Monday, November 19, 2007

Never Mess With Nature's Plan


I was talking to a friend a few years back, and when I mentioned hunting season, she gave a great groan and asked "What's the point of killing innocent deer? It's just another one of those disgusting sports, isn't it?" Prior to that day, I hadn't really thought about why hunting season was necessary.

In my "Bug Eating Heroes" blog entry, I mentioned that if bats were killed off, the bug population would explode. I also mentioned that it's the same with sharks keeping control of the seal population. If we continue to kill bats because they're "dirty" and sharks because they're "vicious man eaters", we'd have to make an annual "Bug Hunting Season" and "Seal Hunting Season." It sounds ridiculous, but I'm sure people a hundred years ago would've laughed at the thought of a "Deer Hunting Season." We had already made the mistake with the wolf and cougar population. Since wolves (Canis lupis) and cougars (Puma concolor) were killing livestock and on rare occasions attacking humans (only true with Cougars), they decided to kill them near extinction thinking that it was the right choice for everybody. However, without a natural predator, the white tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) population exploded leaving us no choice but to hunt them ourselves.

But is deer hunting really that necessary? We learned just how necessary it is this year. Hunting season is split up into two weekends in November. However, last fall, hunting season was cut short when we had a weekend long blizzard in Illinois, so of course no one hunted. Sure, no big deal that only half of the deer got killed last season. Well this spring, it was near impossible to go down the road without nearly hitting a deer. And for the first time ever, we had deer in our garden. We went out there one morning to see that all of our pepper and tomato plants had been eaten to the roots, and our corn was mostly eaten. I assume they went for our garden as opposed to the corn field across the road because we grow organic sweet corn as opposed to sprayed cow feed. The corn had recovered and produced plenty of delicious corn just to be mostly destroyed by the deer again.

In Halloween 2005, my family rented the movie, "Night of the Lepus." Just by the sound of it, you can tell that it's another cheesy 70's horror flick. As stupid as this movie is, it does touch on the whole Never Mess With Nature's Plan. A local rancher is friends with a lab scientist and when he has trouble with coyotes, the scientist develops a chemical that destroys the wild dog population. But with no coyotes, the rabbit population gets out of control. When the rancher goes to the same scientist for another cure, the scientist comes up with a germ that should destroy that population too. Since it was a germ, when the rabbit was released back into the wild, the germ spread to the other rabbits. But the germ doesn't kill the rabbit population (shocker), instead it turns them to the size of wolves and makes them go carnivorous.

In the 1980's, the aphids were starting to get out of control, so we decided to bring in the Asian Ladybugs (Harmonia axyridis). They took care of our aphids problem but left us with another problem, them. The Asian Ladybugs are also nicknamed the Halloween Ladybug since they invade our homes in October in preparation for winter. In my family... and pretty much all of my friends' families, this time is nicknamed "Ladybug Season." The most dreaded season. Since the Asian Ladybug is not native to our country and has no natural predator, so they're invading the country with no control.

So in case a wolf gets one of your calves, or bats creep you out, don't go doing anything crazy like annihilating the species or bringing in another species to do it. Before doing anything crazy, you always have to look at both sides. Sure, a cougar took down your favorite cow, and the same thing happened to your friend. But you can't just decide that cougars are no use, that they're just dangerous. You really have to think of what the animal does for our earth. A hundred years ago, farmers thought wolves were a nuisance when really they were keeping the deer population balanced. Do the earth a favor, and really think about nature's plan.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Ah, autumn

Fall is one of the most relaxing seasons -- and most beautiful. It's definitely the best time for squirrel watching and photographing since there are so many squirrels gathering nuts for winter. Deer are extra shy because hunting season is coming up. It is time for raking leaves into piles so you can just jump into them afterward, for wearing jeans and light jackets. All of the maple trees are turning colors varying from bright yellow to blood red.

Why do leaves change colors anyway? Someone asked the same question in the October 2006 issue of Ranger Rick. In spring and summer, trees use chlorophyll to make their food. It also gives leaves their green color. When fall comes, the trees begin to close down their food-making systems. At the same time, they start living on the stored food they've already created. The chlorophyll disappears from their leaves. When the green fades away, you can see the other colors. Some colors, like yellow and orange (specifically maples change to these colors) have been there all along. Others usually change to brown in the fall.

This fall, I'm seeing something that I've never seen before. A blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata) collecting for winter. It took my family and I only days to figure it out. It was odd when we would sit down for breakfast or lunch and see a blue jay flying by the back deck every five to ten minutes. I discovered that it was going between the trees in the front yard too. But specifically, it was obviously gathering in the Shagbark Hickory tree twenty feet from my bedroom window. Looking at them closely through binoculars, they're going for the hickory nuts. They peck at them until they fall to the ground. Blue jays are beautiful sky ornaments. But their call is a dreadful one. I figured out that the very distractive screeching call came from the blue jay a few months ago when I saw it cawing in one of the pasture's trees. Here's a sample from All Birds. They're actually pretty aggressive birds. Especially a female nesting. If a human goes anywhere near a female's nest, the blue jay is actually known for attacking the two-legger. If a bird roosts anywhere near the nest, the blue jay will attack it until it chooses another place to roost. Its personality is like a crow, right? Then it'll be no surprise to hear that the blue jay is actually part of the Corvidae family which is the same family as the crow. If you look closely to the blue jay's face, you'll see that the crow's beak and the blue jay's beak look almost identical (unfortunately, I don't have a picture of a blue jay since I can't get close enough). It's pretty unbelievable what's under the prettiest feathers.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Canis latran Strikes Again

We still have three lambs, thank goodness, but when brushing my teeth before chores this morning, I heard tons of splashing in the pond, and the geese were honking like crazy. They do this just about every day, but today seemed a little louder. I walk over to the open window and started screaming "NOOO!" when I saw a brown coyote just starting to make its escape with a goose as big as itself. I dropped my toothbrush and ran downstairs. My mom was screaming too, I ran on the back deck, to see him disappearing into the woods. So I changed direction and ran out the front door after slipping on my shoes. I ran behind the pond. I didn't see any feathers, so then I ran to the creek to see rings of water that were fading. I ran along the creek, and then I finally saw a couple of feathers on the other side. I ran to the local beaver dam and crossed it. I had lost the trail of feathers and then I saw a feather caught on a thorn bush at the bottom of a hill. I ran up the hill and at the bottom I saw a big tan lump. I ran down the hill to see that it was indeed the goose. I picked it up (it was dead) to see a large puncture wound on its back.

I brought it back to the house, and my mom asked if I wanted to do a necropsy on it to figure out how it died. Something that I've never done before so it should be fun. (If you are easily disgusted, perhaps you shouldn't read on.)

I plucked the area around the wound. There was one large wound about an inch in diameter, and around five other small puncture wounds from its other teeth. There were many little purple bruises. Two long scrapes on each side of the goose's back says that the coyote had trouble getting a grip on it. Since there was one large wound that no longer had feathers around it, the coyote probably stopped to eat it. Then when it heard me coming, it didn't think it was worth it to bring the goose with it, so it left it behind and ran.

I first started cutting from the wound out. There wasn't much bleeding yet, however the spinal cord had quite a few cracks in it. Still, it wouldn't have died from that. I kept cutting wider around the other wounds, but I still didn't find anything obvious that would kill a goose. I gently pulled the skin from the body down toward the ribs to see if anything was up with the ribs. Then my hand slipped right into the goose's body, and I had found the trigger to the goose's death. My fingers were sitting in a puddle of warm blood. I felt around a little bit. My fingers brushed against something sharp and then there was some kind of extremely punctured and bloody organ. I felt toward the sharp thing again and realized that it was a broken rib. In fact, it was many broken ribs. About five or six ribs had collapsed and punctured its lung very severely. Several other ribs were just snapped off at the base, but they hadn't collapsed into the wound.

So the coyote takes a good grab at the goose's back and takes one big chomp. It snaps more than half of its ribs puncturing the lung, causing it to suffocate. It takes off straight for the creek and crosses it. It runs along the creek and then takes a turn for the hills running through a few rose bushes. It gets to the other side of the hill and sets down the dead goose. It's well away from the pond, so it starts to rip apart the meat until it hears a two-legger coming. Already well exhausted from running as fast as it can with a ten pound goose, it decides it's not worth it and runs for its own life.

In high school, kids dissect frogs and worms to find out how they're built. I dissected a goose to figure out a whole crime scene. Wow, I love the country.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Bug Eating Heroes

Bats are blind. Bats have rabies and attack people. Bats fly into peoples hair. Bats are dirty.

These are all the rumors that people have made up about bats. A lot people see them as terrible creatures that attack people and whatnot. When really, they're very important creatures. Especially to gardeners... and really everyone.

The picture above is a bat skull that we found when cleaning out our barn. As you can tell, it fits perfectly at the tip of my pointer finger. The other picture is the wing of the bat. These are the only two bones that we found, but they're obviously from a bat. The thing that I love about the skull is that it looks just like a coyote or wolf skull, except it's the size of a thimble. Although the wing looks fragile, it's really quite a flexible bone. I would put a picture of bat with the flesh on it, unfortunately, those creatures fly so fast that it's near impossible to get a picture of them.

Probably what got people to start the rumor about them getting caught in people's hair, was when a bat was flying right at them, but the person probably got scared and ran before they could see that they wouldn't get hit. When I was leaning against the barn one time at dusk, I was watching the bats twist and turn and dive and fly. Then a bat swooped down and was coming straight at me, but when it was about six or seven feet away, it immediately flew up. Bats don't catch insects by eyesight (this is not true about bats around the world who feed on fruit). You might have heard of echolocation. Scientists use it to detect things underwater by sending sound waves, and seeing what objects bounce off. Bats let out high frequency sounds that humans can't hear. These sounds bounce off the insects and back to the bats sensitive ears. It also lets them avoid hitting large objects like buildings, trees, and of course, humans, which is how the one I saw didn't hit me. This very successful system, allows them to catch up to 3000 insects a night (including the worst, mosquitoes). This is why more and more people are starting to put up bat houses in their backyard.

People also aren't big on bats because they're often found in people's attics. Of course, it really is quite logical why bats would do this. Bats live in caves during the day. So when they're in an area where there are no caves, they look for places similar to caves. Where better than an open attic? People always creep out and call animal control when this happens, when really all they need to do is wait until the bats leave at dusk for feeding, then secure the hole the bats used.

One of the most common rumors -- bats have rabies and attack people -- is false too. About .05% of bats have rabies, and even if they do, they very rarely attack humans. And about the dirty thing, bats constantly groom themselves. So they're as clean as cats!

Bat watching is always best on summer evenings if you live up north. When the autumn frosts start, bats either hibernate until it's insect season again, or migrate down south. In fact, a tourist attraction in Austin, Texas, is the Congress Avenue Bridge where more than a million bats roost. So at dusk, people start to gather around the bridge, waiting for huge clouds of bats to come out and start hunting!

Gardeners and farmers, especially corn farmers, should be quite thankful for bats. Moths very often lay their eggs on corn, and when the caterpillars hatch, they start feasting and ruining the corn. Bats eat the moths that lay these eggs. So the bats can help prevent farmers' corn from being ruined!

All in all, bats are wonderfully important creatures that should be loved and well protected. If bats became extinct, the corn industry would probably go downhill, and the mosquito population would skyrocket. It's the same thing with sharks. If sharks become extinct, then the seal population with get so high, that the seals would run out of fish to eat, and saltwater fish companies would die.

Three cheers for bats!

Friday, September 28, 2007

Necrophila americana

Last fall when my dad butchered a sheep, he dropped the pelt on top of the head, which he had left under a tree, and he forgot about it. A week later when he was passing by it, he grabbed the pelt, and under it was a perfectly clean sheep skull. Maggots could definitely not work that fast, so I asked a biology teacher who attends our church. He said it sounded like the work of a carrion beetle. After that, any time we came across a dead animal, we would put wool on top (to avoid predators or the domestic dogs finding out) and check on it a week later. I had never seen the creatures doing their work, since whenever I would check on the skeleton, the process was done.

Earlier today I was photographing a squirrel. After I was done, I turned around, walked two steps, and nearly stepped on another squirrel, except it was dead. Covering its opened wounds was the unmistakable American Carrion Beetle (Necrophila americana). These beetles are some of the best beetles for nature. As you can tell by the name, they eat carrion (dead animals). When an animal dies in warm weather, it immediately starts decomposing, releasing a stench that of course attracts flies (specifically, the big shiny green ones, Green Bottle Fly) and all sorts of Carrion and Burying Beetles. Judging by the disturbing view that I saw, they had just started on the squirrel, and they always start in the open areas.

I'm not sure entirely how long it takes for them to take care of certain sized animals. For each of the carcases that I have put out there for them, I would just go out a week later and find a perfect skull that was in need of dusting. For this dead squirrel that I found, I forgot to check on the carcass the next day, so I went out there two days after finding the body, to not find anything. If I had to guess, they finished their work quickly and cleanly, and some wild carnivore took the bones. I'm hoping that one day when I find them again, I can collect them and put them to work on a body in a certain protected area, and I can check on it daily to check out their work.

Carrion and Burying Beetles also help with the fly population. Obviously these beetles can just keep eating and eating. So the maggots that the flies leave on the bodies are competition. When the flies first lay the eggs (if you ever see sawdust looking stuff on something, they're fly eggs), the Carrion Beetles completely ignore them. Then when the maggots hatch and start devouring the meat, the Carrion Beetles start going for them too. I guess flies will just have to lay their eggs on things that Carrion Beetles can't get to.

This was all the information that I could gather on Carrion Beetles. However, if you find more information, please let me know, since I'm sure there's much more to discover!

So if you find a perfectly clean skeleton or skull, I'm sure you have the Carrion Beetles to thank for that!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Nematomorpha

videoWhen my friend and I were traveling along the creek, we admired all the frogs when she gasped, "What is that?" I looked to where she was pointing to see a a wire looking thing moving around in the shallow waters. We immediately grabbed it and brought it to the house and put it in a clear container full of pond water to get this video. It was probably around five inches long and very wiry. We let it go and immediately start researching. We found what we had discovered was the Nematomorpha (from the Greek nema, "thread," and morphe, "shape") . Commonly known as Horsehair worm or gordian worm.

One look at the worm, and you think it's a parasite. It is. But it's completely harmless to humans and pets. Instead, it's a parasite of insects which makes them helpful for the insect population. The larvae lives in the insects, and when juveniles, they come out and live in the nearest water source. These worms are commonly found in puddles, streams, ponds, water troughs, and even backyard swimming pools. Every so often, they're found in toilets freaking people into thinking they are a human parasite.

Although the one that I had found was only around five inches long, these millimeter thick parasites reach up to one meter long. The reason for their common name "Horsehair Worm" is the rumor that a horse's hair would fall into a water trough and come to life. Their other name "Gordian Worm" came from the way they would bring themselves into a tight knot (the one that I saw did this when I took it out of the water) that specifically looked like a knot that Gordius, king of Phrygia around 330 B.C. used. As the myth goes, Gordius used this knot to bind a chariot to a pole. He declared that whoever could undo the knot would become ruler of Asia. This knot is commonly known as the "Gordian Knot".

Horsehair worms reproduce in spring, early summer, or autumn. Eggs, often numbering in millions, are laid in long strings similar to gelatin. When laid in the water, the incubation may range between 15 and 80 days, depending on water temperature. The mode of development of the worms after hatching is much to question. Some experts suggest that the larvae encyst on vegetation along the water's edge after hatching. Eventually, some of this vegetation is eaten by the insects in which the larvae will feed upon until juvenile. When it emerges, it usually kills the insect (as the way of helping the insect population).

So these creepy tape-worm looking parasites, are really friends to humans. Who would've guessed that these simple creatures are of such interest?

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Pond Sharks

The picture here is of a Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina). It was taken almost two months ago when we saw our little pond shark decide to take a sun bath (to avoid scaring it, I did a belly-crawl for a hundred feet). This was the only time we saw the animal on land.

Hearing my mom screaming something outside the door to my dad, I knew it wasn't good. I ran up the stairs to see Mom pointing vigorously out the back door at something. "Something's got the duck!" she screamed. I jumped out the back door and ran to where my dad was just standing by the edge of the pond staring and looking furious. One of our 7 week old ducklings was floating upside down with the flesh stripped from it's neck and a turtle head the size of goose egg disappearing in a mud cloud. "It's that snapper," he mumbled. "Where's your fish net?" Although my fishing net probably couldn't catch something that was 15 pounds and cement jaws, it was worth a shot. I got the net and came back. My dad was still staring at the mass of algae not far from shore. We waited with the net for about twenty minutes. Twice, the same head appeared a couple inches from the surface and bobbed there for a few seconds to check it out. But after that second time, it probably figured that it couldn't finish its duck.

That's just snappers for you. And we wondered where all of our ducklings that our ducks hatched went. Probably just more victims of our pond shark. It's just nature, but it would be nice if they could just go for all of the fish in the pond as opposed to our gorgeous ducks. There's no saying how old the turtle is since all of the resources that I'm finding are saying different things. Some are saying that wild snappers only live to 30 and others are talking around 100. Agreeing with the latter, I'd have to say that this turtle is close to twenty years old.

The pictures here are of a baby snapping turtles that are probably around six months old (they hatch in fall). I found this one in a puddle about ten feet away from the creek. I brought it to the house and weighed, measured, and photographed it. The funny thing is that I found another baby snapper two days later taking a swim down the creek. I knew it wasn't the same one though because of its measurements and weights. These two measured 1' in length and width and both around half an ounce. These were definitely not hatchlings since when they first come out of the shell, they're only about the size of a quarter. They had to have been from the same nest, considering they were only 1/8 of an ounce or an inch apart in size. And since we live up north where it's cold, they probably stayed in the nest for the winter, and had just come out for spring. They also looked the exact same, so they had to have been the same sex. I'm not sure how to tell the difference in sexes at that age, but female and male's plastron (under-shell, as pictured above) are slightly different along with their tail as shown in this diagram from Ehponline (scroll down, till you see an illustration with an upside down turtle). You see, just like crocodiles and alligators, the sex determination of the animal is based upon the temperature when they were incubated. Males will hatch if incubated between 22 and 28°C, and females are produced if outside that range of temperature. Considering the crazy weather we've had the past year, it wouldn't surprise me if these were females.

Unfortunately, there's a chance that the turtles that I have caught are already dead. It's very unfortunate to be a turtle. The chance of them surviving to adulthood is very little. The female will lay around 50 eggs, but there's a good chance that a raccoon, coyote, fox, or any other carnivore will dig up the nest before they even have the chance to hatch. Even after hatching, they have to survive without being eaten by large fish, herons, minks, or raccoons. It doesn't really help that it can't curl up in its shell as tight as most turtles can. As you can see, the baby turtle here is trying its best but not succeeding that well.

Well, unless we want all of our ducklings to disappear, we'll have to figure out some way to catch those snappers... without harming them. We still want them in our area, just not in our pond eating our ducks. (We started with 14, now we're down to 8.) Then again, it wouldn't surprise us if the coyotes are helping with those numbers. So if there is a way of catching them, we'll just relocate them to the creek where there are plenty of other snapper friends.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Canis latran


The coyote (Canis latran) is a shy and very common predator. We've only seen them a couple times, and of course we've heard them at night (Canis latran is Latin for barking dog). We've never had trouble with them. They're like wolves and dogs, so of course I've had an interest in them. My liking for them now is plummeting by the day.

It seemed to have changed two weeks ago when we had a solid weekend of rain. The pastures had flooded, the creek had turned into a river, and the river had spread into the sheep pasture. Ophelia's ewe-lamb (the black with white spots on her face) had disappeared. Considering the newly formed river in the sheep pasture, we had all assumed that she had gotten caught in the river and had been washed away. It still didn't make sense though. The rain had stopped and the pastures had gone dry again. Then Minerva's ram-lamb (the black and white spotted) disappeared. This time we knew it wasn't the flood. The only other thing that could've done this was a coyote.

So we examined the pastures and found huge gaps in the electric fence due to holes in the ground. We hung extra electric wire on the fence to fill the gaps. Our guard dog that had been with the goats, we put in the sheep pasture. No lambs were taken for two whole days. Then we saw the dog trotting down the road. Not knowing how he got out, we stuck him in with the goats again. The next morning, we went outside and discovered that two twin rams (the white ones) had gone missing. After fixing the fence so that the guard dog couldn't get out, we put him back in there last night. This morning, we went out there to discover that Majik's ram-lamb (the heavily spotted white, gray, and black) had gone missing.

The odd thing with all of these attacks is that there has never been one speck of blood. Usually when they carry off lambs or kids (baby goats) they leave a trail of blood. But in books and websites, they talk of larger breeds of sheep, and we have Shetland Sheep which is a small sheep (running 50-100 pounds). The lambs can't be more than five to ten pounds. There's a good chance that they just grab hold of the neck of the lamb and take off. Scientists say that coyotes highly respect electric fences. When an animal gets shocked by a fence, they don't try to go between the wires or over the fence because they don't know when the voltage ends. However, local homesteaders are saying that more coyotes are learning that they can simply jump through the fence and even touch the wire, but not get shocked. To get shocked by an electric fence, you have to be grounded. So obviously this coyote (or coyotes, considering we lost two at once) has figured out the simple world of the electric fence.

But why are these coyotes going after our lambs? What's wrong with all of the rodents and rabbits? Are there enough rodents and rabbits? The population of coyotes is steadily increasing for many reasons. The main reason is when female coyotes are stressed, the have more babies, earlier in their life, and more often, according to the December 2004 issue of Ranger Rick.

Another reason is Tyzzer's disease. Tyzzer's is an untreatable disease that is transferred from animal to animal from fecal to mouth contact. It started in laboratory rodents and then it was discovered in Iowa muskrats. It's not rare for them to be found in all laboratory animals worldwide. In many areas, Tyzzer's is making dents in the wild rodent population (muskrats, rabbits, mice, rats, etc.)

Spring comes and rabbits are out and about. We can't go down the road without nearly hitting a rabbit. Usually we'll come across many rabbits. This spring came, and we'd go down the road and we might see a rabbit. We'd go into the woods and every now and then a rabbit would jump out of nowhere and run to the nearest hiding place. But then in May we'd never see rabbits running down the road, or jumping in the path in front of us. Not being a big deal, we just shrugged it off.

We've always had trouble with mice in our milking parlor, but this past spring and summer, not a rodent has bothered us. Our LaMancha goat, Muse, was a bit thinner than normal earlier this summer, so we dewormed her and gave her more grain at milking time. In July, she got diarrhea, so we started give her treatment for Coccidia (a single cell organism that affects animals like a parasite). One morning, I went out there with a milk bucket and when I milked her, she had no milk. Maybe two drops. The previous night, she seemed a bit low, but we just assumed she hadn't gotten enough to drink. I told my mom that she was dry, but she wouldn't believe it. A goat cannot dry up in less than 24 hours. The following evening when I was bringing in the goats, I heard Muse letting out muffled screams from the goat shelter. I ran in there to see that she was having convulsions and was foaming at the mouth while screaming with her two kids standing next to her staring at me as if saying, "Can't you do anything?" I ran to get help and we carried her into the barn, and ten minutes later she died. With such an unexpected death, we brought her to the local vet for an autopsy and a week later, they called and said it was Tyzzer's. They had never heard of it being in a goat. We immediately started researching this mysterious disease. It took a couple days for us to put two and two together, but we finally realized this was why we hadn't had mice in our milking parlor or rabbits running down the road.

So the wild rodents get Tyzzer's and die, and the coyotes have no food. I'm surprised they didn't discover our buffet sooner. The only thing we can come up with is that the flood drove them over here and they discovered that they have five pound meals right in front of them. Our only option is to move the sheep. As soon as they have all of our lambs, they're gonna start going for the adults too. We'll figure out something... and hopefully the rodent population will go up again.