Owls of North America and the Caribbean, by Scott Weidensaul

If you like owls as much as I do, then the Peterson Reference Guide to Owls of North America and the Caribbean is the book for you.  Filled with gorgeous, glossy photographs of owls, this book also serves as an excellent reference source.

Neither as folksy and readable as the Bent series on birds nor as daunting and dense as the scientifically rigorous Birds of North America accounts, Weidensaul has read the scientific papers and translated them into a reference guide for interested amateur naturalists.

peterson-owls-coverThis book is one of a new series by the renowned Peterson field guide publisher Houghton Mifflin called Peterson Reference Guides and is sponsored by the National Wildlife Federation and the Roger Tory Peterson Institute in Jamestown, New York.  Creator of the field guide series back in the 1930s, Roger Tory Peterson was the most accomplished birder and bird artist of the 20th century.

Weidensaul’s book covers 39 owl species found north of Guatemala, including five endemic Caribbean species.  His extended introduction to owls explains how to use the book, and one illustration labels every possible term describing the parts of an owl such as “upper chest,” “primaries,” and “ear tufts.”

But Weidensaul’s species’ accounts form the heart of the book and cover the natural history, taxonomy, ecology, migration, and conservation status of owls.  Well-executed color range maps illustrate their breeding and wintering ranges.

Weidensaul is especially well-versed in snowy and northern saw-whet owls because of his ongoing studies of these species, as well as those owls that live here in his native state of Pennsylvania—barn, barred, great horned and eastern screech-owls. He has also written fascinating pieces on short-eared and long-eared owls, a few of which winter in Pennsylvania.  Many of the excellent photos of short-eared owls, for instance, were credited to Pennsylvanians Alan Richard and Tom Johnson.

In addition to a bibliography of every species at the end of their account, there is a general bibliography at the end of the book, an index, and a comprehensive glossary of such words as “neoptile,” “polymorphic,” and “zyodactyl.”

Weidensaul pays tribute to the many people who study owls, writing that, “They are diurnal primates studying nocturnal raptors, which calls for even more fortitude and tenacity than is typical in scientific research.”

As readers and owl aficionados, we can take advantage of their dedication and expertise by sitting comfortably in an armchair and browsing through this beautiful and informative book.

Coyote America, by Dan Flores

Here is a review of the book Coyote America which I wrote for the November/December 2016 issue of The Gnatcatcher, published by the Juniata Valley Audubon Society:

If you, like me, are a fan of coyotes, this book will both delight and sicken you.  Subtitled A Natural and Supernatural History, Flores covers every aspect of coyotes’ lives, present and past, the Native American fables and stories that feature Coyote, and the western settlers as well as present day Americans’ approach to these amazing and resilient creatures.

coyote-america-coverTheir story begins in the American Southwest 3.2 million years ago when coyotes split from gray wolves.  While wolves crossed into Asia and Europe, coyotes remained here and eventually became the heroes of Indian folk tales.

Early American explorers called them “prairie wolves” and seemed to admire them.  But the farmers, ranchers, and hunters of the late nineteenth century demonized them along with larger predators such as wolves.

Our “Hundred Years War,” as Flores calls it, against these animals, has been subsidized by taxpayers beginning in the early twentieth century up to the present day.  Unlike wolves, which are pack animals and were easy to kill with poison bait, coyotes are known for what scientists call their “fission-fusion” adaptations in which they can be either pack or solitary animals, depending on outside pressures and are not as easily drawn into bait.

Despite killing more than six and a half million coyotes from 1945 to 1971, the Animal Control Board, renamed the Division of Wildlife Services in 1997, under the Department of Agriculture, has continued their war against coyotes, most recently killing 512,710 coyotes from 2006 to 2011. But coyotes can adjust their population, having as many as 20 pups if they are persecuted or as few as two if they are not.

They also began their incredible expansion to the East and as far north as Anchorage, Alaska and lately have discovered the safest places to live are cities where they are not hunted and there is plenty of food.  So while a coyote requires 10 square miles of territory in the country, it only needs 3 square miles in a city.

Flores covers the many human heroes in Coyote America as well as the villains.  Mammalogists such as Olaus and Adolph Murie, who studied coyotes in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and Yellowstone back in the 1930s.  Olaus concluded that coyotes were not arch predators of game animals but omnivorous generalists that mostly ate mice, gophers, and hares and that only fed on elk carcasses.  Adolph agreed and added grasshoppers and crickets to their diet as well as the weakest mule deer fawns and antelopes.  But coyotes are opportunists and in the cities they not only prey on the occasional pet, especially cats, but they also eat the eggs and young of Canada geese and white-tailed deer fawns.

Still, despite the championing by informed mammalogists, the killing continued unabated.  It took an unlikely person, namely Walt Disney, to begin a sympathetic portrayal of coyotes that reached the general public.  In 1961 Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color ran a six-part series entitled “The Coyote’s Lament.”  At the time federal poisoners, bounty hunters and state trappers were killing between 250,000 and 300,000 coyotes a year.  Disney ended his series with, “When the time comes when you can’t hear the song of the coyote, the West is going to seem a mighty dull place.”

Since then more and more people are opposed to the war on coyotes.  Still, that war has brought bigger coyotes to the East.  Scientists now claim, based on genetic studies, that coyote hybridization with gray wolves began 550 to 950 years ago in the Great Lakes region and have resulted in as much as 20% wolf genes in Great Lakes’ coyotes and 40% in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park.  They also claim that the South’s red wolves are a hybrid of southern gray wolves and coyotes that began 290 to 430 years ago.

And so the coyote, fact and legend, has become larger than life.  As we know here in Pennsylvania our so-called eastern coyotes are bigger than those of the West.  They continue to evolve and adapt to us and our ways.  For instance, studies of urban coyotes find that fewer and fewer are killed by cars every year.

But, as Flores wonders, will we adapt to them, stop killing them and allow their populations to stabilize?

Two Book Reviews

I’ve decided to start periodically putting up book reviews I’ve been writing for our Juniata Valley Audubon Society’s The Gnatcatcher in the belief that reading books with a nature theme is important for those of us who love the natural world. Here is the one from the November/December 2015 issue:

Above the Waterfall coverRecently I’ve read two novels steeped in their natural surroundings.  Above the Waterfall by poet and novelist Ron Rash takes place in western North Carolina.  The chapters are related by two alternating voices.

Becky is a state park ranger, psychologically damaged by a childhood trauma only helped by a summer she spent nearby with her grandparents.  To her, life in the Appalachians as an adult is a return to the safety she felt then, and hers is the poetic voice—“the hummingbird nest at the meadow edge—a strawy thimble, the hummingbird’s wings—stained glass alive in sudden sunlight shimmer, wildflowers sway in their floral abundance, the grasshopper’s rasping papyrus wings…”

Les is the fifty-year-old, soon-to-be-retired county sheriff who is tired, after 30 years, and wants to return to a simpler life in a dream cabin he has designed after making what he thinks were major mistakes in his life.

Both Becky and Les are faced with an environmental mystery.  Who poisoned the local trout stream?  Neither think the obvious suspect poured kerosene into a stream he loves.  How this mystery is solved provides the plot, but I will remember Becky’s poetic voice long after I forget the story line of this satisfying novel.

Martin Marten coverMartin Marten by poet, essayist, and novelist Brian Doyle takes place in the backwoods of the Pacific Northwest.  Dave is an honorable, young teenager, Martin Marten is a wild creature, facing adversaries, both wild and human, but who is fascinated by Dave.

How both learn and grow and the quirky adults they associate with, including a sympathetic portrait of a trapper, is the major theme of this book.  There is a touch of magical realism that appeals to all of us who wish for a similar relationship with a wild creature.

Unfortunately, martens were extirpated from Pennsylvania around 1900 by trapping and the elimination of old growth coniferous and mixed deciduous/coniferous forests, which are their preferred habitats.  Smaller than a fisher and larger than a mink, this sleek, handsome member of the Weasel Family only lives in the East in New England, the Adirondacks, northern Michigan and northern Wisconsin now.

But the inquisitive, curious nature of martens is well-known and Brian Doyle’s portrayal of Martin is spot on.  We can only regret the extirpation of such a fascinating creature from our state after reading this wonderful book.


Living with Bears

Ursus americanus close up

Photo by Valerie/ucumari on Flickr (Creative Commons BY-NC-ND)

On a warm, humid day in late May, I climbed up Pit Mound Trail to the top of Sapsucker Ridge and followed the old logging road along the ridgetop.

As I reached a foot trail into the forest, a medium-sized black bear burst from the underbrush and ran full-tilt toward me.

“Hey there,” I said. It stopped, looked at me, turned, and ran downhill. As usual, my close encounter with a bear—a mere 30 feet away—was so peaceful that my heart rate didn’t even increase.

Over the years I have had numerous close encounters with black bears, and not once have I felt threatened. That is as it should be according to black bear researcher Benjamin Kilham. He has been studying black bears in the field and raising orphaned cubs at the behest of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department for nearly two decades.

In his excellent, new book, Out on a Limb, Kilham advises us to stand still, look at bears and speak quietly to them. In almost all cases the worse they will do is false charge.

Out on a Limb (cover) by Benjamin KilhamBut if you feed bears, either intentionally or unintentionally, with bird feeders, they quickly become habituated, and you must continue or they may come into your home in search of food. Kilham feels that “nuisance bears” have become so because humans feed them. We learned that lesson when they came on our back porch and turned over metal garbage cans filled with washed cans and bottles for recycling and with birdseed. Once we put those cans in our basement and brought our bird feeders in at night, we had no more bears tramping around on our porch or peering into our bow windows.

Black bears live in a world of scent, Kilham says, and they can smell food from a distance. Especially when wild food is scarce, as it has been our last three autumns without a good acorn crop, bears are on the lookout for black oil sunflower seeds which give them more nutrition than any wild foods available to them.

But they also use scent to track down each other, identify bears in the vicinity, and follow bears that have found surplus food. Their sweat glands excrete alarm scents when they sense predators, such as coyotes. If they are extremely frightened, they emit scent from their anal glands which brings other bears to their rescue.

They leave scent marks on trees along with claw and bite marks. In New Hampshire, where Kilham lives, they favor red pines. On our mountain they use the power poles on our small powerline right-of-way.

The day before I ran into the bear, I was crossing the right-of-way on Laurel Ridge and looked 1900 feet across at Sapsucker Ridge. I spotted a round, black object beneath a power pole. At first I thought it was a shadow, but when I looked through my binoculars I saw a very large black bear nosing around. Then he ambled off toward the vernal pond area.

Later, when I examined the pole, I found it had been shredded as high as seven feet. Probably the bear was a male signaling his availability to local females. Both sexes will back-rub, side-rub, and chin-rub such trees too. They also walk over saplings or crawl under them to leave their sent or mark with their scat or urine.

black bear-marked power pole in Plummer's Hollow

black bear-marked power pole in Plummer’s Hollow (photo by Dave Bonta)

Using radio collars, remote cameras and DNA testing, but most of all his own observations, Kilham has found that other bears not only know the identities of the marking bears but also their gender, mood, relationship to them, and where they stand in the social hierarchy. In his area, females have a core home range from three to five square miles and a dominant female ensures that her daughters and granddaughters set up nearby so she can control an even larger area.

Male cubs are sent on their way at 12 to 18 months of age to live wandering lives, usually in bands of other subadult males so they can overpower females and get access to food. But adult male bears don’t compete with females for space, cover, or water because they are hoping to mate with them. Instead, they wander as far as 200 square miles a year in search of food.

On the other hand, overlapping female home ranges may also be the home ranges of several breeding males, but often only one dominant male will mate with the females in his breeding area. Kilham estimates that only the largest males age eight or older get to mate—10 to 15% of the population–even though males are sexually mature at age two.

In addition to scent, bears communicate through facial expressions, ear movements, body posture (like their stiff-legged walk to intimidate other bears) and vocalizations. The bear I encountered looked startled and Kilham says by studying bears closely, especially some of the cubs he’s raised to adulthood and then continued to observe closely throughout their lives, he has “found a great deal of similarity between human facial expressions and those of bears…Smiles are smiles and frowns are frowns.”

Furthermore, if a bear’s eyes twitch or its ears are cocked back, it is annoyed and deciding what to do. When it is irritated, its ears are half-cocked. If a bear is being cautious but curious it may have one ear cocked forward and one backward.

Black bear vocalizations include what Kilham calls a “guttural reverberation of sound in their chests” when they are angry and as well as a “huh huh” when they are upset and an “mmm, mmm,” appeasement call. They also make a gulping sound that males use to get female bears to go with them during mating season and females use to guide their cubs and keep them safe.

Black bear mother with cubs in Plummer's Hollow

Black bear mother with cubs in Plummer’s Hollow (photo by Dave Bonta)

When cubs are nursing, they make a “deep loud purr” which they also make when they are happy. They have a loud distress call that Kilham says sounds like “Baa Wo Oow,” but I thought was a wailing child. Years ago I heard such a sound one fall morning and then saw two cubs below our house crying while standing over something black. When I rushed down, they ran off still yowling. There on the ground was a dead adult bear. She had been shot out of season with an arrow somewhere on our mountain and had managed to reach our yard before dying or so the game protector we called told us. He took her away, but I will never forget the sound those cubs made.

I often wondered if the cubs survived on their own. They would have been born the previous January and their mother would have begun teaching them about food sources once they had emerged from their den in the spring. Kilham discovered that they learn by mouthing and smelling what their mother eats– buds, young leaves and flowers of trees, especially red maples and white ashes, in spring as well as wildflowers such as nodding sedge, jewelweed, wild lettuce, and especially jack-in-the-pulpit, in summer berries of all kinds, and in autumn acorns and beechnuts. In all three seasons they devour ants, bees, and grubs. One of Kilham’s cubs, Squirty, ate 40 to 60 ant nests in an hour while another, Yoda, consumed 20 to 30 yellow jacket nests. They are also opportunists and will take newborn fawns and young nestlings and fledglings. A Pennsylvania Game Commission study found that they were a major predator on fawns.

Black bear enjoying a foggy day by Howard Ignatius

Black bear enjoying a foggy day by Howard Ignatius (CC BY-NC-ND)

Because Kilham suffers from severe dyslexia, he is not a trained biologist. Instead, he makes his living as a gunsmith. Yet year after year, he goes into the woods to watch bears. Through various experiments he has found that bears use fresh ungulate scats as probiotics and that they can learn to recognize themselves in mirrors. He also discovered what is now called the Kilham organ by noticing that the cubs he raised mouthed all new-to-them vegetation, often holding it in their mouths for a few seconds and then releasing it unmarked. He dissected a road-killed bear and found a fleshy organ about jelly bean-sized in the pocket of a V-shaped bone, called the vomer, which is under the center of the nose and above the palate. Eventually, after years of research, he realized that sensory nerves in the organ allowed them to identify airborne scent with it. They also use it to figure out what is safe to eat.

At a lecture he gave at the College of the Atlantic (which I watched on YouTube), someone asked him why he studied bears. His answer was that “We need to know more about the animals we exist with.” And, as he says in his book, “You don’t need to be a credentialed scientist to make new discoveries. You just need to go outside and open your eyes.”