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.