Why are Possums Out in the Winter?

Bright sun and warm breezes broke Iowa’s February subzero weather. Being outside unencumbered by thick gloves, boots, and coats felt great, and we even enjoyed a cup of coffee sitting outside on the sunny side of our home. We weren’t alone.  A glance at the bird feeder one late afternoon revealed a friend we hadn’t seen in months.  An opossum was enjoying a meal of seeds while basking in the relative warmth. We suspect the animal had spent frigid days and nights dormant under a brush pile.

Many people don’t like possums but we do. They’re fascinating – and helpful! The Iowa DNR lists these little-known facts about Iowa’s only marsupial, an animal that cares for its young in a pouch similar to the Australian kangaroo.

Fun Facts About Opossums

  • Possums are virtually immune to rabies.
  • A copperhead or rattlesnake might bite a possum and be surprised. These ancient animals are immune to their poison and will likely gobble up the hapless snake for lunch. Not so much in Iowa. Poisonous snakes are rare here and only found in a few areas.
  • No other native mammal has as many teeth. Opossums have 50. When approached they’ll often open their mouth and show them off. They also might hiss, but our possums didn’t make any threatening moves.
  • Possums play possum. It discourages some predators but doesn’t work with cars. Many are killed as they crossroads. Do avoid hitting them.
  • Possums have hind feet that look a bit like a human hand. Their tracks in the snow are distinctive.
  • Female opossums have 13 teats. Twelve are in a circle in her pouch with one in the center.
  • Babies are tiny. The size of a dime. After birth, they finish developing in mom’s pouch. When they are older, they’ll often ride on her back.
  • Some sources say opossums reduce tick numbers. They often groom themselves and consider any tick they find a tasty snack.

We enjoy seeing our opossum friends. On cold nights we sometimes put a little cat or dog food out for them. Life’s not easy for these animals with naked tails and thin fur, so we try to help them.

Prairie Renaissance Part 7

November 5, 2020, was a perfect day for burning our prairie. We’d enjoyed several days of dry weather, and had our fire permit. We just needed a bit of breeze.

On that gorgeous day we burned the labyrinth, the backyard prairie, and our savanna…….and then we struck a match into our newest prairie. With the help of Linn County Roads and Air Pollution Departments, Pheasants Forever, the Monarch Research Project, UNI, and Sustainable Landscape Solutions we had prepared the soil and killed the weeds last May. Then we broadcast a native seed mix containing 82 species.

Prairie’s slow to start. We didn’t expect much this first year and ended up with lots of crabgrass.   It grew to about 8” and dried out nicely. A slow fire removed most of it,  allowing sunshine to warm prairie plants beneath. We expect a resurgence of delightful plants next spring and summer.

How Do Birds Stand On One Leg?

As we ate breakfast during the deep freeze that descended on February 7th six wild turkeys trudged through the snow from nearby woods and feasted on corn scattered under our bird feeders. It was 20 below zero – genuine 20 below. With the wind chill, the air was even colder.

Turkey standing on one leg

Warming toes.

The turkeys each stood on one leg as they pecked corn. Every once in a while, they alternated legs. One leg was always holding the bird upright while the other was tucked in the bird’s feathers. We wondered how they do this, so we went to our favorite new bird book, David Allen Sibley’s, What It’s Like to Be A Bird. According to him, birds have several adaptations that make it possible.

Here’s what he wrote, “The center of mass on their body is below the knee and a knob on the pelvis prevents the leg from angling any higher. Balancing on one leg requires angling that leg so that the foot is directly below the body, and with the leg essentially locked in position, and the body leaning against the leg, tiny adjustments of the toes are all that’s needed to stay upright.”

We often wonder how ducks and geese keep their legs and feet from freezing when swimming in frigid water or standing on ice. They have a useful adaptation. A bird’s leg is high, muscled, and covered with feathers. What we see that looks like a naked leg is actually a modified ankle, containing bones and tendons yet lacking blood vessels. So, the vascular area remains warm beneath feathers as the bird stands on the ice.

David Allen Sibley

We had the good fortune to chat with David Allen Sibley after he gave a presentation at the Outdoor Writers Association of America conference a few years ago. An astute ornithologist, writer, and artist, his books on bird identification and behavior, and his tree identification book, are always close at hand in our home. We’ve learned much from him.

Birds Need Grit in Winter

Most bird species need to occasionally eat tiny pebbles. These end up in the gizzard, a powerfully muscled pouch, where pebbles act like grindstones reducing hard seeds into a slurry for digestion.

During periods of snow and ice birds have a tough time finding grit, so about once a week we toss grit beneath the feeders. Sand works, but we usually use fine and medium-sized grit sold to help chickens digest their feed. Once the snow melts there’s no need to add grit, as birds easily find plenty of natural tiny pebbles.

Why Do You buy Garden Seeds in Winter?

Winter Readiness

Recently Rich donned a heavy jacket, gloves, and hat then ventured through swirling snow to the mailbox. He returned with seed catalogs. Seems early but there are two good reasons why we like to receive them in the depth of winter.

Seed Catalogs

Seed catalogs make great winter reading.

First, they make fun reading as we sit in the cheery glow of the woodstove. It’s pleasant to see photos of colorful vegetables. Makes us long for spring.

Second, they remind us it’s time to buy our seeds. Gardening was amazingly popular last year as Coronavirus confined millions of people to their homes and potential food shortages were a concern. So many people bought seeds that they were hard to find.   The lesson: Buy early.

 

We manage our small garden intensively and mix composted chicken manure into the soil. It makes vegetables seemingly explode in growth.

Here’s how we buy seeds:

Mail Order: Our favorite mail-order seed source is Seed Savers Exchange (seedsavers.org)  in Decorah, Iowa. They specialize in organic, non-hybrid, non-GMO seeds. In other words, they sell classic vegetable varieties. We eat many winter squash, and Seed Savers sells a wide diversity of varieties. Our favorite is Silver Bell. It’s full of flavor, keeps all winter, and is just the right size for two people. We have ordered seeds from large format catalogs that come to our mailbox unrequested. They’ve been good seeds, but they tend to have fewer varieties of winter squash and some other vegetables. Most also sell flower seeds and fruit trees.

Over the Counter: Right after January 1st, home and garden stores put out their garden seeds. We often buy a dozen or so of the small envelopes of seeds.

Generally, they sell seeds packed by two types of companies. One is name brand seeds. The other is packets sold by companies with names we don’t always recognize. They are much less expensive than name brands. We usually buy some of each type and have had good success with the less expensive ones.

A Planting Tip

Lettuce, carrots, parsnips, radish, and many other seeds are tiny. It’s easy to plant them too close together. That results in tedious thinning in a month or two. We take the time to plant the seeds further apart to reduce the thinning chore. This also stretches the seeds in the envelope to produce more food. Often, we replant early vegetables and get a second, late-season crop.

 

Baby Chicks May Also Be in Short Supply

Last year hatcheries had trouble meeting the demand for baby chicks. Some customers were disappointed that they weren’t able to buy the breeds they wanted. We place our order at Hoover’s Hatcher (hoovershatchery.com) in the winter so we get the chicks we want at the best time for us.

Chicks in a box

Chicks need to be warm until their insulating feather grow.

Seeds or baby chicks……order early.

 

How Did Obsidian Get Around?

Obsidian on the Move

We have it easy. If we need to carve a roasted turkey, chunk up an apple, whittle a stick, or shave off a beard we just have to buy a knife or razor blade. They’re made in hundreds of shapes and configurations and sold in dozens of stores.

It wasn’t always that easy. A fascinating article about archeology in Yellowstone National Park is in the January/February 2021 issue of SMITHSONIAN Magazine. It gives a glimpse into yesterday.

Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s we were told that, before Columbus, Native Americans lived in primitive tribes that lacked technical sophistication.

The information was downright wrong.

Research Reveals Facts

Bill Desmarais and Rich

Looking over Obsidian samples.

Decades of research by archeologists and historians have proved that Native Americans had complex societies and vast ability to live sustainably off the land. The Smithsonian article gives a glimpse of how pre–Columbian North Americans made amazingly effective tools that were carried around the continent on vast trade networks.

Early Americans needed sharp tools to make clothing, butcher game, process plants for food, and make weapons and ornaments. They lacked steel but had one thing almost better than metal – obsidian and other rocks that could be fabricated into outstanding tools. Even today, no steel knife is as sharp as an obsidian blade.

 

Between Mammoth and Norris in Yellowstone Park is Obsidian Cliff, the source of some of the best obsidian in North America. It had been mined by Native Americans for thousands of years and traded widely. Obsidian artifacts can often be traced to their place of origin and some items made from Yellowstone rock have been found as far away as Hopewell in Ohio.

Origin and Sources of Obsidian

 

Obsidian Points

The smaller piece is the back of a point. The larger piece is the broken tip of a point.

Obsidian is formed when molten rock with high silica content cools rapidly, creating a natural glass. It fractures in fascinating patterns with keen edges. A skilled person can craft amazingly sharp and beautiful cutting tools from it.

Obsidian is found on most continents and has been used by people in Africa for hundreds of thousands of years. In the United States it’s found in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, all western states, but some have been discovered in Pennsylvania and Virginia. It’s always an indication of past volcanism.

Obsidian on the Move

It’s fascinating to think how obsidian got from Yellowstone to Ohio. Obviously, someone, or maybe many people in a relay, carried it the 1700 miles to Hopewell. Obsidian was so valuable that it made the trip worthwhile. It proves that Americans long before Columbus were involved in mining, long-distance travel, commerce, and manufacturing.

Winding Pathways is in Iowa. Nearly our entire state has a bedrock of limestone, a sedimentary rock. We lack evidence of volcanoes so no natural occurring obsidian has been found here. However, obsidian wasn’t the only rock used in trade and tool making. Iowa archeologists have discovered tools made from rocks that had been carried long distances.

Other Sharp Stones

According to Iowa State Archeologist, John Doershuk, there are dozens of varieties of chert that can be sourced to specific areas, knife River (ND) flint, Hixon silicified sandstone, jaspers, chalcedonies, and other rocks that came from distant points but were made into tools found in Iowa. Native people also transported and used copper and shells long before Columbus.

Winding Pathways is on an ancient sand dune high above Indian Creek. We’ve never found a natural rock on our property but love looking for stones when we walk along the Cedar River or other Iowa waterways. We often find chert that’s not been worked into tools but is still an interesting rock, and we keep looking for artifacts.

We know how lucky we are. If we need a new knife to slice a loaf of fresh bread, we don’t need to walk to Yellowstone to gather obsidian but can easily and inexpensively buy a knife at many stores near home.