Saturday, April 30, 2011

Snow Geese

Snow Geese are one of the most commonly seen of all the water fowl in the United States. It is not uncommon to see flocks containing hundred's of thousands of birds. They are native to North America and are sometimes referred to as the Blue Goose. The two common names of Blue and White refers to the range of colors that this bird comes in. They will range from completely snow white with black markings on their wings to bluish color and even speckled varieties like the pictured here.

They breed in the northern most parts of their range, Greenland, Canada and Alaska. White- and blue-morph birds interbreed and the offspring may be of either morph. These two colors of geese were once thought to be separate species; since they interbreed and are found together throughout their ranges, they are now considered two color phases of the same species. The color phases are genetically controlled. The dark phase results from a single dominant gene and the white phase is homozygous recessive. When choosing a mate, young birds will most often select a mate that resembles their parents' coloring. If the birds were hatched into a mixed pair, they will mate with either color phase. They will migrate south during the winter and it is at this time that they come into Missouri in HUGE numbers. Squaw Creek NWR refuge sees up to a million of these birds each winter. 

 White- and blue-morph birds interbreed and the offspring may be of either morph. These two colors of geese were once thought to be separate species; since they interbreed and are found together throughout their ranges, they are now considered two color phases of the same species. The color phases are genetically controlled. The dark phase results from a single dominant gene and the white phase is homozygous recessive. When choosing a mate, young birds will most often select a mate that resembles their parents' coloring. If the birds were hatched into a mixed pair, they will mate with either color phase. Snow geese breed from late May to mid August, but they leave their nesting areas and spend more than half the year on their migration to-and-from warmer wintering areas.

During spring migration, large flocks of snow geese fly very high along narrow corridors, more than 3000 miles from traditional wintering areas to the tundra.
Outside of the nesting season, they usually feed in flocks. In winter, snow geese feed on left-over grain in fields. They migrate in large flocks, often visiting traditional stopover habitats in spectacular numbers. Snow geese often travel and feed alongside white-fronted geese; in contrast, the two tend to avoid traveling and feeding alongside Canada grey goose, who are often heavier birds.

The population of Greater Snow Geese was in decline at the beginning of the 20th century, but has now recovered to sustainable levels. Snow Geese in North America have increased to the point where the tundra  breeding areas in the Arctic and the salt marsh wintering grounds are both becoming severely degraded, and this affects other species using the same habitat.
Major nest predators include Arctic foxes and Skuas. The biggest threat occurs during the first couple of weeks after the eggs are laid and then after hatching. The eggs and young chicks are vulnerable to these predators, but adults are generally safe. They have been seen nesting near Snowy Owl nests, which is likely a solution to predation. Their nesting success was much lower when snowy owls were absent, which leads scientists to believe that the owls, since they are predatory, were capable of keeping predators away from the nests. Few predators take snow geese away from the nests, but Bald Eagles do take them given the chance.

 The dark color of the blue morph Snow Goose is controlled by a single gene, with dark being partially dominant over white. If a pure dark goose mates with a white goose, the offspring will all be dark (possibly with white bellies). If two white geese mate, they have only white offspring. If two dark geese mate, they will have mostly dark offspring, but might have a few white ones too.

Snow Goose hunting in the eastern United States was stopped in 1916 because of low population levels. Hunting was allowed again in 1975 after populations had increased. Populations have been growing so large that the geese are destroying nesting habitat. Hunting has not slowed the dramatic increases in population size.

Populations have been growing exponentially in most parts of the range. Some colonies are becoming so large that the geese are destroying nesting habitat, and hunting is proposed to decrease the populations.

Which is smarter, a snow goose or a crow? This seems like a ridiculous question. In folklore, the goose is regarded as “silly,” and the crow is regarded as wily.

When Aphrodite first came ashore she was welcomed by the Charities (Roman "Graces"), whose chariot was drawn by geese.

Cornell University

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Silver-Haired Bat

Today when I arrived at work Dr. C from the University was in my office and asked me if I would like to see a silver-haired bat hanging onto the side of a tree? "Of course!" Did he even have to ask? We grabbed Dr. Ashley and headed out into the timber to see the bat. It was clinging to the side of a tree about 4 feet off the ground. This is the first time I've ever seen this particular species. 

Silver-haired bats (
Lasionycteris noctivagans), which also go by the name of Silverwings are medium sized bats covered in dense black hairs . The hairs on their back are tipped in silvery gray. 

The species name of this bat translates into "night wandering shaggy bat."

Their preferred habitat is forested areas, which is exactly where we found this bat. There is a patch of timber directly behind our office building that the University uses for their ecology class, biology class and herpetology classes. I use the trail through the timber for trail hikes with visiting school groups. 

Silver-haired bats hide out during the day in cavities within trees, and under the bark of trees. Why this particular bat was clinging to the side of the tree completely exposed to the elements and prying eyes is a mystery, especially since there are shagbark hickory trees within 10 feet of where this bat was located.

Shagbark hickory's are one of the most common trees in the timber near our office. I like to point them out to the children, and talk about how special they are.They have such "shaggy" bark and grow incredibly tall. I always ask the kids if they like the cartoon Scooby Doo? They all raise their hands. Then I ask them who Scooby's best friend is....they all answer "Shaggy". Then I ask them to look in the woods around them and find the "shaggy tree" It takes them a few minutes, but they all find it. I confirm that they are right, then tell them the tree is called a Shagbark Hickory. 
Then I tell them to hold up their fists, and explain to them that an animal the size of their fist lives under the bark of the shagbark hickory tree during the day and comes out at night to hunt insects. Do they know what it could be? I get many responses from Birds, bugs to snakes, but eventually they settle on bats, and of course they are right. 

Had the silver-haired bat chosen to rest under the bark of the Shagbark it would have been a better choice, but for some reason it seemed content right where it was. We were able to get close to it and photograph it, and at no time did it seem alarmed or bothered. Our voices didn't even bother it. Hopefully it wasn't sick, although Dr. Ashley didn't seem to think it was.

This bat is found throughout the United States with exception to Florida. Their northern most range is Alaska and parts of Canada. They even range into Mexico. They feed on a wide variety of insects including moths, caddisflies, mosquitoes, crickets and beetles. 

These bats form maternity colonies in tree cavities or small hollows. Mating takes place in early fall and fertilization is delayed until the following spring. Two pups are born between late June and early July. Just before birth takes place the female will begin to roost with her head facing upward. She will hold her tail membrane forward to form a cup-shaped basket which will catch the pups as they are born.

Adults may live up to 12 years, providing they aren't preyed upon by skunks, feral cats, owls or raccoons. Silver-haired bats are one of the slowest flying bats in the animal kingdom, which could account for their susceptibility to predation. Unlike other bats this species roosts singly instead of with other members of their kind. 

This species is somewhat migratory. In its northern most range it will migrate south and spend the winter in caves or other secluded locations. Little else is known about their hibernation habits. These bats are one of the most common bats found in the United States. They are known to carry a special strain of rabies that is reported to be only in this species and the Eastern Pipistrelle . 

Reported deaths have occurred due to this strain of rabies. Silver-haired bats have very tiny, sharp teeth capable of biting without undue pain. Many people are bitten and do not even release they've been bitten. The puncture wounds are so tiny as to be almost unseen. These particular cases of rabies have been primarily reported from the more northern and northwestern regions of their range. It is always best to not handle a bat, this is especially true of a bat found during the daylight hours. Better safe than sorry. That being said, bats are one of the most important predators of insects in the animal world. The presence of rabies in bats is relatively low, with approximately 1/2 of one percent of bat populations carrying the virus. The good outweighs the bad and bats should be tolerated. I have put up bat houses hoping to attract them to our farm, but so far they have not used them. Hopefully one day they will take up residence here.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

False Morels

This blob-like, brain-like, fungus is a False Morel in the genus Gyromitra. There are several mushrooms within this genus and all are referred to as false morels. They also go by many other common names, such as Red morel, beefsteak, brain mushroom, glob mushroom, and redheads. 
They have well developed stems, and their oddly shaped caps are generally reddish brown to yellowish brown. When sliced open, they are not completely hollow--and this is the best way to distinguish them from the morels, which are hollow.

Many people eat these mushrooms with no ill effects, but studies are showing that others have severe reactions to eating these mushrooms, and in some cases death could result. Other reactions to consuming these mushrooms could be dizziness, nausea, and coordination problems. In southern Missouri these are eaten regularly with Yellow Morels and are considered quite tasty. Perhaps certain people have built up immunities to the toxins within these mushrooms. Perhaps they are just lucky. Perhaps their bodies are just able to consume them and not suffer for it. I for one would not want to chance it. I would rather err on the side of caution and live another day...or at the very least, not spend days suffering ill effects from a potentially poisonous mushroom. 

“There are old mushroom eaters and there are bold mushroom eaters, but there are no old bold mushroom eaters”

The one pictured here is very large, it measures nearly 9 inches tall, and 6 or 7 inches in diameter. The base is 4 or 5 inches in diameter. I believe it is Gyromitra esculenta. Which generally fruits near conifer trees. It is referred to as beef steak morel in some areas and is consumed after special preparation. There have also been confirmed fatalities. Some of the toxin is removed by boiling multiple times in water and discarding the water. Reportedly cooks have been poisoned simply from breathing the steam. One of its toxins is monomethylhydrazine (MMH) which has been used in rocket fuel. It is available canned and dried from Finland and probably other countries as well. 

So what's the problem? One danger is the varying levels of MMH in different poisonous mushrooms. Some species contain very little, others contain enough to kill. MMH levels also vary among geographic regions within a single species. The point is nobody knows how toxic any false morel will be in any location. MMH is a cumulative toxin. This means that its levels will build up in your body after repeated consumption. This could lead to illness or even death. Keep that in mind the next time someone insists to you that they've safely eaten these poisonous mushrooms.

Most appear in the spring and summer and grow directly on the ground. Although some are found on wood or later in the year, they are unlikely to be mistaken for true morels. Caps are usually brown or reddish brown and occasionally yellow. Most stems are a light color, ranging from white to tan. These mushrooms are considered saprotrophs, meaning they feed on dead and decaying organic matter. Some have suggested that they may be mycorrhizal as well (forming a symbiotic relationship with trees).
Like true morels, false ones are often found in areas where the forest floor has been disrupted. You're more likely to see them near washes, rivulets, man-made disturbances in the ground, and roadsides.

Make note of the cap shape. False morels have caps that are "wavy" or "lobed". They appear to be bulging outwards. True morels have a more uniformly shaped cap with pits or ridges. They appear to be pitted inwards rather than bulging.The cap of the false mushroom hangs freely from the stem. A true morel has a cap that will be attached to the stem. This is not always the case but more often than not it is.

Don’t eat any mushroom unless you are ABSOLUTELY sure that it is safe!
You should never eat any mushroom unless it is positively identified as edible. If you are in any way uncertain about the edibility of a mushroom, don’t try it. If in doubt, throw it out!
While morels are easily identified, other species of safe mushrooms have deadly look-a-likes. If you are just starting to collect and eat wild mushrooms, don’t rely on books or websites alone for your information. Go hiking with experienced experts, who can show you how to identify the important characteristics of edible and poisonous mushrooms.


Monday, April 25, 2011

House Sparrow

House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) is a small non-native bird that resides near human dwellings. Its species name of domesticus even hints at its preference for associating with human activity. They are native to Europe, Asia and parts of the Mediterranean and have been introduced throughout the World, both purposely and accidentally. They are perhaps the most widely distributed bird species in the World.

House Sparrows aren’t related to other North American sparrows, and they’re differently shaped. House Sparrows are chunkier, fuller in the chest, with a larger, rounded head, shorter tail, and stouter bill than most American sparrows. So these gregarious birds should not be mistaken for native species of sparrows. The house sparrow competes for nesting sites with native birds and often displaces them. Bluebirds are especially targeted by this bird, house sparrows will enter the bluebird house and peck holes in the eggs or kill the babies. They also take over purple martin houses, chick-a-dee houses and any other birdhouse they can fit into. I noticed one the other day in my own backyard trying to fit into a wren house entrance. It's eyes seriously misjudged the diameter of the hole, compared to the size of its own body. She worked and worked at trying to fit. I had to admire her for the positive attitude...kind of like a woman who is convinced she can wear a pair of jeans one size smaller, and will do everything she can to make them fit!

I personally do not tolerate house sparrows and as soon as I discover nests in my bluebird houses or other bird houses I destroy the nest, eggs, and any nestlings. I admit this is an ongoing battle and I find myself clearing out a nest almost daily for over a month or more. Some people may find this cruel to the bird, and cannot imagine killing any bird, and that is fine. If you prefer to let them take over your nest boxes and breed and add to the ever growing population of house sparrows then that is your choice. I for one prefer to give the native species a fair chance. House sparrows and starlings are two species of birds that are not protected under the migratory bird act, or by any other Federal or state laws. They are much more aggressive than the smaller nesting birds that typically fall victim to the house sparrow invasion. I do however have a pair that takes up residence in my clothes line pole every year, and I leave them alone. Mostly because they are not invading the bird houses.

Birdwatchers have no particular love of house sparrows and that comes back to the invasive tendency of the species. These birds feed on a wide variety of seeds and other foods. They are very fond of wheat and oat seeds and will often invade fields in large numbers. Farmers often shoot, bait or trap the adults to keep them out of their fields. Sparrows are also known to spread diseases such as West Nile and Salmonella to humans and to livestock, which is one more reason they should not be tolerated in large numbers.

House sparrows do have natural enemies in the form of birds of prey, in particular American Kestrels. Cats will also capture many house sparrows. In Europe they are often victims of roadkill and in parts of the Mediterranean humans feed on them as part of their normal diet.

House sparrows were introduced into the United States in 1851 in New York to help control caterpillar populations. After the initial release there were many subsequent releases in various parts of the country, with each release they became more and more established. They have now spread their range throughout all of the United States. They are listed as a species of least concern with the IUCN because of their large population and range. These birds return to their birthplace after every migration (a characteristic known as philopatric). Because of this, local populations have adapted to the color of their habitat resulting in 15 distinct subspecies in the West.

Depending upon how you feel in regards to these little birds, you may want to implement a control plan on your own property. This is especially true if you have bluebird houses.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Cedar-Apple Rust Galls

Cedar Apple-Rust Galls are a type of fungus in the genus Gymnosporangium. While they can and do cause damage to apple trees. They are not known to cause any significant damage to cedar trees, but can become unsightly if there is a large infestation. In some rare cases if there are apple trees and cedar trees within the same vicinity it may cause death to both trees. Cedar trees become infected in the summer months, and by June of the following year small green-brown, somewhat kidney-shaped galls will be present. Each gall is covered with small circular depressions, similar to the dimples on a golf ball. The following year, in damp weather the depressions sprout with orange tentacle-like projections that swell immensely (pictured).

 After last nights rainy weather our cedar trees came alive with these odd looking fungal galls. The projections are gelatinous and feel very slimy to the touch. Once the rains of spring subside the galls die  and may damage or kill the part of the tree it was attached to. If that is the case, my trees are doomed. They are completely infested.
My nearby apple and crabapple trees may possibly be in trouble. As the apple tree is next in line for spreading this fungus.

On susceptible crabapples and apples, tiny yellow spots appear on the leaves after infection in the spring. As the spots mature, they become yellow/orange and swollen with a red border, and develop tiny black dots in the center of the lesion. By mid-summer, small cup-like structures with tubes are visible on the undersides of mature leaf lesions. The fungus may also infect fruit and even succulent twigs of very susceptible crabapple and apple varieties. 

From the slimy projections on the juniper, basidiospores are released that infect crabapples and apples. Although these spores may be carried several miles, most infections occur within a several hundred feet from the source juniper. A wet spring period of 4-6 hours at 50-75 F is sufficient for severe infection. Symptoms are described above. Two to four weeks after the tiny dots appear in the center of each spot, tubes appear on the undersides of leaf lesions. Most people only notice this stage after the tubes have split and take on a ragged appearance. Aeciospores, released from the tubes, become airborne and infect susceptible juniper hosts from midsummer into early fall.
The following spring, galls (consisting of both fungal and host plant tissues) begin to develop on the juniper. These galls continue to grow through the summer, and by fall they are full size (3/8 to 1 and 3/16 inches in diameter), greenish-brown to tan and round to kidney shaped.

In addition, golf ball-like depressions form on the gall at this time that will give rise to telial horns the following spring. The telial horns are brownish in color, but rapidly elongate and become bright orange with spring rain. Shrinking and swelling of telial horns can occur several times with intermittent rainfall. Each time the projections swell, basidiospores are released.

After the projections have released their spores, the horns collapse, dry and eventually fall off. The galls die at this point, but may remain attached to the juniper for a year or more.
In summary, the complete cycle of cedar apple rust takes 24 months to complete and requires infection of two different hosts.

This fungus is a major pest to apple orchards and can cause significant damage and make the fruit unmarketable. In some states there are ordinances that state any infected cedar tree within a mile radius of an apple orchard must be cut down. Fines are issued for those who do not comply. Remarkably the fungus does not generally damage the cedar trees, only the apple trees. Buying resistant varieties of apples, like Delicious, helps reduce risk to this damaging fungus. 


Thursday, April 14, 2011

Muskrat---Missouri's little water rodent

This adorable little swimming creature is a muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus). These medium sized rodents are found in all manner of aquatic habitats, including wetlands, ponds, and lakes. Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge has hundreds of these little muskrats swimming around the wetlands. They are closely related to voles and lemmings. Their common name comes from two special scent glands located near the tail that are capable of giving off a strong musky odor. They are also related to Beavers, and share the same habitat, but are easily differentiated by their much smaller size. Muskrats weigh up to 4 pounds and can grow to be approximately 24 inches in length, half of that will be tail length. Muskrats are covered in two layers of dense, short fur. The double layer of fur helps them stay insulated in the cold water. Their tails are long, hairless, covered in scales and flattened vertically to help them maneuver as they are swimming. They drag their tails behind them as they walk on land making them easy to track.

They are comfortable walking on land as much as they are swimming in their aquatic habitat. In the water they can dive and spend up to 17 minutes underwater. They close off their ears to keep water from getting in them. They do have hind feet that are somewhat webbed which helps them swim, but their tail is the main means of propulsion.
Muskrats are very common all across the United States, Canada and parts of Northern Mexico. They are however absent from Florida where the Round-Tailed Muskrat is found instead.

Muskrats continue to thrive even though much of their wetland habitats have been destroyed, this is large part due to the fact that new habitats are created in the form construction canals and drainage ditches. They are able to live in areas that are somewhat polluted such as the sulfurous runoff from coal mines. Frogs and other aquatics creatures cannot survive in such areas.

In the spring fighting will break out among males that are fighting for females or defending territories. Some of these fights can be severe and often they are injured or even killed. The two pictured here were chasing each other. I somehow think this was a male chasing and pursuing a female. She wasn't having any of it though. She swam away, and when he gained ground on her she would turn on him and snip at him. Gives new meaning to the term "muskrat love"! Once a mate is located they will remain together and rear their young.

Muskrat families build nests to protect themselves and the young from cold and predators. In streams, ponds or lakes, muskrats burrow into the bank with an underwater entrance. These entrances are 6 to 8 inches wide. In marshes, lodges are constructed from vegetation and mud. These lodges are up to three feet in height. In snowy areas they keep the openings to their lodges closed by plugging them with vegetation which they replace every day. Some muskrat lodges are swept away in spring floods and have to be replaced each year. Muskrats also build feeding platforms in wetlands. Muskrats help maintain open areas in marshes, which helps to provide habitat for aquatic birds.

(Muskrat lodges at Squaw Creek NWR)

Muskrats are most active in the evening or early morning. They can be found feeding on cattails, and other aquatic vegetation. It is reported that they do not store food for the winter, but instead feed on the insides of their lodges when they are unable to get out and swim to seek food. They also share a somewhat harmonious relationship with local beavers and may raid their food stores. Although nearly 100% of their diet is vegetation, they may on occasion eat mussels, frogs,fish, crawfish, and small turtles. Muskrats create trails that they travel to and from the water, these trails are even visible under frozen water. It is these travel pathways that trappers will set their traps to capture these little furbearers. 

Muskrat fur is warm, and the trapping of muskrats for their fur became an important industry in the early Twentieth Century. At that time muskrats were introduced to Europe as a fur resource. Muskrat fur becomes prime at the beginning of December in most northern states. Muskrat fur was specially trimmed and dyed and called "hudson seal" fur, and sold widely in the United States in the early twentieth century. They spread throughout northern Europe and Asia.

Some European countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands consider the muskrat to be a pest that must be exterminated. Therefore the animal is trapped and hunted to keep the population down. The muskrat is considered a pest because its burrowing causes damage to the dikes and levees that these low-lying countries depend on for protection from flooding. Muskrats also sometimes eat corn and other farm and garden crops.

Some people eat muskrat meat and claim it tastes like duck (at least they didn't say chicken). In Detroit it has been ruled by the Archdiocese that muskrat can be eaten during lent in place of fish as they live in water same as fish, so therefore is considered the equivalent to fish. 

Native Americas considered the muskrat a predictor of the upcoming winter weather. They would watch the muskrat and his autumn activities. If the muskrats built mounds early and much larger, then the winter could be expected to be severe. In some Native American folklore it was the muskrat that dove under the primordial seas and returned with the mud that created the Earth, after other animals had tried and failed.  

Muskrats are an important part of any ecosystem as they provide necessary nutrition to other animals in their environment, including mink, bobcats, lynx, fox, coyote, bears, eagles, alligators, wolves and snakes. Even otters, and snapping turtles may prey on the young muskrats if they can catch them. 

These little water rodents are a pleasure to watch and visiting any nearby wetland should yield numerous muskrats to enjoy.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Blue Jays

Blue Jays(Cyanocitta cristata) are easily one of the most recognized birds in Missouri. Their distinctive blue and white plumage and their loud obnoxious calls make them unmistakable. They are located throughout the Central and Eastern United States and parts of Canada. There may be migratory populations in the Western United States. Males and females look alike and their plumage does not change with the seasons like many other songbirds do. A signature mark of this species is the black collar around their neck. Males measure 9 to 12 inches in length with wingspans up to 17 inches....females may be a little smaller. Blue jays also have a crest on top their heads, which they raise when alarmed. These birds are the sentry of the woods, calling out loudly to advertise to all forest residents that danger is lurking nearby.

Blue jay feathers, like many other birds with vibrantly colored feathers are referred to as structural coloration, which means the color is caused by light refraction, rather than any true pigment. If you were to crush the feather it would lose its structural integrity and therefore lose its color too. I found this blue jay feather in our timber, where perhaps the bird is molting into its new springtime feathers. Birds must molt their feathers a couple of times each year. Some will molt into new breeding colors, others like the blue jay merely molt into new, more structurally sound feathers. I love hunting for feathers and have a small collection of them I have found over the years, I think they are among one of the most intricate and beautiful things found in nature.

Blue jays have a large, varied diet that will include nuts such as acorns, seeds, berries, fruit, insects, other bird eggs, small frogs, and other vertebrates. I've witnessed them consuming dog food, cat food and garbage. They are common backyard visitors and many people have mixed feelings about their presence. They are known to be aggressive and will often run more timid songbirds away from feeders and they will even invade the nests of other birds and destroy eggs and nestlings. I've heard people refer to them as "trash birds" which is unfortunate, because they truly are remarkable birds with gorgeous coloring and unique habits. I have at least three nesting pairs each spring and each are welcome visitors. They seem to get along well with the other birds at the feeders, at least for the most part. They often hoard nuts and bury them in the ground, and much like squirrels do that share this same habit they often forget where they buried them. This forgetful nature benefits the trees by allowing the buried seeds to sprout and encourage new trees to grow. From this stand point they help plant trees, which helps the forest grow and succeed. 

The moment a little boy is concerned with which is a jay and which is a sparrow, he can no longer see the birds or hear them sing.  ~Eric Berne

Mating season begins in mid-March and continues until Mid-April. Nests are built in bushes, trees or other suitable locations (they seem to prefer evergreens). Pairs bond for life and both sexes will work together to build the nest. The male will look after his female and even feed her as she sits on the eggs. Typically she will lay four eggs and they will hatch in about 3 weeks. Both mom and dad will take care of feeding the young and they will be ready to fledge the nest in about 3 weeks. The parents and offspring will remain together until fall, when they will go their separate ways. This helps to avoid food competition in the winter when food is more scarce.

In old African-American folklore of the southern United States the Blue Jay was held to be a servant of the Devil, and "was not encountered on a Friday as he was fetching sticks down to Hell; furthermore, he was so happy and chirpy on a Saturday as he was relieved to return from Hell"

Blue jays are highly intelligent and are able to solve simple puzzles and will utilize "tools" to help gain them access to food. They are very vocal and are capable of learning a wide variety of sounds, including human voices, dogs barking, cats mewing, and hawks screetching.  They reside in a wide variety of habitats, including coniferous and deciduous forests, suburban and urban backyards as well rural areas. They are very common in all their range and are even spreading further westward to the Northwestern territories. In these areas they may interbreed with Stellars Jays. 

The oldest blue jay studied by researchers in the wild lived to be 17 years and 6 months old, most blue jays live to about 7 years old. One captive female lived for 26 years and 3 months.

As spring returns and the birds are busy nesting and tirelessly feeding their offspring is a perfect time to exercise some tolerance and appreciate all of the native wild birds that make our backyards their home.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Missouri Black Bear

(Photographed at Omaha Zoo)

This beautiful bear is the American black bear (Ursus americanus), and they are the only bear native to Missouri. Black bears are the smallest of all the bears found in North America. In Missouri black bears were hunted almost to extinction and were considered extirpated from the state by the 1950s. In the 1960s Arkansas implemented a program to restore the black bear to their state. It is believed that the majority of the bears that currently reside in Missouri are a result of those Arkansas bears. Some DNA testing has been done on Missouri black bears and some unique blood lines have been discovered which lead officials to believe that at least some of the bears found in our state are direct decedents of our original black bear population. Until recent years Missouri black bears were an elusive creature, rarely seen by humans.
With more and more sightings occurring near human activity it has prompted the Missouri Department of Conservation to implement a data study on these elusive bears. The study, which is being funded through the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Wildlife Restoration program with help from Safari Club International, will provide information about the movement patterns, population densities, habitat preferences and overall numbers of Missouri bears.

The first phase of the current study – which is a joint effort between the MDC , the University of Missouri-Columbia and Mississippi State University – consists of trapping and radio-collaring 13 bears in southwest and south-central Missouri this fall. These bears will be monitored over winter to learn more about denning habits and the time frame of winter denning in Missouri.
In spring of 2011, hair snares at select sites throughout southwest and south-central Missouri will collect data that will help biologists get better estimates of overall population and male/female ratios. In fall 2011, 13 bears will be trapped and radio-collared in southeast Missouri and those bears’ denning habits will be monitored over the winter. The field portion of this project finishes in the spring of 2012 with the setting of hair snares in southeast Missouri.

 (Photographed in Tennessee---Cades Cove---Smoky Mountains)

The black bear is the largest and heaviest wild mammal in the state. It has a long muzzle with a straight facial profile; rounded, erect ears; rather short, stout legs; and a very short tail practically concealed in the long, heavy fur. For black bears in Missouri, the fur is predominantly glossy black; the muzzle is brown, and there is usually a white patch on the chest. The sexes look much alike, though females are usually smaller than males. They may weigh up to 800 pounds or in some cases more, but typically males will weigh between 125-550 pounds. The females weigh around 90 to 275 pounds. They will reach lengths up to 6 feet. Their color can vary widely depending upon their range....this includes blond, white, brown, cinnamon, and dark chocolate brown. As mentioned, Missouri bears are mostly jet black in fact 70% of black bears are indeed black. They are very strong creatures and can flip over boulders weighing as much as 325 pounds. They're excellent swimmers and will often swim just for fun, but also to hunt for fish. They can also run rapidly reaching speeds up to 30 mph.

Their generalist nature allows them to take advantage of their environment by feeding on a wider variety of foods. In the wild Black bears eat a variety of foods. Plant matter includes grass, berries and other fruits, various seeds and nuts, the inner bark of trees and roots. Animal food includes ants, bees and their honey, crickets and grasshoppers, fish, frogs, small rodents, fawns, bird eggs and many kinds of carrion. Acorns are an important food source in the fall as bears prepare for winter. As they prepare for hibernation, they may gain as much as 30% of their body weight.
Black Bears are attracted to areas inhabited by humans because of the immediate availability of food. This may be in the form of garbage, garden vegetables and fruits, even pets. There have been reports of these over exuberant bears coming into house through open windows, doggy doors or doors left open. If this happens they will literally raid the pantry. They are very dexterous and can open screw lids on jars and work latches on doors.

(Baby black bear photographed at Cade's Cove---Smoky Mountains)

 The American Black Bear is listed with the IUCN as a species of least concern due to their large distribution as well as their large global population estimated to be twice that of all other bear species combined. The black bears are not related to polar bears, brown bears or grizzly bears. All of these bears split from a single species of bear approximately 5 million years ago. The black bears closest living relative is the Asiatic bear. Asiatic and American black bears evolved from Sun Bears approximately 4.58 years ago. After this initial split the American Black Bear then split from the Asian Black Bear approximately 4.08 million years ago.

A few years ago we took a family vacation to the Smoky Mountains and stayed in a cabin not far from Cades Cove. We took an auto tour through the park and were speculating as to whether we would see a bear. We were approximately a mile into the drive when we spotted a large bear reaching up into a tree to feed on the ripened cherries. We drove a little further and came to a creek where a small child was swimming. We told the family there was a bear nearby, and no sooner did we say those words when a yearling cub crossed the creek about 20 feet from where this little boy was swimming. They scooped the boy up and put him in the bed of the truck. We were so excited, not only did we see one bear, but two! We drove on further and noticed a bunch of people pulled off the side of the road. We got out to see what was going on and noticed three bears in a tree. A momma bear and her two cubs. We watched their antics for quite some time, several times covering our eyes as the baby bears nearly fell from the tree branches.  This was the highlight of our trip to be able to see so many of these wonderful bears in one location.

I feel honored to live in a state with such a diversified wildlife population. Even though these bears were not photographed in Missouri, I know that they live here and that is enough for me. One day perhaps as I venture to the southern part of Missouri I will be able to witness one of our very own black bears.