Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

June 7, 2007

Baby Bunny Bonanza

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:17 pm

It never ceases to amaze me.  I know Cottontail Rabbits can secret their young in the oddest of places, but I never thought I’d find a nest under a classroom chair.  It was strange enough that a bunch of bunnies were holed up along the edge of the other classroom wall last week, but this one takes the cake. 

  These particular rooms are wall tents that we use as outdoor classrooms at the Marshlands Museum.  The floor is made up of grass and straw and the chairs are of the folding variety, but active classrooms they are.  Over the course of a given day they are noisily occupied all day Monday through Friday.

  The first nest was discovered after the little bunnlets were seen dashing about inside the tent.  The location was inside the door and out of the traffic mainstream to the left. We set up the tents up at the end of April, so the female responsible for these bunnies must have set up shop the very night after they were put up. The little ones never bolted or showed themselves while class was in session, but remained hidden beneath a layer of fur and straw.

  This latest bunny nest is under the third chair in the third row in the second tent.  It is quite new, but based on the size of the babies, it has been there for a few days. Fortunately the nest is nearly impossible to see – being directly under the chair seat where the grass has not been worn down by shuffling feet (take a look here). 

  Cottontails are masters of nest camouflage.  As one of the most prolific mammals on earth – a female can have up to 4 litters a year- they certainly get a lot of nesting practice. By secreting their nests right in the middle of the target, they are able to avoid detection.  Often the location is in the middle of an open lawn or literally right beneath your feet.

  The nest itself is nothing more than a shallow bowl. In this case, the depression is only about 6 inches across and probably 4 inches deep.  A dense layer of fur provides a comfortable bed liner at the bottom of the bowl. Another fur layer is pulled over the young when she leaves.  As a final dressing, a layer of straw is arranged over the top.   Overall, the only indication of this nest was a tuft of fur sticking out of the straw.

  I gently teased the straw away and peeled the fur blanket back to take a look at the miniature bunnies inside. The felt-like coverlet consists of soft fur plucked directly from the doe’s belly and it is surprisingly dense. Tucked well inside their fur pita pocket, six tightly packed young are revealed (see them here).

  These little ones were brand new and each was about the size of a fat thumb (about 1 ounce in weight).  Their eyes and ears were sealed shut, which is an indication that they are still under 4 or 5 days old. Their soft gray bodies are just starting to take on a layer of precise hairs.  Each fat little tummy is rose petal pink to match the color of the neatly formed paws and pouting mouths.  Obviously aware of the disturbance to their dark world, they squirm about and seek the shelter of their siblings.

  Cottontails Rabbits are members of a group of mammals called Lagomorphs. They share this order with the hares (Snowshoe Hares are a common northern Michigan example).  While both of them have hare-lips, the biggest difference between a rabbit and a hare becomes evident at this early growth stage. Hare young come out of the hatch fully “haired” with their eyes & ears open. They are ready to do the tango within minutes of their birth. Rabbit young, on the other foot, are blind, hairless and completely helpless when they are born.

  I suppose I could mention that defenseless rabbit young are called “Altricial Young,” but that probably is not entirely necessary.  I can authoritatively state that it was a Hare, and not a rabbit, that beat the tortoise. For the sake of completeness, however, I should mention that Pikas are also members of the Lagomorgh clan and that there was a giant extinct bunny called the Minorcan Giant Lagomorph that once roamed the earth. All of this is fairly useless knowledge, so I won’t burden you with it.

  I covered up my little clutch and left them to their future. They’ll grow by leaps and bounds (pun intended) by adding 2.5 grams of body fat per day thanks to mom’s rich milk. Mom will return to feed them daily just before dawn and around dusk, but she will leave the nest alone most of the time. Although I’ve not seen it, the female apparently positions herself over the nest and the babies poke up through the fur to grab a drink.  In this way the nest surface remains undisturbed. Should things proceed as normal, these little guys will open their eyes on the 5th or 6th day, leave the nest after 15 days and be fully weaned within two weeks.

  With the school season just about finished, this latest crop of rabbits should be up and out of the classroom in no time. Unfortunately, many of them won’t be around for the fall semester. The trick with bunny watching is not to get attached to any individual rabbit.  They are born to be eaten, so their survival is not good. Within two years nearly all of these rabbits will be in the history books.

June 5, 2007

Chuck Chat

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:29 pm

  I spotted a fine fat woodchuck yesterday and slowed down to watch her.  Unfortunately, she had already spotted me and was nervously making her way toward the den entrance.  The dirt pile marking her lair was only a few feet down the split rail fence, but she was in no rush to reach it.  Normally chucks race to their refuge at the slightest provocation. This one swaggered a bit and lashed her short hairy tail like a semaphore flag. With each step, the gesticulating tail action increased in intensity. 

  Three young chucks suddenly appeared out of the long grass and clustered about the den entrance. They turned briefly to assess the danger before diving into the comforting darkness.  Her pups secure, the matron ceased her tail flagging and followed them into the hole.

  A little further on, I came upon another family of woodchucks grazing in a field. This group was a good distance off, so I apparently posed no immediate threat. The large female sauntered about while her young directed their attentions to the tender greens at their feet. Upon reaching a small tree, she rose up on her hind legs and smelled a particular spot on the trunk. She then rubbed the bark with her chin and cheeks and dropped back to all four feet and continued on.  Later she gave the same rubbing treatment to a large rock above the den entrance.

  There is nothing remarkable about these two incidents but they do provide an opportunity for a bit of woodchuck chat. Chucks are an exceedingly wary bunch of mega-rodents and they don’t often “allow” you to watch them – it normally is the other way around. These sentinels usually spot danger long before it spots them.  The classic woodchuck sentinel pose, erect and upright on their haunches, is a well honed survival skill.  So, let’s take the opportunity while it presents itself.

  First of all, this is chucklet season – the time of year when you can spot the broods of little woodchucks (3-5 per pair) cavorting around their dens. Woodchucks have only one brood a year, and they grow up quickly (1 ˝ months before weaning), so the opportunity is short. 

  The tail wagging, chin rubbing behavior can be explained by a brief look at the family album.  Woodchucks are squirrels, even though they’d prefer to keep it a secret.  Their squat badger like physique and short tail are features demanded by their burrowing lifestyle. Tree squirrels employ their bushy tails for balance and mood expression. A worried squirrel will lash its tail about as an expression of pure anxiety (kinda like nail biting). A worried mother chuck will do the same when concerned that her babies might be in danger.

  Tree squirrels can communicate through scent and have a variety of glands to deposit e-mails (excrement mail).  Squirrels rub their chins on branches to deposit oil and mark territory.  A rock rubbing chuck is performing the same ancient squirrel ritual.  According to a Cornell University website, woodchucks show affection for each other by rubbing cheeks “where their scent glands are located”. The chuck I observed was employing those very glands.

  Tree squirrels, of course, are also known for communicating through their constant chatter. The very name of the woodchuck comes from their propensity to engage in such squirrel talk.  Aside from the common name of Groundhog, settlers have long known the chuck as a “Whistlepig” due to its verbal barrages. In the Algonquin Indian tongue, the animal was originally named “Ot-chuck” in imitation of the call. Unable, or unwilling, to fully interpret the native name, settlers settled on “Wood-chuck” as the closest approximate pronunciation.  Unfortunately, this lazy European language thing has created a whole lot of misunderstanding over the years.

  Woodchucks are field dwellers and do not live in “the woods.” They are not made out of wood nor do they eat wood. As long as we are at it, they don’t know much about weather prediction either (The first woodchuck I spotted this year was wandering about over snow drifts on Jan. 18).

  All of this negative stuff doesn’t matter one wit to those smart folks over at Cornell.  According to their website, Cornell University hosts “the world’s only scientific source of disease free woodchucks.”  (Take a look at the article about their Woodchuck Farm here.) The scientists are attempting to unlock the secrets of groundhog chemistry.  It appears that these pristine chucks are providing insight into the treatment of Hepatitis B and Liver Cancer and might prove to be medical miracle mammals.

  As a side to their important work, the Cornell scientists have managed to come up with an answer to that age old chuck question.  You know the question, so I won’t repeat it here, but the answer is “about 700 lbs.”  Science marches on.

June 3, 2007

Be There Monsters Here?

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:05 pm

  Young Wilson stumbled upon the curious remains while walking the Lake Erie beach. The specimen was a section, nearly a foot long, of what appeared to be a tentacle from a sizable beast. There being no other parts lying about, he rushed back to Captain Dirk with his solitary prize and displayed it for his assessment. The crusty captain was tolerant of the youthful investigations of his son, but wished him to show more interest in affairs of the ship rather than the shore. He examined the specimen through squinting eyes and turned it about. “Certainly a mysterious thing, this,” he mumbled. “I’m not aware of any of the fish kind that would possess such a limb.”

  The other hands were engaged in net repair, so didn’t even look up when their lanky shipmate rushed by the tarring vats with his find.  Like their captain, the crew was accepting of the adventurous lad and often contributed to his cabinet of curiosities. They would attempt to identify his various finds and elaborate upon subjects about which they knew absolutely nothing.  Not one to elaborate upon such things himself, Captain Dirk turned to his resident blowhard to perform the duty. “Simms,” the captain called out. “What do you make of this?”

  The beckoned deckhand slowly rose from his labor and limped over. His face recorded a slightly worried demeanor as he approached. “What ever it is, Capt’n, I’ve nothing to do with it.  Now, Taylor over there was him that put young master Wilson up to it, I’m sure.”  “Simms,” Dirk responded, “I’m sure I don’t know what you are talking about. Look here at this curiosity and tell me if you’ve ever seen anything of the sort.”

  Upon beholding the specimen, the blood drained from the sailors face and his stubbly beard erected as his lips pursed. “Oh my, sir, it’s a frightful thing you are holding there. It surely is a piece torn from Nymphaea herself.” At this revelation, the seasoned captain and his juvenile counterpart registered the same expression of wonder – if this is part of an immense water creature, then what of the beast that rendered it so? 

  The tentacle was a leathery section of sun-dried skin (view it here). It was greenish brown in color and bruised like a rotten banana peel. What appeared to be sucker discs were rough textured ovals with three to five smaller pores beneath. Most of the inner muscle fiber was gone and what remained were but a few sinewy threads. It was obvious that this section was violently rent from the beast.

  “Where’d you find such a thing, young Wilson?” inquired the sailor. “Up the beach there,” responded the lad, but he hesitated briefly before continuing, as if taking in the gravity of his statement, “there at Deadman’s Point.” Simms took in a breath and his eyes darted from side to side. “Better keep this to yerself, lad.  The Nymphaea is only a legend. I’ve never seen her, but if it gets out that she really exists, well, there’s no accounting for the actions of sane men.” He addressed this last portion of the phrase to the captain. “They say she’s a Manitou of sorts that lures sailors to certain death. She beckons ships to wreck in the shallows. Her beauty is beguiling.”

  Captain Dirk shook his head and retorted “How can a creature with tentacles be beguiling, Simms?” The sailor hesitated for a moment and quietly whispered “that’s the part you don’t see until it’s to late.”  The issue was put to an uneasy rest for the remainder of the day and the tentacle was locked up for safe keeping. Simms feigned illness, so as not to be tempted into spilling the beans to his crewmates. Doctor Gillhouse was summoned the next day with the hope that he might shed some light on the matter while “curing” sick Simms.

  The portly doctor sauntered up the dock to the Mystery, Captain Dirk Wilson’s ship, early in the morning. Young Wilson greeted the bowler topped physician with bubbling enthusiasm. “Doctor Gillhouse, you won’t believe this one! I’ve found…” His statement was cut off as his father appeared above deck and loudly proclaimed his own greeting. “The patient’s in my room, follow me,” he beckoned while bringing a single finger up to his lips and darting a glance at his son.

    Inside the dark interior of the room, Simms was there sitting up and looking as well as an over-indulging simple minded Tar can look.  The real patient was quickly presented to the doctor before he could ask the nature of the sailor’s illness.  “Ah,” the healer proclaimed, “another treasure from the Wilson curiosity cabinet. I’d be happy to assess it after I treat your man here.” “There ain’t nothing wrong with Simms,” said Dirk, “at least nothing that an earthly man like yerself can treat. No, it’s this tentacle that requires some examination.”

  The good doctor was a man of letters, well versed in all scientific pursuits – including natural history. “Tentacle,” he snorted, “you mean this?” He picked it up and chuckled. “Why this is nothing more than a piece of Nymphaea odorata.”  Simms fairly exploded with pride and declared “You see, It’s exactly what old Simms thought it were. It’s a real tentacle from a real sweetwater sea monster!” Before the captain or the son could react, the doctor continued. “This, sir, is a tuberous rhizome from a Fragrant Water Lily.”

  “But you said it was from Nymphaea,” the dumfounded Simms shot back. “You used those very words, you did.”  Gillhouse then patiently explained. “My dear sir, ‘Nymphaea’ is the Greek word for Water Nymph – those virgin goddesses that lived in the aquatic realms – and it represents the genus name for water lilies. ‘Odorata’ refers to the wonderful smell put out by their early summer blooms – thus the common appellation of Fragrant Water Lily. This is the root, actually a rhizome or stem, from which the plant grows.”

  “Well, son,” sighed Captain Wilson addressing his son, “looks like Simms wasn’t completely wrong. The beautiful part is above the water, the lilies be found in the shallow bays, and the ugly part is hidden from the eye.  But it ain’t no sea beast.”  Simms offered a cock-eyed smile at his partial vindication and a blink at the young Wilson.

  “Yes,” the doctor pointed out on the specimen, “you can see here those ‘sucker discs’ as you call them are the scars where the leaf stems were. And see here, those clustered little holes underneath are where the roots came out. You might want to take a look in latest edition of King’s American Dispensary by Felter and Loyd.” He pulled out a massive text from his bag and thumbed to the relevant page. “Here it is…says that ‘the white pond lily has a blackish, large, fleshy, perennial rhizome…it is often as thick as a man’s arm.”

  Slamming the tome shut, the doctor declared “had a real illness been the purpose of my call, I well might have used a decoction of this root to cure you of digestive ills or as a poultice for a sore.”  He returned the book into his satchel and headed for the deck. Stopping at the doorway, he paused and turned back to the relieved trio. “Young Wilson, I expect that someday you’ll find me a piece of a real sea monster, at which point I’ll be very grateful and will consider my bill paid.  Good day gentlemen.”

June 1, 2007

Smoke on the Water

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:12 am

  Eastern Cottonwood trees don’t get much respect. They are generally considered unsightly “weed” trees that grow quickly and fall apart quickly.  Their wood is weak and of poor firewood quality. This time of year they shed snowstorms of annoying fluff, and this appears to be their greatest offense to our daily lives.

  I have to admit, that as a child, I sacrificed nearly the entire space in my garden to allow a Cottonwood seedling to grow into a tree. Having kept track of its yearly growth (which was phenomenal) I considered the tree as a pet. It was probably 35 feet tall by the time I left home for college. My dad patiently waited out this phase of my life and finally asked for permission to cut the tree down – which I granted. (This was the same wonderful dad who also approved my hair brained scheme to start an oak tree plantation in that same garden.)

  I guess you could say that I am a true Cottonwood insider. Regardless, I would argue that all of the so-called negative traits are actually crucial to this trees charm.

  They grow fast so that they can exploit temporary habitats such as shifting sandbars, marsh banks and construction sites. Fast growth sacrifices wood quality and longevity, so they start to fall apart upon approaching their 100th birthday. The wood is not good for firewood but is valuable for pulp production.  Cottonwood farms have sprung up around the country because they can be harvested on an 8-12 year cycle for paper pulp. 

  I won’t even elaborate on how these tall trees provide sites for the pendulous nests of Baltimore Orioles or how their wind hushed leaves lend softness to our summer days. I won’t even go into the fact that this is the state tree of Kansas. No, for now I’d like to concentrate on those dreaded Cottonwood snowstorms.  

 Those puffs of fluff are seed bearing parachutes. Part of the success of Cottonwoods is due to their ability to spread millions of seeds at a time (48 million according to one source, although I’m pretty sure this is an estimate and not an actual count). Starting in late May, the cotton storms fill the air and generate drifts of Santa beards and piles of smoke on the water. These puff piles are intended to sprout their seed cargos and create new trees in new places. Because many of these are sucked into our nostrils or adorn our carefully quaffed hair, their presence is unappreciated.

  The story begins in early spring when the trees flower before the leaves emerge.  The boy trees have boy flowers and the girl trees have girl flowers. Cottonwoods are dioecious which means “two houses” – one for each gender. These flowers come in the form of dangling clusters called Catkins or Aments. Catkin is to Ament as Jim is to James Tiberius Kirk. The Catkin name refers to the later fuzzy stage which looks like a cute little cat’s tail while the Ament name takes after the noble Egyptian goddess of air.  Since these flowers are pollinated by the wind, the latter term is much more descriptive (besides, cats already have a common marsh plant named after their rear appendage.)

  Once pollinated, the female flowers ripen into a cluster of bead-like capsules.  By late spring, these capsules burst open like popcorn kernels and expose their fluff endowed seeds to the mercies of Ament.  The seed themselves are tiny (1mm by 4 mm), but you can see them in each individual cotton tuft.  Take a look at my drawings (here and here) and you’ll see the appearance of this female puff generator.

  Cottonwoods flower over an extended period of time and therefore go to seed over an extended period of time.  This means that the “Cottonwood Time” lasts throughout the month of June – lucky you.

  In cruising through the internet for some gems of wisdom on how to deal with this tree cotton, I came upon a chat site in which a self proclaimed “Canuck” helpfully advised “do not inhale while driving through a cloud of cottonwood cotton.”  Another recommended that the material makes a great pillow stuffing. 

  One disturbing website entry pointed out the fact that botanists have now developed a “Cottonless Cottonwood.” A further check revealed that nurseries regularly stock these genetic freaks.  Convinced that a Cottonwood tree without cotton is like Captain Kirk without his Tribbles, I wasn’t so sure that this was a good thing. I soon calmed down upon further reflection.

  As long as there are some wild trees out there, we’ll always have the June snowstorms. I’m not so sure that the domestic cottonless trees are all that innovative anyway.  There have always been cottonless cottonwoods out there, they are called males.

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