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!