About Me

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Native Californian, biologist, wildlife conservation consultant, retired Smithsonian scientist, father of two daughters, grandfather of 4 small primates. INTJ. Believes nature is infinitely more interesting than shopping malls. Born 100 years too late.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Revenge of a zoological collector

[The zoological collector's hoard: 13 cat turds, 17 acorns, 25 deer mice, 3 woodrats (1 adult, 2 pups), 3 lizards, 21 millipede segments, a small sampling of numerous wood splinters, and 1 cigarette butt]

Where do all the little mousies and rats go that eat warfarin under your house? Did you ever wonder about that?

I never gave it much thought until last weekend, when the bedroom started to smell rather poorly. Something had died under the house, and I was responsible.

The day before we flew to Virginia last month I put rodenticide in the crawl space. Normally, I trap homesteading rodents. Sorry, but I just can't afford to donate my library annex in the garage to mammalian paper shredders.

Well, the redhead had been telling me about nocturnal gnawing and splintering sounds. Under the house something was going bump in the night.

Obviously, a wood rat had gotten into the crawl space and was collecting materials for a stick nest. I would have preferred to snaptrap the newcomer, but we weren't going to be around for a couple weeks, and I didn't want surprises when we got home.

Well, the poison worked, and this stench was the rodent's revenge. My first reaction was to close the heating vents, and for two days I was feeling quite clever, but then the rodent cranked up the stench and it got worse, a lot worse.

As readers of this blog are fully aware, I can handle stenches better than the next man. After all, I'm a student of mammals, and appreciate the fact that most mammals live in an outrageously rich universe of smells. The mammalogist's call of duty requires the occasional sniff of a scat or scent gland, and the quest for specimens necessitates close encounters with road kill and other ripe carcasses.

But a night of sleeping in that stench had crossed my threshold of tolerance. There was no choice. Whatever it was, and wherever it was, I had to go under and drag it out.

I changed into my field duds, fetched my enormous 2 million candle power spot light, and stuffed a 12-inch forceps, and 2 plastic grocery bags into my back pockets.

A half hour of belly crawling took me beyond the plumbing and ventilation to a space beneath the bathroom, and as the dust settled I saw the ground littered with little bundles of yellow fiberglass insulation and the shredded remains of the box of rat poison.

The dirty work hadn't even started when the spot light started to fade. I had to get out while I could still see. I humped back to the entrance at remarkable speed for a codger. There my granddaughter handed me another spotlight.

Starting over again, I illuminated my destination in 10 foot lengths and groveled in the dark to the littered dirt. (This light had limited power too).

Hmmm. The insulation between the floor joists was sagging in places. I rolled over on my back, and pulled back a corner of the insulation. Acorns, a couple of mummified mice, and a dried cat turd spilled before my face.

In a dozen places the woodrat's zoological collection was sandwiched between the floorboards and the insulation, and the stashes were connected by tunnels through the insulation. This was the resting place for dead mice in the crawl space. The rat also had a fondness for millipedes and cat shit.

Finally, I found the source of the stench. Swaddled in insulation was a soggy and maggot-ridden dusky-footed woodrat.

I felt a little sad that it had to end this way, because I never met a zoological collector I didn't like.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Commentary: trained bears and tame killers

The fate of the show-biz grizzly bear that killed a professional animal handler yesterday is undecided. The 5-year-old 700 lb bear unexpectedly lunged and killed the handler with a neck bite. Two other trainers used pepper spray to get it under control. OSHA and California Fish & Game are investigating, and animal advocates and private citizens are voicing opinions.

Captive animal managers, and I am talking about people like me who have worked in zoos, know that hand-reared birds and mammals can be dangerous, and far more so than those reared and socialized with members of their own species. The reason is that they are extremely tame, which means they are unafraid of people. People take chances with tame animals that they would never take with wild animals.

A few observations.

First, neck biting is a normal pattern of behavior among bears, and for that matter carnivores in general. It may draw blood, but it is not usually fatal. The force of the bite depends on context, as most pet owners know. Play bites are restrained, threat bites hurt, and serious bites cause injury or death. (I should also add that bears have thick hides. The neck skin in particular evolved into a dermal shield to protect vital organs against jaws.)

Second, a fine line separates play fighting and fighting. Rough-and-tumble play among siblings often turns into a fight. We've seen it in dogs, cats, and our own children. It's the same with bears.

So wrestling with tame bears has inherent risks. The only thing protecting a man is his ability to read its moods, and the bear's self restraint. There's a terrific imbalance in size, strength, speed, and reflexes.

But oh, how we love our cockeyed fantasies. Then someone gets hurt or killed. We don't buy into that fate and Kismet stuff, however. We want to fix the problem, and there is no shortage of expert solutions, from revenge to legislation.

The interesting thing to me is that in more fatalistic societies, homicidal animals like the occasional domestic elephant are not condemned to death. As my old Indian friend Doc Krishnamurthy used to say, "Human life is our cheapest commodity".

When an elephant kills its mahout in Sri Lanka and India, new mahouts clamor to take over. I co-advised a masters student who studied the macho phenomenon among Sri Lankan mahouts, and she found that 34% of mahouts said they would prefer a killer elephant to a non-killer. Why? Because they would gain status among their peers, and because the elephants' owners would be less likely to interefere with their work.

Whether spectators or performers, naked apes are the same everywhere. As long as there are bears, snakes and elephants, there will be bear trainers, snake handlers, and mahouts who think they can defy a unique fate.

And you know what? Most of the time they do.


Godagama, W.K. 1996. An ethno-zoological study of domesticated elephants in Sri Lanka. Masters Thesis, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Power pole nest usurpers

My friend John recently wrote from Oregon that . . .

"Our neighborhood is in a dilemma. A pair of Canada geese has taken to an Osprey nest about 50 feet above the ground on top of a high voltage power pole. There was a lot of home ownership going on when the Osprey came back to repair the nest as it does every year since we moved here.

"However the Canada geese are now the occupants.

"When the goslings hatch, their maiden flight might be disastrous. Just the other day we stopped in the middle of the street to let a pair of geese cross with about 10 babies following. Do you think the goslings will wait till they can fly or will it be a deadly first flight? What if anything should be done? I called the power company and they will not rescue the goslings.

I replied:

"The goslings will probably jump, which is what a lot of tree nesting ducks do. I would assume that they are just as tough, and will bounce.

"However, if they don't bounce, but go splat, then we have a good example of natural selection. In that case, the genes of the parents will NOT be passed on to future generatons to repeat the mistake.

"My advice is to sit tight and keep watching as the drama unfolds.

A little web surfing revealed that this has happened before. Power poles are good nesting sites, but goslings feed themselves as soon as they hatch, so they have to get down without benefit of bunji cords. Seems like that would be risky.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Cougar surprise

Rod Jackson, the leading expert on snow leopard conservation has set a record for turn around time on cougar pictures. He made his camera set in Sonoma county last Tuesday (April 15) and the cat came the next morning at 7:00. That is NOT what usually happens when you are aching for pictures of cougars or bobcats.

Here's his message to me earlier today:

"The camera was angled approx 3 feet away looking down on the rock. It spent less than 10 seconds sniffing before leaving. In the next shot it is already 10 meters down the riparian strip.

"The white lines you see on the right are plastic water pipes for an irrigation system. As I said, I picked this place because of the success you have had with scenting mossy rocks. Since there was a reasonably fresh fox-sized scat there, adding a camera and bobcat scent was a simple, logical next step. A lion had killed a deer 100 m away some months back, but it was clearly too old and nothing remained to be an attractant in this case.

"What do you think about the cat's age and sex? (Codger: definitely a young adult.)

Do I detect a young male? (Codger: Yes, the equipment seems right.)

For cougar pictures on scented mossy rocks, see here, here, and here.

Oven-lovin' drummin' rodent

We'd spent a long day in the field coming and going, setting camera traps, and coming and going.

One liability of codgerdom is forgetfulness. Retrieving forgotten or misplaced gear probably added an extra mile to our peregrinations, but it didn't matter. No one was in a hurry. Nonetheless, by late afternoon we were all dragging, and whether we needed it or not, it was time for a shower. It took an hour to sweep up the rat shit and chlorox the shower stalls.

Rich grilled the tri tip to perfection over "Cowboy Charcoal", a new product that deserves mention as a brilliant marketing ploy. We expected mummified cow flops, but the charcoal was just pieces of old barn boards and fence posts.

It was a splendid meal -- red meat, brie and cambazola, fresh asparagus, and a tossed green salad. Anti-cholesterol tonics included beer, red wine, tequila, and single malt Scotch.

We were thoroughly enjoying the repast and our own engaging conversation when we heard a sound like someone practicing drum rolls. It was coming from the oven.

I opened the door and there was an oven lovin' drummin' rodent.

It was our old friend the dusky-footed woodrat in a luxuriant nest of cotton stuffing plucked from the lodge's chairs and matresses. The second oven compartment contained a king-size nest.

We shut the doors and resumed our conversation, but the rodent continued to distract us with periodic drumming. Our intrusions and remarks about her boudoir were getting pretty silly when we realized we were missing a camera trapping opportunity.

Rod baited his set on the floor with a carrot, and I propped my camera inside the oven. Soon we saw the flash going off through the cracks, and decided to give her some rest.

We retired to our sleeping bags outside. If you are wondering why we didn't use the available beds, well, the rats had already claimed them.

The next morning we found that Rod's camera caught the drummer making off with the carrot.

My pictures showed her sitting demurely in her nest, but when I got home I managed to erase them by mistake.

Fortunately, Steve had the foresight to photograph the rat in the stove (above). Thanks, Steve. And thanks to Rich and Rod for the other photos.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Splendid abandoned farms

There's an old study skin of a shrew mole at the California Academy of Sciences that was collected on the Greenly farm in the Santa Cruz Mountains. In the summer of 1960 I discovered that specimen in the academy's mammal collection and wrote to Mr Greenly for permission to snap trap shrew moles on his farm. Permission was granted in a letter signed by "Pops Greenly".

Pops was a lonely widower and the farm was a wreck, a wonderful wreck of collapsing barns, broken equipment, and a forgotten orchard. Consequently, it was seething with wildlife.

Pops gave us a tour. The bloated woodrat floating in the springhouse didn't bother him a bit. Wrens and swallows nested in the outbuildings, honey comb spilled from half-opened oak filing cabinets in the tool shed, and the attic's colony of fringe-tailed Myotis gave the house an alluring batty bouquet. One evening on the porch the old man told us a mountain lion passed through the property every few weeks. He pointed to its usual path, and his imitation of it raised the hair on our necks. The place was being reclaimed by wildlife, and it was a naturalist's paradise. It didn't take long to make a nice collection of shrew moles and other mammals there.

About 3 years later I visited the Cleary Reserve in Napa County with fellow undergraduates in a class called "Natural History of the Vertebrates". The reserve was also an old farm, and we spent a memorable weekend collecting and identifying wildlife, but it didn't compare with Greenly's derelict farm.

Forty plus years have passed since then, but a few weeks ago when my old friend Rich Tenaza invited me to join him at the Cleary Reserve I was ready to go. Last weekend was a codger fest of old Asia hands, Rich, Steve Anderson, Rod Jackson and yours truly.

The reserve didn't look quite the same. The trees seemed bigger, and a lot of dead wood had fallen. The dirt road was choked with sticks, limbs, and canes. Gone was the pond with its nesting redwing blackbirds. If it was still there, it was hidden in towering vegetation.

When Rich unlocked the old stone house it was plain to see that wildlife had reclaimed it. Carpenter bees were jousting under the eaves. They made sorties at us whenever we passed, and were irksome buzzing against the windows in the house, but that was remedied with an insect net.

The walls and plastic covers on the furniture were peppered with bat poop, and when we found the perpetrators in the hall we hurried to our cameras and photographed them.

The amount of rodent crap on the floors was simply amazing-- a tribute to high fiber diets and a population explosion.

Rich knew the place well, and within minutes was checking the old septic tank for rattlesnakes. Sure enough, there they were. The pit was evidently a splendid predation trap, an irresistable attraction to rodents where the snakes lie in wait.

The old Cleary house had come of age. Barely liveable for most humans, it was a paradise for wildlife and old biologists.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Could this be the scat inspector?

Just back from 3 days in California's inner coast range with three of my codgerly friends. We had a ball, and you'll hear more about it soon, but for now I have only a question.

What does a turkey do when it encounters a pile of carnivore scat?

No, this isn't an April Fool's joke, and no, it doesn't gobble it down. But the picture above tells me turkeys may pause to inspect little piles of poop.

Have a look below. This is what was on the trail -- a collection of carnivore turds -- and you can see them under the hen's breast (above).

Okay, the picture doesn't show the bird actually examining the scat. The exposure was probably a little late for that. But in view of the camera's 3-5 second lag time, I suspect it was the scat that caused the bird to pause.

One of my fellow codgers suggested a reason why turkeys might examine animal scat. Maybe they recycle the seeds in it. Or maybe they attract insects that the turkey gleans with her beak.

Trail poop is always food for thought, at least for old biologists.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

A little publicity

Science writer Douglas Fox called me last fall for a quote about urban wildlife. When he learned I was a camera trapper he asked to tag long. The result is a piece in the Christian Science Monitor about the codger and his old buddy Reno. Check it out here.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Eastern chipmunk

This is the last photo I'll show from the Virginia trip. When you see an Eastern chipmunk, think Siberia. Yes, mammalogists believe that the Siberian chipmunk is its closest relative. They also have the most extensive geographic ranges.

The 30+ species out here in western North America, like the lodgepole chipmunk have been in the evolutionary fastlane.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Second night in the Jonah log

When I checked the camera at the Jonah log, I was disappointed to find that the raccoon didn't return. The new arrangement with the camera stuffed back into the "whale's belly" would have given a head-on view of the rascal, and the red-eye setting would have knocked the eye reflection down several notches.

But when I downloaded the pictures I saw that the raccoon had indeed returned. Check out the top of the picture. You can see its legs and feet right of center. Apparently one meal of salted herring was enough.

Not so with the deer mice. They ate more salted herring than peanut butter (that glob in the center of the picture was still there in the morning).

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Season finale: squirrel trials update

As we pulled up to the garage yesterday after an absense of 10 days I noticed the security alarm from my owl box was on top of the garbage can. When we left for Virginia it was in the owl box where it signaled the receiver in the house to beep everytime a squirrel got into the box.

There was only one explanation, bear mischief. So we walked around the house and sure enough, there was the evidence. Bruin had torn open my experimental owl box.

Before we left I had shut down the operation and removed the camera trap, but the lingering smell of sunflower seeds in the box was enough to tempt a bear.

A few minutes later my ever vigilant neighbor Richard came put-putting down the driveway on his motor scooter. The bear's break-in happened a couple nights ago, he reported, and he had put the alarm on the garbage can out of the rain.

So the squirrel trials come to an end. I'll fix the owl box, but it's time to put it in storage. Now it's time to begin searching for water shrews and red tree mice.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Views from within

The whitefooted mouse came and went most of the night, but just before dawn a raccoon made its appearance.

It went all the way to the end and ate the smoked herring. I got twenty butt shots.

Then it turned around, but the camera was too slow for a mugshot.

I believe these guys have a powerful thirst today. That smoked herring is heavily salted.