Interview with an American Mink

American Mink. Photo by Peter Trimming. CC.

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.


Interview with a Dark-eyed junco

Dark-eyed junco. Photo by Shenandoah National Park. CC.

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!


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.


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. 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.


5 choses vous ne saviez-pas sur les fraises

Behind that red juiciness lurks hidden secrets. Strawberry. Photo by Vladimir Fishmen, CC.

Strawberry. Photo par Vladimir Fishmen, CC.

(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.

Photo par D. Sharon Pruitt, Pink Sherbert Photography, CC.

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.

Ici on voit clairment les centaines akènes. Photo par Stephen Shellard IMG_2771 CC.

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!


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.


8 choses vous ne saviez-pas sur les abeilles indigènes

(Read the English version of this article)

J’ai une confession à vous faire : je suis une passionnée des insectes.

Alors, quand mon université a offert un cours gratuit sur comment identifier les insectes qui se trouvent dans nos jardins, évidemment j’en suis assisté.

La chose la plus importante que j’ai appris était comment distinguer les abeilles des mouches. J’ai pensé que leurs différences étaient assez évidentes. Les abeilles étaient crépues avec des rayures noirs et jaunes. Les mouches étaient noires avec des corps lisses. Mais ce n’est pas du tout le cas!

La vraie différence entre les abeilles et les mouches sont leurs antennes. Les antennes des mouches sont très courtes et les antennes des abeilles sont longs. Cette différence est importante à connaitre, parce que la plupart des abeilles au Canada ont l’air de petites mouches. Une fois que je l’ai appris je voyais les abeilles partout! Il y a toute une variété présente dans les jardins de mon coin. Leur taille varie de deux millimètres à cinq centimètres. Elles se déclinent en plusieurs couleurs, y compris le gris, le noir et le vert émeraude. Il y a des abeilles qui ont l’air des bijoux et je ne les avais jamais remarqués avant.

Voici ce qu’il faut savoir sur les abeilles indigènes.

Tout ce que vous saviez sur les abeilles s’applique à qu’une espèce

L’abeille noir et jaune qu’on connait le mieux s’appelle l’abeille européenne, une abeille à miel qui a été domestiqué il y a 4,000 ans. Elle a été introduite en Amérique du Nord pour faire du miel et pour polliniser les cultures.

Presque tout ce qu’on est enseigné sur les abeilles s’applique qu’au abeille européenne. Ils vivent dans une grande ruche et produisent du miel pour nourrir les petites de la reine. La ruche contient entre 10,000 et 80,000 abeilles ouvrières, des centaines de faux-bourdons et une reine. Mais ce modèle ne s’applique pas à la plupart des 19,000 espèces d’abeille au monde.

On met l’accent sur les abeilles européens parce qu’ils sont essentiels à l’économie. Un tiers de notre nourriture dépend des pollinisateurs et les abeilles européennes font de la pollinisation sur une échelle industrielle.  Sans les pollinisateurs, on n’aurait pas de fruits et légumes comme les tomates, des pommes, des cerises, des concombres, des citrouilles ou des fraises.

Mais les abeilles européennes ne sont pas les seuls pollinisateurs des récoltes. Des pollinisateurs sauvages comme les abeilles indigènes, les guêpes, les papillons, les papillons de nuit, les oiseaux et les mouches y jouent un rôle aussi.  Au Canada il y a 730 espèces d’abeilles indigènes. Pour certains produits comme les tomates et les framboises, les abeilles indigènes sont les pollinisateurs plus efficaces que les abeilles européennes.

Les abeilles tyrannosaures

Pouvez-vous imaginer un monde sans fleurs et, par conséquente, sans fruits? C’est le monde dans laquelle les ancêtres des abeilles vivaient. Ces ancêtres étaient les guêpes qui chassaient des insectes. Pourquoi avaient-ils changé de régime? La raison était l’arrivée des fleurs pendant le Crétacé, la dernière ère des dinosaures. Avant cette période la plupart des plantes étaient des conifères, des fougères et des cyanophytes. La fleur est une innovation botanique qui dépend des animaux ou du vent pour transporter le pollen d’une fleur à un autre. Souvent une fleur offre le nectar, un liquide sucré, aux animaux pour les attirer. Le nectar offre des calories faciles et visiter des fleurs est beaucoup moins d’effort que chasser. Plusieurs animaux comme les abeilles, les guêpes, les mouches, les papillons, les oiseaux et les chauves-souris avaient tous évolué pour profiter de cette nouvelle nourriture.

Vivre tout seul

Différente des abeilles européennes à miel, la plupart des abeilles indigènes en Amérique du Nord sont solitaires. Chaque femelle est un modèle d’indépendance. Elle fait son nid, pond ses œufs et trouve du pollen et du nectar pour nourrir ses larves. Une fois qu’une femelle s’est accouplée avec un mâle, elle trouve ou creuse un trou dans laquelle elle va pondre son œuf. Dans ce trou elle fait une boule énorme de nectar et pollen. Elle pond un seul œuf sur cette boule et ensuite elle parte. Quand la larve éclore de l’œuf, elle a toute la nourriture nécessaire pour grandir et se métamorphoser en adulte. L’abeille adulte sorte du trou en automne et il hiberne pendant hiver.

Vivre dans une ruche? Non, merci!

La plupart des abeilles solitaires font leur nid dans un trou au sol, comme les Hobbits! Les abeilles Osima ont des maisons les plus mignonnes. Ils aiment dormir dans les petites espaces, comme une coquille d’escargot ou un trou de serrure. Attention à la clé petite abeille!

Des abeilles paresseuses

On a cette idée que l’abeille est une bête productive qui n’arrête jamais. Mais ce n’est pas vrai pour toutes les espèces. Il y a des abeilles solitaires qui ne veulent pas collectionner la boule de nourriture nécessaire pour nourrir leur petit. Pour éviter ce travail, elles pondent leurs œufs dans les nids des autres abeilles solitaires.

Une abeille indigène bien connue

L’abeille indigène le plus familier est le bourdon. Ce nom commun représente plus de 200 espèces. Avec leur grande taille, les bourdons sont difficiles à manquer. Ils sont une des premières abeilles qu’on voit le printemps et un des derniers en automne, parce qu’ils sont capables de voler dans les températures plus fraîches. Ils vivent dans les petites colonies de 50 à 400 individus. Contrairement aux d’abeilles du miel, la reine est le seul à survivre l’hiver. Les bourdons sont les pollinisateurs plus efficaces que les abeilles européennes. Ils sont les pollinisateurs principaux des tomates, le coton, les pommes, les prunes, les framboises et les tournesols. Les bourdons domestiqués sont utilisés dans les serres pour faire de la pollinisation des fruits et légumes.

Difficile sur la nourriture

La plupart des abeilles au Canada va visiter toutes sortes de fleurs. Mais il y a des espèces qui sont les spécialistes, qui préfèrent un type de fleur en particulier. Par exemple, l’abeille Melissodes desponsa ne visite que des chardons.

En danger d’extinction

Il y a plusieurs factures qui mettent les abeilles indigènes en danger d’extinction. C’est surtout le cas pour les spécialistes, qui ne peuvent pas survivre sans leur plante préférée. Le changement climatique et les insecticides ont aussi des effets néfastes sur les abeilles indigènes.

Mais les plantes dans nos jardins peuvent aussi faire une différence. La plupart de fleurs dans les jardins d’Amérique du Nord viennent d’Europe et nos abeilles indigènes ne peuvent pas trouver de la nourriture chez eux.

Pour aider les abeilles indigènes, plantez les fleurs indigènes, ou attendez arracher les mauvaises herbes jusqu’à ils ont fleuri. Laissez un peu de terre vide où les abeilles peuvent faire leurs trous, ou fabriquez un hôtel pour les insectes.


Click to access Recommendations%20for%20Conservation%20of%20Pollinators%20on%20FarmlandFinal_DSC.pdf

Interview with an urban bobcat

Bobcat. Photo by Valerie. CC.

Amelia: What a fantastic day for a walk along the Bow River in Calgary. This urban trail system is great! Wait a second- is that a bobcat?

Bobcat: Don’t mind me. Nothing to see here.

A: This is so exciting! But also confusing. Aren’t you meant to be a shy wildcat who is almost impossible to see in the wild? What are you doing in suburban Calgary?

B: Three words: white-tailed jackrabbits.

A: You mean those huge hares that hop around Calgary and turn white in the winter?

B: You got it. They are incredibly tasty.

A: Tasty enough to tempt you into the city? I find that hard to believe.

B: Please, I was born and bred in Calgary. More and more bobcats have been calling the city home for the past decade.

A: Wow, fully urban bobcats! If that’s the case, why have I not seen you before?

B: We’re pretty sneaky, and we do try to avoid people. You smell funny.

A: You’re one to talk- didn’t you just pee on that tree?

B: Yep, I’m marking my territory, and telling other bobcats to keep out. My home range is a bit smaller here than it would be in the wild, but it has everything I need- lots of prey, places to hide, and close to the range of several females.

A: Oh, do you have special lady friends?

B: Not really. We keep to ourselves outside of spring mating season. Females will mate with several males and vice-versa, similar to how your pet cats do it.

A: Are you involved in raising the kittens?

B: Nope, we leave that to the females. They usually have about three kittens, and will stay with them for nine months to a year until they can hunt for themselves. They’ll even teach the kittens to hunt by bringing live mice back to the den.

A: Do the females make dens right here in the city?

B: Certainly. There are lots of good hidey-holes- dense bushes, rocky outcroppings, and spaces under porches.

A: Under porches? That sounds a bit scary. Should I be worried if bobcats are in my neighbourhood?

B: No, we’re not interested in humans. Like your domestic cats, we prefer to ignore you. But speaking of pets, you probably want to keep a close eye on your cats and small dogs if we’re in the area. I much prefer the kind of prey I’d eat in the wild, but if the opportunity presents itself…

A: Okay, I take your meaning. What about small children, are you a threat to them?

B: Nope. Kids are way too noisy. They scare us more than anything.

A: So what else do you eat, besides the jackrabbits?

B: I mostly eat small mammals like mice, rabbits, rats and squirrels. On occasion I’ll try my hand at something bigger, like grouse, geese or porcupine

A: Porcupine! How the heck do you eat a porcupine?

B: Very carefully. I’ll grab the porcupine’s unprotected head or flip it over to expose its bare belly. Once I do that, it’s game over.

A: Okay, makes sense. How do you hunt your regular prey? I’ve seen jackrabbits run, and they are fast!

B: We rely on stealth and surprise. We stalk or lie in wait for our prey, and then we pounce. We can leap up to 12 feet. They never see us coming.

A: Impressive! Can you climb trees too?

B: Yep. Sometimes we’ll climb up to survey our territory and identify where to hunt next. We have impressive night vision, which is why we’re most active at dawn and dusk. Though since moving into the city, we’ve become more active at all times of the day.

A: I guess bobcats are more adaptable than I thought.

B: Definitely! We live everywhere from southern Canada to Mexico, in grasslands, deserts and forests. As long as there are small critters to eat, we’ll be there.

A: I guess we could consider you good pest control in cities like Calgary, right?

B: Yep- we’re just being good neighbours, helping you manage those explosions of squirrels and jackrabbits. You’re welcome.

A: Well, I’m happy to know that you’re in my neighbourhood. Will I see you again?

B: Not if I can help it.

A: You’re such a cat.

B: And proud of it.


Interview with a Common Merganser

Female common merganser swimming with 12 ducklings behind her
Photo by Don DeBold. Female Common Merganser and her ducklings. 2013. CC.

Amelia: What a gorgeous day at the lake. Just me, some dragonflies …and about 20 ducklings. Woah, where did all the ducklings come from?

Common Merganser: Darned if I know.

A: Why, aren’t they yours?

M: I can’t be sure.

A: What do you mean?

M: I can’t recognize my own ducklings. I may have adopted some that got lost or abandoned. Let me check- yep, I have two new ones today.

A: How is that possible?

M: They’re pretty independent buggers. Ducklings will see a female that looks like their mom and just follow her.

A: Does that make more work for you?

M: Not really. The babies are feeding themselves with aquatic insects a few days after they’re born. After a week, they’re already diving for fish. All I have to do is lead them to good feeding areas, and keep them alive.  

A: Is it difficult keeping them alive?

M: It can be- they’re pretty edible balls of fluff. Hawks, owls, eagles, even loons and pike would like to snack on them.  But the babies know how to hide under river banks. They can even run across the water to escape. If protecting them gets to be too much, I meet up with some friends so we can look after each other’s babies in a group. It’s like ducky day care.

A: Cool! Would any of those predators try to eat you too?

M: Nope- I’m the apex predator in these parts. I can swallow a foot-long fish. You don’t mess with that.

A: Clearly not. Does your mate help out with the babies?

M: Nope. He took off while I was incubating the eggs. Joined a gang of males. I probably won’t see him until the winter, once the babies are off on their own. Maybe we’ll stay together another season, but maybe not- I’m keeping my options open.

A: Was incubating all those eggs on your own difficult?

M: It wasn’t ideal. I found a pretty good spot this year- an old woodpecker nest a few metres off the ground. It was cozy and full of wood shavings, but I added some feathers from my breast for extra insulation. With a set-up like that I can incubate up to 20 eggs.

A: Wow, 20 is a lot to lay!

M: Goodness, they’re not all mine. I lay about 10 every season.

A: Okay…so where are the extra eggs in your nest coming from?

M: A few of the neighbouring momma mergansers will lay an egg or two in my nest while I’m away. I’m doing the same thing in their nests, so it evens out.

A: That’s weird. Why not lay all your eggs in your own nest?

M: Haven’t you heard “don’t put all your eggs in one basket?” Laying my eggs in other ducks’ nests is an insurance policy in case my own nest is destroyed. It’s easy for egg-eating thieves like squirrels, raccoons and even northern flicker woodpeckers to clean out the nest while I’m gone hunting. I can’t be on the nest 24/7.

A: Okay, that makes sense. But it feels like cheating.

M: Oh please, everyone does it. I’ve even seen hooded mergansers and goldeneye ducks leaving my nest on occasion.

A: Wait, so you’re looking after ducklings that may not even belong to your species?

M: Yep, It’s entirely possible.

A: That is deeply weird.

M: Hey, I don’t discriminate as long as the ducklings can keep up. Thankfully they don’t stick around the nest too long after they hatch- it gets pretty crowded in there! Within a day or two they’ve jumped out and are ready to explore the water.

A: How long will you stay with the ducklings?

M: Maybe a month or two after they hatch. They won’t be able to fly, but they’ll be big enough to hold their own against predators. Typically the ducklings will join other groups of young and hang out together.

A: So once the ducklings are out of your hair, what are your plans for the winter?

M: I’ll probably stick around – you have rivers and lakes here that don’t freeze over. I spend most of my life on the water- I even sleep while floating. So open water is pretty important.

A: Understood! What kind of things do you eat?

M: Fish are my favorite, but I will also go for frogs, shrimp, mussels, crustaceans and worms. Sometimes I get some aquatic insects to spice things up.

A: So you’re telling me these lovely dragonflies buzzing around us…

M: Could be my mid-day snack.

A: Wow, you must be fast to grab a dragonfly!

M: You bet. We hunt by sight, usually ducking our heads underwater to look for prey. Once we see something interesting, we give a little jump and dive in. A dive usually takes less than 30 seconds, but I can dive for up to two minutes.

A: Cool! How to you manage to catch fish?

M: I have a pointed bill with serrations. Once I catch a fish, it’s not getting away.

A: Now that you mention it, that is pretty unusual for a duck’s bill.

M: It gets the job done. Heck, we’re such good hunters that often seagulls will follow us and try to grab our catch once we surface. A bald eagle even tried that on me a few times. Such cheek- get your own food!

A: Well, it’s been great talking to you, but I’d better let you get back to your family.

M: Thanks, with this many mouths to feed, we have a lot of ground to cover. Come on kids, race you to the other side of the lake!


8 choses vous ne saviez pas sur les avocats

Not all avocados are green and pear-shaped. Some are spherical, black and even purple. Photo by ruurmo. Aguacates para todos. CC. (pile)

Photo par ruurmo. Aguacates para todos. CC. (pile)

(Read the English version of this post)

J’apprécie la chair succulente d’un avocat, mais il faut admettre qu’il est un fruit bizarre.

Voici pourquoi.

On ne connait pas son ancêtre sauvage

Les Mexicains cultivaient les avocats bien avant l’histoire écrite, alors on en sait peu sur ses origines. Les Incas l’ont découvert en 1450 après avoir envahi une communauté qui les cultivait.

Les explorateurs européens avaient aimé la texture beurrée de l’avocat et l’ont vite transporté dans toutes leurs colonies avec un bon climat pour le cultiver, y compris les Antilles, la Californie et la Floride. Aujourd’hui, le Mexique est le plus grand exportateur des avocats, suivi de la Californie, l’Israël et l’Afrique du Sud.

Une poire alligator dans ton sandwich?

What do you call a bumpy green fruit? Photo by torbakhopper HE DEAD. CC.

Photo par torbakhopper HE DEAD. CC.

Au début du 20e siècle, l’avocat avait au moins 40 noms différents, comprenant aguacate (le nom donné par les Incas), avigato, albecatta, avocatt, le beurre aux légumes, la poire au beurre, beurre de l’aspirant et mon préféré, la poire alligator! Avec tout ce choix, comment est-ce qu’on s’est décidé sur l’avocat? C’était aux États-Unis, où la Californie les appelait aguacate et la Floride les appelait les poires alligators. Le Département de l’Agriculture a décidé que le nom poire alligator était désagréable, et a suggéré le nom avocat à sa place. Au fil du temps le nom avocat est devenu la norme pour l’industrie. Sinon, on mettrait tous des poires d’alligators sur nos tacos!



Une stratégie de reproduction unique au monde

Avocado flowers. Photo by Cayobo. Avocado Flowers. CC.

Photo par Cayobo. Avocado Flowers. CC.

Comme beaucoup de plantes, chaque fleur d’un arbre avocat ont des parties mâles et femelles. Bizarrement, ces parties ne sont pas actives en même temps. Les parties femelles fonctionnent deux ou trois heures pendant la première journée. La journée suivante, c’est le tour des parties mâles.

Beaucoup d’arbres utilisent la stratégie d’auto-fécondation, mais c’est impossible chez l’avocat. Si un arbre n’est pas à côté d’un autre qui a des fleurs complémentaires, il ne serait jamais pollinisé. Pour cette raison, les producteurs d’avocats doivent s’assurer qu’ils ont des arbres complémentaires dans leur ferme. Heureusement, il y a plus de mille variétés d’avocat, alors ce n’est pas difficile.

Une baie verte

The creamy avocado is a fruit, but what kind? Photo by Jaanus Silla. Avocado. CC.

Photo par Jaanus Silla. Avocado. CC.

Un avocat est une baie, selon la définition botanique. Comme les bluets, les tomates et la citrouille, toutes les baies provenant d’un seul ovaire. Les fraises et les framboises ne sont pas des baies botaniques, mais ceci est un sujet d’un autre article.

Un arbre impressionnant

Avocado tree in bloom. Photo by Cayobo. Avocado Tree In Bloom. CC.

Avocado tree in bloom. Photo by Cayobo. Avocado Tree In Bloom. CC.

Si vous plantiez une graine d’avocat, vous attendriez les fruits cinq ans ou plus. Mais ça vaut la peine d’attendre. Un arbre âgé de cinq à sept ans peut produire 200 à 300 fruits par année! Les arbres sont productifs toutes leur vie. Il y a même des arbres de 400 ans au Mexique qui produisissent toujours des fruits. Mais au lieu de planter un arbre, ça va plus vite de chercher un avocat à l’épicerie et d’attendre les cinq à 10 jours qu’il prend à murir!

Une économie précaire

Les arbres d’avocat produisent des fruits d’une manière cyclique— des années extrêmement productives sont suivies des années moins productives. Ces cycles de-haut-et-de-bas peuvent être difficiles pour les fermiers, parce que la demande pour le fruit reste constante. Cette industrie perd des millions de dollars dans les années où il y a moins d’avocats.

Les chercheurs essayent de trouver une façon de régulariser la production, mais ils n’ont rien trouvé jusqu’à cette date. Les producteurs en Californie ont trouvé une solution au surplus dans les années 1960s – geler les avocats avec de l’azote liquide. Les restaurants peuvent les décongeler au besoin.

Sucré ou salé?

People use avocados for all sorts of things, even ice cream. Photo by Kimberly Vardeman. Avocado Ice. CC.

Photo par Kimberly Vardeman. Avocado Ice. CC.

La façon dont on mange un avocat dépend du pays et de culture. En Amérique du Nord ils sont additionnés aux salades et aux sandwichs. Au Brésil ils sont servis avec de la crème glacée ou dans un milk-shake. Á Java, ils sont mélangés avec du café et du sucre. Mais un avocat est toujours mangé cru. Pourquoi? Ils contiennent des tanins, un produit chimique qui donne un gout amer s’ils sont cuits.


Pas juste pour manger

Think there's no avocado in this soap? Think again. Avocado oil is popular in lots of products. Photo by Erin Costa. Pink Strawberry Soap_KRISTIE 2. CC.

Photo par Erin Costa. Pink Strawberry Soap_KRISTIE 2. CC.

Un tiers des avocats produits au Brésil est transformé en l’huile. On nourrit les animaux avec ce qui reste du fruit après l’extraction.

On peut garder l’huile d’avocat à 4 degrés Celsius pendant 12 ans. À cause de cette stabilité, l’huile est idéale pour faire des cosmétiques et des savons.

Les références

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