Amazing Animal Engineers

Did you know that some animals are excellent engineers? Did you know that if a tree falls in a forest, a beaver hears the sound? Did you know that Spiderman is capable of being an awesome engineer? Did you know that some birds build stick castles for the ladies? Time to learn about some amazing animals!

This orangutan is also a good engineer. From Mechanix Illustrated, November 1950.

First up is the quintessential wildlife engineer – the beaver. Beavers have been building dams for a lot longer than humans. Using their large teeth, these large, semi-aquatic rodents are capable of chopping down trees and maneuvering large limbs to create dams and lodges. A beaver lodge is a home made of branches, sticks, and mud. Lodges often contain an underwater opening and are a good place to raise young. Beavers will usually eat bark, twigs, leaves, and other plants. Their tail looks like a large pancake (tastes good with maple syrup) and acts like a rudder while swimming. Beavers sometimes slap their tails against the water and create a loud signal that carries across the water and warns other beavers of potential danger. I’m not sure if that includes Justin Beaver.

Juvenile and adult beaver feeding on bark  American beaver felling a tree

Beavers create dams to control the flow of water and to protect their homes. Having fast-flowing water rip through your lodge would not be fun for a beaver. Some dam systems are quite intricate and include series of canals! As you might guess, beaver engineering affects the local ecosystem in a major way. By cutting down specific trees and diverting the flow of water, beavers can impact a variety of ecological processes, plants, and other wildlife. For example, the systems of pools and waterways created by beavers can reduce flooding and soil erosion. Some plants and wildlife can thrive in the small wetlands that arise from beaver engineering. On the other hand, beaver activity may negatively affect organisms which rely on flowing water, and beaver dams have hurt some farming practices and trout fisheries. The largest beaver dam on record, is located in Alberta, Canada and is over 2700 feet in length!! That’s over twice as long as the Hoover Dam! Interestingly enough, the dam was first located using Google earth and satellite imagery! Researchers suggest that several beaver families may have contributed to this natural wonder.

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Google Earth image of the largest beaver dam in the world.

Next up are spiders. Spiders are well known for creating intricate webs made of silk. If you are bitten by a radioactive spider, you just might gain superpowers and a strong desire to talk to yourself out loud. Spiderman normally uses his webbing to swing from building to building, entrap enemies, or break a fall. However, if he had studied engineering, he could create so many amazing things. On a side note, one of the most annoying things is to walk face-first into a spiderweb. During one morning doing bird surveys, I walked into about 50 spider webs and spent a lot of time pulling sticky webbing off my glasses. Anyway, Orb-weaving Spiders (Thousands of species in the Family Araneidae) design many of the familiar spiral webs to catch prey. There are usually circular sections of the web that are comprised of sticky silk, but the orb-weavers tiptoe across non-sticky lines throughout the web. When an insect (or occasionally something bigger!) gets stuck in the web, the spider comes out and cocoons the prey for a tasty meal. Many orb-weavers actually spin new webs almost every day! Many spider webs are quite beautiful, though people don’t often stop to appreciate them due to fear of creepy, crawly things.

Golden orb spider on web Related image

Recent studies and explorations have led scientists to claim that the largest web in the world is produced by the Darwin’s bark spider. As is the case with many spiders, females are larger than males. Females are generally between 15 and 20 mm long, while males are around 5-6 mm long. Despite their tiny size, Darwin’s bark spider have been recorded creating webs over 25 meters across! The material of these webs is said to be stronger than steel or kevlar, which is used in bulletproof vests! The silk used in the webbing is also extremely elastic and resistant to breaking.  Hmm . . . maybe I should create a vest out of spider webs so that I can fight crime. By spreading out tough webs over rivers, the spiders can catch insects that frequently use the water, such as dragonflies and mayflies.

That's no washing line (Credit: Matjaž Gregorič) A Darwin's bark spider (Caerostris darwini) (Credit: Matjaž Gregorič)

Left – bark spider web spanning across a river (photo: Matjaž Gregorič).                         Right – Darwin’s bark spider (photo: Matjaž Gregorič)

I hope you find the creations of beavers and spider fascinating. Try to remember that most spiders are harmless and actually help control insect populations. Hold a pet tarantula if you need practice overcoming a fear of spiders. These animals really are amazing engineers! My next blog will spend time on bowerbirds and their efforts to create nests to impress! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to slap some water with a tennis racket and spin a bulletproof web to catch some dinner.

My Nemesis is a Bird

My dream as a young boy was to be a superhero when I grew up. My efforts to become a superhero by the traditional methods (special serum, cosmic explosions, alien powers, super tech, billionaire playboy) have failed so far. I even tried to use radioactivity, though I know from Spiderman that 90% of people who receive powers from radioactive sources become supervillains. Even though I don’t have special powers, I can still have a nemesis. One of the defining characteristics of a superhero is that he/she has at least one nemesis. Batman has the Joker. Superman has Lex Luthor. Spiderman has Doctor Octopus. My nemesis often consumes my thoughts and has constantly eluded me over the last few years. I know what he looks like from pictures, but have never actually seen him. He wears a blue and white costume with a black mask and spends much of his time in the woods. He inspires many copycats who dress the same way. He talks in a buzzy voice. My nemesis is . . . a Black-throated Blue Warbler.

Black-throated blue warbler feeding chicks

My nemesis is deep and complex because he has a family that he cares for.

Black-throated Blue Warblers spend much of their time in the trees, foraging for insects among the leaves. Males are boldly-colored and represent their name quite well. Females are a drab olive-gray, with a white patch on their wings and a pale, white eyebrow. Black-throated Blues usually nest in the northeastern U.S. and winter in the Caribbean and Central America. There is a small population that nests in the Great Smoky Mountains, which is not far from where I live. I’m pretty sure that population is taunting me with their existence. Though I’m an active birder during migration (when Black-throated Blues pass through the southeast and midwest) I had never even heard one until two years ago in Kentucky. The song sounds like a buzzy “beer beer bee!”, with the last note ascending upward. Side note: other birds also seem to have a strange fascination with beer. Alder Flycatchers say a raspy “Free beer!” and Olive-sided Flycatchers sing “Quick, three beers!” Add to this the birds that are obsessed with tea (Eastern Towhees and Carolina Wrens), and you have a bunch of wildlife dealing with addictions. Anyway, when I heard one while walking along a forest trail, I immediately ran up the path with my binoculars in hand. As I got close to the sound, I could tell it was coming from group of large deciduous trees. Unfortunately, I could not see the bird. I was unsuccessful from all viewing angles and tried using a bird app to call the warbler out. He was unresponsive and then flew off over a ravine without me getting a glimpse. I could hear him briefly calling out, taunting me. Then he was gone and I didn’t hear another Black-throated Blue until the following year in the exact same spot on the exact same day. May 9th is a day that still lingers in my mind and haunts my dreams.  The same circumstances were repeated and I again left without having caught a real glimpse of my nemesis.

Black-throated blue warbler male feeding on berry Black-throated blue warbler female feeding on berry

Black-throated Blues eat berries and drink fine wine after eluding me.

Though my efforts to see a Black-throated Blue proved unsuccessful, my resolve has not changed and I’m more motivated than ever to find one. I’m actually glad that finding one has proven so difficult. This will make the time I finally catch my nemesis that much sweeter. On a final note, I’m planning on going to a birding park this week that has nice trails and cool birds . . . and also a recent recorded sighting of a Black-throated Blue Warbler. Maybe I will finally defeat my nemesis, though I’m not sure what to do if I finally catch him. I feel like my whole life is revolving around finding this bird. Wherever you are, I hope that you will meet your nemesis soon and defeat him/her. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to sing buzzy songs about beer and allow some radioactive animals to bite me.

wbs open house 2010 (169)

I should have microwaved this alligator and let him bite me to gain superpowers.

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.

The Outdoor Adventures of My Childhood

I have many fond memories of the time I spent playing outside growing up.  Not everyone gets the opportunity to have an area to play outside.  Some kids grow up in the slums or in an apartment in the city with basically no yard.  Other kids spend their formative years on a giant 100 acre farm running through corn mazes and biking through the woods, but we’re not going to talk about them.  My backyard is sloped and makes for good sledding after a decent snow, which we currently get about once every 3 years in eastern Tennessee.  BUT, once upon a time many years ago, we had what is commonly referred to as The Blizzard of 93.  My hometown got hit with 18 inches of snow with drifts of over 2 feet.  2 feet is a lot of snow for a town that closes down schools every time there are flurries.  To tell the truth, sometimes schools close down here due to the threat of snow!  Oh no, it’s raining and could turn into flurries!  Let’s close the schools!  Someone 35 miles away just caught a snowflake on their tongue, let’s shutdown for the day!  What’s that? It’s snowing in Boise, Idaho?  We better send the kids home so they don’t get caught in a possible storm.

At the time of the blizzard, I was eight years old and loved playing in the snow.  One of the first things I did was grab my saucer and slide down my hill.  There were two ways to go down.  You could either be safe and go down the hill where you wouldn’t hit anything at the bottom, or you could go down the slickest area into a narrow opening between a brick wall and patio bars.  Of course, I usually chose the fun way.  The frightening/great thing about riding a saucer is that you spin around as you slide across the snow and can’t totally control your aim or see where you’re going.  Saucering (Is that a term?) down the hill was a lot of fun, but I won’t say that I always emerged unscathed after a day of sliding on ice.

With so much snow it was only natural that I built some snowmen.  At one point, a friend of mine was helping me make snowmen when we had a bright idea.  We decided to roll a giant snowball from my house to his place, which was four houses away.  It’s amazing how many bright ideas can develop when young boys work together.  Anyway, we pushed the snowball until it became too large for us to handle.  The giant mound of snow ended up sitting in a neighbor’s yard for a while.  the good news was, we were friends with most of our neighbors.  Other activities that I participated in during the reign of snow included snowball fights, creating snow tunnels and igloo building.  I also ate snowcream, drank hot chocolate and caught an arctic fox with my bare hands.

When giant blizzards weren’t hitting my town,  I enjoyed playing games outside.  My front yard was flat and ideal for for playing sports like football, whiffleball and kickball.  There was also a basketball hoop in the back with an asphalt extension of our driveway that served as a court.  Growing up, I was pretty small for my age until my early high school years when I shot up to 5’10”.  The advantage of being small was that almost no one thought I would be good at sports.  When I was 7 years old I became a good dominant tee-ball player.  If memory serves me correctly, my team went something like 18-3 that year.  One of my best friends at the time was on my team and we had a blast playing together.  He was fast enough to get 2 or 3 inside the ballpark home runs per game.  I wasn’t super fast but I knew where to hit the ball so that I would reach base safely and scored about 4 runs per game.  One time I did get a home run due to fielding errors, which were definitely uncommon at the 7 year-old level.  I also was involved in a basketball league and eventually my parents had me pick which sport I wanted to keep playing.  I chose basketball and still enjoying playing it to this day.  If a baseball player hits and reaches base 1 out of every 3 times, he is considered good.  In tee-ball, I was hitting about 9 out of 10.  I wonder, if I had taken steroids stuck to baseball, would I be an all-star major league player?  Some things we’ll never know.

As basketball became my sport of choice, I spent more time shooting hoops outside.  I still remember the time when a neighbor came over to play with me and broke the goal.  He was trying to look cool by jumping off the brick wall under the post to dunk a ball and ended up bringing down the old backboard a he hung on the rim.  Thankfully, he was not hurt worse than Benjamin Linus on LOST.  A new goal replaced the broken one a few years later and I develop a good three-point shot over the years.  I also would often pretend I was playing in an important game and had to make a last-second shot to win.  There were also quite a few games of on-on-one and HORSE played on my court growing up.  I eventually became the master of the “jump out from under the patio and throw the ball in off the backboard while you’re still in the air shot” and won almost every game of HORSE.

I won’t say that I only have fond memories of playing football in my yard.  My friends always wanted to play tackle and enjoyed crushing me into the ground.  There were a few times when I broke their tackles and scored, but I was always better at playing non-contact versions of football such as two-hand touch or flag football.  . Whiffleball was definitely one of my favorite things to play outside.  We would play with trees and bushes as the bases and my Dad would often act as the all time pitcher.  There were special house rules, like hitting into the road or on the roof equaled an out.  Since I usually played with just one or two friends at a time, there was also a rule that if the pitcher grabbed the ball and touched the mound before the batter got to first, the batter was out.  There was also a ground-rule double if you hit the ball deep into the bushes.  I really miss playing whiffleball.  Those were fun times.

These days I still shoot hoops outside my house, but the thing I primarily engage in is bird-watching.  I enjoy just listening to the birds sing and watching them interact with one another.  Growing up my parents enjoyed birding and would take me to find new birds whenever we went on vacation.  There may have been a time or two when I was so excited to see a new bird that I thought I saw a species that only lived in Europe.  Moving onward, a few days ago I noticed that there was a lot of activity around the apple trees in my backyard.  When I brought out my binoculars, I could tell that a bunch of warblers were flitting back and forth.  I quickly found a Yellow-rumped Warbler and got excited thinking that perhaps different warblers were migrating through the area.  Unfortunately, every single warbler was a Yellow-rumped.  I kept muttering out loud “You can’t all be Yellow-rumped Warblers” but alas, I was wrong.  I did get to see many other birds including Eastern Bluebirds, Cedar Waxwings and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

Eastern Bluebird PhotoCedar Waxwing PhotoYellow-bellied Sapsucker Photo

(Eastern Bluebird, Cedar Waxwing and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.   Pictures from http://www.allaboutbirds.org)

I plan to write a few blogs on backyard birds in the near future so be on the lookout for that.  Anyway, it was nice to spend a lot of my childhood playing outdoors instead of being mesmerized by TV and video games all day.  My advice to you as the reader is to stay active, have fun and encourage your kids to become professional baseball players if they exhibit potential in tee-ball.