Interview with a common redpoll

Common Redpoll. Photo by Scott Heron. Creative Commons. https://flic.kr/p/2dM8J49

Amelia: Goodness, it’s cold out today! I’m glad I wore my snow pants. I’m always amazed to see how active birds can be in these frigid temperatures. Look at that flock of house sparrows, chittering and flitting about in that tree, like it isn’t -20°C!

Common redpoll: Sounds like someone needs an attitude adjustment. Winter is fantastic! And we’re not sparrows by the way. We’re common redpolls. Easy mistake.

A: Oh right, now that you’ve come down from the tree-top I see you have a little red spot on your forehead. But if you’re so “common“ why haven’t I seen you before?

CR: You just haven’t been looking in the right places. There are 150 million of us worldwide, so we’re hard to miss. Have you taken any trips to Northern Canada lately? That’s where we usually hang out.

A: Nope. Airfare to those places is kind of pricy. Also, it’s really cold!

CR: Oh right, your obsession with avoiding the cold. I really don’t know what you’re whining about. You get to stay in a warm house and drink hot beverages. I stay outside all day and all night, and you don’t hear me complaining.

A: True enough. I’ve often wondered how tiny little birds like you manage to survive the winter. Can you enlighten me?

CR: Sure, but I can’t speak for everyone. I may be the most cold-resistant songbird out there. I’m pretty happy up to -50 °C. In fact, I would have stayed up North this winter if there was enough food.

A: You actually like spending the winter in Northern Canada? You don’t fly South for the winter to be somewhere warmer like many birds do?

CR: That’s right! Unlike other songbirds, our migration patterns aren’t based on our hormones, but on how much food is available. This is called “irruptive” migration. We spend most winters in Northern Canada, but if there is a drought, fire, or disease that wipes out or food sources up there, we fly South until we find more food.

A: So the only reason I’m seeing you now is that there wasn’t enough food up North this winter?

CR: That’s right! But we won’t be here for long, so drink us in while we’re here. My little flock and I flick about from tree to tree, always in search of our next meal. In May we’ll head back North to our breeding grounds.

A: Ooh, romantic! Do you have a territory you return to year after year?

CR: Nope. Unlike most songbirds, we’re not territorial. In fact, we’ll probably build our nest right next to another common redpoll’s. It’s nice to have neighbours, right?

A: I suppose. Will your mate be waiting for you when you arrive?

CR: Nope, I’ll have to find a new one. Our pair bonds only last one breeding season.

A: So what are you looking for in a mate?

CR: Um, it doesn’t really matter what I’m looking for, because the females are the ones who do the choosing. The males are more dominant in the winter when we’re foraging, but once the spring arrives, it’s lady’s choice. The females also choose where the nest will be built.

A: I guess that system makes sense if territory isn’t a big deal for you. For a lot of other songbirds, it’s the male’s job to find and defend the best territory with the most food.  

CR: Yeah, we don’t really go in for that kind of thing. I’m more interested in bringing food to my mate while she’s on the nest incubating the eggs.

A: How long does she sit on the eggs?

CR: Usually for 11 days. Once the chicks hatch, she takes over feeding them. Then a dozen days later, they’re out of the nest and following us around as we forage. It’s pretty adorable. But they grow up fast. A month after they hatch, they’re fully independent, and then it’s on to round two of eggs.

A: Wow. Even though you’re nesting in the coldest part of the country, you have two batches of babies a year?

CR: Yes, if there’s enough food. We need to do our bit to keep the common redpoll population going. There are certainly enough falcons, owls and crows that like eating tiny songbirds.

A: True enough. How have you avoided predators so far?

CR: Travelling in flocks helps a lot. With more eyes on the lookout, we can see predators before they attack, and will call to warn the others. Sometimes we’ll mob the predator, which can convince them to get their food elsewhere.

A: Impressive! So when you’re not getting chased by predators, what kind of things do you like to eat?

CR: Seeds! We’re all about those birch, alder, and willow seeds. Particularly in the winter, that’s what we mainly eat.  

A: Wow, I don’t even know what a willow or birch seed looks like.

CR: That’s because they are tiny! The seeds are hidden in cone-like structures called catkins. We have to perch on the tippy-tip of the branches to pull out all the seeds. Sometimes we even have to do this upside down!

A: Wow, that sounds amazing! Is it hard to digest when you’re eating upside down?

CR: What kind of amateurs digest while they’re eating?

A: Well…I know I do, I think most animals do.

CR: Oh, I forgot – you don’t have a pouch in your throat where you can store food to digest later, do you? You poor dears. However do you manage?  

A: Um, we’ve done alright up until now. What’s wrong with digesting your food right away?

CR: Digestion takes a lot of energy. If we’re going to survive the cold, we have to be smart and conserve energy. My throat pouch can hold about a quarter of the calories I’ll need for the day. After I’ve stuffed it full, I’ll retreat to a sheltered place out of the wind, take a perch, and focus on resting and digesting. If I eat a bunch of calorie-rich seeds right before I go to bed, it will keep me warm all night.

A: Wow! What else do you do to stay warm in the winter?

CR: Well, my winter feathers are twice the weight of my summer coat. That certainly helps. Sometimes when it’s really cold out, I’ll make a tunnel in the snow to sleep in.

A: Sleeping in the snow? Don’t you freeze?  

CR: Nope, snow is great insulation. It’s much warmer under the snow than out in the winter air.

A: That makes sense, I guess. How do you make a tunnel in the snow?

CR: Well, I drop from a tree branch right into a snowbank. That puts me about 4-6 inches under the snow. Then I burrow horizontally for about a foot before turning in for the night.

A: What happens when you wake up?

CR: I burst out of the snow, bright eyed, bushy-feathered and ready for another glorious, frigid winter day!

A: You are a deeply weird bird. But incredibly Canadian at the same time.

CR: Hey, your country has no claim on me! Only 17 percent of the global population ever sets wing in Canada. We’re found all over the world, if you go far enough North.

A: I think that’s the problem – not many humans want to live in places that cold.

CR: I really don’t see that as a problem. You’re cute, but humans aren’t great news for most species. Well, I’ve got to dash to the next tree. If you’re lucky and put out shelled sunflower seeds for us at your feeder, we may come visit next year. But no promises!

References

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Common_Redpoll/overview

http://www.birdweb.org/birdweb/bird/common_redpoll

https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/common-redpoll

http://www.lakemetroparks.com/birding-blog/november-2020/irruptive-migration

https://www.birdwatchersdigest.com/bwdsite/learn/identification/finches-allies/common-redpoll.php

https://birdsoftheworld.org/bow/species/comred/cur/behavior

https://www.nps.gov/articles/redpoll.htm

https://www.newmarkettoday.ca/local-news/common-redpolls-have-impressive-way-of-adapting-thriving-in-winter-6-photos-3309263

Interview with an ermine

Ermine. Photo by TessaLuna. Pixabay Licence. https://pixabay.com/images/id-4312983/

Amelia: What a gorgeous winter day to walk along the river. The contrast between the white snow and the dark rocks is breathtaking. Wait, that pile of snow is moving. Now it’s jumping from rock to rock. I can’t believe it- it’s an ermine!

Ermine: Calm down lady, haven’t you ever seen an ermine before? We live literally everywhere in Canada.

A: Wow, I had no idea you were so common. Why haven’t I seen your before?

E: It may be because we’re nocturnal. Humans have notoriously poor night vision.

A: That’s correct. But if you’re nocturnal, what are you doing out during the day?

E: Oh, we can be active during the day too. I was just hanging out in my burrow when I got a whiff of a vole, so I came out to investigate.

A: Are voles your favorite food?

E: Definitely, right up there with mice.

A: Why the penchant for small furry mammals?

E: Well, you may have noticed I’m long and thin. I’m the perfect size to fit into the tunnels dug by those rodents. I track them down by smell into the places where they feel safest, and then BOOM! They never know what hits them.

A: That’s…slightly diabolic.

E: Hey, a predator’s got to eat. And I have particularly urgent needs due to my fast metabolism. I need to eat every day to survive. That’s why I’m constantly hunting.

A: That sounds like it could be stressful.

E: Nah, I’m a fierce and efficient predator. I’m also not above grabbing a snack from a carcass killed by a larger animal. And if those dratted foxes and owls grab too many of the mice, I can always go for rabbits, fish, or birds.

A: Sounds like you’re quite adaptable. Do you have any predators?

E: Lady, I’m less than a foot long. Of course I have predators. Hawks, coyotes, badgers, foxes, owls would love to snatch me up. I’m even a nice snack for larger members of the weasel family.

A: Really, other weasels will eat you? That sounds like family betrayal to me.

E: As they say, it’s a dog-eat-dog world. Our average lifespan is only two years, and most of us don’t make it to our first birthday. In fact, that’s why the tip of our tail is black- we hope that hawks and owls that see us scurrying across the snow will go for the black tail and not the rest of our white body, which is camouflaged against the snow.  

A: Does that work?

E: I’ve never tested it personally, but I’m not dying to try, if you know what I mean. Like most females, in the winter I spend most of my time in the snow tunnels built by mice and voles. The males are more likely to scamper about on top of the snow, where they are more visible to predators. I think that may be why their lifespan is usually shorter than ours.

A: Well, it seems smart to keep hidden when you have so many predators. You mentioned your den earlier, did you dig it yourself?

E: Do these look like digging paws to you? No, I stole it from a vole I killed. As a predator I have the pick of the real-estate market. I did make some modifications- like digging out a small pantry where I cache food for later in case I get hungry.

A: Do you live there alone? Do you have a mate living there with you?

E: That’s kind of a personal question, don’t you think? Ermines are lone wolves. We interact with males just to breed, and then we stay out of their way. But come springtime, I won’t be alone in my burrow. I anticipate I’ll be sharing it with five to six babies.

A: Wow, congratulations! Does that mean you’re pregnant now?

E: Kind of? Similar to our relative the mink, we have a secret called delayed implantation. This means we can hold an embryo in suspended animation until the spring, when the weather is nice enough and there are lots of prey around. At three months old I was sexually mature, so I started making this current batch of babies about six months ago. When the days get longer in March the embroys will implant and start developing.

A: I can see how that would come in handy. Once the babies are born, how long before they leave the den?

E: Thankfully for me, they grow very fast. When they are eight weeks old, they are nearly adult-sized and can hunt for themselves. We’ll hang out together until late summer, and then it’s every ermine for themselves. We are very territorial, and mark our territory with musk, or with droppings. Most of our communication with other ermines is through scent. We really don’t want to see each other if we can help it.

A: Understood. Why do you turn white in the winter, anyway? Is it a fashion statement?

E: It’s a survival statement! Being white means we disappear on a snowy background. This is great for both sneaking up on prey, and hiding from predators. But not all of us turn white in the winter, you know.

A: Really? Which ones don’t?

E: Well, we’re found in many climactic zones throughout Canada, the Northern U.S., Europe and Asia. In places that get less snow, we only turn partially white. Of course, it’s only the pure white ermines found in the most northernly areas that have to worry about getting caught for their fur. The things humans will do for a few centimetres of white fur boggles the mind.

A: Yes, I have to apologize for that. I know ermine fur was particularly popular among European royalty, for lining crowns and coronation robes. Why was that?

E: Our fur was a symbol of wealth and prestige. We’re rather hard to catch, so making an entire coat out of our fur was a lengthy and expensive endeavor. Some people also thought our white fur symbolized purity. One legend had it that we would do anything to keep from getting dirty, which is kind of hilarious considering we literally live in holes dug in the ground. It was said that if a hunter put dirt at the entrance of our burrow, we would refuse to escape into our burrow and get dirty. No idea where that silliness came from. Sure, I’ll clean the gore off my fur after a meal, but that’s just common sense to keep from attracting predators and to maintain my white camouflage. A blood-spattered ermine is just asking for trouble.

A: That’s a lovely image.

E: Well, it’s better than a coat made of ermine any day. Of course, being associated with royalty meant that eventually common rich folks wanted to wear our fur to show off how wealthy they were. Thankfully we were relatively safe here in Canada- the fur came primarily from ermines in Northern Eurasia. It’s still one of the most expensive furs on the market.

A: Did all that hunting for fur make ermines endangered?

E: Not at all! While we’re hunted and trapped in small parts of our range, there are still lots of us all over the world. We’re definitely not in danger of extinction. What impacts our populations most is food availability. If prey becomes scarce, then we will have fewer babies.

A: Speaking of food, you probably need to get back to hunting.

E: You’re right, my belly is starting to grumble- I can’t have that!

References:

https://nature.ca/notebooks/english/ermine.htm

https://yukon.ca/en/ermine

https://cwf-fcf.org/en/resources/encyclopedias/fauna/mammals/ermine.html

https://kids.britannica.com/students/article/ermine/322604

https://www.akwildlife.org/news/species-spotlight-ermine-the-color-changing-weasel

http://www.biokids.umich.edu/critters/Mustela_erminea/

https://www.aratherat.com/blogs/home-page/7-furry-facts-about-the-ermine-the-royal-armenian-rat

https://www.britannica.com/animal/ermine-mammal

https://www.naaer.hoodmuseum.dartmouth.edu/plains/clothing-regalia/work-1

https://vtfishandwildlife.com/learn-more/vermont-critters/mammals/short-tailed-weasel

Interview with a Tree Swallow

Tree Swallow Nest. By Richard Griffin. Creative Commons. https://flic.kr/p/mjemAj

Amelia: This urban pond was a great discovery. Look, the community has even installed nesting boxes on tall poles around the pond. I wonder who’s nesting in them. Oh, a bird’s head popped out of that box- I’ll go check it out.

Tree Swallow: Hello, this nest is taken. You can’t use it. Goodbye.

A: Wait- I’m not interested in taking your nest. I just wanted to meet you. What kind of bird are you?

TS: I’m a Tree Swallow. I thought that would be obvious.

A: Why? We’re in the middle of a grassy field near a pond, nowhere near trees.

TS: (looks around) Oh, right- we’re nesting in a human-made box this year instead of a hole in a tree. Traditionally, we nest in trees. But humans have a bad habit of cutting down dead or rotting trees with holes in them. Sure, you sometimes put up these nesting boxes, but maybe try not destroying our summer homes in the first place!

A: Okay, your frustration is fair. Why do you nest in trees?

TS: It’s far from predators that lurk on the ground, and it’s a great take-off point when I need to go flying.

A: Okay, that all makes sense.

TS: But competition for nesting sites is fierce. My mate had to get here extra early this spring- nearly froze his tail off finding this place. He saw a few other promising spots, but they were already occupied by European House Sparrows and European Starlings, who arrive a lot earlier than we do. Thanks for introducing those to North America, by the way. And you wonder why our population is half of what it was in the 1960s!

A: That’s awful! Are you endangered?

TS: Far from it! Our global population is 17 million. If you lived in the Southern United. states or Central America, you’d see us flocking in the hundreds of thousands.

A: Wow, that must be quite the sight.

TS: It certainly is. Almost as impressive as watching our acrobatic flights over this pond.

A: Indeed, the swallows nesting around this pond are putting on quite a show. What are they doing out there?

TS: Catching flying insects. They’re trying to get 20-35 in one go before heading back to the nest.

A: That’s a lot! Yes, now that I look closely, they’re feeding huge balls of smashed flies to their babies. Why do they catch so many at once?

TS: Efficiency. If we only fed them one fly at a time, we’d be here until Christmas. That nest of monsters can eat 8,000 insects a day.

A: I’m sorry, 8,000?

TS: You heard me. And that’s not including the flies we eat ourselves.

A: Goodness. You must be remarkably good pest control.

TS: Some of the best. Yet another reason to keep building these boxes of yours around water and agricultural fields.

A: I certainly hope you’re not catching all those 8,000 insects on your own. Your mate does help you, right?

TS: Definitely- there is no way I could do this on my own. But in other areas, he’s less helpful.

A: What do you mean?

TS: Well, I had to make this little nest of grass and feathers in here all by myself. And I’m the only one that incubates the eggs.

A: I mean, sitting on eggs isn’t that hard, right? It actually sounds kind of relaxing.

TS: Ha! I am literally pushing my body heat into those eggs to help them develop and keep them alive. I spend four times the energy incubating eggs than when I’m resting. To add insult to injury, the feathers on my breast and belly fall out, so I have this super-attractive bald patch and super chilly belly for three weeks.

A: Goodness, that sounds awful! Why does that happen?

TS: It’s called a brood patch, and it’s a common feature of many nesting birds. Skin-to-egg contact is the most efficient way to transfer heat to the eggs. Once the naked babies hatch, the brood patch helps me keep them toasty until they grow enough feathers to keep themselves warm.

A: Okay, that makes a lot of sense. But what’s your mate doing while you’re incubating?

TS: Sometimes he’s flirting and fooling around with the neighbours. Not that I mind really- these eggs I’m sitting on now have three different fathers. I just wish he wouldn’t encourage the floater females.

A: Floater females? Who are they?

TS: Females that didn’t score nests this year. They would love to kick me out and claim this nest as their own.

A: That’s awful! What a thing to have to deal with when you’re already spending so much energy incubating eggs.

TS: I know, right? And does my mate help me chase them away? Nooooo. If anything, he encourages them. Even if I start fighting another female in the air, he’ll just watch us duke it out. And those fights can be deadly- one well aimed peck to the head and it’s game over.

A: Goodness, who knew cute songbirds could be so cut-throat? What would happen to your eggs if a female succeeded in deposing you from the nest?

TS: She would put grass and feathers over them them and lay her own eggs on top. My eggs wouldn’t get enough heat, and would die.

A: So what is your mate doing if he’s not guarding your nest from vengeful females?

TS: Well, he does guard the eggs from predators, when I have to take a break to feed myself. And goodness knows there are lots of things that would love to eat our eggs- Northern flickers, crows, chipmunks, snakes, squirrels, the list is longer than I am!

A: Understood. So how long do you have to feed the little “monsters” before they leave the nest?

TS: Thankfully, only about three weeks. By that time, they have all their flight feathers and can feed themselves. Not that that stops them from hanging around the nest, begging for a free lunch. But they’re on their own-no more freebies from us! Besides, we have our wings full getting the next batch of eggs started.

A: The next batch! No wonder there are 17 million of you.

TS: There are lots of things out there that can eat a songbird, so it pays to lay 4-7 eggs and hope for the best.

A: I guess. When do you get to take a break from all this child-rearing?

TS: Once the last batch of kids are out of the nest, we are out of there too. We find a nice marsh and gain back some of that lost body weight. Starting in August, we start our leisurely road trip south with a few hundred of our closest friends. It takes us 3-4 months to reach our final destination in Central America, but only two weeks of that is flying time. Most of the time we’re just sitting around marshes, scooping up insects, and making lots and lots of noise.

A: Sounds very relaxing. Will you return to the same nesting site each year?

TS: Good holes are at a premium, so generally yes. The fact that we return so reliably is one of the reasons we’re the most studied songbird in North America.

A: Really? Why’s that?

TS: We’re the lab rat of the songbird kingdom- we are very easy for humans to study. We don’t mind humans around our nests, even after they do annoying things like putting bands on our legs and taking our blood. Because we will nest in boxes, it’s easy for researchers to build a whole bunch of them and control different factors about the environment. They can even put little cameras in the boxes and watch what goes on inside. A little voyeuristic, but hey, whatever floats their boat. And behaviour wise, we are pretty exhibitionist- most of what we do happens over fields and water where we are very easy to see. Researchers have been able to learn lots about small songbirds just by watching us.

A: That’s so cool! Is there anything I can do to help prevent your population from declining further?

TS: Don’t use pesticides in your garden – fewer insects is bad news for us. And please keep your cat indoors, where it can’t eat us.

A: That seems easy enough. Good luck with the incubating!

References

https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/tree-swallow

https://www.natureconservancy.ca/en/what-we-do/resource-centre/featured-species/birds/tree-swallow.html

https://www.ealt.ca/species-spotlight-list/tree-swallow

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Tree_Swallow/overview

Interview with a Greater Snow Goose

Snow Goose. Photo by Shiva Shenoy. Creative Commons. https://flic.kr/p/2hKsx8c

Amelia: Taking this fall trip to Quebec City was a great idea- the coloured leaves are spectacular! What a perfect day to walk along the St. Lawrence River. Just me, the cliffs, a saltwater mash…and a goose pulling up reeds like their life depends on it.

Greater Snow Goose: Well excuse me for wanting to live another day! While you can drive to a new destination, some of us have to fly. And that takes significant fuel, let me tell you!

A: Really, you’re taking a trip too? Where are you headed?

G: South Carolina, baby! There’s a coastal marsh there with my name on it.

A: Sounds beautiful. Wait, isn’t South Carolina over 2,000 km away from here?

G: You’ve got it. Hence why I’m stuffing my face with these bulrush roots. I just flew in from Bylot Island in Nunavut, which makes the flight to South Carolina look like a cakewalk!

A: I’ve never heard of Bylot Island. Where is it?

G: It’s at the tippy top of Baffin Island. Oddly enough, you humans don’t get out there much. Let’s keep it that way.

A: Wait a minute, you’re a Snow Goose that lives in the arctic, but you fly south in the winter to escape the snow. That’s ironic.

G:  You try being a vegetarian bird in the arctic in the winter. See how that works out for you.

A: You have a point. So why go to Bylot Island at all? What’s so special about it?

G: Believe it or not, it’s a great place to raise a family. And there’s lots of good company, because the island hosts the largest breeding colony of Greater Snow Geese in North America. The food there is also great- tons of grasses and sedges to dig up. I’m drooling just thinking about it.

A: Okay, you’ve convinced me. When do you arrive at your breeding grounds?

G: We get there in June or July, but we have to leave in September when the ponds start freezing over. There’s no time to waste! My mate and I have to find a good feeding area to defend, and then pick a spot for the nest somewhere on higher ground with good visibility- we need to be on guard for invading neighbours!

A: Why do you have to watch out for your neighbours?

G: To defend our food! I have to sit on that nest for 24 days, and if I have to walk  a long way to get food, I get grouchy. My mate’s job is chasing out any other geese who try to eat in our area. But that’s not all.

A: What else could happen?

G: Sometimes, a sneaky Snow Goose will come lay one of her eggs near our nest. She knows that it will attract predators, so we are forced to move it into our nest and raise it as our own. It’s very annoying – particularly as we already have four eggs of our own to worry about!

A: That’s…generous of you, I guess. Are there any other measures you take to protect the nest?

G: If we can find one, we choose a spot near a snowy owl’s nest.

A: Excuse me? Won’t the snowy owl go after your eggs and babies?

G: Not really- they have other favorite snacks. But owls won’t tolerate foxes and gull-like birds called jaegers on their territory, and those animals are the main predators of our eggs and babies. So being near an owl nest is like having free security.

A:  That’s clever. I know summers in the arctic are short. How do you have enough time to raise your babies?

G: You haven’t met our goslings. They are machines.

A: What do you mean?

G: A few hours after hatching, they can walk, swim, dive and feed themselves.

A: You’re kidding.

G: Nope. They also grow super fast. 24 hours after the last gosling hatches, they’re ready to leave the nest. The hard part is keeping everyone fed. Sometimes we have to walk up to three kilometres a day to find the next damp meadow, lake edge, or tidal marsh.

A: Really, you walk? Why don’t you just fly?

G: Umm…while our goslings are machines, it still takes over six weeks before they can fly. Some things you can’t rush. As parents we’re also shedding and growing new feathers at this time, so we can’t fly either.

A: Right, that makes sense. But aren’t you vulnerable to predators if you’re just walking around?

G: For a bird, I’m surprisingly fast on my feet. I can outrun most predators. As for the goslings, we try our best to protect them from gulls and foxes, but weren’t not always successful. We’re a very close-knit family- we’ll stay with them through fall migration and into the winter. It’s only during next year’s spring migration that they go their own way.

A: Speaking of your family, where are they? I don’t see any other geese here besides you.

G: Ah, my mate and I decided to take a break from babies this year. It wasn’t a great year for food in Nunavut, so we decided to conserve our energy and wait until next year. That being said, a summer focused solely on stuffing our faces had its perks.

A: Fair enough! But where is your mate now, if they’re not here with you?

G: Oh, they’re hanging out with 40,000 of our closest friends at Cap Tourmente National Wildlife Area. I just took a short detour because I love to people-watch at this beach at Cap-Rouge in Quebec City. You humans crack me up, and goodness knows we don’t see many of you on Bylot Island!

A: I guess if people can birdwatch, birds can people-watch too. Wait, did you say 40,000 Snow Geese?

G: Yep, we’re social animals. If you have to migrate 4,000 kilometres, why not make it a road trip with 1,000 buddies? Cap Tourmente is one of our hang-out spots known as “staging areas” where tens of thousands of us gather for about 19 days to stuff our faces with bulrushes before we make the final sprint for our wintering grounds in the Southern United States. It was kind of you humans to make it a protected area so we could continue to use it undisturbed.

A: I guess we sometimes do the right thing. By the way, I can’t help but notice that your head is tinted orange, while the rest of you is pure white. Why is that?

G: I spend a lot of my life with my head stuck in the mud while digging up roots. You do enough of that, and the iron in the soil stains your feathers. Speaking of which, if you’ll excuse me, I have a lot of eating to do.

A: Of course, I’ll leave you to it!

References

https://www.hww.ca/en/wildlife/birds/greater-snow-goose.html

https://rove.me/to/quebec/snow-geese-fall-migration

https://www.pennlive.com/wildaboutpa/2018/02/15_things_you_may_not_know_abo.html

https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/snow-goose

https://www.audubon.org/birds-of-america/snow-goose

https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/national-wildlife-areas/locations/cap-tourmente/greater-snow-goose-population-monitoring.html

https://www.pgc.pa.gov/Education/WildlifeNotesIndex/Pages/Snow-Goose.aspx

Interview with an American Mink

American Mink. Photo by Peter Trimming. CC. https://flic.kr/p/9arnco

This post is in honour of my dad. Happy Father’s Day!

Amelia: What a phenomenal day for a bike ride around Dow’s Lake. The tulips are in bloom, the water is shining, there’s a furry snake on the rocks…wait, why is there a furry snake on the rocks?

American Mink: How rude! I’m an American Mink, I’ll have you know.

A: Right, I knew that. There are so many weasel-type animals in Canada I can never tell them apart!

M: Frankly, I’m insulted. I’m the most phenomenal mammal there is. I’m basically a super hero. How can you not know who I am?

A: In my defense, I’ve lived in Canada my whole life, and I’ve never seen an American Mink before. Are you endangered or something?

M: Hardly! Our populations are very healthy, thank you. Wherever there is a river, lake or pond, there is likely a mink nearby. There are even subspecies that live along the ocean!

A: If you’re so common, why haven’t I seen you before?

M: Because you only come outside in the daytime. We’re mostly active at night and at dawn and dusk.  

A: If that’s the case, why am I seeing you now in the middle of the day?

M: Because I am an opportunistic predator, and there are seagulls nearby.

A: Really, you’re taking on a seagull? You’re only about a foot long, and much of that is fuzzy tail.

M: You forget, I’m a super hero. Watch and learn.  

(Dramatic fight scene ensues. The American Mink returns to shore with the dead seagull in her mouth)

A: Wow….just….wow.

M: What did I tell you? But did you believe me? Noooo.

A: You were vicious! The way you wrapped your body around the gull, bit its neck, and then dove underwater to drown it? Incredible.

M: What can I say? There is a reason I have few natural predators. Nobody wants to mess with us!

A: Are you going to eat that whole gull now?

M: Nah, I’ll have a quick snack, but the rest is going in my burrow for later. I often kill more than I can eat in one sitting, and then cache the rest. I’m a killing machine!

A: Yes, I can believe that now. Besides seagulls, what else do you eat?

M: I prefer muskrat and rabbit, but I’ll eat just about anything I can get my paws onto. That includes mice, squirrels, frogs, fish, ducks, small turtles, worms, eggs and baby birds.

A: That’s certainly a lot of variety. What makes you such a great predator?

M: I have extremely good eyesight and sense of smell. My hearing is very sharp, so I can hear ultrasonic noises made by my prey. My aquatic lifestyle is assisted by my webbed toes, which let me dive over 18 feet underwater, and swim nearly 90 feet without coming up for air.

A: Incredible!

M: And if that weren’t enough, I can also climb trees and jump from branch to branch like a murderous squirrel! Even the air isn’t safe from me!

A: Okay, I’m beginning to understand the superhero thing now. You’re basically an unstoppable killing machine.

M: Pretty much. I’m also darn cute.

A: You got that right. Are you done with that seagull for now? Do you want to stash it in your burrow? Is it nearby?

M: Yes, it’s an old muskrat hole dug out of the riverbank a few metres from here. But I can’t let you see it because I have babies in there and then I would have to kill you.

A: Eep!

M: Just kidding. I’m not that powerful.

A: Whew. How many babies do you have this year?

M: I have four. They are still in the naked and helpless stage at this point. But in a few weeks I’ll take them out of the den for the first time and start teaching them how to hunt and swim.  

A: Very cool. Does your mate help take care of them?

M: Ha, that’s hilarious. Nope, the males are very uninvolved. We are solitary creatures with large territories that only really come together to mate. And considering how aggressive the males are when they see another mink, it’s probably best to keep them far away from the babies.

A: Fair enough. But it can’t be easy raising the babies on your own.

M: I do have a secret- it’s called “delayed implantation.”

A: Delayed what now?

M: Delayed implantation. Basically, it means I can choose when I have babies. Mating happens between February and April, but I can hold the embryo in suspended animation until the weather is nice enough and there is lots of prey around.

A: I can see how that would help. Are American Mink the only animals that can do that?

M: I’d like to say yes, but I’d be lying. Badgers, bears, shrews and skunks can do it too.

A: Okay, but it sounds like you’re still part of an exclusive club. How long do the babies stay with you?

M: We’ll stay together until the fall. Then they’ll go out on their own to find their own territories.

A: Sounds good. Do you still stay by the water in the winter?

M: Generally, yes. But with the water frozen, I move my hunting inland to focus more on rabbits, squirrels and mice.

A: Speaking of winter, I hear your fur was extremely popular for winter coats and accessories.

M: Yep, you humans couldn’t resist our soft, waterproof coats. In the 1900s someone had the great idea of farming us instead of catching us in the wild. This was a very popular idea, and American Mink were farmed all over Europe, Russia and the U.K., even in Japan and Chile. But you know us, we’re super heroes…

A: And let me guess- some of you escaped into the wild.

M: That’s right! So obviously the fur trade and fur farms were absolutely awful for our species, but they had the unintended consequence of spreading us all over the world! We have humans to thank for American Mink world domination.

A: And knowing you, you probably did a number on the local bird and mammal species.

M: Correct! Our introduced populations are so large in Europe and South America, that it’s now impossible to get rid of us except for on tiny islands.  

A: Charming. Well, I have to get going. Will I see you again next time I’m in the area?

M: Not if I can help it.

References:

https://www.nature.ca/notebooks/english/ammink.htm

https://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/permanent/north-american-mammals/american-mink

https://scitech.viu.ca/campus-wildlife/american-mink-neovi#

http://www.biokids.umich.edu/critters/Neovison_vison/

https://www.cabi.org/isc/datasheet/74428

Interview with a Dark-eyed junco

Dark-eyed junco. Photo by Shenandoah National Park. CC. https://flic.kr/p/2aXLVMR

Amelia: Look, there’s a flock of dark-eyed juncos hopping on the snow below my bird feeder. If I’m very quiet, I wonder if I can step a little closer…

Dark-eyed junco: Abort, abort! Fly for the trees!

A: Darn, why do you always do that? I just want a closer look.

D: I didn’t get this old without being very careful. I spend my most of my life on the ground, and oddly enough, there are a lot of predators down there.

A: A tiny bird that lives on the ground? That seems like a poor life choice.

D: Excuse you! I’m an extremely successful species found all over North America.

A: If you’re so common, how come I only see you in the winter?

D: For the simple reason that we spend our summers in coniferous or dense forest – not where you humans typically live. In the winter we fly south to warmer areas, looking for seeds and sleeping insects in more bushy open areas, like roadsides, farm fields and suburbs. We do like these birdfeeders you put up, even though we prefer the seeds the fall on the ground.

A: Why do you spend so much time on the ground?

D: It’s where all the good food is! Grasses and weeds have delicious seeds. And don’t get me started on ants, flies, spiders and caterpillars! It’s a veritable buffet down here. In addition, hopping after insects is good exercise.

A: I guess that’s true. When your flock flew away, I noticed your tails have flashy white feathers. They look pretty, but do they serve a larger purpose?

D: Yes. First, they help us stay together as a flock. Seeing flashes of white lets me know I’m still with my group. They also help us escape predators.

A: Really? Don’t they make you more visible to predators?

D: It’s all part of the “flash and hide” trick. If a hawk starts chasing me while I’m flying, its eyes are following those flashes of white. But once I fly into the brush and close up my tail, the white disappears, and the hawk loses track of me. Cotton tailed rabbits do the same thing.

A: Huh, I would never have thought that would work.

D: Yep. It’s such a successful feature that all 15 subspecies in North America have it, even though the rest of their markings come in a rainbow of greys, pinks and browns.

A: Hold on, not all dark-eyed juncos are grey and white like you?

D: Nope. We’re actually one of world’s best examples of diversification and rapid evolution.

A: What do you mean?

D: It means we look different based on where we live. We started from one ancestor bird that spread out across North America between 10,000-13,000 years ago, after the last ice age. Since then, populations in different parts of the continent have evolved different colourings.

A: But doesn’t evolution take a long time?

D: Usually, it does. But feather colour is more flexible than many other traits – a quick change in one gene is all it takes. Change that superficial can happen relatively fast, evolutionarily speaking. Humans thought we were separate species for a long time, until genetic testing in the 1980s proved otherwise. We can still interbreed where our populations border each other, and during winter migrations we’ll often flock with other subspecies. But if we stay apart long enough, we may indeed become separate species. You’re watching evolution in action in your own backyard!

A: Okay, that’s pretty cool. Besides colour and where you live, are there other differences between the subspecies?

D: Not lots- we all hop on the ground, feed on insects and seeds, have cute pink beaks, migrate, and make our nests on the ground.

A: Hold on, you nest on the ground? I don’t want to judge, but that sounds like another awful life choice. Don’t your eggs and babies get eaten?

D: Well, yes they do. Repeatedly. We do our best to chase away squirrels, snakes and chipmunks, but anything bigger than that is not going to listen to a tiny songbird.

A: Wait, chipmunks eat eggs and baby birds?

D: Definitely. Isn’t that common knowledge? They are stripy menaces.

A: Okay, I learned something new. It must be tragic to lose your babies.

D: Oh it is, but we’re nothing if not determined. If a nest fails, we’ll try again up to five times in a season to raise a successful brood.

A: Wow, that’s impressive! Though I still question your judgement on the whole nesting on the ground thing.

D: It’s not as if the nest is in plain sight. It’s usually hidden under a bush, under tree roots, or in a rocky hollow.  

A: Okay, so who makes the nest?

D: I do. The female is responsible for choosing the nest site and building the nest. I may attempt to build up to seven different nests before I settle on the perfect one.

A: Once you make that nest, do you use the same one every year?

D: Are you kidding? Nests on the ground don’t last that long! They’re also full of bugs and parasites. I start fresh every year.

A: Sounds like a lot of work. Does your mate help raise the babies?

D: Oh yes, he helps me feed them. We’re a devoted pair, even if some of the babies aren’t his.

A: What? I thought you were monogamous.

D: We prefer the term “socially monogamous.” It means we raise a family together, but we’re both sleeping around with the neighbours. This works out well for me because if my mate dies during the breeding season, one of the neighbours will take me as his second mate and help raise my babies. The next year I’ll find a new mate. We’re nothing if not persistent when it comes to raising babies!

A: You are certainly committed.

D: Also, I bet you didn’t know that I’m a sparrow.

A: Really? You’re not brown and stripy like most sparrows.

D: That’s because stripy sparrows live in grasslands where the stripes help them blend in. I live in coniferous forest, where stripes would not help at all.

A: That makes sense. I’d better get back inside- it’s cold out here. Will I see you again next winter?

D: Probably, if you keep putting out this delicious birdseed!

References

https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/dark-eyed-junco

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Dark-eyed_Junco/lifehistory

https://cwf-fcf.org/en/resources/encyclopedias/fauna/birds/dark-eyed-junco.html

https://www.borealbirds.org/bird/dark-eyed-junco

https://www.audubon.org/news/dark-eyed-juncos-backyard-gems-come-dazzling-array-colors

https://juncoproject.org/about/why-juncos/index.html

https://urbanecologycenter.org/blog/native-animal-of-the-month-dark-eyed-junco.html

https://mailtribune.com/oregon-outdoors/untold-stories-of-the-dark-eyed-junco

http://www.biokids.umich.edu/critters/Junco_hyemalis/

https://keypennews.org/stories/when-a-junco-nests-in-the-garden,3320

Interview with a mourning dove

Mourning dove. Photo by Amelia Buchanan. Copyright 2020

Amelia: Ugh, why am I awake so early? The sun isn’t even up yet. That owl hooting outside my window must have woken me up again.

Mourning dove: Nope, it’s just me. I need to get an early start on finding a mate!

A: Is that really necessary? I’m sure you’d attract more ladies at say, 8 a.m.

M: Sorry, no can do. I need to coo for two hours starting an hour before sunrise, and then start up again in the afternoon. It’s a time-tested strategy that’s sure to work.

A: Two hours! There’s no way I’m going back to sleep now. Why don’t you find somewhere else to perch? I’m sure there are lovely lady doves a few kilometres from here.

M: Nope, this is one of my lucky spots. From the top of your roof my cooing travels a long distance and the girls can see me clearly.

A: Once you find a mate, does the cooing stop? I really hope so.

M: The marathon cooing stops, but I’ll use shorter calls to communicate with her.

A: What kind of things do you tell her? Are you whispering sweet nothings?

M: It’s generally domestic things. Messages like “I think this would be a good place for a nest, what do you think?” and “I’m coming in with a bunch of twigs” or “It’s my turn to sit on the eggs, or feed the chicks.”

A: Wow, you sound like an ideal partner. I’m all about communication. How many chicks do you typically raise together?

M: Well, our pair-bond lasts at least one season. During that time we can have one to six broods with two eggs each, depending on the climate where we live.

A: I’m sorry, did you say six?

M: I mean, we can’t do that here- it’s much too cold. But our cousins in Mexico or the southern U.S. manage it- their breeding season is longer.

A: Sorry, I’m still caught on the number six. How is it physically possible to raise so many batches of babies in one season?

M: We have a secret weapon- crop milk.

A: Excuse me? You’re a bird, you don’t feed your babies milk. Only mammals do that. It’s actually part of the definition of a mammal.

M: You’re right, it’s not actual milk. It’s dead liquid-filled cells from inside my digestive tract. Milk is a misnomer- it’s the texture of cottage cheese.

A: Ugh, that’s disgusting!

M: Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. Like mammal milk, crop milk is full of immune-boosters – it also has more protein and fat. It’s why our babies can grow really fast –they are out of the nest two weeks after hatching. At that point we won’t give them food in the nest- they have to hop onto the ground first. The fledglings will forage around on the ground for a few days before they can fly. Then we start getting the nest ready for the next round of eggs!

A: I suppose it works for you. When you say crop milk, what is a crop, exactly? I’m pretty sure I don’t have one.

M: You don’t, and you’re missing out! It’s a handy pouch off my esophagus, where I can store extra food before digesting it.

A: So gross. Why would you want to do that?

M: Life isn’t always a banquet you know. Sometimes food is scarce, and it helps to have some hidden away in this internal pocket for later. Also, once it’s inside my crop, no-one else can get it! Then I can rest on a branch where it’s safe and digest to my heart’s content.

Don’t bother me- I’m digesting. Photo by Amelia Buchanan. Copyright 2020.

A: Okay, I see your logic. Do all birds have crops?

M: Yes. I use mine to store seeds, which are 99% of my diet. That’s another reason crop milk is important- seeds do not make good baby food. They are difficult to bring to the nest and too hard for newborns to digest. Crop milk solves those problems. The babies stick their beaks inside my mouth and eat to their hearts’ content. Did you know that besides penguins and flamingos, pigeons and doves are the only birds to use crop milk? It’s a winning strategy.

A: Alright, you’ve sold me on crop milk. Is that why there are so many of you?

M: Yep, we’re one of the most common birds in North America. We’re right up there with red-winged blackbirds. But you don’t see as many of us in Canada- it’s a bit cold up here. We prefer the U.S. and Mexico.

A: Speaking of the cold, I was going to ask you—is that toe frost-bitten?

M: Alas, yes. One of the occupational hazards of being a bird that feeds on the ground during a Canadian winter.

A: Why don’t you migrate somewhere warmer?

M: Many of us do, but I wanted to stake out the perfect territory before the other males got here. That’s worth a few toes.

A: Wow, that’s commitment. Potentially misguided commitment, but commitment nonetheless. I hope you find a mate who’s worth it. And preferably within the next few days.

M: I’ll do my best! Until then you can look forward to the dulcet tones every morning an hour before sunrise.

A: Today is a good day to get some earplugs.

References:

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Mourning_Dove/lifehistory

https://highparknaturecentre.com/index.php/blog/2020/10-things-you-might-not-know-about-mourning-doves

https://www.audubon.org/magazine/may-june-2014/why-passenger-pigeon-went-extinct

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Mourning_Dove/sounds

https://www.startribune.com/shy-birds-behind-that-lilting-coo/570595522/

http://archive.knoxnews.com/entertainment/columnists/marcia-davis/birdlife-coos-give-clues-to-doves-behavior-ep-412018159-359970421.html

https://www.thespruce.com/meaning-of-crop-385210

https://northernwoodlands.org/outside_story/article/the-secret-life-of-the-mourning-dove

Interview with a White-breasted Nuthatch

White-breasted nuthatch on a tree
A White-breasted Nuthatch being characteristically acrobatic. Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren. https://flic.kr/p/2jKHt6H. CC.

Amelia: What a gorgeous winter day for a walk in the woods. The snow makes everything so hushed and peaceful. Except for that nasal quacking sound. Who’s doing that?

White-breasted Nuthatch: Hey, I don’t comment on your annoying voice. This is just how I sound.

A: Oh, you’re a nuthatch, working your way down a tree upside down. Why do you do that, by the way? Seems inconvenient.

W: Shows how much you know. From this perspective I find all the good stuff that the woodpeckers and chickadees miss when they travel up the tree.

A: What’s good stuff do you mean?

W: Insect larvae, beetles, ants, caterpillars, stinkbugs, spiders. In the winter many insects sleep under the tree bark, which makes them easy pickings.

A: Ugh, sounds delicious. What’s wrong with nuts and seeds?

W: Nothing – I eat those too. When I find a large nut, I shove it under some tree bark and use my sharp beak to hack open the shell. That’s where my name comes from: “nut-hack” became “nut-hatch.” Get it?

A: I guess so. How are you able to travel upside down without falling off the tree?

W: I have special equipment. My back toe has a wicked scythe-like claw that keeps me anchored. The curved claws on my front toes grip the bark so I don’t slide down. And my adorable short stubby tail braces me against the tree trunk.

A: Cool! Those adaptations sound quite similar to a woodpecker. You even have a long thin bill like a woodpecker. Are you related?

W: Nope, we belong to two different bird families. Woodpeckers have two toes that face backwards, while I have one. They travel up a tree, while I travel down. And woodpeckers have harder heads- no insult intended. They have special skulls that protect them from concussions when they drill into a tree. If I tried to do that, it would give me a headache. I use my beak to lift bark and reach into crevices, not to make holes.

A: Fair enough. Oh look, there’s another white-breasted nuthatch! Do you know them?

W: Yes I do- she’s my mate. She’s on the look-out for other nuthatches who may try to invade our territory. We have a lot of good stuff cached in these trees to get us through the winter, and we don’t want to lose it.

A: You’re pretty territorial for a cute little bird.

W: For good reason. We stay in this territory all year long –it’s where we raise our chicks. We need to make sure there’s enough food to go around. When we’re raising babies, I’ll make over 100 trips a day to the nest delivering fresh-caught insects. It’s exhausting!

A: No kidding! Where do you make your nest?

W: We usually nest in a natural cavity or abandoned woodpecker hole. Like I said, making holes is not in our wheelhouse. We prefer to recycle existing ones. My mate takes care of interior decorating, lining the hole with fur, bark, and dirt to make it nice and snug. For the eggs, she makes a snug cup out of grass, shredded bark, and feathers. We’re thrifty and will often use the same nest for multiple years.

A: Who incubates the eggs?

W: My mate takes care of sitting on the eggs. It’s my job is to bring her food so she can stay on the nest.  

A: Sounds like she’s well taken care of. I just noticed that she’ll often look up from foraging, with her head at a 90-degree angle from the tree. Is she posing for you?

W: No, though I’m not averse to the idea. She’s checking for predators. When you’re a tiny bird, the world is a dangerous place. That’s why we’ve joined the resident chickadee gang this winter – for our protection.

A: Really, a chickadee gang? That doesn’t sound very scary.

W: Well, it helps to have more eyes on the look-out for predators. There’s safety in numbers, you know.

A: I suppose. But won’t the chickadees compete with you for food?

W: Not really –remember they go up the tree, we go down. Chickadees are also really good at finding food, and they lead us to the best places. And while they have an aggressive intra-species pecking order, they leave us in peace. It’s a pretty sweet deal to hang out with the chickadees.  

A: Okay, understood. What about Red-breasted Nuthatches, do you ever hang out with them?

W: On occasion. We prefer deciduous forests, while our red-breasted cousins like coniferous forests. They’re all about those conifer cones. In fact, Red-breasted Nuthatches are spread much more broadly than we are in Canada, because so much of the country is coniferous forest.

A: Very cool. Well, I’ll leave you to your foraging. Say hi to the chickadee gang for me.

W: Will do.

References

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/White-breasted_Nuthatch/lifehistory#

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Red-breasted_Nuthatch/lifehistory

https://www.hww.ca/en/wildlife/birds/red-breasted-nuthatch.html

http://www.hiltonpond.org/ThisWeek071115.html

https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/white-breasted-nuthatch

5 choses vous ne saviez-pas sur les fraises

Behind that red juiciness lurks hidden secrets. Strawberry. Photo by Vladimir Fishmen, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/117611265@N05/13537327374/

Strawberry. Photo par Vladimir Fishmen, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/117611265@N05/13537327374/

(Read the English version of this post)

C’est la saison des fraises en Ontario. Bientôt on va faire des muffins, du fraisier et de la confiture.

Quand j’étais petite, j’étais responsable de faire la cueillette des fraises dans notre jardin. Ce n’était pas une tâche difficile parce que les oiseaux et les écureuils mangeaient la plupart des baies. Une fois, j’ai fait l’erreur de laver ma récolte dans la piscine pour enfants après que mon frère est sorti. Ma mère était obligée de m’enseigner ma première leçon sur la préparation des aliments d’une façon hygiénique.

Malgré cette déception, j’ai toujours eu une passion pour les fraises. Voici quelques faits divers sur ces fruits délicieux.

Les fraises ne sont pas des baies

Strawberries aren't berries, but a banana is. Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt, Pink Sherbert Photography, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/pinksherbet/4853010035/

Photo par D. Sharon Pruitt, Pink Sherbert Photography, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/pinksherbet/4853010035/

Selon la définition botanique, une baie est un fruit charnu provenant d’un seul ovaire.  Les baies ont des grains à l’intérieur du fruit. Les graines des fraises sont à l’extérieur, alors les fraises ne sont pas des baies. Selon cette définition, les bluets, les tomates, les citrouilles et même les bananes et les avocats sont des baies. Bizarre!

Les fraises ne sont même pas des fruits

Close-up of the hundreds of achenes and their leftover pistils. Each one has a seed inside. Photo by Stephen Shellard IMG_2771 CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/stephen_shellard/8816417025/

Ici on voit clairment les centaines akènes. Photo par Stephen Shellard IMG_2771 CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/stephen_shellard/8816417025/

Franchement, ça devient ridicule. Tout le monde sait que les fraises sont des fruits. Nos gouvernements le disent dans leurs guides alimentaires! En botanique la fraise n’est pas un fruit, mais un fruit complexe. Les véritables fruits du fraisier sont les 200 « graines » à l’extérieur, qui s’appellent des akènes. Chaque akène contient un grain. La partie rouge s’appelle le réceptacle, la partie de la plante qui portant les fleurs. Alors, chaque fois que vous mangez une fraise, vous mangez des douzaines de fruits!

L’attaque des clones

Les fraisiers ont des vies sexuelles compliqués. Leurs fleurs ont des parties mâles et femelles, et peuvent se polliniser eux-mêmes. Mais un réceptacle grand et croquant développe seulement grâce aux pollinisateurs.

Chaque akène sur une fraise contient une graine. Mais les graines ne sont pas leur mode de reproduction primaire—les fraisiers préfèrent la reproduction asexuée. Ils poussent des stolons qui devient des nouvelles plantes. Ces plantes sont les clones génétiques du parent.

Les fermiers qui veulent les grandes fraises coupent souvent ces stolons. Dans cette façon la plante concentre son énergie dans la production des fruits et non pas sur la production des clones. La taille des fraises est importante pour le marché des fruits frais, qui représente un quart de la récolte. Mais la plupart des fraises sont cultiver pour le marché surgelés, confitures ou de yaourts, où la taille est moins importante.

Les fraises culturelles

Les fraises symbolisaient l’amour, la passion et la pureté dans pleureurs cultures occidentales. Pour les romains, la fraise était un symbole de Vénus, la déesse de l’amour. Dans des cathédrales du Moyen Âge, on voyait des fraises taillées dans la pierre en haut des colonnes pour représenter la pureté et la perfection. Dans Othello, une tragédie de William Shakespeare, le héro donne un mouchoir brodé avec des fraises à son épouse pour représenter sa pureté. Ce mouchoir va jouer un rôle important dans l’intrigue.

Les médicaments délicieux

Les romains croyaient que les fruits et les feuilles de fraisiers pouvaient traiter la fièvre, l’évanouissement, l’angine, la mauvaise haleine et les maladies du rein et de la fois.

On sait aujourd’hui que le fraisier n’est pas une panacée médicale. Mais les fruits sont une source importante des antioxydants, qui sont importants pour la santé générale. Huit fraises vous donnent 160 % de l’apport recommandé en vitamine C. Par poids, c’est plus qu’un orange.  L’acide des fraises est bon pour les dents et les gencives, alors peut-être les romains avaient raison sur la mauvaise haleine!

Références
http://www.koppert.com/pollination/fruit-crops/crops/detail/strawberry/
http://ontarioberries.com/site/berry-info/strawberries.html
http://urbanext.illinois.edu/strawberries/history.cfm
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/568585/strawberry
http://www.agf.gov.bc.ca/aboutind/products/plant/strawberry.htm
http://www.inspection.gc.ca/food/fresh-fruits-and-vegetables/quality-inspection/fruit-inspection-manuals/strawberries/eng/1303696857326/1303696941051
http://www.foodland.gov.on.ca/english/fruits/strawberries/index.html
http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/cultivated-berries/

https://www.futura-sciences.com/planete/questions-reponses/botanique-fraise-nest-pas-fruit-14182/
http://www.chpcanada.ca/en/blog/health-benefits-strawberries

Interview with an American Red Squirrel

American red squirrel eating a spruce cone
An American red squirrel enjoying its favorite food- seeds from an evergreen cone . Copyright Amelia Buchanan, 2020.

Want to learn about grey or black squirrels? Check out my Interview with a Grey Squirrel.

Amelia: I love putting up strings of lights in my yard in early December- it really brightens things up. Wait a minute, how come this string won’t light? I swear it was working yesterday. Hey, someone cut the wire and stole a bulb! Who would do something like that?

American Red Squirrel: Guilty as charged.

A: Really? That’s unexpected. I appreciate your honesty, but why did you do it?

RS: I’m not sure exactly. I often have strong urges to try eating new things. I found out pretty quickly that I can’t eat lightbulbs. But the bioplastic around the wires was kind of tasty.

A: Bioplastic? Oh right- I’ve heard some companies are trying to use more eco-friendly plastics made from soy, rice husks, and corn oil. But why are you trying new things to eat- isn’t there enough food around here?

RS: Not always. My wild cousins live mainly in evergreen forest. Their main food source is seeds from the evergreen cones. Some years the trees produce a lot of cones, and some years they don’t produce many at all.

A: I can see how that would be a problem. How do the squirrels survive those hard years?

RS: By eating lots of different things and trying new kinds food. We prefer seeds and nuts, but if they’re in short supply we’ll go for flowers, buds, berries, mushrooms, insects, eggs, even mice and small birds.

A: Wow, I didn’t know you could eat meat! You’re not much bigger than a mouse or a songbird.

RS: What can I say – I have hidden talents.

A: I’m going to keep a closer eye on you when you’re in my bird feeder from now on.

RS: Don’t worry- the birds are safe as long as I can stuff my cheeks with sunflower seeds. Much more energy efficient that way.

A: Does that mean you’re saving those seeds for later?

RS: Exactly, another survival strategy. I have stockpiles of food hidden away to get me through the winter. We call them caches. I have several caches in my territory, and each one contains about a month’s worth of food. My cousins in the warmer parts of the United States put all their eggs in one basket, and have one massive cache that can hold 1-2 seasons’ worth of food. I find that risky, but I guess it’s easier to protect if it’s all in one place.

A: Is that why you’re so aggressive, because you’re protecting your caches? I often hear you chittering and chasing away other squirrels.

RS: That’s part of it. We’re also solitary beasts, and we just don’t like other squirrels on our territory. Protecting the caches is one thing, but we’re also protecting the area where we find food.

A: That makes sense. But doesn’t the noise from your territorial display attract predators? I’m sure there are lots of things that would love to eat you.

RS: You’re not wrong- my list of predators is longer than I am. Thankfully, I can also put scent markings around the borders of my territory to warn other squirrels to keep out. This method is much quieter, not to mention less work.

A: Do those scent markings help you find a mate?

RS: In a manner of speaking. A male will invade my territory and chase me around until I agree to mate with him. I’m only in heat for one day a year, so there’s not much time for romance.

A: And does he stick around to help raise the babies?

RS: Nope, I’m on my own for that. Like I said, we’re solitary.

A: Where do you raise your babies? Somewhere on your territory?

RS: Yes, I make a nest to keep them safe and warm. They’re born blind and hairless, and stay that way for about a month. They’re pretty helpless buggers, so I need to find the absolute best spot for a nest. I’ve considered under the hood of your car- it’s nice and warm under there from the engine.

A: Oh goodness, please don’t do that!  Not only is it dangerous for you and the babies, it’s dangerous for me! I know how much you love to chew wires.

RS: All right then, what about your attic? You’re never up there anyway.

A: Please no! I’d rather not have skittering and crying over my head.

RS: Picky, picky! Okay, I guess I’ll have to settle for that hole halfway up the big oak in your yard.

A: Whew! Dodged a bullet there. How long do you have to look after your babies?

RS: I feed them milk for about two months, which is the time they leave the nest for good. Then it’s up to them to find their own territory.

A: They’re only two months old when they leave the nest? That’s so young! Aren’t they in danger from predators?

RS: Definitely. Only a quarter of babies will survive their first year – I try not to get too attached. The flipside is those who do survive are pretty good at staying alive. Most of us live about five years, which is a long time for an animal our size.

A: That is impressive! Can I ask a personal question?

RS: Go ahead.

A: Is that a bald patch on your back?

RS: Oh, that. Yes, I’m nearly done my fall moult. Twice a year all of the hair on our bodies slowly falls out and gets replaced. This one started at my nose and will end at my rump.

A: Why’s that?

RS: Well, we need a much thicker coat for the winter, and it gets to be a bit much in the spring.

A: Okay, makes sense. Is your tail included in the moult?

RS: No, it’s on its own schedule. That hair is only replaced once a year. My tail is extremely important, so it needs to stay in tip-top shape.

A: Why is it so important?

RS: Well, first of all it’s absolutely gorgeous. But the real reason is we need it for balance as we jump from tree to tree. Dastardly tail flicks are also part of our defense strategy and territorial display. Nothing is more threatening than a flicking fluffy tail!

A: If you say so! Well, I’d better get inside- it’s cold out here.

RS: Tell me about it! Are you sure I can’t come in and nest in your attic? All that central heating is going to waste.

A: Nice try, but not a chance.

Want to learn about grey or black squirrels? Check out my Interview with a Grey Squirrel.

References:

https://www.nwf.org/Educational-Resources/Wildlife-Guide/Mammals/Red-Squirrel

https://nature.ca/notebooks/english/redsquir.htm

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/honda-soy-wiring-squirrels-rodents-ottawa-1.4878351

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/squirrels-steal-hundreds-of-bulbs-1.5828363

https://natureedmonton.wordpress.com/2013/08/27/the-red-squirrel/

http://www.biokids.umich.edu/critters/Tamiasciurus_hudsonicus/

https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/red_squirrel_injury_to_spruce_trees_in_winter

https://animaldiversity.org/site/accounts/information/Tamiasciurus_hudsonicus.html

https://cwf-fcf.org/en/about-cwf/faq/faqs/how-do-i-stop-squirrels-from.html

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Follow lab bench to park bench on WordPress.com

Archives

%d bloggers like this: