mph with average cruising speed of about 10 mph.

The adults are just as enthusiastic in their feeding as the nymphs.  Mosquitoes, gnats, flies, and other insects are their primary targets, but larger quarry are also sometimes eaten.  Prey are plucked out of the air when a dragonfly holds its legs like a basket and flies by, or by flying through a swarm with its mouth gaping wide open. Adult dragonflies have few predators, but sometimes frogs and birds will be successful in snagging one.

The head of the adult dragonfly has two short antennae and two large compound eyes, each of which is made up of nearly 24,000 units composed of clusters of photoreceptor cells surrounded by support and pigment cells and overlaid with a transparent cornea.  Each unit is connected separately to the brain which then compiles an image from these independent picture elements. 

The thorax bears two pairs of wings and three pairs of legs. The long wings are supported by a network of hollow veins that carry a fluid which is comparable to blood in vertebrates and carries out many similar functions.  It also serves a hydraulic function to expand the body between nymphal stages and to expand and stiffen the wings after the adult emerges from the final nymphal stage.  The legs are rarely used for walking, but are used to catch and hold prey, for perching, and for climbing on plants.

The abdomen is long and slender and consists of 10 segments. To mate, a male dragonfly catches a willing female in flight with his legs and curves his abdomen around, hooking it to the back of her head.  The male transfers sperm from the tip of his abdomen to a pouch in a more accessible spot. Then the female swings her long, slender abdomen around to the sperm pouch, until the pair's bodies form a wheel and fly in this position until mating is completed. 

New research into the green darner finds that adults emerge in the southern United States, Mexico and the Caribbean in early spring, and migrate north to the upper Midwest as early as March. These darners lay eggs in ponds and other quiet waters in the north and eventually die there.  The new generation migrates south from about July until late October although some overwinter as nymphs.  A third generation emerges around November and lives entirely in the south during winter and it is their offspring that start the cycle again by swarming northward as temperatures warm in the spring.


August 27, 2019

You may think of sparrows as being those little brown, stocky birds you see in your yard, but did you know there are actually seventy-six different kinds in North America?

The house sparrow is by far the most common and is native to most of Europe and a large part of Asia.  It has been intentionally or accidentally introduced around much of the world and because of its adaptability and its tolerance of human activities, it has thrived and multiplied.  It has even been persecuted as an agricultural pest but without much success.   This sparrow was introduced into Brooklyn, New York, in 1851 and in just fifty years had spread to the Rocky Mountains. Two more introductions occurred in the early 1870s, in San Francisco and Salt Lake City, and they are now common across all of North America except Alaska and far northern Canada.

The house sparrow prefers to nest in manmade structures such as eaves or walls of buildings, street lights, and nest boxes instead of in natural nest sites such as holes in trees.  It aggressively defends its nest holes and has been observed attacking 70 different bird species, even evicting other birds from their nests, including Eastern bluebirds, purple martins, and tree swallows.  It moves about in flocks and, interestingly enough, has a pecking order much in the way of chickens in a farmyard.  Males with larger patches of black on their throats tend to be older and dominant over males with less black.  House sparrows are frequent visitors to backyard feeders, where they eat most kinds of birdseed, especially millet, corn, and sunflower seed, and have been seen stealing food from American robins and piercing flowers to drain them of nectar.

Careful observation will prove that house sparrows are but one species of sparrows in your back yard.  Twenty-seven other types have been recorded in Wisconsin and these birds are not even closely related to the house sparrow.  Many have distinctive head patterns but most are quite similar in size and general appearance and may be difficult to identify.  Some spend the summers with us and then migrate to the southern United States or Mexico during winter, while others visit us in the winter and go farther north to nest.

The song sparrow is easily one of the most abundant, variable and adaptable species. Adult song sparrows have brown upper parts with dark streaks on the back, and are white underneath with dark streaking and a dark brown spot in the middle of the breast. They have brown caps and long brown rounded tails.  Their song is quite recognizable as it typically begins with three well-spaced notes followed with several phrases and ending in a buzz or trill. The song sparrow favors brush land and marshes but thrives in human dominated areas such as in suburbs, agricultural fields, and along roadsides.

The chipping sparrow is also widespread, fairly tame, and common.  Smaller than a song sparrow, it has a gray face and breast, a black line through the eye, but most noticeable is its bright rusty crown.  Its song is a trill.  The field sparrow also has a grey head  and much duller rusty crown, so look for a white eye ring and a pink bill.  It builds a cup-shaped nest on the ground, and its song is a series of quiet whistles ending in a trill.   Fox sparrows are sometimes seen in Wisconsin and are among the largest sparrows, heavily spotted and streaked underneath but they nest farther to the west.

Winter visitors to our feeders include the American tree sparrow.  It breeds on the tundra in Alaska but migrates to the United States with the onset of cold weather.   Adults  have rusty backs and crown, plain grey underparts and a single dark spot on the breast.  They are commonly seen near feeders with dark-eyed juncos, other sparrows despite the name.  The juncos also winter in southern Wisconsin but breed in farther east and west.  Adults generally have gray heads, necks, and breasts, gray or brown backs and wings, and a white belly. The white outer tail feathers flash distinctively in flight and while hopping on the ground.

Other sparrows that do not carry that name are the much larger towhees. The male towhee has a black head, upper body, and tail, with rufous sides, a white belly, and a long dark tail with white edges; (these parts are brown in the female).  This bird seems to prefer edge habitat that has recently been affected by fire, logging, grazing, or some other human disturbance.  It has a thick beak which can effectively crack seeds and nuts, and feeds on a corns, ragweed, corn, and blackberries.   During the breeding season, abundant insect populations will supply the towhee with about half of its diet, while only 80% of its diet is composed of plant matter during fall and winter.  The towhee has seen steady declines in Wisconsin and throughout its range, though the bird is still quite abundant.

The records committee of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology keeps track of our state’s birds and as of January 2019, they reported there were 440 species (plus a species pair, whatever that is) on the official list.  Of them, 90 are classed as accidental (individuals that appear well outside their normal range), 34 are classed as casual, 53 are classed as rare, eight have been introduced to North America, three are known to be extinct and an additional 11 species are classed as hypothetical.  According to my understanding, that leaves some 241 species that they have designated as native to our state and possibly present; who would have thought?


August 20, 2019

We are no longer able to wander through the deeper woodlands on our farm as we did in our younger days.  At those times, we had discovered numerous strange creatures living there but despite occasionally wondering about their absence, we never spied any of the fascinating residents that Europeans and eventually Americans throughout their history have described as populating such areas.

No photographs ever proved their presence, but belief in sprites was common in centuries past.  This generic-type term covered all sorts of small, elusive supernatural beings, including fairies, elves, pixies and other legendary folk like dwarfs, brownies, gnomes, goblins, trolls and leprechauns.  In the modern world, if we think of fairies at all we think of them as being tiny delicate, female creatures with wings and beautiful filmy clothing, and our only references to elves are to those that work for Santa Claus at the North Pole.  These depictions, however, are relatively recent and it is only recently that such creatures have been confined to plays, books, and fairy tales. 

In the past, acceptance of the existence of fairies and elves was common among both adults and children, and you may not realize that the belief is still strong in some places.  In Iceland, for example, about half of the residents still believe in elf-like beings or at least don’t rule out their existence.  These supernatural beliefs are so strong that many road construction projects have been delayed or rerouted to avoid disturbing the traditional elves’ homes.  When the projects aren’t first stopped by worried Icelanders, they seem to be thwarted by the elves themselves.

For example, in the late 1930s, construction began on a road near the most famous elf hill in the city of Kopavogur, the country’s second largest municipality.  The work would have essentially destroyed the elves’ home but was delayed due to money problems, and when construction finally began, the workers encountered all sorts of problems from broken machinery to lost tools.  The road was subsequently rerouted around the hill, rather than through it, but later in the 1980s the same road was set to be improved and paved.  Again, inexplicably, all tools broke until workers were spooked and refused to go near the hill.  In 2012, Icelandic laws were enacted protecting all places reputed for magic or connected to folktales, customs or national beliefs, and these are now recognized as their cultural heritage. 

In America, elves have been usually described as being small in size with pointed ears, living in forests and underground places or caves, or in wells and springs.  They are portrayed as long-lived or immortal and having magical powers.  According to folklorist Carol Rose in her encyclopedia, “Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns and Goblins”, (Norton, 1998), “our forefathers trifled with elves at their peril because although elves were sometimes friendly toward humans, they were also known to take terrible revenge on any human who offended them.  They would steal babies, cattle, milk and bread, or enchant and hold young men in their spell for years such as in the well-known story of Rip Van Winkle.”

Gnomes are traditionally thought of as being small bearded men wearing colorful pointed hats and are more benevolent than other creatures such as goblins.  They live in natural areas close to the earth and care for wildlife.  Goblins, however, are evil, crabby, and annoyingly mischievous creatures often grotesquely disfigured.

Dwarfs were short human-like creatures, that generally lived underground.  They were stockier and hairier, usually sporting full beards.  They worked as miners and accumulated treasures of gold, silver, and precious stones.  A brownie, on the other hand, usually chose to inhabit a human house and it aided in household tasks.  It didn’t like to be seen and would only work at night, traditionally in exchange for small gifts or food.  It reportedly abandoned the house if the owners misused it.

And, of course, we all know about leprechauns, the mythical creatures that seem to be found only in Irish folklore.  They were usually depicted as little bearded men, wearing coats and hats, who loved to engage in mischief.  They were solitary and spent their time making and mending shoes, and had a hidden pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  If captured by a human, they often granted three wishes in exchange for freedom.

Even in Wisconsin, there are sprite stories; in 1919, 13 year-old Harry Anderson reported a fairy procession made up of twenty little men walking towards him in single file with bald heads and leather knee-pants just outside of Barron, Wisconsin, and even earlier, according to a story told in Fate Magazine, a young girl named Anna was picking berries and claimed to have been asked by ‘the hidden people’ who wore “tiny clothes, and little shoes and funny hats” to share her berries in exchange for the opportunity to let her dance with them.

Even today, a section of spooky woods just outside of Burlington, Wisconsin is known for its very special mound that is believed to serve as a type of portal to the fairy realm.  Mary and Brad Sutherland have been giving tours of these haunted woods for years, and many visitors swear by the truth of the encounters they’ve had there with its unworldly inhabitants.  Any intrepid readers are encouraged to visit Burlington and discover the nature of these claims for themselves. 


August 13, 2019

Much as we appreciate the wildlife on our farm--enjoying the glimpses of young woodchucks playing on our deck, squirrels exploring our flower beds and bunnies (not a rabbit among them) eating nearby--all seemingly unafraid of the humans who think they own this area.  What we don’t like are the bites that seem to have appeared on our bodies the past couple of weeks. 

The culprits seem to be chiggers, and if you haven’t made their acquaintance, you are fortunate.  Chiggers (more properly named Trombiculidae), aren’t insects. They are mites, tiny members of the biological class Arachnida that also includes spiders and ticks. Most mites are in the size range of only 0.01 to 0.03 in. and have a body plan with two connected regions, a thorax and an abdomen.  Only the positioning of the legs shows where they are separated.

At the front of the body is a retractable feeding apparatus consisting of the mouthparts, two leg-like appendages and the oral cavity.  It is covered above by an extension of the body shell and is connected to the body by a flexible section.  There is no head and the thorax does not often contain eyes or a brain.  Most mites have four pairs of legs, each with six segments, which may be modified for swimming or other purposes.  Some species do have one to five eyes but many species are blind, and slit and pit sense organs are common.  Both body and limbs bear bristles that are usually some shade of brown.

Typically you find chiggers in the southern states, but you can also find them in Wisconsin.  “Individual lesions caused by chigger bites can look very similar to mosquito bites,” said Dr. Erik Statman, a dermatologist  with Marshfield Clinic Health System. “However, mosquito bites tend to occur on any skin that is exposed and are less likely to be clustered like chigger bites.”

 Chiggers (also called harvest mites or red mites) are tiny mites whose bites aren't painful but do cause intense itching. Most can only be seen with a magnifying glass and are encountered in grassy fields, along lakes and streams, and in forests throughout the southeast and midwest.  Adults are strictly vegetarians and it is their larvae that bite people and animals.  Chiggers are not spread evenly over the landscape; rather, suitable habitat will have areas that are chigger-free abutting areas that are thick with them.  Although chiggers do not transmit diseases (in this country),  there’s a possibility for the bites to cause secondary infections due to excessive scratching, and some unlucky people get a rash on the sunlit portions of their skin due to bites in the shady parts.

Chigger larvae have tiny claws that allow them to attach tightly to their prey. Once in place, they pierce the skin and inject their saliva which contains digestive juices that dissolve skin cells.  They then consume the dissolved cells and fall off after a few days, leaving a red welt on the skin.  These itchy red bumps (which can look like pimples, blisters, or small hives) are typically found around the waist, ankles, or in warm skin folds. They get bigger and itchier over several days, and often appear in groups. The larvae are blood-red in color naturally, but a well-fed chigger will be more of a yellow color.

Chigger larvae are constantly moving over the ground, searching for a bird or reptile, their primary food source. Any human in the way is second choice but is not likely to be rejected.  Because they are constantly moving, chiggers sometimes spend hours looking for an ideal spot such as a bit of bare skin on which to settle. Chiggers sometimes stop under a sandal strap or on the back of a knee, but the majority latch on in a snug area where elastic meets skin, in skin folds, depressions, pores or follicles.  After piercing the skin, they inject enzymes through their mouthparts that start digesting cellular material. 

AA human body protects itself by hardening the skin around the puncture into a tube, and as long as the chigger keeps pumping in the enzymes, the body maintains this opening.  The itch is the body’s reaction to the tube and sometimes continues days after the larva itself has dropped off.  Chiggers can remain on a body for three to four days, although most are scratched or brushed off, and if a chigger is prevented from finishing its meal, it dies without being able to find another victim.  Because men have thicker skin, they tend to have fewer bites than women or children as the larvae have to work harder for their meals.   If it does finish its meal, it drops off and falls into a post-feeding stupor and turns into a nymph, then into an adult that will mostly eat plant material. 

One internet source suggests it is possible to do a chigger survey in your yard by placing a saucer or some six-inch squares of black cardboard on edge in suspect territory for 10 minutes or so.  The reader is then instructed to check out the top edge with a hand lens, looking for miniscule yellowish critters.  My attempts to do this had no successes at all so I don’t know if they were absent in the areas I chose or if I didn’t follow the directions carefully enough, but I thought it an interesting experiment.  

Chiggers are most active at temperatures between 77 and 86 degrees and will die in the lower 40s.   If you are in a chigger-infested area, don’t wear shorts, sandals or short-sleeved shirts. Wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants, heavy socks, leather shoes and gloves. Tuck your pants into your socks.   Insect repellents that contain 10%-30% DEET are said to be most effective at preventing chigger bites.  Good luck!


August 6, 2019

"A wonderful bird is the Pelican, His bill can hold more than his belican."  Most of us oldsters have recited this limerick written by Dixon Lanier Merritt (although often incorrectly attributed to Ogden Nash).  It refers to that strange bird that has often been seen while visiting one of the coasts or while driving through the Dakotas.  These days, the American white pelican is appearing in ever increasing numbers along the Upper Mississippi River, near Green Bay, and at horicon marsh.  We recently attended a wedding held at a club on Lake Koshkonong and were entertained by several overhead flights of the big birds.

There are eight true species of pelicans that now number almost a quarter of a million birds after near extinction. The white pelican is one of the largest and weighs up to 16 pounds and sports an impressive 9-foot wing span. It is white with black markings that show only when it spreads its enormous wings, and has upper vertebrae that give the neck a permanent bend. It also has very short legs ending in orange feet that are webbed not only between the four front toes but also between the second toe and the inwardly directed back toe.  Despite its large size, a pelican can sit high on the water because its bones are hollow and its body contains large air sacs.

The most unique characteristic of the pelican is the yellowish pouch that is connected to the lower mandible of its beak. The American white pelican is different from other pelicans, in that it does not drop from the air to catch its prey; but simply floats along on the water, fishing as it goes. It can scoop up gallons of promising looking water that it then allows to drain away, retaining any food items that remain. Pelicans are often accused of competing with anglers and the commercial fishing industry for game and commercial fish, but research has shown that these birds largely consume small coarse fish, minnows, and salamanders.

White pelicans nest in colonies on sandbars, islands, and peninsulas in remote, undisturbed areas. They first appeared in Wisconsin at horicon some 30 years ago but the first known nesting attempts didn't occur until 1999.   Now the numbers have grown tremendously, and I heard one report that up to 1200 of these birds were thought to be present there this year.  Biologists are hopeful that, as their numbers increase, they will also begin to nest along the Mississippi River, from Alma south to Dubuque, Iowa.  The birds arrive on the breeding grounds in March or April and nesting starts between early April and early June.   Thanks to a 30-year leg banding study, biologists now know that the pelicans nesting in the upper midwest have overwintered in Mexico, Texas and other Gulf States.

During mating season the male develops a fibrous plate on the upper part of the beak, which turns a bright orange and ornamental plumes on his head. Once chick feeding begins, the ridges fall off and the bird develops black feathers on the back of his head. The white pelican's nest is usually a small heap of sticks, grasses, and reeds pulled together on the ground.

The female lays an average of two eggs and both parents incubate them using their feet since they don't have the typical "brood patch" of bare skin on the belly. White pelican chicks hatch naked and helpless, with homely, orange skin, and eat by digging regurgitated digested food out of the adult's pouch. As the chicks grow, they take to the water and congregate in large groups until they are ready to fly at about 10 weeks.  Adults rarely make any noise and when they do it is usually a low grunt, while the young are very noisy emitting loud squeals.

An old legend has it that pelicans have been known to rip pieces of their own flesh from their bodies to feed their young. Perhaps it is the stained plumage on the breast of the parent that gradually fades as the chick grows, coupled with the pelican’s way of feeding its young that gave rise to the legend, or perhaps it was just an imaginative story teller that began the rumor.  No such behavior exists in this or any other bird, however.

In September, white pelicans leave their nesting grounds and head south to wintering areas in Mexico, Texas and other Gulf States. We can still view them for another few weeks by visiting the Horicon visitor center or looking on the water along hiking and bicycle trails on Main Dike Road, State Highway 49, or Old Marsh Road. It is also possible to see them along the backwaters of the Mississippi and Black rivers in La Crosse.  I, for one, will be watching the great "V's" of migrating geese and cranes this fall, hoping to see among them formations made up of these fascinating white newcomers.
Probably, the most successful way to view white pelicans is to visit Horicon where spotting scopes at the visitor center offer a close-up experience.  At over 33,000 acres in size, this is one of the largest freshwater marshes in the United States and the pelicans nest in considerable numbers on islands in the interior of the marsh and may be seen feeding in large groups.   Viewing is best in the early morning hours but flights of the big birds can occur at any time in the day -- even at Spring Green.


July 30, 2019

The discovery of any animal hole in the ground raises lots of questions. Who made it? Is the digger still down there? Will it bite me, eat my garden plants, produce a flock of babies, excavate tunnels across my yard? 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 mainly as relatively safe 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 usually spend part of their lives underground.

Smaller rodents spend more time in their burrows. Chipmunks and ground squirrels raise their families, store excess seeds, nuts and grain there, and then sleep through the winter.  Chipmunks dig extensive burrows with more than one entrance that can be over 11 feet long and have extra chambers in which to store their winter stocks. Thirteen-lined ground squirrels create inconspicuous two-inch door openings that are usually concealed by vegetation and open into a complex system of galleries and side entranceways. The meadow vole, also known as the field mouse, spends more time on top of the ground, well hidden by the thick clumps of grass in prairies and open forests. It creates pathways between the entrance and exit holes of its burrow and is often seen (and sometimes caught) when running back and forth. Usually there are several hundred meadow voles per acre, producing as many as nine young per litter with many litters per year.

Fan-shaped soil mounds are evidence of the presence of pocket gophers. These animals use their claws and teeth to dig, kicking away soil, rocks, and other debris from the digging area with the hind feet. They then turn a sort of somersault within the burrow, and use their forefeet and chest to push the materials out. There is usually a main burrow with deeper sections that are used as nests and food caches and a number of lateral branches that end at the surface with soil mounds. Some of these tunnels may reach a depth of 5 or 6 feet and may have a diameter of 3 inches, depending upon the size of the gopher.

Many people confuse moles with gophers but moles are not rodents, and eat worms, beetle grubs and cutworms instead of plant material.   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. In slightly loose soil the mole may be able literally to swim through the soil at a rate of around 16 feet an hour. They also have much deeper, permanent tunnels and chambers that they use when not hunting for food.

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 evidently are not always beneficial, however, as concern has been expressed recently over the introduction of alien worm species into northern Wisconsin by fishermen, as these seem to be denuding the lakeshores of native wildflowers.

Snakes, lizards, amphibians, and arthropods such as millipedes and centipedes also live at least part of their lives in the soil.  In addition, 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 grass roots and then emerge as cicadas or adult June or Japanese beetles.

Then there are the ants that build and live in an impressive network 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. (see J.R.R. Tolkiens)

July 23, 2019

Midsummer Eve is traditionally celebrated at the solstice around the 21st of June but to my way of thinking these late July days would be a more appropriate time. All sorts of signs are beginning to appear that indicate that from now on we will be traveling downhill towards autumn at an ever-increasing speed. The days are noticeably shortening, with sunset almost an hour earlier than it was a just a few weeks ago, and the animals, insects and birds are changing their behavior in response.

As swallows finish nesting, they congregate together in large groups and prepare for migration by molting and storing energy in the form of fat. Generations of cliff swallows have built their “beehive” mud nests under the eaves of a neighbor’s barn and there must have been a bumper crop of babies this year as we estimate that several hundred birds are present.

Many sit on the wires overhead, others swoop and dive in front of the car, while a number seem to be attracted to the middle of the road where they spread out from ditch to ditch. We drive carefully so as not to hit any of the more daring or dumb birds, and once we had to stop and honk to convince them to move out of the way. Swallow families stay together over migration by learning each other's voices, hence the noisy chattering one often hears when they are in the vicinity. The peak travel period is August and early September but some will leave far northern areas in late July and the first individuals will soon be reaching South America.

The Baltimore orioles are another species whose families are growing fast. As the babies become independent, the parents begin replacing old feathers and putting on weight, and some set off on their southern journey early in August. Orioles molt their feathers once a year, right after breeding in the summer and many almost double their body weight. On average during migration, an oriole may travel about 150 miles each night, flying at about 20 miles per hour. If the weather is good, and it does not stop for long, it will reach its winter range in the American tropics or southern Mexico in about 2-3 weeks.

While the birds are completing their reproductive duties, many insects such as katydids, crickets, other grasshopper types are just beginning, mating and laying the eggs that will overwinter and hatch next spring. From now until frost we will be treated to a growing chorus from all these amorous bugs that proliferate across the fields and along the forest edges. They feed on the leaves of grasses, trees and other plants, sometimes damaging gardens and crops, but I think they manage to pay for much of their food with their cheerful sounds. 

Short-horned grasshoppers, so named for their short antennae and including the varieties so common in our gardens and along roadsides, rub a file-like edge on a leg against a scraper on a wing.  Crickets and the long-horned grasshoppers, which have long antennae that often arch over their backs, rub the edge of one wing across the other.  Each species produces sounds that vary in pitch, frequency, duration, time of singing, whatever, so that each female can pick out her own Romeo from the crowd.

During the daytime hours, the high-pitched buzzes that swell in intensity and loudness before dying off are the songs of the cicada. Often misnamed “locusts” which are actually grasshopper-like insects, cicadas are cousins of our common aphids and leafhoppers. Their fat abdomens are mostly hollow and act as resonating chambers for two membranes on their sides that vibrate up to 600 times a second to produce the familiar buzzing sound. Males attract other males to join in their serenade and the chorus then brings any nearby females to the area for mating.

The past couple of weeks these large insects crawled out of their underground homes and up the tree trunks as fat nymphs. There they rested, shed their skins a final time, and emerged as winged adults to sing, mate, and lay their eggs beneath the bark of twigs of their chosen tree. The larvae soon hatch and fall to the ground where they burrow underground and feed on the juices of tree roots. It will be a period of two to twenty years, depending upon the species, before they see the light of day again.

The shortening days also affect all the plants and are causing many of our most colorful prairie flowers to bud and open their flowers. Coreopsis, coneflowers, lilies, vervain, wild quinine, butterfly weed, beebalm, cinquefoil, St. Johnswort, and prairie clover are blooming and soon the grasses, various sunflowers, blazing stars and goldenrod will open as well.

Finally, all the various asters from the tiniest calico to the large-flowered New England aster will brighten the fields and roadsides. It doesn’t pay to put off enjoying their blossoms as all too soon the flowers will fade and petals will fall. Still, the seeds will remain to give promise to another spring.

July 16, 2019

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. Indian pipe grows only five or six inches tall and has drooping flowers and tiny, scale-like leaves. It 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. 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. Scientists call it Monotropa, meaning "once-turned", referring to the fact that the flower faces the ground at first and then turns straight upward once it begins developing seeds. 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".

I had heard that the Indian pipe was a parasite, an organism that obtains its nutrients from another living organism. However, scientists discovered that its thick, brittle cluster of roots didn't contact those of any other growing plant and decided it must instead be a saprophyte, obtaining its food from decaying material in the soil. Now, botanists 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 of certain fungi in the soil, which in turn have penetrated into live tree roots. Scientists have not yet determined whether the fungus gains anything from its attachment to the Indian pipe (a common situation in such an arrangement), but at least one botanist postulated that it might be receiving phosphorus or other minerals.

All parasitic relationships become established when a seed first germinates. Such seeds are spread in bird droppings or are carried by an insect, animal, or the wind, but they must land on suitable host tissue, particular fungus filaments in the case of Indian pipe. These reportedly give off a chemical stimulus to receptive seeds causing them to begin development. 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 can'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 the names 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 this Native American legend from Cherokee Plants, a book by Mary Chiltosky. "Before selfishness came into the world-that was a long time ago-the Cherokee people were happy sharing the hunting and fishing places with their neighbors. All this changed when Selfishness came into the world and man began to quarrel. The Cherokee quarreled with tribes on the east. Finally the chiefs of several tribes met in council to try to settle the dispute. They smoked the pipe and continued to quarrel for seven days and seven nights. This displeased the Great Spirit because people are not supposed to smoke the pipe until they make peace. As he looked upon the old men with heads bowed, he decided to do something to remind people to smoke the pipe only at the time they make peace. The Great Spirit turned the old men into greyish flowers we now call "Indian Pipes" and he made them grow where friends and relatives have quarreled. He made the smoke hang over these mountains until all the people all over the world learn to live together in peace." Amen.

July 9, 2019: Spiders

Through the years, biologists have attempted to discover and then identify and name every creature that they can find on earth. Carl Linnaeus who taught at the University of Uppsala, Sweden, in the 1700‘s, laid the foundation for the system that is still used today for classifying organisms by focusing on shared physical characteristics.

They categorize as “plants” those multicellular organisms that have no independent ability to move and that manufacture their own food through photosynthesis, and identify as “animals” those multicellular organisms that do have independent ability of movement and that acquire their food by eating other organisms. Within these broad categories, the scientists place organisms into first a kingdom, and then proceed through a phylum, class, order, family, genera and finally species.  So far, the scientists have classified and named something over a million animal species and very well may have millions more to go.

To get an idea of the difficulties encountered in such a procedure, consider the spider, an air-breathing creature having an external skeleton, a segmented body,  eight legs and mouthparts with fangs able to inject venom.  It is first of all in the animal kingdom, then in the phylum Arthropoda (having an external skeleton, a segmented body, and paired jointed appendages), in the order, Araneae (eight legs, six or eight eyes and two body segments), then the class, Arachnida (eight legs, a fused head and thorax, mandibles for biting and chewing prey, no antennae, claws, or wings). 

The main groups of modern spiders first appeared in the Triassic period, some 200 million years ago. Anatomically, spiders differ from other arthropods in that the usual three body segments are fused into two, the head-thorax and abdomen and joined by a thin flexible pedicel.  Unlike insects, spiders do not have antennae and have no moving  muscles in their limbs and instead extend them by hydraulic pressure.

Spiders have primarily four pairs of eyes arranged in patterns that vary from one family to another. The principal pair at the front is capable of forming images and is supplied with muscles, allowing them to move the retina.  The other pairs, called secondary eyes, are immobile and are thought to detect light reflected from a tissue that reflects visible light back through the retina, increasing the light available.

Their abdomens have silk-spinning organs that extrude silk from up to six types of glands, but spider webs vary widely in size, shape and the amount of sticky thread used. It now appears that the spiral orb web may be one of the earliest forms, and spiders that produce tangled cobwebs are more abundant and diverse than orb-web spiders. The silk is mainly composed of a protein and is initially a liquid.  It hardens as a result of being drawn out, which changes its internal structure.   It is similar in tensile strength to nylon but is much more elastic. 

Almost all known spider species are predators, mostly preying on insects and on other spiders.  They use a wide range of strategies to capture prey: trapping it in sticky webs, lassoing it with sticky threads,  mimicking the prey to avoid detection, or even running it down.  Most detect prey by sensing vibrations, but the active hunters have acute vision, and a few hunters show signs of intelligence in their choice of tactics and ability to develop new ones. Spiders cannot eat solid food so they grind prey with the bases of their jaws and then liquefy it by flooding it with digestive enzymes.  Despite a relatively small central nervous system, some spiders exhibit complex behavior, including the ability to use a trial-and-error approach.

Most of the 1,000-plus species of Wisconsin spiders are less than an inch in length, but some, including the wolf spiders, nursery web spiders, garden spiders, and funnel web spiders, reach greater sizes. Then there is the dark fishing spider that may reach three inches in length. This semiaquatic spider secretes a water-repelling fluid at the tips of its legs, allowing it move across a water surface, and it can even forage underwater by breathing in air bubbles trapped in the bristles of its abdomen. Spider webs can vary tremendously by species, from the elaborate designs of the black and yellow garden spider’s orb web and the flat sheets of the grass spider species to the disorganized webs of the brown recluse. Crab spiders, wolf spiders, woodlouse hunters and fishing spiders actively hunt or ambush their prey and overpower them, instead of trapping them in a web.

Almost all spiders are venomous, but the venom of most is only strong enough to subdue their insect prey.  Only two species that are potentially dangerous to humans are found in Wisconsin, black widows and brown recluses.  Black widows are relatively large, measuring about 1 1/2 inches across, and are distinguished by their shiny black bodies and distinctive markings (females have a red hourglass-shaped pattern on their abdomens while males have light-colored streaks).  They are found mainly in dry areas like piles of wood, crawl spaces and rock piles, and may give painful bites that can lead to nausea, fever and muscle aches, as well as death in young children and the elderly.  Brown recluses are smaller, measuring between 1/4 inch and 3/4 inch in width and may have a darker brown thorax that can resemble a violin or fiddle in appearance.  Brown recluses are often seen away from their messy, disorganized webs in dark, cool places and their venom can cause tissue damage and necrosis.

While the venom of a few species is dangerous to humans, scientists are now researching the use of spider venom in medicine and as non-polluting pesticides.  In addition, spider silk provides a combination of lightness, strength and elasticity that is superior to that of synthetic materials, and spider silk genes have been inserted into mammals and plants in an effort to make these into silk factories.   Who would have thought?

July 2, 2019:  Lightning bugs

Fireflies, lightning bugs, glowworms--what could be more magical than little creatures that can light up the darkness?  Fireflies are familiar beetles, however, and most have wings, although other luminescent insects of the same family commonly known as glowworms do not.  There are about 2,000 firefly species around the world, and they live in humid regions of Asia and the Americas, as well as in wet or damp areas elsewhere in drier climates.

Fireflies have dedicated light organs that are located under their abdomens. These are groups of tissues that have been adapted to take in oxygen and combine it with a substance called luciferin inside their special cells and produce "cold" light with nearly 100% of the energy given off as light. (In contrast, the energy produced by an incandescent light bulb is approximately 10% light and 90% heat.).

This light is usually intermittent, and each species seems to flash in a unique pattern that helps it find a potential mate.  The males fly around and blink on and off, and any receptive female he passes makes a similar response. The flashes are also thought to serve as defense mechanisms that warn predators of the insect's bad taste.  Fireflies take from one to two years to mature from larvae, but will live as adults for only about 21 days. While in the larval stage, they feed on snails and smaller insects but once they transform into their adult form, most do not eat.

Each year in late spring the Great Smoky Mountains National Park hosts a special light show, thanks to a species of firefly native to that region. These are the synchronous fireflies, known for coordinating their flashes into bursts that ripple through a large group of the insects and are the only species in America whose individuals can synchronize their flashing light patterns.  No one is sure why the fireflies do this; is it competition between males to be brightest, or perhaps if the males all flash together they have a better chance of attracting females?  Peak flashing for synchronous fireflies in the park is normally within a two-week period in late May to mid-June. 

The common eastern firefly is most likely what we will see in backyards in our area. Each is about half an inch long, and produces yellow-green light.  A few days after mating, the female lays her fertilized eggs on or just below the surface of the ground. The eggs hatch three to four weeks later, and the larvae feed until the end of the summer.  They hibernate over the winter as larvae, burrowing underground or taking shelter under the bark of trees. They revive in the spring, feed for several weeks, and then pupate before emerging as adults. 

Fireflies are disappearing all over the world but you can help by reducing the amount of light in your yard at night, by cutting back on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, allowing some areas for wildness and introducing water.  The production of light by living organisms is called bioluminescence and while fireflies are the most likely encountered example, there are many others, such as certain species of fungus, fish, shrimp, jellyfish, plankton, glowworms, gnats, snails, and springtails.

Foxfire is the bluish-green glow created by some species of fungi present in decaying wood.  Some believe this evolved because the light attracted insects to spread the fungal spores, or acted as a warning to hungry animals.  Although generally very dim, in some cases foxfire is bright enough to read words.  The oldest recorded documentation of the phenomenon was in works of Aristotle and Pliny the Elder, but it wasn’t until 1823 that its cause was understood.  Early scientists and naturalists examined wooden support beams in mines that glowed, and found that the luminescence came from a fungal growth.  The "fox" in "foxfire" may derive from the Old French word fols, meaning "false", rather than from the name of the animal.

Bioluminescence is so commonplace on our planet—particularly in the oceans—that marine scientists estimate the thousands of glowing species they have catalogued so far are just a fraction of the sum. It may well be that the vast majority of deep-sea creatures, which live in the dark, generate their own light (sometimes with the assistance of microbes). They use these innate glows primarily to communicate: to warn and frighten, hide and hunt, lure and beguile. Bioluminescence may be one of the oldest and most prevalent languages on Earth.

Some fish dangle a lighted lure in front of their mouths to attract prey, while some squid shoot out bioluminescent liquid, instead of ink, to confuse their predators. Worms and tiny crustaceans also use bioluminescence to attract mates.  Sea-going humans primarily see bioluminescence triggered by waves or a moving boat hull that gets the creatures to show their glow, but often animals light up in response to an attack or in order to attract a mate. Bioluminescent organisms live from the sea’s surface to the seafloor, from near the coast to the open ocean, and is extremely common because the deep sea is so vast and dark.

Then there are even tiny flies who live in caves and the deep rainforest in New Zealand. Their larvae spin nests of silk on the roofs of their caves and then use their blue glow to attract prey, sometimes so numerous that they reportedly resemble a starry sky at night. Considering the wide variety of creatures that have evolved to make use of this ability, bioluminescence may be the most common form of communication on our planet.


June 24, 2019:  Hummingbirds

Just a few feet from where we sit in our living room a tiny bird with an iridescent breast rules his kingdom with diligence and dedication.  He has a wingspan of only about four inches and weighs only a fraction of an ounce, but is quite bold and will give chase to any intruders at the feeder we have installed on our window and keep filled with sugar water.  The ruby-throat is eastern North America’s only breeding hummingbird and is a common sight in suburbs and towns.

It is difficult to watch a hummingbird with its beak dipped into the liquid without wondering exactly what is going on.  It was known that it drinks nectar using a tongue that is so long that, when retracted, it coils up inside the bird’s head around its skull and eyes.  At its tip, the tongue divides in two and its outer edges curve inward, creating two tubes running side by side. The tubes don’t close up, so the birds can’t suck on them as if they were straws, and many scientists believed that they were narrow enough to passively draw liquid into themselves by capillary action.

Margaret Rubega, a researcher of the University of Connecticut questioned this theory and set graduate student Alejandro Rico-Guevara to study the subject.  He filmed the birds’ flickering tongues with high-speed cameras and eventually got perfectly focused footage of the tongue, dipping into nectar at 1,200 frames per second.

He discovered that when the bird sticks its tongue out, it uses its beak to compress the two tubes at the tip, squeezing them flat and glued in place with residual nectar inside them. When the tongue hits nectar, the two tubes separate and unfurl, and when the bird retracts its tongue, the tubes roll back up as their flaps curl inward, trapping nectar in the process. And because the flaps at the very tip are shorter than those further back, they seal the nectar in.

Every time it extends its tongue, it presses down with its beak, squeezing the trapped nectar out like a piston pump and as it pulls it back in, it brings nectar into the beak. Even more amazing is the fact that the tongue opens and closes automatically when the tip enters and withdraws from the liquid because of the changing surface tension around it. The bird flicks its tongue in and out, and all else follows.

Feeding is not the only mystery being solved with high-speed photography. The wings of the ruby throat beat around 80 times a second, and have an unlikely action.  Margaret Rubega suggests that to imitate the motion, one must press one’s elbows into one’s sides, keep the forearms parallel to the ground and swing them in and out. Now, rotate one’s wrists in figure eights and it is a simulation of how a hummingbird’s wings work in flight, allowing them to hover and perform acrobatic maneuvers.

Another graduate student, Gregor Yanega, found a further adaption hummingbirds have developed through the centuries that had not been known.  The high-speed photography showed that as the birds flew about after insects to supplement their nectar diet, they actively bent the lower half of their beak out of the way, exposing a wide open mouth that more easily scooped up the prey. 

The number of birds trying to sneak past our male hummingbird at the feeder has increased the past week, leading us to assume that our resident female (or two?) has raised her first brood and has introduced them to the bounty of our three feeders.  (The young birds look much like their mothers except for shorter beaks, and they seem more tolerant of each other’s presence).

The female hummingbird has a fascinating story.  She probably began her year in Central America where she spent the winter, but in late January instinct told her to start north.  She began gaining weight, perhaps doubling her body mass, and started moving north through Mexico.  The shortest route was directly across the Gulf of Mexico—600 miles over open water, and even with favorable winds, the flight must have taken about 18 hours.  When she completed the crossing, she had to quickly find food so she could rebuild up her strength to keep flying north.

She must have reached southern Wisconsin early in May and found the males already here.  Unlike many songbirds, a female ruby-throat didn’t select a mate and move in to share his territory; instead, she established her own little home range and mated with one of the nearby males who then left to find another female.

She gathered scraps of spiderweb to form a sticky pad on a horizontal tree branch high above the ground and then built up the sides to form a nest, accomplishing this with hundreds of trips over the next week.  She laid two eggs a few days apart and began incubating, only leaving the nest to feed herself, and when they hatched she regurgitated a nectar/insect mix deep into their throats.  For about three weeks the baby hummers grew, and the tiny spiderweb nest stretched to accommodate them.   After the ruby-throat babies learned to fly and left the nest, their mother probably fed them for another week, but now they are on their own and will even migrate solo in fall, purely by instinct.

Male ruby-throated hummingbirds don’t stick around long. Pairs are together long enough for courtship and mating – just a matter of days to weeks. Then he’s off on his own, and may begin migration by early August.  But can you ever see one of these little female dynamos again without marveling at her?


June 19, 2019:   Tiny Flies

The frequent rains in our fair valley this spring have created a very favorable environment for small flying insects such as mosquitoes, midges, black flies, crane flies and gnats.  No one needs an introduction to the mosquitoes and many fishermen are well acquainted with black flies, but this years we are experiencing an unusual number of gnats that seem to hang in clouds to greet us whenever we go outdoors.  Although most of these don’t seem to bite, they are a definite nuisance as they buzz in our ears and seem to be attracted to our eyes.

Gnats are tiny flies but are an important food source for birds, bats and larger insects. They also pollinate flowers.  Most do not bite; in fact, some adult gnats don’t even eat during their short lifespans.  The name “gnat” refers to many species of miniscule flying insects and is a loose descriptive category rather than a technical term, so there is no scientific consensus on what exactly makes a gnat a gnat. 

Most gnat larva hatch from eggs laid in moist soil and other wet environments, and feast on fungus, algae or plants.  Besides humidity, a gnat’s life cycle also depends on temperature.  Many live in tropical zones while others can survive temperatures lower than 25 degrees below zero as in Alaska, and can be completely frozen.  Some entomologists consider only non-biting flies to be gnats and most bothersome to us are those tiny non-biting flies that are attracted to fluids secreted by our eyes.  Next might be the fungus gnats, a common indoor pest that thrives in the overwatered soil of potted plants or greenhouses.

Many deposit their their eggs into water or attach them to aquatic vegetation.  Hatching continues over several days with the young larvae dropping to the bottom and building tubelike structures of debris where the small worm-like creatures feed on organic material.  Others live on land where some cause root, stem, or leaf galls, abnormal swelling outgrowths of plant tissues similar to benign tumors in animals.  The larval stages last about a month followed by pupal periods where they change into winged adults.   Adults live for about another ten days or so during which they produce up to 300 eggs. One female gnat can lay up to 1,000 eggs during its lifetime.

They may not officially be gnats to many experts, but far more bothersome are the tiny black flies, more commonly known in many areas as biting gnats, sand flies, biting midges, punkies or “no-see-ums”.  These are usually black or dark gray, with gauzy wings, stout antennae and legs, and rather short mouthparts that are adapted for sucking blood.  The larvae and pupae live in flowing water and when fully developed the adult frees itself from its pupal case, rises to the water surface on a bubble of air, and flies away.  Only females bite (they require protein from the blood to be able to lay eggs, and their sting has been compared with that of the fire ant).  Occasionally they are so abundant that they may kill chickens, birds, and other domestic animals..

Mosquitoes are in the same scientific order and suborder as black flies but in a different family, and are considerably bigger.  Another major difference is that mosquitos insert a needle-like snout into the host’s body, injecting irritating saliva into the skin to prevent the host’s blood from clotting, and then proceeding to suck out the blood leaving a itchy, red, and swollen welt.  Biting gnat females, such as black flies and biting midges have jagged, saw-like mouth parts that pierce the skin and then feed on the wound, also causing pain, itching, and swelling.

Then there are midges, flies that are often mistaken for mosquitoes because they have a similar size and body shape although male midges tend to have feathery antennae, something not seen on mosquitoes.   Also, midges rest with their two front legs hovering above the surface, whereas mosquitoes lift their hind legs.  Their eggs are laid in shallow waters and the worm-like larvae hatch and serve two good roles in the ecosystem: they feed on decaying organic matter in the water, and they serve as a food source to other aquatic insects and fish. Midges can be found along any body of water such as lakes and ponds and adults live only a few days as they do not feed and spend their short lives focused on reproduction.

Crane flies can be distinguished from mosquitoes by their larger size; but also by their wings, which lack the scales found on mosquito wings. The common name “mosquito hawk” is sometimes given to them, presumably because of the erroneous belief that these clumsy, long-legged insects are predators on mosquitoes.  Some are actually nectar feeders, possibly helping out a little with pollination in the process, while other species lack mouth parts entirely. Instead, the adults live out their short lives relying on fat reserves built up during their underground larval stage.  Crane fly larvae are legless, worm-like creatures found in many types of moist soil, sandy areas along streams, rotting vegetation or mosses and are food for hungry birds, as well as smaller mammals, fish, spiders and predatory insects. The sole purpose of the adult crane fly is to mate and produce eggs for next spring’s crop of flies.  

Gnats and related flies are so in sync with weather conditions that one team of scientists from the University of Liverpool has been analyzing fossilized midge heads to detect two past climate events thousands of year ago where changes in the Gulf Stream, which normally keeps the UK climate warm and wet, cooled 1.6 degrees -- approximately three times the temperature change currently attributed to global warming.  Such finds are helping them to understand what can happen when the climate system is disturbed.  Still, one thing is for sure; all flies are annoying, as any one who has dealt with them on a hike or when gardening or other outdoor activity can attest.


June 10, 2019:  Babies

Babies are everywhere around the farmyard.   Bird babies of all colors and sizes fight over who should get first use of the bathing facilities at the little pond.   Rabbit babies are living under the deck and visit my flower garden at their doorstep.   Kestrel babies squawk constantly, complaining they are on the verge of starvation while making so much noise it must be extremely difficult for the harried parents to catch a mouse or sparrow that has not been warned of their presence.  Fawns are beginning to follow their parents as they feed and can’t resist gambling about, chasing each other.  Tadpoles of all sizes line up along the edge of the little pond, while toads and grey tree frogs still sing and presumably continue to lay eggs. Caterpillars are appearing, along with holes in the leaves of all sorts of plants.

Most wild babies have to grow up quickly as the great majority end up as meals for other species, and the faster they become proficient at moving around and caring for themselves, the more likely they are to survive. Two weeks is a common length of time for the average songbird to grow from a blind, naked mite to a fully feathered creature capable of flying about (although most do depend upon their parents to teach them how to find food for another couple of weeks). Rabbits can care for themselves by the time they are a few weeks old and a little brown bat can fly when only 18 days old.

If a species is going to sustain itself, each breeding female must replace herself with another breeding female before she dies. (The survival of any one male is less significant as most take many mates during their lifetimes.) The numbers are amazing. Take American robins as an instance. In order for robins to continue to arrive each spring and nest in our apple trees, each pair will have two or sometimes three broods each year. Each brood contains three to five eggs, so a female could produce from six to fifteen young each year and therefore up to thirty babies in the two years she usually lives, and considerably more should she survive longer. If she and her mate only need to replace themselves, what happens to all those extra offspring?

A coyote pair has an average of six young each year, although it may be as few as two and as many as a dozen. They can expect to live 6-8 years, according to the DNR statistics, and if so, will probably have had at least 30 pups and possibly as many as a hundred.

Consider the cottontail: a female that survives long enough to leave its nest can expect to live about a year, although some have been known to live four or five years. She will have three or four litters each year with three to eight young per litter, although a few up to l0 have been reported. Therefore, she would probably have had at least 25 young and possibly many more. Farther south, cottontails may breed year round with as many as 7 litters a year. We should be overrun!

The female Monarch butterfly lays about 400 eggs during her six or eight months of life, and it has been estimated that our common toad produces close to 5000 eggs. It is not known how long these amphibians live in the wild laying long strings of eggs each spring and filling many a puddle and pond with their tadpoles, but they have been known to subsist for more than 30 years in captivity. 

One of the most prolific breeders of all the mammals is the meadow vole, a small, common rodent that lives in grassy fields and marshes and is a close relative of our deer mouse and that pesky house mouse. It is a short stubby rodent with a rounded face, small eyes, short fur, and a very short tail. There are 4 species of voles in Wisconsin but only the meadow vole occurs in any numbers. It lives above ground, creating little round tunnels in grassy vegetation and eating foliage and seeds and sometimes tender tree bark, and can cause severe damage, especially during winter when it is active under the snow.

Female voles can have 10 litters per year if conditions are favorable, and if one assumes an average litter contains six offspring, the numbers are staggering. Voles are born naked and blind but they are fully furred after 10 days, and reach sexual maturity at 5-7 weeks. The arithmetic becomes complicated, but if a single female bears litters of six babies in March and April and her female pups begin their own litters just two months after birth that would then reach breeding age in another two months, by the end of the season her total offspring could top 1000 new rodents.

Some of these various babies are killed in accidents and a fair percentage are struck down by disease, but the great majority become part of the wild food chain. They are preyed upon by hawks, owls, foxes, domestic cats and dogs, snakes, crows, herons, shrews, skunks, bullfrogs, snapping turtles, largemouth bass, and raccoons.   Nature can be cruel to an individual, but the ultimate goal is survival of each species, and barring major problems this usually is accomplished, and the babies are certainly cute.


June 2, 2019: Orchids

One of the mysteries that intrigue me is the pleasure I receive from studying a flower blossom, particularly one with an unusual or intricate shape, delicately textured petals, or brilliant color such as a wild lady slipper orchid. I know I am not alone in having such feelings for there have been a number of sources describing the “language” of the flowers including one on the internet from Texas A&M which publishes an extensive list of what messages the various blossoms can convey to many people. That site credits an orchid with being the symbol for love, refinement, and beauty.

Orchid foliage can be as narrow as a grass blade or be thick and flat and lie close to the ground, but all the leaves have parallel veins. The flowers are what make them distinctive, however, and they have developed unusual characteristics to attract the insects or other creatures that they need to transfer their pollen. A typical blossom is made up of three colored sepals and three petals, one of which is formed into a lip or pouch and more brightly decorated than the others. This often acts as a convenient landing pad for a special visitor and often will display the color and form that will attract a particular one. Some species, such as the ladyslippers, also have deep inner chambers with just one exit, forcing any comers to brush by and therefore collect pollen as they go.

Of all the wild orchids, the showy lady's-slipper has always seemed particularly elegant, and even has the Latin designation “reginae” meaning queen. A well-grown showy orchid is a robust plant, putting up several 2-3 foot stems from a rhizome anchored and fed by numerous fibrous roots. Several gorgeous white blossoms may top each stem, each displaying a delicate inflated pouch that is brushed with deep rose.  I have purchased and subsequently lost several of these plants over the years in an effort to introduce them to my wild garden.

The first, mailed from a northern nursery some 20 years ago was sent bare-rooted and fully leafed-out, a recipe for disaster and convincing proof that when one deals with an unknown source, disappointment is often the result. The second attempt involved trying to raise tiny seedlings that were from a reputable nursery but too young for my limited experience in giving them proper care.

The third failed when a squirrel (or other dastardly villain) dug the plant and ate the crown the same night it was planted. Two years ago I purchased my current specimen from Scott Weber at Bluestem Farm near Baraboo, and carefully placed it in a site that I hoped would be suitable. It will not bloom until late June so I have another month to anticipate its grandeur, but I laugh at myself as our native yellow ladyslipper is almost as big and is certainly a beauty, as well. We have many of these, although a few years ago a number of their blossoms were damaged by the heavy frost we suffered.

The showy orchis looks somewhat like a miniature version of the showy orchid and does well at numerous sites around the farm, as does the twayblade, a less attractive but still interesting cousin.  This one has medium green, 5-inch leaves and a central stem with pale purple one-inch flowers.

The other orchids we have discovered have much smaller and less imposing flowers and include the downy rattlesnake plantain, perhaps the most common orchid in southern Wisconsin and known for its distinctive foliage. It has rosettes of dark green evergreen leaves with a prominent white stripe along the midrib crossed by a network of white markings. In late July or August, the plant puts up a foot-high spike which has several dozen tiny white flowers thickly arranged around the upper half. 

Also present but seldom seen are the Coralroot orchid, Putty root and Ladies’ tresses, and we always have an eye out for one of these rarities.  The coral root orchids are forest plants that are unique in that they depend upon special fungi in the soil.  In this type of association the fungus colonizes the host plant's root tissues, and the plant relies entirely upon this relationship to provide sustenance.  The flowers appear on leafless stalks and may be single or form small colonies. They produce millions of powdery seeds that must land on the appropriate soil-fungus matrix in order for new plants to germinate.

The puttyroot orchid develops a single basal leaf during the fall that persists through the winter.  The leaf is broadly elliptic in shape and has parallel veins.  During the late spring or early summer, the basal leaf withers away and a foot-tall flowering stalk with small white blossoms emerges.  Lady’s tresses have narrow, grasslike leaves about 10 inches long, growing from the base of the plant. The flowers are white and grow along the upper part of the slender, erect stem, spiraling into a dense spike.  This is one of the few orchids that have a fragrance.   A dozen or more species of Ladies-tresses are known in the eastern United States.

Some 18 orchid groups can be found in Wisconsin, but worldwide, the orchid family is among the largest and most diverse of the flowering plant families, containing up to 30,000 different species. Wish me well with my showy orchid, and watch for any of these lovely plants whenever you are in the woods.


May 27, 2019: Snakes

For centuries, snakes have been misunderstood, under-appreciated, and even heavily persecuted.  They appeared in the fossil record 100 million years ago and vipers (venomous snakes) evolved during the Miocene period, some 35 million years ago.  Snakes occur throughout most of the world and vary in length from 5 inches to more than 30 feet. They are closely related to lizards but do not have eyelids or ear openings. They rely on their surroundings to control their body temperatures.  They “smell” by sticking out a forked tongue that collects odor-causing particles that are then delivered to a sensory organ in the mouth.

Snakes play very important roles in natural communities as both predator and prey. They are valuable to the agricultural community by keeping grain eating mammals in check and also in reducing disease threats posed by high rodent populations in more urban areas.  Wisconsin has 21 species of snakes including nineteen non-venomous and two venomous types.  Fourteen are considered "rare" and are listed as endangered, threatened or of special concern.  Many snake populations have declined in Wisconsin due to habitat loss and human persecution.

Of the venomous species, the Eastern Massasauga is medium-sized rattlesnake of the river bottom lowland forests and open wetlands.  It is seldom seen and is considered Wisconsin’s most endangered reptile. We do see timber rattlesnakes, however, as they often warm themselves in the sun on the big rock down the road.  This cold spring has evidently kept them underground as none have been observed so far.  This heavy-bodied snake has a broad triangular head that is distinct from its narrow neck and a thick black tail tipped with a tan rattle.  Adults average 35 to 50 inches in total length and have dark cross bands extending along yellow-brown backs.

Timber rattlesnakes breed near the den site before moving into the woods for the summer.  Reproduction is slow as a female often  requires at least seven years to become sexually mature and then reproduces only every third or fourth year.  She doesn't lay eggs; instead, the eggs are kept inside her body until they hatch.  In Wisconsin, litters of 6-15 young are born from late August to mid-September but their mortality is high.

Timber rattlesnakes feed primarily on small mammals which include mice, voles, chipmunks, squirrels, and young rabbits. They typically coil alongside a small mammal trail and wait for prey to come to them. The snake's heat-sensing pits, located between the eye and the nostril on each side of the face, warn of an approaching rodent and the snake bites it, injecting venom that will kill it almost immediately. The snake then follows the scent to the fallen prey and swallows it whole.

It is reassuring to read that, during the past century, only two or three bites of humans by timber rattlers have been reported each decade and only one fatality has ever been recorded. We also understand that less than half of all bites by poisonous snakes contain venom, as rattlesnakes can control the amounts injected when biting and don’t want to waste their supply. We treat our rattlesnakes with considerable respect, but find them to be interesting and relatively docile neighbors.

The non-venomous snakes are constrictors, meaning they wrap their bodies around the prey animal and squeeze until it can't breathe. The Bullsnake is the largest of these, and despite its size (it can reach eight feet in length) and its bite, it is relatively harmless to humans.  Its head is triangular, the tail is usually golden with black rings, blotches along the snake's midsection may vary from black to reddish- brown, and the neck region tends to be heavily mottled with black and white.  It often mimics a rattlesnake by shaking its tail in dry vegetation, and may hiss loudly when approached. Bullsnakes live on sand prairies, oak savannas and in pine and oak barrens where they feed primarily on small mammals.

The various Garter Snakes are probably the most common Wisconsin snakes.  Most have a pattern of yellow stripes on a black, brown or green background, and their average total length (including tail) is about 22 inches.  Their diet consists of frogs, earthworms, salamander larvae, tadpoles, fish and beetles and they are usually found in moist, open grassy areas in prairies and oak savannas and along open river margins.

The Black Rat Snake is Wisconsin’s only arboreal (tree-dwelling) snake. It can be found in bluff prairies, oak woodlands and pastures, and is occasionally seen climbing or resting in the rafters of barns and other out buildings. Rodents and birds make up its diet.  The Northern Redbelly Snake has a reddish-brown to steel gray background color while its underside is a bright red to orange.  Besides boreal forests and sphagnum bogs, it can be found in hardwood forests and adjacent fields. Redbelly snakes eat slugs, earthworms, and beetle larvae.
You can find snakes living under boards and rocks, in brush piles, rocky ledges, or stone walls, especially near water.   We even found a little Redbelly in our greenhouse after discovering its shed skin wrapped around a thorny twig there.  As a snake grows, its skin becomes stretched to its limit. When that occurs, a new layer of skin grows underneath the current one.  When it’s ready to shed, it creates a rip in the old skin by rubbing against a rough, hard object, and then inches its way through the old layer until free.  The average adult snake will shed its skin two to four times per year while young snakes may molt every two weeks.

Snakes are fascinating. They eat lots of rodents and other small pests. We need snakes to keep the pests under control but sadly many people kill snakes because of fear or they mistake a nonvenomous snake for a venomous one.  Actually, until 1975 there was a bounty in Wisconsin on rattlesnakes, paying up to 5 dollars a tail.  Now most snakes are protected by law but all should be!


May 21, 2019:  Garlic Mustard

"Roots, herbs, and salad-flowers…they dish up in various ways, and find them a very delicious sauce to their meat", and "poor people…mix them (the leaves) with lettuce, use them as a stuffing herb to pork, and eat them with salt fish".  Both of these quotations are from writings of the early 1700's referring to garlic mustard, a native of Northern Europe. It was used as a vegetable, a garlic-flavored herb in cooking, and planted to prevent erosion. It was also used for medicinal purposes as a treatment for gangrene and ulcers, so it is no wonder that people wanted this desirable plant in their gardens.

For centuries, immigrants coming to the New World tucked seeds of favorite plants into their luggage, carrying along these bits of their former lives to make their settling in their new homes easier. Thousands of non-native plant species, some brought intentionally and others by accident, have now spread across the United States and a few are causing major problems. Most plants in their home areas have insects or other animals that feed on them as well as disease organisms that keep them from overpopulating, but when these plants are moved to new locations without these predators and diseases, some spread rapidly.

 Honeysuckle and common buckthorn have been problems for a number of years and are now so abundant that they completely fill many wooded areas. These European shrubs leaf out early and cast a dense shade, virtually eliminating spring wildflowers, native shrubs, and even tree seedlings. Other species such as garlic mustard are fairly recent invaders, and have only been recognized as a major threat in recent years. We have found small patches of this plant here at the farm, and keep a diligent eye out for any that might appear.

Garlic mustard is a cool season biennial herb with stalked, heart-shaped, coarsely toothed leaves that have an odor of garlic when crushed. First-year plants appear as rosettes of green leaves close to the ground and look something like young violets. These remain green through the winter and early in the following spring they grow up to two feet in height and produce clusters of small four-petaled white flowers.

By late June, most of the leaves have faded away and only dead and dying stalks of dry, pale brown seedpods remain containing hundreds of seeds that will fall to the ground near the parent plant. People and animals walking in such areas disperse seeds over longer distances and since seeds can remain viable for up to five years the plants spread rapidly. Once introduced into an area, garlic mustard monopolizes the light, moisture, and nutrients, crowding out the native plants and the wildlife that depend on them.

Light infestations of garlic mustard can best be controlled by hand pulling before seeds have ripened. The whole plant pulls easily in damp soil although both tops and much of the root system must be destroyed to prevent resprouting. Severe infestations can be treated with a glyphosate herbicide in late fall to minimize damage to other plants, repeated mowing, or burning. Due to the long life of its seeds in the soil, which may be five years or more, effective management of garlic mustard requires a long-term commitment. 

Garlic mustard is a good European plant gone bad in North America. There is something really different in our environment that allows it to spread rampantly and researchers think it may the lack of certain hungry insects. They have now identified five European insect species that might provide control, and are conducting tests in Switzerland before recommending that they be imported into the United States.  Before any insect would be introduced, the U.S. Department of Agriculture would have to be assured that it would attack no other plants, and we would also hope that they would consider the possible proliferation of any introduced species after our present problems with the Asian ladybug. 

What can we do about invasive plants? Unlike many environmental problems, this one is close to home, often as close as our own back yard or neighborhood park. We must learn to identify the most troublesome weeds in our area and start controlling them. Perhaps we could adopt ideas others are using.

Since 1996, the Milwaukee County Park System and AFSCME Local 882 have held "Weed-out" sessions during the spring at some of their parks, providing volunteers with plastic bags and instructions on what to pull. In Maryland at Patapsco Valley State Park, organizers just held the 3rd Annual Garlic Mustard Challenge where teams competed for prizes based on who could pull the most pounds of garlic mustard. The two-hour event was designed to appeal to family and youth groups and was followed by a chef's challenge to see who had created the tastiest dish using the herb. Perhaps some interested group would sponsor such a project in our area. It might even be fun!

May 14, 2019:  Baltimore Orioles and color in birds

One of the many joys of spring is putting out half an orange or two on the deck railing.  Last week It took only minutes for ours to be visited by a mostly black bird with flaming orange patches.   The Baltimore oriole is a very colorful blackbird that is very fond of fruit and insects, and often raids our hummingbird feeders as well.  The adult male is orange on the underparts, shoulder patch and rump, with some birds appearing a very deep flaming orange and others appearing yellowish-orange. All of the rest of the male's plumage is black. The adult female is yellow-brown on the upper parts with darker wings, and dull orange-yellow on the breast and belly.

The male sings a loud flutey whistle, with a buzzy, bold quality, a familiar sound in much of the eastern United States.   It has often been found high up in large deciduous trees in open woodland or stands of trees along rivers, but in recent times it also frequents orchards, urban parks and suburban landscapes.  The birds are found all through eastern North America in summer, and migrate in winter to Mexico and as far as northern South America.   In summer they feed mostly on insects, especially caterpillars, including hairy types avoided by many birds.  They also eat many berries and other fruit.  We were interested to watch several feeding on the nectar of our tulips, their weight bending the closed blossoms down to the ground and then inserting their beaks into their bases to extract the sweetness.

The Baltimore oriole received its name from the resemblance of the male's colors to those on the coat of arms of Lord Baltimore, an English nobleman who was the first proprietor of the Province of Maryland.  Early settlers to the New World thought the bird was an oriole because of the physically similar bird family found in the Europe but experts have since determined that they are not related.  Six New World oriole species have been recorded in Wisconsin but the Baltimore and Orchard are most common and they are closely related to our bobolink, meadowlark, grackle, cowbird and all the other New World blackbirds. 

In the spring, the male establishes a territory, then displays to females by singing and chattering while hopping from perch to perch in front of them.   He also gives a bow display, dipping with wings lowered and tail fanned. Depending on their receptiveness, the females may ignore him or sing and give calls or a wing-quiver display in response. The wing-quiver display involves leaning forward, often with tail partly fanned, and fluttering or quivering slightly lowered wings.

The Baltimore oriole's nest is built by the female and is a tightly woven pouch of plant fibers, strips of bark, grapevines, grass, yarn, string, whatever.  She typically lays four eggs and once the nestlings hatch, they are fed by regurgitation by both parents and brooded by the female.  The young start to fledge in about two weeks and become largely independent shortly thereafter.

Springtime is particularly enjoyable for bird-watchers as almost every male bird is dressed in his finest plumage and the colors include every hue of the rainbow. Of course, this display is not for us humans, but for potential mates. It is obvious given the amazing diversity of colors and patterns exhibited by the more than 9,000 bird species found in the world, that birds can see and appreciate color; in fact, they can discriminate a greater variety than humans as some birds can see into the ultraviolet range.

Charles Darwin proposed that color differences between sexes in birds resulted largely from female preference for bright colors in males.   He also noted that females of species that are exposed to predators while incubating tend to have dull colors, although both sexes may be brightly colored in species that nest in tree hollows causing the females to be less visible. Color can also aid individuals in recognizing members of their own species.

Some studies have shown that females use the brightness of a male's color as an important indicator of his health and vitality. Researchers realized only quite recently that birds see a much wider range of color than people do and even have colors in their plumage that are invisible to the human eye. Birds have four color cones in their eyes (compared to three in humans), which allow them to see the ultraviolet part of the color spectrum. 

The colors in the feathers are formed in two different ways, from either pigments which are chemical compounds located in the feathers, or from light refraction caused by the structure of the feather.  The orange in the Baltimore oriole is a result of carotenoid pigments in its diet, as well as how its metabolism processes those pigments to grow feathers. Carotenoids are a class of plant chemicals that help plants absorb light energy for use in photosynthesis and are found in the cells of a wide variety of plants, algae and bacteria. 

Blue and iridescent colors in birds are never produced by pigments, however.  The blues are produced by minute particles in the feathers that are smaller in diameter than the wavelength of red light, and remain the same when they are viewed at different angles in reflected light. Iridescent colors are produced by reflection of wavelengths from highly modified barbules of the feathers that are rotated so that a flat surface faces the incoming light.  The refraction works like a prism, splitting the light into colors such as on the throat feathers of many hummingbird species.

Birds in all their amazing variations continue to entertain us throughout the year and certainly their colors are a major part of the pleasure we feel while watching their antics.  There are always new sightings, new sounds, new activities and new experiences to keep our attention and we hope you, too, find them a source of much joy.

May 7, 2019: Earthworms

"Earthworm" is the common name for one of the largest members of the class of tube-shaped, segmented worms. The creatures come in a seemly infinite variety—around 6,000 species worldwide. One of the most familiar of them, the sort you may see in your garden, is commonly known as a night crawler (because of its after-dark activities), an angleworm (it’s a popular fishing bait) or a rain worm (it appears on sidewalks and roads after a storm). They are commonly found living in soil, feeding on organic matter.

Of the more than 180 earthworm species found in the United States and Canada, 60 are invasive species, brought over from the Old World, including the night crawler.  The glaciers that spread across much of North America during the most recent ice age wiped out all the earthworms in our northern areas. The worms now living in those regions are invaders from overseas, brought here intentionally by early settlers thinking that the worms would improve the soil, or carried accidentally in shipments of plants or even even in dirt used as ballast in ships.

From front to back, the basic shape of the earthworm is a cylindrical tube, divided into a series of segments marked by furrows.  Except for the mouth and anal segments, each segment carries bristle-like hairs used to anchor parts of the body during movement and dorsal pores that exude a fluid that constantly moistens and protects the worm's skin surface.
The exterior of an individual segment is a thin skin which has specialized cells that secrete mucus to keep the body moist and ease movement through soil. 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. Beneath the muscle layers is a pressurized fluid-filled chamber that provides structure to the worm's boneless body. The segments are separated from each other by perforated walls, allowing the fluid to pass between segments.

The first body segment features both the earthworm's mouth and, overhanging the mouth, a fleshy lobe, which seals the entrance when the worm is not eating.   A large numbers of chemoreceptors are concentrated near its mouth and are used to feel and chemically sense the worm's surroundings.   Down the center of a worm is the digestive tract, which runs straight through from mouth to anus, and is flanked above and below by blood vessels and a nerve cord.  Food enters the mouth and then goes into a membrane-lined cavity where it is covered with mucus and then passed into the crop and gizzard where strong muscular contractions grind it up, then push it through the intestine for digestion.

A worm has a central and a peripheral nervous system. The central system consists of two ganglia above the mouth, one on either side, connected to a nerve cord running back along its length to motor neurons and sensory cells in each segment. Touching an earthworm stimulates the nerve plexus under the skin which causes the longitudinal muscles to contact, causing strong writhing movements.  In addition, giant axons (long, slender projections of nerve cells) are present that carry emergency signals from any danger to the longitudinal muscles in each segment causing them to contract very quickly and hopefully to escape down its hole.

Earthworms travel underground by the means of waves of muscular contractions which alternately shorten and lengthen the body aided by lubricating mucus. They have no eyes but have specialized photosensitive cells that are distributed on many parts of the skin and concentrated on the back and sides.  Lacking lungs or other specialized respiratory organs, oxygen passes in and out through pores in their skins.

Each earthworm is both male and female, producing both eggs and sperm.   Any two can mate above ground, pressing their bodies together and exchanging sperm before separating. Later, a collar-like organ around each worm’s body produces a ring and fills it with eggs and sperm. The ring drops off, seals shut at the ends and becomes a cocoon for the developing eggs.  Tiny baby worms emerge from the eggs fully formed and become sexually mature in two or three months. They usually live one to two years, although sometimes longer.

Earthworms in our fields and gardens are beneficial as they aerate and fertilize the soil but such is not the case in the northern forest.  It recovered after the glaciers retreated, but was changed in that its trees and other plants had evolved to require a deep layer of slowly decomposing leaves and other organic matter on the soil.  Earthworms invading such a system have become a problem as they feed on this cover causing compaction and loss of nutrients.  Trees such as sugar maples and forest-floor species such as trillium, ferns, trout lilies and other have suffered.  Also, in some areas, the oak forests have been overrun by buckthorn and Japanese barberry.   Not only have the flora suffered but so did the insects and other small creatures that depended on it for survival, with the result that inhabitants such as salamanders lost a key food source and experienced population declines.

Earthworms are interesting and important members of most of our natural environment, but we are being warned about bringing them into such areas as our northern forests where they may cause problems.  Introductions of new species into areas anywhere have caused long-lasting and sometimes irreparable damage -- think English sparrows, Asian ladybugs, garlic mustard, and carp.  It’s best not to fool with Mother Nature...


April 30, 2019:  Early Butterflies and Moths

It may be still April on the calendar, but there are some butterflies and moths flying about on sunny warmish days.  Mourning cloaks, commas, blues, and red admirals have been visiting our garden and driveway, spots which seem to have some special attractions for them.
Some species, such as the well-known monarch, migrated last fall when freezing temperatures arrived, but some overwinter as adults, seeking out dry cracks in rocks or protected tree hollows in the same area where they spend the summer. They enter a form of hibernation known as “diapause,” and special chemicals in their bodies allow them to endure extremely cold weather.  Other butterflies spend the winter as eggs, caterpillars, or pupa, often in leaf litter in the woods. 

Butterflies are essentially cold-blooded; that is, their body temperatures take on the temperatures of their surroundings.  Most need a body temperature of about 80 degrees F to fly, but they can bask in the spring-time sun to gain as much as 20 degrees above the air temperature. So when outdoor temperatures consistently start reaching 60 degrees F or so, some butterflies will begin flying.  These that overwinter as adults are usually the first to appear in spring.

Often the first to be seen is the mourning cloak, so named because of its dark wings seemed to resemble the traditional cloak worn when one was "in mourning".   It overwinters as an adult butterfly and typically feeds on tree sap, especially that of an oak.   It lays its eggs in groups circling twigs of willow, elm, aspen, or paper birch trees. and the caterpillars live in a communal webs feeding on young leaves.  In June they pupate and soon emerge as adults.  After feeding briefly, the adults go into a resting state until fall, when they re-emerge to feed and store energy for hibernation.

The adult comma (it has a silvery comma mark in the middle of its hindwing) also spends the winter hibernating amongst dead leaves and debris.  This butterfly seldom visits flowers, but rather feeds on sap, rotting fruit, salts and minerals from puddles, and dung. The scalloped edges and cryptic coloring of the wings help the adult to hide, while the larvae, flecked with brown and white markings, look much like bird droppings. 

The commas’ green eggs are laid singly or in stacks under host plant leaves and stems. The spiny larva varies in color from pale green to yellow to white and to even black. The most widely used food plant is common nettle but they also can be found on elms and willows. Older larvae construct daytime leaf shelters by pulling a single leaf together with silk. The chrysalis is brown and covered with spines.

The several species of blues overwinter in chrysalis and appear in early spring as newly-emerged adults. These tiny blue butterflies are found throughout the country and can be seen fluttering about in the garden.  The male usually shows a lovely azure on its upper wing sides, but is gray-white with small black dots on its underwings, while the female tends to show much more gray.  Variations appear throughout North America from Gulf Coast up into Canada.  Adults sip nectar from a variety of flowers and the caterpillars can be found on trees such as dogwood and cherry. 

The red admiral, is a medium-sized butterfly with black wings, orange bands, and white spots.  Typically found in moist woodlands, the red admiral caterpillar's primary host plant is the stinging nettle while the adult butterfly drinks from flowering plants and overripe fruit.  It is known as an unusually people-friendly butterfly, often landing on and using humans as perches.  It generally has two broods from March through October, the latter migrating south for the winter.

Of special note is the tiny spimenis moth that was practically under our feet yesterday as we walked.  It is hard to believe that a creature with a wingspan less than an inch could be flying about with such energy.  (Imagine the size of its eggs, caterpillar and pupa...)  Its wings and body were black with an eye-catching white and red patch. Even more amazing was the realization that it was not a butterfly but a day-flying moth!
The grapevine epimenis may be found only in early spring when it emerges from a pupa hidden in rotting wood debris or dense leaf hold.  Eggs are laid on various grapevines (why else the name?) and the miniscule caterpillar has a black body with white stripes and reddish-orange head and prolegs. It makes a leaf shelter in new foliage by taking the leaf edges and pulling them upward and then tying them together with silk.  When it matures, the caterpillar finds a suitable spot in dense leaf mold or some deteriorating wood, splits its skin a final time and becomes a pupa where it rests until early the following spring.

About 180,000 species of butterflies and moths have been named (10% of all living organisms).  Most prominent features are the scales that cover their bodies and wings and the proboscis through which they intake fluid.  They undergo complete metamorphosis, meaning they begin as eggs, become caterpillars, then develop into pupas, and finally emerge into entirely different creatures with three-parted bodies, six legs and are sexual mature.  Although their larvae are considered pests in agriculture, butterflies and moths play an important role in the natural ecosystem as pollinators and as food in the food chain, to say nothing of the enjoyment their presence brings to us humans.


April 23, 2019:  Spring wildflowers

No sooner has the frost come out of the ground than the first hardy wildflowers have pushed up through the leaf litter and are in bloom.  Bloodroot, spring beauties, hepatica, dutchman’s breeches and Virginia bluebells form only the first wave of many species, while emerging leaves attest to the beauties yet to appear.

The first sight of bloodroot is a single vertical grey-green leaf curled up around a bud.  It sprouts from a rhizome, an underground horizontal plant stem which has reddish poisonous sap (where it got it’s name), and puts out lateral shoots and adventitious roots at intervals along its length. Its flowers, that are pollinated by small bees and flies, usually bloom here in April and have 8–12 delicate white petals and many yellow stamens.   After blooming the leaves unfurl to their full size and then go dormant in mid to late summer.

Their orange-red seeds develop in green pods, and bloodroot is one of many plants that depend upon ants to disperse the crop.    Attached to each seed is a fatty structure called an elaiosome and that is very attractive to little insects, and often ants harvest them and carry them back to the colony to feed their larvae.  The seed itself is discarded unharmed in the nest debris and a number of these eventually germinate and grow into new plants the following year.  In one recorded instance, an ant carried a seed for some 230 feet from the parent plant. 

Hepaticas have a very different life style. The common name comes from the supposed resemblance of its leaves to the human liver, both of which have three large lobes.  (Some two thousand years ago, many people believed that God would have wanted to show men what plants could be useful, and therefore they searched for healing herbs that resembled ailing parts of the body.)  The leaves don't start opening up in the spring until the flowers bloom, and are mostly solid green or two-tone green through spring and summer.  They turn dark green or brown in fall and persist through the winter, withering away when the plant starts blooming again the following spring. The flower itself is white, pink or lavender striped with darker lines and is displayed on its own hairy leafless stalk.  It often appears as soon as the ground thaws, and usually has six or more petal-like sepals and numerous white stamens surrounding a green center. 
The spring beauty grows only a few inches tall and produces a group of flowering stems with pairs of opposite leaves often lying close to the ground.  Each unbranched stem displays a cluster of tiny white flowers with fine pink stripes barely a half-inch across on short stalks at its tip.  The flowers open up on warm sunny days, and close during cloudy weather or at night, and the blooming period occurs from mid- to late spring and lasts a month or two.  

New flowers are produced as the shoot grows, each lasting about three days, although the five stamens on each flower are only active for a single day.  The seeds also have elaiosomes for the ants and both the flowers and foliage fade away by mid-summer.  This plant has also been used by native Americans, who ate its roots as food believing they had medicinal benefits.  Such uses have not been proven and its small size makes its use as food rather impractical.

All most everyone is familiar with dutchman’s breeches with their finely divided leaflets and tiny pantaloons hanging from arching stems.  They grow from a cluster of small pink to white teardrop-shaped bulblets and it is surprising to learn that in the autumn, starch in the bulblets is converted to sugar, and the beginnings of the next spring's leaves and flowers develop below ground.

The flowers usually white and are dependent on bumblebees for cross-pollination; in fact, the flower’s structure and mechanism by which it is pollinated indicate that it is adapted for bumblebees which can separate the outer and inner petals of the flower. They will then use their front legs to expose the stigma, stamen, and anthers, and shortly afterwards, will sweep pollen in a forward stroke by utilizing their middle legs, before returning to the colony with the pollen.  The pistil develops into a slender pod that splits in half when the seeds are ripe. The seeds are kidney-shaped, and also have elaisomes to with a faint netlike pattern.  The leaves and flower stems die back in late spring after the seed has ripened, and the bulblets remain dormant through the summer.

Also sprouting up around the area are clusters of broad gray-green leaves that eventually can reach two feet in height.  These herald the coming of the sky-blue blossoms of the Virginia bluebells, also known as cowslip or lungwort.  The flower has five petals fused into a tube, five stamens and a central pistil and are borne in mid-spring in nodding spiral-shaped clusters at the end of arched stems.  Flower buds are pink to purplish, turning blue when the flower opens.  The stamens and stigma are spaced too far apart for self-fertilization and the flower is usually pollinated by bumblebees and butterflies. In early summer, each fertilized flower produces four seeds within wrinkled nuts and the plant goes dormant till the next spring.

There is no doubt that it is our long cold winter as well as their ephemeral displays that make these delicate wildflowers so enjoyable, but they rival all the roses, dahlias and other flowers that capture our attention during the remainder of the summer.

April 23, 2019:  Trees and Pollen

We sometimes see fog rise from the hillside across the field to the west, but this week the wind lifted another look-alike phenomenon -- pollen.  It rose in clouds from the thick growing trees, proving that the red maples there were in full bloom. The red maple, also known as soft maple, is one of the most common and widespread deciduous trees of eastern and central North America, and although it is best known for its scarlet autumn foliage, its flowers, twigs and seeds are all varying degrees of red.

The red maple begins blooming when it is about 8 years old and is one of the first trees to bloom in the spring.  Each bud unfolds about half a dozen tiny, dark-red blossoms protected by 5-lobed green sepals that are borne in hanging clusters, usually at the twig tips. The flowers are generally either male or female (although they are sometimes bisexual) and appear before the leaves. The tree itself is usually considered either male or female, although under some conditions it can sometimes switch from one to the other. 

Forest trees like maple, birch, and hickory are wind pollinated and produce large amounts of pollen to be sure at least some of it reaches any receptive female flowers in their vicinity.  Pollen is a powdery substance and contains grains that vary in size, shape, and surface characteristics depending upon the plant species.  Each has a thin inner wall composed of cellulose and a thick outer wall that protects the male genetic material as it moves from its location on the anther of the male flower to the stigma in the female flower. The surface of the pollen grain also contains various waxes and proteins which help repel moisture and interact with the stigma. A problem for many people is that these protein structures on the surface of pollen are recognized by their immune cells and cause uncomfortable allergic reactions.

When the proper pollen reaches the female cone of a flower on the red maple tree, a pollen tube is formed, which transports the sperm to the ovule containing the female cells. Unlike animal sperm which can swim, plant sperm relies on a pollen tube to carry it into the ovule where the sperm can be released.  After being fertilized, the ovary starts to swell and develop into the seeds. By the time leaves begin to unfurl later this month, fertilized female flowers will have elongated into long, drooping stalks bearing small pink winged seeds that will ripen, drop and whirl to the ground in May.

Consider a tree.  Most are made up of three general parts: branches which are the support structures for leaves, flowers and fruits, roots that collect nutrients and water and anchor the tree, and a trunk that connects them.  Trees grow at the twig tips, at the root tips and at the cambium, changing xylem cells into heartwood and old phloem cells into bark.   Roots absorb water and nutrients from the soil, which are then transported up the tree trunk in cells that act much like pipes.  This allows the leaves to obtain water and nutrients that are necessary for the manufacture of food from light energy (photosynthesis).   Food made in the leaves is then transported down to the roots and to other parts of the tree for growth.  

The trunk of a tree is composed of several basic parts.  It is covered with dead tissue called bark, which protects the tree from weather, disease, insects, fire and mechanical injury.  The next layer immediately inside the bark is called the phloem.  This is a thin layer of living cells and is responsible for transporting food around the tree.  Large amounts of sugar (sap) travel down the phloem to the roots and also travels up the phloem to other parts of a tree that need energy for growth and maintenance. 

The next portion of the trunk is called the vascular cambium.  This is a very thin layer of living tissue which produces new phloem to its outside and new xylem to its inside.  The cambium is most active in the spring and early summer when most tree growth is taking place.  Inside the vascular cambium is the largest portion of the trunk known as the xylem.  The xylem is composed of dead, thick cells that act as pipes for transporting water and nutrients up the tree.  The active portion of the xylem is known as the sapwood and is found near the outside of the tree.  Older xylem is known as heartwood and is found in the middle of the trunk.  The heartwood is often darker in color and is not very active in transport.  The darker color is caused by resins, oils and minerals, which are deposited as the tree grows.   An annual ring is one year's worth of xylem growth.   

Leaves fall in autumn as part of a tree’s preparation for winter dormancy. Because it is too cold for water to remain in the plant tissues (freezing water would rupture cells in the tree), and because the water in the soil is frozen and cannot be absorbed, trees shut down major processes in the cold months.

Trees are vital to our survival. As the biggest plants on the planet, they give us oxygen, store carbon, stabilize the soil and give life to the world's wildlife. They also provide us with the materials for tools and shelter. In addition, according to the website,, the main reason we like trees is because they are both beautiful and majestic. No two are alike. Different species display a seemingly endless variety of shapes, forms, textures and vibrant colors. Even individual trees vary their appearance throughout the course of the year as the seasons change.   In Wisconsin we are blessed with a wide variety and they enrich our lives.


April 9, 2019:  American Robins

You have to be an early riser to beat the male robin, as he is often singing just as the sky is beginning to lighten. The song is made up of phrases with short pauses between them that are repeated, alternated, or otherwise arranged in groups of two to five.  The individual robin differs in the phrases he uses and the order in which he sing them, and often will incorporate one or two of his own. Even those people who can barely distinguish between a crow and English sparrow recognize this large thrush on sight and often by sound, and enjoy watching it as it hunts for earthworms on their lawns. A robin will stand with head cocked to one side as though listening, but it is actually watching for a telltale glimmer of moist skin of an angle worm. It will then grab the victim and pull until it is free of its hole and then carry it off.

Before this country was settled by colonists, robins were birds of the forest and much shyer than those around our yards. But when settlers created lawns and gardens that were rich breeding grounds for earthworms, the robins discovered this bounty and their numbers increased at about the same rate as the human population. In addition, the birds began building their nests on man-made structures, welcome alternatives to the sometimes-unreliable tree branches or other natural sites. Today, there are probably many times as many robins breeding in the United States as there were in Colonial days.

Early English immigrants named our bird after the robin redbreast of their former home because of the color of its feathers, but our robin is more similar to their blackbird in all but plumage. The European blackbird is also a true thrush, and the two birds have very similar habits, body shape, and song, and even share the inelegant genus name of “turdus”. 

Although considered a harbinger of spring, robins sometimes winter in Wisconsin, where they shelter in low-lying wooded areas out of sight.  Like most birds, robins can survive cold temperatures as long as their bodies have enough fuel in the form of food to keep their metabolic furnaces burning. They switch their diets from worms and insects to persistent winter berries and fruits such as sumac, grapes, greenbrier, bittersweet, buckthorn, wild grapes, and cedar. When snow cover makes finding such fare difficult, robins move farther south, but as long as they can find plenty to eat, they remain in northern locales in considerable numbers.

Urban and suburban areas that often have extensive plantings of ornamental trees that retain their fruit, such as hawthorns, mountain ash, and crabapples, also provide considerable food for over-wintering robins. Those non-migrating birds then arrive on their breeding grounds early and are so able to select the best nesting territories. Most however migrate to the southern states every autumn but return to their nesting areas in late March, following very closely the advance of the average daily temperature of 37F. They usually appear at the same nest site year after year and are one of the first songbirds to nest, with two or three broods each season.  

The male robin is a highly excitable, aggressive character, always on the lookout for an intruder into his territory, chasing it off with loud squawks and determination. He is not too discriminating, however, and sometimes mistakes his own image reflected in an automobile hubcap, patio door, or other reflective surface for an interloper.  Anyone who has watched one of these birds attacking such an object can attest to the fact that the bird will sometimes persist for days, sometimes even becoming bloodied, though unbowed. He also courts a likely mate with the same intensity, often chasing her until she submits to his advances.

The female builds a sturdy nest of twigs and grasses, lining it with mud that she forms into a smooth 3-inch cup by pressing down firmly with her body. I think it is interesting to read that she will often add decorative touches like scraps of cloth, bits of paper, and other items that evidently attract her. She lays three or four blue eggs, and in less than a month the baby birds leave the nest.  The male continues to feed and nurture the fledglings for another two weeks, while his mate lays a new batch of eggs.  They can barely fly, however, and are often killed by cats, snakes, and other predators.   Some years ago we watched a large bull snake slither up into the rafters of our machine shed and swallow a nestful of half-grown chicks, one after the other.

Although it is often thought that robins live on earthworms with a dessert of ripe cherries, their diet actually consists of only 40% animal foods and the other 60% fruits and berries. They feed on a large variety of both wild and cultivated fruits, berries, earthworms, and insects such as beetle grubs, caterpillars, and grasshoppers--whatever is most available.

At one time, robins were killed for their meat: food historian Sandra Oliver found this recipe for robin pie published in 1890: "Cover the bottom of a pie-dish with thin slices of beef and fat bacon, over which lay ten or twelve robins, previously rolled in flour...and cover with three quarters of a pound of half puff taste, bake one hour in a moderate oven...and serve quite hot."

These birds are now protected in this country thanks to the Migratory Bird Act.  Wisconsinites have chosen the robin to be their state bird and will no doubt continue to enjoy its colors and cheerful song in their yards indefinitely, particularly in urban areas where other species may be scarce.

April 2, 2019: Vultures

If you were asked to pick your favorite bird, would it be a robin, a cardinal, a chickadee?  The one I would guess none of us would be likely to choose would be a turkey vulture.   Even in most Native American tribal legends, Vulture played the role of an aggressive troublemaker who lies, cheats, hoards resources that should belong to everyone, or uses his large size to bully other birds.

This eagle-sized bird species with a six-foot wingspan has been around since prehistoric times. The turkey vulture acts as nature's ultimate garbage collector, recycler, and scavenger using its keen sense of smell and sight to find ripe carcasses. Vultures do not usually kill; instead, they eat animals that have died from disease, natural causes, or are roadkill from car collisions. A vulture's beak is its main ripping tool, strong and powerful enough to tear through the toughest animal skin, and its highly developed olfactory sense enables it to locate concealed carcasses.

Scientists have always been interested in the fact that vultures can eat a rotting carcass and not get sick or die.  They know that rotten meat can have harmful bacteria on it, like pathogens that cause food poisoning or even anthrax, but vultures have incredibly acidic stomachs, which help them to digest bone and kill many diseases. They have also evolved either immunity or at least a level of tolerance for certain types of bacterial toxins; in fact, their intestines are naturally colonized by species of bacteria that are related to disease-causing ones typically found on rotting meat.  The bird's droppings are also disease free and may have antimicrobial properties, and it is thought that vultures defecate on their legs and feet to clean them.  The vultures’ bald heads with their lack of contaminated feathers may also play a roll in their well being.

In Wisconsin, according to data from the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas, turkey vultures breed statewide as well as along river valleys like the Mississippi and the St. Croix River.   Scientists that study and tag vultures have discovered that most, maybe all, Wisconsin vultures migrate to South America and then return to Wisconsin and their summer feeding grounds in the late March.  The turkey vultures's entire global range includes southern Canada and the Americas down through the southern tip of South America.

Vultures are not very well thought of because of their eating habits, but what many people do not realize is that these play a very important role in the ecosystem by disposing of carrion that would otherwise be a breeding ground for disease.  In one study in which vultures were fed disease-causing organisms, including anthrax, it was found that most bacteria were killed in the vultures' highly acidic stomachs. In essence, vultures eat and sterilize contaminated meat.

Look for turkey vultures on warm sunny days, soaring high in the sky.  Upward currents of warm air are created by various ground and water surfaces, and a vultures wings are specially adapted to take advantage of these rising columns of air.  It is easy to tell vultures apart from other soaring birds because their wings form the shape of a "V"  in flight and they tilt from side to side as they soar, unlike eagles and hawks.

Turkey vultures regurgitate one-inch pellets of indigestible material like bones and fur, similar to those of an owl.  Such objects are oval, gray or brown in color, and can be found beneath roosting areas in trees. The female turkey vulture does not build a nest.  Her eggs are deposited on the ground hidden in a rock crevice, hollow tree or log, or sometimes in a cave.  The eggs are whitish with lots of dark brown markings and both parents incubate the eggs about six weeks.  Young birds have gray heads, bills, and legs and don’t show adult coloration until they are about two years old.  The frequent presence of the birds in the air above our barn hill has had us searching for likely nest spots for years without success but we read that the parents repel any visitors with vomit and feces so its probably just as well.   

Because of their unique ability to clean up disease-ridden carcasses, and keep other scavengers in check, vultures would be a terrible species to lose.  During the 1990s, India’s vulture populations were obliterated due to liver failure caused by a popular drug used to treat sick livestock.  As the vultures have disappeared, the population of feral dogs has exploded as have diseases such as rabies causing thousands of deaths and enormous healthcare costs.

Also, thanks to indiscriminate poisoning, collisions with wind turbines and power lines, and superstitious beliefs, most of Africa’s vultures are in danger of going extinct.  Vulture populations have dropped sharply across the entire African continent, according to a recent study.  Scientists have combed through vulture population studies and surveys dating back to the 1960s and found that as many as 60 percent of all vulture deaths in Africa can be linked to poisoning from eating animal carcasses laced with pesticides intended to kill large predators like lions. 

In Wisconsin, the turkey vulture usually feeds in agricultural and roadside habitats, making it vulnerable to accidental trapping, collisions, electrocution, shooting, and the ingestion of lead from shot animals; still, it is tolerant of human activity and adaptable in its diet and we are fortunate that its populations are generally stable or increasing.


March 26, 2019

One very early morning last week, I looked out the window toward our bird feeder and saw a masked marauder standing on its tiptoes and enjoying our offering.  A raccoon is easily recognized with its black face mask and bushy, ringed tail so I had no trouble identifying it.   Historically, it is a native of southeastern North America, and Native Americans and the European settlers hunted it for food and clothing.  It usually inhabits wooded, brushy areas near water and can sometimes be spotted wading in a pond or stream.   In the northern parts of its range, the raccoon does not hibernate, but reduces its activity drastically when snow cover makes searching for food difficult.

There is archeological evidence that before the arrival of the Europeans, raccoons were numerous only along rivers and in the woodlands of Southeastern United States.  They were not mentioned in writings from pioneers exploring the central and north-central parts of the country, and may not have spread into those areas until the late 1800s.  Now they are present in the western states, much of Canada, plus numerous urban areas, and the estimated number of raccoons in North America is now 15 to 20 times higher than it was in the 1930s, when raccoons were comparatively rare.  

The raccoon’s scientific name, Procyon lotor, means "a washer", no doubt given because the animals often seemed to wash their food in water.  Experts who have studied both captive and wild animals disagree on what actually might be their motivation for this behavior, however, as wild raccoons often dabble for underwater food near the shore-line.  It is known that water softens the hard layer covering the paws and increases their sensitivity, so some guess that this allows them to find more out-of-sight edibles.

In February or early March, raccoons breed and the female has a litter of up to four kits in a hollow tree, cave, brush pile, or rock crevice.  Each weighs only a few ounces and is born blind and deaf, but its mask is already visible against its light fur.  The males have no part in raising their young, but the female is a caring mother, often moving her brood to a new nest if she senses danger, carrying them one by one by the nape of its neck like a kitten.  After a few months, the kits start to make short trips from the den and by late summer, raccoon young are relatively independent.  They will stay close to their mother during the first winter, however, moving on the next spring when they are about 13 months old and a new litter is expected.

Though primarily nocturnal, the raccoon is sometimes active in daylight when hunger drives it out.   Its diet consists of such a variety of different foods that one scientist commented that it "may well be one of the world's most omnivorous animals".  In spring and early summer it feeds mostly on insects, worms, and other small such creatures, while it prefers fruits and acorns and walnuts in late summer and autumn.  It will also eat any prey that is easy to catch such as fish, amphibians and bird eggs, as well as any accessible garbage and outdoor pet food.   A raccoon makes a variety of sounds including purrs, whimpers, snarls, growls, hisses, screams, and whinnies, has a very acute sense of smell, and excellent hearing such that it can distinguish sounds like those produced by earthworms underground.  It is thought to be poor at distinguishing color but can see well in twilight.

The most important ability for the raccoon is that of touch and almost two-thirds of the area in the front of the its brain is specialized for the reception of any tactile impulses.  It can identify objects with the stiff hairs located above its sharp claws before touching them; still, a raccoon's paw lacks an opposable thumb so it does not have the agility of the hands of primates.  Despite this, even inexperienced raccoons are easily capable of unscrewing jar lids, uncorking bottles and opening door latches and knobs.

Most of the studies on these animals have been based on its sense of touch but a few have been undertaken to determine their mental abilities.  In a 1908 study, 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. The researcher concluded they understood the abstract principles of the locking mechanisms and their learning speed was equivalent to that of some monkeys.  Stanislas Dehaene  reports in his book The Number Sense that raccoons can distinguish boxes containing two or four grapes from those containing three and another study showed they could remember the solutions to tasks for at least three years.

Due to its ability to make itself at home anywhere, the raccoon has been able to move into urban areas and has been seen in major cities such as Washington DC, Chicago and Toronto.  In small towns and suburbs, many spend the day in a nearby woods, and then as darkness deepens, they forage on fruit and insects in gardens and leftovers in municipal waste.  Furthermore, a large number of additional sleeping areas exist in these areas, such as hollows in old garden trees, cottages, garages, abandoned houses, and attics.  While overturned waste containers and raided fruit trees are just a nuisance to homeowners, it can cost several thousand dollars to repair damage caused by the use of attic space as a den.  In agricultural areas, sweet corn is particularly attractive and in a Purdue University study published in 2004, raccoons were responsible for much of the damage to field corn. They also are known for breaking into  poultry houses to feed on chickens, ducks, and their eggs or food.

Look for raccoons at night as they start moving around at sunset, but keep your distance.  Raccoons are sometimes kept as pets although discouraged by many experts because the animals may act unpredictably and aggressively and it is extremely difficult to teach them to obey commands.  Wisconsin is one of just five U.S. states that allow residents to own almost any type of exotic animal as a pet, including raccoons, but wild animals are best kept wild...


March 19, 2019: Three Swans

If you keep your eyes on the skies these days you are likely to see all sorts of birds, despite the up-and-down weather.  Geese, sandhill cranes, robins, and, most interesting to me right now, swans are on the move.  Three swan species can be found in Wisconsin - trumpeter, tundra and the non-native mute swan.  All have white plumage as adults and appear similar from a distance although the trumpeter and tundra swans are migratory species whereas mute swans tend to remain all year.

The trumpeter is a large swan (about 4 feet long with a wingspan of about 7 feet) that once nested in all but the northeastern forested regions of Wisconsin.  Hunting and trapping completely killed off the state's population in the early 1900s, and it was believed that the species had become extinct elsewhere as well.

Fortunately, a small, nonmigratory population survived in remote mountain valleys of the western United States, and in 1935, the  government established a refuge in Montana to protect the remaining birds. With a safe habitat at the refuge and in Yellowstone National Park, the trumpeter swans in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming increased to 640 birds by the late 1950s.  Some of these birds were moved to other areas with good swan habitat, and formed the core of the Midwest's restoration effort in the late 1960s with so much success that the trumpeter was removed from the Wisconsin endangered species list in 2009.  In 2012, Wisconsin biologists counted 214 nesting pairs and an aerial survey last year revealed 4,695 of the birds across the state.

Wisconsin’s trumpeter swans mate for life and may live for 20 years or more.  They form pair bonds on their wintering grounds (somewhere to the south) and migrate north in the spring to nest, sometimes arriving on the breeding grounds before the ice melts.  Large, shallow wetlands, 1-3 feet deep, with a mix of vegetation and open water offer ideal nesting habitat as these provide the swans with underwater food like sago pondweed and milfoil, as well as arrowheads, reeds, bulrushes, sedges, and wild rice.

Nest building begins in mid-April, often on top of a muskrat or beaver lodge, or just on a pile of sedges and cattail tubers pulled into a mound. The female (a pen) lays up to nine large eggs, one every other day, and then incubates them for about four weeks.  The hatchlings (cygnets) weigh only about 7 ounces but after a day or two, they take to the water and start feeding on plants and invertebrates. They grow quickly and are fully feathered by 9-10 weeks, although they can't fly until they are about 15 weeks old. By this time they weigh about 20 pounds.  In late September, the cygnets try out their wings with short flights but stay with their parents through their first winter, migrating back north to the breeding area in the spring.  Shortly afterwards, they are driven off by their parents but stick together until they're about two years old.   At that time, they seek mates and begin their adult life.

The tundra swan is the other native white swan in North America and is often confused with the less common trumpeter although slightly smaller.  A more notable difference between the two is the distinct yellow spot in front of the eye found on about 80 percent of tundra swans.  Still, the best way to distinguish between the two species is by their calls, as the trumpeter call sounds deep and (what else?) trumpet-like while the tundra swan has a high-pitched, quavering call.

Tundra swans were called whistling swans until recently because of the sound made by the powerful beating of their wings in flight.  These swans breed and nest in the tundra and in sheltered marshes on the Alaskan and Canadian coast near the Arctic Circle. They pass through Wisconsin on their way north in early March through late May, often stopping in small flocks to rest and feed before continuing on their journey to their nesting grounds.  In Wisconsin, tundra swans eat mostly wild celery and arrowhead tubers. They use their long necks to reach roots which they knock loose from the bottom of shallow water with their large feet.  On their wintering sites along the east coast, they will also eat small shellfish. In the fall, migration begins again and they head south, traveling through Wisconsin in large flocks to overwinter in flocks on shallow ponds, lakes and estuaries near the Chesapeake Bay and in the marshes of Virginia and North Carolina.

Mute swans are native to much of Eurasia and were introduced to America by European immigrants.  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.  The mute swan is less vocal than the noisy trumpeter but makes a variety of grunting, hoarse whistling, and snorting noises, especially in communicating with its cygnets, and usually hisses at competitors or intruders trying to enter its territory. The most familiar sound associated with the mute swan is the vibrant throbbing of the wings in flight which is unique to the species, and can be heard from quite a distance. 

 It is often kept in captivity outside its natural range, as a decoration for parks and ponds, and escapes have happened. The descendants of such birds have become naturalized in the eastern United States and the Great Lakes and have increased greatly in number, to the extent that it is considered an invasive species because of the damage its numbers cause.  In 2005, the United States Department of the Interior officially declared them a non-native, unprotected species.  In Wisconsin they are not hunted, but instead are managed to control numbers from increasing further. 

Works of classical literature referenced the myth that otherwise mute swans sing beautifully at the moment of their death.  This idea gave birth to the phrase “swan song”, and because of their lifelong, monogamous pairing, swans are also often a symbol of never ending love.  One of the most famous stories in children’s literature is “The Ugly Duckling” by Hans Christian Andersen, a  story about a cygnet who grows into a beautiful and graceful swan.   They have long been intriguing birds...

 March 12, 2019:  Sandhill Cranes

A week or so ago, neighbor Jeremy called to report hearing a flock of sandhill cranes calling as they flew overhead.  These long-legged, long necked birds had remained with us all autumn, until the big snow on New Years’ weekend finally sent them on their way south.  Now it appears that they had not travelled far and were checking out when it would be safe to return north.

Each spring, more than 80% of the world’s population of sandhill cranes converge on Nebraska’s Platte River valley.  The fossil record tells us that early cranes appeared on earth at least 34 million years ago, and the sandhill cranes of North America have not changed appreciably in the last ten million years.  These birds arrive from their wintering grounds in northern Mexico, Texas and New Mexico in late February through early April and pause there to rest and refuel before going on to their breeding grounds in Canada, Alaska and Siberia, a journey of thousands of miles. 

Within the last few decades, sandhill cranes have greatly expanded their nesting range and numbers in the upper Midwest where they were almost extinct in the 1930s. This Eastern population has now rebounded dramatically and is up to more than 80,000 birds. There are resident sandhills in Florida and Mississippi, but most migrate southeastward toward Florida in the fall and north into Canada and Alaska to nest in the spring.  Some years ago, we had to drive down to the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in Indiana to see them in migration but since then many pause here in the Spring Green area. 

Sandhills typically nest near wetlands or bogs, some as far north as the marshy tundra, but while on migration and in winter, they are often found around open prairie and agricultural fields in river valleys.  Major food items include insects and roots of aquatic plants but they also will eat rodents, snails, frogs, lizards, snakes, nestling birds, berries, seeds and large quantities of cultivated grains.

Their courtship includes elaborate dances with the birds spreading their wings, leaping in air while calling. The nest site is often in marsh vegetation in or close to shallow water and the nest is a mound of plant material pulled up from around site. The female usually lays two eggs which are incubated for three or four weeks. When they hatch the young leave the nest and follow her into the marsh.  They can fly in about two months but remain with their parents to accompany them in migration.

Another crane which has received much attention in past years is the whooping crane, a large white bird with a red crown and a long, dark, pointed bill. At one time, the range for these birds extended throughout the Midwest, but by 1941, the wild population consisted of only 21 birds.  This species can reportedly stand up to five feet in height and have a wingspan of up to 7.5 feet.  (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, and the wood stork).  The bogland and tundra in Alberta Canada was the last remnant of the former nesting habitat of the whooping crane;  however, with the recent Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership Reintroduction Project, whooping cranes nested naturally for the first time in 100 years in the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin.

Like the sandhills, whooping cranes usually nest in a raised area in a marsh, and the female lays one or two eggs in late-April to mid-May.  Parents brood the young for about a month, although usually no more than one young bird survives.  Breeding populations winter along the Texas gulf coast, in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and on nearby islands.   The Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma is a major migratory stopover for this crane population hosting over 75% of the birds annually.

In an effort to increase the whoopers’ numbers, three projects were attempted. The first in 1975, involved cross-fostering second eggs from the wild population into the nests of sandhill cranes to establish a self-sustaining flock using a flyway from Idaho to New Mexico.  A second effort in 1993 involved the establishment of a non-migratory population in Florida by releasing 289 captive-bred birds into the wild.   The third attempt used isolation rearing of young whooping cranes, training them to follow ultralight aircraft to learn the migration route from Wisconsin to Florida.  In January 2016, citing the near-total failure of the hand-raised and guided birds to reproduce in the wild, the Fish and Wildlife Service made the decision to discontinue the ultralight program in favor of alternatives with reduced human interaction.

Starting in 2017, a novel strategy was introduced.  Eggs from captive birds in the process of hatching were slipped into the nests of wild birds in place of infertile eggs, so that the chicks would be raised by substitute crane parents.  In 2018, a combination of naturally-laid and substituted eggs added five wild-raised juveniles to the population, all of which survived to fledge.   Sadly, a major hurdle has been deaths due to illegal hunting. and the International Crane Foundation estimates that the nearly 20% of deaths among the reintroduced cranes in the Eastern Migratory Population are from human poaching. 

Meanwhile the wild crane population has began a steady increase, such that in 2007, 266 birds were counted at Wood Buffalo National Park, with 73 mating pairs that produced 80 chicks, 39 of which completed the fall migration.  Then a count in early 2017 estimated that 505 whooping cranes, including 49 juveniles, had arrived at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge   A March 2018 report counted an additional 161 cranes in captivity at twelve different sites, and an estimated 177 in three reintroduced flocks, putting the total current population at over 800.  There have been scattered reports of whooping crane sightings in our area, but it will probably be many years before their bugle calls will be heard overhead here, but keep yours eyes out for sandhills. 


March 5, 2019: Northern Feeder Birds

This past month has been a banner period for feeding the birds as many have been frantic for a good meal.  The recurring snows with ice frostings have covered most of their pantries and our deck and yard have been very popular eating sites.  Local birds such as bluejays, cardinals and several woodpeckers are regulars but there are also strangers.  Primary among our visitors have been the easily identified Dark-eyed Juncos, small sparrows with slate-gray heads, necks, breasts and wings, and white bellies.  White outer tail feathers also show in flight and while hopping on the ground. 

We only see these common birds in the winter as they mostly nest farther north into Canada and Alaska in what is known as the taiga.  This sometimes swampy coniferous forest of high northern latitudes is made up mostly of pines, spruces, and larches, but a number of bird species call it home for much of the year. The “junco” name comes from the Spanish word for the rush plants that grow there (rushes are somewhat similar to grasses and sedges).

Juncos usually nest in a cup-shaped depression on the ground, well hidden by vegetation or other material, although nests are sometimes found in the lower branches of a shrub or tree.  Normally two clutches of four eggs are laid during the breeding season and the eggs are incubated by the female for about two weeks.  Northern birds migrate further south, arriving in their winter quarters between mid-September and November and leaving to breed from mid-March onwards, with almost all gone by the end of April.  In winter, juncos are familiar in and around towns, and in many places are the most common birds at feeders.

Wisconsin birdwatchers are quite familiar with the white-breasted nuthatch, a small songbird with a large head and short tail that runs down our tree trunks all year long, but a close relative, the red-breasted nuthatch, also breeds in coniferous forests across Canada and Alaska and sometimes visits us during the winter along with the juncos. It has blue-grey upperparts with cinnamon underparts, a white throat and face with a black stripe through the eyes and a black crown.  The name "Nuthatch" came from "nuthack", referring to the bird's habit of wedging nuts into cracks in tree bark and hacking at them until they break open.  Though it is primarily a full-time resident of northern conifer forests, the red-breasted nuthatch regularly migrates, with both the number migrating and the wintering locations varying from year to year.

Another such bird is the pine siskin, a finch with an extremely sporadic winter range.  About the same size as our goldfinch, adults have short forked tails and are heavy streaking over brown upperparts and pale underparts.   Many pine siskins have yellow patches on their wings and tails, while others have white streaks on the wings.  They mainly eat small seeds, especially thistle, birch and spruce seeds.

Their breeding range spreads across Canada and Alaska and as their name suggests, the species occurs mostly as a breeder in open conifer forests. Migration by this bird is highly variable, probably related to food supply. Large numbers may move south in some years; hardly any in others. This species is one of a few species that are considered "irruptive winter finches" because of the high variability of their movements based on the success of crops from year to year.

Pine siskins can survive in very cold temperatures and the metabolic rates of this species are typically 40% higher than a "normal" songbird of their size. When temperatures plunge very low, they can accelerate that rate up to five times normal for several hours. They also put on half again as much winter fat as their other finch relatives. They protect their young from cold as well as nests are often heavily insulated with thick plant materials and the female never leaves her eggs and hatchlings and are fed by her male mate.

Common redpolls and purple finches are also brown and white northland birds with heavily streaked sides. The redpoll can be identified by a small red forehead patch, black feathering around a yellow bill, and two white wing bars, while the male purple finch has raspberry red on the head, breast, back and rump.  These birds often travel in mixed flocks of up to several hundred and their buzzy zaps and rising dreeee calls are distinctive. 

Every winter, backyard birders watch their feeders for new guests and often are rewarded by visits by strangers from the northland. While one or two unusual birds may appear at southern feeders in any year, some times large numbers of unexpected birds arrive and it is termed an irruption and everyone takes notice. Depending on the species, irruptions may occur in cycles from 2-10 years, and are usually attributed to failure of food crops such as seeds or rodents in their northern homes.

Especially watched for are the crossbills and grosbeaks.  Crossbills have distinctive mandibles, crossed at the tips, which enable them to extract seeds from conifer cones and other fruits.  Adult males tend to be red or orange in color, and females green or yellow, but there is much variation.  The pine grosbeak is considerably larger and has a long forked black tail, black wings with white wing bars and a large bill.  The male has a rose-red head, back and rump while the female is olive-yellow on the head and rump and grey on the back.  Seeing a flock of any of these northern visitors is one of winter’s pleasures.


February 26, 2019: Red and Gray Foxes

Foxes are great hunters, and not only because they’re fast. Their large, upright ears can hear a mouse squeal from 150 feet away and allow them to pinpoint its location.  When hunting, they will creep up on their prey, crouching low to the ground and stretching their head high to try to spot their target. Then they pounce on the mouse, rabbit, or other quarry with their forefeet. They do most of their hunting from dusk to sunrise and may travel up to 9 miles a night. When they aren’t hunting, foxes hole up in forests, ravines or woodlots, curling their long bushy tails around themselves.

A fox's eyes are gold to yellow and have distinctive vertically slit pupils, similar to those of a cat. It has excellent eyesight and also is extremely agile, with a long bushy tail that provides balance for large jumps and quick turns. Its strong legs allow it to reach short bursts of high speeds, a great benefit to catching prey or escaping from its enemies.  It’s tracks are the size of a small dog’s, about 1 ½ - 2 inches long, but narrower and with smaller toe pads and more fur marks.

There are two fox species in our area, the native gray and the introduced red, but the two prefer different habitats, and any we see around here are most likely to be red fox.  These are more often found in the vicinity of human habitations and have even moved into urban areas.  Brought to some parts of the world to control the rabbit population, and others to promote fox hunting, the red fox is now found all over the United States, as well as throughout Wisconsin.

Red foxes, as you might suspect from their numbers and adaptability, are highly opportunistic feeders. Rodents and other small animals make up the bulk of their diet, but they will also scavenge, particularly in urban areas where they are relatively free of predators, and may even be seen in the daytime foraging in yards, gardens and parks.  The den, consisting of two or more entrances or exits, is easier to find than that of the gray fox, in that it is generally strewn with discarded animal bones and leftovers. In the fall, red foxes eat fruits, vegetables and berries in large quantities, and they seem to particularly enjoy cultivated crops, such as turnips and cabbage.

The size of the home range is variable and tends to be smaller in urban areas, where food is more plentiful and predators less abundant.  Both sexes will mark territories with feces and urine and they tend to be very territorial, vigorously defending their home ranges from neighboring foxes, and fiercely attacking any intruders.  They breed in mid-January and have 5 or 6 pups in mid-March. Young kits start hunting with their parents when they’re 3 months old, and are ready to strike out on their own after only 7-8 months.  Young males seem to be the first to leave the family, and they may travel nearly twenty miles to establish their own territories.

In the wild, red foxes rarely live beyond three years, partly because of human hunting and trapping as well as vehicle collisions.  Rabies also kills red foxes, as does mange, which is easily transmitted by direct contact in the den, and they are hosts to a variety of parasites such as fleas, ticks, lice, chiggers and mites. 

Both types of fox are about the same size, averaging about 10 pounds, and show a variety of colors, such that one can sometimes be mistaken for the other.  Most commonly, the gray fox has a mix of gray, red, and white hairs, with black along the middle of its back while the red is deep brownish red to sandy blonde although occasionally all black.  Most distinctive features are the white feet and a tail are tipped in black on the grey fox and black feet and a tail tipped with white on the red fox.

The gray fox is at the northern limit of its ecological range here in Wisconsin and is rare in the northern half of the state.  Most are thought to be found in the driftless area in southwestern Wisconsin and secondly in the southern "kettle moraine" area, with an estimated state population of just over 12,000.  They prefer to live in deciduous forest and brush-covered hills and bluffs, mixed with woodlands and farmland. Old fields, supplying insects and fruits, are most often used in summer and woodlands are used more during the day than at night. Grays are most active at dusk and dawn, though they will sometimes venture out in daylight.

Gray foxes breed between mid-February and late March. The dens are often located on brushy and timbered hillsides, in brush piles, beneath rock outcrops, in hollow trees and logs, and usually situated to take advantage of the warmth from the sun.  In April to mid-May three to four kits are born, each weighing about 3 ounces, dark-skinned, blind and naked. Fuzzy fur begins to develop and the eyes open in about two weeks and by three months, the young are following mom away from the den.  By 4 months they are hunting on their own although they stay with their parents until fall.

Grays are skilled climbers and will most often climb trees to rest, feed or escape predators. They have semi-retractable claws, which means that they can pull their claws partway in somewhat like a cat and can climb branchless trees by grasping the trunk with their forefeet and pushing upward with their hind feet. They can jump from limb to limb with ease, and to get back to the ground, they just drop from low branches, shinny down in the manner that they climbed, or run down a sloping tree trunk.

The fox appears in the folklore of many cultures as a figure of cunning or trickery, and the cuteness of the kits and attractiveness of the adults has put foxes in some demand as pets, but it is well to remember that all foxes are wild animals and for our safety and the fox’s well being, it is best to keep them at a distance.


February 19, 2019: All About Squirrels

You may think it is still the dead of winter, but some members of our wildlife community are already busy starting their families. Female squirrels are advertising for mates from the treetops, using duck-like “come hither” calls, and interested males have responded by racing through the branches after them.  After a female relents and accepts a suitor, she prepares a warm sheltered nest in a hollow tree if one is available, or builds a leaf nest if no cavity is handy. She generally gives birth to two or three kittens in this first litter, but the second pregnancy that takes place in late spring can often produce up to six young.

Wisconsin is home to ten species of squirrels. Besides the gray and red squirrels, we have the fox squirrel, two species of flying squirrels (Northern and Southern), two species of chipmunk (Eastern and Least), the 13 lined ground squirrel, the Franklin's ground squirrel and the woodchuck. Black squirrels are considered a color variation of the gray squirrel, and all squirrels are members of the rodent family.

Of the tree squirrels, the red is the smallest, only 11 to 14 inches long including a 4- to 6-inch tail. It is reddish to reddish-gray on top with a white or cream underside.  Red squirrels live in coniferous and mixed forests throughout northern Wisconsin where they feed primarily on pine seeds.  The fox squirrel is the largest species and has rusty brown fur with a pale yellow to orange belly. Its diet is made up of nuts, seeds and buds and although it is a tree squirrel, it spends a lot of its time on the ground.

Most commonly seen is the gray squirrel.  This 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 it should fall, it can land safely from heights of 30 feet and more, and we have seen one just drop to the ground rather than bother to climb down. When danger threatens a squirrel will sidle inconspicuously around the trunk of the tree, keeping just out of sight. When it remains motionless against tree bark, it can be very difficult to see.

The most notable physical feature of this squirrel is its large bushy tail. This acts as a rudder when the animal jumps from high places, as a warm covering during the winter, 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 eastern grey squirrel’s diet varies with the seasons. In early spring, it eats the buds of hardwood trees, especially maple. During the summer, maple and elm seeds are major food items, as well as a wide variety of berries and wild fruits. Squirrels also eat insects, caterpillars, and will happily clean out a nest of birds’ eggs or young birds.  In the autumn, their most important foods are nuts, including acorns, hickory nuts, walnuts, and pine seeds.

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. 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.

Tree cavities, usually those formed by woodpeckers, often serve as nurseries.  If existing trees lack cavities, leaf nests known as dreys are built by cutting twigs and weaving them into warm, waterproof shelters.  The newborn kits are naked and blind but mature quickly and by 12 weeks they will be almost fully grown. An adult grey squirrel grows to about 18 inches in length, half of which is tail. It is usually grizzled salt and pepper with a white belly but can also occur in a black color phase. The average squirrel’s lifespan is normally less than six years, although some have been found to be as old as 13 years in the wild.

I think it somewhat ironic that although these little rodents cause limited damage in America, they were considered a major pest in England and Europe, much as the English sparrow is here. They were introduced there in the late 1800's from North America and their numbers reached the point where strong fears were being expressed for their effects on both the bird population and the general health of the forests. Bird enthusiasts were noting the rapid decline in songbird numbers and blaming it upon squirrel predation of eggs and the young chicks.

In addition, Great Britain’s inoffensive native red squirrel was being squeezed into isolated areas, not because the grey physically attacked the red, but because it competed for the food supply and carried a virus lethal to the reds. This situation seems to be improving with the protection and reintroduction of the pine marten in that country, because in areas where these predators now exist, the grey squirrel numbers are declining to everyone’s relief. 

When I was a youngster, a wild squirrel would come to our Chicago suburban backyard and accept nuts from my brother’s and my fingers, an experience that led to a lifelong passion for the outdoors and its inhabitants.  Fortunately, in our country, eastern grey squirrels are only nuisances when they invade an attic, dig up bulbs in gardens or drive birds away from feeders.  Balancing this is the pleasure they give to numerous city dwellers, campers, and everyone who enjoys the outdoors.  The woods would be a much lonelier place without their hustle and bustle and cheerful chatter.


February 12, 2019:  Shrews

It is only when snow blankets the trails that we see evidences of some of the creatures that live on the farm, and one of these is the tiny shrew. Its tracks are distinctive and give it away, however, as it tends to run rather than hop when it emerges from one of its tunnels and then disappears again underground.

It is possible that you have never seen a shrew, although there are some six species that live in Wisconsin, and several of them are quite common. Then, too, if you do catch a glimpse of one you may mistake it for a mouse as many are much the same size and shape. Surprisingly, the shrew is not a rodent at all but a cousin of the mole and is such a fierce predator that someone once said that if it were as big as a house cat, even the largest animal would fear it.  Shrews have sharp, spike-like teeth, not the familiar gnawing front incisor teeth of rodents.  Shrews are fiercely territorial, driving off rivals, and coming together only to mate.

All shrews have round bodies tapered to a pointed whiskered nose at one end and a short tail at the other. The brain’s hemispheres are small, but the olfactory lobes are prominent, which indicates less intelligence and manipulative ability but an enhanced sense of smell. They also have poor eyesight but acute hearing and touch, perhaps because they usually hunt in the dark underground. Forty of the approximately 290 species of shrews worldwide live in North America, and most are terrestrial, living in ground litter in forests, grasslands, and marshes, and building their nests of leaves, grass, and hair beneath logs and rocks.

The heart rate of a shrew can be as high as 20 beats per second, and because of its rapid metabolism, the animal must eat almost constantly in order to survive. As a result, shrew life consists largely of a frenetic search for food.  It probes in litter and dirt with its muzzle and digs out any invertebrates detected by smell and by its sensitive whiskers. Large prey is pinned with the front feet but grabbed by the mouth and manipulated with the flexible muzzle, with food being pushed sideways as it is chewed. Shrews in captivity can eat up to twice their own body weight in food every day.  They have a three-hour activity cycle, alternating hunting and feeding periods with sleep twenty-four hours a day all year long. Their high metabolism also requires ample water, and despite the moisture in their food, most shrews live where water is readily available.  Shrews caught in "live" traps often die before release due to starvation as they can live only a few hours without food and water.

Female shrews have one or two litters of half a dozen young each year. The babies are born hairless and helpless, but grow quickly and are ready to leave the nest after about four weeks.  They become sexually mature at two months and although most of the young are killed by other predators during their first year, sufficient numbers survive to maintain their populations.

The Wisconsin species range from the Northern short-tailed shrew with a total length up 5 1/2 inches including its one-inch tail, to the American pygmy shrew that is sometimes only 1½ inches long plus a ½ inch tail, making it the smallest mammal in the world.  The Northern short-tailed shrew may be the most common mammal of the eastern United States and can weigh up to an ounce.  It must consume up to three times its weight in food each day, eating insects, earthworms, voles, snails, and other shrews for the bulk of the diet. The shrew often caches extra food, especially in the fall and winter, and one study found that it only ate 10% of the prey it had caught, storing the remainder.  They do not hibernate, but are capable of entering torpor (a state of reduced body temperature and energy expenditure) and a shrew can lose up to 50% of its body weight, shrinking the size of bones, skull, and internal organs in a winter.

The Northern short-tailed shrew has another weapon in addition to its sharp teeth, as its saliva contains a toxin strong enough to kill small animals, as well as cause considerable pain to any human.  One of the venom components, a peptide called soricidin, has been patented and is being investigated in Canada for human pain control and as an anti-cancer drug, while another component is being studied in Japan as an anti-hypertensive agent.  Shrew venom is conducted into the wound by grooves in the teeth and the contents of the venom glands are sufficient to kill many mice.

Two species of our shrews are among the few terrestrial mammals known to echolocate (use echoes to locate and identify objects). These emit a series of ultrasonic squeaks unlike those of bats however, and seem to use the echolocation only to investigate their environment rather than to pinpoint food. They also make clicks, twitters, chirps, squeaks, churls, whistles, and barks.

Because the shrew is of limited economic interest, very little study has been done about its activities, and not many details are known about its life style – particularly in the smaller species. A few published observations of pygmy shrews kept in cages offer the only available information and these give only superficial views at best of these fascinating animals. The next time you spy a “mouse” at a feeding station or corncrib, look carefully; you may be seeing a shrew.


February 5, 2019: Snowflakes

It has been estimated that almost half of the world’s population has never experienced snow.  The weather around our planet is fascinating in its diversity and we in Wisconsin seem to experience all its variations.  The term snow refers to forms of ice crystals that precipitate from the atmosphere (usually from clouds) and undergo changes on the Earth's surface.  Snowflakes form when particles in the atmosphere attract supercooled (lowered below their freezing point without becoming solid) water droplets which then freeze.  (Snow crystals are not frozen raindrops; that is called sleet.)

When people say snowflake, they often mean a snow crystal. The latter is a single crystal of ice, within which the water molecules are all lined up in the precise characteristic six-fold symmetry with which we are all familiar.  This arrangement allows water molecules - each with one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms - to form together in the most efficient way. The term snowflake can mean an individual snow crystal, but it is also used for just about anything that falls from the winter clouds.  Often hundreds or even thousands of snow crystals collide and stick together in mid-air as they fall, forming flimsy puff-balls.

The way snow crystals grow depends strongly on the temperature and humidity in the clouds and not all snowflakes look like six pointed stars. When they first begin growing, they are shaped like simple hexagonal prisms that have two basal facets and six prism facets.  These are usually so small they can barely be seen with the naked eye.  There are also quite a few odd-looking crystals falling from the winter clouds. Some are long, slender columnar crystals and are often called needle crystals.  Others are shaped like two wheels on an axle and have been named capped columns.  These form when they travel through different temperatures as they grow.  Needles and columns are best found around 21F.  

The largest, most picturesque snow crystals only grow in a narrow temperature range around 5 F.  A stellar snow crystal begins with the formation of a small hexagonal plate, and branches sprout from the six corners as the crystal grows larger.   As it tumbles through the clouds, the crystal experiences ever changing temperatures and humidities, and each change makes the arms grow a bit differently.  The exact shape of the final snow crystal is determined by the precise path it took through the clouds.  Still, the six arms all took the same path, and so each experienced the same changes at the same times.  Despite this, the vast majority of snow crystals are not very symmetrical.  The growth of a snowflake depends on how water molecules diffuse through the air surrounding a growing crystal, and it depends on how water molecules stick to ice surfaces.

Since water is transparent, have you ever wondered why snow is white?  The UCAR Center for Science Education tells us that when a light photon enters a layer of snow, it goes through an ice crystal on the top, which changes its direction slightly and sends it on to a new ice crystal, which does the same thing. Basically, all the crystals bounce the light all around so that it comes right back out of the snow pile. It does the same thing to all the different light frequencies, so all colors of light are bounced back out. The "color" of all the frequencies in the visible spectrum combined in equal measure is white, so this is the color we see in snow.

Another fascinating phenomenon is the appearance of beautiful lacy patterns on our windows during the winter.  Often called “Jack frost”, water vapor starts out as moisture in the air.  When the temperatures drop outside and the windows are closed, moisture is trapped inside your home and is drawn to the window pane.  As the surface temperature outside the window goes below the dew point (the temperature to which air must be cooled for it to reach saturation and dew begins to form) the water vapor changes from a gas to liquid.  Then, when the outside temperature of the glass gets colder and is exposed to the warm moist air inside, the vapor condenses on the window pane, freezes and forms ice crystals.

A more proper name for the frost in our window decorations and sometimes on other hard surfaces is “rime” and meteorologists divide this into two types -- soft and hard.  Other than on windows, soft rime often has the appearance of fragile ice needles and scales, and forms when the water droplets in freezing fog or mist freeze to the outer surfaces of objects such as tree and shrubbery branches.  Hard rime formations appear on mountains and other high places with high winds and low-hanging clouds, have a comb-like appearance and are difficult to remove.

Although snow can cause major disruptions and accidents on the highway, many of us enjoy its beauty and usefulness for skiing, sledding and snowmobiling.   Also, a good snow cover functions as an excellent insulator of the soil protecting the root systems of trees, shrubs and perennial flowers from deep freezes and preserving moisture.  Much as some of us complain about it, winter wouldn’t seem complete without snow.


January 27, 2019:  Red-tailed Hawks

A few years ago while attending one of the sessions at the Sauk Eagle Watching Days, we were particularly interested in the male red-tailed hawk that perched on the glove of its handler.  Its attention was fixed on the man’s other hand as it dipped into his waist pack bringing out a scrap of meat, and the bird grabbed it with its sharp beak and gobbled it up. The hawk was one of four raptors on display at the program, and seeing these magnificent birds up close was the highlight of my day.

While the eagle was truly the star of the show, it was the red-tail that most interested me. Members of this species nest in the woods across the field from our house, soar overhead daily as they survey their territory, and hunt in our fields. It is probably the most common hawk in North America and is one of three species often called "chicken-hawk," (along with Cooper’s and sharp-shinned) though it rarely preys on adult chickens. Just last week we watched a pair sitting only a foot or two apart in one of the oaks across the field, probably keeping out a keen eye for a meal.

Though their backs may be light or dark, the basic appearance of these hawks is the same. It is the breast that usually catches the eye when the bird is perched, as its light brown feathers stand out almost white against any background. There is often a dark brown band across the belly, formed by horizontal streaks in patterning, and, of course, the brick-red tail, which gives this species its name. In flight one can see a short, broad tail and thick, chunky wings, and if one is close enough to see detail, the short dark hooked bill, and the yellow cere (the fleshy covering at the top of the beak), legs, and feet. The male may weigh from 1.5 to 3 pounds and measure 18 to 22 inches, while a female is often 25% larger and can have a wingspan of more than four feet.

Perhaps you have heard the cry of one of these birds as it flies overhead. It is a two to three-second hoarse, rasping scream, described as kree-eee-ar, which begins at a high pitch and slurs downward. It is an interesting fact that some Hollywood directors seem to think this cry is typical of all raptors, because no matter what species of hawk or eagle appears on screen, the shrill cry on the soundtrack is almost always that of a red-tailed hawk.

Red-tails reach sexual maturity at two years of age and choose mates for life, (unless accident or illness causes one to die) and they tend to remain in the same nesting territory. During courtship, the male and female fly in wide circles while uttering shrill cries and the male performs aerial displays, diving steeply, and then climbing again. They will refurbish a nest used in a previous year if possible, but otherwise build a new one -- often only a few hundred yards from the previous site. The nest itself is usually a tall pile of dry sticks that can be up to 6 feet high and 3 feet across, with an inner cup lined with bark strips, fresh foliage, and dry vegetation. The female lays a clutch of 1 to 3 eggs in March or April, and incubates them for 28 to 35 days. The chicks remain in the nest for about six weeks, and then are fed and taught to hunt by the parents throughout the rest of the summer.

The red-tailed hawk hunts primarily from an elevated perch, swooping down to seize prey when it appears. Its diet is mainly made up of small mammals such as mice, squirrels, and rabbits, but it will take insects, birds and reptiles when it can find them. Because the red-tails are so common and easily trained as capable hunters, they make up the majority of hawks captured for falconry in the United States. Falconers are permitted to take only young birds less than a year old that have left the nest and are on their own, so as to not affect the breeding population. Since there are fewer than 5,000 falconers in the United States, any effect on the million-plus red-tailed hawk population is thought to be insignificant.

In the course of a hunt, a falconer most commonly releases the hawk and allows it to perch in a tree or other high vantage point. He then attempts to flush prey by stirring up ground cover, often aided by a dog. A well-trained red-tail will follow the falconer and dog, knowing that they will provide opportunities to catch game. Once a raptor makes a kill, it does not bring it back to the falconer. Instead, the falconer must follow the hawk to its captured prey, carefully approach and trade the bird a piece of favorite meat in exchange for its prize.

The feathers and other parts of the red-tailed hawk are considered sacred to many American indigenous people and, like the feathers of the bald and golden eagles, are sometimes used in religious ceremonies and found adorning the their regalia. As with the other two species, the feathers and parts are regulated by the eagle feather law, which governs the possession of feathers and parts of migratory birds, but Native Americans are allowed exemptions.

The wing of the red-tail we saw at Eagle Days had been injured by collision with a vehicle and since the bird was no longer able to hunt, it has been kept for demonstrations by the St. Paul, Minnesota Raptor Center along with others incapacitated by poison or accident. The Center treats some 1000 raptors each year, releasing those that can return to the wild, finding homes for survivors that cannot, and providing training in avian medicine and surgery for veterinarians from around the world. 

January 22, 2019: The Bald Eagle, Our National Bird

Before European settlers reached America's shores, American bald eagles may have numbered at half a million birds and nested on every large river and concentration of lakes within North America. Then came a great decline--the result of loss of habitat, hunting and poisoning--and they were threatened with extinction.  The bald eagle is the only eagle unique to North America and can be identified by its 8-foot wing span, white head and white tail feathers.  A second eagle, the golden, can be found across the northern hemisphere and is primarily found in the western states and provinces from Mexico through Alaska.  Golden eagles do not breed in Minnesota or Wisconsin, but they are regular winter visitors.

Bald eagles require a good food base, perching areas, and nesting sites. Their habitat includes estuaries, large lakes, reservoirs, and rivers where they feed primarily on fish and carrion.  In winter, the birds congregate near open water often near dams in tall trees for spotting prey and night roosts for sheltering.  They may live 25 years in the wild, longer in captivity.
Eagles mate for life, choosing the tops of large trees to build their nests, which they typically reuse and enlarge each year.  In our area, the female usually lays two white eggs in late March or early April, and both adults incubate the eggs.  Within a month or so, the eggs hatch in the order they were laid, each eaglet breaking through the shell by using its egg tooth, a pointed bump on the top of the beak.  This is a lengthy process and can take from twelve to forty-eight hours.  Sometimes two chicks will survive, but it is not uncommon for the older eaglet to kill a smaller one, especially if the older is a female, as females are consistently larger than males.

Newly hatched, an eaglet’s small body is covered with soft, grayish-white down, its wobbly legs too weak to hold its weight, and its eyes partially closed.  Eagles feed their young by shredding pieces of meat from their prey with their beaks and they protect them from severe weather and predators, such as great horned owls, raccoons, and ravens.  In Wisconsin, active nests have been found both in inland nesting areas and along the Chippewa, Lower Wisconsin,Wolf, and Mississippi Rivers, and containing almost 800 eaglets.

Young eagles can fly at about three months of age but continue to be fed by their parents as they learn to care for themselves.  Disease, lack of food, bad weather, or human interference can kill many but recent studies show that approximately 70 percent survive their first year of life.  These young birds are dark brown with touches of white on the underwings and tail, making it hard to tell them from large hawks or golden eagles until they get their "bald" heads and white tails when they are 4 or 5 years old..

When America adopted the bald eagle as the national symbol in 1782, the country may have had as many as 100,000 nesting eagles but their numbers declined as human populations increased.  Although the birds primarily eat fish and carrion, bald eagles were thought to prey upon chickens, lambs, and domestic livestock and were shot on sight.  In 1940, noting that the species was “threatened with extinction,” Congress passed the Bald Eagle Protection Act, which prohibited killing, selling, or possessing the species.
In the late 1940’s, DDT (a new pesticide used to control mosquitoes and other insects) was introduced and soon contaminated waterways, where aquatic plants and fish absorbed it. Bald eagles ate the contaminated fish and the chemical interfered with the ability of the birds to produce strong eggshells causing them to break during incubation or otherwise fail to hatch. In addition to the adverse effects of DDT, some bald eagles died from lead poisoning after feeding on waterfowl containing lead shot.  By 1963, there were thought to be only 490 nesting pairs of bald eagles remaining across the nation.

As the dangers of DDT became known, in large part due to the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, the Environmental Protection Agency took the historic and then controversial step of banning the use of DDT in the United States.
Following enactment of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the Service listed the species in 1978 as endangered throughout the lower 48 states, except in Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin where it was designated as threatened.  (“Endangered” means a species is considered in danger of extinction throughout a significant portion of its range while “threatened” means a species is considered likely to become endangered in the future, but is not currently in danger.).

Listing the species as endangered allowed the Service and its partners to step up their efforts for recovery through captive breeding programs, reintroduction efforts, law enforcement, and nest site protection during the breeding season.  Now, based on the most recent population figures, the Service estimates that there are about 9800 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the contiguous United States, and has removed the bird from the list of threatened and endangered species.  (The Migratory Bird Treaty and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Acts still prohibit the killing, selling or otherwise harming eagles, their nests, or eggs.)

If you want to see eagles these days, you can visit the Dam Road off Highway 78 near Prairie du Sac and be almost certain that some of these magnificent birds will be present.  The area’s annual Bald Eagle Watching Days were held there last week and is over, but the birds will be there several more months.   Also check the weekly report in The Home News for the Ferry Bluff Eagle Council report on roosting birds.  You can even volunteer to help...

January 15, 2019: Winter Techniques for Survival

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 mild days and retreating only when it turns 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 in 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 probably 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 taken over 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 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 the 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.

January 9, 2019:  Daddy Longlegs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


December 17, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 11, 2018:  Acorns and other nuts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 4, 2018:  Trees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 27, 2018:  All About Owls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 November 13, 2018: All About Moles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


November 6, 2018: Wooly Bears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


October 30, 2018: Sandhill cranes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


October 23, 2018:  Juncos and More Winter Birds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


October 16, 2018:   Snails and Slugs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


October 9, 2018: Those Amazing bats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


October 2, 2018:  Insect winter survival

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

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

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

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

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

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

We have often been taught that water freezes at 0°C 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 0°C 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 -5°C and in the winter, some develop further protections that allow them to supercool to -15 and lower without freezing. Supercooling is only effective if the insect can avoid contact with ice crystals as these act as seeds around which additional crystals can form. Some insects gain further protection by picking dry spots to hibernate or spinning waterproof cocoons around themselves to block contact with ice.  Ms. Ennis writes that an insect’s ability to supercool also depends on how much water it contains, for the smaller the amount of water, the greater its ability to resist freezing.  In order for insects to continue to the next life stage, diapause has to be terminated and most insects do not come out of diapause unless a long period of cold precedes warm temperatures.

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


September 25, 2018: Eagles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


September 18, 2018:  Ruby-throated Hummingbirds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


September 11, 2018:  Bobcats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


September 5, 2018: Spiders and their Silk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 28, 2018:  Gentians and More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you believe it is almost autumn?

August 21, 2018: Singing Insects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 13, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


August 6, 2018: Little Owls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


August 2, 2018:  Silk Moths

For a number of weeks I have been tending my caterpillar farm, providing the livestock with fresh leaves almost daily as their appetites have increased along with their size.  The caterpillars that were only about ¼ inch long when they hatched, are now three to four inches in length and fat as sausages. At last, the end seems in sight for most of them, and a few in a hurry have stopped eating and begun to spin their cocoons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


July 24, 2018 Nighttime creatures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


July 2, 2018: Bumblebees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 25, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


June 19, 2018:  Treefrogs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


June 12, 2018:  Whitetails

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

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

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

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

Whitetails belong to the oldest deer species on the planet (first identified some 3½ million years ago), and they are such successful survivors that they have not changed appreciably throughout this time.  They can be found in all sorts of environments, and can eat a huge variety of foods -- even fish, dead birds and insects when pressed.  They flourish on farm crops and even in back yards, but have been sometimes proved serious pests, not only to farmers and gardeners, but on the road causing accidents and numerous human deaths as well.  The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has estimated that there are more than 1.5 million deer-vehicle collisions each year in our country, resulting in 150 human deaths, tens of thousands of injuries and over $1 billion in vehicle damage.

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

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

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

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


June 5, 2018  Wild Silk Moths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


May 27, 2018: Mosquitoes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


May 22, 2018:  Big Cats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


May 15, 2018: Bull Snakes and Others

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


May 8, 2018: Hummingbirds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 1, 2018:  Beetles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


April 24, 2018:  Seeds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


April 17, 2018: Turkeys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 10, 2018:  All About Shrews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


April 4, 2018:  Hepaticas, Virginia Bluebells and Skippers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 27, 2018:  Red-winged Blackbirds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


March 20, 2018: Tufted Titmice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


March 13, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 March 6, 2018: Daddy Longlegs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 28, 2018: Woolly Bears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 February 20, 2018: Opossums

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 13, 2018:  Eastern Gray Squirrel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


February 5, 2018: Hawks and Falcons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


January 30, 2018:  Timber wolves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 January 22, 2018:  Snowy Owls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


January 15, 2018:  Black Bears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


January 9, 2018:  Feeding birds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


January 2, 2018:  A new year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


December 19, 2017:  Chickadees and Titmice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


December 12, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 5, 2017: Non-native Nuisances

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


November 27, 2017:  Non-native Nuisances

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


November 21, 2017:  Antlers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


November 14, 2017: Sandhill Cranes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


November 7, 2017: Quail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


October 31, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


October 24, 2017: Winter Birds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 17, 2017:  Black Birds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


October 10, 2017:  Two Bittersweets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


October 2, 2017: snakes and such

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


September 25, 2017:  Hummingbirds and Lookalikes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


September 18, 2017:  Asters and Goldenrods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 11, 2017: Rattlesnakes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


September 5, 2017: A Tree Frog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


August 29, 2017: Chiggers!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


August 22, 2017: Caterpillar Miracle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


August 16, 2017: Hummingbirds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


August 9, 2017: Katydids and other insects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


August 2, 2017: The Underground World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


July 25, 2017:  Indian Pipe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



July 16, 2017:    Turkey Vultures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


July 11, 2017:  The Skunks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


July 4, 2017:  The Magnificant Monarch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


June 27, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(in the style of Ogden Nash)

 by writer Melissa Ann Goodwin

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


June 20, 2017:  Insect Wings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


June 13, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


June 6, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 30, 2017: Those Pesky mosquitoes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 23, 2017: Wild Orchids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


May 16, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


May 9, 2017:  Bird Migration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of the longest migrations are made by shorebirds that nest in the arctic tundra of northern Canada and winter as far south as the southernmost part of South America, a one-way distance of up to 10,000 miles.  Other birds that winter in South America include common nighthawks, Swainson’s hawks, red-eyed vireos, purple martins, barn and cliff swallows, blackpoll, cerulean and Connecticut warblers, scarlet tanagers, and bobolinks. A round-trip migration distance for many of these species is as much as 13,600 miles and the arctic tern travels 22,000 miles each year.  Since birds are so active and have high body temperatures they must eat almost constantly and some consume nearly their body weight in food each day.

It is estimated that 90 percent of songbirds hatched in any given year fail to reach maturity and migration is a major killer. Untold numbers of migrants die each year by striking plate glass windows, utility lines and towers, and automobiles, in addition to the millions of birds that fall prey to domestic predators such as house and farm cats.  Such human-related challenges come in addition to the natural risks of storms, water barriers, sudden temperature drops, and natural predation.

The Environment for the Americas celebrates the International Migratory Bird Day each year.  We in the Spring Green area are fortunate to have a dedicated group of bird enthusiasts who invites us to take part in the fifth annual Wings Over River Valley Bird Festival, May 12 and 13, that will be held at the Wisconsin Riverside Resort and the Spring Green Library.  They also host a popular guided bird walk at Tower Hill State Park.  See details on the internet @Wings Over River Valley - Town of Spring Green Bird City or in local publications.


May 2, 2017:  Spring birds, butterflies and such...

A wild garden is home to far more things than wildflowers, but whether creatures make their presence known depends upon their shyness, the time of day or sometimes the weather. Midday with the sun shining, butterflies visit the blossoms; birds are busy establishing their territories and feeding; and reptiles are emerging from their winter shelters. Warm evenings bring out the moths, singing tree frogs and toads, mice and other burrowing rodents, and often the larger animals like raccoons, possums and deer.

Some of the migrant birds have not yet arrived, but the chipping and song sparrows, as well as the phoebes, are here and busily setting up housekeeping. The chipper is a small gray-breasted sparrow with a bright rufous cap and a black line through its eye. The male claims his territory by singing a simple trill, all on one pitch, during most of the daylight hours. The female makes a nest of dead grass and weeds, but if horsehair is available as it was once here at the farm in copious amounts, she will sometimes construct the entire nest of this favored material. Chipping sparrow chicks develop at an amazing rate. Each starts as a blind, naked mite weighting about as much as two paper clips, and fourteen days later it is fully feathered and ready to fly.

The song sparrow is larger than the chipper and can be identified by its song (several phrases that typically start with two or three well-spaced notes and finish with a buzz), as well as its streaked breast that has a prominent blotchy spot at the center.  A pair, or perhaps a succession of pairs through the years, has often claimed our grape vines by the back porch for its nest and we often see one bathing at the little pond, singing from a fencepost, or feeding among the plants. Both sparrows are welcome in our garden as they eat untold numbers of insects and weed seeds. 

The Eastern phoebe, a flycatcher, also arrives early for one who depends upon flying insects for food, and I would think that it must go hungry on many cold spring days.  At such times, I read that it supplements its diet with fruits such as sumac, poison ivy, and wild grapes.  All of the flycatchers have wide, flat bills that have hairy bristles at the base, presumably to help them funnel insects into their mouths, and they fly out from a perch to snatch prey in mid-flight. We have several pairs that nest around the farm buildings, and a favorite sometimes builds under the eaves of the little stone building we used as headquarters for our plant sales. For many years the female used a niche directly over the doorway but she has since moved around to the back of the building, no doubt considering the human traffic too intrusive.

We have not seen any of the larger butterflies as of yet, but blues, painted ladies and cabbages have been out on warmish days much of the month.  Almost too delicate to believe is the tiny spring azure and its two “look-alike” butterflies—the summer azure and the eastern tailed blue.  Ten or eleven species of blues and azures occur in Wisconsin, and worldwide, they and their little relatives make up 30% of all the known butterfly species.

The spring azure is generally a metallic-blue above and gray below but exhibits large variations in color depending on where it is found.  It typically has a wingspan of only about an inch and seems to easily survive the frosty nights of mid-spring.  The pupa overwinters on the forest floor and the adult emerges in mid April and can be seen flying about in the farmyard. Males mate with any females they encounter within hours of their emerging and she lays her eggs the next day on the flower buds of host plants like maple-leaved viburnum, black cherry, and sumac.

When the spring azure eggs hatch, the minuscule caterpillars, which are greenish, segmented, and covered with white stubble, eat the flowers and then the developing fruits.  They produce a honeydew that is relished by ants that are present pollinating the flowers and these in turn protect the tiny creatures from any hungry birds. The larval stage takes about a month, but the resting/pupal stage begins in early summer and lasts until the next spring.

The American painted lady is considerably larger than the little blue and has two large eyespots on the underside of its hind wings.  It lays its eggs on food plants like the thistle or hollyhock and the caterpillars shed their skins four times before they are fully grown.  Each hangs downward from a leaf, changes into a chrysalis, and when this shell cracks open, the butterfly emerges to mate and continue the cycle. 

One recent year, as I was walking one of the paths, I scared a member of our pest control scurrying down a rodent hole.  The Eastern hognose snake has a thick body, a wide neck, and a slightly upturned snout, and if disturbed, it will inflate its neck, hiss loudly, and strike much like a cobra. If this does not work, the snake sometimes will play dead, rolling over with its mouth open and its tongue hanging out. I read that it will even stay limp if picked up, and if turned right side up, will flop right back over. This one reared up with neck expanded when I got too close but then retreated down a rodent hole. The hognose eats a variety of prey, but reportedly relishes toads if they are available. Like all snakes, the Eastern hognose is also an important control on mice and rats.

Lovely as our cultivated gardens can be, a wild area is often full of surprises and we hope you can find one nearby to explore throughout the coming summer season until the winter blasts return. 


April 25, 2017:  Spring Wildflowers

Trout lily, fawn lily, dog-tooth violet, adder's tongue: all are names for one of the loveliest but sometimes most frustrating of our spring flowers. These small lilies grow only five or six inches tall from small bulbs shaped like canine teeth. They have broad upright basal leaves mottled with brown (resembling a trout) and most of my patches consist of just that—leaves, with very few blossoms in sight. When they do bloom, however, all the waiting is worth while.

Trout lilies can be found all over the United States and two common species can be found in Wisconsin, the americanum and albidum, yellow and white.  Each bulb usually puts up a single leaf, but then several horizontal runners that form new bulbs at their ends. The result is a mat of leaves pointing upward, and it is only when a bulb develops enough strength to produce two leaves that a flower stalk develops. I have moved clumps into a variety of spots, hoping for better blooming success, but no matter where I have placed them, the leaves grow rampantly while the flower are sparse.
The vein framework of the leaves of most plants resembles that of a tree with central trunk, large diverging branches and a network of ever-smaller twigs. In contrast, lilies have parallel veins in their leaves coming together at the stem, a characteristic shared by a select number of our wildflowers. These typically sprout as a single leaf as in sweet corn, as opposed to two seed leaves as in beans.

Although orchids, iris, and gentian are common examples of parallel-veined plants, the largest family is probably the lily group and we have a number of wildflowers that belong in this category. Trillium, spiderwort, wild onion, Turk's cap, wood and trout lilies come to mind. First to bloom is the bellwort which has a yellow drooping flower hanging from the tip of its upright stalk. These often grow into large clumps and are distinctive, as the stems seem to perforate the leaves.

Flowering later are three other similar plants, the Solomon's seal, Solomon's plume, and starry Solomon's plume. Solomon's seal grows to three feet and has pairs of greenish blossoms at each upper stem node dangling beneath the leaves. These later develop into large blue berries that hang on for an extended period. Solomon's plume and starry Solomon's plume display their racemes of white flowers at the end of their stalks, the only noticeable difference between them being that the first is larger with more numerous flowerets.  Later, they are more easily distinguished, as the Solomon's plume has speckled white berries that turn ruby red while the other's fruit becomes almost black.

Much smaller is the Canada mayflower, growing only three or four inches high. Sometimes called wild lily-of-the-valley, it looks like a miniature version of the others and is topped by a fragrant cluster of 4-pointed flowers that become spotted white berries turning to red at maturity. This can form a dense ground cover in favorable areas, perfuming the woods when in bloom.

With so many beautiful plants under foot it is difficult to turn one's attention to the sky, but the birds are returning in ever-increasing numbers and we don't want to miss any. The tiny chipping sparrow is chattering away, and several robins and cardinals are singing from their chosen territories.  Most easily seen are the several vultures that persist in circling our hilltop above the barn. I have noticed this in previous years and have wondered if they were considering nesting among the rocks along the ridge, but if they have done so, we haven't found them.

Vultures lay their eggs in protected spots under vegetation or in hollow logs, rock caves or crevices and we have many such spots available. I read that such a nest becomes difficult to miss as the smell from the rotting meat brought to the young perfumes the neighborhood, but it's a big hillside to explore thoroughly. Vultures are huge birds, standing 30 inches tall and with wingspans of up to six feet. They are easy to identify as they soar high in the air, for they hold their wings in a shallow V, in contrast to the eagles and hawks whose wings are extended in a straight line. The big birds perform a valuable service as they clean up the decaying carcasses of road-killed and other dead animals.

The hummingbird is about as different from the vulture as a bird can be but we have begun putting out our nectar feeder even though we have not yet seen one.  The spring migration website shows that many have been seen in Illinois and a few in Wisconsin as far north as Door County, so we want them to be welcomed when they do arrive.  There are seventeen species of hummers that breed in North America, but here in the eastern half of the United States there is only one -- the ruby throated.  It is about 3 inches long, has a 4 inch wingspan and weighs only about .2 ounce.  We have found that they will become quite tame and will come for their sugar-water even when we hold the container, and the beauty of these tiny birds is breath-taking. 

We no longer have our annual wildflower sales but will be happy to have you come and visit our wildflower garden and perhaps walk our many trails through the woods.  Give us a call to come visit and enjoy.  


April 18, 2017: Jumping worms

Most of us have dug for earthworms as children, and perhaps as adults as well, when planning a fishing trip.  Then, we had no idea that what we were collecting were just one of some twenty species of earthworms in the Great Lakes region and certainly did not realize that none of these were native.  It is now believed that all this area’s indigenous worms were killed off during the Ice Ages hundreds of thousands years ago and that our forests and prairies were established without any being present.  Then, when European settlers brought plants to the New World with them, they inadvertently introduced their earthworms as well.

When they first appeared in our area, earthworms were viewed as pests and nuisances until 1881 when Charles Darwin published one of his most popular works, "The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observations on their Habits".   Darwin's research changed public perception of the earthworms, and they became thought of as friends to gardeners, farmers and composters.

It has been a basic ecological concept ever since that earthworms were good for ecosystems and that they mix and aerate the soil, but recent research on invasion of these seemingly benevolent creatures into previously earthworm-free hardwood forests of the Great Lakes Region has challenged this.  Fishermen and -women have often dumped unused night crawlers and other bait worms at the conclusion of their excursions, and now researchers at the University of Minnesota, and elsewhere, have documented dramatic changes in native hardwood forests in these fishing areas.

These include losses of native understory plant species and tree seedlings, changes in soil structure and declines in nutrient availability. There is also fascinating evidence emerging that small mammal, bird and amphibian populations are also being impacted,  and they have even encouraged invasions of other exotic species such as European slugs and exotic plants like buckthorn and garlic mustard.

Now there is a further complication.  If you saw the cancelation notice this week concerning the native plant sale to be held by the Wisconsin Hardy Plant Society in Madison, you may have realized the concern of that group about a new invasive earthworm species that has been discovered in Wisconsin. This is no ordinary creature as you might conclude by its common name -- jumping worm!  Its appearance, life cycle, biology and behavior are unique, and when they are disturbed, jumping worms thrash violently, slither like snakes and even jump into the air.

Jumping worms are darker and smoother than other earthworms and are relatively easy to identify by the band surrounding the body.  It is milky white to gray-colored, smooth and completely encircles the body; however, what makes jumping worms truly unique is their life cycle.  They are asexual, which means an individual can reproduce without a mate, and can reach maturity within 60 days of hatching. Then it produces eggs and dies, sometimes undergoing two cycles during a summer.   In the autumn they drop microscopic egg cases that survive the winter, hatch and start the cycle all over again the following June.

This destructive invasive species was found at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum for the first time in 2013 and has since turned up in many locations around the state. Originally from Asia, these voracious creatures are known to consume leaves and other organic materials faster than any other worm species.  They live on the surface of the ground and compact the surrounding soil.

Forest floor leaf litter is comparable to the skin on an animal. It retains moisture, protects roots, breathes, prevents erosion, deters pathogens and non-native plants and promotes seed germination. When leaf litter is consumed by earthworms it is like removing the skin of the forest floor.  Disturbance from earthworms exposes the soil and causes erosion, compaction and increased rainwater runoff.  This disturbance favors invasive plants, beginning a cycle of non–native invasions competing for critical resources. The result is less diversity of native plants and animals in our forests.

Where jumping worms are present, fallen leaves and topsoil are processed by the worms until the soil becomes granular, dry and looks similar to coffee grounds.  There has also been observed to be a decline in European earthworms where jumping worm populations are established, and no signs of woodland flowers in those forests.  In January 2015 the Department of Natural Resources organized a committee of representatives from the green industry, composters, master gardeners, cities and municipalities and the University of Wisconsin-Extension to develop management practices to minimize the jumping worm spread and educate the public.

 If you do come across jumping worms, you are asked to report them to the Department of Natural Resources by email at  You may also contact Phyllis Both by email at or by telephone on Monday mornings at the Sauk County University of Wisconsin-Extension office, 608-355-3253.  You will not notice these worms in the spring as they are not visible until late June or early July. (It’s ironic that this is when the Japanese beetles also appear.) You may find a second hatch in early fall.  Your help is needed...


April 11, 2017

We have been listening to returning songbirds and owls the past couple of weeks but another unlikely singer also has joined the chorus -- a frog called the spring peeper. This is a small chorus frog that is less than 1 1/2 inches long and weighs less than a quarter ounce.  It is called a chorus frog because it and its brothers and sisters join in what can be an ear-splitting choir any mild evening in any damp spot or wetland.  Spring peepers are marked with a dark cross that roughly forms an X on their backs and may be tan, brown, olive green, or gray. Females are lighter-colored, while males are slightly smaller and usually have dark throats. They can sometimes be found in breeding aggregations of several hundred individuals, and commonly breed wherever they can find water -- in wetlands, swamps and temporary pools and farm ponds.

Spring peepers spend the winter hibernating under logs, in piles of leaves or behind loose bark on trees where they can survive temperatures as low as -20F.  Ice crystals form in such places as the body cavity and bladder and under the skin, but a high concentration of glucose in the frog's vital organs prevents complete freezing.  A partially frozen frog will stop breathing and its heart will stop beating but when the temperatures warm up above freezing, the frozen portions will thaw, and its heart and lungs will resume activity. Many frogs can survive all winter like this, undergoing repeated cycles of freezing and thawing.

As its common name implies, male spring peeper has a high-pitched call, similar to that of a young chicken only much louder and rising slightly in pitch. It is among the first frogs to call in the spring and can be heard soon after the ice melts on the wetlands.  Even when calling, the little frog is often difficult to locate. Only males have vocal sacs located in their throats which expand and deflate like balloons to create the short and distinct peeping sound, and they use it to attract mates. The frog will also give an aggressive rising trill if threatened or when challenged by another male. The spring peeper has large toe pads for climbing, but it is more at home in the loose debris of the forest floor where it feeds primarily on small invertebrates, such as beetles, ants, flies, and spiders.

Spring peepers breed in northern areas between March and May, when warm rains fall.  After mating, the female will typically lay around 900 eggs, hiding the clusters under vegetation or debris in the water.  The eggs absorb moisture and consist of several layers of gelatinous material, a jelly that provides support and protection to the developing embryos. Tiny tadpoles soon hatch, with legless oval bodies and long flattened tails, and eat algae and small plants.  They grow hind legs, then front ones and then absorb their tails, as well as begin to breathe air. The mouth changes from being small and enclosed at the front of the head to large and the same width as the head, and the intestines shorten to accommodate a new diet of insects.  About eight weeks after hatching, the transformation is complete and the new frogs are ready to leave the water.  

Spring peepers, and other tree frogs as well as toads, have just one vocal sack located under the throat, while true frogs have a pair of vocal sacks on the corner of the mouth.  True frogs also produce croaks when air is pushed through the larynx in the throat, and the sound is amplified by vocal sacs that are elastic skin membranes.  In the various species, croaks can sounds like bells, cackles, trills, cuckoo calls, barks, whistles, flute, meows, grunts, buzzings, zooms, hums, started engine, hammer hitting an anvil, rowing, drum beats, metallic, and others.  They are basically love serenades meant to attract mates, and can be sung individually or in groups, although they can also be warnings or distress calls.  It is interesting that frogs living near flowing water in most cases have quiet croaks and lack vocal sacks, presumably due to the noise of flowing water covering any emitted sound.

All adult frogs have stout bodies, protruding eyes, cleft tongues, limbs folded underneath, and the absence of a tail. The skin has secretions ranging from distasteful to toxic.  Frogs' skins vary in color from dappled brown, grey and green to vivid patterns of bright red or yellow and black to advertise toxicity and warn off predators. They are widely distributed, ranging from the tropics to subarctic regions, but the greatest numbers of different species are found in tropical rain forests.  There are approximately 4,800 recorded species.

The American bullfrog is the largest frog that can be found in our state. This giant can measure 6 inches long and can weigh up to a pound and is native to much of eastern North America including Wisconsin (where it is designated a species of concern).  American bullfrogs are plain green with dark markings and have no ridges along their backs.  They inhabit permanent bodies of water and breed later than the peeper, usually in June through July.  The call is a deep bass similar to a foghorn; "jug-o-rum" or like drawing a bow across a bass fiddle.

Bullfrogs are able to jump distances up to ten times their body length and can hear both in the air and below water. They are voracious, opportunistic, ambush predators who feed mainly on invertebrates, but will prey on any small animal they can overpower and stuff down their throats such as a rodent, reptile, or bird.  They can capture large, strong prey because of the powerful grip of their jaws after wrapping it in their large sticky tongue. It has been introduced into some western states but it is considered to be an invasive species because of the concern that it seems to be outcompeting native species of amphibians and upsetting the ecological balance.  It is very common in California, where it is considered to be a factor in the decline of several vulnerable species.

All frogs are very sensitive to their environment, and any changes in their appearance or their numbers can warn us that there are problems that need addressing.   We would do well to watch them.


April 4, 2017

Anyone who enjoys listening to the birds has probably also heard a strange hooting from the woods these days. On our farm there are two large owls who make themselves heard, the great horned and the barred. The great horned has the characteristic owl face with yellow eyes and long tufts on its head, and can be found just about anywhere around the globe, even in the desert, tundra, and tropical rainforest.  Its song is a low-pitched ho-ho-hoo hoo hoo and is commonly heard in late winter, typically decreasing at the onset of egg laying in March. When disturbed, the owl also can put out a loud variety of hoots, chuckles, screeches and squawks. It is a large bird with a wingspan of up to five feet and preys upon anything it can catch, including those as large as a house cat.  After digesting its food, the owl regurgitates hard pellets of compressed bones, fur, teeth, feathers and other indigestible materials.

The barred owl is best known for its distinctive call, a series of eight accented hoots ending in oo-aw, with a downward pitch at the end. (The most helpful trick for remembering the call is to think "Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all.")  When agitated, this species will also make a buzzy, rasping hiss and click its beak together loudly.  Its principal prey are voles, followed by mice and shrews as well as rats, squirrels, rabbits and whatever it can catch.  It has light gray and rufous brown plumage with bars of light and dark brown and gray, which is why it is called the barred owl. It is about two feet tall and its wingspan can reach four feet. The pale face is round with a dark outline and the breast is white with gray and brown bars. It sometimes hunts during the day when it has a nest full of hungry chicks.

Along with the two large owls, there are two medium sized owls that resemble each other in many ways, the long-eared and short-eared owls. They are both quite vocal and make an incredible variety of hoots, squeals, barks, and other noises as well as low, breathy hoots and strange barking calls in the night. The long-eared owl has erect blackish ear-tufts in the center of the head and the short-eared has paler plumage and smaller ears that usually are held close. These birds are partially migratory and some move south in winter.

Much smaller are the eastern screech-owl and the northern saw-whet owl. The screech owl is strictly nocturnal, and roosts during the day in a cavity or next to a tree trunk. It can often be found in residential areas but due to its small size and camouflage, it is more frequently heard than seen.  Despite the name, its call doesn’t truly screech but has a descending, whinny-like quality that often ends in a monotone purring trill lasting several seconds.  The northern saw-whet owl makes a repeated tooting whistle sound that some have said sounds like a saw being sharpened on a whetstone.  It is one of the smallest owls in North America and is close to the size of an American robin.  It nests in a tree cavity or old nest made by another small raptor. Some are permanent residents, while others may migrate south in winter.

An owl that used to be quite common and now is almost never encountered is the barn owl with its distinctive heart-shaped white face.  In Wisconsin and most of the Midwest it is now listed as endangered and is seldom seen.  Some modern agricultural practices have reduced barn owl habitat by shifting from cover crops such as oats and hay to row crops like corn. This removes food and shelter for mice and voles and the owls then lose their main food source. Barn owls have a hard time surviving severe winters if they can't find enough food, since their bodies store little fat reserves.

Great gray owls, snowy owls and the reclusive little boreal owls breed farther north in dense coniferous forests near open areas, such as meadows or bogs but occasionally visit our state during hard winters. The great gray is documented as the world's largest species of owl by length, and the snowy is the heaviest, with bright white plumage, large yellow eyes and massive feathered feet.

Two other non-owl nighttime singers that will soon add their voices are the nighthawk and the whippoorwill.  Common nighthawks are not really hawks but are from the Nightjar family. These birds are so well camouflaged that you would have a hard time seeing them when crouched on the ground as they look like a pile of leaves.  It is easy to walk right by them unless they jump into the air and fly away.  Nighthawks are about a foot long with brown, black, and gray feathers and a tiny beak that opens up to a very large mouth. These birds fly around at night, often around streetlights, and can eat thousands of insects in a single evening.

The whippoorwill which is more properly named the common poorwill, is also part of the Nightjar family. These birds are very similar to nighthawks, and they hang out at night and eat insects too. However, they are less active and would rather sit on the ground, hidden in the leaves, and let the bugs come to them. Then, they will simply snatch them up with their huge mouths, only flying when necessary. The poorwill is a medium sized bird,  åabout ten inches long with a wingspan of around twenty inches. The female usually lays two eggs right on the ground and the male and female share the duties between them.
All the night birds rely on dull colored feathers and camouflaged patterns to keep them hidden from their prey and from other predators in the daylight.  All are carnivorous and the various species prey upon rodents, small or medium sized mammals, nocturnal insects, fish and other birds, including smaller owls.  It is of concern that there is some evidence to suggest that both common nighthawk and whippoorwill populations have declined significantly in the last 40 years. The night time chorus would greatly miss them.


March 28, 2017:   Bird Songs

The first thing you might notice when you step out for an early morning listen is the great variety of sounds produced by the singing birds. The redwing has little more than a “cha-reeeeeeeee” while the cardinal gives forth with “cheer-cheer-cheer-purty-purty-purty“. The song sparrow sings, “Hip; hip; hip hurrah boys; spring is here!” with its three similar introductory notes, while the bluebird, which seems as if it should have a lovely melody, comes out with a muffled twitter. Scientists tell us that birds produce five basic types of sound: call, song, territorial, fledgling, and alarm. The first four are used during their daily life and work, while the alarm notes are agitated and warn of a threat. Within each of these basic types, the particular of meanings of these sounds are based upon inflection, body language and background setting.

Most song is produced by the male bird and is usually delivered from a prominent perch adjacent to its nesting area. Songs are often longer and more complex than calls, and are usually associated with courtship and mating. Strangely, some species are nearly voiceless, but non-vocal sounds such as the drumming of woodpeckers and the "winnowing" of snipes’ wings in display flight are also considered songs. A female often seems to choose the male with the most impressive “song” as her mate, and experiments suggest that the quality of each bird’s song could be a good indicator of fitness. This may be because parasites and disease will affect the male’s song, or just because ability of a male bird to hold and advertise a good territory demonstrates his health.
We tend to think that birdsong is whistling, and we know that when we whistle, we produce that sound in the mouth. However, many of us with a farm background who have seen a chicken’s head cut off might have heard it continue to squawk as it flops headless on the ground. It can do this because the sound doesn't come from the head but from its body; in fact, birds have a song-making organ that other animals, including humans, do not, called the syrinx.
When air enters a bird's nostrils and mouth, it flows through the trachea to the lungs, as is the case with most higher animals. The bird's syrinx is shaped like an upside-down, hollow “Y” and is located where the trachea forks, with one branch leading toward each lung. If a bird wants to sing or squawk, it tightens up its syrinx muscles so that air moving through it is pressurized and causes a membrane inside to vibrate, creating sound. The bird can control the pitch by changing the tension on the membrane and both pitch and volume by the amount of air that passes over it. It can also control the two sides of the trachea independently, allowing some species to produce two notes at once.

When a male bird is raised in isolation, it still sings, but its song sounds distinctly different from others of its species. It appears that although the basic song is the same for all of the same type, young birds learn details of their songs from their fathers, and these variations build up over generations to form dialects. Zebra finches, the most popular species for birdsong research, have been observed to develop a version of the adult's song only three weeks from hatching, but it requires two to three months for the young bird to perfect its final version.

The language of birds has long been a topic for study, and it is obvious to all that most calls have meanings that are understood by other birds. Many species can even imitate human speech or other sounds, and a study by Irene Pepperberg, professor of psychology at Brandeis University and lecturer at Harvard University noted for her studies in animal cognition, suggested that some birds demonstrate considerable learning ability. She trained an African grey parrot named Alex to use words to answer complex questions such as "How many red squares?" with over 80% accuracy. It was trained by using two teachers, one to give instructions, and the other to act as a model who would give the correct response.

The bird copied the model’s answers and was able to identify objects by color, shape, and number at about the level of a chimpanzee or dolphin. Critics cited the “Clever Hans effect” (named for a horse who seemed to be able to count and do other intellectual tasks but was later proved to be receiving cues from the body language of the human trainer), but Pepperberg countered that her controls and tests made it impossible for Alex simply to recite words when she asked questions.

Such research has not been conducted with our local birds, but evidences of their intelligence keep popping up. Crows have been known to steal fish from ice fishermen by using their beaks and feet to pull up the lines when the men were not looking, and, in experiments, jays have been shown to remember exactly where they hid acorns. In one study jays were able to find seeds almost a year after they hid them and it was thought that they remembered these by forming and storing detailed image maps of the surrounding area. Other species may not be as clever, but each has its own song, and these are so distinctive that many birders routinely identify a bird solely by its sound. The next two months will be prime listening as all the birds set up housekeeping and raise their young. Enjoy the chorus.


 March 14, 2017:  All About Feet

Consider the foot. There are 26 bones in each of your feet, with two bones in your big toe and three in each of your other toes. The sole of your foot consists of five bones with seven tarsal bones behind them, two of which are larger and carry most of your weight. Despite this complexity, however, human feet are not vital to survival in most cases and I was amused to find this “news” item in the February 28, 2007 issue of The Onion, a parody newspaper published weekly online:
 “OXFORD, ENGLAND—A new report in the Journal Of The Anthropological Society Of Oxford reveals that human feet were likely once used as a means of extravehicular locomotion. "Apparently, as recently as 20 years ago, the foot was used in a process called 'walking,' by which the human body actually propelled itself," the report read. "Starting sometime in the late 1970s, these crude early feet gradually evolved into their present function of operating the gas and brake pedals on automobiles.”

While this report may be a bit premature and many humans manage pretty well without them for one reason or another, feet are very essential to most other mammals, reptiles, and birds.  All have at least two, and these are often uniquely suited to their owner’s lifestyle and environment. Even what an animal eats can depend on what kind of foot it has to help it get to that food.

Animals that hunt and kill their food need feet that are padded so they can quietly sneak up on their prey and sharp claws to catch and kill it. Other animals need feet that will allow them to escape predators by running or climbing. Animals that live in the water need feet that help them swim, and some have feet much like ours with toes and padded soles, but with toes that can curl round tree branches. Climbing claws are curved and sharply pointed to dig into tree bark while digging claws are broad and blunt, and burrowers often have wide, flat paws that that act like scoops or shovels, sometimes made wider by fur or bristles.

Climbers and burrowers are flat-footed animals that walk on their palms and all bones of the feet below the ankle. Most runners travel on the bones of their toes with their wrists and ankles held off the ground. Some types have specialized thickened nails called hooves and run on the tips of their toes. Therefore, all species can generally be divided into three types: those that place the full length of their foot on the ground such as humans and bears; those that walk with most of the length of their digits but not the soles in contact with the ground such as dogs and cats; and those that walk on their tiptoes, often on hooves, such as deer and horses.

Deer feet are actually two elongated toes comparable to the third and fourth fingers on your hand, with the second and fifth "fingers" located behind the hooves and called dewclaws. Their hooves are like big, thick toenails.  A dog walks on his toes like a deer, but its foot has four pads on the ground, each with its own toenail. Those parts of the foot that are similar to the human wrist and palm of the hand are held off the ground and we usually think of them as its lower leg.

Animals adapted for speed like deer, have relatively longer lower limb segments; however, their feet tend to be relatively useless as tools. On the other hand, a dog's paws are not as helpful in running as the feet of a deer, but can dig and hold some objects, while cats, still less adept at running, have arms and paws that that can grasp things.

All birds are toe-runners, and various species have feet designed for running, perching, grasping, wading, and paddling. Most songbirds have four toes with the first big toe turned backward while the other three forward as it needs opposing toes that wrap around a twig. Birds that usually run on the ground often have the backward toe higher up the leg out of the way, and possess thick, powerful toes with well developed nails. Swifts, that can hang on vertical surfaces, have all their toes turned forward, while woodpeckers are equipped with two toes forward and two backward to help them grasp the bark of trees and balance while they hammer. In ducks, the three front toes are connected with a web of skin.

The wonderment is that despite the varieties of feet possessed by mammals, reptiles, and birds, they have a very similar fundamental bone structure. In 1998, a fossil was unearthed in central Pennsylvania from 400 million-year-old rocks.  It was that of an ancient fish that scientists have dubbed as lobe-finned, a bony creature that had paired rounded fins that were very suggestive of limbs. The bones in its forelimb included what looked very much like an upper-arm bone, two forearm bones, and many little bones connected by joints to the forearm bones in the positions of wrist and finger bones.
There the similarities end, however, as the finger-like bones look more like fin rays than the jointed finger bones, but this is still the closest we have come to understanding the origins of our feet and hands.


March 14, 2017

Driving down Rainbow Road Sunday morning we came upon a thrilling sight -- six bald eagles were cavorting in a field near the road!  In past years we have seen small numbers of the majestic birds at the river near the dam at Sauk City and a single bird or two near our home, but this is the first time we have seen a “convocation” (that name given to a group of bald eagles).

Historically, the eagle had been used as a symbol of governmental power since Roman times, and this bird was officially adopted as the emblem of the United States in 1787.  Its distinctive "bald" white head, tail, and dark brown body make it instantly and universally recognized.  Eagles were abundant throughout Wisconsin until 1800 when immigrants settled the state.  Then habitat disturbance, destruction, and shooting caused their numbers to drop until laws were enacted, such as the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1916 and the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940.  In 1972, the eagles were listed as endangered in Wisconsin, and the pesticide DDT was banned because it was determined to have been the cause of defective egg shells.

At that time, there were only 108 occupied eagle territories in the state.  Protection of law and banning of the pesticide caused a rapid recovery, however, and the species was removed from the endangered list in Wisconsin in 1997 and from the federal list in 2007.  Recently, aerial nesting surveys in the state found 1,465 occupied eagle nests, which is the highest number ever recorded.  Observers reported 1,248 nestlings and a statewide nest success rate of 66% during productivity surveys that occurred in May and June.  Nest success by survey area for eagles ranged from 56-95%. Occupied eagle nests were observed in 69 of 72 counties surveyed.

With a seven-foot wingspan, the bald eagle dwarfs most other raptors, including the turkey vulture and any of the hawks.  In flight, it holds its broad wings flat like a board.  Immatures lack the white heads and tails and have mostly dark heads and tails; their brown wings and bodies are mottled with white in varying amounts.  Young bald eagles can be mistaken for golden eagles, but have smaller heads, larger beaks, and yellow eyes.  They attain their adult plumage in about five years.

The greatest number of bald eagles can usually be seen at open-water areas in the mornings as they soar, searching for their first meal of the day.  Since lakes and rivers freeze over in winter, dams and power plants provide areas of open water in which the eagles can fish. Wintering eagles also feed on carrion and later in the day can frequently be seen searching for and feeding on dead deer and other animals in the countryside. Late in the afternoon, the eagles head to their favorite night roosting areas – places with large trees that provide protection from cold winds and severe weather.

Active nests have been found both in inland nesting areas and along most of the major rivers in Wisconsin.  Eagles usually build their nest in a tall tree, often a live white pine, creating a foundation of large sticks and lining it with softer material.  On average, the nests are about four feet in diameter and three feet deep.  The same nest is often used over and over, with the adults just adding new materials each year instead of building a new one.  Females lay two or three white eggs in March a day or two apart, with both adults incubating the eggs.  About a month later, a fluffy white chick will emerge from the first egg and any others follow a day or two later.  Adults then feed the chicks bits of fish and protect them from severe weather and predators, like great horned owls, raccoons, and ravens. 

Modern technology allows us to have many experiences that would otherwise be impossible and one such is a visit to a nesting eagle and perhaps even watching an egg hatch.  Two web cams have been set up in Decorah, Iowa; one, dubbed the Decorah North, shows a very large nest located in a white oak 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: <>.  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!


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