The Finch Family: Diversity Personified

by Dave Hanks

Fringilladae is a large, world wide family. These are Passerine species – medium to small, perching, terrestrial birds. They are mostly migratory, have 3 toes opposing one, and are fine singers. Finches are seed eaters, and America has 14 species in this category. They range in diversity from Goldfinches, to Grosbeaks, to Crossbills, to Red Polls, to Bramblings, to Siskins; and finally to Purple, House, and Cassin’s Finches. The last three listed resemble each other, and are closely related.

The House Finch is the most familiar, as it is around the feeders in people’s yards most of the year. Purple finches are a dark purplish-red, but are more of an eastern bird. All three birds combine reds with their browns. The females of the threesome are sparrow-like in appearance. Cassin’s Finch is my favorite of this trio. Even though the Cassin’s looks much like a House Finch, when the two are together you will see a noticeable difference. CASSIN’S FINCH has a pinkish-red breast, and a dark red crown. The brightness of these two colors set it apart.

The male Cassin’s sings long, complex songs. He may even mimic other species. The female sings too. Her song is softer than her mate’s and only half the volume. A one year old male sings louder than either. He tones it down when he’s mature. Perhaps it’s to let any female know that he is now ready for mating. Interesting!

Some of the most positive things I did in my Biology classes were the field trips that we were fortunate to go on. We studied all aspects of whatever ecosystem we visited. On one such trip, two girls had situated themselves by a tiny creek. Birds were coming to the water. The girls were having a significant, eye opening experience. They didn’t want to leave the spot to do anything but watch the birds. A species that they were especially enamored with was the Cassin’ Finches that were coming in – their colors extra bright for the spring nesting season.

Protective Coloration

by Dave Hanks

Animals have ways to protect themselves from potential danger. Their color is one very important way. Some colors hide, but other colors advertise.

No animal wants to deal with SKUNK spray. The skunk’s white stripes are noticeable and warn others to stay away. The BULL SNAKE’S coloration resembles a rattler – if one doesn’t look closely enough to see the differences. Most wouldn’t take that chance and would avoid it. Also, the VICEROY BUTTERFLY is colored like the poisonous Monarch. Some butterflies have gigantic EYE-LIKE spots on their wings that might convince birds to stay away from them.

Other colors blend in with the surroundings. FEMALE BIRDS are harder to notice when on their nest. INSECTS and LIZARDS can resemble the vegetation, rocks, or earth so closely that they become almost invisible. SNOWSHOE HARES, PTARMIGAN, and SHORT-TAILED WEASELS all turn from their summer brown to winter white as the seasons change. They are hard to spot on the snow when the summer foliage is no longer able to conceal them.

The many stripes on ZEBRAS, when seen as a fleeing group, makes it confusing for lions to single out an individual to bring down.

We almost missed this Snowshoe Hare while hiking along an Alaska river bank. This Zebra is an import to a Texas ranch.


by Dave Hanks

The above term means to give a human interpretation to an animal action. For example: When a Baboon looks like it’s smiling and happy, don’t be deceived. It is showing you its teeth. If it can get close enough, it will bite you. What we would normally interpret as friendliness is really a warning to keep our distance. When Bison do weird tail movements, they are not taking care of an itch. It, also, is a body language warning. And, even though we find dogs irresistible; their open mouth, with tongue hanging down, does not necessarily mean they are in a happy, loving mood toward us. They are merely expelling body heat.

I am always amused by those who treat their pets as if they actually reacted to things like a human would. To dress a dog or cat in a shirt or any other type of clothing is unnatural. Pets do enjoy being inside with the people that love, rub, and caress them. But they are not normally adapted to house life; nature has equipped them for an outdoors existence. When we lived in Montana (if the wind was not blowing) our cattle would “shun’ the sheds and stay out in the open – even if it was 30 degrees below zero.

One can love animals and yet know very little about their needs. Some folks can’t get past placing their own wants upon them. The move to prevent the management of wild horses, because of a misguided love for them, is a prime example of loving something to its determent. The horses destroy the range for themselves and the naturalized wildlife of the area.

Human ethics and morals do not apply to animals. Their DNA has programmed them to act in certain ways typical of their species. Children’s stories and Hollywood have, in many instances, been responsible for feelings that have been held on to well into adulthood. A species is neither as bad nor as good as depicted in story books. Large predators are not blood thirsty killers, but act only as nature has intended. Understanding this and granting them their space will usually result in a peaceful co-existence between them and us – a thing that the Indians have long understood.

This baby RACCOON (pictured) looks so lovable that the urge may be to try to pick it up. Do so and you’ll find out how it can scratch and bite.

baby raccoon

Critical Minimums and Extinction

by Dave Hanks

Maintaining the diversity of life-forms on the earth is extremely important! The loss of habitat (favorable living space) is the major reason a species becomes extinct. Also, over hunting or poaching can be especially devastating on large animals like elephants, rhinos, etc. The introduction, by man, of a new predator to an area can be very harmful because the prey species haven’t had the chance to adapt to the new enemy. Predators that have naturalized in an area are not a problem. They even help their prey species maintain their numbers at optimum levels by weeding out old or diseased, unproductive members, and thus reduce the stress on the food supplies. I know this sounds unfeeling, but this is how the natural world works.

In existing habitats it is necessary to maintain a species’ CRITICAL MINIMUM. Nothing lives forever, so reproduction is necessary to keep a population viable. Rodents have a low critical minimum, which means that only a few surviving individuals can easily repopulate an area because they can reproduce fast, often, and with big litters. Large, slow reproducers have a high critical minimum. Disease, predation, and old age will always reduce the numbers in a population; and if not enough young are born each year to off-set those losses, extinction is assured even if a few individuals still exist.

Pictured is a NORTHERN FOX SQUIRREL whose low critical minimum keeps this species abundant – especially in our yard!

Also pictured is a mother GRIZZLY and her cub at an Alaskan water hole (Ursines at a snow-melt pond in June). She matures late sexually – has a cub or twins only about every 4 or 5 years which means only about 5 or 6 sets in her lifetime, and not all make it to adulthood. Her species minimum is therefore high.

Black, White, and Rose: Subtle Beauty in the Bushes

To me, the ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAK is absolutely one of the most attractive of the bird world. The way the three colors, of this species, are combined makes a very pleasing effect. Unfortunately, it is an eastern species that is not usually seen in the western USA. Its western counterpart (Black-Headed Grosbeak) nests in our yard, but it would be keen if we could have access to both.

This Robin-sized bird has a large seed-eating beak, but throughout most of the year, over half of their diet is made up of insects. Their song also resembles the American Robin’s, but more subdued and mellow.

The males arrive before the females on their breeding grounds – in mid May and they leave in early August. When courting, the male sings while in pursuit of the female. He will also crouch, spread and droop his wings while his tail is erect and fanned. He will also sing when not flying, while retracting his head and waving it from side to side. The male will do most of the brooding and he often sings while sitting on the nest. One’s imagination can visualize lullabies being sung to the young. Now what female could resist these multiple actions?

This is a lower Central American species that migrates across the Gulf of Mexico to the eastern states and Canada. We have expended much effort and miles seeking this charismatic bird. We have had very brief sightings of it in Minnesota, north-eastern British Columbia, plus strays in Montana’s Centennial valley, Alberta’s Jasper Park, and Idaho’s Silver Creek Nature Preserve. All these experiences were brief and discouraging. It had to be in Texas, the state with the most birds in the union, where we finally got lucky! Here we spent two days with some newly arrived males. They were eating some seeds that had been spread, by some thoughtful person, on a large, horizontal tree branch.

a Rose-Breasted Grosbeak checks the area below from a branch before descending

Checking the area before descending

Fireweed: Symbol of the North

Spike of lavender loveliness – The spirit of the North Profuse in woods and byways–Lending voluptuous beauty to arctic summers Fireweed in all its glory – A true symbol of the North!

This wildflower gets its name from its penchant of growing in fire blackened areas. The striking blooms on its stalk start to bloom, in mid summer, in the middle of the stalk and progresses upwards, each bud blooming just above the one below it. When the whole spike is in bloom, the buds turn to cotton as summer ends. Indians say that you can tell how much summer is left by where the blooming has progressed on the spike.

It is the best known and most widespread wildflower in Alaska, because it grows in climates that have short, warm summers and cold winters. It’s often amid coniferous trees. Here in Cassia County, it can be seen in the Lake Cleveland area, which has a similar climate to that which I just described.

Fireweed produces oil that can be used as an astringent, tonic, cathartic, and emetic. The American Aborigines used this plant. Five to ten drops of the oil on sugar, in capsules, or in emulsion is the dosage. However, I wouldn’t try it. This very aggressive plant has the potential to become a problem – hence, weed is part of its name.

I came north – the far, far north to climax one of my dreams. The land is so vast – so utterly vast – it is endless, or so it seems. I’m insignificant against the vastness – It’s the call of the North!

Fireweed is one of nature’s beautifiers. It’s a flower in the forefront for providing beauty in areas that have been disturbed.

fireweed in mid-summer glory

Fireweed in mid-summer glory

Nest Parasitism and the Brown-Headed Cowbird

There is a bird, a black bird, that is becoming a major problem for other smaller bird species. The male is black but has a brown head that blends in with his black body. The brown is sometimes hard to distinguish. The female is totally a pale brown. This is a species that, in years past, lived on the Great Plains and could be viewed riding on the backs of Bison. In that environment, it was an advantage to the bird to lay as many eggs as possible – more than two parents could care for. Therefore, the answer was to secretly lay an egg in another species nest and let them raise the chick. Since the arrival of Europeans to this continent – forests have diminished and open areas have increased. Thus the cowbird’s range has increased dramatically. A problem that once was kept within bounds has now intensified.

It would not be a problem if the host species could also raise their own chicks along with the intruder. The adoptive parents can not seem to recognize the different egg and throw it out of their nest. That egg hatches first, the chick grows faster than the others, and it soon kills (“Cain-ism”) its siblings and throws them out of the nest. The adoptive parents continue to raise the chick until it fledges. This nest parasitism is especially hard on warblers and other small species that historically nested in woodlands.

There are only two nest parasites in the USA. Both are cowbirds, with the Brown-Headed the most common. Besides open areas, untrimmed grass and livestock attract this bird. Letting others raise your chicks frees one up to forage – on the ground or the backs of ruminants, and the female has an amazing reproductive capacity. She may lay up to 80 eggs over a two month period. The eggs are white, with either a bluish or greenish tint, and are speckled reddish-brown. The Brown-Headed Cowbird’s song is a series of liquidly, gurgling sounding notes, which they make with their heads and beaks pointing straight up.

We have observed that they will readily come to bird feeders and are present in our yard during spring and summer months. That makes me wonder how many Yellow Warblers, Wilson Warblers, and Song Sparrows are being displaced on our property. We have seen a Song Sparrow feeding a baby that was twice as large as the sparrow was.

Brown-Headed Cowbird Foraging on the ground in our yard’s vegetation

Foraging on the ground in our yard’s vegetation

Muskrat: The Beaver’s Lesser Cousin

Muskrats seem like little beavers – both are rodents, and both are in the same family. Both have similarities, but the Muskrat is smaller and has a round tail instead of a flat one. Their houses are even similar, except the Muskrat’s is constructed of herbaceous vegetation (often Bulrush) instead of wood.

I don’t know how many times we have spotted this rodent, rushed to get a photograph, only to have it submerge out of sight for a long time. It can be a long time, because they can stay under for as long as 15 minutes. If that isn’t enough, they can always enter a burrow dug under the water’s bank. The photos we have are strictly the result of good luck.

These animals seek wetlands where the water is 5 to 6 feet deep with plenty of sedges. They are mainly herbivorous but will eat frogs, clams, and small fish. The interesting thing about their diet is that they consume up to a third of their body weight each day – a tremendous amount for a mammal, although equaled and surpassed by birds.

They have a couple of unusual traits: communicating through their musky odors and heterothermia. This is the control of the blood flow to their feet and tail. This allows those parts to remain cooler than the main body.

Muskrats only live about 3 years in the wild. This calls for fast reproduction and the reaching of puberty as early as 7 months. Heavy reproduction is also necessary for the species survival because so many predators find this animal a very desirable food item.

muskrat at An early breakfast of Bulrush

An early breakfast of Bulrush

Idaho Rails

In our never-ending search for knowledge (both being teachers), and being fascinated by the intricate relationships in nature; my wife and I took an ecology workshop sponsored by the University of Idaho. It was held at McCall. One of the first things one of the professors said, when introducing the course, was that we would have to write two nature poems — for a biology class!! What did poetry have to do with science? Never would I do that! I would return home first! I had hardly ever written any letters, even short ones. Then as I thought about it a bit, words just started coming out, and I have been writing ever since.

When out observing with the class, and sitting quietly by a marsh, my wife and I saw our first Sora Rail. One of Carolyn’s poems was about that event. She ended her poem with –“Quiet I will have to be if ever a Sora I hope to see”. This is true of all rails. They are very shy, secretive, and usually stay hidden amongst the sedges.

American rails range from the King Rail (15”) – Clapper Rail (14”) – Virginia Rail (10”) – Sora (9”) – Yellow Rail (8”) to the Black Rail (6”). All rail chicks are downy and black, and are similar in size to the adult Black Rail. These birds inhabit dense, marshy, fresh water wetlands. They are adept at hiding in the grass, weeds, or reeds of their habitat because of body conformation that is composed laterally instead of vertically. Marshes suit these species that would rather swim than fly.

The two rails common to Southern Idaho are the Sora and Virginia Rails. The Sora has a mottled back, gray chest and face, black in front of its eyes, and yellow legs and beak. The Virginia is more reddish, with reddish-orange legs and beak. The Virginia’s call is harsher and more nasal than the Sora’s, which is a long, high squealing, whinny that descends and then accelerates.

When visiting a marsh in the morning, it is unusual to see one of these wading birds, but you can always hear them. Keep an eye on the edge of the vegetation, where one may appear and then rapidly run across any open spaces. The marshes of Picabo, Idaho are good places to look for these birds.

Virginia Rail – an unusual sighting

Virginia Rail – an unusual sighting

The Red Fox: Observations of Learned vs Innate Behaviors

The Red Fox has so many and varied behaviors that it makes for an interesting study subject. It is also interesting to try to determine where innate actions end and learned ones take over.

Certainly what is eaten, and the urge to store the left-overs for later consumption, has to be an innate response. Likewise, the rising up on the hind legs to pounce on prey, as well as the urge to mark territory through urination – would, I think, be programmed at birth. Like all animals, their DNA code and resulting actions are inescapable.

But the fox demonstrates much that has to be learned and indicates a keen intelligence. The complex variety of vocalizations and certain hunting techniques would have to be copied from their parents. When parents bring back live rodents for the young to practice with, shows that school is definitely in session. Parents will also hold prey in their mouths, while moving their heads from side to side and up and down. This forces the pups to exercise and gain agility in their hunting movements.

A very good example of this animal’s intelligence is how they have learned to avoid the fox hunting chase by doubling back and running down the middle of a stream to erase their odor trail. Another intriguing behavior is called “charming”. Instead of dashing into a group of rabbits, who would then quickly escape, the fox will roll on the ground and chase its tail in a seemingly unconcerned attitude. The rabbits will curiously watch, but the predator slowly rolls close enough to suddenly spring and catch a rabbit.Is this behavior learned or innate? Your guess is as good as mine.

One fact, however, is that the more learning that is required – the more important play becomes amongst the young. Play also establishes dominance rankings and that reduces future adult conflicts.

A young fox checks me out

A young fox checks me out