Animal Gift Giving

Photo Credit – Richard Bartz

In the spirit of the holiday season, I found myself thinking about the fact that humans aren’t the only animals who give gifts. While animals don’t celebrate holidays or birthday, there are several species that do offer presents to others, and not just others of the same species. Crows, for example, have been known to bring gifts to people. Among the most intelligent birds, crows sometimes leave gifts for humans who feed them. One young girl in Seattle who regularly fed the crows, received dozens of small objects over years. Dolphins, which are highly social, intelligent animals, also bring gifts to humans. Their gifts of food come from the ocean, including octopuses, eels, and tuna.

Male great grey shrikes, another bird, bring gifts to females during courtship. These gifts are food, such as small animals or crickets. Male penguins bring their mates pebbles, which are used to make nests.

Anyone who’s had a cat can attest to their pet’s gift giving, usually in the form of a dead mouse or bird. The instinct behind this is that cats bring dead (or not-quite-dead yet) animals to their young to teach them how to hunt. As an owner, you too are brought these tools so you can learn how to kill your food.

Bonobos, with which humans share 98.7% of their DNA, are also gift givers. These animals will bring apples, bananas, or food to others who aren’t part of their group. Scientist believe they do this to initiate new interactions and to expand their social networks.

No matter the season or the occasion, may you too find the joy of giving to others (human or otherwise).

 

Bobcat

Photo credit dbarronoss

Over the past couple of years I have been fortunate enough to see several bobcats come through our yard. The latest was a week or so ago. It was the smallest one I’ve seen, not much bigger than a house cat (full grown bobcats are twice the size of house cats). And it was chased up a tree in the yard by a deer. Of course, we all went outside and sat on the deck to wait for the deer to leave and the bobcat to come down so we could get a better look. Eventually the big mean deer wandered off and the bobcat came down. It stalked our rabbits. Oh no!  Alas, the bobcat was neither sneaky enough nor fast enough to catch one.

Clearly our latest bobcat is very young. That made me wonder if it would be able to survive the winter. I will never know if that particular one does, but at this point in the season, bobcat young indeed are on their own. Our bobcat was likely born in April or May along with several siblings, and left its mother come fall.

Overall bobcats are very adaptable animals. They live in a wide variety of habitats across North America, including woodlands, swamps, deserts, and mountains. It is also not picky about what it eats, though it does prefer rabbits. It is definitely a carnivore, dining on rodents, birds, insects, and more. They will even eat deer fawns. While I do not particularly like to bear witness to animals hunting, a bobcat’s gotta eat and I hope our visitor hones its hunting techniques quickly.

On a side note, the evening after we saw the bobcat, I heard a strange sound outside just after sunset. It was a cross between a crow and a dog barking. I know that crows don’t call at night and the sound wasn’t quite like a dog. It was the bobcat once again. I hope the young bobcats sticks around!

Mistletoe

Photo Credit – Jean and Fred Hort

‘Tis the season of bright lights, jingle bells, and perhaps mistletoe. And should one find themselves standing beneath a sprig of mistletoe with someone else, tradition holds that they should kiss, lest bad luck befall them.

That tradition may be part of pop culture, but do you know that mistletoe is a parasitic plant? It is! Mistletoe plants live above ground, on the woody parts of other shrubs and trees. Mistletoe can only survive and reproduce on a living host, which makes them an obligatory parasite. Their roots penetrate their host enabling them to steal nutrients and water. Despite being a parasite, though, they seem to have little effect on their host.

The plant’s name comes from an Anglo-Saxon word, mistel, which means dung, and tan, meaning twig. The reason for the name is because long ago people believed that bird droppings propagated mistletoe. That belief was actually largely true, except that it was not the droppings themselves that propagated mistletoe, but the seeds the droppings contained. In the 16th century botanists made this discovery; birds ate the berries, the meal passed through their digestive systems, and the seeds were deposited elsewhere. Side note, a lot of seed dispersal occurs this way.

The kissing tradition surrounding mistletoe dates back to ancient times, perhaps as far back as the first century AD. Read the full history here. However you celebrate, happy holidays!

Downy Woodpecker

As I did fall clean up recently, I heard the unmistakable peck, peck, peck of a woodpecker. It took some time, but finally I found the source: a female downy woodpecker on the trunk of a ponderosa pine.

There are more than 200 species of woodpeckers in the world; 23 of them live in North America. The smallest of those is the downy woodpecker. This bird survives in a wide variety of habitats across the continent and it does not migrate, though the ones in more northern regions move down into valleys in the winter. Also in the winter, downy woodpeckers often join a mixed flock of birds including nuthatches and chickadees which are about the same size as downys. They do this so they have to spend less time on the lookout for predators and have better luck finding food sources. Teamwork!

The downy woodpecker’s size allows it to access food sources that larger woodpeckers cannot, including inside plant  stalks and tiny branches. One common source is goldenrod where they look for fly larvae. Sexism is alive and well among these woodpeckers. Males take the more productive food sites such as small branches and the stems of weeds. Females are left to forage on larger branches and the trunks of trees.

Interestingly these birds do not sing. Instead, they drum. The drumming is used to establish a territory and to attract a mate. They also make calls, which sound like chirps.