gray squirrel for breakfast

I complain that I have too many gray squirrels in the backyard, clever ones that manage to defeat all the squirrel barriers on bird feeders.  It’s my own fault for supplying too much bird seed, but there is an unexpected benefit to attracting squirrels — attracting their much more photogenic predators.

red fox with gray squirrel kill-

I missed the actual fox-squirrel encounter, however, the fox was making sure the squirrel was dead by biting it in the neck several times.

red fox with gray squirrel kill-

checking for life from another angle…

red fox with gray squirrel kill-

bite it again, just to make sure…

red fox with gray squirrel kill-

So, eat it now, or save for later?

Save for later, was apparently the decision, as the fox picked the squirrel up in its jaws and trotted off behind bushes and the neighbor’s house to have some privacy.

Foxes and probably the Great Horned Owls in the backyard have been doing a fine job of keeping the local rabbit population in check.  In fact, I rarely see a rabbit munching on my flowers any more.  As is usually the case, when one population of prey decreases, there is increased pressure on other prey species, in this case, the gray squirrels that annually produce a new crop of naive youngsters that like to hang out near the bird feeders.  And therein lies the balance of nature…

Note: these are not the best photos of a photogenic fox; they were shot on a very gray day, early in the morning, through dirty windows, with a much too slow shutter speed — but the action was exciting!

big bruiser in the backyard

This guy is big! The biggest one I think I have seen near my backyard, anyway. He calmly strolled onto the neighbor’s lawn about 20 feet from their house, and plopped himself down on the lawn for a morning rest.

buck with big antlers-

The photo doesn’t do justice to his size and girth, but it’s obvious he has a pretty massive neck.

Not only are there multiple tines in his rack, but some are quite broad, meaning this guy took in a good measure of protein and minerals (e.g., calcium) in his summer diet while those antlers were developing.  Maybe he discovered a nice vegetable plot with peas and beans, or a stash of acorns.

buck with big antlers-

You would need to develop those neck muscles just to hold up the weight of those antlers.

Males need a high protein (as much as 16% protein in younger animals), mineral-rich diet not just to grow antlers but to develop the protein and fat stores that will carry them through the energy-intensive rut season and the remainder of the winter.   How much leafy green stuff would they have to chow down each day to take in that much protein?

That’s a trick question, because the protein they absorb doesn’t come directly from their food, but from the microbial fermentation products, and from digesting the microbes themselves, that deer and other ruminant herbivores raise in their complex, four-compartment stomachs.  So, the better they feed their microbial friends, the more nutrients the microbes pass onto their deer hosts.

buck with big antlers-

He looks like a champion contender, doesn’t he, ready to take on the competition?

Males might lose as much as 30% of their body mass during the rut, depending on the level of competition and number of competitors they face, so gaining as much mass as possible during the summer is integral to their success and their survival.

I know I’m doing my part to sustain these guys, judging from the number of perennials in my garden that get munched down to their roots every summer.

Wildlife vs. hurricanes

The devastation caused by two back-to-back hurricanes in the Caribbean and southeastern U.S. has been tragic for the people that live(d) in these areas, but we haven’t really heard much about the impact of Harvey and Irma on the wildlife there. The massive deforestation caused by record high winds and extensive flooding in low-lying areas leaves little habitat and forage for resident wildlife, and will certainly prove challenging for the migratory birds that make their way south through these areas this fall.

virginislands_hurricane Irma damage-2017

What was green tropical vegetation before the arrival of Irma on September 7 has turned to brown as leaves were stripped from trees and ocean water flooded the Virgin islands.  Photos from The Verge, September 11, 2017.

High winds and storm surge swamped the Florida Keys as well, where the diminutive Key Deer live.  These pint-sized relatives of the very common White-tailed Deer are endemic to the island chain, but exist there in relatively low numbers (700-1000 animals) on the Key Deer reserves on Big Pine and Little Torch Keys.

key-deer

Key Deer are about half the size of their full-grown White-tailed relative, and have adapted nicely to forage on a wide variety of wild and garden plants on the lower key islands in the Florida Keys.

You would think their small size might make them vulnerable to being swept away in hurricane winds and/or floods, but the Key Deer have inhabited these islands for the past 13,000 years and have somehow survived the worst of inclement weather there.  A story today in the Washington Post reports a sighting of 4 Key Deer crossing a local road, so at least some of the population has survived.  Low population numbers is a long-term concern, however, since increased inbreeding can lead to an accumulation of detrimental recessive genes, and result in reduced fitness and resilience to cope with weather disasters like the recent hurricanes there.

losing their spots

Signs of fall are beginning to appear as a few maple trees show some red and gold color in their leaves, the squirrels are busy collecting nuts off the trees, Canada Geese fly in V-formation overhead, and a few of the wildlife start growing their winter coats.  I first noticed the latter when the fawns suddenly appeared in the backyard without their spots.

White=tailed fawns-fall molt-

Just a trace of spots linger on the flanks of one of the twin fawns that have ravaged my wildflower garden all summer long.

White-tailed fawn - winter molt

The tawny brown coat with white spots is slowly being overgrown by the longer gray brown winter fur, which provides the deer with much needed insulation to survive the cold.

White-tailed fawns - winter molt

Not all of the fawns have started growing their winter coat, though.  It’s interesting that in these twins, one is clearly well ahead of the other in development of the winter fur — which lends further proof to the observation that twin fawns are usually fraternal, not identical.

What this tells me is that there have been at least two sets of twin fawns that have been eating up the backyard garden — and I thought it was just one hungry pair that had been doing all the damage.

Double trouble

The deer really like my backyard:  they eat my plants, they bed down in the wildflower garden leaving big depressions in the vegetation, they rest right under the bird feeder, and believe it or not, the half-grown fawns chase the foxes right out of the yard.  But I enjoy watching them parade through, so I just keep replanting the garden.

white-tailed fawns-

Make yourself comfortable…

white-tailed fawn-

By all means, help yourself to the garden perennials. This shrub rose may not recover, but oh well…

white-tailed fawns-

Yes, please do eat the buckthorn. I didn’t want that to spread in the backyard.

And where do these two learn where the best places to forage are?

white-tailed doe

From mom and dad, of course.

white-tailed buck-

This one has developed a taste for hostas.

following Mom

A common sight in lakes and ponds this time of year is a brood of little ducklings paddling very close to their mother.

mallard hen and ducklings

A mallard hen escorts her newly hatched brood across the pond to better foraging habitat.

wood duck hen and brood

Wood duck hatchlings have to paddle fast to keep up with their mom.

Mother Duck’s large body moving around the nest was the first thing the newly hatched ducklings saw, and within a day’s time, they imprinted on her, meaning their brains became wired to follow that object faithfully until they mature to full independence.

wood duck hen and brood

Whatever mom does, the ducklings do. When it’s time to rest after hunting for bugs, the ducklings take a break with their mom.

There is a critical period for this type of “filial imprinting” to occur — usually within 24-48 hours of hatching.  Whatever large, mobile object the hatchling sees, it follows — even if it is a human.  This type of imprinting is of obvious survival value to precocial birds, those that are mobile immediately after hatching, as they learn survival skills and are protected by at least one parent.

Konrad Lorenz and imprinted geese

Konrad Lorenz, an early 20th century behavioral biologist, studied imprinting in Greylag Geese by attending to them immediately after hatching.  From then on, they followed him faithfully wherever he went.

You might wonder if imprinting only occurs in birds.  The answer is NO, but there are different types of imprinting, even in birds.  Social and sexual imprinting are key to making sure an individual associates with members of its own species.  Keith Kendrick* cross-fostered sheep and goats immediately after birth (i.e., goats mothered the lambs and sheep mothered the kids), and found that male offspring (but not females) were subsequently irreversibly attracted both socially and sexually to their foster mom’s species more than their own.

animal-imprinting-in sheep and goat (Kendrick, 1995)

Sheep and goat buddies.  From How Stuff Works.

Sort of makes you wonder about Tarzan being raised by apes…

*Kendrick et al. 1995. Mothers determine sexual preferences.  Nature 395: 229-230.

a foxy morning

What a delight to see my favorite canids lounging in my Minnesota backyard this morning.

red fox-

In addition to brief, one minute naps, there was quite a lot of scratching and grooming going on.

red fox-

And when they stopped digging at their own fleas or whatever was itchy, they groomed each other.

red fox-

red fox-

must be some good stuff inside the other fox’s ear…

I watched these two foxes for several minutes, but can’t figure out if they are a male-female pair, or two youngsters, or what.  Male foxes are usually noticeably bigger then females, and these two seem to be identical in size. They do seem a bit small and skinny, so maybe they are younger, but this year’s kits would not be this big yet, having been born in late March, and just out of their den in early May.  It’s a mystery.

red fox-

Shot through the not very clean porch window at 500 mm —

Biking around Bielowieza

The best way to see the forest and prairie scenery in Bielowieza is to grab bikes and tour the countryside.  Many roads to some of the small villages are less traveled by car and perfect for birding bikers.  Here are a few of the things we saw.

House in the village of Teremiski

 Farm House in the village of Teremiski

Forest road near Bielowieza

Forest road near Bielowieza

Prairie near Bielowieza

Prairie near Bielowieza, patch of a kind of thistle ?

Prairie orchid, Bielowieza prairie

A rare Prairie orchid, Bielowieza prairie

Lunch stop, farm museum, Budy

Lunch stop, farm museum, Budy

Kvass with bread and cheese

Kvass (beer made from fermented rye bread) with bread and cheese

Red deer stag, bison reserve, Bielowieza, Poland

Red deer stag, bison reserve, Bielowieza,

Wild European horse, like the extinct tarpan

Wild Eurasian horse, similar to the extinct tarpan, at the bison reserve. Tarpan went extinct in the early 1900s, but breeding experiments attempt to restore this ancient horse lineage.

Roe deer fawn

Tiny Roe deer fawn is dwarfed by the tall grass in its pen at the bison reserve near Bielowieza.

the wisent isn’t extinct…completely

The Wisent, or European bison, is a look-alike of the American bison, but its genetics tell a different story.

Wisent, European forest bison

Wisent, European forest bison, is really a grassland animal that takes refuge in the forest.

As the story goes, once upon a time between ice ages, steppe bison wandered the grasslands of Europe, Asia, and North America, traversing the Bering land bridge during glaciated times.  Cut off from Asia when sea levels rose, the steppe bison in North America underwent moderate changes to become the buffalo we recognize today, but then suffered huge declines in numbers when railroads through the central plains brought hunters that killed off huge numbers of them.

American bison

American bison in Wyoming

The steppe bison was also hunted extensively, and may have gone extinct from overhunting about 11,000 years ago.  But aurochs (European progenitor of cattle) and Steppe bison matings in Europe produced hybrids (now known as Wisent) that survived the hunting pressure, perhaps by retreating deep into the primeval forest.
European bison, Wisent

Wisent numbers also declined precipitously with settlement and expansion of agriculture in Europe, but a few remained in the small forest fragments, like the one near Bielowieza.

European bison, Wisent

Hybrids usually are less fit than their ancestors, largely because they are less fertile (e.g., mules), but in the case of the European bison hybrid, they appear to have survived both hunting pressure and the extreme cold of the interglacial periods better than their steppe bison ancestors, and retreated to the forest for protection.

How do we know this?  A fascinating study compared animals in cave art paintings with DNA fragments from bison remains of 15-50,000 years ago and found transitions in the DNA that coincided with animals represented in the cave art.  The animals represented during the coldest periods were the short horned, less humped at the shoulder, Wisent.**

Bison reserve, Bielowieza, Poland

The Bison reserve near Bielowieza has expansive enclosures for its animals, and lots of natural prairie grass for forage.

Captive breeding of Wisent at the Bison reserve just outside Bielowieza attempts to track genetic ancestry and propagate animals that could be released to the wild, but wild Wisent exist in small herds through the forest-grassland spaces in eastern Poland.  They are mighty hard to spot — judging from our early morning explorations of the area.

Bison reserve, Bielowieza, Poland

Bison reserve, Bielowieza, Poland

**http://www.nature.com/news/mysterious-origin-of-european-bison-revealed-using-dna-and-cave-art-1.20822

Legacy of the Warsaw zoo

The Warsaw zoo occupies almost 100 acres of forested land across the Vistula river from the Old Town of Warsaw.  Although the city, including the zoo, was largely destroyed by the Germans during World War II, it has literally risen from the ashes, to become one of the most beautiful European capitols.

Warsaw looking toward the Old City

A Warsaw boulevard on a Sunday afternoon, looking toward the Old City. No litter, no cars, no homeless, just people out enjoying a summer day.

Warsaw zoo landscape across the Vistula river

Warsaw zoo landscape across the Vistula river

I was particularly interested to see the zoo after reading “the Zookeeper’s Wife” by Diane Ackerman.  Zoo director Jan Zabinski’s pioneering efforts to provide spacious housing with natural habitat for his zoo inhabitants have again been realized.  The enclosures for gorillas and chimps far surpasses those I’ve seen at other zoos.

Male silverback Gorilla at the Warsaw zoo

Male silverback Gorilla at the Warsaw zoo.

The "villa" occupied by the Zabinsky family at the Warsaw zoo

The “villa” occupied by the Zabinski family at the Warsaw zoo has been converted to a museum to showcase the role the family played in hiding hundreds of Jews fleeing the Warsaw ghetto.

Entry to the tunnels at the Warsaw zoo

Entrance to one of the many underground tunnels between the villa and the animal enclosures.

Jan brought “workmen” to the zoo from the ghetto to help rebuild enclosures, and they were subsequently hidden in small rooms under animal enclosures, until they could be moved from the zoo to outlying farms, and eventually to hopefully escape from the Germans.

The monkey house at the Warsaw zoo

The monkey house at the Warsaw zoo was one of the many places Jews were hidden, sometimes for weeks, in cramped, freezing cold quarters underground.

Today, you wouldn’t know all that transpired here 70 years ago, because it is as peaceful and scenic a place as any you could visit.

Lion, Warsaw zoo

One of the lions at the Warsaw zoo in a large, natural enclosure.

Indian rhinos, Warsaw zoo

I felt kind of sorry for the Indian rhinos that were trying to socialize despite being separated by an electrical barrier, presumably for good reason.

European bison, Warsaw zoo

The animals we were most interested to see were the European bison, which unlike its North American cousin is a forest animal. Unfortunately it was nap time, and they were uninterested in showing off.  It’s hard to judge from an animal lying down, but they seem a bit smaller than buffalo.

read more about Warsaw in my other blog, Traveling Two: http://sbchaplin.wordpress.com