How Do You Tell Animals Apart?

image of a white-headed downy woodpecker.

This Albino Woodpecker comes to the feeder regularly.

Several months ago, we looked out our dining room window and saw an unusual woodpecker enjoying suet at a feeder only a few feet away. It was a downy but it’s head was almost completely white, unlike all others of the same species we’ve seen.

Last year we had a fox squirrel with an unusually short tail that hung around our yard for months.  We’ve also spotted other wild animals with distinctive markings unusual for their species, healed but visible wounds and other characteristics that help identify it as an individual.

The Power of Observation

Being able to identify an individual animal adds to the fun of wildlife observation. For example, from the squirrel, we learned that he or she mostly just stayed in our yard and nearby woods. We never spotted it at a neighbor’s yard. Then, one day we remarked, “We haven’t seen’ shorty tail’ for a while”. We actually never saw the animal again and assumed he or she met his end due to an accident, predator, car collision, or some other catastrophic incident.  Because we could tell him from other squirrels, we know he lived at least ten months.

The piebald woodpecker still comes to our feeder, and we’re getting to know it as an individual rather than just a generic downy. It adds to the fun of wildlife observation.

Like people, animals are individuals. At first glance, every one may look the same but with careful observation, it’s possible to spot differences in plumage, fur, size, shape, gait, and even personality that help identify it as an individual. Scientists studying animals ranging from whales to snow leopards often learn to distinguish one from another by the pattern of barnacles on a whale’s body to the markings on a cat’s fur.

It’s a totally noninvasive way of distinguishing one from another. We can do this with common yard wild animals.

Do Squirrels Ever Fall?

Squirrel climbing up a tree.

What happens when a squirrel falls?

Squirrels are amazingly agile, but they do slip and fall. It’s not common, but it happens.   Rich has seen two squirrels fall from the top of large oak trees.

One squirrel lost its footing on a huge oak tree at the Indian Creek Nature Center when Rich was walking nearby. It spread out its legs and tail and fell horizontally, hitting the ground with a “thump”. Although it fell at least 40 feet the squirrel appeared uninjured, scampered off, and climbed right back up the oak.

Another squirrel fell from an even bigger oak in our home’s backyard. It did the same as the Nature Center Squirrel and spread out its body, hit the ground, and ran right off.

Squirrels rarely fall, but once in a while, they do. Fortunately, as this YouTube video shows, they seem amazingly able to recover from a fall that would instantly kill a human.

What are some of the animals you know as individuals? Let us know!

Who Remembers Smokey the Bear?

News Reports and Remembering

Recent photos of burned and displaced kangaroos and koalas from massive Australian wildfires are heartbreaking and bring back memories of both fighting and setting fires in American woods and prairies.

As a 24-year-old US Forest Service Hot Shot back nearly 50 years ago I had the good fortune to help contain three wildfires in Southern Idaho. One left a memory of towering flames roaring up a steep slope toward my crew as we hurriedly dug a fire line parallel to the ridge. I wielded a chainsaw, dropping pines and firs toward the approaching flames. It was noisy, hot, and scary but our line, with the help of an airplane that dropped a load of “slurry”, stopped the blaze.

Not All Fires Respond the Same

Just a year later I lit a fire in dry prairie grass at the Dillon Nature Center in Hutchinson, Kansas. It roared onward until stopped dead by a mowed path. Green grass doesn’t burn.

We burn our prairie and oak woodland at Winding Pathways every year, usually in the fall because we know that our land, like much of North America, needs fire for good ecological health.

Misleading Reporting

Evening news stories about the terrible destruction of wildfires can be misleading and are never complete because:

     * They show the most incinerated place in a vast burned area. Sometimes the land is not nearly so consumed by the fire.
     * They never follow up. Months after a burn the same spot is lush with green growth and spangled with wildflowers. 

Fire is as much a force of nature as rain and wind. Yes, they destroy houses in their path. Remember, often these were built in the woods without the fire-resistant construction recommended by the US Forest Service. In North America, fires don’t destroy forests or grasslands. They invigorate them.

Every year we look forward to abundant wildflowers and healthy grass in areas we’ve burned.   But what about wildlife caught in a rapidly spreading fire?  I’ve had the opportunity to watch rabbits, birds, deer, and even elk respond to flames.  They don’t panic. Rabbits simply seem to hop to places unlikely to burn.  So do deer. Snakes and some insects might enter holes and tunnels in the ground. Some are probably cooked. Baby animals would be unable to flee flames. Fortunately, spring fires, when babies are helpless, are rare.

2019 marked a huge fire event. It was Smokey the Bear’s 75th birthday!  I love Smokey. He is one of the most successful marketers ever convincing people to drown campfires and snuff out matches. Smokey was so successful that fires became rare enough for plenty of dead wood to accumulate in Western Forests. That, combined with climate change, helped create the conditions for the catastrophic fires that have burned in recent years. Smokey’s message was a little off, but he’s still a loveable character.

Here is how he came to be. In 1950, after the Smokey Bear character was created, a singed bear cub was found after a fire. He lived for years in the National Zoo in Washington, DC. Known as Smokey, millions of people saw him until his death in  1976. He’s buried near the Smokey Bear Museum in Capitan, New Mexico.

An outstanding website about Smokey and wildfires is sponsored by the US Forest Service.  If you are ever in Moscow, Idaho, be sure to stop at the Smokey Bear store on Main Street.  

 

Winter Reading with Winding Pathways Gazette Features

Winding Pathways invites readers to enjoy past features in the Cedar Rapids Gazette.

Wandering Nebraska and South Dakota’s Rich Fossil Freeway. Follow US Highway 20 across northern Nebraska while exploring its fossil-rich history.  Along the way wet your line in trout streams, paddle clear rivers through sandhills, camp in a National Forest in the Great Plains, and bicycle parts of the Great American Rail-Trail. Then, end up in the enchanting Black Hills of South Dakota.

Alaska In Winter. Most folks experience Alaska in summer.  Winter has its rewards, too!  Plenty of activities for outdoor enthusiasts and mild-mannered indoor types. Museums. The Bear Tooth Theatrepub. Great eateries. Iditarod Ceremonial Start. XC ski races. Campbell Creek Science Center.  And, perhaps most wonderful of all – no skeeters or bears!

Indiana Dunes National Park.  A great stop while speeding along I-80 is the Indiana Dunes National Park.  A cooperative venture among city, county, state and federal government, this necklace of preserved areas rings the southern end of Lake Michigan. Soft sand beaches to explore, dunes several hundred feet high to scale, charming villages, bicycle trails to follow, and varied places to rest your head at night. This new national park can fulfill any family’s vacation dreams.

America’s Magnificent Mounds line the Mississippi River and many other waterways in North America.  While most mounds have been lost to “development” many remain. And, travelers can learn so much about ancient cultures and appreciate why preserving these mounds is important.

How Do You Track Animals in Winter?

When the next soft snow falls, go tracking outside!  A mid-December 2019 skiff of snow delighted us. There was not enough of the white stuff to shovel but the thin white blanket that covered our yard revealed who visited the night before.

The dimples of deer tracks were clearly visible as we went out to get the newspaper, but one set of tracks was unusual and especially interesting. Four footprints, in a rough line, kept repeating with about three feet of untrod snow between them. Just what animal created them?

After a bit of sleuthing, we decided it was a coyote out seeking a mouse or rabbit dinner.  Coyotes aren’t rare around our home but they aren’t in the yard often. We wish we could have watched it lope across the yard.

A skiff of snow makes for a delightful walk in the woods, grasslands, or wetlands.   Often animals are easy to spot as their dark coats contrast with the white snow and tracking is superb. It’s usually not hard to figure out what animal made the tracks, and following them gives some idea of what the animal was doing and where it was going.

Many Websites and books help with track identification but we like www.naturetracking.com because it shows tracks of animals most likely to be in a backyard.

Happy tracking.

What is Aldo Leopold’s Legacy?

As dusk enveloped us, Sandhill Cranes winged over in groups of three or four, heading for their overnight roosting sites. We were at the Aldo Leopold Foundation near Baraboo, Wisconsin.

Conservation philosophers often cite three authors who framed the modern environmental movement. Perhaps Thoreau’s WALDEN is most famous. Somewhat later, John Muir penned the value of wilderness and national parks. More recently Aldo Leopold’s 1949 book, A SAND COUNTY ALMANAC, articulated society’s need to embrace a land ethic.

Extinction of Species

During Leopold’s life waterfowl, Passenger Pigeons, Sandhill Cranes, and many other birds declined in number under widespread habitat destruction and market hunting. The pigeon became extinct, and Leopold believed Sandhill Cranes would soon follow.

Happily, thanks to protection, education, and habitat improvement thousands of cranes now gather each fall near the Leopold Center on their way south. We had the good fortune to spot and hear many.

Foundation of Personal and Professional Life

In the winter of 1971 Rich worked as an elementary school custodian. “If I hustled and got the restrooms cleaned and the halls swept, I could take a short break in the janitor’s closet. There, surrounded by mops and brooms I read WALDEN and SAND COUNTY.  They framed my personal and professional life,” he said.

Leopold was one of the first scientists to encourage making degraded land healthier through ecological restoration. His words inspired us to devote 40 years restoring prairies in Kansas and Iowa. Our Winding Pathways yard of waving wildflowers and tall grasses are a living tribute to Aldo and Estella Leopold.

A Walk into the Past Connects Us to the Present

Recently, Leopold Foundation Fellow Eudora Miao led us down a narrow path between tall pines to a former chicken house. In the 1930s the Leopold Family converted it to  their weekend getaway cabin and called it simply, “The Shack.” Starting in 1935 they planted thousands of pines and acres of prairie on their eroded and barren land. It was here that Aldo penned words that have inspired people for the past 70 years.

The Foundation strives to inspire an ethical relationship between people and nature through Leopold’s legacy.  

 We were thrilled to visit the Foundation, tour their amazingly energy-efficient headquarters, visit The Shack, and interact with staff. Put SAND COUNTY ALMANAC on your reading list and visit the Foundation. It’s about ten miles from downtown Baraboo, Wisconsin, and about an hour’s drive north of Madison.

For information visit The Aldo Leopold Foundation

Photos (mn) by Mark Norlander.

How About These Animal Encounters!

We asked readers to send along some curious animal encounters.
Enjoy these guest blog entries as we wind down 2019.

From the East Coast to the Upper Midwest and ranging to Alaska and Hawaii people interact with or encounter wildlife in rural and urban areas.

Birds

SF: Lots to Raven About.  “I saw my first ever raven yesterday — sitting and cawing on the roof of a car in a parking lot in Milford! JEESH! Do you think it was a portent of anything?

“Crows, of course, are extremely common; nevertheless, I love to see them in the huge groups they tend to gather in. I don’t know who assigned the collective nouns for species, but “Murder of Crows” is a favorite.

“Every time I hear that “caw” I look up hoping to see a raven, but I’ve never seen one until yesterday. I heard a ruckus as I got out of my car in a parking lot in Milford, NH, and saw one — sitting on top of a car and making his presence known. It was huge and oddly majestic, but sadly, it was a single bird, not an ‘unkindness of ravens’.”

AS: Birding Resort. Happenings were just ducky at a Hawaiian resort. And, this cock had something to crow about following a skeptical tourist.  Who won? “The rooster lives near the food truck so it wins this match off.”

JH: Eagle Encounter: Several years ago on my way to the Y swim class, I saw, to my total delight, a wondrous sight. As I approached my turn, I saw a huge bird just sitting on a fence post.  I made the turn and slowly stopped my car,  I recognized this critter as the American Bald Eagle.  We each sat on our own perch eyeing one another.  After carefully retrieving my camera, I snapped a couple of pictures.

The eagle kept an eye on me. Then, he spread his wings and laboriously lifted off, swinging to his left towards a telephone pole out in the pasture.  As he landed, he tucked his wings into his sides and continued his watch.  I suppose he was wondering what I was doing just as I was wondering what he had been doing as he sat on the fence post.

He had been just a couple of arm’s lengths from me. To be so close to him was awesome. I could only imagine what it would be like to stroke his beautiful feathers.

Bald Eagle sitting on fence post

The eagle continued to eye me.

Mammals

JA: Albino deer. I caught some photos of albino deer in Wisconsin.

DP: Surprise Dolphins. “While reporting from Charleston, South Carolina, during the 2012 presidential campaign my colleagues and I stopped to look at the ocean. The city is surrounded on three sides by water and we expected to see lots of boats and people enjoying the water. We didn’t expect to encounter a school of dolphins! They swam around us for a few minutes and seemed to be having a lot more fun than we were.”

NP&BO: Moose & Wolverines & Cats! Oh, my! Baby moose roaming an Anchorage neighborhood, munching on raspberry patches.  Then, along comes mama and they stroll down the street. A lot of urban moose in Anchorage.  Other parts of the city boast moose and black bears!

News from the North. Latest Anchorage crime as reported by the Anchorage Daily News: Yet Another Urban Wildlife encounter as cat survives wolverine attack near the Campbell Science Center.

 

North Woods Near Encounter

MN: Wolf Encounter. “My friend and I were camping in the BWCA in January, several years ago.  At the end of a long day of cutting/splitting wood, fishing, snowshoeing and cutting more wood, we sat next to a blazing fire as the early sunset arrived and we were soon enveloped in darkness.  The stillness of the forest in winter is amazing because there are no insects or other nocturnal creatures that make noise.  On this windless night, there was no sound besides the crackling fire.  Suddenly and without warning, we both had the feeling that someone or something was watching us from not far away.  I slowly turned, and the fire was just bright enough to illuminate the face of a large wolf, 10 feet away.  We froze, not knowing what to do.  Had it been a black bear in summer, we would have started shouting and waving our arms to scare it away.  But we weren’t prepared for this and had no idea what to do.  So we just sat and watched.  The wolf didn’t seem aggressive, and it slowly moved directly toward me.  I remained motionless.  It came right up next to me and sniffed my arm.  I wondered, what I should do?  I was a little too unnerved to do anything.  The wolf seemed satisfied with my scent and moved on to my friend and smelled his boot.  And then, just as quietly as he arrived, he slowly walked off into the woods.  We sat there motionless, except for our eyes, all four of which were now the size of half dollars.  We threw some more wood on the fire and waited, but the wolf did not return.

Mystery Solved

Winter Camping in the North Woods

Comfortable digs on a winter campout.

“The next morning we got up and went out to fish.  In the distance, on the other side of the lake, we saw someone doing the same.  We decided to take a walk and share our wolf experience with this person.  We greeted him and explained what happened and asked if perchance he had encountered the same wolf.  He had indeed!  And suddenly the wolf was bounding across the ice, coming straight for us.  “Max, come on boy!  Over here!”  We were astounded that this guy was actually naming and calling wolves.  “Do you know this wolf?”, we asked.  He knew him all right.  He owned this “wolf”, which was actually a mix – half-wolf, half-dog!  We petted him and he licked our bare hands just as any dog would, especially since he was familiar with our scent after his visit to our campsite the previous night.”

 

Erma Herman Visits During a Cold Canadian Night

LF: Erma Herman. Though not snuggly, ermine are quite lovely little critters. Their Winter coat seems more purely white because of their black tails, bright black eyes and button nose. For several Winters I’ve enjoyed watching one that has visited our platform feeder to gnaw on the chunk of suet I put out for the birds. I marvel at the rapid movement, dashing back and forth, here one second, gone in a flash.

I’m guessing it’s one, as I’ve never seen two at the same time.

Last Winter, during a freeze/thaw period, after we had some plumbing issues that involved the plumber working in the crawl space under the house, we were visited by ‘Erma Herman’ in the middle of the night. I awoke to an alarmingly loud, squeaking/squealing sound coming from the kitchen and the cat “tharumping” across the floor, coming to a halt in front of the dryer, where I could see a tiny black nose poking out from underneath.

It had found its way in through the smallest of openings left by the plumber, making its way up the hoses for the washing machine and into the kitchen where the scent of cat food was calling. It took several nights, a mousetrap, which is still somewhere in the understructure of the house, several packages of steel wool and a roll of duct tape (Red Green would be proud) before it stopped coming in.

My neighbour, who no longer tries to keep chickens, is not a big fan of ermine, Winter or Summer.