Saturday, December 22, 2012

Monarchs of Winter

I have been reading Winter World, by Bernd Heinrich.  It is a broad discussion, both scientific and poetic, of the ways creatures survive winter.  He covers not just hibernation and migration, but explores torpor, supercooling and animals' use of endogenous antifreeze.  It is a complex subject made clear and entertaining.

Monarch Watch
Typical of the new ideas he introduced me to was the nature of the migration of monarch butterflies.  Their wondrous sojourn for thousands of miles to a patch of mountain forest in Mexico is familiar to most of us.  How their great-grandparents, who left the area the previous spring transmit the location to them three generations later remains a mystery.  (Hint: it isn't Apple Maps or even Google.)

I had always assumed that they headed south to seek warmth, but this is only partially true.   Heinrich explains that migration, like hibernation, is more a matter of preserving energy while food resources aren't available.  They mass on the Mexican trees, hanging out for three months without eating, burning their fat much like a hibernating mammal.  Their stored energy as fat must last until food is again available.

Here is where temperature comes in.  They actually require cool temperatures rather than warmth. The area where most of our monarch population overwinters is above 10,000 feet where the temperature is close to but above freezing.  As described by Monarch Watch, they cluster together in a very specific ecosystem, on specific tree species on steep southwest-facing slopes.  In warm spells they may fly off to get a drink but otherwise they rest, conserving their precious energy.

Clustered Monarchs- Wikimedia
Temperature is critical, for reasons similar to the cooling we use in some heart surgery. Cool tissue uses less energy.  At 15 degrees centigrade (59 Fahrenheit) their energy stores will last 3 months, at 30 degrees centigrade, less than 10 days!  Activity such as flight further depletes their stores.

Knowledge of the details of migration is relatively recent.  Their lifecycle was proven by chemical analysis of their cardenolides, the toxic substance the larvae acquire from feeding on milkweed.  There are differences in the "chemical fingerprint" of the cardenolides.  Studies showed that the chemical found in wintering butterflies and those first heading north from Mexico was distinctive, produced only in milkweed plants from the Northern US and Canada.  Their wintering grounds weren't even discovered until 1975. 

Their spring migration northward is timed to the growth of milkweed food plants which their larvae require to develop.  Within a short time the eggs hatch, the caterpillars go through their instars and enclose (form a chrysalis).  When the adult emerges, it heads north to the next range of emerging milkweed, a procession not unlike the giant combines that follow the wheat harvest in the summer.

Come to think of it, we aren't so different as we adjust our thermostats and throw another log on the fire, seeking not warmth, but the perfect temperature to conserve our energy for the start of spring.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Beetle Wood

Insects and fungi not only damage trees and break up downed wood, they also can provide decorative touches.  One of my favorites is the cyprus bark beetle which lays its eggs in some of our misnamed eastern red cedar which are actually junipers (Juniperus virginiana).  The larval grubs which hatch then burrow under the stringy bark, creating interesting tunnels filled with powdery frass (insect poop).  After brushing out the frass, you are left with a decorated branch, a ready made walking stick.

At other times, pealing away the cedar bark reveals a colorful staining, possibly left by a fungus.  In this case, it didn't tunnel or break the surface of the wood, leaving only its colorful pattern.

A similar phenomenon is produced by the blue stain fungus, Grosmannia clavigera, which is introduced into pine trees in the west by the mountain pine beetles.  This has turned into a major ecological disaster, wiping out massive forests of pine and leaving dead trees and the fire risk they create.
This fungus has created a new product which has become the hot new "must-have" for wealthy home owners.  The Wall Street Journal reports that the marbled blue-gray wood is now highly sought after for cabinets and paneling.  Now that huge areas are being deforested, removing the wood is not only beneficial to prevent fire, it is a growth industry in wood products.

The whole story of the interaction of the mountain pine beetle, Dendroctonus ponderosae, and the blue stain fungus, Grosmannia clavigera, is both complicated and much more interesting than just the blue wood it produces.  The fungus is integral to the beetle's success, so much so that the beetle carries it along between trees.

The fungus has developed a symbiotic relationship with the beetle.  It is transported in a specialized structure in the beetle's head.  Once the beetle bores into the wood, the fungus spores germinate and produce mycelium which fill the phloem and sap wood, the tree's vascular system, plugging it similar to blood clots in our vessels.  This not only starves the tree by blocking the flow of nutrients but it also blocks the production of resin which would otherwise inhibit the beetle larvae.

Recent studies have "identified genes in Grosmannia clavigera that are responsible for the fungus's ability to bypass the lodgepole pine's natural fungicide -- and use it as a carbon source for fungal growth."  This co-evolution is an interesting mechanism which has led to disastrous consequences in our western pine forests.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Hairy Vines

This is the time of year when the beautiful red leaves of the poison ivy and Virginia creeper have fallen off, leaving the hairy vines alone as they climb the trees.  Ordinarily I depend on the clusters of three leaves to identify poison ivy.  Virginia creeper generally has five leaves which serve as hosts to several sphinx moths and small blue fruits for songbirds to enjoy so we don't want to disturb them.

Poison ivy berries are also a healthy source of bird nutrition.  At least one source recommends that when controlling or eliminating it that you leave a few for the birds.  While a very wildlife friendly suggestion, remember that birds that eat the seeds also serve to deliver them all around.  On our land poison ivy isn't threatened with extinction unless Barb finds it.

Virginia Creeper- Jim Mason*
Poison Ivy- Jim Mason*

Now that firewood cutting is in season, differentiating the vines becomes crucial.  Many of the dead or fallen trees are festooned with grape vines or Virginia creeper with poison ivy intertwined, trying to look innocent.  Large poison ivy vines may not even have visible leaves at ground level, while sprouting large clusters of tree like leaves high up.  Separating the ivy from the creeper is critical to maintaining a healthy, itch-free complexion.

The "hairs" of the two vines may look similar but they are quite different.  Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) has thin aerial roots which attach to the tree by penetrating the dead outer layer of bark.  These are adventitious roots which in some other species are capable of extracting water and nutrition without being in the soil.  Poison ivy aerial roots simply cling harmlessly to the tree and do not function as extractors.  Although they seem to invite touching, don't, as they contain urushiol, the same toxic oil as the leaves and sap, all of which cause the same itching and blistering reaction.

The "hairs" on Virginia Creeper are actually tendrils.  The story of tendrils is the subject of another future blog.  They are modified leaves, petioles or stems adapted to climbing by wrapping around upright host plants. provides these details.
"Like the wild grapes to which it is related, Virginia Creeper produces stem tendrils, but their branched tips form into flat disks that produce a sticky substance. Once the mucilage dries and anchors the disk, the tendril coils contract and pulls the vine closer to its support (below right). This grasping mechanism is so powerful that Virginia Creeper can adhere to tree trunks, cliff faces, brick chimneys, and even plate glass windows. It's no wonder that Virginia Creeper often grows just as tall as the tree that supports it, and that it thrives in hardwood forests where trees are allowed to mature."
Now look again at the pictures above.  The fine hairy aerial roots of poison ivy are somewhat distinctive.  That said, it is best to avoid handling any hairy vine if you can't see the leaves, unless you are "itching" for trouble.

*Jim Mason, Naturalist at the Great Plains Nature Center in Wichita, Kansas.  More of his pictures and information are at

Another site with pictures of look-alikes is at

Monday, December 10, 2012

Liberalized Deer Hunting

Wikimedia Commons
Alan Keller sent me a link to an interesting story on Slate, Hipsters Who Hunt.  In it, Emma Morris describes the gradual conversion of "lefties," a term used respectfully, to hunting deer, duck and other wildlife and then eating same.  Happily there is a growing interest in "nature" and preserving our environment.  We have watched as more urban gardens and chicken houses crop up around our cities.  In some cases we even feed deer some of the produce we intended for ourselves.

When Master Naturalists start orientation, there are always some who are wary of hunting and trapping wild animals.  Understanding that our ecosystem requires management isn't the first thing you think about in conservation.  It can take some time to understand that the food web is part of our natural world.

What could be more "natural" in this world than deer hunting?  Our forefathers depended on wild game, dating back to when we were running around on the savana.  The evolution from clubs to spears, atlatl, bow and arrow, and eventually guns came from the need to put food on the table, even as they morphed into protecting our food sources from other fellow bipeds.

We know by now that for many of the species crowding into our urban spaces, we are the main predator and we frequently aren't doing a very good job of it.  Several years ago in Joplin, half the deer died of hemorrhagic disease in a season, the effect of crowding, lack of habitat and overpopulation.  Judicious hunting within the regulations spawned by population management would provide food on the table as well as healthier deer populations.

Eating corn fed beef (disclaimer- I do too) isn't any better for the environment- remember all that methane coming out of the other end of your friendly filet producer.  Also there is a lot of petroleum that goes into producing the corn they consume.  There isn't enough deer or grass fed beef to feed all of us but at least venison deserves a place at the table.
You will know when the trend matures in the Ozarks when you see a hunter like this one pedaling down Glenstone.  Meanwhile, read up on the growing interest in "Green Hunting" at Hipsters Who Hunt.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Versatile Pitcher Plants

Pitcher Plants- Wikimedia
Pitcher plants are pretty incredible.  They are carniverous just like venus flytraps and Audry in Little Shop of Horrors.  Their long tubular leaves shaped like a test tube and produce an enticing liquid nectar at the bottom of the cup.  There is a curved lid-like structure  covering the tube to prevent rain from diluting the nectar.  Insects are drawn to the slippery rim and fall in, only to drown and then be digested by bacteria in the plant's juices or by mutualistic insect larvae living there.

That was the story when I was in school, enough to excite a young boy to having fantasies of dropping ants in and hearing their tiny screams.  Now several new findings- stranger than fiction- show just how versatile these plants can be.

A report in Natural History Magazine describes a species named Nepenthes gracilis which has an important modification.  The underside of the lid is coated with particles that allow an insect to crawl on it.  When rain hits the lid, it loses its grip and takes the fatal plunge.

Even more incredible is a report from of a species of giant mountain pitcher plants (Nepenthes rajah) of Borneo.  In a territory notably devoid of restroom facilities, it has filled a niche by becoming a toilet for shrews and rats.  

The underside of its curved lid produces an enticing nectar which the tree shrews (Tupaia montana) and summit rats (Rattus baluensis) lick up while standing over the open tubular leaf.  As mammals are wont to do, they occasionally defecate as they eat, their feces dropping to the bottom of the pitcher plant.  

Researchers set up cameras on selected pitcher plants and recorded the mammals' toilet activities.  They also collected droppings for 61 days.  (What the researchers told their children that they did for a living isn't recorded.)

The plants received their fecal snack on an average of every 3.4 days.  The nitrogen-rich feces provides the plant the nutrition it requires because of the otherwise nutrient-poor, acidic soils .  
"To learn how the pitchers attract rats and shrews, the researchers analyzed the milky substance secreted by pitcher lids. The team found more than 40 aromatic chemicals, including some commonly found in fruit—the mammals’ usual fare."
Apparently the mammals are conned into licking the chemicals without getting nutritional value.  But hey, where else can you find a clean restroom in the jungle?

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Wilderness Comes to Town

A new book by Jim Sterba called Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds has received a lot of attention recently.  It focuses on the wildlife invasion into urban areas like we are facing in Springfield with deer.  There are even an estimated 2,000 coyote in Chicago alone.  While we are justifiably concerned with the accidental shooting deaths of 100 deer hunters a year, he points out that 250 people each year are killed in deer-vehicle accidents with another 30,000 injured.

Sterba's article opened my eyes to an unappreciated expansion of forests.  We usually think of woodlands being threatened by urban sprawl and housing developments.  Indeed, these trends are causing a lot of habitat fragmentation around our local counties.  On the other hand, it turns out that there has been dramatic reforestation occurring since the original agricultural clearing of land by early European settlers.  As Sterba writes in his Wall Street Journal article America Gone Wild,
"Today, the eastern third of the country has the largest forest in the contiguous U.S., as well as two-thirds of its people. Since the 19th century, forests have grown back to cover 60% of the land within this area. In New England, an astonishing 86.7% of the land that was forested in 1630 had been reforested by 2007, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Not since the collapse of Mayan civilization 1,200 years ago has reforestation on this scale happened in the Americas, says David Foster, director of the Harvard Forest, an ecology research unit of Harvard University. In 2007, forests covered 63.2% of Massachusetts and 58% of Connecticut, the third and fourth most densely populated states in the country, not counting forested suburban and exurban sprawl (though a lot of sprawl has enough trees to be called a real forest if people and their infrastructure weren't there)."
We certainly have experienced this in the Ozarks.  Following the timber harvests in the late 1800s and the suppression of natural and set fires, the previous balds and sparsely treed savannas described by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft have become covered with the dense woodlands and cedar forests we see today.

Click to enlarge
In Missouri we tend to think of the forests as the Mark Twain National Forest, but in fact of the 14,000 million acres of our forested land, 85% is privately owned.  This is true across the country as seen on this forest ownership map from the Private Land Owner Network.

Much of the early short leaf pine forest is now replaced with deciduous forest and our challenge now is maintaining quality growth.  A truly mature forest takes 150 years to develop on its own so it takes time and money to speed the process up by timber stand improvement and other management techniques.

We will be coming back to visit some of Sterba's ideas later, but meanwhile, I would recommend reading his America Gone Wild article which is available here.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Resident Canada Geese

Geese at Close Park
Ever wonder how we got so many Canada geese that don't seem to know where Canada is located?  You know, the ones you see on local ponds like Lake Drummond at Close Memorial Park.  The ones that poop all over the sidewalk and chase you if they think you might have bread for them.

I was told years ago in Rochester, Minnesota that wounded or deliberately injured geese were used as living decoys in the early 1900s and lost the ability to migrate.  It appears that this story is only partially true.

The giant Canada goose subspecies, Branta canadensis maxima, was a common species in the Upper Midwest before settlers arrived.  Wetlands were drained extensively to develop rich crop land.  Illinois has lost 90% of its wetlands including the 60 mile area around Chicago which is now rolling farmland.  There was also unlimited hunting of these large birds.

One could say they were "sitting geese" In addition to being big and juicy targets, they do not migrate and tend to adopt a body of water as home.  Because of this they could be depended upon to return to the scene of a hunting crime against their relatives, a hunter's dream.  As wetlands disappeared, they ran out of habitat.  By the 1950s they were thought to be extinct.

Dr. Harold Hanson of the Illinois Natural History Survey identified the geese that wintered on Silver Lake in Rochester, Minnesota in 1962 as giant Canada geese.  With controlled hunting regulations, additional man-made habitat and migratory bird regulations protecting their nests and territory, they have flourished.  This is a heart warming conservation success story unless they are filling your favorite pond.  
"Since its rediscovery, the giant Canada goose has recovered more quickly than any other subspecies and now makes up the bulk of our resident goose populations. There are estimated to be as many as 1 million giant Canada geese in the Mississippi flyway, as many as all other Canada geese subspecies in the flyway combined."  Illinois EPA
How did this happen?  In addition to the protection of hunting regulations, we made them our tame pets.  They are herbivores and can survive on a wide range of corn, grain and grasses, but who hasn't seen a family with a loaf of bread feeding the geese down by the lake as the flock gathers around to enjoy an urban treat.  Our ponds are safe havens with few of the usual predators such as coyotes.  Their eggs are even safe from all but the most aggressive predators and migratory waterfowl laws protect their nests from human disturbance.  They can be aggressive when they feel threatened, intimidating even the neighborhood dogs.  In short, they have it real good.
"Canada goose "paradise" would include acres of short tender grass, a freshwater pond for drinking water and security, and no predators. It would look much like a public park, corporate office campus, golf course, cemetery, or waterfront yard. However, while other Canada goose subspecies are wary of humans, giant Canada geese are predisposed to ignore people. The biologist who rediscovered the giant Canadians noted that the "placid disposition of the giant Canada goose sets it apart from all others."   Illinois EPA
Back to the living decoy story, there is some truth to that.  Eastern states such as New York and Massachusetts imported giant Canadian geese for hunting.
"The second is the resident population: descendants of captive geese used by waterfowl hunters. When live decoys were outlawed in the 1930s, many captive birds were liberated. With no pattern of migration, these geese began nesting. Lawns at houses, golf courses and mowed parks, well-watered, fertilized and bordering water, provided an excellent source of food. In suburban areas, there were few predators. The habitat for grazers was perfect."
This is summarized by the words of Jim Sterba in writing in the Wall Street Journal:
"Commercial and sport hunters long kept live birds (in addition to wooden facsimiles) as decoys to lure migrating waterfowl.  The use of these live flocks wasn't outlawed until 1935.  They hadn't migrated in generations.  The outlaw birds were used to stock newly created refuges in the hope that they would join migrating flocks and help them to grow.  But they stayed put.  Their descendants include the four million or so resident Canada geese that now occupy golf courses, parks, athletic fields, corporate lawns and airline flight paths."   America Gone Wild

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Thanksgiving Feast

In the November issue of Missouri Conservationist, ombudsman Tim Smith answered a question about why you don't see a lot of dead deer in the field.  "During warmer seasons, deer carcasses will “melt” into the ground quickly and can easily go unnoticed."  With "a little help from my friends" this is literally true.

Having watch a large dead doe's carcass virtually disappear over 4 days this summer, I was surprised how fast this occurs.  This last week we staked out a large frozen turkey that had defrosted earlier in a power failure, set up the game camera and a few days later watched the recorded action.

The banquet
King of the Mountain
Although there wasn't a vulture in sight, within 3 minutes the first turkey vulture arrived.  It must have been watching me turn on the camera.  There were 10 vultures within 5 minutes, recruited by the sight of their friends landing.  They took turns standing on the firm carcass.

Good reason for a bald head

They took turns feasting for the next 31 minutes, then suddenly flew off, leaving the field of vision clear for less than a minute.  Then the red-tailed hawk arrived and scoped out the field. 

"Yeah, just try it Buster"
Over several minutes several vultures returned, staying back a respectful distance.  The hawk remained in sole possession of the carcass for the next 30 minutes, occasionally glaring at the vultures.  After the hawk left, the vultures attacked the carcass for 10 minutes until the hawk returned. 

The hawk stayed this time for 18 minutes (dessert?) before leaving it to the vultures.  They shared the carcass for another hour before it turned dark and they called it a day.

The next three days there were occasional visits by a few vultures for several minutes at a time and an inspection by a neighbor's dog, checking out the bones which were picked clean.  On the fifth day, a red-tailed hawk made a final inspection of the carcass, looking at it nostalgically.  When I returned, I had trouble finding the remaining bones.

Click here to see the complete set of 16 full sized pictures.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Grizzly Bear in Missouri?

Grizzly Bear- Wikimedia
So what was the Ozark's top or apex predator before wolves?  How about the grizzly bear, Ursus arctos horribilis.   The presence of grizzlies in Missouri was a little hard to swallow (sorry)  when Steve Craig first presented the idea to me, but he made a solid case for their presence on the western edge as described below.

The current range of grizzlies is shown on the dark green portion of the map.  Recalling that the glaciers were retreating around 12,000 years ago and the climate, flora and fauna in the Ozarks was far different, probably more like their current range of Montana and Canada.  The grizzly faced adaptation to "climate change" just as we do now.

Grizzly range- then and now- Wikimedia
Within historical times there are records of grizzly bears on the Great Plains.   The following comes from the Mammals of Kansas:
"The grizzly bear was probably extirpated in Kansas by the middle 1800's. Its original abundance in Kansas is unknown, but it was reported to have been common, and to have depended heavily on the great herds of bison for food."
I have been unable to find any mention of grizzly bears in Missouri historical documents.  They certainly occurred on the Great Plains which extend into the far western edge of Missouri.   Whether they ever prowled the deep river valleys of the Ozarks is open to conjecture.

And what did the grizzly eat?  Anything it wanted to- after all, who can refuse a 300-800 # omnivore.  Wolves coexist with grizzlies but while still the top dog, they arguably share the honors as the apex predator.  Wolves and grizzlies generally share their territory peacefully but on rare occasion one may kill the other.

The story of the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone Park is a great example of the influence of an apex predator on the diversity of an ecosystem.  The wolf's primary prey is the elk.  Wolves have reduced the elk, decreasing the browsing pressure on riparian plants.  This in turn has led to expanded populations of beaver, moose and other species.

Surprisingly, even the vulnerable grizzly population benefited from the wolf reintroduction.  Grizzlies frequently eat wolf kills, increasing their food supply before hibernation and in the critical period when they come out of hibernation with their hungry cubs.    Even black bears, coyotes, eagles and ravens will eat the remains of a wolf kill.

Grizzly bears therefore are a keystone species, shaping the whole ecosystem.  The salmon they harvest replenishes the soil, both as the uneaten salmon deposited on the ground and by recycling nutrients as feces.  More on this subject can be found in the Wikipedia article on keystone species.

So what is the top predator of the Ozarks?  It depends on when you ask the question.  Excluding humans it may be the coyote.  But as Wiley Coyote repeatedly learned from the Road Runner in the cartoons, he better watch out.

On the lighter side, you can see what a grizzly can do to a Toyota SUV at

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Top Predator Part III

Mountain Lion - MDC
Springfield News Leader reported that a mountain lion was sighted on a game camera around Branson.  This report adds one more to a slowly growing list that suggests that a few may be moving back to Missouri or else there are more of us out looking at nature and rigging up game cameras.

The range of the mountain lion was originally as wide as its aliases (cougar, panther, puma, catamount), extending from Alaska through South America.  As civilization (more or less) expanded across the Midwest, bison were extirpated and other game decreased, their range contracted northward, centering around the Rockies. 

From 1870 through the turn of the century, Silas Turnbo collected and published over 800 stories which he recorded from the Southern Missouri Ozarks.  This collection included 151 stories which mentioned panther and another 24 about "catamount", an alternate name for mountain lion.  Dramatic descriptions of chasing mail carriers, threatening babies in their mother's arms and even running through the house.

With their "lone wolf" habits and far greater range it isn't surprising that we occasionally find a panther in Missouri.  Unlike wolves which generally live together and hunt in packs, these wanderers, usually young males, cover much more territory.

Panther prowling in Branson area- MDC
Since 1994 there have been 34 sightings, most of them captured by game cameras including the last sighting outside Branson last week.  A game camera caught this cat on the prowl.

Some of the mountain lion reports may come from escaped captive specimens.  According to the Missouri Department of Conservation's Mountain Lion Facts:
Sightings since 19
"About twenty Missourians have a permit to hold mountain lions in captivity, and an unknown number of people hold them illegally. Captive mountain lions are also common in neighboring states. These animals sometimes escape or are released intentionally, and it is likely they can survive in the wild on abundant deer and furbearer populations."

Given the loss of habitat due to urbanization, it is unlikely that the mountain lion will return to the top cat role of apex predator.  However when it walks through a coyote's territory it probably becomes the "apex predator of the day."

John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.
Missouri is not alone in unexpected cougar sightings.  There have been 178 confirmed sightings in Mid-America, extending from Texas to Southern Canada as reported by Michelle A. LaRue and colleagues.   Natural History Magazine

This story is from Carl Haworth a few weeks ago:
Click to enlarge.
Friends were deer hunting around Bradleyville during youth season and got two deer which they hung up on a tree.  The next morning they went down in time to see a mountain lion dragging the smaller one away.  They didn't argue with it and didn't have a camera.  The did however get a picture later of a paw print which they describes as being "as big as your hand with the fingers spread out wide".

Now the expert's opinion:  "The presence of claws and the arrangement of the toes definitely say “canine.”   -James Dixon, MDC   
The MDC has some good information comparing signs of cougar, bobcat and dogs at this site.  Look it up and compare the print for yourself. 
The history of Mountain Lions along the Arkansas-Missouri border is at this University of Arkansas paper.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Does Familiarity Breed Contempt?

Our friend Dave Catlin* wrote this article for Greene Magazine.  He graciously agreed to let me reprint it on the blog.

Goose poop average frequency- 7 minutes!  MDC
Some evening in the upcoming weeks, I know, I will be out in the yard after dark, and I will hear the distant honking of a flock of geese, high up, winging their way south on a brisk north wind.  I’ll experience a sudden chill, and not just from the wind. Geese carry a bit of wild magic for me.

It used to be that a lot of people felt that way. But that was before geese—Canada geese, anyway—became a part of our everyday urban existence. Now, people are more likely to think of them pooping on lawns and golf courses, and challenging dog-walkers at Close Memorial Park with a hissing defiance. It’s the irony of adaptability. The birds that figure out how to get along with humans lose some of their appeal for us.

In a few cases, I suppose we can blame it on the birds. There were those crows in New York City that learned how to fly into open windows of the older office buildings and steal lunches off desks. There was a mockingbird in Florida that could imitate the sound of an alarm clock, and started demonstrating its virtuosity every day about three o’clock in the morning. I can understand how folks might lose enthusiasm for such birds. But mostly, the bird species that have adapted to human presence are just birds being birds.

That is certainly true of the geese. Most of the Canada geese we encounter in urban areas in Missouri are descendants of a subspecies called the Giant Canada Goose. Unlike the other subspecies of Canada goose, most of which nest far up in their namesake country and only winter in the U.S., the Giant Canadas historically nested in Missouri, some of them on the dolomite bluffs along the Missouri River. They are programmed to hang around these parts. That habit almost led to their extermination, as Midwestern hunters enjoyed an unrestricted supply of goose dinners back in the days before closed seasons and bag limits.

Biologists came to the rescue in the nick of time, using a variety of techniques to bring them back. One of the techniques was to encourage them to nest in urban areas, where predators are few. It worked. Estimates are that more than 1.5 million Giant Canada geese now live in North America. And they don’t do anything differently than their wilder cousins: they eat grass and grains, they nest in the spring and protect their nests from threats, they poop.
Like in-laws, we liked them better when they only visited a few days a year. Now that they live with us, the magic is gone.
I can see wild turkeys working on a similar reputation. Only 10 or 15 years ago, it was exciting to see them almost anywhere in Greene County. Now, they seem to be everywhere. When I go to the Springfield Conservation Nature Center, I have to wait for the turkeys to get out of the way before I can park my car. Last month I almost hit a couple of them while I was bicycling down the South Creek Trail. The wild turkey, of course, is the poster child for successful wildlife restoration, so we should be delighted that the species is doing so well. But are we? Or is the wildlife less magical when it isn’t so wild?
Maybe so. But I for one am happy to have more geese close by, and more turkeys, and chimney swifts in the chimneys and purple martins in the martin houses. I’m pleased they have all learned to live with people, and I generally think it would be good if we can help more of their kin to do the same. Because when I hear the far-off geese at night in the fall, their honking fading toward the south, I know they’re saying, “You’ll miss us when we’re gone!”

* Dave Catlin is a familiar presence on the conservation scene in Springfield from his leadership at the Springfield Conservation Nature Center from 1987 to 1998.  He is currently Senior Director of Field Support for the National Audubon Society.

Greene Magazine covers local gardening and conservation issues.  It focuses on local water issues this month, and is  available on newstands, at or is free with a membership in

Friday, November 16, 2012

Top Predator Part II

Coyotes may now be the top or apex predator, but it wasn't always so.  Records suggest that coyotes moved back into the Ozarks around 1880.  They probably arrived to fill a vacuum being created by the extirpation of wolves and panthers around that time.

Wolves were common in the Ozarks prior to the arrival of European settlers after 1820.  Henry Rowe Schoolcraft's journal records killing a wolf on the banks of the Findley River on December 31, 1818.  While camped on Pierson Creek just a few miles east of Springfield off Sunshine, they killed two more on January 2nd and 3rd.   Holcomb's later History of Greene County states that "Wolves were plentiful and wolf hunts were common and often exciting".

Silas Turnbo recorded the stories of early settlers before the turn of the century, turning them into a valuable archive.  Of his more than 800 stories, 106 were about wolf encounters, hunts, etc.  These make fascinating reading, bring to life these early human-wolf encounters.  You can page through these online here, courtesy of the Springfield-Greene County Library.

Reading these stories, you can understand why early settlers were threatened by wolves.  A 2001 University of Arkansas paper describes the situation just across the border in Arkansas:
"Depredation of livestock and fear of personal attack fostered perceptions held by early settlers concerning the threatening nature of large predators. Many settlers suffered heavy losses when their cattle, hogs, and colts fell prey to wolves and panthers. Tales of human attacks became wide spread, and out of desperation people often barricaded the homes against these predators. Accounts by travel write during this time period also helped to reinforce these fears.  

Wolves and panthers became known as ruthless killers and as a result bounty laws were enacted which encouraged the mass removal of these animals. From 1816 to 1921 a series of legislative acts were formulated to encourage the killing of wolves and panthers, which ultimately played a significant role in their demise."

Along the Arkansas border during the 1940s, there were still reports of killing between 10 to 32 wolves at a time.  Meanwhile coyotes started expanding further into the state and hybridization with wolves was occurring.  Wolves may kill coyotes which generally make themselves scarce in wolf territory.  This is an example of the observation that two species generally cannot occupy the same niche.  The last Arkansas wolves were extirpated by the early 1970s.

Wolf +/- Coyote at 81#
A report of a wolf  now killed in Missouri is big news.  "A 104-pound wolf was killed by a landowner in 2010 in Carroll County, and another was shot in 2002 in Grundy County. Both had wandered from the northwest"  Now a new story from the Springfield News-Leader reports the killing of an 81 pound "coyote" has raised more questions.  This would be seven pounds over the national record for a coyote.  This may be a coyote-wolf hybrid or even an imported animal escaped from an exhibit.

It seems unlikely that wolves will return to Missouri as they have in Yellowstone in enough numbers to resume their role as apex predator.  But with a little hanky-panky in the gene pool, our coyotes may start getting bigger.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Top Predator- Part I

Matt Ridley recently wrote Welcome Back, Wolves.  Staying for Dinner? in the Wall Street Journal.  He discussed the relationship between top predators, called apex predators, with other predatory species.  Wolves and mountain lions filled this role until the last century and they are making a comeback in Yellowstone, Montana and Europe.

The results of their expanding numbers are particularly interesting.  When they arrive back in the neighborhood, there is a decline in mesopredators, the lower level carnivores such as coyotes, raccoons, skunks, foxes and in some cases domestic cats gone feral.  Cats, whether feral or your family pet are a major cause of songbird mortality, with an estimated 500 million deaths a year.

Apex predators such as wolves will devour the mesopredators as well as out compete them for resources.  While mountain lions are solitary and cover wide ranges, wolf packs are more effective because of their pack strategies.

This led me to ask the question, "What is the apex predator in the Ozarks?"  An obvious answer would be humans equipped with guns, fishing rods and motor vehicles.  I am arbitrarily limiting my apex predator candidates to non-bipeds, so I will nominate the coyote.

Coyotes are expanding nationwide and are increasingly urban.  There are reports of their presence in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and other cities as they have expanded their range across the nation.  They are extremely adaptable and are learning to live in civilization.  They have us to thank for their newfound prosperity in our neighborhoods.

People unwittingly helped coyotes flourish when they exterminated most of the wolves in the United States.  Coyotes became top dog, filling the wolf's ecological niche.  Deforestation and agriculture opened up previously dense tracts of forest, and human settlements, with their garbage, vegetable gardens, compost piles and domestic pets, provided food."     See City Slinkers in Smithsonian.
In the last ten years they have come in from the suburbs and now can be found trotting down sidewalks and raising their young adjacent to day care centers.  Being intelligent, they appear to be passing their new found skills along to their younger generations.

"And the researchers have reason to believe this change is in the works: The foxes have been outcompeted by growing populations of coyotes in the regions, which are becoming the top predators in areas where mountain lions and wolves have gone extinct. The coyotes are more dangerous to the foxes, lowering their numbers," the researchers said.
"A new top predator has entered the Northeast and has strong impact on the ecosystem," Levi said in a statement. "Coyotes can and will kill foxes and more significantly," he said, "foxes often don't build dens when coyotes are around."
This is not all bad.  They tend to suppress excess populations of house-eating squirrels and urban rats.  On the other hand, where coyotes are prevalent, fox, numbers dramatically decrease.  Studies have even shown an increase in Lyme disease where fox populations are down, due to the increase in small rodents such as mice that carry the disease.  It turns out that rodents are a major factor in Lyme disease prevalence.

And how did the coyote become the Ozark top predator?  Likely the disappearance of competition from panthers and wolves.  Wolves in the Ozarks?  Coming soon in Top Predator- Part II.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Inky Cap

You may recognize this picture from the What is it? question on the October 31 blog.  We found this mushroom at the head of the trail at the Watershed Center, just in time to introduce it to the 4th graders who were starting their Nature Unleashed program last month.  The underside produces a black "inky" liquid full of spores.  By the time all the kids were through, there were a lot of black fingers.  This was fine with the mushroom as the students were all going out, spreading its spores.  After all if you are a mushroom, isn't that what it is all about?

Click to enlarge
This beauty is a shaggy mane, Coprinus comatus, also called shaggy ink cap or lawyer's wig.  It is edible but can be confused for a toxic cousin so I wouldn't eat one without a more expert consult.  If you were to pick it, it must be cooked in 4-6 hours as it begins to autodigest immediately, leaving just what it sounds like, an inedible mess. 

These are commonly found on lawns or green meadows.  When they first appear, they are white with the shaggy covering, resembling an English barrister's wig.  Its gills are initially white but soon turn to pink and then black within hours.  Even if not picked they will begin digesting themselves soon after shedding their spores.  This is because they rapidly absorb moisture from the atmosphere, a trait called deliquescence.  (If you use that word in a sentence three times, you still probably won't remember it.)

Multiple ages of Inky Caps- Wikimedia
If you look closely at the top picture you will notice a ring in the middle of the stalk (stipe).  This was completely free and we entertained the kids by sliding it up and down the stipe.  This free sliding ring is an identifying characteristic as well as an indication that we have way too much time on our hands.

Common Inky Cap- Wikimedia
There are other inky cap mushrooms which are not so benign.  The common inky cap, Coprinopsis atramentaria,  is edible but only with care.  It has another common name, the tippler's bane, acquired for its tendency to produce nausea and vomiting if taken with alcohol.  It contains a chemical called coprine which blocks the enzymes which break down acetaldehyde, a metabolite of alcohol.  Acetaldehyde is the cause of a hangover.  I think by now you get the point.

By looking carefully you are unlikely to confuse it with the shaggy mane.  Its cap is smooth, tan to brown with lines or ridges radiating from the center.  The important thing is to remember which is which.  For those of us with inability to remember such details it is best to follow the rule, "Don't drinky with an inky." has much more on other inky cap mushrooms.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Deer Scent Glands

I came across an article in the Natural Connections newsletter that you may have missed.  John Miller of MDC discusses the different scent glands of deer and how they use them.  He kindly gave me permission to reprint it. 

Click to enlarge
When a first-time deer hunter tags their deer on the leg, they sometimes see a strange “hole” above the ankle on the outside of the hind leg. Racing through their mind may be questions such as: How did this hole get in the deer’s leg? Is this from an injury or parasite? Did someone shoot this deer in the leg?

Upon close inspection, a matching hole at the same location of the other leg may be found and they soon realize that these are supposed to be on the deer. This may be their first introduction to how a deer makes its own scents, because they have just found one of several deer scent glands.

Like many wild animals, the sense of smell is very important to deer for survival. Deer, with their keen sense of smell, are good at identifying fellow deer and other animals, finding food, and detecting potential danger. White-tailed deer are equipped with up to seven external and internal glands that help them communicate with other deer. In addition to identifying specific members of the herd, these scent glands help deer to communicate health, breeding cycles, and even social status. The five most easily visible glands include the tarsal, metatarsal, interdigital, preorbital, and forehead glands.
  • Located on the inner “hock” of the hind legs is the tarsal gland. This gland allows deer to recognize other individual deer and social status. Strangely enough, deer may actually urinate on their tarsal gland and rub them together to get a more “individual” scent. 
  • The metatarsal gland is located on the outside of the hind leg between the hock and ankle. The use of the metatarsal is mostly a mystery and some biologists feel that it may alert other deer to danger. 
  • The interdigital glands are located in between the split hooves of the front and back feet. These glands may help deer leave a scent trail that expresses dominance to other deer. 
  • The last two sets of external glands are on the head. The pre-orbital gland is located in front of each eye in what looks like a tear duct. When rubbed on branches during the breeding season, the scent from these glands may communicate social status and gender. 
  • Finally, the forehead glands are located near the nose and most likely have two purposes. The scent not only relays breeding availability when left on branches and rubs, but also allows young deer to recognize their mothers.
As you prepare for deer hunting season, look for signs such as rubs and deer trails. With practice, some deer hunters can improve their chances by imitating one or more of these deer scents using home remedies or commercial fragrances. Scent glands ultimately help deer to recognize other deer, but also help them to navigate through their landscape

John Miller is Interpretative Center Manager of the Shepherd of the Hills Fish Hatchery Conservation Center
More detailed information is at this University of Georgia link.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Last Dance of the Grouse?

We had the opportunity attend a Missouri Prairie Foundation meeting Saturday night where we heard Noppadol Paothong and Joel M. Vance discuss their new book, Save the Last Dance.  Noppadol will be repeating this at the Springfield Conservation Nature Center on November 16 at 7:00 PM.*

Anyone who is involved with Missouri conservation and nature study will be familiar with the name Noppadol Paothong from his fabulous photography in the Missouri Conservationist as well as many other national publications and previous awards.  Likewise, they would recognize his co-author, Joel Vance from his 60 year career in writing about Missouri in the Conservationist as well as his many books of humor, nature and fiction.

We hear a lot about the danger of extirpation facing our prairie chicken population in Missouri.  Their new book addresses the bigger picture of other related grouse species, strikingly different in appearance but similar in their colorful mating habits.  All are facing the dangers of decreasing habitat on which they mate and raise their young.

Noppadol will be showing his fantastic photographs as well as describing the process of collecting them over the last 11 years.  His stories include:
  • Treks through waist deep snow in 10 degree below temperatures.  Who knew the birds would still have mating on their minds under these conditions?
  • The attack of a Northern Harrier.
  • The futile battle of the last male of his species trying to bluff competing automobiles.
The video below will introduce you to the making of the book, but can't begin to prepare you for the fantastic story and the photographs you will see.

Nop will be signing copies at the Nature Center.  They won't be for sale there but you can get one for signature one of two ways.
  1. Buy one at ABC Books at 2109 North Glenstone and bring it to the Nature Center.
  2. Buy one through his website and he will deliver it to you at the Nature center that night.  The website is 
* Registration required- call the Nature Center at 417-888-4237.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Water Strider

I was scheduled do part of a Nature Unleashed program last week at the Watershed Center with 4th grade students.  I found my station would be stream macroinvertebrates, one of my many weaknesses.  After a phone call Bob Ranney "volunteered"  to lead the sessions and bring me along.

As a group of us were talking before the bus arrived, someone asked what water striders ate.  Fortunately we looked them up on Google, for a few minutes later we were hearing high pitched voices asking "What is that spider on the water?"  Even a kid knows that what they are seeing is extraordinary, as a strider skims quickly across on top of the water.

Water striders mating- Wikimedia
Water striders are insects, predators of live and dead insects, worms, etc. that fall within their grasp, whether by floating up to the surface or landing on the water.  As true bugs they come equipped with a sharp rostrum in their mouth, "The better to suck up your body juices, my dear."  They can take on anything from a tiny mosquito larva to a butterfly or beetle.   They are said to be especially fond of worms which wash into the water after a rain.

Striders appear at first glance to have four legs because their other two front legs are short, modified to grasp their prey.  They "row" across the surface of the water rapidly with their middle legs, using the hind legs to both support their weight on the water and to steer.  Like other insects in the middle of the food chain, they are also prey for other species including fish, frogs and other amphibians.  Their only defense is their speed and agility. 

How do they manage to not only walk on water but to race at speeds equivalent to 600 mph?  The video at Richard Hammond's Invisible Worlds will explain this with beautiful low and high speed photography.

More detailed information on our common water striders is available at this Dallas Zoo site and more pictures are at