Sunday, January 31, 2016

Animal Frenemies

Like many people, I love viral videos about lions that befriend baby antelopes or zoos where tigers decide to be best buddies with the live goats given to them as food. I watch with awe, and knuckles tightened, as people show videos on youtube of their cat playing sweetly with their cockatiel or a bunch of ducklings sleeping serenely on the back of a bird dog. I’m even enjoying my own “lion lies down with the lamb” scenario here at home, with two cats and a rabbit running around in the living room together, giving off an air of happy curiosity, occasionally sniffing each other’s faces. It’s heart-melting stuff.

I’ve been obsessively watching the live birdcam hosted by Skidaway Audubon Society in Savannah, Georgia, trained on a great horned owl nest. (You can watch two live cams here or go to “highlights” for videos of some of the most interesting moments.) It seems as if the spring nesting season will never get here, and fortunately great-horned owls start their nesting season in January. So I can watch the mother - and occasionally the father, when she needs to have a break or go hunting - on the nest, keeping two good-sized eggs warm on cold winter nights.

This morning on the bird cam, I observed a couple of interesting things. First, I heard a squirrel squawking and watched as Momma Owl got more alert and interested, rolling her head around in that amazing way that owls have. I saw the squirrel come up the tree, eye level with the owl, and shake its tail. The owl tensed up, stood, clicked her bill menacingly, and rushed at the squirrel, feathers fanned out so that she looked twice her size. The squirrel ran off but continued to squawk from nearby for at least 15 minutes. Momma Owl eventually relaxed and started looking a little sleepy. Then the pesky squirrel jumped over her nest, from one branch to another, and the process began again. The squirrel was messing with her!

Just after the squirrel incident, there was a moment of much greater tension. I could hear American crows having what I call their “morning coffee”. Crows live in large, extended families and communities, and early in the morning they like to meet together in a group of tens or hundreds and call to each other for half an hour or so. I like to think they are discussing the previous day’s news and checking in about what’s up for the day ahead before they fly off in different directions. This morning the crows were very close to the nest, and Momma Owl seemed to respond with a great deal of concern, even hooting for a while, perhaps as a warning to the crows or to summon her mate in case she needed protection.

Squirrels and crows are the prey of great horned owls, which eat just about anything in the size range between frogs and large Cooper’s hawks, including other great horned owls. But Momma Owl looked vulnerable when the squirrel and crows were on the scene. If she were in the air, and could swoop down on that squirrel, the squirrel would be lunch. Sitting in her nest, needing to protect her eggs from cold air or egg-stealing species (such as squirrels and crows), however, she was vulnerable. A great horned owl is not agile enough to suddenly rise up in the air and fasten her powerful talons around a squirrel, nor do the size and shape of her bill allow her to grab at a quick, clever, squirrel-sized mammal unless she already has it subdued within her talons. There was nothing she could do except try to scare the squirrel away. The squirrel finally gave up; it had made its point. But that squirrel had better sleep with one eye open tonight, if you know what I mean.

I’ve noticed Momma Owl’s fear of the crows on other days. Her best strategy there seems to be to lay low and hope they don’t notice her. Crows are not afraid to mob and harass owls and other predators when they are in flight. But it is hard to believe that crows would try to force Momma Owl out of her nest. Why would they want to get her in the air, where she’s more of a threat to them? Nevertheless, crows are often seen harassing and taunting nesting owls for long periods of time. Again, crows seem to enjoy messing with them! This interesting column offers a thought-provoking explanation that the crows are acting out their fear and hatred of owls. There is also the possibility that crows - and squirrels - are engaging in signaling behavior, a well-documented survival strategy in which a prey animal deliberately gets close to a predator in order to say, “See, I’m so fast and strong that I know I can get away from you - so you might as well not even try!”

My point here is that there are always conditions when the prey can have a little fun with the predator or when the vulnerability is temporarily reversed. But predators are predators and prey are prey - and a change of conditions will always right the situation. In other words, I put my money on Momma Owl every time.

Same with our domesticated or encaged animal frenemies. That recent lioness and antelope video, when analyzed by experts, showed that the lioness was simply playing with the baby antelope just as a housecat plays with a mouse. It can look sweet at times, but it’s really quite cruel and always ends in mangling and death for the mouse or antelope. A tiger and a goat can be buddies in the rarefied environment of a zoo, but that should always be seen as an exception rather than a rule. Our rabbit Ollie can play with the cats while I am there to supervise, but I rely on the fact that Ollie is as big as they are, and can run faster and navigate the small spaces of our house with more agility if she needs to. The cats are well fed and lazy; if they were outside and hungry and saw Ollie streak by, I have no doubt their instincts would kick in and they would chase and kill her.

We all love the thought of the lion lying down with the lamb, and viral videos suggest that it can happen from time to time. And we apparently love to set up unusual conditions in which cross-species “friendships” can occur and then allow ourselves to extrapolate these to visions of world peace. But it’s wise to remember the old story about the girl who found an injured snake and nursed it back to health. The snake bit her, and she died from the venom. The moral of the story? A snake is still a snake.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Deer 911

A couple of months ago, I was leaving a late-night meeting to drive the 45 minutes home on dark, two-lane Appalachian roads. “Be safe!” my fellow volunteers called out as I left. I shared their concern: dark country roads during the deer rut are dangerous indeed, and I always thank God when I make it home without killing myself or a deer.

I didn’t hit a deer on the way home, but I saw one that had been hit by someone else. It was bucking desperately from where it lay on the side of the road, trying to stand up so it could run to safety. It was a small deer, probably one of last year’s fawns or maybe a yearling, I’m guessing a doe. I called 911 and asked timidly if the need to put down an injured deer is indeed an emergency. Turns out it is, and the dispatcher sent a Maryland state highway officer to do the job.

While I waited, several cars stopped for a few seconds to look at the deer and then drove on. Finally, one stopped and backed up toward me, and a young woman got out.

“Are you claiming it?” she asked.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Are you claiming it? If not, I’ll take it. We don’t like to see good meat go to waste.”

I looked at her small, two-door, foreign car questioningly. “Hey,” she said. “All I need is a knife, a tarp, and a trunk!”  She was a tiny, thin thing. You gotta love a tough country gal.

I explained that I had already called 911, and she looked a little disappointed. “Well, hopefully he’ll let me claim it. He might want to use my knife instead of shooting it since we’re so close to houses.” It seemed she had done this before.

We waited together until he arrived, about fifteen minutes later. By then, the deer had managed to get on its feet and drag its wounded rear end across the road, where it continued about four or five feet and lay down in the grass. (For those of you who fault me for wasting the time of a police officer on such a situation, I can add that the deer standing in the road almost caused another hit. So ... endangering the public, etc., etc.)

I fretted the whole time. I hated to see that poor animal suffer. I also hated to think that she might actually heal up and survive if there weren’t an officer on his way to kill her, thanks to me. My husband is a hunter and has seen (er, shot) some strange things: a deer with a broken leg that had healed, a deer that had been shot and whose body had calcified the bullet and gone on to survive to an old age. Oh well, I consoled myself, at least she’ll feed a family. I know personally how deeply satisfying it is to go into winter with a freezer full of venison.

How many deer die horrible deaths every day as part of their natural lives? I would be willing to bet it’s a very high number. Disease, starvation, wounds, attacks by other animals, old age - the end of life can be pretty horrible for a deer. For all wildlife. So why did I feel so heartbroken about a deer hit by a car and so personally responsible for making sure that it suffered as little as possible? I’ve been chewing on that ever since, and I think it goes beyond the fact that I just really love animals.

I think we feel a responsibility for wildlife that live in our human environment. That deer was in the road that night because we built the road, because in the last few years we took that isolated farmland and developed it with McMansions and condos and now there are way too many cars on that narrow, curvy, unlighted road. We turned this country into a country of edges, where woods and fields come together, and the deer population thrived and increased because edge is the perfect habitat for white-tailed deer. I’m not faulting us for that (at least not right now, in this blog), but I am interested in how it might make us feel responsible for the animals that then live and die in our human landscape. It’s not so easy to just dismiss death as “part of the life cycle” when we set up the conditions that led to it.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

20 Minutes of Wildlife

A sense of disappointment always sets in for me in August, as the songbird mating season comes to an end and the birds fall silent, and then they start to leave the area, and then the summer insect sounds die away, and then the butterflies fade, and then the first hard frost comes and most of the plants still managing to produce in my garden freeze and die. Although frenetic animal activity begins - such as the white-tailed deer rut and the pre-hibernation feeding frenzy of groundhogs and other burrowing rodents - it doesn’t seem to provide the same pleasure as springtime viewings of fawns and muskrats and bunnies. By November, I feel hopelessly distanced from the natural world.

But it’s really not true that the world of wildlife disappears or even slows down. I was just reviewing my notes from a 20-minute walk I took in mid November. In just 20 short minutes, I saw a female turkey, a young white-tailed buck, and a mink. The birds were crazy with activity, and in a short stroll along a creek I saw a pair of mallards, a mockingbird, several robins, several cardinals, a bunch of male bluebirds fussing at each other and chasing each other through the trees, juncos, goldfinches, and 20 or so yellow-rumped warblers flying down to drink and then back up into the trees. I heard a song sparrow, a Northern flicker, and crows. And I’m sure there were many other animals in my vicinity who saw me but remained beyond my notice.

One of my very favorite books is Jon Young’s What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012). An experienced tracker, Young explains how understanding bird behavior and sounds can clue one in to many aspects of the natural world. Birds have different songs to indicate different kinds of predators: those on the ground, those coming through the trees, those high up in the air. Their flight patterns also indicate where a predator or food source might be. Young recommends that you sit in the same spot everyday, remain quiet until the birds forget you are there, and then observe. You will quickly begin to distinguish different kinds of calls and activities, particularly if you focus on one species. Fall and winter are ideal times to do this because you remove certain activities and calls related to mating and nesting from the equation, leaving fewer factors to consider in your study. And without leaves on the trees, the birds are much easier to find and keep track of.

Winter can be ideal for learning about other wildlife, too, particularly when there is snow on the ground and you can see tracks. A basic book of mammal and bird tracks is a helpful guide to identifying tracks, and following them can give you clues to an animal’s route, particular behavior, and even the location of a winter den.

Nature organizations and national parks host lots of activities in the winter to help people experience the natural world. My local Audubon society is offering free bird-watching trips, a tree identification workshop, a tracks identification workshop, and several lectures over the next couple of weeks to help people fend off the indoor ennui of winter. I hope you’ll join me in finding opportunities to take advantage of winter and take yourself back out into the natural world to see just how alive it is - at all times of the year.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Cat's Meow

You may think writing about our house cats doesn’t fit the purview of a blog about nature. But I would argue that much of our interaction with nature comes through pets - and that we can learn a lot about wild animals (and ourselves) by observing their domesticated counterparts. If you doubt me, then read Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s book, The Hidden Life of Dogs.

We’ve had Lemmon for a little over three years now and Chili for about two. We found Lemmon as a kitten on an isolated stretch of highway, and Chili was a street cat who was picked up and loved for a few years before being given to us because of allergies. Two somewhat wild cats, at least at some point in their lives.

They are very talkative cats. I have whole conversations with Lemmon. She trills every time she enters the room or passes me in the hall. She purrs and blinks to show me she’s happy. She meows a questioning little meow when she thinks I might be heading toward the food pantry, and then she yowls insistently as I start to get the food out, put it in the bowl, and carry the bowl to her spot. Chili was silent when she came to us, but now she makes a heartbreaking little shriek when she’s ready for food. And, when she needs attention, she drags her favorite toy (a bit of Christmas ribbon) into the room, rolls around in it, and yowls until one of us comes and jiggles the ribbon in the air in front of her.

I poked around on the internet a few months ago and read that cats don’t meow to each other; it’s a sound they reserve for humans. Kittens meow a bit to their mothers, and cats yowl and hiss at each other about territorial or reproductive issues. But the trilling and meowing of adult cats are strictly for their human friends. That’s true in our house. Lemmon and Chili greet each other with silent face licking. We recently left on vacation for a week. When we got back, after what was apparently a week of silence, it took them a couple of days to remember their sounds and get back into the habit of talking. And they didn't always do this. These behaviors have developed over the years.

So we as humans have brought out a form of communication in animals that wasn’t really present in their natural, undomesticated lives. It’s not language exactly, as explained in this article, but it’s something. But that’s not what fascinates me the most. Instead, I am amazed to think what cats have done to us. When Lemmon trills, I trill - and give her a chin scratch. When Chili yowls, I yowl - and get up to go play ribbon with her. They’re both “pleasantly plump” from all the extra little bits of food their meows have gotten them over these years. And note the above wording: “I have whole conversations with Lemmon.” We go back and forth, with me meowing at her as much as she is meowing at me, sometimes spurring her on to louder and more insistent yowling with my own. So we humans, too, have developed a form of communication that wasn’t really present in our natural, undomesticated-by-cats lives.

One of the ongoing themes of this blog is how we as humans are shaped by nature, sometimes in ways that we don’t even realize. If two little furry animals can manipulate my behavior and get me to develop a whole new mode of communication, just imagine how much I as an individual and humans in general are shaped by the natural world around us.

Well, that's all I have time to write - I hear some insistent meowing in the kitchen.