Carryovers from an Ancient Past

by Dave Hanks

Most all of us have visited museums that feature the huge skeletons of dinosaurs in their many and interesting forms. Although they are now extinct, their remnants now abound in much smaller forms. These modern ones come in four classes: Crocodilians, turtles, lizards, and snakes.

Reptiles are vertebrates (backbone), which breathe air and are cold-blooded. Their bodies cannot regulate their body temperature – which must be done by either seeking the sunshine’s warmth or the shade’s coolness. They are not “slimy”, but have dry, tough, scaly skin. Their skin has a high level of keratin to protect their bodies and prevent water loss.

All have four legs, with the exception of snakes. However the big constrictors have vestiges of hind legs in the form of stumps that are hidden under the skin. It is interesting to know that these big snakes will use these stumps to caress their partner when mating. The young develop inside an amniotic membrane, inside an egg, laid on land. Most reptiles are poor mothers that lay their eggs and leave them to hatch and care for themselves. Crocs and alligators will watch the nest and tear it open when the babies hatch. The little ones cries alert mom, who then transports them, in her mouth, to safety. Some python will curl around their eggs and the big King Cobra makes a two chambered nest – one chamber for the eggs and the other for the mother, and woe unto any whom dare to disturb her.


American Alligator, Pond Slider Turtle, Desert Spiny Lizard, and Western Diamond-Backed Rattlesnake

The Yellow-Breasted Chat is well named

by Dave Hanks

Never has a bird lived up to its name so well. If one is in the surrounding vegetation, you will hear a most unmistakable series of calls. They range from chattering clucks, rattles, clear whistles, and squawks. Their repertoire is wide, loud, and often harsh but definitely not dull. The Chat is secretive and lives in dense thickets and brush. However, once you are familiar with its calls you’ll know, without a doubt, that a chat is in the vicinity.

The Chat is listed as our largest warbler (7 ½”), but recent DNA tests have caused this classification to be disputed. However, like most warblers, yellow is a basic color. Another interesting DNA study has shown that up to a third of the chicks in a nest have been sired by a male other than the female’s mate.

The Chat’s bright yellow chest is very noticeable, and as it calls, its yellow throat puffs out as if it had a double chin. When the sun comes up to warm the cool morning air, the male will sit on a top branch solarizing and singing his heart out to greet the day and to proclaim his territory.

This bird made an indelible impression on me when I first became acquainted with it. The perky, vocal renditions were impressive to say the least, but to photograph a Chat was something else again. We have tried several times to connect with this reclusive fellow, only to be frustrated and forced to just listen to his amazing calls. Knowing that the Harrington Fork of Rock Creek in Twin Falls County is chat habitat, we tried once again on an early May morning. Luck was with us this time. My wife spotted one singing from a tangle of shrubs, and I set up our blind on the trail above that tangle. Patient waiting paid off. One perched close by and sang and sang and sang.

Sadly the species is in trouble because of decreasing habitat.


Singing and solarizing

American Alligator: The Ultimate Bass Voice

By Dave Hanks

While walking beside a salt water marsh in Florida, I was startled by a loud, deep, resonate roar. It sounded much like an upset dairy bull, but there were no bovines anywhere near. Much to my surprise, it came from a clump of vegetation that held a large lizard-like animal – the American Alligator. Although startled, I was very glad that he had announced his presence.

This large reptile grows at the rate of a foot a year and can reach 28 feet and 450 to 500 lbs. Its tail is half its body weight and is very powerful. A swat from it could cause serious problems. Elevated eyes allow it to submerge and yet scan the surrounding area. Motionless in the water, it can be mistaken for a log. It can also be well camouflaged as it lies along a path in the available vegetation.

The Beaver is the master engineer of our fresh water habitat, but the Alligator fills the same niche in the swamp – making water holes that are also utilized by other species. It digs a hole with an opening below the water line, but then sloping upward to a dry den. The Alligator can always seek refuge here.

Mating takes place in April or May. The female will lay up to 60 eggs in a heap of mud and vegetation, and the heat generated by the sun incubates the eggs. This “best” of reptile mothers rips open the nest when the hatchlings “peep” and then carries each one to the safety of the gator hole.

Once endangered, this species has made a remarkable recovery. The increase in Alligator farms, for their hides, has helped bring them back from the brink.

Whenever we are in coastal Texas, we seem to stumble upon these animals on a somewhat regular basis.


Resting in the morning sunlight

Evening Grosbeaks – Are Where You Find Them

by Dave Hanks

I like grosbeaks! They are heavy beaked, chunky bodied, and colorful. They are wild and yet bold enough to let you study them. They will, also, readily come to feeders. Then, you can get close up views. The Evening Grosbeak is no exception.

One April morning, my wife and I took a short excursion to the Elba vicinity to look for this bird. Not able to find any, discouraged and frustrated, we headed for home. But what a surprise was in store for us as we drove into our yard! Fifty or more of these birds were covering our front lawn. For the rest of that month, these Grosbeaks were common at our feeders. Luck was with us that spring! This is an IRRUPTIVE species. These are species that (because of varying food sources) are not regular in their movements but are not migratory. We usually get a few Evening Grosbeak each spring but not in the quantity or length of time that we got them that year.

This is a large, robust finch that is 6 to 7 inches in length. The male has a brownish-gold body with a yellow forehead. His wings are black but have a very vivid, large, white patch on them. The female is more subtly colored but still quite attractive.

This bird likes coniferous or mixed woodlands, usually in the western or northern parts of our continent. However, its range has expanded as people plant a greater variety of trees in their yards.

The male will chase the female in the early spring and perform a silent display of fluttering and extended wings. Later in his courtship, he will feed the female, and she will flirt with him by bobbing her head and swinging her body. Two broods are usually raised each year.


After drinking at our backyard pond

The Lucifer Syndrome

by Dave Hanks

Some people, who seem bright enough, are stupid. I’ve had “A” students in my science classes who appear to be smart. Yet when it comes to those things that are really inportant, figuratively speaking, they don’t know where the “sun comes up or where it sets”!

Lucifer is this way. As I learn about all the things he has done in relation to the great master plan, all I can conclude is that he is not too smart. In the pre-existence two individuals volunteered to come to earth to do a job that had to be done. Christ was unconcerned with what he would personally get out of it. It was enough that the job was necessary and the right thing to do. Lucifer, however, had a big “hang-up” on “what’s in it for me?” He wanted glory so much that when it was denied he rebelled.

Christ didn’t seek or require glory. But now that his purpose is fulfilled, it is evident that he did receive glory after all – lots of it! This is one instance that shows Lucifer to be stupid. A smart individual would have realized that benefits always come to those who unselfishly do the “right thing” – benefits never being a concern. The failure to see this fact is what I call “The Lucifer Syndrome”. One of the lessons that everyone should learn from life.

As a high school football player, I was a fullback. For three years I played this coveted position. A position desired by many because of the opportunity to carry the ball. Besides, the ball handlers were the ones who received the acclaim – not “big, dumb” linemen. I grew considerably between my junior and senior years and to my dismay, was switched from the backfield to the line.

After time had eased the pain of the change, I discovered that things were not bad. I enjoyed the body contact of football and as a lineman I had it on every play. In fact, offensive linemen seek contact. Other positions try to avoid it and on many plays are merely decoys. A year in the new role proved another fact. I had forgotten about the glory side of the sport and did it for the inner satisfaction that I “milked” from it. But “Lo and Behold”, I was suddenly getting acclaim. I hadn’t sought it but it was coming to me anyway. I had learned a lesson from life: “The Lucifer Syndrome”.

The event that prompted the writing of this essay was a sophomore Biology field trip. The trip was held on a Saturday. A non-school day was necessary because three classes were involved. Seventy- five students are too many to put on a school bus or to supervise in the field. All year long they had “badgered” me to go bird watching and this was the only way that it could be done. As the date drew near, many asked if they would receive a grade cut for not going. I told them no ( and I didn’t ). Also, many asked if they would get extra credit for going. I could not reveal my intentions for that would have foiled my purpose; so I told them that the enjoyment of going should suffice – after all they had wanted the trip. It was my plan to reward those who went later by raising their grades.

Well Saturday morning arrived but only four of the seventy-five showed up. These four were rewarded with an “A” for the term. The rest, who could have come but didn’t because it was a Saturday, were upset because they didn’t reap the benefits. They would not do what was proper to do unless sufficient incentives were proffered. How stupid of them! The Lucifer Syndrome had struck again.

A lesson in life to be learned: those that constantly cry for rewards, usually get only the minimal; but those that do what must be done because it needs to be done, will benefit.

MORAL: Doing the right thing without any mind for acclaim, or any other form of payment – that action will always result in something very positive. The result is sometimes slow in coming but it always does!


Bullock’s Oriole: A frequently seen species on field trips

Turkey Vultures prefer their road-kill to be fresh

by Dave Hanks

Scientists, as a result of poor concepts involved in conducting experiments, concluded that birds could not smell. However, better devised experiments of more recent times have shown that birds can indeed smell. Turkey Vultures, that at one time ignored rotten meat placed under a log, do have a very good sense of smell. It’s no surprise that they react very quickly to a recent kill.

Although they are meat eating birds, they do not kill, but survive on carrion. They soar very high, and with their excellent eye sight, can survey a large area in search of dead animals. While perched, you can see their red head and brownish/black body. But in flight, the silvery/white trailing edges of their wings are now visible.

There are 7 species of New World vultures, including the California and Andean Condors. They are two of the world’s largest flying birds with wingspans of over 9 feet. DNA evidence has shown that Old World vultures are unrelated. Their claws, beaks, and behavior patterns are different. American vultures have weak, chicken-like feet which are suitable for running but not for grasping. They must put a foot on the food source to hold it in place while eating. Their beaks are thinner and not as strong as the Old World birds.

Buzzard is not a very attractive term. It is incorrect to use it on American species. It is a term for several hawk species of the Eastern Hemisphere. It does not apply to vultures.


Resting but alert

Deferred Maturity

by Dave Hanks

Young song birds hatch, fledge, and are ready for migration. The young birds usually resemble the female parent. However, by the following spring the males acquire their adult breeding plumage and assume parenthood. Their development is relative simple and quick. However, most raptors and gulls go through several stages before reaching sexual maturity. Large birds like eagles or buzzards have 4 to 5 stages of development. Hawks usually have two stages to go through over a two year period to reach maturity.

Buteos are large hawks with broad wings. The FERRUGINOUS HAWK (pictured) is the largest American Buteo. Only the Bald Eagle, Golden Eagle, and female Snowy Owl weigh more than this hawk. Ferruginous Hawks go through three stages after the nestling stage: juvenile, sub-adult, and finally adult – three years from hatching to adulthood. This species has been known to live for 20 years (determined by re-catching banded birds), although the majority die within a 5 year period –which allows a five year old bird two opportunities to nest.

Ferruginous Hawk’s first year mortality is estimated at around 66% and adult mortality at about 25% per year thereafter. This ground nesting bird is preyed upon by Coyotes, Golden eagles, and Great horned Owls. Jackrabbits rank high on this species food list. When prey sources are at a low, many hatchlings will die of starvation. Illegal shooting of adult birds has also caused a problem to this not-so-common species.

This magnificent hawk has been used as a falconry bird in its native range.


A young Ferruginous in the sub-adult phase


Two Ecological Terms and Examples

by Dave Hanks

Symbiosis or (Mutualism)

The above term refers to species that depend upon each other for the
benefit of both organisms. This points out the fact that we all depend
upon others for our own wellbeing. In fact, others depending on us
makes their return help to us even more beneficial.

Here are some special symbiotic relationships:

CLARK’S NUTCRACKER and LIMBER PINE – The bird feeds on the nuts
and in return spreads the pine’s seeds, which the tree, being
rooted in the earth,is unable to do.

GRAY WOLF and BARREN GROUND CARIBOU – The caribou furnish the
wolf its food, and the wolf gets rid of the diseased and
unproductive, thus keeping the caribou population healthy and
at its maximum.

SHARK and REMORAS (a tiny fish) – The Remoras are hygienic
because they clean the shark’s teeth. In return they get some
food and much protection from potential enemies by staying close
or in the shark’s jaws.

HONEY BEE and FLOWERS – Bee gets nectar and plant gets pollinated.

Ice Cream Species

This refers to an animal’s favorite food – that food it will always
select if it is available.

Here are some preferences:
GRIZZLIES -> Ground Squirrels
CARIBOU -> Lichens
Isolated or semi-isolated areas, with good deer populations, are also
endowed with healthy Mountain Lion populations


Black-Tailed doe – a sub-species of Mule deer


The Importance of Mom!

by Dave Hanks

The legal courts have long recognized the importance of the mother to a child. Dad can be a big help, but in divorce proceedings – the mother has to be very incompetent to not be awarded the children. She will be the winner in almost all cases.

Mothers are vital in non-mammal species as well. Many birds have the father’s help in raising the chicks, but it’s the exception. The brightly colored male is a hindrance when close to the nest. His colors could even attract a predator to feast on the little ones. Some duck hens can be seen swimming with their chicks on their backs – safe from any danger below. Alligator young, at hatching, are carefully carried in mom’s mouth away from danger to the “gator hole” where she will aggressively protect them.

It seems strange that milk producing species almost exclusively depend on mom for security, as well as their food source. In fact, the male may be a very real danger. Lions are known to kill cubs, and boar bears welcome any available bear cub as a tasty meal. The cub may even be the boar’s offspring. Little does he care.

Moose research has shown that for every mother raised calf that dies, eight die that are orphaned. Orphans in their first winter are stressed twice as much by other adult moose than their compatriots. Why they are attacked more is not known. Hypotheses suggest that other mothers are trying to reduce the competition for food resources. It could also be a case of just plain “bullying” – much like the odd hen in the hen house that gets pecked to death. Nature seems to abhor misfits.

Many mammal mothers will put themselves at risk of death when protecting their offspring. One can not escape the tremendous importance of moms of every species.

(Picture: Young moose away from Mom and in trouble & Black Bear cubs ready to climb a tree at Mom’s warning)

Insatiable Spring

by Dave Hanks

Drip, drip, drip, the ice is slowly shrinking from around the dugout entrance. The ground is alternately bathed with warm sunshine followed by snow flurries, each competing with the other for dominance throughout the day. The air has lost its wintry chill for that irrepressible taste of spring. The mother is restless. Deep down she feels an insatiable desire to move. She is torn between the thrust to exit and savor this new time and the two balls of fur that are nestled helplessly upon the bed of pine/fir boughs. She hasn’t eaten for over four months nor eliminated either. Her body cries to rectify these two imbalances.

Laying back upon the vegetation heap, she softly nudges her precious bundles – licking them so very carefully and thoroughly all over their pudgy little bodies. They respond to seek that life giving gland, so abundant with rich, nourishing milk – second only to seal’s in butterfat content. A few days more she must follow this routine, repressing her own ever increasing needs until the cubs can safely greet the new world on the outside.

Finally the day arrives. The sun is most welcome today and it is suddenly warmer than those days that have preceded it. The twins feel it too. Frisking about the enclosure they become bolder. They poke their tiny noses through the entrance to sniff all the delightful aromas. The temptation is too great for all. Mother squeezes out of the opening and the babies follow joyfully behind. The haven that has been home for so long is soon to be abandoned.

Patches of gleaming white cover the mountainside and the bears gingerly step upon it to slide on all fours to the bottom – such fun! Then back on another patch of snow to repeat the process all over again. Green covers the ground between the white patches and mother stops to sample it, but not for long – it is still too dry. Later in the spring she will return when it has become more succulent, to follow the Elk migration back up the mountain. But now the urge is to move down toward the creek bottom. The cubs rough and tumble all the way – what exhilaration to be out and about in so vast a playground.

Toward the bottom, the cries of Ravens alert the sow to move toward where her nose has been directing. There on the bottomland meadow is a Bison. It is dead – succumbed to the relentless, unforgiving forces of winter. The bad luck of the Bison is good luck for the bears. Famished from so long a fast, it is a gift from the Gods of nature. A few swats with a gigantic paw disperses the birds and a low growl, coupled with a short charge, keeps an accompanying Coyote at a discrete distance. Gorging herself with tremendous quantities of the meat, her yearly cycle is started once again. Such a massive body has great protein requirements. This need, combined with feeding a pair of always hungry cubs, will occupy most of her thoughts for the next six months.

Finally satisfied, she scrapes a heap of leaves and twigs over the carcass in an attempt to hide it – then down to the water for a long needed drink and then back again to the meat. Once more she must dislodge the persistent Coyote. Jealous of the treasure, she will lay upon it and woe unto anyone who might stumble into its perimeter. Other bears must be taught to keep their distance. Old “Ursus” requires a lot of space and is not overjoyed by trespassers. Boars especially, must be met and dealt with immediately. A new, tender cub makes a delicious meal – little would he care whether it might be his own offspring.

A heretofore gentle mother surprises the wee ones with swats that at first cause bewilderment. It doesn’t take long for them to understand that she means business. If they are to survive, they must learn discipline. They stay within range of Mom and then dash behind her when danger appears or when hearing her low grunt. She periodically reassures them of her love when she lays upon her back in a half sitting position. They then greedily proceed to nurse and to nestle into Mom’s warm, soft body.

They will meet many new faces this first summer: Badger, Weasel, Skunk, Elk, Deer, Moose, Sheep, and many kinds of rodents – to name a few. Each must be learned. Can they be trusted? Are they good to eat? Ground squirrels abound and are so delectable – a gourmet delight is in store if they are lucky enough to catch one. They spend hours plowing up large tracts of earth to get at them as nothing is more preferred.

As the season progresses, the bottomland meat sources give out. Now it’s back to the higher country, slowly moving up as the grass becomes fresh at each level. They seek that flower with a fleshy bulb below and learn from mother how to dig and what to dig for. The young will become master diggers, as this is what the Grizzly inherently does best. The “lion’s share” of their diet will be roots, bulbs, and just plain grass. Their life is one of total freedom – wild and exhilarating. They fear nothing in their natural world. Let us hope that the human species will allow them room to retain this joyful existence. They are too precious of a commodity to lose forever!

Teaching the cub the many bear foods