Bison celebrating 4th

Bison in Yellowstone National Park 13 June 2011

Say hello to our new national mammal

Here’s a picture of bison in Yellowstone National Park. Happy 4th of July from our new national mammal in the U.S., the bison. Their scientific name is Bison bison bison.  If only all scientific names were that easy!

Bison are a conservation success story. Due to over-hunting in the late 1800’s, their population was down to a few hundred animals. As a result of the conservation strategies employed by President Theodore Roosevelt and like-minded individuals, the bison were able to make a dramatic comeback.

Here’s a link to a U.S. Department of the Interior page that has 15 interesting facts about them – Bison  

Pins & Needles

Porcupine2 HartMt May1982

Quills of North American porcupine

Have you been pining away wishing you knew more about porcupines? Well today is your lucky day! Here’s everything you ever wanted to know about the North American porcupine, Erethizon dorsatum, but were afraid to ask.

Range: The North American porcupine ranges throughout most of Canada and the western United States south to Mexico. They also live in the northern Great Lakes and northeastern United States regions.

Identification & unique characteristics: North American porcupines are a large rodent with black to brownish-yellow fur and distinct quills that cover most of their bodies. They range in weight from 11 to 30 pounds. They are 24 to 36 inches in length. They are excellent climbers with short strong legs, long claws, and hairless soles on their feet. They have a small head and rounded ears. Porcupines can be covered with as many as 30,000 quills. The quills are solid at the base and tip but have a sort of spongy texture in the middle. They are barbed at the tip and used for defense. Quills are not thrown at another animal. Porcupines raise their quills, release a nasty scent, and lash out with their tail if an animal approaches too closely. The porcupine releases quills that become embedded in the skin and expand with body heat. Quills that hit a sensitive area may cause death. Porcupines are very vocal. Their calls include a variety of moans, grunts, coughs, wails, whines, shrieks, and tooth-clicking. Vocalizations and scents are used to attract mates. They have poor vision but a good sense of smell.

North American porcupine at Hart Mountain National Antelope Range, OR

North American porcupine at Hart Mountain National Antelope Range, OR

Behavior & life history: Porcupines are usually a solitary animal that is mostly nocturnal. They occasionally den with others in winter months. They do not hibernate. Dens are made in caves and decaying hollow logs and trees. Both male and female porcupines defend a territory, though males do so more actively. Mating occurs in October and November. Males fight over females and display their “weaponry” on their backs and tails. An elaborate mating dance is performed for the females. Gestation last seven months and the young “porcupettes” are born with soft quills. The quills harden in about an hour. North American porcupines usually have a single porcupette. Young porcupines begin to forage when they are just a couple of days old. They stay with their mother for about five months. Porcupines are herbivores and they feed on leaves, twigs, buds, fruit, nuts, and bark. Their herbivorous diet makes them crave salt so they sometimes chew on the handles of human tools and structures. They also eat de-icing salt deposits on roads. Predators include mountain lions, lynx, bobcat, coyote, wolves, wolverines, fishers, and great horned owls. Fishers use hunting techniques that minimize their chances of getting poked by the quills. Porcupines are long-lived mammals and can live up to 18 years in the wild and 23 years in captivity.

North American porcupine at High Desert Museum, OR

North American porcupine at High Desert Museum, OR

Habitat needs: Porcupines live in many different habitats from sea level to high elevation. They live in deciduous and coniferous forests, open tundra, and desert environments.

Status & conservation: North American porcupine population levels are stable in most of their range but localized populations have been affected by several factors. Higher populations of predators, such as fishers and mountain lions, have caused lower porcupine numbers. Changes in logging management practices and pest infestations may affect their food source. Occasionally this animal will be hit by vehicles when it is trying to cross a road. In the past they were poisoned due to their habit of foraging on crops such as trees and corn.

Interesting facts: Native Americans incorporated the porcupine into their mythology. Tribes associated the animal with traits such as cautiousness, humility, modesty, and luck. Porcupines were used as a food source and their quills were used as decorations on clothing and other items. Lakota women would throw a blanket over a surprised porcupine and retrieve the quills it had released into the blanket to use in their quillwork.

Lewis & Clark Critter Quiz

Bison at Yellowstone National Park, WY

Hmmm…a predominantly pink woodpecker named after a famous early American explorer and a wily relative of the crow named after his partner. That might make for an interesting bit of writing. I started to research the topic.

Little did I know there was controversy linked to the plants and animals “discovered” on the Lewis and Clark expedition. The expedition supposedly discovered 178 plants and 122+ animals previously unknown to science. Or did they?

Other sources say they “encountered” or “reported” certain wildlife and plants. Due to discussions as to the accuracy of previously published lists, one recent list is divided into two sections: Discovered (for the first time by European Americans) and Described. Some of the flora and fauna species had been discovered in other parts of North America (or the world) prior to the time of the expedition while others had been a part of native people’s life for many years.

I am lucky to have seen many of the wildlife species that Lewis and Clark discovered and described. Here is a quiz that includes pictures of wildlife encountered on the expedition.

Did the Lewis & Clark expedition Discover them or Describe them? The answers are at the end of the quiz.

Sandhill Crane at Malheur NWR, OR

1. Sandhill crane, Grus canadensis

Clark's Nutcracker at Mt. Bachelor, OR

2. Clark’s nutcracker, Nucifraga columbiana

Bison in Yellowstone National Park, WY

3. American bison,  Bison bison

Channel Catfish by Siobhan Sullivan

4. Channel catfish,  Ictalurus punctatus

Lewis's Woodpecker in Bend, OR

5. Lewis’s woodpecker,  Melanerpes lewis

Red Fox at Yellowstone National Park, WY

6. Red fox,  Vulpes vulpes

Pronghorn at Yellowstone National Park, WY

7. Pronghorn,  Antilocapra americana

Mergansers Bend,OR

8. Common merganser, Mergus merganser

The answers:

  1. Sandhill crane – Described
  2. Clark’s nutcracker – Discovered
  3. Bison – Described
  4. Channel catfish – Discovered
  5. Lewis’s woodpecker – Discovered
  6. Red fox – Described
  7. Pronghorn – Discovered
  8. Common merganser – Described

High Desert Museum – Central Oregon Attractions (continued)

When you go outside into parts of the 135-acre property, you will be able to visit various exhibits. The Autzen Otter area is being renovated and won’t be open again until sometime in the spring of 2016. Be sure to stop by to see the entertaining otters once the exhibit reopens.

Keep going around the trail and make a brief stop at the wildlife viewing area. Here you might get a glimpse of woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees, squirrels, and chipmunks. You might get lucky and spot a hawk or owl waiting to get a snack.

The Wind, Earth, and Fire Trail is nearby and it shows how fire plays an important role in forest development. Keep following the trail and stop into the Changing Forests exhibit to learn about forests in the area.

Next you will see the Miller Family Ranch. The buildings there are built to show what a farm in 1904 would have looked like. Peek inside the cabin to see how a family lived and watch interpreters demonstrate life in those times. There’s also a barn, corral, chicken coop, saw mill, and even an outhouse. The woven wood corral is practical but also a work of art. You may see horses, donkeys, and chickens at the ranch.

Redband Trout

Redband Trout

Continue on the trail and you will come to an overlook at a small pond. You’ll get a great look at the native Redband trout from there.

Keep walking on the trail and you’ll get to the Donald M. Kerr Birds of Prey Center. See the porcupines in their enclosure just outside the door? The Museum has bald and golden eagles, a turkey vulture, a barn owl, a great horned owl, and other birds in their collection. Most of the animals at the Museum were injured or kept as pets so they would not be able to make it in the wild.

Silver Sage Trading Store

Silver Sage Trading Store

Head back to the main building and be sure to stop at the Silver Sage Trading store. There are books, artwork, clothing, toys, and many other items related to the high desert and current exhibits at the Museum. You might be able to find a piece of unique jewelry or something kind of quirky like dog treats containing beer byproducts.

Whose Home?

Whose Home?

Near the store, there’s a Whose Home? area for young children to climb and play in. They can pretend they are a baby bird in a huge nest. There is also an outside play area called Dig, Crawl, Climb! Kids can pretend like they are a giant spider or some kind of burrowing creature hiding in a hole.

As you leave the building through the main entrance, be sure to look up. There is a metal sculpture of a sagebrush plant that shows just how big their root system really is. This icon of the Wild West has adapted to the harsh environment of the high desert. A visit to the High Desert Museum will teach you how plants and animals have adapted to the environment and how people, past and present, have learned to thrive there.

For more information go to High Desert Museum

Successful Invaders

JuniperMuse 8-11-2014

Western Juniper

There are certain members of the plant and animal world that have invaded habitats successfully. Some are admired; others are reviled. A few are both liked and despised at the same time.

Where I live, the Western juniper, Juniperus occidentalis, fits into that last category. It is a native species but due to fire suppression and habitat destruction, it has spread like -excuse the reference- wildfire. Juniper has taken advantage of the situation and has significantly expanded its range. I have heard a lot about how much water it can suck out of the landscape – supposedly 30 gallons a day.  Its root system taps downwards and outwards to effectively use the available water. Many people don’t like them for that reason and because at times they have a not-so-pleasant scent.  I’ll always remember listening to a person that lives in the wealthy part of town saying that she eliminated all 18 junipers on her property as soon as she moved in. Eighteen trees.

However, juniper also has its good side. As it ages it epitomizes the image many people associate with the Wild West. I love to photograph them. The form of the tree changes from a pyramid-like shape to a twisted, sprawling irregular one. It can be covered by purplish berries (that are really cones) and these are used in gin production. Wildlife loves it for cover, nesting, and food. Its wood is bi-colored and lasts forever.

Western Meadowlark

Western Meadowlark or Starling in Disguise?

Some animals do what they can to fit in so that you won’t notice they are invaders. I have a pair of European starlings, Sturnus vulgaris, that nested on my property last spring. I don’t know many people that are fond of starlings. They are referred to as being ugly, dirty birds that many think should be destroyed. However, if you look at their breeding plumage closely it’s actually quite beautiful and iridescent. Anyway, back to my story…the pair on my property produced a brood of young and taught them how to sing and call. The weird thing is that they sound like the much more well-liked Western meadowlark – not starlings.  There aren’t any meadowlarks close by but they do live many miles away to the east.

Some plants moved here from far away and have settled in all over North America. The common mullein, Verbascum thapsus, is one of those plants. It is a member of the snapdragon family and bears long stalks of yellow flowers and produces a lot of seeds. Mullein can grow 5-10 feet high (!) Its large leaves have a thick whitish covering of soft “hair”. It is native to Europe and was introduced here in the mid-1700’s for use as a fish poison. Where I live it is considered a noxious weed whose presence should be controlled and monitored by landowners. It will grow in almost any open area and will push native plants out.

CommonMullein 11-2015

Common Mullein

This plant has some interesting uses. As previously mentioned, it was used as a fish poison. It stuns the fish so that they float to the surface where they can be easily caught. A dye was made from the flowers and was used on hair and on cloth. It also has medicinal uses and has been used to treat chest colds, bronchitis, and asthma. Mullein was also used to treat bruises, rash, tumors, and other maladies. I learned in a high school plant ecology class that its soft leaves can be used as toilet paper in an emergency.

Mullein is easy to pull but I decided to leave a few in my yard. Why? The songbirds, which I do not feed, LOVE them.

There are other successful invaders that have become so successful that they have become a threat to the environment. Consider the white-tailed deer.  White-tailed deer, Odocoileus virginianus, have steadily moved westwards, northwards, and to the south in North and South America. There are more than there have ever been – even though hunters use much more sophisticated technology to hunt them. However, there are fewer people hunting them and their natural predators have been eliminated in parts of their range.

White-tailed Deer

White-tailed Deer

About 100 years ago, small scale agriculture pushed the deer off much of their range east of the Rockies. White-tailed deer were also overhunted in North America in the late 1800’s. Their population dropped precipitously from 24-33 million, down to only 350,000.

During the Industrial Age, farms were abandoned leaving behind a patchwork of habitats that was ideal for deer. Wildlife conservation adapted practices that created green space for populations to become established. Preserves for regulated hunting were set up. The population rebounded with a vengeance! The current population is estimated to be over 30 million and they are much more densely packed than in the distant past. That density has caused numerous problems.

I read an interesting article about white-tailed deer on Staten Island in New York City. The population on the 60-square mile island has increased from 24 to 793 in just six years. That’s a 3,304% increase! The deer cause traffic accidents, eat gardens, and pass on tick-borne illnesses but the far greater problem is that they are destroying habitat. The community can cull the animals with sharpshooters, have hunters take them, apply contraceptive vaccines, or use surgical sterilization. None of these options has been popular with the public so nothing is currently being done. When an animal is given the Disney treatment, in this case as the main star in the Bambi movie, it can become much more difficult to control.

Successful invaders have taken advantage of various situations and many are firmly established in their new range. They have velcroed themselves into their new homes and peeling them away will be a difficult, if not impossible, task.

Sources:

Heffernan, T. (2012, October 24). The Deer Paradox. Retrieved November 3, 2015, from http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/11/the-deer-paradox/309104/

O’Connor, B. (2015, January 14). Deer are invading New York City, and we don’t know how to stop them. Retrieved November 3, 2015, from http://www.theverge.com/2015/1/14/7537391/new-york-city-deer-problem

The Herb Companion staff. (2009, August/September). Herb to know: Mullein (Verbascum thapsus). Retrieved November 3, 2015, from  http://www.motherearthliving.com/plant-profile/herb-to-know-mullein-verbascum-thapsus.aspx