At the mention of the word “porcupine” most of us conjure in our minds the image of a medium-sized brown animal covered with long quills. But beyond this, I’d be willing to say that the average person knows very little about our second largest rodent, a relatively shy animal with poor eyesight, little muscle tone, and a fondness for salt. So, I thought I’d look into the cultural and natural history of the porcupine and see what interesting tidbits I could come up with to expand the average person’s knowledge of this denizen of our Adirondack forestlands. What I found was really quite interesting. » Continue Reading.
Posts Tagged ‘Small Mammals’
On Wednesday I promised you a future with shrews it in, so we’ll take a look at shrews today. Shrews are another member of the Order of mammals known as Insectivora, which is a reflection of their diet: they eat a lot of insects. Much like their mole cousins, shrews spend a good portion of their lives underground, and as such, like moles, they have no (or nearly no) external ear flaps, weeny little eyes, and non-directional fur. Their bodies are also rather long and cylindrical, which helps them move easily through tunnels.
Six species of shrews call the Adirondacks home: the masked shrew (Sorex cinereus), the water shrew (S. palustris), the smoky shrew (S. fumeus), the long-tailed or rock shrew (S. dispar), the pygmy shrew (S. hoyi), and the short-tailed shrew (Blarina brevicauda). Most of these you will never see, for they are rather secretive animals, but one, the short-tailed shrew, is quite common and frequently found in houses, so we’ll start with that one. » Continue Reading.
People in any field (medicine, education, engineering, archaeology, etc.) become so used to their chosen area of expertise that they soon come to believe that certain things are universal knowledge, even if they aren’t.
Natural history is no exception. Sure, we naturalists figure that most people know a tree from a shrub, but we also expect they know the difference between a mouse and a vole. After twenty years in this field, however, I’ve come to accept that what is obvious to me may not be obvious to everyone else. » Continue Reading.
Recently a woman dropped off an injured robin at our front desk for the local wildlife rehabilitator to pick up. It was in a roomy box and I simply set it aside until the rehabber came, knowing the animal was already under stress and didn’t need me peeking in at it. A couple days ago I asked the rehabber how the bird was doing.
“It was a cat attack,” she said. “It was badly injured – broken wing, head and neck injuries – it didn’t survive.”
I expressed my condolences, but instead of wanting sympathy, she exclaimed “People shouldn’t let their cats outside! We need to tell them this!” So here I am, passing the word along.
Cats are natural predators, and birds, as well as mice, squirrels, snakes, baby rabbits, and insects, are on the menu. We may not think about it much if Fluffy brings home a sparrow once a year, and if it was only that, it might not seem so bad.
But, coincidentally, Audubon Magazine just came out with an article by Ted Williams about this very topic and the statistics are staggering! In one study in rural Wisconsin it was determined that there are at least 1.4 million cats running loose in the wilds of that state, and on average they are each eating about six birds a year. If you do the math, that comes out to almost eight million birds! And chances are they aren’t starlings or English sparrows, invasives we could well do without. No, these are often warblers, hummingbirds, tanagers…neotropical birds that spend the summers breeding in the north. Birds whose futures are already on shakey ground thanks to habitat loss. Birds whose populations may already hang in the balance.
Much of the article focused on the Hawaiian Islands, where feral cats (and the introduced mongoose) are wreaking havoc on the native birds, many of which are endangered species.
Well, we say, the solution is easy: trap out the cats. And it would seem easy, except cats have a huge and powerful lobby. Cats? A lobby? Yes – believe it or not, feral cat advocacy groups have sprouted up all over the US (and its territories). Their philosophy is to trap the cats, spay or neuter them, and then release them back into the wild. In theory, they will not be able to reproduce and over time the colonies will disappear. In reality, you’d have to trap and fix 70-90% of the cats in any wild population to even make a dent in the population (and that doesn’t factor in other feral cats, or newly dumped pets, joining the existing colony). Cats are difficult to trap, so in reality, that percentage is rarely reached. But let’s say 90% get fixed and are all turned loose again. Those cats may not be able to breed, but they can still hunt, and that is the problem.
So the advocacy groups put out kibble. Fluffy will be fed, then, and won’t be hungry. Well, if you have a cat, you know that Fluffy doesn’t necessarily hunt for food. Fluffy hunts for the thrill of the stalk, the joy of the capture, the pleasure of playing with the prey.
While reading the article, I was horrified to learn that the cats’ lobby is so strong that Fluffy and his friends have more protection than endangered species! It’s hard to believe.
Nationwide, millions and millions of birds lose their lives to cats. Many of these cats are feral, but many are also pets, pets that are let outside so they can “do what cats are supposed to do.” In rural areas, the numbers are high, for farmers like their barn cats, and we rural folks like to believe that cats should be able to hunt. But the truth is that the wildlife cannot support Fluffy’s habits. Not only are the birds suffering, but in some places Fluffy has reduced the wild prey to such levels that the natural predators don’t have enough to eat. And then there’s the spread of disease, things like toxoplasmosis, which can be deadly.
When I walk around my neighborhood, I often see my neighbors’ cats out for a stroll or a hunt. And recently I’ve seen young cats, no doubt feral, that are lurking around bird feeders and garages, looking for small mammals and birds. And I admit, I let my own cat out occasionally in the summer, but my yard is fenced and he’s too old, fat and lazy to chase a bird. Or so I tell myself.
The upshot of this story is a plea to folks to think twice about letting Fluffy outside to hunt. Most domestic cats are content to live the life of Riley indoors, where food and comfort are in plentiful supply. If you feel Fluffy needs to hunt, there are plenty of cat toys out there that you can supply, and this will also give you the opportunity to spend quality time with your cat. And if you know of a feral cat, or a feral cat colony, consider the impact it is having on the wildlife. Instead of maintaining it, look into capturing the offeder(s) and getting it/them into an animal shelter. Remember, there are plenty of cats in the world; it’s the wildlife that is in decline.
When the editors of Adirondack Almanack asked me to take over Ellen Rathbone’s garden columns while Ellen is on vacation, I couldn’t help thinking, they have got to be kidding! Me, write a garden column? I guess they don’t know that I’m more of an anti-gardener. Not anti in the sense of “against” (I love other people’s gardens), but in the sense of “antithesis of.” In short, I’m a weed-loving wildflower nerd who will risk drowning and broken bones and heart attacks and Lyme disease pursuing additions to my wildflower “life list,” but I faint at the thought of cultivating the plot behind my house. » Continue Reading.
A friend of mine in college had a pet skunk named Cauliflower. We heard tales of this unusual household companion, but sadly only got to meet her on the occasion of my friend’s funeral. The year before, while I was interning at a nature center near Syracuse, someone brought in an “abandoned” baby skunk. One of the staff worked with a rehabber and took temporary custody of the little animal until the end of the day. After giving it a meal of Similac, I volunteered to babysit. You haven’t lived until you’ve had a baby skunk nestled in your bosom for the better part of a day (I had to keep it somewhere warm and secure). Needless to say, I developed a fondness for skunks.
In the ensuing years I have discovered that the mere mention of the word skunk causes cries of “pee-eeww” to leap from the mouths of every child, and even some adults, in the vicinity. Noses are pinched tightly shut, even though no actual skunk is nearby. This reaction amuses and baffles me. I guess some lessons are learned early and persist for a lifetime, whether legitimate or not.
Striped skunks (there are, by the way, nine other species of skunks) are known to scientists as Mephitis mephitis. Once grouped together with weasels in the family Mustelidae, skunks now have their own family, Mephitidae, which is shared only with stink badgers, an animal found in the Philippines and Indonesia. It is easy to see why skunks were combined with weasels, for like skunks, weasels have many scent glands and can be quite aromatic. However, only skunks use their scent as a mode of defense.
If one encounters a skunk, and does not threaten it in anyway, the skunk is liable to trundle along its merry way without a second glance. If harassed, it will give plenty of warning to leave it alone. First, it will stomp its front feet. If this doesn’t work, it will make little charges towards it’s harasser with its tail raised over its head. Should the intruder continue to bother it, the skunk will bend its nether regions around to the front, so both its nose and rump are facing the same direction, and let loose a stream of yellowish liquid, a potent musk that can be fired up to twenty feet away. The skunk can manage six to eight squirts before its supply is gone, after which it will require about a week to recharge. The active compound in the spray is butylmercaptan, Mother Nature’s answer to tear gas. While it will burn and sting the eyes, it will not persist (and the recipient will not go blind). Unlike man-made tear gas, the odor can persist for weeks and can be smelled up to a mile away.
In short, it’s best not to bother a skunk.
And why would you want to? After all, skunks provide a valuable service to those who grow crops, and they do it at night when we are asleep. They eat many grubs and grasshoppers and insects of all stripes that are considered pests to the farmer. True, skunks have been known to chicken eggs and sometimes even a hen, but these instances are considered rare. Skunks are true omnivores, consuming berries and bugs, mice and roadkill all with equal relish. That said, invertebrates make up the greatest portion of the skunk’s diet.
During the 1800s and early 1900s, skunks were routinely trapped and bred in captivity for the fur industry. Believe it or not, their pelts were the second most popular fur in the business. But after about 1915 the demand for skunk fur started to decline, and all the skunk breeders had to find a new outlet. Skunks as pets became the next rage. Today pet skunks are hard to come by, mostly because they are illegal in most states due to the fact that skunks are the number two carrier (in the wild) of rabies. Red foxes, incidentally, are listed as number one.
I have been asked several times by local folks why Newcomb has no skunks. My pat answer has been that it’s simply too cold here for them. However, I have learned from long-time residents that Newcomb used to have a good number of these black and white animals. Pursuing this, we discovered that skunks seemed to disappear about the same time that coyotes moved in. Hm…interesting. Part of me wonders, though, if it has more to do with the lack of open space than it does with the presence of coyotes. Skunks are traditionally animals of open spaces, preferring to live near agricultural lands and open woods. Sometimes they inhabit dense woodlands, and have even been found at elevations over 2000 feet, but this is not where they thrive best. Since Newcomb has reverted back to forest over most of its acreage (believe it or not, at one time most of this area was cleared for farms), I suspect this is what has driven the skunks from our fair village.
We could learn a lot from skunks, who are truly pacifists at heart. They waddle their way through life, minding their own business, consuming pestiferous insects to help out (unintentionally) their human neighbors. We could all use a few more neighbors like this.
This last winter one of our local residents came in with a photograph of the strangest looking tracks in the snow. There were no distinct foot prints, and no well-defined gait pattern. What it looked like was a beautiful serpentine zig-zagging design; it reminded me of rickrack. And it looked familiar. I grabbed one of my tracking books and quickly thumbed through. Sure enough, there it was: porcupine tracks. » Continue Reading.
The Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy gets a lot of attention when it completes a landscape-scale protection deal like the 161,000-acre Finch Pruyn purchase, or when it buys a place with a hallowed name like Follensby Pond.
But for decades it has also been working among the little farms and forests of the Champlain Valley with a larger picture in mind.
“The goal is to provide safe passage for species—a way for a moose, say, to go from the Adirondacks to Vermont with little risk of being struck by a car, or a salmon to make it far enough upstream to spawn without being blocked by a dry culvert,” Michael Carr, executive director of the Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, said in a press release Monday. “Where are the most important habitat linkages and how do we work do we protect them? To date, we’ve raised several hundred thousand dollars in grants for this initiative in the Champlain Valley, which is a critical piece of a larger effort.” » Continue Reading.
Bats are on my mind these days, thanks to the work I’m doing with the DEC survey. One of the other volunteers, who is also working on a bat project for college, just sent me an email about a baby bat that had fallen from its roost and the students who picked it up. To make a long story short, the bat was killed so it could be tested for rabies because the students had handled it without protection. So, I thought I’d dedicate this post to Proper Procedures When Encountering a Bat so that future tragedies of the same sort can be avoided.
Scenario #1: You are walking along and you see a bat on the ground – what do you do? Ideally you leave the bat alone and continue on your way. However, there are circumstances that might make this action unviable. So, first you should acertain if the bat is injured or sick. Injured bats should be taken to rehabbers. Sick bats should be sent to the state for rabies testing. Sometimes bats simply fall from their roosts (have you ever fallen out of your bed?); given the chance to do so, they will climb back up to safety. If it is a juvenile, it may not be able to climb back up, so assistance might be needed.
Never, never, never handle a bat without gloves. Better yet, don’t handle it at all. If you need to collect a bat, the best way to do so is to use a can (or jar) and a piece of cardstock. Gently place the can over the bat and gently slide the card underneath, effectively trapping the bat inside the can. If the bat is uninjured and healthy, take it outside and let it go. You can do this most easily by laying the can down on its side and walking away: the bat will crawl out, find a place to climb, and then fly away. Better yet you can empty the can gently on a branch so the bat will be able to fly off immediately.
Scenario #2: A bat flies into your house – what do you do? The best thing to do is determine what room the bat is in and then isolate it there. Close all doors and open one window. Turn out all the lights. Leave the room. The bat will find that open window and fly out. There is no need to panic. If there are no windows to open, or doors to close, follow the procedure above with the can. Eventually the bat will land somewhere (on a curtain, on a wall), and you can collect it there.
Scenario #3: Bats are roosting in your attic – what do you do? The odds are if you have a good number of bats in your attic, or barn, or garage, you probably have a maternity colony. This is a group of pregnant females who have sought your attic/barn/garage as the perfect place to give birth and raise their young. They are looking for locations that are warm (really toasty roosts help the babies mature faster) and have plenty of room to move around if it gets too warm, or too cool, in one spot. If you have a maternity colony, they will give birth by June. Baby bats are not flighted for several weeks. Once the young can fly and feed on their own, the colony moves on, usually at the end of the summer. Hiring an exterminator is really not a great idea, especially now that bat populations are declining. These days the thing to do is exclusion, wherein you locate all the entrances and exits the bats are using and seal them up…after the bats have left in the fall (or before they return in the spring). You don’t want to exclude the adults while the babies are still in the roost – they will starve to death and you will have a smelly mess. You can try erecting bat boxes nearby to provide an alternative roost site. These alternative roosts will have to be large enough to provide the bats with the conditions they need to raise their young (similar to those in your attic/barn/garage); the little boxes you can buy at garden or hardware stores are not going to cut it. For more information on bat houses, visit http://www.batcon.org/index.php/education/40-bats-and-the-public/61-bat-house-faqs.html.
Myth Busting: Forget everything your mother and friends told you about bats – chances are they are wrong.
1. Bats do not fly into your hair/head, or at least not on purpose. Have you ever accidentally walked into a wall or doorway? My theory is that in those cases in which a bat has hit someone in the head, it was simply a miscalculation on the bat’s part. It may even have been a juvenile that is still getting used to flying and using its echolocation.
2. Bats are not aggressive. As a matter of fact, they are actually rather shy animals, and many species are easily tamed. Bats only bite when cornered and given no opportunity to escape (like any other animal).
3. Bats drink your blood (after biting you on the neck). Well, first off, the only bats we have here in New York are insect eaters. You are not an insect, so you are safe. But yes, there are vampire bats – in Mexico and Central America. There are only three species of vampires; two of these species feed on birds. Only one is dependent on mammal blood, and it mostly drinks from cattle (now that cattle have moved into its habitat and are easy prey). These bats are all very small, and at most they drink (lap, actually, like a cat) a tablespoon of blood; more than that and they cannot fly.
4. Bats are dirty. Actually, bats are very clean animals. They groom themselves (and each other) almost as much as a cat does.
5. Bats are blind. Since people cannot see at night, they presume nothing else can see at night either. Therefore, bats must be blind because they fly at night without any difficulties (and we know that the blind can often navigate very well). In fact, bats have good eyesight, but they depend on echolocation (it’s like SONAR) to navigate at night and find their prey.
6. Bats are flying mice. Well, they may look like mice with wings, but bats are not even closely related to mice. As a matter of fact, bats are in a category all their own: Chiroptera (which means “hand wing”). There is nothing else on this planet like them. And, just because I love this fact, believe it or not almost one-quarter of all mammal species are species of bats! That’s right. Scientists have identified approximately 4000 species of mammals around the world, and about 1000 of these are species of bats. That should give us all an idea of just how important they are.
What about rabies? Any mammal can get rabies. Rabies is a virus that is tranmitted through saliva, usually from a bite. In general, the odds of a bat having rabies is set at less than one half of one percent. You are more likely to get food poisoning at a church picnic. That said, there are areas that do have higher incidents of rabies in bats. The last time I checked, New York listed it as 8%. Rabies testing requires the testing of brain tissue, which is only possible after the animal is deceased, so it’s not like a healthy animal will be released if its test is proven negative.
So how do you know if the bat is sick and should be sent for testing? Usually when bats get rabies, they exhibit a passive form of the disease. In other words, they do not become aggressive and charge at you, foaming at the mouth. If you encounter a bat that is lethargic and just not acting normally, it is probably sick. Such bats should be sent for testing.
With the cataclysmic decline of our most common bats these days, I think each of us should think twice when we encounter a bat. Don’t handle it. Don’t squash it with a broom. Help it leave your house safely. Bats have important roles to play in our ecosystems, even here in the Adirondacks. We should do everything we can to help those that remain survive.
What is your favorite bird/animal/flower? This is a question I am often asked, and for me it is a difficult one to answer because there are too many fascinating things out there to select just one favorite. That said, I am especially fond of bats. They are highly misunderstood animals that are actually linchpins in many ecosystems. If more people understood their importance, they might be as popular as baby seals and elephants. Sadly, it often takes tragedy to bring around a change in feelings, and for our bats, that tragedy is White-nose Syndrome (WNS). » Continue Reading.
This morning we heard from DEC forestry and wildlife representatives from Region 5 (which covers most of the Adirondacks). Tom Martin, DEC Forester, kicked it off with a discussion of the explanation of the role the agency plays in local forests, public and private. Martin was followed by a DEC Wildlife Biologist who pointed out a number of important resources for landowners, including a few cool internet tools.
Region 5 contains more potential commercial forest land (about 3 million acres) than forest preserve land. The region has three part-time people who handle private land services who are basically foresters who help people develop land management plans.
Martin reviewed recent large land transfers in Region 5. “Every single large forest products company has sold their land,” he said. Those include Champion, International Paper, Domtar, and Finch Pruyn. Lands not bought outright by the state (or a third party like the Nature Conservancy) have been purchased by timber management investment companies which Martin said have much shorter term financial goals (and shorter tenure) than the original owners.
By the way, DEC has paid full taxes on land the state owns in the park since the 1880s. The companies that have sold their land all enjoyed 480a tax breaks that reduced their assessments by 80% (that includes state, county and school taxes).
Following Martin, Region 5 Wildlife Biologist Paul Jensen reviewed DEC resources for forest owners including the agency’s beaver damage management program. The program includes nuisance beaver permits that allow trapping and killing of nuisance beaver and the removal of beaver dams; the DEC no longer traps beaver for relocation. Jensen also briefly touched on whitetail deer management, a significant factor in understory regeneration.
Here are a few resources Jensen pointed us to for getting a closer look at public and private forest lands:
Environmental Resource Mapper – enter your property location and find about wetlands, significant natural communities, and rare plants and animals.
Landowner Incentive Program – provides information and access to funds and/or tax breaks for forest land owners whose land contains at risk species.
PDF – provides a lot of information on state lands.
We’re off to Tupper Lake for a sawmill visit, then back here for tree identification. This evening – Adirondack mammals. I’ll report again after dinner.
Reporters have accompanied biologists into abandoned mines to witness bats dying or dead, piled on the floor of their winter hibernacula. » Continue Reading.
If you want to consider yourself knowledgeable about the Adirondacks you must own and have read Mike Storey’s Why The Adirondacks Look The Way They Do. That’s not hyperbole – that’s a simple fact.
Storey self-published this guide to Adirondack natural history in 2006 and sold out the first printing in the first year. The reason, no doubt, is that it’s readable and relevant. Storey was the former Chief Naturalist at the Adirondack Park Agency (24 years at the APA!) and he wrote the book we all need to keep in our car, backpack, and back pocket. In fact, my only complaint is the book’s format doesn’t make it easy to pack – it could have been a lot smaller, even with all the info and images packed in there!
This book is more than a guide to our local flora and fauna, more than a wildlife guide, it covers geology, geography, forestry, history, cultural anthropology, environmental politics, from the life cycle of the black fly to the problems of upland development. The diagrams, illustrations, photographs, are illustrative beyond comparison. From “Grenville Continent Rifting and the Lake George Rift Valley” to the illustration of a 50-years of a hemlock and yellow birch growing on a rotting log resting on a glacial erratic rock, this book shows you the basics and backs it up with detailed explanations. The tracks of common animals, identifying common birds, leaves, trees, fish, soils, insects, eskers, kettle holes – its all there and more.
This book will do what it says it will – explain, in vivid and easy-going detail, why the Adirondacks look the way they do. I’ve been thinking about doing a “Ten Books Every Adirondacker Should Own,” and when I do, this book will be on that list.
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