Habitat around homes fill gaps

by Dave Hanks

As the world population, as well as America’s, expands – habitat for wild things shrinks. People that care, can help wildlife out, especially birds. The planting of a variety of vegetation types around homes aids birds greatly. I read that 82 percent of the nation’s cities, suburbs, and small rural housing plots give homes to two-thirds of all North American bird species.

We have been fortunate to live on a small farm with a large yard around the house. We have a great variety of trees and shrubs. As a result, the place has been an attraction for wildlife. My wife loved the birds, and so we kept a record of the species that visited our place. We have recorded one hundred and nine bird species. It is amazing how many you will see when you become aware of them!

Birds are much more numerous than non-bird wildlife species – but we’ve had our share of those too. Northern Fox Squirrels are plentiful and it seems that Mountain Cottontails find security under most of our bushes. There was even a Striped Skunk that lived in the culvert under our driveway, and a badger that dug a burrow under the cattle corral manger. A Red Fox used to hangout on the lower end of our place; but, perhaps, the most exciting were the three Mule Deer (2 bucks and a doe) that would wander across our yard to eat the apples that had dropped from the apple trees in the back. Less preferred creatures such as assorted rodents, butterflies, weasels, and Garter Snakes also utilize our yard.

However, the birds are the greater beneficiaries. It is nice to be serenaded in the early evening and early morning by the Great Horned Owls that live here. Colorful birds come here in the spring; like Towhees, Buntings, Western Tanagers, Black-Headed Grosbeaks, and Bullock’s Orioles. Several pairs of the latter two species nest in our yard, and we can enjoy them all summer long.


A male Bullock’s Oriole: breath-taking splendor


The Habitat Directs Animal Adaptations

by Dave Hanks

How does a species survive when it’s too hot, too cold, too wet or too dry? Over a period of years, the individuals that can stand the conditions better survive. Because it’s difficult to reproduce when one is dead, those with the best survival traits do the reproducing. Gradually the resulting offspring become adapted to withstand the existing environmental conditions. Behavior is also an adaptation. (i.e. shade seeking to get out of the sun, seeking cover to get away from a cold wind, or trying to blend in with one’s surroundings, are some examples).

TOO HOT: Longer, slimmer appendages that allow the blood to be closer to the surface to expel heat, and fat deposits in one spot to avoid covering the body which prevents heat loss. Humps on camels and fat tails on desert sheep are prime examples.

TOO COLD: Just opposite of too hot. These animals have short limbs, thick bodies, with their fat distributed evenly over their bodies. They are usually bigger (i.e. Alaska Moose are larger than Idaho Moose) which lowers the percent of surface area in relation to size and preserves body warmth.

TOO DRY: These have a very interesting adaptation to satisfy their water needs – they make their own from the carbohydrates they eat. A carbohydrate molecule is simply 6 molecules of water with 6 carbon atoms attached. Kick the carbon atoms off the molecule and you have water. We humans do the same, but get rid of the water, which is necessary to get rid of other waste products and cleanse our systems. Hot climate animals have to have devised other means of cleansing their systems

TOO WET: These animals develop sleek, steam lined bodies, appendages for movement in water, and counter shading (Dark on dorsal surface and light underneath on their ventral areas – camouflage from both above and below).

The Greater Yellowlegs (Pictured) is a bird of THE WET. Notice its white belly and dark, mottled top. It’s well camouflaged.

Wetland Habitats are Vital

by Dave Hanks

Wetlands are important natural resources! They serve purposes other than providing living spaces for ducks, but that, along with the great diversity of other wildlife types that depend on them, is an important consideration. Their sedges and grasses not only filter out the impurities that make their way into our rivers and streams (kidneys so to speak of flowing water bodies), but wetlands, also, hold the melted spring runoff and slow down the quantity of water dumped into rivers – thus aiding in flood prevention.

SWAMPS are wetlands that have trees growing in the water. They are important oxygen furnishers. Alligators, turtles and other reptiles, amphibians, and many wading and swimming bird species are in abundance. The Alligator is the master beast here who modifies this habitat with its digging of gator-holes – which other animals benefit from.

SALT WATER MARSHES are excellent wintering areas for many bird species. They are tremendous aquatic food larders for human enterprises. This fact was brought home by the devastation caused by the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

WET-MEADOWS (Bogs) are a succession step after a natural disturbance, which facilitates the formation of fertile grasslands and forests. They are also a very important habitat for many mammals.

FRESH-WATER MARSHES are what (here in Idaho) we are most acquainted with. The topography of the land or a dam built across a stream by beavers (those master engineers) result in these wetlands. And what a noble king of the marsh the Moose is! The little PIED-BILLED GREBE (pictured) is a regular here. This little diving bird has a chicken-like bill that has a ring around it in summer. It swims like a duck, but doesn’t have webbed feet. Each toe has lobes extending out on the sides for extra surface area for paddling. Its diet consists of fish, insects, crayfish, frogs, and small amounts of vegetation. It rarely flies, but will sink out of sight when it is threatened.

Pied-Billed Grebe At home amid the marsh sedges

At home amid the marsh sedges

Bird Feeding Levels in Water

by Dave Hanks

I wrote an article about the vertical levels, from ground level and upwards to the sky, that various birds frequent the most. This article deals with how different species of birds can use the same water body to feed in because they feed at different levels in the water – thus not stressing the food sources.

Bill shape and makeup, neck length, wing shape, and leg placement; all these varying traits determine where and what a species eats. Mallards and other DABBLING DUCKS bob their “bottoms up” and secure feed just below the water surface. SHOVELERS have a big, scoop-shovel beak that is used on the water surface – as do avocets with their upturned water sweeping bill. Mergansers and other DIVING DUCKS have compact wings and legs set well back on their body. These features offset buoyancy and permit the bird to dive. Their serrated beaks allow the seizing and holding of fish or other aquatic organisms. SWAN with their long necks permit them to reach down to two and a half feet under water when doing their “bottoms up”. Geese are GENERALSTS with legs directly under their body that make movement on land easy, and beaks that allow grubbing of roots, grass, and sedges. This is true also, for Mallards and Wigeon. They, like the geese, will graze in the fields.

Man’s way is to put many individuals of a single species in a specific area. If not exacting in the numbers added, the food source can be badly abused. Nature’s way is to put many species, but less quantity of each in an area. Because each uses the habitat differently, the habitat remains healthy.

Water birds that may seem to have much in common are really quite diverse. The various feeding adaptations are an example of nature’s brilliance!

Trumpeter Swan: Long. graceful neck, and powerful bill

Trumpeter Swan: Long. graceful neck, and powerful bill

Our Yard: Cottontail Habitat

We have a bunch of Cottontails,their tails are silky white – I see them every morning, before the sun is bright

They especially like our bushes,and the cover that they give – They sneak back and forth from them, what a way to live!

They are so very cute, so cuddly and so plump – And when they hop away I see, The white bobbing of each rump

The mornings promise excitement, from the wild things on our place – And I’m so ever grateful, that they seem to find the space

To romp around so freely, it makes me feel so good – But with a yard like ours, I guess I knew it would!

There are 16 species of cottontails, and these rabbits only live for 12 to 15 months. Only one in a hundred will survive to see its third fall. Their short life span, and the heavy predation upon them, requires these critters to be heavy reproducers. They may raise as many as 6 litters a year. Breeding starts in March and lasts through early autumn. Their nests are not dug, but are slight depressions scratched out under dense vegetation. The doe lines it with dry grass and her fur. She gives birth up to eight blind, furless young in each litter. The bunnies grow rapidly and are totally independent at five weeks. On the average, only 15 percent of the young will survive their first year.

Cottontails have very keen eyesight and hearing. They will usually freeze when they sense danger, but will flush if approached too closely. Movement is usually accomplished by short hops, but they can run at speeds up to 18 miles per hour over short distances – their endurance is limited. They will often zig-zag to confuse a pursuing predator.

Cottontails eat grass, ferns, herbs, and your garden plants. They can become a threat to young growing vegetables – like our young corn shoots – which require us to surround them with some type of protection. This reminds me of the Peter Cottontail stories and the “scritch-scratching” of Mr. MacGreagor’s hoe.

A Mountain Cottontail in our yard

A Mountain Cottontail in our yard

Brown Thrashers: A Pleasant Find in Dinosaur Park

A bright, rufous-brown is scratching in the underbrush. Hopefully it will show itself. It’s a long-tailed bird that will only appear if it feels the stage is completely clear. It is in the brush, under the cottonwood trees, that lines the river which runs through Dinosaur Provincial Park in southeastern Alberta.

Most of Alberta is green – from her western mountains, to her grasslands in the east. This southeastern park is dry, however, except for a ribbon of trees along the river that runs through it. The name comes from a time past when the region was sub-tropical and was a habitat for dinosaurs (as evidenced by fossilized remains). The exposed bedrock, sand, and hardened mud flats have forced most of the wildlife to live along the narrow riparian zone. This park is like the “Badlands” and the animals have had to adjust to the lack of moisture, to high winds, and to cold winters. It’s no wonder that the river is such a popular place.

But the thrasher is working his way cautiously into the open. I see his prominent, gleaming yellow eye and curved bill. The extra long tail and heavily spotted chest makes this species one of considerable interest.

This is Georgia’s state bird, and it is closely related to the Mockingbird and Gray Catbird. It is much more reserved than its relatives, but like them, it’s a great singer, although it doesn’t sing as often.

Unusual for such reserved individuals, they will vigorously defend their nest. There are reports of them attacking humans, even drawing blood. This 11 inch bird forages on the ground by sweeping the leaf litter with its curved beak to find insects and other small animal species.

Brown Thrasher in Leaf Litter

Toxostoma rufum

Goss’s Rule and the Canines of Yellowstone

GOSS’S RULE states: “When two species share the same habitat, and also share the same niche, the dominant species will push its competition out.” This is classic between coyote, fox, and wolf. Yellowstone Park provides a situation where this rule is very noticeable. Before the introduction of wolves, there were many coyotes and fewer fox. Since their introduction, wolves have expanded greatly, coyote numbers have decreased, and the Red Fox population has increased.

It stands to reason that size plays a big role in the dominance of these three canines. Wolves, especially when hunting in family packs (usually 4 to 7), can bring down larger prey than coyotes – hunting alone or even cooperatively. Also, bigger groups contribute to a species ability to dominate, and larger canine will kill the smaller ones when they catch them. I have witnessed wolves chasing coyotes that were brazen enough to approach a carcass fed upon by wolves. I have seen coyotes escape, but also observed one that was unlucky. Because the Red Fox feeds mainly on smaller mammals and birds, it is not as competitive to the wolf as is the coyote – which has an expanded diet.

Gray wolves look like large German Shepard dogs. Coyotes are somewhat smaller, lighter in coloration, and have a more pointed face. The Red Fox is considerably smaller, with a slender body, reddish tinge to its fur, and with a white tail tip.

Vegetation eaters, when their populations increase, have the ability to destroy their own habitat. Thus, predators keep these populations in balance. Predators are also breeding selection factors for prey species. They weed out the weak, the diseased, and the old (who no longer reproduce but still eat). Nature’s ways sound cruel, but they are necessary to keep herbivore numbers at the maximum that the habitat can withstand

A Gray Wolf: Top dog in the predator hierarchy

A Gray Wolf: Top dog in the predator hierarchy

Beauty without Substance is Hollow!

The miles through Quebec roll on and on. The forests, hillsides, lakes, and streams are exceptionally pretty. But where is the animal life? We have traveled great distances without seeing a thing. What is wrong? Why? Satisfaction has escaped us. Other less glamorous areas, where animals can be seen, are much more enjoyable. As we travel back west through the prairie country, the scenery is less spectacular, but a few mammals grazing the grasslands and waterfowl in every pothole make things so very much more interesting!

The natural earth, with its vegetation and geology, is a glorious place. However, it seems sterile if there is nothing around to utilize the habitat! Fish in the streams, birds in the trees, reptiles scurrying on the ground, and mammals dominating the scene – just make a place so much more interesting. It’s like having a practical application for knowledge, and satisfaction is derived as a result.

The National Bison Range, in northwestern Montana, is an area of modest beauty. It is tremendously appealing though. Its Bison, Bighorn, Pronghorn, deer, and birds make it so. Davis Mountain State Park, in western Texas, is another place of a similar mien. Northern British Columbia is prettier than both, but it’s the caribou, bears, and other fur-bearing mammals that give it substance.

Yellowstone and Glacier parks both have, not only the animal life, but scenic beauty to add to the mix. Many of our parks do, and that’s what makes them such special places. I hold my breath that these unique spots of our earth won’t be desecrated.

Beauty and utility usually go together. It’s when they don’t, that things just are not right.

These Bison add character to mountain scenery