A Shaggy, Scottish Beast

Having been in the registered Angus business (In Montana) earlier in my life, and associated with cattle all of it, I have a deep love of beef cattle. It is a glorious scene to see a group of sleek matrons grazing on a hillside against a green background. There is something about that scene that still “plucks” a chord in my psyche. Genetic traits, favorable or not, are of great interest to me. Once in Scotland, we came in contact with some most interesting beasts.

The Scottish Highlander is an ancient breed that has very long horns and very long hair. They can be red, black, brindled, yellow, or dun. The harsh Scottish climate required the development of cattle with long hair and stout hides to withstand exposure to the highland elements. Their breed standards require a great profusion of hair to go along with an impressive set of horns.The horns on the cow are usually longer than the bull’s – a surprise. The breed’s registration Herd Book was established in 1885, and breed standards have not varied much since that time.

The Highlander coat is made up of two layers – an inner down and a longer, coarser outer layer. Weather conditions stimulate the growth or shedding of their hair. The heavy hair inhibits the laying on off surface fat which results in a leaner carcass that is well marbled. Breeders claim that the hides can be sold for almost as much as the meat.

This breed seems to have a genuine ease of calving. They are, however, slower maturing. The positive side of this trait is that they can hold their condition longer under poor environmental conditions.

The mature individuals looked a bit “rangy”, but the calves were most adorable. They would make a good cuddly toy – competitive with Teddy Bears.

Highlander calves at home on the Scottish hills

Highlander calves at home on the Scottish hills

Masking Factors

MASKING FACTORS are those items in a habitat that compensate for conditions that might prevent a specific species from surviving in that habitat. Example: The tiger is normally a cold climate animal, but the Bengal Tiger lives in hot, hot India. They keep close to forested (shady) areas which have access to water. The mid-day hours are spent languishing in that water. The ponds are one of the tiger’s masking factors and are essential for its survival in India.

Wind allows Mountain Goats to stay safe from predators in the winter. The vegetation on wind-swept cliffs is now assessable to the goats, and they can feed without descending into dangerous bottom-lands.

Large rocks can be an important masking factor for Marmots and Pika – vegetarians that could find food more easily in more open areas. Too far away from the rocks, and they become the food for carnivorous enemies.

The little Rock Wren also uses large rocky areas. It is an insectivore and spider eater. Not only will it take insects out of spider webs that are formed on the rocks, but will also eat the spider. As a ground feeder, it is vulnerable to overhead, as well as terrestrial predators, and the rocks provide a handy escape. The bird will make a pathway out of small, flat stones (a pavement so to speak) to its nest cavity within the boulders. The exact reason for this behavior is not known.

Two interesting side notes about this species are: 1 – It never drinks. It gets the necessary moisture from the insects it consumes and 2 – Its ability to sing. They are quite the songsters. They have a repertoire of over 100 different variations to their song.

A Rock Wren in his camouflaged coat

A Rock Wren in his camouflaged coat

South Padre Island: A Spring Bird Bonanza

Flight requires a bird to have a faster metabolism, a faster heart beat, and a higher body temperature. Therefore, more energy is needed in the form of food. Meat eating raptors do not eat as often as others, but the seed and insect eaters feast all through the day. The old saying: “to eat like a bird” is extremely misleading, as birds spend every waking hour in obtaining food. If humans ate like birds, they would consume a significant percent of their body weight every day.

Migrating birds must increase their weight by half in order to have the energy that is required to make the trip. Migration is also very hazardous. So, why don’t they just stay where you would find them nine months of the year? Migrating north has advantages that offset the dangers to a species. More moderate temperatures are conducive to reproduction, so many more eggs are laid, and the longer daylight gives more time to find the necessary food. Birds flying over land can stop, rest, and feed – not so when crossing large water bodies.

SOUTH PADRE ISLAND is about two miles away from the southern tip of Texas. It is often the first land seen and exhausted birds, that have just crossed the Gulf of Mexico; gratefully drop into the trees and bushes to feed and recuperate. A small group of trees and shrubs (by the Island’s Convention center) that is not as big as our yard here in Idaho, is just teeming with species. Photographers from all over the USA, Canada, England, and even South Africa; also flock to this place and line up around the area shoulder to shoulder to get pictures. Every time a bird shows itself, you can hear cameras click- click-clicking in a sudden frenzy.

We photographed two species of orioles, two species of tanagers, ten different warblers, a grosbeak, as well as various other species. The PAINTED BUNTING (Pictured) was a special attraction for everyone. It is a small, seed eating bird, 4 ½ inches long, which looks like a first grader had colored it with four brightly colored crayons.

After four very productive days at this special spot, a strong wind came up from the south. It “huffed and puffed” and blew all the birds north.

A Painted Bunting in his coat of many colors

A Painted Bunting in his coat of many colors

Caribou: The Northland’s Deer

I saw him coming a half mile away, and so I ran to where I thought our paths would converge. Sure enough, he came right up in front of me and posed for this picture.

A trip to Alaska or northern Canada is incomplete without a Caribou experience. This deer of the north grows a most impressive set of antlers. In fact, it’s the only deer species where both sexes grow them. Research seems to suggest that Caribou bulls that grow the biggest racks are more vigorous and sire daughters that have an increased milking ability. The rack also has a projection on the front that can be used as a snow shovel.

The word caribou sounds like the name Zaliboo. This is the name that the Inuits gave the beast. It means “one who paws the ground”. This they do through the snow in order to reach the moss and lichens upon which they feed. The hooves make a clicking sound as they travel due to a flexible ankle joint.

The massive herds of the far north are America’s version of the great herds of the Serengeti Plains of Africa. They are constantly in migration but may follow a different route year by year. Mosquitoes and other types of flies are extremely numerous in the watery expanses of the far north and plague the Caribou during the summer months. Caribou can be seen resting on patches of snow, which seems to give them some relief from this menace. I have seen animals that are very mangy and run down from mosquito bites. Animals can actually die from exsanguination (loss of blood from bites).

This species has a symbiotic relationship with the Gray Wolf. The wolf culls the herds and keeps the Caribou in a healthy condition. It seems odd that predation can actually keep prey populations at a maximum, but it does.

Both the Barren Ground Caribou and the Forest Caribou are vital elements of our northern wild lands.

This rack, in the velvet, will grow to a massive size

This rack, in the velvet, will grow to a massive size

The Black-Tailed Prairiedog: A disappearing entity

First, I must explain something about common names of species. By combining the words prairie and dog it means something totally different than when left separately. A prairiedog is not a dog but a rodent. A prairie dog is “Old Yeller”. Likewise, a butterfly is no fly but a butter fly is a nuisance at the dinner table. I think you get my point.

This rodent has a bulky, 12 to 14 inch long body with a 3 to 4 inch long, black tail. It has large, black eyes and sharp, thick claws used for digging. It is an herbivore but will eat eggs and some insects. About 2/3rds of its day is spent foraging.

Prairiedog towns are a complex network of burrows. The Black-Tail towns are somewhat larger than their cousin the White-Tailed Prairiedog. There can be from 4 to 15 individuals living on an acre of grassland. As many species prey upon this animal, sentries are always on duty. A sharp bark will send all scurrying down their holes. Both species hibernate, but the Black-Tail will periodically waken on warmer days and search for food.

Commensalisms are relationships where one species is unaffected but others benefit. Such is the case with Burrowing Owls and rattlesnakes which utilize the burrows dug by this rodent. Both the rodents and the snakes are considered by many to be harmful creatures, and this has contributed toward their demise.

This highly social animal has been reduced in numbers drastically due to the plowing up of the Great Plains for the planting of crops. Few spots remain where it can live. We have come upon this animal in national parks and a few isolated locations in Texas and the Dakotas. Hopefully, there will be enough of these areas preserved to guarantee this species survival. Genetic diversity is of great importance to the planet. May we preserve as much as possible!

A Texas prairiedog on the alert

Killdeer and a Specialized Behavior

AGONISTIC BEHAVIOR is the result of a conflict of emotions. There is the fear of danger, and a resulting urge to flee; however, if one has something one needs to protect, the emotion to stay and confront the danger is there also. This emotional conflict results in strange behaviors in different species. The Killdeer is a classic example of this behavior. It is not likely that the bird is thinking that its broken wing act will lead a predator away from its nest – it’s just an automatic response, and it is very effective. At a safe distance from the nest, the protective emotion is released and the Killdeer now has no compunction about fleeing from danger.

Killdeer nest on the ground. Perhaps in a pasture, along an unpaved roadway, but especially where there are patches of gravel – and the species readily accepts human modified habitats. Gravel can conceal a nest so well that you could step on it without seeing it. The eggs blend in extremely well with the pebbles. The eggs, usually four, are twice the size of Robin eggs, and the chicks, when hatched, are precocial and look like miniature adults. They come out of the eggs fully feathered, eyes open, and off to the “races”. They are darling and very loveable.

This bird’s name is acquired from the sound of its call (kill-dee), which is unmistakable as it wafts across fields, wetlands, mudflats, and gravel bars. This 8 to 11 inch bird is a member of the Plover family and is our area’s most common shorebird. It is migratory and winters as far south as northern South America.

We often encounter this species in campgrounds where there are lawns and water close at hand. They also nest in our pasture that is located just behind our cattle corrals. This bird is to me, and not the Robin, the true harbinger of spring. When I get outside on a spring morning and hear that unforgettable call, it gives me a definite feeling that spring has arrived !

Kiilldeer on its nest

(A Killdeer on its nest)

Living Without Water: A Desert Adaptation

Previously I wrote about the importance of water in maintaining life. That brought up another question. How do desert animals get by with practically none? One way is to conserve body moisture by being nocturnal. However, some rodents, such as the Kangaroo Rat and the Round-Tailed Ground Squirrel, have the ability to manufacture their own water from seeds.

The carbohydrates in seeds make this possible. The chemical make up of a carbohydrate is that every atom of carbon is attached to a molecule of water (C H2O). Simple sugar, the basic carbohydrate, is C6 H12 O6. Hence the term carbohydrate. All animal bodies break these molecules down during respiration in their cells and any excess H2O is excreted in the urine. If this water is retained, the need for additional is satisfied.

One would probably not expect to see much life in a desert because of the harsh conditions. It is always amazing to me to witness the variety of species we encounter there. Besides the birds, a favorite rodent of mine is found in arid areas.

The Antelope Ground Squirrel is an omnivore. It will consume insects, grasshoppers, and carrion, as well as vegetative matter. This squirrel can also go long periods without water. Unlike other ground squirrels, it does not hibernate. It digs an extensive burrow, two feet under ground, with two or three entrances.

This cute fellow is distinguished by a white stripe on each side of its spine. It prefers open areas and is diurnal (daytime active) which makes it more easily seen.

(An Antelope Ground Squirrel enjoying the cool of the morning)