Nuts to you! Interview with a Grey Squirrel

Yes, they raid our bird feeders, but how can you resist this face? Photo by Peter G. Trimming. “If you think I’m cute, can I have a peanut?” CC.

Yes, they raid our bird feeders, but how can you resist this face? Photo by Peter G. Trimming. “If you think I’m cute, can I have a peanut?” CC.

In backyards across the country, wars are being waged. Wars between people who install birdfeeders and the squirrels that raid them.

I grew up in this warzone. More often than not there was a fat, black squirrel in our Calgary birdfeeder instead of joyful little chickadees. After months of effort, Dad finally surrendered to the furry invaders. He started leaving piles of seeds on the patio just for the squirrels, with the hopes that they would forget the birdfeeder. They didn’t.

Today, I come face to face with my long-time adversary, the Eastern Grey Squirrel.

A: Why do you raid birdfeeders? Aren’t you ashamed of stealing food from birds?!

S: Whoa lady, calm down! I know you’ve had some bad history with squirrels, but that doesn’t make us all evil rodents.

When it comes to food, we’re opportunists. Being able to eat lots of different things is what makes us so successful. In nature, there is no ‘bird food’ and ‘squirrel food’. It’s about who gets to the food first.

A: Okay, I guess home-owners shouldn’t expect only birds to show up at their feeders. In Calgary, I heard that you were an invasive species. Is that true?

S: We prefer ‘introduced’. It’s you humans who introduced us to Calgary! We originally only lived in the hardwood forests of Eastern Canada. A few hundred years ago you humans decided to put us in places we’d never been before, like Western Canada, South Africa and the U.K. And, being opportunists, we thrived!

A: You sure did! Did you run into problems with the species that already lived there?

S: We’re often competing with red squirrels over food and territory. Despite their small size, they are vicious! We usually give them what they want to avoid a scuffle.

A: You don’t strike me as non-violent. I often see you chasing each other through the trees!

S: It’s true that we chase each other a lot. We work hard to protect our territory from invaders. However, it’s all bluffing and posturing. Unlike the red squirrels, we rarely come to blows.

A: Speaking of colours, what’s the difference between a grey squirrel and a black squirrel?

S: Grrr, we get this question all the time! We’re the same species! Get it right!

A: Sorry, that’s obviously a sore spot. Speaking of sore spots, I notice that the end of your tail is missing! What happened?

S: Oh, that. A hawk grabbed me in mid-leap last week. Thankfully she only got the last vertebrae of my tail. I can shed those tail bones easily when those kind of things happen.

A: Whoa, like those lizards that lose their tails! Can you re-grow that tail bone?

S: No.

A: Oh. That sucks. What is your tail for, anyways? It’s almost as long as the rest of your body!

S: My tail is good for lots of things! I use it to distract predators, communicate with my peers, and keep myself stable while jumping through the trees. It’s also a perfect blanket for cold nights.

A: Tell me more about how you communicate. You’re certainly very vocal! For years I thought I was hearing bird calls when it was actually squirrels.

S: It’s true, we have a large range of sounds. Many are alarm calls, to warn other squirrels about a predator, and to let the predator know that we’ve seen them. We even combine tail signals with sound signal to let others know if the predator is on the ground and in the air.

A: I guess you spend most of your time in trees?

S: Yes indeed! Not only do we get food from trees, but we also make our nests in them.

A: Squirrels make nests? What do they look like?

S: My favorite nest are inside tree trunks. An old wood-pecker hole works wonderfully. However, when I can’t find one, I’ll build my own nest high in the branches out of twigs and leaves.

A: I know you eat nuts and seeds, but what else do you eat?

S: It really depends on the time of year. In the spring, we love eating buds off the trees. In the summer, we pig out on fruit, like berries, apples and winged maple seeds. In the fall, it’s all about the nuts! If I’m really hungry, I may snack on insects, caterpillars, or even bird nestlings.

A: That is quite a variety of foods. Do you hibernate during the winter?

S: Not at all! That’s why we keep busy in the fall hiding nuts and seeds to get us through the winter.

A: Do you remember where you buried all those nuts?

S: No! We’re talking about thousands of nuts here! My memory isn’t that good. I use my nose to find them.

A: Do you find every nut you bury?

S: Of course not! I’ll find maybe 85% of them. The rest are found by other animals, or grow into new trees.

A: I guess we’re well into the summer breeding season right now. How do you go about finding a mate?

S: It’s actually a lot of fun. I’ll climb to the top of a tree and start a homing call to attract all the males in the area. Once a group of males has assembled, they will argue amongst themselves to find out who is dominant. It’s a lot of posturing and testosterone, as you could expect.

A: Then what happens?

S: Well, then I lead them in a wild chase through the trees! When I know which one I want, then I’ll let him mate with me. As long as he can keep up!

A: Does he help raise the babies?

S: Nope. I’m on my own. But it isn’t too bad. In 12 weeks they’re independent adults. And just so you know, my last litter had both grey and black kittens!

A: Kittens?

S: Baby squirrels.

A: That’s adorable!

S: So we’re not just birdseed thieves anymore?

A: Definitely not! Thanks for talking with me.

S: My pleasure.


Interview with a Canada Goose

Canada Geese have very strong family bonds. Photo by Shankar s. December 2012. Geese in the pool. CC.

Canada Geese have very strong family bonds. Photo by Shankar s. December 2012. Geese in the pool. CC.

My post on Red-winged blackbirds received a lot of positive feedback. However, someone did comment that the male blackbird I interviewed seemed sexist. My response was that this bird was an individual, and not representative of his entire species. He also happened to be the head of a harem.

To even things out, I promised that next I would interview a male bird that mates for life. So I chose the noble, the beautiful, the faithful- Canada Goose!

A: Thanks for taking time to talk to me today.

G: No problem, but I can’t stay long. I need to get back to the wife and kids. We had five little ones this spring, and they’re getting to the rambunctious toddler stage!

A: Five kids! Sounds like a handful!

G: They’re certainly hard to keep in line. When we walk down to the river my wife goes first, followed by the kids, and then I bring up the rear. Without fail, one of the kids will veer off the path into the bushes. My job is make sure she stays with the rest of us. There are a lot of predators out there that would like to snack on a baby goose.

A: What predators do you have to watch out for?

G: I’ve seen foxes, coyotes, gulls, ravens and even bears hanging around my nest. Pet dogs also make me nervous.

A: Yikes! What do you do in those situations?

G: My wife sits on the nest and shields the babies with her body, and I’ll try to lure the predator away from the nest. I’ll hiss, open my mouth, and open my wings to make myself look bigger. If that doesn’t work, then I’ll hit them with my wings. They may look light, but they’re strong enough to do some damage. This usually convinces the predator to look for dinner elsewhere.

A: How brave of you! Aren’t you worried about getting eaten yourself?

G: Not really. It takes a lot to kill an adult goose, and there aren’t many predators big enough to take us down. Once you survive childhood, you’re pretty much guaranteed to live for at least 10 years. With all those predators around, childhood is pretty rough. I expect only half of my kids will survive the summer.

A: Interesting. You seem like a very proud father. Are there more babies on the way?

G: Not this year. My wife lays eggs once a year in the early spring. We start early so our babies have time to grow strong enough for the fall migration. We only want what’s best for them.

A: How do you choose where to put the nest?

G: My wife is the one in charge of that. She’s very nostalgic, and every spring we come back to the same place where she was born. If we can successfully raise children there, we’ll keep coming back to that spot. If none of our chicks survive we’ll try a different spot.

A: And who makes the nest?

G: My wife does. She chooses a flat spot so she can see predators coming from a long ways away. She’ll make the nest out of grasses and line it with her own down.

A: Who is in charge of sitting on the eggs?

G: That’s my wife’s job. She sits on them for 25-28 days before they hatch. She’s a wonderful mother. She will only leave them to drink, feed or bathe, and then she’s right back on the nest. I’ll take over for her when she’s away. I love keeping them warm and hearing their soft peeps through the shells.

A: Wait, your babies communicate while they’re still in the egg?

G: Yep, pretty amazing right? It happens close to the time they’re ready to hatch.

A: It seems to me like your wife is doing most of the work! What’s your job in this partnership?

G: How dare you! I’m on guard duty. I stand by faithfully as she sits on the nest, protecting her and our eggs from predators. It’s a very noble calling.

A: Okay. What happens when the eggs hatch?

G: Goslings are ready to take on the world! They are born with their eyes open, and in two days they are swimming, foraging and diving right beside us! They grow up so fast. Even though they like to think they’re independent, they still run back to the nest and under mom’s feathers whenever it is cold, rainy or windy out. It’s quite adorable. They spend a lot of time eating and sleeping, and don’t leave the nest until they are 42-50 days old. Even then they’ll stick to us like glue for the rest of the year, even during migration.

A: Tell me more about migration. Canada Geese are famous for flying in a V shape. Why do you do that?

G: Well, we often migrate in family groups. Migration is no picnic, and we can fly over 1000 km in a single day. The V shape helps us save energy. The leader creates an air current and we all follow in his wake. The leader is usually an older, more experienced goose. It’s tiring to be the leader, so we’ll take turns doing it. The V shape also makes it easy for the group to change direction and speed very quickly, to avoid a passing airplane, for example.

A : I’m sure many of our readers have seen you on golf courses, parks and bike paths. Some people complain that you make a mess with your poop, and ravage perfectly manicured lawns. What do you have to say about this?

G: Yeesh, you humans! You’re never happy. In the early 1900s, the Giant Canada Goose of Southern Manitoba was almost extinct because you hunted us and ate our eggs. You decided that you wanted to save the geese, so you bred us in captivity and released us into places we had never lived before, like BC, Quebec and the Maritime provinces. You protected us with the Migratory Bird Convention, so people need a license to harm us or our eggs. Then you created perfect, open habitats for us, just full of our favorite food; short grass! Now you complain that there are too many of us. Well, you have no-one to blame but yourselves.

A: I guess you’re right. That conservation plan worked a little too well. Why do you like urban areas so much?

G: No predators, lawns everywhere, humans don’t shoot us, what’s not to love?

A: I guess, but can’t you poop somewhere else? It makes the bike paths hazardous.

G: Listen, we’d move if we could, but we can’t. During the summer we can’t fly for 6-8 weeks. This is because we’re moulting, losing our flight feathers and growing new ones. Growing feathers takes a lot of energy, so we need a lot of food. I can easily eat 4 lbs of grass a day and excrete 2 lbs of poop when I’m moulting. I’m sorry we’re making a mess of your lawn, but there’s nothing we can do about it.

A: Well, it makes sense when you put it that way. I imagine not being able to fly is frustrating.

G: It’s not so bad. We can still swim. We spend half of our time in the water anyway, and do most of our feeding on land. And we’re with our family and friends, so life is good.

A: One last question. Is it true that Canada geese mate for life?

G: Of course it’s true, what are you suggesting? One couple we know just celebrated their 20th anniversary!

A: Okay, okay no offense meant! How did you meet your wife?

G: I met my wife when I was 2 years old. I knew instantly that she was ‘the one’ because she was the same size as me. I think you humans call that ‘assortative mating’. We wanted to have kids, but we waited until we had been together a few years before we finally did. I didn’t want to be like my brother, who cheated on his wife while she was incubating their eggs. They were young and foolish, and they ended up breaking up. It usually takes 2-3 years for a strong pair bond to form between a male and a female. It’s uncommon for a couple to start a family before that 2 year mark.

A: Thanks so much for talking with me! Say hi to the wife and kids for me.

G: Will do!


Missing Monarchs and Marvelous Milkweed

Monarchs depend on milkweed for their survival. Sid Mosdell, SidPix. Monarch on Milkweed. CC.

Monarchs depend on milkweed for their survival. Sid Mosdell, SidPix. Monarch on Milkweed. CC.

The first time I saw a Monarch butterfly lazily flitting through suburban Ottawa, I was flabbergasted! For me, Monarch butterflies were the poster child of metamorphosis, and I had finally met my childhood icon! Growing up in bone-dry Calgary was not a great place to see monarchs.

Unfortunately, I may not be seeing many monarchs in Ottawa this summer. Monarch populations were estimated to have declined by 90% this last year, according to Ryan Norris, researcher at the University of Guelph.

Why are Monarchs disappearing? For a long time scientists believed that it was because the forests in Mexico where they overwinter were being destroyed. However, a study published this week proposes that the real problem is the destruction of milkweed in North America, especially in the Mid-Western United States.

So to save the monarchs, we need more milkweed. But what is milkweed, exactly?

Well, as its name implies, it is an aggressive plant that is really good at invading fields and gardens. There are 14 species native to Canada. It likes bright open areas, like those opened up by agriculture and urban development. Under the Ontario weed act, milkweed is a noxious weed.

Milkweed is very good at being a noxious weed. Its seeds fly 7.5-30 meters away from the host plant, invading new territories far away. At the same time, it’s also working underground, sending out roots that will turn into new plants. Soon a colony of clones pop up, ready to dominate the landscape. Muuahhahaa! No, seriously. Milkweed are really good at crowding out other plants. Oh, and milkweed is also toxic to most animals, including humans.

Sounds pretty awful, doesn’t it?

It is if you’re a farmer. Milkweed often competes for space with their crops. Farmers have used herbicide to get rid of milkweed to make room for more farms. Due to industrial farming, milkweed cover declined by 21% between 1995 and 2013.

But milkweed isn’t all bad. In fact, it does a lot of good. As we’ve seen, milkweed is essential for the survival of Monarch butterflies. They depend on milkweed to shelter their eggs and feed their caterpillars. In fact, milkweed is the only thing that monarch caterpillars will eat. Species like Milkweed Bugs and Milkweed Leaf Beetle are also strict milkweed eaters.

In addition, milkweed plants are super cool! Here are some reasons why.

1.They have complex and clever flowers

Individual milkweed flowers are very complex! Photo by Jason Hollinger. CC.

Individual milkweed flowers are very complex! Photo by Jason Hollinger. CC.

Milkweed blossoms may look like pink pom-poms, but they have an ulterior motive: trick insects into carrying their pollen. Unlike most plants that reproduce using loose pollen grains, milkweed store their pollen into special sacks called pollinia. When a bee comes to sip some sweet nectar, one of its legs slips into a hidden slit in the flower where the pollinia is stored. The pollinia attaches itself to the bee’s leg and is carried to the next flower. Very clever!

However, sometimes the insect’s legs get stuck in these slits and they are trapped forever and die among the flowers. Unlucky for them, but lucky for the hungry predators that lurk among the leaves.

2.They are living grocery stores

Milkweed is one of my favorite summer flowers because it attracts so many insects. Monarch caterpillars and Milkweed bugs munch away at the poisonous leaves, becoming poisonous themselves to ward off predators. These poisons are called cardiac glycosides. Don’t eat the plant or get the sap in your eyes, because it’s also toxic to humans!

Crazy fact. Even though the milkweed’s sap is poisonous, the nectar and pollen in the flowers are not. So the milkweed gets the best of both worlds: lots of things want to pollinate its flowers, and very few things want to eat its leaves. Genius!

Milkweed flowers can be seen from June to August. Many species pollinate these flowers, including bees, wasps, butterflies, ants and even hummingbirds.

However, danger can be lurking for these peaceful pollinators. Some predators like crab spiders and Yellow Jackets hide in the large leaves of the milkweed and pounce on the pollinators as they come by to sip nectar. So predators think milkweed is pretty cool too!

3.They have silky seeds

Milkweed pod bursting with silky seeds. Photo by liz west, Muffet. Milkweed seeds2. CC.

Milkweed pod bursting with silky seeds. Photo by liz west, Muffet. Milkweed seeds2. CC.

The fluffy silk that milkweed uses to spread its seeds has definite entertainment value. It’s like blowing a dandelion, but 10 times better! However, there are practical uses too. Every thread of silk is a tiny, air-filled tube with great insulation and flotation properties. Hummingbirds use it to line their nests to keep their babies warm. In World War II, milkweed silk was used to fill life jackets when they ran out of kapok, another fluffy plant fibre. Recently, milkweed has been grown commercially as stuffing for hypoallergenic pillows.

Milkweed is a pretty cool plant, especially because Monarchs need it to survive. You can help increase milkweed populations by planting it in your garden. You’ll see lots of amazing insects flocking to your garden in no time!


Birds of a feather: Twitter tips

Twitter has a steep learning curve. Embrace it! Image by Bernard Goldbach, topgold. CC.

Twitter has a steep learning curve. Embrace it! Image by Bernard Goldbach, topgold. CC.

This weekend I’m in Toronto at the Canadian Science Writer’s Annual Meeting, so I won’t have much time to blog!

In the spirit of science communications, I’ll share some Twitter tips I picked up from the last conference I attended, the Science and Technology Awareness Network Annual Conference.

In April I adopted twitter as a networking tool, so I’ll use the tips from the conference to evaluate how I’m doing so far. Here goes nothing!

1. Twitter is a real-time platform, so don’t be afraid to repeat your tweets in case people missed them the first time.

Me: I’m deathly afraid of repeating posts. I have too much Facebook in my blood.

2. Magic formula for maintaining a following:

a. 60% of posts should be links related to your passion
b. 30% of posts should promote others, and be conversations with others
c. 10% of posts should be self-promotion. If you do too much, you will annoy people!

Me: I’m really good at retweeting links that I’m passionate about. There are so many cool science writers on twitter with awesome things to share! I’m also good at using twitter to promote this blog. However, I need to work on replying to people’s posts and joining discussions. Putting yourself out there can be hard, but it definitely gets people’s attention!

3. Don’t worry about the numbers! That’s not why you’re doing this. Post on social media because you want to share.

Me: I do get that little rush of oxytocin to the brain whenever I get an update or a new follower on twitter, but I don’t make a huge deal out of it. Views of my blog are another story entirely, probably because my blog is a lot more work than twitter. I’m trying to limit checking the number of views of my blog to once a day, because any more than that is not a good use of my time. Also, my logical-mathematical brain likes all the numbers and statistics that WordPress presents you with. I’m sure Twitter also has fancy stats applications, but I will stay far away from them!

4. Let your personality come through! People want to connect with other people on twitter, not with emotionless content curators.

Me: My personality came through more strongly when I first started tweeting. Instead of retweeting I would compose my own tweets. However, retweeting is much easier than thinking of clever things to say, so now I mostly retweet content. I need to go back to writing tweets from scratch!

5. All of your posts don’t have to be about science! Show your personality with other interests.

Me: Most of my posts are about science or science writing, but I occasionally post about events in the City of Ottawa. Some people think Ottawa is a boring government town, but there is so much to do here. You just have to find it!

6. Remember that the content you post is a product. Only say things you would say to someone’s face.

Me: The anonymity of the internet can sometimes lull us into a false sense of security. In fact, anything you post on Twitter is visible to the world. I always think before I post or retweet, and I’m usually pretty good at remembering that I’m posting to the world.

7. Have a personal social media brand unrelated to your place of work. You may not work there forever!

Me: The advantage of unemployment is that I don’t have this problem. My Twitter brand is all me! It just needs a bit more personality, is all.

I hoped those tips were helpful. I’m still learning about Twitter, but I’ve already connected with some cool people. I would certainly recommend it as a networking tool for students just starting out in the real world. It’s also a great place to find potential employers that you didn’t know existed. Happy Tweeting!

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