Friday, December 24, 2010

A Place in the Choir

A fitting Master Naturalist carol for the holidays is A Place in the Choir.   This is best heard when performed by the Springfield Master Naturalist Choir as it was performed at the MN Christmas Party.  If you weren't able to hear that awesome performance, the next best thing is listening to this version on line.  It lacks many of the special effects and the "unique" vocalizations of our choir, but it will have to do.

For the original lyrics, you can go to this site. 
Enjoy the holidays and we will hit the ground running in January under the new Haworth administration.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


Starling- from Wikimedia Commons
Francis Skalicky has an interesting article on starlings in the Thursday News-Leader.  As usual, he has several interesting facts to add to the common knowledge.

The European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) has thrived in the United States since its arrival.  These "dark-colored birds with iridescent tints of green and purple" would be considered attractive if they were uncommon. Wikipedia says that they were introduced by Eugene Schieffelin who released 60 of them in Central Park in 1890.  The usual story was that he was trying to introduce the all the birds mentioned by Shakespeare.  There is apparently no concrete evidence to support this oft told story, and he may have been using them for insect control as he had done 30 years prior with his release of English Sparrows.  Either way, his 60 birds now have over 140 million living offspring now.

One unique trait of starlings is their beak musculature.  They have powerful muscles for opening their beak, unlike other birds.  This allows them to plunge their beak into the ground and open it up to find extra food.  The European Starling is further unique from all other starlings in its ability to rotate its eyes forward to look into the hole it is creating.  No wonder they have been so successful in competing with other species.

How do starlings cause damage?* 
  • Consuming or damaging cultivated fruits such as grapes, peaches, blueberries, strawberries, figs, apples and cherries.  
  • Competing with native cavity-nesting birds such as bluebirds, flickers, and other woodpeckers, purple martins and wood ducks for nest sites.  There is speculation that Red Bellied Woodpeckers are moving to more rural areas to avoid starling competition.
  • Pulling sprouting grains, particularly winter wheat, and eating the planted seed. 
  • Selectively eating the high-protein supplements that are often added to livestock rations. 
  • Damaging turf on golf courses as they probe for grubs.
  • Transferring disease such as histoplasmosis to humans and transmissible gastroenteritis virus (TGE) from one livestock facility to another. 
  • Causing  6% of bird aircraft strikes along with blackbirds.   In 1962, an Electra aircraft in Boston collided with a flock of starlings soon after takeoff, resulting in a crash landing and 62 fatalities. 
Why have they out competed other birds?  Their ability to pry open the ground and look for insects in winter is felt to be a major factor, giving them an advantage over other birds.  Their aggressive eviction of other cavity nesting birds from available breeding spaces and their large flocks which deter many predators are other possible factors.  What ever it is, it looks like these European visitors are here to stay.

* see Economic Damage
Skalicky's article has a lot more information including theories on their flocking tendency.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Giant Coyote Killed

The MDC recently reported that a large Coyote was killed by a hunter in Northern Missouri.  It is legal to kill coyote during deer season.  At 104 pounds, this animal was three times the normal weight for a coyote.  If it looks like a wolf to you, you are not alone.  It took DNA analysis of hair samples to confirm that it was a coyote.

Wolves are no longer native to Missouri.  They were common when Henry Rowe Schoolcraft was touring the area in 1818 and stories of wolf encounters abound until the late 19th century.   A wolf was killed in Missouri in 2001. It had a Michigan radio collar and identification tags. In 2007, there was a report of a pregnant wolf and her mate which escaped from Predator World in Branson.  The female was killed by a farmer.  (Note: wolves are a protected species in Missouri.)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Northern Harrier

Last Saturday was the Natural History and Identification of Raptors Workshop held at Prairie State Park.  Jeff Cantrell gave an entertaining and educational seminar on various types of birds of prey seen in Missouri complete with some mounted examples.

The second half of the program was a field trip around the prairie.  It turns out that raptors are more intelligent than the attendees.  While we walked around in 34 degree weather with 25 mph winds, they pretty much stayed hunkered down some where out of the wind.

Northern Harrier- Joe Motto*
The star of the show was definitely the collection of Northern Harriers that they must keep for special occasions like this.  Said to be "uncommon migrants in Missouri", there were several gliding over the fields.  Well, not exactly gliding.  With the wind, they were hard pressed to maintain a flight path for more than a few seconds before being blown off course.  Their normal distinctive flight pattern follows the contour of the land, maybe 8 to 10 feet above the ground, attempting to startle prey into exposing themselves.  What they lacked in elegance of flight Saturday they made up with persistence.

Their breeding grounds are in Alaska, Northern Canada and down to the Baja Peninsula, especially in coastal areas, while their wintering area extends as far as South America.  Their normal prey is rodents, snakes, birds and insects.

A few interesting facts:
  • Unlike other raptors, they depend on their acute hearing as well as sight to locate their prey.  They are said to be able to hear insects as they glide along close to the ground.  They have an owl-like "facial disks" which helps them gather and locate sounds
  • Males may mate with up to 5 females in a breeding season.  They hunt and bring back prey while their mate(s) care for the young.
  • They are attracted to smoke from far away, coming in to hunt in front of the flames to catch animals running from the fire.
Pictures and a recording of their call is found at
*  More of Dr. Motto's wildlife photographs are at this site.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Water- Fiji and Ozark

A couple of interesting water stories crossed my screen.  For a change, they are positive... at least a little bit.

Fiji Water-
First, from our friends at JRBP- that's James River Basin Partnership for you non-Springfieldians.  Here is a very entertaininng way to understand how we started getting bathed in bottle water ads.  Spend a couple of minutes watching the entertaining

Next, there has been a lot of interesting discussion of hydraulic fracturing, lovingly referred to as "fracking".  CNN reports that the New York State Legislature has passed a limited ban on this controversial method of drilling for natural gas.  It goes to their Governor for signature within the week.

Fracking area in Arkansas
Fracking is the use of millions of gallons of high pressure water and chemicals pumped deep underground to hydraulically fracture (break up) rock and force oil or especially natural gas into a production well.  This process has been around for 60 years, but has dramatically increased in use due to the development of shale natural gas formations and the switch to lower cost water based formulations as is being used in the shale formations in north central Arkansas.  (If you are thoroughly familiar with fracking, you can stop reading here.  If not go to this excellent video which shows how fracking is done.) 

So what is the fracking problem?  That is the problem.  We don't know yet what all the problems are and how serious they can be, yet its use is expanding in our region.  In other words, studies are underway and we are part of the experiment.  The quotes below are from David Casaletto in the November Ozarks Water Watch.
  1. "Millions of gallons of water are being injected deep into the earth under the drinking water formations. The water that does not return to the surface is being removed from the water cycle."  (This is of concern in the Ozarks where we are involved in studying solutions to the rapidly declining water resources in the Joplin area.  A cynic might say that the last thing we need is to pump available water underground and out of reach.)
  2. "The water that returns to the surface is polluted with drilling chemicals and natural pollutants."  We don't even know what all of these pollutants are and do not have the facilities to remove them even if we did.  Want your own free source of methane in your well water?  Watch this CNN News story from Pennsylvania.
  3. " Contamination of drinking water: As we know from the Gulf oil spill, accidents do happen. The wells have to be cased completely through all the drinking water formations to prevent drilling chemicals from mixing with drinking water. If the casing fails, contamination could occur."
  4. Earthquakes are a potential concern.  While no official position has been taken on this, fracking deliberately cracks rock formations deep in the earth and Mother Nature may not like it.  There is anecdotal evidence in Arkansas* and other sites (see that earthquakes can result.  Since there is a normal background rate of earth tremors, it is hard to prove or disprove the association with fracking.  Kind of a roll of the dice with our planet.
An excellent video shows how fracking is done.
More detailed information is available through Wikipedia.
See the November 29 Ozarks Water Watch for details.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Urban Coyotes have made several postings about deer, turkeys etc. that are getting used to living in close proximity to humans.  It makes sense that coyotes would start to show up, but in  downtown Chicago?  Marlyss Simmons, our Secretary-for-Life, sent me this story.

A great story reported by tells of 60 urban coyotes (not cowboys) which have been radio collared to track their habits in an urban environment.  They are living on rats and voles as well as cooperating with the "the largest urban study of coyotes in the world."  The first one was named "Big Mama" and with an unknown mate she has had 45 pups and now they are grown and having pups of their own.

There are occasional reports of pets attacked by coyote in places such as Chicago, Grapevine Texas and Palm Beach Florida.  These are usually small dogs or cats and are certainly incidental to their usual urban diet of rats, rabbits and voles.  Occasionally there will be a curious interaction with humans.  A coyote in downtown Chicago walked calmly into a Quizno's sandwich shop and climbed into a refrigerated case.  It nestled quietly in among the fruit juice.  Either a vegetarian or just wanting to cool off. 
Actually, seeing a coyote in the wild is somewhat uncommon.  They are stealthy, shy, and usually avoid humans and dogs.  I have seen a coyote twice on Bull Creek in 15 years although we hear them commonly.
As they become accustomed to humans we can expect them to be bolder.  There was a time in the past when the Missouri Department of Conservation would take live animals to the fair for demonstration.  A story on the MDC blog describes an employee who took one of these demonstration coyotes home and released it in the wild, only to see it return and try to open the doorknob as it had seen humans do while it was in captivity.
The complete story of the Chicago coyote study with pictures, maps of their travel and a video is at the NPR site above.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Talking Turkey

You probably know that turkeys are native to the Northern Hemisphere.  So how did they get the name turkey?  Possibly for a variety of reasons.  Wikipedia says that it came from their resemblance to guineafowl which had been imported to Europe from Turkey.  The name stuck.  Others attribute the name to the Native American name of "firkee" for the bird.
The red, white and blue head of the turkey gives it a patriotic look.  Benjamin Franklin wrote that the turkey would be a better choice for the American bird than the eagle.  He felt the eagle was a carrion feeder which stole from other birds.  He goes on:
"For the truth the Turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America . . . He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on."
Either way, it was brought to Europe by a 16th century explorer by the name of William Strickland.  He even had he bird included on his family crest.  The Aztecs had all ready domesticated the turkey as a major source of protein, and it is likely that the Spanish importation of the birds led to their domestication in Europe.  Once the domestic turkey was developed in Europe, it came back to the United States in its current form.

Meanwhile, back in the States, the population of the native birds dropped to an estimated 30,000 before restoration efforts brought them back from near extinction.*  Currently wild turkeys are thriving, and have become a popular game animal.  As Franklin noted, they can be aggressive in areas where they become too familiar with humans, leading to attacking us.  This seems only fair as hunters killed 247 this year in Greene County alone.  As a mild threat, they can intimidate.

One final question finally comes up.  For a bird that is supposed to be dumb, how can they be so hard to hunt?  MDC has posted an entertaining short video on wild turkey trivia.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Fruits of Fall- Bush Honeysuckle

MDC Pamphlet *
We have written on several of the bright fruits of fall lately.*  Now for the bad news.  If you are seeing bright red berries on bushes with yellow-green leaves when other plants have lost theirs, you are likely seeing our prolific invasive species, the bush honeysuckle.
These Lonicerna species were brought here from Asia for their beautiful flowers, bright red berries and their fragrance.  Its species have spread throughout the Eastern US where it is recognized as an official "noxious" or "invasive species".  It is rapidly spreading throughout Missouri, and can be seen along almost any roadside fence line or woods.  Ironically, some are endangered species in Japan!
Colorful fragrant flowers with bright red fruit- what's not to like?  In the words of the Alien Plant Working Group:
"Exotic bush honeysuckles can rapidly invade and overtake a site, forming a dense shrub layer that crowds and shades out native plant species.  They alter habitats by decreasing light availability, by depleting soil moisture and nutrients and possibly by releasing toxic chemicals that prevent other plant species from growing in the vicinity.  Exotic bush honeysuckles may compete with native bush honeysuckles for pollinators, resulting in reduced seed set for native species.  In addition, the fruits of exotic bush honeysuckles, while abundant and rich in carbohydrates, do not offer migrating birds the high-fat, nutrient-rich food sources needed for long flights that are supplied by native plant species."

Click to enlarge

Not all Lonicera species are invasive, but unfortunately some sources do not mention their invasive characteristics.'s Top-10-Berries-for-Birds  for instance doesn't differentiate between the noninvasive and invasive species that are readily available for purchase.

Bush honeysuckles stand out this time of year as they still have their leaves, islands of yellow-green leaves and bright red fruit among the bare branches of native bushes.  So where can you find them and what can you do?  Unfortunately bush honeysuckle is found invading parks, untended lots in downtown Springfield and even formal gardens.  Once spotted, you can pull the smaller ones which have shallow roots.  Larger plants should be cut at the base and the stump treated with stump killer such as 20% glyphosate such as Rodeo or Roundup.  All the information you need is at this MDC website.

A good source of photographs for identification is at this website.

*   Curse of the Bush Honeysuckle pdf is available here or at the Conservation Nature Center.
** Fruits of Fall I and Fruits of Fall II.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Bees Cook Wasp

Bee Defenders
from Wikimedia
There is an interesting 3 minute video on how Japanese bees destroy a predatory wasp scout by cooking it.  You may be familiar with the "waggle dance" that bees use to communicate the location of food to their clan.  There are a lot of studies on this aimed at breaking the code.  These Japanese bees use a similar dance to coordinate their attack on this threat to their hive.
How do they cook a wasp?  By combining their body heat, they raise the hive temperature higher that the wasp can tolerate while still in the bee's comfort range.  This probably sounds familiar to any of us who share a thermostat with someone else in the house.

For more interesting facts about bees, check out  There is a long list of bee factoids that I hadn't heard before.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Please Pass the Arsenic

from Science/AAAS
A new report in describes a bacteria which can utilize arsenic in place of phosphorus.  Until now science has considered phosphorus as one of the six key elements* serving as the building blocks of life on earth.

Other studies had shown that some microbes are able to chemically process arsenic, that is they can tolerate it without being poisoned.  The new study by NASA's Astrobiology Institute and the U.S. Geological Survey studied a proteobacteria found in the sediments of an alkaline lake that is naturally high in arsenic.
The new finding was the ability of the organism to use arsenic in place of phosphorus in its DNA, building on arsenic rather than just being able to tolerate it.  Scientists gradually reduced the phosphorus available to it, and generation after generation over a year survived without any additional phosphorus.  Studies showed that the microbe substituted arsenic in place of phosphorus in its DNA and got along just fine.

This finding expands the possibilities of life not only in new and unusual places on earth but even the potential existence of life cycles built on different elements elsewhere in the universe.  An expanded discussion is found at

* carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and sulfur.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Interesting Elements

Rocks Make Life and Vice Versa
An interesting seven minute Robert Krulwich interview on NPR Thursday discussed the coevolution of rocks and life.  Elements formed early in the life of the universe began combining to form different minerals we see today.  While life also developed from these elements, what effect has that life had in the development of rocks?

I think you will find the effects of life on rock evolution fascinating.  I won't spoil the surprise ending for you but here is a hint.  "The more life there is, the more rocks there are."

Cocktails from the Past
Ice Core- from Wikimedia
Krulwich's blog has explored more interesting science, including the taste of 10,000 year old soda water.  Dr. Paul Mayewski, director of the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine, told about core drilling through glaciers to sample glacial ice cores.  This ice is formed from compacted snow that fell in the distant past, pressed into ice in the depths, literally frozen in time.
"A hundred and thirty-eight feet down, there is snow that fell during the time of the American Civil War; 2,500 feet down, snow from the time of the Peloponnesian Wars, and 5,350 feet down, snow from the days when the cave painters of Lascaux were slaughtering bison.  As the snow is compressed, its crystal structure changes to ice. But in most other respects, the snow remains unchanged, a relic of the climate that first formed it."
When asked if they ever tasted the ice, he explained that after they have fully studied and archived the cores, the excess cores will just be discarded.  At that point they will occasionally taste the ice from a known level.
"Probably the most exciting thing about it is when you have real ice — that's where the snow has been gradually compacted and eventually formed into ice, and the density has increased. When that happens, if the ice is old, it will often trap air bubbles in it. Those air bubbles can contain carbon dioxide from ten thousand years ago or even a hundred thousand years ago. And when you put an ice cube of that ice in a glass of water, it pops. It has natural effervescence as those gas bubbles escape. You get a little a puff of air into your nostrils if you have your nose over the glass. It's not as though it necessarily smells like anything — but when you think about the fact that the last time that anything smelled that air was a hundred thousand years ago, that’s pretty interesting. "
How does this relate to Missouri?  Studying ice cores is a way of determining what climate changes occurred in the past and give us some clues about what to expect in the future.  The technology and challenges of ice core sampling is described in this blog.

More technical information than you need is in this Wikipedia article.