Fire-Starting Birds

Photo Credit – Vivek Joshi

Anyone who has observed or read about birds knows that they are highly intelligent. Corvids and parrots are among the most intelligent, able to solve complex puzzles and use tools. Other bird species have their strengths too. Among them are black kites, brown falcons, and whistling kites. They live in Australia’s tropical savanna and use fire as a tool. They are aptly nicknamed firehawks.

These birds are often found on the edges of wildfires having a feast as insects and small animals try to flee from the blaze. Not only that, people have observed these birds carrying burning sticks in their talons or beaks to different unburned patches of dry grass and dropping them to start a new fire. As the fire grows, the birds wait for the panic of their prey and then the feeding frenzy begins. After an area burns, the birds move on to a new area.

Aboriginal people have observed this behavior for thousands of years. And while it is well documented that these birds take advantage of fires for finding food, some people do question whether the birds are intentionally setting the fires. Scientific data and documentation are lacking. More scientific research is underway, but my money’s on the birds.

Prairie Dogs

Photo Credit: Tracy Abell (April 2022)

There are people out there who do not like prairie dogs. You know who you are. But I’m here to change your mind. Let’s start with the fact that they are not pests or disease ridden rodents. Like the rest of us, prairie dogs do get sick. In the case of the plague, prairie dogs get it from fleas. However, they usually die quickly and transmission to humans is extremely rare. Further, while prairie dogs are indeed rodents, they do not reproduce constantly like other rodents. In fact, they reproduce only once a year, in the spring, and give birth to 2-8 pups. Females do not even reach sexual maturity until they are two years old.

People who live near prairie dogs are familiar with their barks and chirps. Those calls are actually a complex communication system used in a colony. There are a variety of vocalizations used for different reasons. One of those is the call to alert others of danger. But it’s not a simple warning to duck and cover. Instead, researchers have discovered that prairie dogs can communicate the size and threat of an intruder. The calls also tell others from which direction the threat is traveling and at what speed. When danger has passed, they will also give the “all clear.”

Prairie dogs also dig an extensive network of tunnels and chambers underground – some of these extend for acres underground. They even have designated rooms. Prairie dogs have a nursery, sleeping areas, toilet chambers, and listening chambers near the entrance to the burrow.

If you are not yet convinced that prairie dogs are amazing, consider this: prairie dogs are a keystone species. You read correctly. Prairie dogs are vital to the ecosystems in which they live, and without them the amount of biodiversity drops dramatically. To start, prairie dogs are an important food source for many other animals. Yet they are equally as important to the prairie itself. The burrows prairie dogs dig aerate the soil and let water in. The digging also recycles the nutrients in the soil. And, of course, prairie dogs help fertilize that soil. All of this activity increases the diversity of flowers and grasses on the prairie. The flowers, in turn, attract more bees and butterflies. Prairie dogs keep the prairie open and free from trees and shrubs, which further increases the diversity of grasses. The diversity of grasses attracts more prey animals which, in turn, attracts more predators. In addition, abandoned burrows provide shelter for other species, including burrowing owls, snakes, and critically endangered black-footed ferrets.

So next time you see a prairie dog, consider all they do to maintain a healthy prairie ecosystem!

Is It a Crow or a Raven?

I’ve always been a fan of crows and ravens, mostly because they are part of the corvid family of highly intelligent birds. Corvids have large brains, can recognize human faces, use tools, and are incredible problem solvers.

Photo Credit: Rawpixel

Yet unless crows and ravens are standing next to each other, they are hard to tell apart. So I did a little digging. I already knew that ravens were larger than crows, but apparently ravens are the size of red-tailed hawk, an easy comparison to remember. In addition, ravens tend to travel in pairs while crows are often in larger groups.

If you see a large black bird flying overhead, one way to tell whether it is a crow or raven is to look at the tail feathers. The tail feathers of a crow are all the same length, so when they spread out during flight they look like a fan. Ravens, on the other hand, have middle tail feathers that are longer than the others, so during flight their tails are wedge-shaped. Further, if you see one of these birds soaring for more than a few seconds, it’s probably a raven. Crows flap their wings more. Finally, if you are close enough to the bird to hear a swishing sound produced by the wings, it’s a raven. Crows flapping wings are mostly silent.

A final way to tell these two bird species apart is to listen to them. Crows make the stereotypical high-pitched cawing sound. Ravens’ calls sound more like a low-pitched croaking. While that sounds like a simple distinction, I think it will take listening to a few sound recordings to be able to learn the difference. Still, bring on the corvids. I want to see if I can now tell them apart. Of course, I can always use Merlin’s Bird ID app to confirm (or not). And the bird in the photo? It’s a crow.

Predaceous Diving Beetles

On a hike this fall, once we reached our lakeside destination and ate lunch, I spent some time marveling at the view around me. Then my attention turned to the water. At first glance there was not much to see below the surface. But as usual, a little patience paid off. There! A small critter about an inch long darted through the water from one hiding place to another. It immediately reminded me of the grey sand crabs I used to dig up as a kid on the Maryland shore, though the one in the lake had black and white stripes. But we were a long way from Maryland, both in miles and elevation. This lake is in Colorado at about 10,000’.

I kept watching. There was only one. It swam effortlessly, then hid. I snapped a few pictures. At home I studied the pictures and looked it up. Unable to identify it, I sent the picture to the National Park Service (they’ve helped with identification of various things before). They were slightly stumped too, and my email was forwarded several times. Eventually the ID came back as a predaceous diving beetle.

I had already concluded that it was some kind of beetle, but had no idea that beetles actually swam. Or even lived in water for that matter. Of the more than 24,000 beetle species in North America, about 4% are aquatic. As I had discovered from watching the beetle in the lake, they have powerful, hairy hind legs for swimming. Yet while they are aquatic, they do not spend their entire lives in water.  Eggs are laid above the water on plants; when they hatch the larvae (called water tigers) will fall into the water. Once mature, they crawl out. They pupate in the damp soil and vegetation by the water. Once they reach adulthood, they reenter the water. They do breathe air, so when under water, these diving beetles carry air with them so they can stay under for an extended period of time, like a scuba diver with an air tank.

As their name suggests, these beetles are carnivorous predators, hunting insects, tadpoles, small fish, snails, and even other water tigers. When they grab prey, they inject it with an enzyme that begins the digestive process. The innards of the prey liquify, making it easier for the beetles to extract. The adults are also chewers and will eat carrion. Be on the lookout in a lake near you – there are about 500 different species of predaceous diving beetles in North America.

Pika

Indian Peaks Wilderness, July 2022

I will readily admit that when I’m in the mountains above tree line that I’m always on the lookout for marmots. They are among my favorites. More recently, though, I’ve had a growing fondness for pika. These small mammals are in a family related to rabbits, not rodents. And they’re adorable – they have pudgy, egg-shaped bodies only 6-7 inches long, they have short, rounded ears, and no visible tail.

Pika are especially adorable when scampering back to their underground hideouts with bunches of grasses and flowers sticking out from either side of their mouths. In this sense they are farmers, harvesting plant material to cache for the winter because they do not hibernate. Their stockpiles are appropriately called haystacks. But what’s even more interesting about these stores is that some of the vegetation is toxic. Somehow they know this and will store these materials at the bottom of the pile. Not only does this help preserve other plants, but the toxins break down over time and can be eaten safely late in the winter.

In the high county pika are found in open rocky meadows or boulder fields. They chirp or squeak, alerting us to their presence (or more likely, alerting other pika to our presence). But finding them isn’t always that easy because their fur color perfectly matches that of the boulders. You have to stop for  moment to watch for movement. If you do, your patience will be rewarded.

Zombie Fungus

I am not a big Halloween fan but figured it would be rather bah-humbuggy of me to ignore it altogether. Besides, what better to discuss on Halloween than zombie fungus? The first thing to know is it’s not the fungi themselves that are zombie-like. Instead these fungi got their name because of they turn their victims into zombies. And for the record, there is not just one zombie fungus out there in the tropical forests of the world. Oh no. There are hundreds of species of zombie fungus and each targets a different insect.

Here’s how it works. The spores of the fungus infect an insect. Then the fungus hijacks the insect’s brain and controls what it does. This mind control causes the insect to act peculiarly and to seek a location with conditions optimal for the fungus – just the right amount of light and humidity. The insect then clamps down on a leaf or twig or stem. And dies.

Photo Credit: Bernard DUPONT from FRANCE

But the fun has only just begun. The fungus feeds on the insect’s innards. It grows. Then after a few days, the fruiting body of the fungus sprouts out of the insect’s body. Sometimes one stalk. Other times many, many more. Like limbs reaching out from the insides of the insect, they grow and grow and grow, for up to three weeks. Eventually, a stalk will spew spores from its tip, up to 30,000 in one second. And the whole process starts over again.

And creepy though it may be (and a bit disgusting), these parasitic fungi have an important role to play in the ecosystem – they keep the populations of other species in check. This maintains a balance in the ecosystem which also promotes biodiversity.

Moose

Moose are the largest animals in deer family, with males weighing up to 1800 pounds. And they’re herbivores. That, of course, had me wondering – how much does an animal of that size have to eat every day? They spend about eight hours every day feeding and need to eat 30-40 pounds of vegetation for survival. Apparently they also have quite a complicated digestive system designed to allow them to get the most nutrition out of every bite. The process includes digesting a bit of food, regurgitating it, then chewing the cud, and re-swallowing. De-lish.

Oddly, male moose use up to 25% of their energy growing antlers. Seems like the equivalent of spending 25% of your life’s savings on a fancy car. Those antlers on a male moose can be 6 feet wide. Bull moose shed their antlers every fall and re-grow them every spring, with the antlers growing larger each year. At the peak of antler-growing, the antlers may grow as much as ¾ of an inch every single day. Again, think of the amount of vegetation needed to grow those things. Once the antlers have grown to a formidable size, they are used to attract females and to fight off competition. Speaking of which, during mating season bull moose become so focused on the task at hand that they stop eating and may loose up to 100 pounds. But back to the antlers. While it may seem like bull moose devote an inordinate amount of energy growing those antlers, only the moose with the best antlers are successful at mating. They are a sign of health and fitness. Any moose unable to grow a hefty rack must not be healthy and therefore don’t win over any females.

Successful breeding in the fall results in a calf being born in the spring. Calves weigh about 30 pounds at birth and by late fall weigh up to 300 pounds. They nurse for about two months, then begin testing out various vegetation. They will stay with their mothers for a year who provides much needed protection. It should not be lost on us that while cow moose spend their time protecting the young, the bulls spend theirs growing antlers.

My wonderings about moose were inspired by a gigantic male we had the luck to see on a recent hike only a few miles from home. It was a cool, foggy, fall morning and we were on the lookout. And there he was, patiently chewing his cud and not the least bit interested in our passing. Still, we kept our distance.

Mushrooms, Take 2

Hassell Lake (elevation 11,385'), October 2022, Arapahoe National Forest

Hassell Lake (elevation 11,385′), October 2022, Arapahoe National Forest

Behold Ramaria largentii. I was drawn to this 6-inch high thing because it was a splash of bright yellow on a dark forest floor. It practically begged for attention. When I knelt down, I was further intrigued. It was like nothing I’d ever seen, with tiny branch-like arms twisting around each other as they reached toward the sky. But what was it? Some kind of mushroom, I wondered? So I touched it. As we all know, you don’t touch things in the forest you know nothing about. Still.

It was the consistency of stiff rubber, but the branches moved apart with a gentle push. A solid little thing, clearly healthy. I did conclude it had to be some form of fungi, and then continued to ponder whether I’d lose my finger or keel over right then and there. I’m happy to report I made it safely back to the trailhead and I still have all 10 fingers.

Back home I learned both its Latin name and that it is one of about 200 species of coral fungi. Coral fungi! A closer look at the picture shows that it does actually resemble marine coral to a degree, thus the name. I also discovered that people liken it to cauliflower in texture. This type of mushroom is edible. However, pink or reddish ones are to be avoided. Yes, slightly poisonous. This mushroom is both good for you as Indigenous peoples surely understood, and has medicinal properties (antimicrobial, anti-oxidant, and anti-cancer). Which leads me to a new word… Ramaria largentii is a nutraceutical in that it is both nutritious and has medicinal value.

Mushrooms

Mushrooms are one of those things that, aside from eating them, I hadn’t really given much thought to. Every once in a while along a trail I’ll notice a mushroom or two, maybe even take a picture. But on a recent hike, far above tree line, I was surprised to find mushrooms. And not just one kind, but several. This high altitude, rocky, exposed environment did not seem to be the optimal place for mushrooms to grow. As a rule, they like damp, dark environments such as a forest floor. Yet as always, there are exceptions. And, mushrooms can actually grow in a variety temperatures ranging from 40° to 90° F.

A little research reveals that mushrooms of all kinds are somewhat of an anomaly. Let’s start with the fact that they aren’t plants (and as a side note, should therefore not be referred to as a vegetable). Mushrooms do not contain chlorophyll and therefore cannot make their own food. Instead, they are thieves. They steal the carbohydrates they need from other plants. This is why they are usually found growing on trees or other plants, or in dead organic matter. Many of these types of mushrooms play an important role as decomposers. There are other types of mushrooms that have a symbiotic relationships with their plant host, without which neither would survive.

Mushrooms are fungi (another side note, not all fungi are mushrooms). The part of the mushroom we see growing above ground is the “fruit” or “flower” of the mushroom. This is the reproductive part that drops spores that will be dispersed by the wind. And what we see above ground is only one small fraction of these fungi. The rest is below ground and consists of hairlike threads called mycelium that can grow to cover hundreds of acres. In fact, the largest known living organism (by mass) on Earth is a fungus in Malheur National Forest in Oregon. It has been aptly named the Humongous Fungus and covers roughly 3.7 square miles.

My little venture into mycology has made me wonder about the soil in which the high-altitude mushrooms I saw were growing. Clearly the mushrooms were thriving, so there must be a lot more going on in the soil than I would’ve thought. And one last side note – apparently Colorado is a mushroom hotspot both above and below tree line, with between 2,000 and 3,000 different species living in the state!

Flying Striped Yellow Things

We have been plagued by flying, striped, yellow things all summer. They have bullied the hummingbirds away from the feeder. They sting. They build nests in the compost. We mostly try to coexist. But the stings were kind of the last straw. So we buy a trap. Not chemicals. Please, not chemicals. But when buying said trap, do we get a wasp trap? A yellow-jacket trap? That of course leads to the question, what exactly are those flying, striped, yellow things?

So I did a little research to determine the difference between bees, hornet, wasps, and yellow jackets. And the bottom line seems to be that unless they all line up side-by-side for a group photo, it’s not so easy. Let’s start with what I do know. Bees are a family unto themselves and easier to identify, with the biggest giveaway being that they are fuzzy (be it a honeybee, bumblebee, or carpenter bee). They’re also a bit stockier than the others. Now, I don’t normally get close enough to any of our flying, striped, yellow things, but I’m pretty confident with my bee identification. We have not been plagued by bees.

This is when things get a little more difficult. Hornets, wasps, and yellow jackets are actually all wasps, from the family Vespidae (bees, on the other hand are from the family Apidae). So if you say, “There’s a wasp!” and you know it’s not a bee, you have correctly identified the flying, striped, yellow thing. Yellow jackets tend to be brighter yellow than other wasps, but again, unless they all line up, who’s to say what “brighter” is? And yellow jackets are smaller than wasps. But again, how can you tell unless they are together? Paper wasps are the ones who make the paper-like honeycomb nests in all the places around your home you’d rather them not build. Yellow jackets tend to nest underground. There are, of course, exceptions to this.

The takeaway from all this? Unless there is an imminent insect family photo, I’m going to just stick with, “It’s a bee!” or “It’s a wasp.” That much differentiating I can do! Anyone interesting in being able to distinguish among wasps, click here.