Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Frozen Birds

Bluebird - Patty Hatcher

Patty Hatcher mentioned her frozen Bluebird at Monday's meeting so I asked her for more information.

"Found this poor guy immobilized in the snow Monday evening.  He was barely alive.  Hoping I could save him I brought him in, wrapped him in a towel and put him in a box.  He looked at me and moved a bit but in the end closed his eyes.  I feel better knowing he didn’t die frozen in the snow."

Then my neighbor sent pictures of a Downy Woodpecker frozen in place on a tree trunk so I asked Becky Swearingen to educate us.

Downy Woodpecker - Garin Ferguson


Keeping Birds Safe in Extreme Cold - Becky Swearingen

Larry Gurian
We have been getting reports of birds that are succumbing to the extreme cold temperatures. As you watch your birds, there are several behaviors you might notice. Birds are puffing up their feathers to provide extra air space around their bodies that will help contain their body heat. They are also seen tucking one of their feet into their feathers or roosting close to the feeders with their bill tucked. These are additional ways to retain their body heat. Something else you might see is birds huddling close to one another to share their body heat.  There are some ways we can help our feathered friends survive this extreme cold weather event.

First, try to keep some open water available. Ideally, that would be a heater in a bird bath, but alternatively, you could put fresh warm water out periodically throughout the day. I have gone out several times over the past few days and knocked off the ice and snow that accumulates around the rim of the bird bath. This makes it easier for those little birds to get to the water.

Keep your feeders full and clear of snow. They are eating a massive amount right now. They need the calories to help them keep warm. I am filling my feeders three or four times a day. Clear your feeders of snow. I do that several times a day when it is snowing. You can also put out additional feeders if you have them.

Feed good, high energy foods. These are things like peanuts, peanut butter, suet, mealworm (live or freeze-dried), and sunflower chips. I have also cut up an apple and put it in some peanut butter for birds like the mockingbirds. I sometimes make a special treat of peanut butter, corn meal and raisins when it is frigidly cold.

Make sure food is available first thing in the morning. I fill my feeders in the evening so there is food for the birds as they start getting out first thing in the morning. They need that early morning energy boost after not eating during the night.

One thing I do is shovel an area on the patio and in the yard and sprinkle seed on the ground for those ground feeders, like Dark Eyed Juncos and White Throated Sparrows. I usually just sprinkle White Proso Millet, but I’m currently sprinkling a mix that also has nuts and seeds in it. Some different birds are coming to the food on the ground right now, like Robins. Food is scarce for all the birds, so even birds we don’t think of as feeder birds are appreciating the extra fat in their diet. If you can do it easily, you might even consider making a windbreak by your ground feeding area so the birds can feed out of the wind.

Finally, keep those bird houses out. There are some birds that do roost in bird houses in the winter. Bird Watchers Digest even suggests putting dried grass or wood shavings (not sawdust) in the houses for additional insulation. Another type of shelter might be a brush pile. I have an area in my yard where I pile up limbs. I also add additional leaves to that area in the fall. This provides some additional shelter for birds.

Here is a great resource from the Audubon Society: Audubon Guide to Winter Bird-Feeding | Audubon

Editor's note:  Becky spends more on bird food that we do for us!

An associate of ours has salvaged the birds for education. He has a US Fish & Wildlife Service permit* so that he can teach his students how to prepare specimens and maintain a museum collection.  He currently has 3 students that participate in the club group.  His comments:
"The students have expressed to me that they feel that by preparing the specimen, they are honoring the bird's life in a way. They grow a personal connection to that species, which I hope will someday translate into a conservation connection. The dissection often lends itself to an anatomical comparisons between groups of birds. For instance, one student prepared her first hawk and commented on how different the leg anatomy was on a bird of prey than the songbirds she had worked on in the past. The specimens in my possession are used to teach students about biology. I find that a specimen of a real bird is much more valuable than a photo."
* According to the Migratory Bird Act of 1918, it is illegal to possess any part of a bird that belongs to a species protected by the US Fish & Wildlife Service without proper authorization. Native bird species (except game birds within their hunting season) are included under this act. Parts of birds include feathers, nests, eggs, and body parts. Typically when someone finds a deceased bird, it is best to leave it where you find it, so that its nutrients can be returned to the environment. However, in some circumstances, people wish to contribute the bird to a museum collection for scientific purposes. The benefits of museum specimens are numerous and include providing educational specimens for future learning, as well as providing references from the past for scientific studies. In this way, the bird can be thought of as taking on a second life.

In order to legally collect a deceased bird, the bird must end up in a permitted museum collection. If you come across a deceased bird, contact a permitted institution to see if they will accept your donation.   If so, some information will also need to be included to maximize the value of the specimen. Use a permanent marker to write on a Ziplock bag. You should write your name (since you are the collector), the date, and a location. GPS coordinates are ideal, but an address or even a nearby intersection will suffice. Wrapping the bird in a paper towel and placing it inside the Ziploc bag will help prevent it from drying out. Then get the bird into a freezer to prevent decay. The specimen should be delivered to a permitted individual as soon as possible.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Seeds Go Wild

 Alien or worms?

The "worms" on this tomato won't crawl off onto the kitchen cabinet and are not aliens come to earth.   Kelly McGowan explains that these are an example of vivipary.  This is an example of what happens when seeds germinate prematurely while attached to the parent plant or fruit.  She explains this phenomenon:

"Seeds contain a hormone that suppress the germination process.  This is a necessity, as it keeps the seeds from germinating when conditions aren’t favorable and missing their shot to become plants.  Sometimes that hormone runs out, like when a tomato sits around on the counter in a warm kitchen for too long.  This doesn’t effect the edibility of the fruit or vegetable."

Given time and the right temperature a new plant sprout would eventually poke through skin as the tomato decomposed.  According to the University of Connecticut Extension Although sprouts can be potted up, offspring won’t be a clone of the parent plant.  The seeds are the result of pollination of the flower with another plant's pollen.  The strawberry can also sprout seeds.

In corn, vivipary is most likely to occur when upright dry corn on the stalk is re-wetted by rain that is trapped by the leaf husks at the base of the ear where the germination then occurs.  This can degrade the economic value of a corn crop but fortunately can usually be avoided by timing the harvest.

Without getting lost in a biological word salad, vivipary is the normal method of reproduction in some plant families such as mangroves.  It is different from viviparity which occurs a variety of animal species, ranging from aphids and cockroaches and snakes to us mammals.

Placental viviparity occurs in mammals where the embryo develops inside the body of the parent. Ovaviviparity is an outdated term which used to encompass a variety of processes including snakes that give live birth.  The current developing terminology listed here is even more complicated.  Trust me, you don't want to go there.

The Missouri Extension list our live birthing snakes as copperheads, rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, garter snakes and water snakes.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Six-spotted Tiger Beetle

On a botanical survey last summer, we encountered scattered iridescent green beetles in multiple locations, perched on gravel like little half-inch long jewels.  Unlike most beetles, as we got within 3 feet of them, they darted away in a low erratic flight, landing on another nearby rock.  If you were colored this brightly, you too would take evasive measures to avoid being eaten.

These were six-spotted tiger beetles, Cicindela sexguttata.
Tiger beetles earn their name from their speed as they run and pounce on prey.  All tiger beetles are capable of running fast in short spurts due to their disproportionately long legs.  Even their larvae attack ants and other arthropods with lightning speed.  Like the wolf in Goldilocks, they have large eyes and jaws, "the better to eat you with," especially if you happen to be a small arthropod. 

"My what big teeth you have" - normalbiology

Their large white mandibles give these beautiful insects a ferocious appearance.  Predominately daytime hunters, they can even capture their prey in flight.  Wikipedia reassures me that "Although they are strong enough to subdue their prey, they do not bite humans unless handled."  Good news, they don't hunt humans!

The large eyes are a valuable asset if you are a predator, focusing on your prey.  A tiger beetle is fast but has to run in spurts and stopping frequently as it runs faster than speed of (its) sight!  Research by Cornell professor Cole Gilbert describes it this way.

"The answer is that the insect's ability to see shuts down after it accelerates toward prey.  If the tiger beetles move too quickly, they don't gather enough photons (illumination into the beetle's eyes) to form an image of their prey," explained Cole Gilbert, Cornell professor of entomology. "Now, it doesn't mean they are not receptive. It just means that at their speed during the chase, they're not getting enough photons reflected from the prey to make an image and locate the prey. That is why they have to stop, look around and go. Although it is temporary, they go blind."

So just how fast are tiger beetles?  It varies between the 100+ species world wide but all are speedy.  His research shows that comparing his tiger beetles with Olympic superstar Michael Johnson on the basis of their length, the beetle is 10 times faster.

Tiger beetles live independently except for mating.  Like some other beetles, the male stays mounted on the female for a while to discourage other potential mates.  Different tiger beetle species have very specific requirements for the soil the female tunnels into.  The larva seen here have a different hunting technique.

"The females lay eggs in sandy patches, and the larvae burrow into the ground when they hatch. Here they lie in wait until small arthropods walk by, where then the larvae pounce much like jack in the boxes. The beetles stay in larvae form for about one year before pupating. The beetle has a total lifespan of just under 5 years." Wikipedia

Tiger beetles have wings, seen above on this specimen which in technical terms is referred to as "squished."  When threatened by a predator they can fly 20 to 30 feet away, then turn to face their predator, making them hard to capture even with a net.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker - Ben Caruthers

Guest blogger Ben Caruthers, MN

We live on 10 acres and we have a lot of trees, predominately post oak . In our front yard, closest to our living room windows is the only maple tree on the property. When we first moved here in 2012 we noticed the lines of neatly drilled holes all over the tree. Every winter for the past three years we have watched a female Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (YBSS)  feeding from holes in the tree. She can usually only be seen on days when it is warm enough for the sap to flow from the tree. 

On very warm days we have also observed her hunting for insects which are attracted to sap from the holes, a protein course to the otherwise carbohydrate diet. YBSS may also feed on sap from other tree species with high sugar concentration in their sap including hickory trees. We also have several hickory trees on the property, but I have never seen her feeding from them.

Carolina Chickadee at work - Ben Caruthers
Purple Finch -Ben Caruthers

One interesting thing I noticed in late December is that there were several other birds feeding on the sap flowing from the holes that the sapsucker created in the maple tree. We have seen Purple Finches, Tufted Tifmouse, Carolina Chickadee and Downy Woodpecker drinking the sweet treat. Everyone knows that hummingbirds like to drink nectar, and some bird guides note that they feed after sapsuckers.  

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are the only eastern woodpecker in North America that are truly migratory. Southern Missouri is at the northern part of the YBBS range so it is unlikely we will ever see a Ruby-throated hummingbird feeding after a sapsucker in our front yard. They winter in places like Abaco, Bahamas where they feast on palms, the bird version of a margarita on the beach.

YBSS in action- BC

She is a beautiful bird with a funny sounding name* and unusual avian feeding habits and we are grateful that she chooses to spend part of her winter in our front yard. As long as the sap is flowing freely, so does her waste disposal system. I spent a weird amount of time trying to time photos to catch her mid-movement. (Editor's note: It takes 43 gallons of sap to make a gallon of maple syrup so you can imagine how much the YBSS puts out to get its sugar load.  Birds don't make urine but put out uric acid which makes their poop a pasty white.)

These are a few of my favorite sources: 

All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker | Audubon Field Guide


Gertrude Turner

*Editors note: In the 1950's cartoons, "Yellow-bellied Sapsucker" was what Yosemite Sam called Bugs Bunny. It was years later that we of that generation discovered it was an actual bird. In the previous century some groups advocated shooting them to prevent damage to trees! The migratory Bird Act now protects them.

The good news is they eat insects coming to the sap and  I frequently see their damage on the invading red cedars. The bad news is they can occasionally kill a tree by successive girdling holes.  Not a problem in a large mixed forest and I have seen this only once in several hundred acres on a 4" diameter maple.

Monday, February 1, 2021

The Fungus and the Wasps

Mark Bower explains a complicated arrangement of reproduction between a fungus and two sets of wasps, a ménage à trois of lower orders.


Cerrena unicolor - Mark Bower

A Three Way Relationship….It’s Complicated!

At first glance, these mushrooms look like any number of boring “bracket” fungi one
encounters while hiking in the Ozarks. However, this particular species offers a bit more interest than is usual. The green cap contrasting with the white cap margin is unusual, and surprisingly, the under surface of the cap does not have the expected round pores, but displays a “maze-like” pattern. 

Maze pattern under Cerrena unicolor  -Mark Bower

It didn’t take long to identify this moss-covered, maze-pored polypore as the Mossy Maze Polypore, Cerrena unicolor. Thrilled already with this discovery, I became excited beyond all reason after reading about its ecological relationships. This fungus produces copious amounts of sexual (diploid) spores on its maze-like pores.

These spores are dispersed into the environment, and if by chance they land on a suitable substrate (in this case, dead hardwood) they can germinate. After germination, the fungal hyphae infiltrate the dead wood and break it down with cellulase and lignase enzymes. When the substrate’s nutritional content is exhausted, or whenever the fungus darn well pleases, it develops its fruiting bodies and the cycle begins anew.

So far, it all seems normal. The dispersal of sexual spores into the ecosystem by a fungus is a common occurrence. It turns out, however, that asexual reproduction is far more common in the Fungal Kingdom. Asexual (haploid) spores are produced by the fungal mycelium.  This is where a couple of wasps enter the picture. 

Tremex columba female - Bill Shehan CC

A female Horntail Wasp (usually Tremex columba in the Ozarks) stores the asexual spores and tips of mycelia of Cerrena unicolor in an abdominal gland called a mycangium, which is connected to its ovipositor. The wasp locates a hardwood tree which is sick or dying, and bores hundreds of holes through the bark into the sapwood with her ovipositor. As she is depositing her eggs into the newly drilled holes, the fungal spores and mycelial tips are injected as well. The eggs wait about a month to hatch, allowing the fungus to infiltrate the wood, digesting it in the process. After hatching, the wasp larvae tunnel through the wood, feeding mainly on the fungal mycelium. This can go on for as long as one or two years before formation of the pupae. The adult wasps will emerge from the pupal stage July through August, chewing their way to the surface, and carrying their fungal baggage.

This two way relationship between the fungus and the Horntail Wasp benefits both parties.  The fungus gets to be efficiently transported from tree to tree; the wasp larva has an excellent source of nutrition, thanks to the fungus.

M. macurus - MJ Hatfield - CC
Michael Battenberg CC

But wait! There is more to this fascinating story! The clever fungus actually secretes pheromones from beneath the bark of its host. This attracts an incredible parasitoid wasp, the Giant Ichneumonid Wasp, Megarhyssa macrurus (or M. atrata). This wasp has as its single host, the larvae of the Horntail Wasp. Its gigantic ovipositor (seen to the right) drills into the Horntail larval tunnels. It then stings and paralyzes a larva, which allows the parasitoid wasp to deposit an egg into it. The egg hatches and feeds on the host larva, devouring it in a few weeks. It then pupates and emerges as an adult the following spring. 

From all appearances, the fungus is in charge of this three part relationship. It uses the Horntail Wasp to spread it from tree to tree, and it uses the Giant Ichneumonid Wasp to control the population of Horntail Wasp larvae which are feeding on the fungus, a case of inter species birth control.


Mark has identified 436 species of fungi on our land on Bull Creek.  I can't even identify 436 different people.  He will be back on the blog soon.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

January Hairstreak

On January 23rd I was warming up by a roaring fire in the living room after working outside in the 30 degree weather.  A gray hairstreak butterfly landed on my MacBook Pro computer right beside the logo.  It took a minute to get my camera out of my pocket and it flew off just as I was focused on it.  To my greater surprise it returned a minute later landing on the chair arm right by my hand and waited patiently for the camera.

They spend winter as a pupa and I suspect it was in the house with the many treasures we drag in for the 5th grade WOLF Classes to examine.  An example of one of these has been lichen covering branches like this which would easily hide a small pupa.  It  must have been in the house somewhere and responded to the warmth with confusion.  

The gray hairstreak (Strymon melinus) is less than 1/3rd the size of a monarch butterfly.  It is found through all of the continental US and laps over the Canadian and Mexican borders into Central and South America.  It lives in a broad range of habitats from mountainous terrain, woodlands and meadows to tropical forests.

As you might expect from its wide range, BAMONA describes a broad range of nectar sources for the adult and an equally broad variety of caterpillar host plants.  Eggs are laid singly on flowers of the host plant. Young caterpillars feed on flowers and fruits; older ones may eat leaves. According to Wikipedia:

"The gray hairstreak also has the signature set of "tails" on their hind-wings that they may wriggle around to imitate their antennae and their head when a predator is present so that if the predator would strike at them, they would strike at their hind-wings rather than their head and they would be able to make an escape."

Hairy Cat - Bob Barber -CC
With ant - Michael H. Schmidt

The caterpillars are cute little hairy critters.  According to Bugguide they are sometimes found with ants which collect a a sugary solution from the caterpillar's dorsal nectary organ, similar to aphids.

That is a lot on a little January butterfly but since it won't survive the winter and have a chance to breed, I thought it was the least I could do in its memory.  

(Note to self:  Must get out more, too much news and COVID reports)

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Compassion for "Rats with Wings"

Today's guest blogger is Tonya Smith
Click to enlarge

The Roaring River fish hatchery reopened in December 2020 after being closed for renovations over a two year period. This meant the public once again could view the Roaring River Spring. At the time of my visit to the Spring in January I heard more than just water running down the rock face into the strikingly beautiful blue pool of water at the mouth of the cave. Listen for yourself (insert video) and observe. Do you hear the “cooing”? Did you see the pigeon? I was initially charmed by the combination of these two sounds. 


I observed a handful of pigeons on the rock face above the Spring. Then my thoughts started turning ugly. I don’t recall seeing pigeons in the wild on hiking trails in Missouri. Have the pigeons always been here or are they a recent new resident? How will it affect the Spring and the trout if the population of pigeons starts exploding with the many rock ledges available at the park? We know about the challenges urban cities have with pigeons.  The relationship with pigeons depends on who you talk to.

In an Audubon article, The Origins of Our Misguided Hatred for Pigeons, Matt Soniak addresses the pesty pigeon mentality which is thought provoking. 

“The pigeon-as-pest, sociologist Colin Jerolmack thinks, is a symptom of people’s idea that the environments we build are separate from natural ones. In what sociologists call our “imaginative geography” of cities, there’s a border that separates clean, orderly civilization and wild, uncontrolled nature. “That doesn’t mean there’s no nature, but ideally, the city is the place where we invite nature in in ways that we control,” Jerolmack says.  "“We cut out little squares in the concrete, and that’s where the trees belong. We don’t like it when grass and weeds begin to grow through cracks in the sidewalks, because that’s nature breaking out of those boundaries that we want to keep it in.”  

Pigeons invaded and polluted human space and became an epidemiological threat despite actually being poor vectors of disease. Pigeons became a health menace in people’s mind which was exacerbated when the New York City parks commissioner labelled them as “rats with wings”. “With that, Jerolmack says, pigeons were explicitly linked to disorder and disease, and our perceptions of them as nuisances, “dirty” animals, and health threats were all emphasized and threaded together in a neat little package.” 

The pigeons I encountered at the Roaring River Spring were in a naturalized habitat and their population will surely remain in check with the predators that also make Roaring River their home and hunting ground. I extend my apologies to the resident pigeons who have found their home at Roaring River State Park.


Pigeons have a very interesting history. There is not enough space in a blog to cover all this. I was fully aware of the value in homing pigeons and their importance in WWI and WWII as carrier pigeons. But I was surprised to learn that pigeon racing is a sport/hobby. The American Racing Pigeon Union, Inc on their website asks, “Do you fit the profile?” Then it proceeds with, “We find that this hobby has a great appeal to those who enjoy working with animals, to those who appreciate athleticism, to those who like friendly, wholesome competition. If you find yourself in one or more of these careful, you may discover that the allure of these amazingly athletic birds is overpowering.”

The mention of pigeon racing brings to mind the ethics of this sport. PETA answered this question for me. 

“In April 2012, PETA released a 15-month undercover investigation—spanning five states—into some of the largest pigeon-racing operations in the U.S. PETA documented massive casualties of birds during races and training, discovered rampant killing of unwanted birds and abusive training and racing methods and exposed a multimillion-dollar illegal gambling industry.” The investigation resulted in three race organizers, including the executive director of the American Racing Pigeon Union, being charged with violations of Oklahoma’s felony gambling laws. Fortunately, the pigeons at RR are enjoying their freedom on their own time schedule.
Pigeons currently aren't a pest where I observed them at Roaring River, but our very own Missouri Extension identifies pigeons as the most serious bird pest associated with human habitations. It offers an extensive list of damage prevention and control methods. 
“The common pigeon (Columba livia) that thrives throughout Missouri and most other states was developed from the European rock dove and introduced into this country as a domesticated bird. When these birds escaped captivity, they formed feral populations. Today, the pigeon is probably the most serious bird pest associated with human habitations.” 

Pigeons are a problem in the urban areas, but for me to assume that problem could apply to Roaring River was an uneducated thought process.

Hang in there, she has a couple more stories!

Compassionate citizens have come together for the urban pigeons. Chava Sonnier, a certified nurse in the Chicago area, spent 2 years as a volunteer for the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors, an organization of over 200 volunteers working to protect, rescue and rehabilitate injured city birds. Her story is about saving a disabled pigeon (named Jonah after his rescue) living on the streets. He was rescued by a police officer and she nursed back to health. But since Jonah’s condition was not improved enough for return to city life, she adopted him as a pet pigeon. 

Feral pigeons born in the wild have the instincts needed to feed and protect themselves from predators, but pigeons raised domestically (often wearing an ankle band) don’t stand a chance if they find themselves dumped or lost in the city. As a result of the repeated dumping of domestic pigeons in the city, the sub-organization, The Chicago Pigeon Pets Rescue, was established on Sept. 6, 2018 to combat this problem. 

“Still a fledgling organization, the members share responsibilities, which include responding to calls involving pigeons made into the 24/7 monitor hotline, retrieving and transporting pigeons, fundraising to pay for pigeon’s vet visits, fostering the pigeons in Chicago suburbs (a livestock ordinance prevents Chicago residents from owning pigeons within city limits), and adopting out rescued domesticated and non-releasable feral pigeons. Once fostered to full health the birds become available for adoption. That process includes an application and a $40 adoption fee.”
Lastly, we owe thanks to the urban pigeon as it appears they were instrumental in the successful nesting of 14 peregrine breeding pairs in Missouri’s two major cities. According to an MDC article, “All of our 14 peregrine breeding pairs in Missouri use artificial nest boxes in our urban areas around Kansas City or St. Louis,” explained MDC State Ornithologist Sarah Kendrick. “They seem to prefer the nest boxes over natural nesting sites in the state on rocky cliffs and bluffs on the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. This may be due to an abundance of food in the form of urban pigeons.”

And to think this blog all started with the captivating sounds at the Roaring River Spring.  Kelly Koch, the Interpretive Resource Specialist, deserves recognition for her leading me to the online article, "The Origins of Our Misguided Hatred for Pigeons." She reminded me that trout are not native and that conversation led us down another rabbit hole … uh oh.

Thanks for hanging in there! Below are several more links if you are interested in learning more about pigeons. It truly was a fascinating study for me. 


Editor's note-  This from a reader:

"My daughter Susan had a baby pigeon that husband Duanne brought home to live with them. This bird immediately became integrated into the family and whenever Duanne raised his voice in irritation, the pigeon would fly over and land on his shoulder and flap his wing against Duanne's mouth. He became so involved in what was going on in the family that Susan was very worried about him when they opened an outdoor large cage with a variety of birds. But the pigeon quickly adapted and assumed a similar role in his new environment. "

How did the pigeon get to New York City

MDC - Rock Dove  

Cunning Neanderthals hunted and ate wild pigeons  

Pigeon Control Resource Center  

Feral pigeon in Wikipedia  
Rock Dove in Wikipedia.