Snake News

Did you know that snakes can be very colorful? Did you know that snakes are vital to controlling pests in many agricultural and woodland ecosystems? Though some people get nervous or anxious around snakes, most species are non-venomous and tend to shy away from confrontations . . . except for all of the vicious killer snakes in Australia. Time to face your fears and slither into the world of snakes!

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Indiana Jones is not happy with my blog topic.

First up is a species commonly found in gardens, yards, and woodlands. The Common Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) has several subspecies (with a variety of coloration!) that inhabit ranges throughout the United States. One of the characteristics of garter snakes is their longitudinal stripes. Garter snakes are not venomous and are usually docile, though some will act aggressively when threatened. They are decent swimmers and will sometimes hunt aquatic prey such as fish, amphibians, and crayfish. They also eat small mammals, earthworms, and occasionally birds. During the mating season, large numbers of garter snakes may converge into a giant breeding ball!

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Left – Eastern Garter Snake I found while looking for birds. Right – California Red-sided Garter.

Next up are the racers (Coluber constrictor). As with the garter snakes, there are a few subspecies in the U.S. When I worked as an avian field technician in southern Indiana, I saw some black racers and blue racers, but not black-and-blue racers. As their name suggests, they are quite quick and agile, often zooming away before you can get close. If the Flash was bitten by a radioactive racer, he would probably become unstoppable. Racers are often found in woodland edges and near disturbed habitats such as areas that have been clear-cut. They eat a variety of prey, including many rodents, and are most active during the heat of the day. As with many other snake species, racers will seek cover such as logs, brush, or boards when temperatures are cooler. 

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Blue Racer (http://radiostudio111.com/archives/blue-racer-snake).

The largest snake in the world is the Green Anaconda (Eunectes murinus). Females are capable of growing close to 30 feet long and weighing over 550 pounds! These anacondas are primarily found in forests, swamps, and streams within the Amazon Rain Forest. As you might imagine, they move much slower than racers, and will often lay submerged in muddied water, waiting to ambush unsuspecting prey. Anacondas will eat wild pigs, capybaras, birds, small mammals, deer, turtles, and even caimans (small crocodilians) and jaguars! They are very loving, often cuddling their prey before crushing their bones. Though many species of snakes lay eggs, Green Anacondas are viviparous, meaning that they give birth to live young. The young are about 2 feet long and quickly become active after being born.

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Yum, tasty deer steak.

Hmm . . . maybe showing pictures of giant anacondas that could crush you and eat you isn’t the best way to conquer your fear of snakes. How about some pictures of cute snakes to ease your mind?

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What?! You didn’t think those were cute?! Let me try again.

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Albino Ball Python

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Snakes will not usually attack humans unless provoked. Even the venomous ones will usually hiss, raise their head threateningly, or flee rather than bite. In my next blog, I’ll take a look at some of the venomous snakes, snakes that mimic venomous snakes, and provide a few ridiculous puns. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to race around the block, dive into some muddy water, and attack a helpless victim before heading to the nearest Steak and Snake. 

All Frogs go to Heaven

What frog acts like a paratrooper? What frog has see-through skin? What will some frogs do to protect their eggs? What is a pacman frog? In my last blog, I wrote about giant frogs and tiny colorful frogs that could kill you. Now I’m on to some other interesting amphibians! 

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Some Glass Frogs, which include species from the Centrolenidae family, have translucent skin, which allows one to see the interior organs! The eggs of pregnant females can also be seen as well!  Glass Frogs are quite small, with an average size of 1-3 inches. Members of the Centrolenidae family can be found near forested rivers and streams in Central and South America. They spend much of their time in the forest canopy, where they hunt for insects and other small arthropods. I’m thinking of writing a book on how to dissect these frogs and calling it “Through the Looking-Glass Frog”.

<i>Centrolene quindianum</i> on leaf see-through stomach

Whereas many species of frogs lay eggs directly into ponds, pools, or vegetation, frogs from the family Hemiphractidae have the ability to carry their eggs with them. Some of these species are equipped to transport eggs hidden in a dorsal pouch, which allows better protection of the eggs from predators and extreme conditions. Though many frog species have a larval stage (tadpoles), some species, such as the Horned Marsupial Frog (Gastrotheca cornuta), keep the eggs until they develop and hatch into live froglets!

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Left – Horned Marsupial Frog. Right -Flectonotus fitzgeraldi.

The Surinam Horned Frog (Ceratophrys cornuta) can grow to 8 inches long and weigh over a pound. Because they have large mouths and a voracious appetite, eating almost anything that comes near them, they are sometimes called “pac-man frogs”. These frogs generally ambush their prey, camouflaging themselves in mud or leaf litter, and quickly striking and swallowing prey whole! Horned frogs have been known to devour prey such as crickets, centipedes, small mice, fish, other frogs, dots, and blue ghosts. Sometimes they try to swallow prey that is too large and are found dead with the intended prey sticking out of their mouths! This happened recently when a horned frog was fed Donald Trump’s ego. The purpose of the horn-like projections is unclear, though they may serve to aid in camouflage.

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Finally we come to Wallace’s Flying Frog (Rhacophorus nigropalmatus). Though these frogs don’t technically fly, they can use their thickly-webbed feet and large toe pads to glide through the air for distances of over 15 meters! These frogs live an arboreal life in the tropical jungles of Borneo and Malaysia. They usually use their super gliding abilities when attempting to escape a predator or hunt prey. Flying frogs also have loose flaps of skin, which aids in their gliding. They often breed and lay their eggs in pools formed by rain or in pits made by wallowing animals such as rhinos. As their Latin name suggests, they have black coloring on their feet. Scientists are currently researching this species in an effort to apply the frog’s gliding capabilities to human soldiers and pizza deliveries.

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Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this little foray into the world of frogs! Frogs are pretty diverse and amazing creatures! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to hide in a mud pit, cover myself with leaves, and snatch some unsuspecting prey.

 

 

 

Who Let the Frogs Out?

Did you know that there are over 4,700 species of frogs in the world? Did you know that the Goliath Frog can weigh up to 7 pounds? Did you know that there is a frog smaller than your thumb that carries enough poison to kill 10 people?! Did you know that Kermit the Frog is 62 years old? Did you know that the average person in France eats 124.37 pounds of frog legs a year? Did you know that fake numbers are more believable if they include decimals? Did you know that all frogs go to heaven? Time to hop into the world of frogs!

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Red-eyed Tree Frogs. Left photo by Cary James Balboa. Right photo by Nicolas Reusen.

The largest frog in the world is the endangered Goliath Frog (Conraua goliath). This monstrous amphibian can grow to over a foot in length and lives in equatorial rainforests along the western coast of Africa. Goliath Frogs are typically found near highly-oxygenated rivers or waterfalls, where they munch on crustaceans, fish, insects, and other frogs. Like most frog species, a female Goliath will lay hundreds of eggs which will hatch into tadpoles.  As you might imagine, life as an egg or tadpole is fraught with dangers from many predators. However, Goliath tadpoles are equipped with razor-sharp teeth which allows them to shred apart large fish and even baby hippos! Either that or they feed on plants. Anyway, the survival rate for eggs and tadpoles is not very high. Unfortunately, Goliath Frog populations have struggled due to trapping for food or the pet trade, and habitat loss. 

Goliath frog on rocks amongst shallow rapidsGoliath frog being held and compared to the tiny reed frog

Next up is a much smaller frog – the Golden Poison Dart Frog (Phyllobates terribilis). Though they grow to about an inch in length, they are actually one of the larger poison dart frogs! These tiny amphibians make their home in a small range of rainforests in Colombia. Despite their name, Golden Poison Dart Frogs sometimes come in shades of green or orange. Their diet consists of small invertebrates, such as ants, flies, and termites. As with other poison dart frogs, the bright colors provide warning of their poisonous nature to potential predators. Many scientists believe that these frogs acquire their toxicity from their prey, which ingest certain plant alkaloids. Does this mean that the Nintendo character Kirby is related to poison dart frogs? Natives have used the poison from these frogs for centuries to cover the tips of blow-darts and spears when hunting. Some researchers are studying the mechanisms and effects of frog poisons for medicinal uses such as painkillers! For more information about poison dart frogs, check out a cool article from BBC by clicking here.

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Photo by Thomas Marent, Minden Pictures/Corbis.

Even though I only covered two species, hopefully you’re starting to get a feel for the incredible diversity in the frog world. In my next blog I’ll look at more fascinating frogs, including a species that carries its young on its back, a species with see-through skin, and a species that can glide! Wherever you are, appreciate the beauty of nature and the awesomeness of frogs! I’ll leave you with some cool pictures of poison dart frogs! Frog on!

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Amazing Salamanders II

In my last post, I wrote about some cool salamanders that have some interesting abilities. Hopefully you gained an appreciation for these interesting creatures that are important to the health of wetland communities. I also uncovered the secret the origin of firebenders (cross a fire salamander with a hellbender) and promised to reveal the largest salamander in the world. In this post, I’ll come through on that promise, discuss interesting behaviors, and make at least one joke along the way. By the way, did you know that some Fire Salamanders evolve the ability to produce heat from the tip of their tail and use it to char their prey? This is how charmanders are born. 

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This fire salamander is not impressed with my joke.

The largest salamander in the world, capable of growing to almost 2 meters in length and  weighing over 100 pounds, is the Chinese Giant Salamander (Andrias davidianus). There are a couple of things you should stop and take note of here. First of all, I just used the metric system and the imperial system in the same sentence. Please don’t attack me in the comments. Secondly, the species name includes the name “David”, possibly referring to David fighting the giant Goliath. Maybe Andrias =  Andre the Giant? I should probably stop now. Anyway, the Giant Salamander is currently listed as critically endangered due to sinking populations. Though habitat loss is certainly an issue, the main cause of population declines appears to be due to the farming industry. That’s right, there are salamander farms in China because salamanders are considered a delicacy. The problem is, giant salamanders aren’t able to reproduce until sexual maturity, which can take several years. As demand for the salamanders grows, local populations have been slow to rebound. The methods used to capture giant salamanders have escalated, as poachers have been known to use electrofishing, poisons (which impact other stream and rivers species), and even dynamite! There is also the issue of captive salamanders contracting diseases which may been passed on to wild populations if released. Conservationists are doing what they can to limit genetic inbreeding and the spread of diseases

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Check out this video of a giant salamander moving through a stream bed. http://www.arkive.org/chinese-giant-salamander/andrias-davidianus/video-06.html

Next up is one of the most common salamanders in the eastern U.S. – the Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum). I often came across these critters during herpetology field trips or nighttime road surveys. As their name suggests, Spotted Salamanders have two rows of yellow/orange spots that cascade down the back to the tail. Like many other species, they are fossorial, meaning they are adapted to utilizing underground burrows and tunnels. They generally nocturnal, and are more likely to be seen during a rainy night in the breeding season. If you live in their range and are interested in seeing one, take a flashlight and go out on a rainy evening in the early spring. Look near roads located by streams, creeks, or forested wetlands. Females will often lay clumps of eggs near algae in shallow pools. 

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Now it’s time to move on to another unusual amphibian.

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Whoops, wrong picture. Let me try again.

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Argh, give me one more chance.

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There we go. The Axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum), also known as the Mexican Walking Fish, is an unusual-looking aquatic salamander that has a condition called neotony. Neotony means that the salamander retains larval characteristics (such as a dorsal fin, external gills, and mediocre piano-playing capabilities) throughout its life. The Axolotl is listed as critically endangered and has a very limited range along the southern portion of Mexico City. Though wild populations have struggled, the good news is that Axolotls have done well in captivity and researchers efforts to reintroduce this species into the wild may be effective in the near future. The main concern is water pollution, which spreads through canals as the city continues to expand. Another cool feature of Axolotls is that they are capable of regeneration! If an individual is wounded during a fight, he/she can regenerate tissue to replace a lost limb! Though many salamanders are capable of regrowing their tails, Axolotls can also regenerate skin, legs, and even portions of their spinal cord without visible scarring! This amazing ability has caught the interest of researchers, who trying to utilize the Axolotl’s capabilities to develop possible mechanisms for human tissue regeneration. One day, it may be possible to regrow human organs for transplants or fight cancer cells using knowledge of the Axolotl’s regenerative processes!

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Hopefully you’re now starting to get a sense of how cool and important salamanders can be! Make an effort to find out where salamanders live in your region and develop an appreciation for wetland life. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to zap Axolotl cells with radioactive particles so that I will gain regenerative powers and become a superhero.

Amazing Salamanders

Did you know that the largest salamander in the world can weigh over 100 pounds? Did you know that some salamanders do not have lungs? Did you know there is a salamander called a “hellbender”? Did you know that the famous Survivor song “Eye of the Tiger” was actually referring to a Tiger Salamander? Okay, that last one may have been made up, but salamanders are actually really cool and underappreciated by many people.

Tiger salamander

Tiger Salamander

Salamanders are amphibians, cold-blooded creatures (I once saw a salamander bite the head off a helpless earthworm) whose life cycles often include time in the water and on land. Generally, young salamanders are aquatic and have external fins, while adults lose the fins and spend more time on land. Salamander populations are often considered important indicators of overall wetland health. The most diverse population of salamanders in the world is in the southeastern United States, in the Appalachian Mountain region. The combination of forests, natural streams, and elevational gradients provide suitable habitat for many salamanders. Among the salamanders that live in this region is the Eastern Hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis). Hellbenders have flat heads and wrinkled bodies, and generally measure between 12 and 24 inches in length, making them the largest salamanders in North America. Hellbenders are fully aquatic and feast on crayfish, insects, minnows, and worms. They prefer to live in natural, fast-flowing streams or rivers with plenty of rocks and woody debris. They usually make their homes in clean water containing high amounts of oxygen, meaning the presence of a hellbender can provide a positive indication of stream health.  Unfortunately, their specific habitat requirements means that they are very sensitive to changes in water quality or flow due to pollution or dam development. Many populations are currently declining due to habitat loss. As a side note, if you happen to catch a hellbender while trout fishing, make every effort to remove the hook. Hellbenders are not poisonous, though they can warp the effects of Hades.

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Hellbender that I stumbled upon while biking in Virginia!

Next up is the Fire Salamander (Salamandra salamandra). Fire Salamanders are native to eastern and central Europe, and often utilize forest floors and streams in cool, wet areas. They generally grow to between 6 and 8 inches long, and like many salamanders, can often be found under logs, moss, or leaf litter. They will eat earthworms, crickets, and other soft invertebrates, preferring to roast their prey by breathing fire. Though many salamanders lay eggs, Fire Salamanders actually give birth to developed larvae, which finish metamorphosis in nearby streams or ponds. Fire Salamanders defend themselves against predators by secreting neurotoxins through glands located on the skin, and may even spray the chemicals at predators in some cases! Fire Salamanders have aposematic coloration, meaning that their color pattern is meant to warn predators that they are an unprofitable prey item. By the way, if you cross a Fire Salamander with a Hellbender, you’ll have a Firebender.

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Left – larval Fire Salamander. Note the visible gills. Right – adult eating a worm.

Plethodontids are a family of lungless salamanders, which breathe through their skin and lining in their mouths. This family is the most diverse of the salamander families and includes the Jefferson Salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum), which generally lives in upland forest wetlands from Kentucky to New York and around the Great Lakes. Jefferson Salamanders have a nasolabial groove that is charateristic of the plethodontids. This groove enables a salamander to receive and interpret chemical signals from the environment. Jefferson Salamanders have wide snouts, long toes, and slender grayish bodies dotted with specks of blue (young tend to have more spots than adults). They may hybridize with Blue-Spotted Salamanders in sections of their range. Jefferson Salamanders are sometimes involved in a reproductive complex with other Ambystoma salamanders. Scientific evidence suggests that unisexual Ambystoma females engage in kleptogenesis, which involves “stealing” genes from resident males to aid in adapting to local environmental conditions!

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Young Jefferson Salamander that I found by a rotting log.

So I bet you’re still wondering about the salamanders that grow to be over 100 pounds . . . or maybe your attention span is so short you already forgot about it. In any case, you’re going to have to wait until my next blog to learn about that mystery! Or you could Google it, but that would ruin the suspense. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to create some Firebenders and munch on a few earthworms.

What Kind of Bird are You?

Do you like birds? Do you like personality tests? Do you ever find yourself listening for earthworms after a spring rain or longing to munch on sunflower seeds? Do you stay awake at night wondering what bird you most relate to? I am here to fulfill all your dreams with a bird personality test! Many people have probably taken multiple personality tests before. I came back positive once, but another part of me swears I didn’t. Anyway, I have created a list of ten questions to answer that will reveal what bird you most identify with. I know there are thousands of birds in the world, but I have chosen 5 specific birds for the sake of time and my sanity. Whichever bird you end up as, I guarantee it will possibly match some part of your personality and define the rest of your life. I recommend taking a pencil and paper, and recording which letter you choose for each question. Now on the quiz!

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Max the Tawny Eagle had a playful personality.

 

Bird Personality Test

1. You get hungry for a quick snack in the afternoon. You

A. Look for something sugary

B. Grab some gummy worms

C. Munch on some goldfish

D. Eat something with lots of protein

E. Chow down on some popcorn chicken

2. You are sitting outside when your neighbor walks by. Your immediate response is to

A. Get in their face and make sure they stay off your property

B. Sing at them

C. Hide in the bushes

D. Ignore them

E. Invite them to join you

3. Which one of these movies is your favorite?

A. UP

B. The Hobbit

C. Finding Nemo

D. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

E. The Lion King

4. A light rain begins to fall in the late morning. You

A. Seek shelter

B. Play in the puddles

C. Spend time at a lake

D. Are sleeping soundly

E. Lazily sit outside

5. Which color is your favorite?

A. Red

B. Blue

C. Green

D. Silver

E. Black, I enjoy the absence of true colors and prefer something that is linked with death

6. How do you spend your free time?

A. I’m always hungry!

B. Sleeping

C. Playing games

D. Hanging out with a loved one

E. Tanning in the sun

7. Which of these fictional movies would you be most interested in watching?

A. The Macawshank Redemption

B. Lord of the Wings: Return of the Kinglet

C. Snakes on a Crane

D. Owl is Lost

E. Starling Wars: The Emperor Penguin Strikes Back

8. Your ideal dinner involves

A. CHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESE!

B. A mixture of proteins and grains

C. A seafood platter

D. Lots of meat.

E. Leftovers from the night before

9. What is your initial response upon encountering a snake?

A. Try to scare it away

B. Run away screaming

C. Nervously take a few steps back and look for a weapon

D. Grab it by the neck and bite hard

E. Calmly watch the snake move along the ground

10. Pick a book title

A. The Scarlet Feather

B. Tequila Mockingbird

C. War and Geese

D. Guardians of Ga’hoole

E. V is for Vulture

Now it’s time to add up your answers. Try not to scroll down until you’ve totaled your score. An “A” answer counts as one point, “B” is two, “C” is three, “D” is four, and “E” is five points. Once you know your score, check out your result below the picture of the Barn Owl.

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What kind of bird are you?

10-18 = Ruby-throated Hummingbird. You are always on the go and expend a lot of energy every day. Food is a vital part of your life and you constantly snack throughout the day. You tend to be aggressive and confrontational with others who get in your way, though you do have a sweet side.

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19-26 = Bluebird. Spending time with family is important to you. You enjoy singing songs and expressing your happiness. You occasionally get pushed around by others who are more strong-natured, but sometimes you find the courage to fight back.

bluebird

27-34 = Green Heron. You enjoy spending time alone in nature, especially around a body of water. You’re intelligent and enjoy fishing. You don’t talk much, but when you do, it’s usually something worth saying. You prefer small groups of friends when you’re not have alone time.

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35-42 = Great Horned Owl. You are somewhat of a night owl and often take naps during the day. You have a strong and fierce personality, and are willing to fight for what you believe in. You tend to talk loudly but because of your great hearing, you can also be a good listener.

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43-50 = Turkey Vulture. You enjoy basking in the sun and gliding around town on your bike. You eat mostly meat and prefer to let others do the cooking, though you are great at cleaning up after others. Speaking in public is not clearly your strong suit, but you enjoy spending time with friends.

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Five Simple Ways to Care for Wildlife

As a scientist who’s passionate about sharing his enthusiasm for nature, I’m always looking for ways to connect with others about animals and conservation. Below is a short list of steps that you can take to care for wildlife in your neighborhood and your yard.

1. Spend time in nature – the best way to gain a better appreciation for animals and nature, is to spend time outdoors. Hike through the woods or mountains, bike around your neighborhood, or sit outside and just watch and listen for a while. Learn how to identify the birds in your yard. There are several free birding apps for smartphones (Merlin and Audubon are good ones). Walk by a creek in the spring and look for frogs and salamanders under rocks. Watch water striders propel themselves against the current. Enjoy being bitten by crazed insects, stabbed by thorny bushes, and burned by the sun. Wake up to the sounds of robins singing at 3:30 in the morning. I’ve found that being by a lake or bay is very peaceful, as long as you don’t pick a time when there is a jet ski race or when black bears are mating. Watching the sun rise over the water as the birds sing is a rewarding experience.

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2. Enhance your environment – there are some easy ways to draw birds and other wildlife to your yard. Provide feeders with good food for birds. Finches love thistle and many birds enjoy eating sunflower seeds. Of course, squirrels and blackbirds love sunflower seeds as well, so you may have to choose feeders that are squirrel-resistant and use striped seeds, which have a thicker shell. For information on what types of seed attract different bird species, check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s tips. Putting out a suet feeder in the cold months is another great idea. Woodpeckers and many songbirds will eat suet to fill up on fat, which provides valuable energy in the winter. I’ve found that mockingbirds especially like suet mixtures that contain berries. You can also put out hummingbird feeders in the early spring. A typical solution is four parts water, one-part sugar. Boil the solution for about 2 minutes, then allow it to cool. Make sure to clean the feeder regularly (~ once a week) with hot water and avoid putting water coloring or honey in the feeder, as these can cause problems for hummingbirds. Putting out a bird bath with clean water is also good.

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You can also enhance your environment by planting native plants which provide natural cover and food for birds. Finally, consider putting up a nest box. You can build your own or buy one, just make sure which type of birds you’re using it for (bluebirds, chickadees, swallows, wrens, etc.) There are even boxes for screech owls and American Kestrels if you live in a semi-open farmland area with nearby tree cover. If you manage to attract raptors (not the dinosaur kind) to your yard, be happy! Not only are raptors cool and powerful, but they also are great for rodent control!

If you’re interested in building a screech owl or kestrel nest box, click here for instructions!

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I’m here to take care of your rat problem.

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Eastern Screech-Owl. Photo: Daniel Behm/Audubon Photography Awards

3. Keep your cats inside – this can be a hard step for some people, but the fact is, cats kill and scare off many birds and small mammals. An article published in Science estimated that over one billion birds and over six billion mammals are killed each year by free-ranging cats. Even if these numbers are overestimating the impact, this is a serious threat to native wildlife and local ecosystems. Birds are critical for pollinating plants, spreading plant seeds, and eating insects. Woodpeckers are often important to an ecosystem due to their ability to excavate cavities used by birds and other animals. Plus, many birds are beautiful and sing wonderful melodies. So please, keep your cats indoors or find a cat park near you.

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The keep cats indoors rule does not apply to tigers.

4. Don’t litter – recycle instead. This one’s pretty straightforward. Don’t trash up and contaminate the environment. Some animals can choke to death on plastic. In many places, you can request a special bin from the city to use for recycling cardboard, plastics, bottles, paper, and glass. Recycling enables materials to be used repeatedly while limiting the amount of waste in dumps. Recycling is good for animals and for humans!

5. Share with others – tell your friends and family about how they can take simple steps to help support local wildlife populations. Threaten to ground them from coffee or delete their angry birds app if they don’t listen to you.