The original kiwi: Interview with a kiwi bird

kiwi

Photo by tara hunt. Kiwi Encounter. (photo of a model kiwi because the real thing is very elusive and park rangers don’t want you taking photos). CC. https://flic.kr/p/495oR2

 

Amelia: Here I am on Stewart Island in New Zealand, the place I’m most likely to get a glimpse of the secretive, nocturnal kiwi. I’ll be hiking in this coastal rainforest for three days, so I’m guaranteed to see one, right?

Kiwi: I wouldn’t bet on it.

A: Are those the dulcet tones of a kiwi I hear?

K: Hardly. My call sounds like a little girl screaming.

A:  Finally! I’ve been up all night waiting to see you. Would you mind coming a bit closer?

K: I’m fine right here, thanks. As an endangered bird, I’m not taking any chances.

A: But I don’t want to hurt you-I won’t even take a picture. I know the park staff are pretty strict about that.

K: Nope, not doing it. Humans have done too much damage to our species. I don’t owe you anything.

A: What did we do?

K: Well, as a flightless, ground-nesting bird who evolved on an island without any natural predators, I was toast when your ancestors decided that New Zealand’s rainforests needed to be turned into English countryside. Not only did you destroy our homes under the trees, you decided to introduce rats, opossums and stoats. Our chicks grow slowly, and it takes about 3-5 years before they can fight off a ravenous stoat. Domestic dogs and cats also make easy meals of our young ones.

A: Aren’t those predators a problem for adults too? You may be the size of a large cat, but you’re still pretty helpless looking.

K: That’s what you think. I can beat up a stoat easily.

A: Really? You’re a hairy bird with no wings. How do you manage it?

K: With my feet! We pack a pretty powerful kick, and we don’t put up with any nonsense from predators.

A: So at what age can you start laying those gigantic eggs you’re so famous for?

K: You mean the ones that takes up most of my insides and squishes all my organs into my sternum? The one I carry for 30 days and weights half a kilo?

A: I can see this is a sore point

K: Just a little. We can lay eggs once we’re four years old. We’re generally solitary, but during the mating season we’ll pair up. Generally we mate for life, which can be up to 40 years if we’re lucky.

A: Wow, that’s old for a bird!

K: Well when there’s no natural predators, life’s a walk in the park

A: What’s the secret to such a long partnership with your mate?

K: Once I lay that monster of an egg, it’s my partner’s job to sit on it for 80 days. My bit is done.

A: Wow, that’s a long time!

K: Yep. The upside is that the chicks are nearly independent when they’re born. After two weeks we chase them out of the nest, and they’re on their own.

A: That’s incredible! I’ve been hearing some sneezes coming from your direction. Is everything alright?

K: Yep. It’s a side-effect of having nostrils at the very end of my beak. I look for bugs by plunging my beak deep into the soil. This means that I constantly have dirt up my nose, so I have to sneeze to clear it out. My keen nose doesn’t do me any good if it’s full of dirt. My long whiskers and the sensor on the end of my bill also spot vibrations in the soil.

A: Wait, you have whiskers? Isn’t that a bit weird for a bird?

K: I’m no ordinary bird. There were no mammals on New Zealand before you introduced them, apart from bats. I adapted to fill a mammals’ niche, because obviously they left it open. I have hair-like feathers, solid-marrow bones and live in a burrow like a rabbit.

A: I’m sure you get this all the time: have you ever eaten a kiwi fruit?

K: Um, no. We are the original kiwis. The fruits are actually Chinese Gooseberries that were re-branded in the 1970’s in an effort to get New Zealander’s to buy them. I guess it worked.

A: Thanks for sharing your story with me. I’ll leave you alone now.

K: That’s all I ask.

References:Te Papa museum, various interpretive posters in NZ bird sanctuaries

 

Underwater torpedo: Interview with a Common Loon

Common loons are voracious predators as well as being beautiful singers. Photo by Gary J. Wege,USFWSmidwest.Common Loons. CC. https://flic.kr/p/7SVDNK

Common loons are voracious predators as well as being beautiful singers. Photo by Gary J. Wege, USFWSmidwest.Common Loons. CC. https://flic.kr/p/7SVDNK

 

Me: I feel like I’ve been paddling this canoe forever. Oh, look a loon! It’s standing up and flapping its wings at me, how welcoming.

Common Loon: Idiot, this is a territorial display! What are you doing on my lake?

Me: Well, I’m camped just over there…

L: Is that an outboard motor I see?

M: No, this is a canoe.

L: Planning on doing any fishing with lead weights?

M: Um, no.

L: Okay, I guess you’re not a direct threat at the moment. You can stay.

M: Um, thank you. What do you have against lead fishing weights?

L: Well, unlike you humans I don’t have any teeth. Instead I have a muscular pouch behind my stomach called a gizzard that I fill with pebbles to chew my food. I’ve had friends die of lead poisoning because when they dove to grab some pebbles off the lake bottom, they also swallowed a fishing weight. It isn’t a good way to go.

M: That’s awful. What do loons eat, anyway?

L: Fish! Especially small ones like perch and sunfish.

M: But how do you catch them if you don’t have teeth? Aren’t fish slippery?

L: We thought of that. The tongue and the roof of my mouth are covered with backward-facing barbs that grab fish and force them down my throat.

M: How do you catch these fish in the first place? They’re pretty fast.

L: Not as fast as I am. I’m a specially designed killing machine.

M: Really? I find that hard to believe.

L: There’s more to being a loon then singing mournful songs on a lake.

M: Fine. Tell me about fishing.

L: I find my prey by sight. This means I need to hunt in clear, unpolluted lakes during the daytime so I can see them. Once I spot a fish, I get ready to dive. My body is specially designed for diving. Unlike most birds, my bones are solid so I can sink in the water. I also force the air out from my lungs and from between my feathers to go even faster. My feet are at the very end of my body, and push me down like a propeller. All this means I can dive very deep, up to 60 metres or 200 feet. I can even change direction underwater quickly to nab a darting fish. My heart even slows down to conserve oxygen when I dive. I’m basically a diving machine.

M: Okay, you’ve convinced me. You’re a top predator. When you can’t find fish, do you eat anything else?

L: I will eat snails, leeches, crustaceans and insect larvae in a pinch. But only if I have to.

M: I don’t see you on the shore very much with the ducks and the geese. Why not?

L: My feet are perfect propellers, but they aren’t good for walking. I spend all of my time in the water, except when I’m on the nest.

M: Aww, nesting! Your babies are such cute little balls of grey down. I love to see them riding on your back.

L: They’re demanding little balls of fluff. Our family can eat up to 30 kilograms of fish in a week. That’s a lot of diving!

M: This is an awkward question, but do loons mate for life?

L: Well, it depends on how long we live. Our average lifespan is between 9 and 30 years, and a pair bond usually lasts five years. You do the math. One day my mate won’t return to this lake, and I’ll find another black and white hottie.

M: Return from where? You don’t stay here all year?

L: Goodness no! We only come to Canadian lakes in the spring to breed. Frozen lakes do not make for good fishing. In the fall we migrate and spend the winter on unfrozen water, often in coastlines and estuaries.

M: Okay, back to nesting! Who gets to choose the nest site?

L: The male does. He tries to find somewhere sheltered a hidden on the lake shore. An island is perfect. Lots of animals would love to eat our eggs and young, like turtles, raccoons and gulls. We’ll generally only lay two eggs in a season, and take turns sitting on them for 30 days until they hatch.

M: What happens then?

L: Well, unlike other birds which are born blind and naked, our babies are super mature. In fact, they’re swimming only a few hours after they’re born.

M: That’s incredible!

L: Yep, they’re pretty awesome. That being said, we can usually only stand them for about 12 weeks. Then we take off for a migration honeymoon and leave the kids to their own devices.

M: That seems cruel. How do they know where to migrate in the winter?

L: Oh, they find a flock of other youngsters and figure it out together. Once the kids reach the ocean they’ll stay there a full two years going back north. Even so, they usually don’t start having chicks until they are 6 years old. If they haven’t already been eaten by sea otters or birds of prey, that is.

M: Sea otters, really?

L: Yep. They’ve been seen grabbing us from underneath and then wrestling us underwater.

M: Why don’t you fly away?

L: Well, first it’s a sneak attack, and second, taking off isn’t that easy. We need to run along a stretch of open water 27 to 400 metres long to generate enough speed to take off. This means that if we land in lakes that are two small, we’re stranded there. Flying isn’t something we can do instantaneously, but once we get going we can fly highway speeds of 100km or 70 miles per hour.

M: One last thing: What are those wild calls all about?

L: Our wail is to find a missing mate or defend territory, and the one that sounds like human laughter is to defend territory or chicks.

M: Great, thanks for taking the time to talk to me.

L: Thanks for not polluting my lake.

References

http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/loon/
http://www.britannica.com/animal/loon-bird
http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/common_loon/lifehistory
http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birds/common-loon/
http://seaotters.com/2012/08/did-you-know-sea-otters-can-eat-birds/

Titillating Trilliums

Trillium colonies can get huge, but that doesn't mean you should pick them. Photo by Captain Tenneal. Trillium. CC. https://flic.kr/p/6spWeN

Trillium colonies can get huge, but that doesn’t mean you should pick them. Photo by Captain Tenneal. Trillium. CC. https://flic.kr/p/6spWeN

Me: Oh wow, the trilliums are really carpeting this maple grove today. I should pick one for Mom. Surely one bloom can’t hurt…

Trillium: That’s what you think!

Me: Oh, hello. Sorry, I didn’t realize you were a talking flower. I seem to be running into a lot lately.

T: Spare me the pleasantries. Just get your fingers away from my stem!

M: I don’t see what the big deal is. I mean, it’s just one flower. It will fade in a few days anyways. What’s the harm?

T: First of all, it’s my sexual organ. How would you like someone pulling off yours?

M: Eww, I’d never thought of it like that.

T: I’m not finished! It took me seven years to grow this blossom. Seven. Years. What have you accomplished in that time?

M: Well, I got a biology degree…Wait a minute. Seven years? How is that possible? I thought plants flowered every year.

T: Not trilliums.

M: But seven years, isn’t that a little excessive?

T: We’re pretty slow growing, and we like it that way. It gives us time to scope the place out. In addition, our seeds are pretty needy. We don’t start to grow unless the soil is really moist, and we’ll wait as long as we have to.

M: What happens during those seven pre-flower years?

T: Year one is roots, year two is an embryonic leaf, and year three is the real leaf. Around year five I get one of those voluptuous three-lobed leaves. You have no idea how good that feels.

M: I guess I wouldn’t. But now that you flower every year, what’s stopping me from picking the blossom?

T: Geez, you just won’t let it drop, will you? Okay, I confess, the real problem isn’t actually the flower. It’s the leaf.

M: Really?

T: Yes. It’s very hard to pick the flower without damaging the leaf, which happens to be my only source of food via photosynthesis. Remember how it takes me a full year to grow this thing? If I’m leafless for a year, I can’t make food to get me through the winter. A picked leaf is a death sentence.

M: Gosh, I didn’t realize!

T: Humans rarely do.

M: So what kind of trillium are you, exactly?

T: I’m Trillium grandiflorum, the big white-flowered one. I’m also Ontario’s provincial flower.

M: You seem to be a little bit pink. You’re not a love child between one of these white trilliums and red trilliums, are you?

T: Nope. I’m Trillium grandiflorum through and through. Our petals turn pink as they age. They last up to several weeks, not like those weakling tulips.

M: I see you’re surrounded by dozens of other trilliums. Is each flower an individual plant?

T: You bet.

M: Why do you all live so close together? Don’t you have to compete for nutrients and sunlight?

T: First of all, I’m kind of like a vampire. I don’t like light. I will silently scream in full sunlight. So clear-cutting my forests is bad. It wipes out my colony completely.

M: But why grow in colonies?

T: Well, to tell you the truth, it’s because we have a bit of dispersal problem. While other plants spread their seeds around using birds or the wind, ours are spread by ants. And ants don’t go very far.

M: How do you convince the ants to carry your seeds?

T: Sheer chemical trickery. Half the seed is an elaiosome, or oily appendage. These ant-snacks smell like the insect corpses that ants love to eat.

M: Lovely.

T: Tell me about it. Sometimes the ants are so hungry they break into the fruit and take their seeds back to the nest. They eat their fake dead-insect, then leave the seed to germinate in a tunnel. Nice and buried in the moist earth.

M: Is there anything else that puts you in danger, other than leaf-picking humans and clear-cutting?

T: Deer are not immune to our charms. We get munched on by them a lot. Just the price you pay for being an adorable early-riser in the spring when there’s not much to eat. But if they graze on me to much, they will kill me.

M: Ouch.

T: Yep, if there are lots of deer in area, we can die out within 12 years.

M: That’s awful!

T: Yes, but they did save our butts during the ice age, according to trillium lore.

M: How did they do that?

T: In the ice age it was way too cold for us to grow in Ontario and Quebec. Deer swallowed our seeds and carried them southward in their intestines. Not the most luxurious way to travel, but hey, at least now we’re here to tell the tale.

M: You’ve given me a lot to think about next time I see a trillium.

T: And no picking?

M: No picking, I promise.

References

http://www.ont-woodlot-assoc.org/sw_woodlandplants.html
http://www.biology-online.org/dictionary/Cotyledon
http://ontariowildflowers.com/main/species.php?id=714
http://www.northernontarioflora.ca/description.cfm?speciesid=1002574
http://sunsite.ualberta.ca/Projects/Plant_Watch/plants/whi_tri.php
http://sunsite.ualberta.ca/Projects/Plant_Watch/plants/whi_tri.php
http://www.canada.com/victoriatimescolonist/news/homes/story.html?id=fe609c69-0258-444d-9617-1d59d9f89b64
http://www.louistheplantgeek.com/a-gardening-journal/675-trillium-grandiflorum

Tip Top Tulips: The King is in the house

Stripy tulips have a sick and sinister past. The patterns are caused by a virus. Photo by Alexandre Dulaunoy. Tulips. CC. https://flic.kr/p/efAqg4

Stripy tulips have a sick and sinister past. Their light-coloured patterns are caused by a virus. Photo by Alexandre Dulaunoy. Tulips. CC. https://flic.kr/p/efAqg4

 

Amelia: Ladies and gentleman, please help me welcome our special guest…King Tulip!

Tulip: Thank you, thank you very much.

A: What a thrill it is to speak with you after your tour of the Canadian Tulip Festival.

T: My pleasure, I adore interviews. My miraculous bloom only opens for two to three weeks, and I can’t let all this beauty go to waste.

A: You’re one of North America’s most popular garden flowers, but where are you from, originally?

T: This flawless flower has a rocky past. Literally. I was born in Central Asia on the side of the mountain. Every day I struggled against the harsh winds and extreme temperatures. Close to the ground with yawning petals like a daisy, I looked very different than I do today.

A: So what changed?

T: Around 1000 AD some adventurous Turk picked me up and decided to grow me in their garden. I guess I was already too beautiful to pass up. After 700 years of intense breeding I had my first make-over, with needle-sharp petals and an almond shape. They just loved growing me in Turkey.

A: But you were meant to see the world, right?

T: Yesiree, I’m a Rollin’ stone. The Viennese Ambassador to Turkey brought me home to Europe in 1551. Scientist Carolus Clusius was the first one to plant me in the Netherlands. He just wanted me for research, and wouldn’t share his precious bulbs with anyone else. How rude. I knew I was destined to be a star. Luckily some Dutch entrepreneurs stole me from Clusius and spread my seeds all over the Netherlands.

A: You were a big deal in the Netherlands, right?

T: If by a big deal you mean that 80% of the world’s tulips are grown in the Netherlands, or that in the 1630s some tulip bulbs cost as much as a townhouse, then yes, I was a big deal. Still am.

A: I’ve heard about this, it was called Tulip Mania, right? Speculation drove tulip prices through the roof, and the price of bulbs doubled almost weekly before the market crashed in 1637. Why were people willing to pay so much? You are just a flower, after all.

T: How dare you! I am THE flower. Back then I wasn’t just any flower: I was a status symbol. At the time the Netherlands was one of the world’s largest colonial powers, and the rich and newly-rich merchants had money to spend. I was a rare exotic bloom that happened to fit the bill. Ironically, the mosaic virus also helped my rise to fame.

A: Excuse me, did you say virus? Don’t viruses make you sick?

T: Yes, technically they do. But these ones also make pretty patterns all over our petals.

A: How can a virus do that?

T: My flowers are naturally a solid colour, but some viruses strip away the pigment in our petals to reveal the yellow or white underneath. This means that one year I’d be red, and the next I’d be striped like a circus tent! The Dutch had no idea what was happening, but they loved the result.

A: When did they figure out it was a virus?

T: The mosaic virus was the second oldest viral disease to be described in plants, and there are woodcuts from 1576 prove it. During Tulip Mania striped tulips were worth even more because they were so rare. Driven by money, breeders tried using alchemy, paint or pigeon poop to achieve the stripes, but obviously nothing worked. You can’t beat nature for beautiful accidents. It was only in 1920 that scientists found out it was caused by a virus.

A: Does the virus eventually kill you?

T: No, but it does make us grow short and stubby. It also makes it harder for us to reproduce.

A: How do you catch a mosaic virus?

T: Juice-to-juice contact. Aphids like to suck up our sap. If an aphid that bit an infected plant then bites me, it’s game over for my beautiful ruby red petals. Next time I pop up out of the ground, I’ll have stripes.

A: Are stripy tulips still as popular with gardeners today?

T: Yes, but today’s stripy tulips are healthy virus-free hybrids bred to look like the mosaic-infected kind. Today if a tulip bed has a mosaic virus, gardeners destroy them pretty fast. Otherwise the virus will just spread to other beds. It can even spread to related species like lilies. And nobody likes streaked lilies.

A: Yikes! I didn’t realize that the flower industry was so cut-throat.

T: You better believe it, doll-face. That virus is the Devil in disguise. Ironically, I’m more popular worldwide than I ever was during the Dutch tulip craze. Not to mention way more affordable.

A: Alright, thanks for sharing your story with us.

T: My pleasure. Now I’m off to heartbreak hotel to sleep through the winter and rehearse for next year. See you there!

References

Tulipomania: Novelist Michael Upchurch explains how a Turkish blossom enflamed the landscape: [Final Edition]Upchurch, Michael. The Ottawa Citizen [Ottawa, Ont] 20 May 2001: C6.

‘Tulip fire’ hits Ottawa OTTAWA (CP)
The Globe and Mail [Toronto, Ont] 28 May 1981: N.14.

Ottawa tulip winter kill feared
The Globe and Mail [Toronto, Ont] 22 Mar 1980: P.11.

The elegant tulip symbolizes Ottawa in spring.
Cornish, Douglas. The Ottawa Citizen [Ottawa, Ont] 09 May 2000: B4.

Tulips: Dutch find fortunes in flowers: [Final Edition]
The Ottawa Citizen [Ottawa, Ont] 13 Dec 1988: B16.

Tulip: the flower of manias: From its early days in Europe, it has sparked wild adulation and excesses: [FINAL Edition]Robin, Laura. The Gazette [Montreal, Que] 15 May 1997: D.9.

http://wildthings.sarahzielinski.com/blog/theres-a-lot-of-dna-in-tulips/
http://www.hortmag.com/archive/wild_tulips
http://web.aces.uiuc.edu/vista/pdf_pubs/634.pdf
http://www.tulipsinthewild.com/?utm_source=gnb&utm_medium=packet&utm_content=gnbindex&utm_campaign=clb14
http://online.sfsu.edu/bholzman/courses/Spring99Projects/tulips.htm
https://www.lib.umn.edu/bell/tradeproducts/tulips
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/608647/tulip
http://pss.uvm.edu/ppp/articles/cuttulip.html
http://web.aces.uiuc.edu/vista/pdf_pubs/634.pdf

 

Sticky tongues and feather nose-plugs: Interview with a Downy Woodpecker

The Downy Woodpecker is the smallest woodpecker in Canada. Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar. Downy Woodpecker. CC. https://flic.kr/p/9sMxyK

The Downy Woodpecker is the smallest woodpecker in Canada. Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar. Downy Woodpecker. CC. https://flic.kr/p/9sMxyK

Me: Hey there, can I speak with you for a moment?

Downy woodpecker: Aaah! You scared me with your super-loud voice. I spend my time listening to insects crawling around in wood, remember?

Me: Sorry, I’ll whisper instead.

D: Much appreciated.

M: How do you get the bugs out of the tree once you find them?

D: I have a long, sticky, barbed tongue, kind of like a chameleon. After I drill a hole in a tree, I’ll shoot my tongue inside to scoop up the insects. When I’m not using it my tongue sits nestled around the back of my head between the skull and skin.

M: That’s kind of weird. Do you get headaches from hammering trees all day?

D: Nope. We have thick skulls and neck muscles to keep our brains, such as they are, un-addled.

M: I see that you’re currently drilling holes in thin, tiny branches. Wouldn’t you be better off looking on the trunk, where most of the other woodpeckers hang out?

D: Why would I follow the crowd? As the smallest of the 13 woodpecker species in Canada, I can find food where no one else can. I can make holes in branches less than 10cm in circumference, which gives me a lot more options than birds with bigger beaks and gangly bodies. Small is beautiful, if you ask me.

M: Maybe so, but small also means more things can eat you.

D: Touché. Small birds of prey like hawks and Kestrels are our main enemies. They like to snag us while we’re flying, but if we’re on a tree we’re usually safe. If something scary comes along we’ll use the branch as a shield, darting to the other side like squirrels do.

M: Aren’t you damaging the trees by making all those holes?

D: Maybe a little bit, but we’re also eating the pesky insects that damage the tree’s insides. Wood boring beetles that kill trees? We got those. We also eat insects that spread diseases like Dutch elm disease. Anyway, we don’t usually drill holes in perfectly healthy trees. We prefer diseased, dying or rotting trees.

M: Why are you called the “Downy” woodpecker? Were you named after the toilet paper?

D: Why would you even think that? Downy refers to the beautiful strip of soft white feathers down my back. They set off the little red pompom on my head wonderfully, don’t you think?

M: Um, sure. How’s the winter treating you so far? You don’t migrate, right?

D: That’s correct. We’re found all over Canada except in the far North. If there isn’t enough food in our northern Alberta and Ontario range we’ll move south, but generally we stay put.

M: Do you have a good stash of food to keep you through the winter?

D: Stashing food? Please. That’s just lazy. Unlike some birds like chickadees, we don’t hide food. There’s tons of sleepy insects hiding under tree bark to keep us full all winter.

M: Are insects the only thing you eat?

D: They’re about three quarters of our diet, but I won’t say no to fruit.

M: What’s in store for this spring?

D: Oh, it makes my head hurt just thinking about it.

M: Why’s that?

D: I’m responsible for hollowing out the nest each year. That’s two to three weeks with my head stuck in a 20-30cm hole in a tree. Thank goodness I have feathers over my nostrils to keep out the sawdust. Otherwise I’d be sneezing for months!

M: I want to sneeze just thinking about it. Does your wife help make the nest too?

D: Not really. She claims she’s ‘protecting our territory’ while I have my head in the tree. Her job is to chase other woodpeckers away from our prime nesting site. I say she’s just trying to avoid the grunt work. Sometimes she has the nerve to change her mind about the nest mid-drill, and guess who has to start another hole!

M: That does sound trying.

D: Tell me about it! I’ll drill non-stop for 20 minutes at a time, throwing the lose chips over my shoulder. I’m so tired at the end of the day that I usually sleep in the unfinished nest.

M: Does your mate join you for some cuddling?

D: Oh no. She needs her own space. Even when it isn’t breeding season, we have our own sleeping holes. Anyways, she snores, so I prefer sleeping alone.

M: What’s it like when the babies show up?

D: We’ll take turn guarding the doorway of the nest. The opening is so narrow that most predators like squirrels can’t get into it, but snakes are more than happy to sneak in and snatch a baby. Our chisel-like beaks are pretty good at making them change their minds.

Thankfully, the kids grow up fast, by 17-18 days they’re full grown. Then they crawl up the cavity wall and peek out. At this point they are eating so much that we have to bring them meals every three minutes. Eventually my wife and I get fed up and start bringing less food. This encourages them to lean out of the nest wondering where the heck we are with the next grub, and often they fall out and fly.

M: Why do you bang on metal lamp posts and wood siding? There’s no insects in there, you know!

D: We’re not looking for food, we’re communicating. Why waste your voice when you can bang on things? We hammer our beaks on hollow structures like tree stumps, stop signs, drainpipes or chimneys. We usually do it in early spring, to attract a mate and protect territory. This kind of drumming is more annoying to people than damaging to your infrastructure.

M: What can people do if they don’t like you drumming on their house?

D: Well, if they want to scare us away, we’re not a fan of mirrors, reflective tape or streamers.

M: Thanks for the advice, and see you again soon.

D: You certainly will! As one of the most common birds in Eastern North America, our population has only increased in the last twenty years.

References
http://onnaturemagazine.com/ontario%E2%80%99s-woodpeckers.html
http://www.birds.cornell.edu/wp_about/biology.html
http://www.birds.cornell.edu/wp_about/insects.html
http://www.hww.ca/en/species/birds/downy-woodpecker.html

Symbol of love? Not so much. Interview with a snarky swan

This trumpeter swan has a bone to pick with us. Photo by Rick Harris. Swan [1]. CC. https://flic.kr/p/BAzX9

This trumpeter swan has a bone to pick with us. Photo by Rick Harris. Swan [1]. CC. https://flic.kr/p/BAzX9

Me: This Valentine’s Day I decided to talk to the most romantic bird of all: the swan.

Trumpeter swan: If you get any closer I’ll break your arm with my wing.

Me: Whoa, that was uncalled for! Not to mention unattractive, coming from the symbol of beauty and faithful love.

Swan: Hey, I never asked to be a symbol of anything. I’m just an animal like any other that eats, breeds, poops and dies.

Me: But you do mate for life, right?

Swan: Yes, most of the time. If the egg-laying thing doesn’t work out, we’ll generally split and find another hot swan who’s more fertile.

Me: That’s kind of harsh.

Swan: Well, get used to it. Life is harsh. Speaking of harsh, if we’re such an important symbol of love, why did you hunt us nearly to extinction? In 1933, there were only 77 breeding pairs of Trumpeter swans left in Canada. So much for love and compassion.

Me: That’s awful! But I can’t say I’m surprised. We’re pretty good at hunting things to extinction. Dodo, passenger pigeon, you know.

Swan: Yes, I’ve heard. We used to live across Canada, from the Yukon to the St. Lawrence River. The indigenous peoples ate our eggs and meat and used our feathers, but at least they did it sustainably. Then some dumb Europeans came and decided to kill most of us for meat, skin and feathers. I guess they thought they deserved to wear our feathers more than we did.

Me: I said I was sorry, okay! What does your population look like today?

Swan: Fortunately for us, some 1916 tree-huggers decided make hunting us illegal under the Migratory Birds Convention, an agreement between the U.S. and Canada. Little by little, by feeding us during the winter and reintroducing us to places we once lived, we bounced back. Now there are about 16,000 wild trumpeters in North America, and we’re no longer in danger of extinction.

Me: Yay!

Swan: Oh yes, whoopee. We’re a little bitter, as you can see.

Me: Do you have any other predators?

Swan: Besides humans? Not really. Eagles, owls, coyotes and mink may take a baby on occasion, but as adults we’re pretty big birds to kill. Much like the Canada goose, not much out there is big enough to eat us. We’re also really strong. I wasn’t kidding about breaking your arm with my wing. I fight off coyotes and dogs that way.

Trumpeter swans are the heaviest bird in North America. Photo by Emily Carter Mitchell. Trumpeter Swan. CC. https://flic.kr/p/qD9eKK

Trumpeter swans are the heaviest bird in North America. Photo by Emily Carter Mitchell. Trumpeter Swan. CC. https://flic.kr/p/qD9eKK

Me: I’m just noticing now how huge you are.

Swan: Yep, largest waterfowl in North America. I may have a three-metre wingspan, but I’m a lightweight, only weighing 10-12 kilograms.

Me: I guess a lot of that bulk is feathers, right?

Swan: You got it. Our down is five centimeters thick, and makes minus 30 feel balmy. Your fancy Canada Goose jacket has nothing on us.

Me: All that soft down would make for nice cuddling, wouldn’t it?

Swan: There you go getting all touchy-feely again.

Me: So what are you doing these days?

Swan: Well, in the winter my main job is to not starve to death. My favorite thing to eat is plants covered in water, so I have to find places where the water isn’t covered in ice. British Colombia is pretty good for that, because salt water estuaries don’t freeze. There’s also some hot springs in the mountains that stay clear of ice all winter.

Me: What kinds of things do you eat?

Swan: We eat roots that we pull out muddy river bottoms. I can’t think of a less sexy eating habit.

Me: Spring nesting must be romantic, though.

Swan: I guess. We build our nests in the middle of water, often on old beaver lodges or dams or floating vegetation. My partner and I use the same nest year after year. No romantic gestures there, just simple practicality. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Me: How many eggs do you lay?

Swan: Generally five to six. I sit on them for 32 days. 32 days of sitting on bumpy objects and not being able to fly because I’m moulting. I can’t think of anything less romantic.

Me: I’d love to come see your babies in the spring!

Swan: I wouldn’t do that if I were you. I can get pretty aggressive.

Me: More so than today?

Swan: Touché

References
http://nandugreen.typepad.com/chasing_the_wind/trumpeterswans.html
http://www.hww.ca/en/species/birds/trumpeter-swan.html
http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/swan/
https://suite.io/rosemary-drisdelle/205j27t
http://www.abbeville.com/blog/?tag=trumpeter-swan

Interview with a black-billed magpie

Photo by Rhonda. There's more to this noisy scavenger than meets the eye. Black-billed Magpie. CC. https://flic.kr/p/dB4gav

There’s more to this noisy scavenger than meets the eye. Photo by Rhonda. Black-billed Magpie. CC. https://flic.kr/p/dB4gav

When I lived in Calgary, I saw black-billed magpies on a daily basis. Now that I live in Ontario, I miss these noisy, flashy birds. While I was home for Christmas I took the time to interview a female magpie.

Amelia: Hello, nice to see you again!

Magpie: The pleasure’s all mine, I’m sure.

A: How’s the winter so far? Any trouble finding food?

M: Please darling, I’m a scavenger. I always find food.

A: Yes, about that. Did you make holes in our garbage bags?

M: What do you expect when you throw out perfectly good food? We learned a long time ago that humans are great sources of food. For thousands of years we followed the aboriginal people who hunted the plains bison, and ate their leftovers. But then some Europeans decided “hey, let’s shoot all the bison.”

A: Yah, not one of Canada’s proudest moments.

M: Not good for the bison, and not good for us. Magpies and bison were pals. We would sit on their backs and eat all the bloodsucking ticks they couldn’t reach. It was a win-win relationship.

A: Wait, you eat ticks? I thought you just ate dead animals and garbage.

M: Sweetie, I’ll eat just about anything. Some call me a scavenger, but I prefer opportunist. If there’s something on the ground, I’ll eat it. Seeds and fruit? I’m there. Worms or other bugs? I’ll slurp that up. Rotting meat? You betcha. Hey, if scavengers like us didn’t clean things up, we’d be knee deep in rotting stuff. You may think we’re gross, but we do an important job.

A: I guess so. But I’ve heard you also eat eggs and baby birds. That’s mean!

M: Okay, so I occasionally snack on baby birds. But it’s a rarity. Why would I want to waste energy killing something when I could eat something that’s already dead? Domestic cats kill far more baby birds than we do, and you still cuddle with them.

Baby magpies are prime food for cats. It's up to the parents to protect them. Photo by Philippe Henry. Baby Black-billed Magpie. CC. https://flic.kr/p/Q53nE

Baby magpies are prime food for cats. It’s up to the parents to protect them. Photo by Philippe Henry. Baby Black-billed Magpie. CC. https://flic.kr/p/Q53nE

A: You have a point there. I’ve also heard that farmers don’t like you. Why is that?

M: Geez, peck out the eyes of one calf, and you’re branded for life! Farms are awesome places for food. Sure, we’ve gobbled up some grain, maybe eaten a few young chickens. But we’re also pest control. We love to eat crop pests like grasshoppers. We also eat the ticks off the back of their cows. Unfortunately some ranchers spray their cows with pesticides to keep the ticks away. Pesticides do nasty things to us.

A: I’ve also heard that people don’t like you because you steal shiny things, like engagement rings. Is that true?

M: Not a word of it! All we want is your garbage. Earlier this year, ecologist Dr. Toni Shephard peeked in our nests and didn’t find anything shiny there. She also put shiny objects next to food, to see if we would run off with them. We only touched them twice in 64 trials. So no, we are not thieves.

A: I’m glad we cleared that up. How come I don’t see you in Ontario?

M: It’s not part of our range, darling. We prefer the plains and prairies. You can find us from the Yukon all the way to western Manitoba. We don’t migrate, that’s for weaklings.

A: If you don’t migrate, how do you survive the cold?

M: We gang up. In the winter we hang out in large groups and forage for food together. I’m a social butterfly, really. If you see one magpie, there are likely others close by. We like to roost in pine trees, which keeps us safe from the wind and predators.

A: What kind of predators do you look out for?

M: Lots of things, hawks, owls and coyotes. Crows, ravens, raccoons, and cats will also eat my eggs and babies. If I let them, that is.

A: How do you protect your chicks from all this murder and mayhem?

M: It’s all in the nest. I build a little mud cup to hold the eggs, and my mate surrounds it with a scaffolding of branches. This keeps out unwanted visitors. The whole construction is around 50cm tall and 70cm wide, and takes us five to seven weeks to build.

Photo by Bryant Olsen. Magpies working on a nest. CC. https://flic.kr/p/4whb1w

Photo by Bryant Olsen. Magpies working on a nest. CC. https://flic.kr/p/4whb1w

A: Wow, that’s quite an investment!

M: Yep. Most nests will last a good four years. Even so, we build a new nest every year.

A: Why not use the old one?

M: Because someone usually steals it! Usually squirrels and other birds. That’s the price of building a solid nest, I guess.

A: I have another question. Why do you harass my poor cat?

M: Because she’s a predator! Over time we’ve found that offence is the best defense. If I see a predator like a hawk or coyote, I’ll call my friends and they’ll help me drive it away.

A: I guess that makes sense. Life can be dangerous for a magpie.

M: You bet! I only expect to live about two years. Males do a bit better with 3.5.

A: Gosh. I’m sorry, I didn’t realize.

M: Don’t worry your head about it. When I die, a huge crowd of magpies will perch around me, and call loudly to each other before flying off silently.

A: Yes, I’ve heard about that. Scientists don’t know why you gather around dead magpies. Care to share?

M: Nope. Magpie secret.

A: Fair enough. Okay, one more question. Why is your tail so long? It’s longer than the rest of your body.

M: Well, because it looks divine! More importantly, we use it as a rudder to make quick twists and turns in the air. We can’t fly very fast, so quick maneuvers are the only we can avoid being caught by a hawk or owl.

Magpies use their long tails like a rudder. Photo by Chuck Roberts. Black-billed Magpie. CC. https://flic.kr/p/aYnX7x

Magpies use their long tails like a rudder. Photo by Chuck Roberts. Black-billed Magpie. CC. https://flic.kr/p/aYnX7x

A: Makes sense. Thanks for speaking with me.

M: Anytime, darling. Just keep leaving those garbage bags out.

 

References

Devlin, Hannah. Aug 16, 2014. Experiment takes the shine off thieving magpie myth. The United Kingdom Times, p 20.

http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/magpie/

http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/black-billed_magpie/lifehistory

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

http://www.birdwatchireland.ie/Advice/FAQ/MagpieFAQ/tabid/374/Default.aspx

http://www.torontozoo.com/ExploretheZoo/AnimalDetails.asp?pg=546

Interview with a Black-capped chickadee

Black-capped chickadees live in winter gangs with strict pecking orders. Photo by Amelia Buchanan, CC.

Black-capped chickadees live in winter gangs with strict pecking orders. Photo by Amelia Buchanan, CC.

Amelia: Hey there, do you have time to chat?

Black-capped chickadee: Can’t stop…must…cache seeds!

A: I happen to have some sunflower seeds right here.

C: Well, when you put it like that…

A: What did you mean by caching seeds?

C: Caching just means hiding food to find and eat later. For example, squirrels cache nuts. I’m not eating the seeds that I grab from your hand. I’m actually hiding them in little holes or under tree bark. I’ll come back and get them later this winter.

A: Do you remember where you put them?

C: Of course I do! I can remember where I hid thousands of seeds. I’m not some silly squirrel, after all.

A: Wow! That’s amazing.

C: Well, I’m pretty motivated. I have to survive -40 C Canadian winters, after all.

A: That’s right! How do you do that without central heating and hot chocolate?

C: With difficulty. I puff out my feathers. This traps warm air next to my body, like your long underwear does. I also sleep away the winter nights in cozy burrows in rotten logs. At night I’ll drop my body temperature 10-12 degrees Celsius to save energy. It’s called regulated hypothermia.

A: Brr, I get chilly when my thermostat goes down 2 degrees!

C: That’s because you’re a weak human. Grow some feathers.

A: Whoa, that was uncalled for! I am generously sharing my sunflower seeds with you, after all.

C: Sorry. I tend to get aggressive in the winter. It’s the only way to survive in our gang.

A: Wait. There are chickadee gangs?

C: Yep. You could call them flocks, but gang sounds cooler.

A: I guess so. So how many birds in your gang?

C: This winter we have five. Two mated pairs from last year and one baby. We also have a few nuthatches and woodpeckers , but the hierarchy doesn’t apply to them.

A: Why would other birds join your winter gangs? Are chickadees really that cool?

C: Of course we are! We know this patch of forest like the back of our wing. Sometimes migrating birds will hang out with us because we know where the food is and they don’t. Just because we’re aggressive doesn’t mean we can’t be helpful.

A: Why are you so aggressive?

C: The gang runs on a strict pecking order. If you’re the meanest you eat first and have the safest nesting places. The meanest chickadee is the most dominant. Generally males and older birds are the most dominant.

A: Okay. Where do you stand in this pecking order?

C: I’m the most dominant male, of course! I keep everyone else in line. In the spring I’ll pair up with the dominant female. Since we’re well fed from being mean all winter, our babies will have a better chance of surviving.

A: Are you looking forward to spring?

C: To be honest, not really. Raising babies is exhausting. Did you know we feed those buggers 6-14 times every hour? It’s ridiculous if you ask me.

A: How many chicks do you usually have?

C: My mate will lay 5-7 eggs. If they’re not eaten by snakes, weasels or even squirrels and chipmunks, we’ll have that many nestlings to feed and change.

A: What do you mean by change? They don’t wear diapers, do they?

C: We have to clean their poop out of the nest. Believe me, they produce a lot.

A: Ah. Do you feed them seeds?

C: Nope. About 80-90% of our summer diet is insects. Insect eggs, insect larvae, insect adults, we eat it all! We’re natural pest control for the forest trees. In the winter 50% of our winter diet is still insects.

A: Wow, I can’t imagine finding insects in winter.

C: I know, I’m pretty amazing. Not to mention cute.

A: Yep, and that’s why people feed you in the winter. You have it pretty good.

C: Yep. Thanks for the sunflower seeds! I’m off to put a juvenile in his place.

References

http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/chickadee/
http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/039/articles/introduction
http://www.hww.ca/en/species/birds/chickadee.html

Crimson chanteuse: Interview with a Northern Cardinal

Female Northern Cardinals are one of the few female birds in North America that sing. Photo by William Klos, Northern Cardinal (Female) CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/wjklos/11610478/

Female Northern Cardinals are one of the few female birds in North America that sing. Photo by William Klos, Northern Cardinal (Female) CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/wjklos/11610478/

When I moved to Ottawa from Calgary, Northern Cardinals were one of my favorite birds to discover! I mean, they’re brightly coloured, they sing beautifully, what’s not to love?

Even though Northern Cardinals are around all year, I only notice them in the winter and spring. Their red plumage is easy to spot against white snow or an icy blue sky. In the spring, their whistling song is one of the first things I hear in the morning (other than my alarm clock and the buzz of the refrigerator). I was lucky enough to find a female sitting on her nest this morning and decided to ask her some burning questions.

A: I love to hear male cardinals sing in the spring! Why do they do it?

C: Hey now, the men can’t take all the credit! I sing too!

A: Really? Isn’t that unusual for songbirds?

C: That’s right, we’re one of the only songstress birds in North America, and we’re proud of it!

A: I can see that. Okay, so why do you sing? Are you trying to attract a mate, or guard a territory like the males
do?

C: Goodness no! Our songs are much more subtle than the guys’. I often borrow phrases of my husband’s song and add my own flavour. That way he knows it’s me.

A: Where is your favorite place to sing? In the shower?

C: Um, no. I don’t take showers. I sing quietly on my nest. After all, I don’t want to attract every predator within 20 metres.

A: Okay, so why do you sing?

C: A lady can have her secrets, can’t she? Maybe I’m saying “I’m hungry” or “I’m full” or “There’s a predator nearby” or “The kids are driving me crazy!” or even “Where is that grasshopper pizza I ordered?” Let’s just say that I’m telling my husband to bring me food, or not bring me food. If that handsome red guy came by every minute, he might lead a predator right to our nest. Singing to him can cut down on unneeded trips.

A: So your husband brings you food? That sounds like a great system. I wouldn’t say no to breakfast in bed every day.

C: He is quite sweet. But let me tell you, when the babies are demanding food every few minutes, he gets quite a work-out! He only brings me food when I’m nesting in the spring and summer. In the fall and winter I go back to getting my own food.

A: What kind of food does your husband bring back to the nest? You mentioned grasshopper pizza?

C: I was joking, but if you know a joint that makes grasshopper pizza let me know. He brings me seeds, fruit, and berries. My favorite are the sunflower seeds you fill your birdfeeders with. Mm-mm! When we have babies in the nest he’ll bring them lots of insects, like beetles, flies, centipedes, butterflies and crickets. They also like spiders. It must be all those legs.

A: Ugh, that’s an unpleasant image! It seems to me like your husband is doing all the work. I mean he defends the territory and brings home the bacon while you sit on a nest all day.

C: I resent that! Sitting on a nest is not as easy as it looks. I’m protecting my kids from becoming a predator’s snack. And let me tell you, there are lots of animals that love to snack on young birds. It’s a stressful job. The babies in 4 out of every 5 nests don’t survive to adulthood.

A: That’s awful!

C: Yes it is, but we move on and try harder next year. Every spring I go house-hunting with my husband, scoping out good nest sites in tangled vines or bushes. We like to nest close to the ground, but unfortunately that makes it easy for predators to get at the nest.
I work really hard on that nest. Each one is a 4-layered feat of engineering! I bend twigs into a circle, then add a layer of leaves, a layer of grapevine bark and then finish it off with some cozy grass and pine needles. Each nest takes 3-9 days to build! And for the next batch of eggs, I do it all over again. If conditions are good,
I’ll build two nests a year.

A: Okay, so it sounds like you’re working hard too, and work is pretty equally distributed between you and your husband. But there’s something that doesn’t make sense to me. If you’re on the nest all the time, how do predators ever get at your babies?

C: Well, I’m not on the nest every second of the day…

A: I feel like there’s something you’re not telling me. Want to get it off your chest?

C: Okay, fine, I’ll tell you! I’m having an affair with the next door neighbor! He’s just so….red!

A: Okay, that explains it. Does your husband know?

C: I’m sure he suspects it. At any given time a tenth to a third of chicks in my nest are not his, and he can tell. Anyway, he cheats on me too. Everybody does.

A: But you’re still a couple?

C: Yep, we’re completely devoted to each other. I’m the only female he feeds and takes care of. We drift apart in the winter, but usually get back together in the spring. That sweet song of his gets me every time.

A: Do most couples mate for life?

C: Goodness no! About 1 in 5 relationships won’t last the winter.

A: Speaking of winter, how do you like the cold here? I always seem to see you frolicking in the snow.

C: I hate it. I’m not frolicking, I’m desperately trying to stay warm! But we like the neighborhood, and there’s plenty of food here so there’s no point in migrating.

My ancestors were tropical birds who came to Canada from the US in the 1800s. They were following Europeans who were cutting down forests, creating the open bushy spaces that we love. We love living in backyards and parks and forest edges, so our numbers have only been growing as the numbers of humans living here grows.

What a hunk! Photo by Flyn Kynd, Northern Cardinal, CC.  https://www.flickr.com/photos/79452129@N02/14025876635/

What a hunk! Photo by Flyn Kynd, Northern Cardinal, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/79452129@N02/14025876635/


A: Very interesting! One last question. Why are cardinals red?

C: Because we eat red berries. Duh. Just like flamingos get pink from eating shrimp, we get red from eating berries. Any bird you see that is red, orange or yellow is eating something that colour. We can’t make those pigments by ourselves.

A: Fascinating! Thank you so much. Best of luck with those eggs!

C: Thanks! My pleasure.

References

http://www.highparknaturecentre.com/2014/01/colourful-cardinals/#respond
http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/northern_cardinal/lifehistory
http://curiousnature.info/A1-Cardinal.htm
http://eol.org/pages/1052070/details

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. https://www.flickr.com/photos/peter-trimming/5154665962/

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. https://www.flickr.com/photos/peter-trimming/5154665962/

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.

References:
http://www.hww.ca/en/species/mammals/eastern-grey-squirrel.html
http://www.ecokids.ca/pub/eco_info/topics/field_guide/mammals/squirrel.cfm
http://www.cbc.ca/asithappens/features/2014/06/23/not-to-brag-but-i/

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