Happy book birthday! Animal Conservationists makes its way into the world this month, celebrating the ongoing work of scientists to save species at risk in the face of climate change, habitat destruction, pollution, and invasive species. The work of these scientists includes monitoring bats affected with white-nose syndrome and collaboration between groups to find practical solutions to the epidemic. Others have focused their efforts on preserving or restoring habitats, including the Everglades in Florida. Breeding programs have also helped species like the California condor; thanks to the efforts of conservationists, the population of these birds has recovered from 22 in 1982, to over 400 in 2018. In zoos, scientists use animal matchmaking to determine genetically ideal matches in order to help recover species populations. Coral breeding programs are likewise helping to restore coral colonies. In addition, technology is playing an increasingly important role in species conservation. These animal conservationists on the front lines of saving species at risk are doing amazing work – work that should be celebrated and highlighted!
If you look like the leaf you’re sitting on, you are a lot less likely to be singled out as a meal by a predator. And, if you don’t get eaten, you are also more likely to live long enough to reproduce. Chances are, your offspring will also look a lot like a leaf too. Hopefully they don’t get eaten either.
Meet the satanic leaf-tailed gecko of Madagascar. Through millions of years of evolution its camouflage is so precise it really does look like a leaf. And if some sharp-eyed predator (birds, snakes, and rats) does happen to spot one of these geckos, the gecko will resort to plan B. They scream. Plan C is to leap to a new branch. But take a look at the picture. Can you spot the gecko? I’ll be plan A works most of the time!
In my lifetime I’ve watched many, many documentaries, but none have made me laugh out loud like Dancing with the Birds. I also think I set a new record for the number of times I said, “WHOA!” All the birds in the documentary were fantastic, yet the male MacGregor’s bowerbird stole the show. This bird builds a bower on a platform of moss that’s more like a tower of woven sticks and twigs – it’s over 3 feet tall! The bird may spend months or years perfecting its bower and maintaining it. He also decorates, hanging plant sap and caterpillar feces among the lower branches much like humans decorate Christmas trees.
Once perfected, he awaits a female. When one arrives, he begins a show of vocalizations. MacGregor’s bowerbirds imitate other birds’ song as well as human voices and the sound of children playing. To say that this is amazing is an understatement. You gotta hear it to believe it. Then, once the female arrives at the bower they begin a lengthy game of hide-and-seek around the tower. They flit and jump round and round, back and forth. And hopefully, for him, she is as impressed as I was.
I am constantly reminded that the earth is an amazing place. For me, the awe usually has to do with some kind of living creature. This past weekend it was rocks. Paint Mines in El Paso County, Colorado is a treasure of colorful rocks, spires, and hoodoos (a column of weathered rock). The colored bands were caused by oxidized iron compounds. Erosion exposed the layers of geologic history, creating the gullies and hoodoos in the process. And long before white settlers moved west, native peoples used the clays tinged with yellow, red, orange, purple and gray to make pottery. Some evidence points to humans inhabiting the area as long as 9,000 years ago.
Today it is a county park. In addition to the beautiful rocks, it is full of cottontails, jackrabbits, and deer. There were probably coyote slinking through the grasses too. And as the sun set, casting long shadows and intensifying the colors, I couldn’t help but once again, be amazed.
As I walked across campus this week, I came across a squirrel hastily covering a nut or acorn it had just buried. When it saw me it froze. Caught in the act. We had a staring contest for many seconds. I won. The squirrel scampered off.
Like many kids, I learned early on that squirrels don’t hibernate, and in advance of winter they store food. But I had lived my whole life (until now!) and never actually seen a squirrel doing it. It made me wonder how many other stashes that squirrel has. Will it remember where they all are? Most likely. They bury different caches of food all over the place and use both memory and smell to find it when needed. They can even find their food when there’s a foot of snow on the ground!
Many people don’t much like squirrels, but I do. They are intelligent, playful, and funny. They love a good game of chase or taunt the dog. They are masters at figuring out how to get to the bird feeder. They can leap between branches in a single bound. One squirrel in my yard likes to come look in the window right next to my desk. And, in the deepest days of winter, when the days are short and the rest of the world is resting, the squirrels are out scampering about having a jolly good time. Best of all, not all of squirrels’ buried nuts get dug up, which results in more trees!
Remember each day
The power of being present.
Of not speaking
but holding a hand
giving a hug
offering a smile.
life, love, and laughter.
Because today is a gift.
As I walked by Boulder Creek near the library the other day, the usual flock of ducks was happily cackling, swimming, and preening. The shoreline and rocks in the creek were covered in snow. I was bundled in boots, coat, and a hat – barely warm. As I watched them go about their duck business as usual, I was glad I was not one of them.
The more practical side of me, however, reasoned that ducks were adapted to deal with the cold (yes, 15° in October). They wear a down coat, after all. But what about those feet??? Lots of other birds will fluff up their feathers and hunker down to protect their feet. But ducks (and other water birds) swim in frigid water and stand right on the ice. How can they do that? The scientific name is a counter-current heat exchange system. For us non-scientists, this means that the veins and arteries in ducks’ legs are packed close together. So warm blood heading down to the feet heats up the cold blood returning from the feet. That way the bird can maintain a constant body temperature. Not only that, but their feet are specially designed to withstand the cold because they have little nerve tissue or muscle. Their feet are made of mostly bones and tendons. Still, I’m glad I’m not a duck.
On this cold and snowy day in Colorado, it’s time to talk about turtles. What do they do when it’s this cold (and their pond freezes over)? They are cold-blooded after all. Well, they hibernate. Painted turtles slow their body metabolism down by as much as 95% and spend the winter at the bottom of a pond. Except, wait, don’t they need some oxygen? They do! And that’s where this gets both interesting and funny.
Painted turtles have a cloaca – an all-purpose orifice. Basically, it’s their butt. Turns out that area has special blood-vessels that takes up oxygen directly from the water, so the turtles do not need to breathe air. So the next time you wonder what painted turtles are doing in the winter, know that they are taking a snooze at the bottom of a pond and breathing through their butts.
Anyone who’s ever been to my house knows that yard work is not high on our priority list. We like to go for the “au naturel” look. And we succeed marvelously. Luckily, we live in an area where that’s okay. Perhaps that’s why we live where we do. Anyway, I read an article earlier this week that slashed any guilt (there wasn’t much to begin with) I might have had about our lack of fall clean-up. The article, “To Help Birds This Winter, Go Easy on Fall Yard Work,” was published by Audubon. I’m happy to help birds!
My distaste for yard work aside, I’d always known on some level that much of the organic material did need to stay in place so the seeds could work their way into the ground and to replenish the soil. But I’d never thought about the birds and the bugs. Of course all of that stuff is good for them! Decomposing leaves, flowers, grasses, and the like all provide food and shelter throughout the winter. So, I’ll sweep the walkways, and trim and tidy a bit here and there. That’ll take an hour. After that, I’ll sit back and enjoy the fruits of my (lack of) labor all winter.
Let’s talk about vultures. They are definitely not the most glamorous of animals. After all, they’re a bit odd looking (even ugly?) and they eat roadkill. But they are oh, so cool. Let’s start with why many species of vultures are bald. That’s so when they stick their heads in that rotting, nasty roadkill, the festering blood full of bacteria doesn’t get stuck in their feathers! And now you’re probably wondering, how they can eat rotting meat in the first place and not get sick. Turns out that the stomach acid of vultures is so corrosive that it can dissolve some metals and therefore makes short order of any bacteria in the dead meat they feast on. That stomach acid comes in handy in other ways too. Once digestion is complete, vultures poop on their own legs. Disgusting? Most certainly. However, not only does that help vultures to cool down on hot days, but the acids help to disinfect their legs and feet after they’ve been mucking around inside a carcass. Yes, you read correctly. Their poop acts like a cleanser. The stomach acid of vultures is also useful when it comes out the other way – when they barf. Some vultures will projectile vomit when threatened. If the smell alone doesn’t send a predator running, the acid that is in their vomit will. No, vultures are not glamorous; but there’s no denying it – they are amazing.