How About Some Serious Pondering

by Dave Hanks

My brother Richard, in the later part of his working years, was employed by an irrigation company. His job consisted mainly of taking soil moisture samples and recommending watering
procedures to the client. In order to do this, it took a great deal of investigative searching, testing and the practical experience previously gained from operating his own farm. His Father-In-law would periodically ask his advice, only to completely disregard it in favor of that which he had heard on “the street”.

This frustrated my brother to “no end” to say the least. Yet he was guilty of the same thing regarding environmental issues that had entered the political arena – totally disregarding the findings of scientists in favor of “crack-pot” radio, television, and newspaper commentators ( the likes of Limbaugh, Bell, Maughan, to name a few ) who were pushing a political agenda.

Why do people do this? Why do they shut their ears and eyes to the obvious? I was a Biology teacher in high school and so I have witnessed this closing of the mind on a first-hand basis. This is especially true in environmental science and the theories relating to species continuation and adaptation. Parents were always interfering in the learning process. The following is a quote I have para-phrased that I believe most timely: ” People toss out science in order to assuage their insecurity in certain of their own ideologues, especially religious ones – purposely closing off any contact with biological education. Scientific illiteracy is leaving too many of us unprepared to discuss or understand the damage we are wreaking on our own habitat and even on our own existence. ”

I have long been a preacher for the tremendous importance of variety. Variety seems to me to be as important an eternal principle as any other you’d care to mention, yet there is an almost insane drive by the human animal to reduce it as much as possible. Whether it is in our social drive to follow styles to be like the next guy, or the drive to make us all think and act alike in a religious context, or the replacing of naturally occurring bio-systems with
mono-cultures. Ethnic variety is what’s made America strong on the world stage. Likewise the elimination of variety in naturally occurring gene pools will eventually catch-up with us all. A very frustrating and frightening prospect to me!

I always cringe when others refer to me as a bird watcher. They talk as if all we do is recreate with birds. This attitude hits me as so trivial that it is irksome. While I do love birds and observe them, I love everything out there in nature. Our time is spent photographing all life-forms, birds being the most abundant and noticeable. What I really am is a naturalist and a conservationist. Hopeful what we do might have an effect in some small way on the attitudes of others. After all, I don’t think there is any concern facing the human race more serious than keeping our planet healthy. Also, to keep it viable through the preservation of all the variety possible in all the many and varied gene pools.

In this race for the dollar and the using up of everything on this earth, who will be the eventual winner?

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

Rock Pigeons and Adaptability

Rock Pigeons, also known as Rock Doves, are native to southern Europe where they nest in rocky cliffs. They were introduced to the United States, and as a result, were forced to adapt to new habitats. Lack of maximum prime habitat has limited their choices. We see so many in cities, around farm buildings, or under highway overpasses that it’s easy to think that they are where they want to be. Not so, they have made a major adjustment. Tall buildings are evidently the closest match to cliff sides that many can find. What is also interesting is that Peregrine Falcons (also forced to nest on tall buildings) have adapted in the same manner, but make the most of it by preying upon the pigeons.

Pigeons are a very diverse species. There are 12 sub-species, which includes Homing Pigeons. Many escaped domestic birds have added to this diversity and some individuals are totally white. Pigeons fly with their wings in a V configuration, which aids in their identification at a distance.

This species feeds in flocks on the ground. They also drink continually without tilting their head back. Tilting is characteristic of most birds. Pigeons are monogamous and will breed at any time of the year. Two young, called squabs, are produced at each nesting. The squabs feed by placing their beak into the parent’s throat. The food is drunk. It is called “pigeon milk.” It is a predigested, heavy, milky liquid.

We used to have a pigeon problem before we removed the top half of an old barn. Some high school students liked to bring their prom dates to the barn for an “after dance” dinner. To do that, required a major clean-up of pigeon feces before the old barn was presentable.

Rock Dove Showing off iridescent colors

Showing off iridescent colors

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

The Cotton Rat: Pest or Prey

I sit all day in a bird blind, on a private ranch, in southern Texas. It is April and the neo-tropical bird migration is in full swing. It cost a tidy sum for the privilege of sitting here, and I hope to get my money’s worth. Not only birds visit the feeding area in front of me, but a few mammals. One mammal that is a frequent visitor is a Cotton Rat. I discuss the occurrence of the rats with my host, who educates me to its relationship with the area’s Bobcats.

The Cotton Rat is named for its habit of building its nests out of cotton. This can be a major problem for cotton farmers. This rodent is found in southern Arizona, southern New Mexico, southern Texas, and into Mexico. It likes tall grass areas or cultivated fields. Like most rodents, it is very prolific – having 5 litters a year of 7 to 10 young at each nesting. The young leave the nest at 2 weeks of age and start breeding at 6 weeks. Wow! What a reproductive machine!

They are omnivores: eating grass, sedges, domestic grains, insects, and eggs. This 9 to 11 inch (1/2 pound) rat can be a real concern for agriculturists. Populations erupt over several years, but then crash – disease being the major cause. Coyotes, and especially Bobcats, find them as a major food source where the rat occurs. Bobcat populations of those southern areas rise and fall in direct relation to the rat’s population cycling.

Besides serving as prey, there is another benefit derived from this very pugnacious and quarrelsome rodent. They have proven to be useful in influenza virus research.

Sigmodon fulviventer in a feasting mode

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

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

Black Bears and Individual Distance

INDIVIDUAL DISTANCE is a moving space around an individual’s body that others are not allowed to enter unless either mating or fighting. Different species have specific requirements, as well as, individuals within each species. Bears are no different. They are real attractions but are dangerous to approach, and it’s best not to approach them. However, their ears give off visual signals. Erect ears usually go with an alert look which indicates the bear is curious and checking you out. It’s when they lay their ears back that they are indicating that their space is being violated.

Black Bears are solitary beasts and so they naturally have great space requirements. They work to maintain a distance from other bears and perceived enemies. A male bear uses up to a 200 square mile area, while a female requires 35. They use the same trails year after year and have convenient escape routes to maintain their space. Trees are also very critical as a means to escape confrontations.

Black Bears are crepuscular (morning and twilight active), which results in fewer confrontations with Grizzlies. They usually spend most of the daytime and nighttime in burrows. Much of their behavior, although not totally understood by man, is directed to maintaining a distance from other bears. When standing on their hind legs, they are gaining information through better vision and smell. Smell is their best sense. It is said: “That if all smells were as strong to humans as skunk smell, you’d know how great a bear’s olfactory ability is.”

A “woof” is a sign that they have been startled. I experienced that “woof” when hiking up to an Osprey nest in British Columbia. I noticed a blackness in the vegetation by the trail ahead. That was stimulus enough for me to back up slowly the way I had come. If a bear does charge or run, they are extremely fast. They can cover 50 yards in 3 seconds.

Black Bear

A Black Bear, with her ears back, warns me not to come any closer

Yellow-Headed Blackbirds: Lords of the Cattail Realm

When out and about in marshes, you might hear what sounds as if a creature is vomiting. Look around, you will most likely see cattails and perched on those plants will be birds with orangey-yellow heads and chests. The sounds emitted will be constant, loud, and very distinctive. You are now in contact with Yellow-Headed Blackbirds. They are birds that are tightly linked to cattail stands.

This species is unmistakable with its bright head and large white wing patch (visible when in flight). The female has the same color pattern but it is much duller. Red-Winged Blackbirds and Marsh Wrens use the same habitat. Yellow-Heads are very aggressive toward the little Marsh Wren to keep them in their place. A polygamous species, the male may have up to 8 mates within his territory. Their nests are cup-shaped and woven around the stems of the sedges. He will help feed the nestlings in the first nest constructed, but the other females are on their own. They eat a large amount of insects and are very helpful to humans by eating insects, like grasshoppers, that are potentially harmful to crops.

When I used to teach biology, this bird was always visible when taking students on field trips. Needless to say, its bright colors and unusual song caused more than the usual interest for the students.

Watching over his territory