Note: If you’re interested in monthly information about urban/suburban wildlife and WDFW’s Backyard Wildlife Sanctuary Program, you can “e-subscribe” to our “Crossing Paths with Wildlife in Washington’s Towns and Cities” news notes at http://wdfw.wa.gov/lists/ . As an e-mail subscriber to “Crossing Paths,” you’ll receive these news updates automatically in your e-mail inbox, without linking to a download. As always, you can easily unsubscribe by following the instructions on our WDFW Mailing Lists website. We hope you find these news notes timely and useful. If you have any questions, please contact Madonna Luers at Madonna.Luers@dfw.wa.gov
Subscribe to "Crossing Paths"
e-mail news notes today!
|Vine maple and other native trees will provide a healthy supply of leaves.
By Jamie Bails, WDFW Habitat Biologist
A few autumns ago, after watching a neighbor rake and bag fallen leaves, I asked him if I could spread the leaves around my perennial beds as mulch. He hesitatingly agreed and watched suspiciously as I quickly loaded up eight bags into the wheelbarrow and giddily spread the leaves around my flower beds.
Like many people, my neighbor narrowly understood the value of leaf litter. Leaves were simply raked, bagged and taken to the dump -- not my idea of natural gardening. The next year, they cut down the trees, reducing my leaf supply. For now, a 100-year-old big leaf maple and other native trees I’ve planted will provide a healthy supply of leaves, saving me truckloads of soil composted from other people’s yards.
Using those leaves for mulch also helps the wildlife that visit my yard. They provide a food source for insects which in turn are eaten by many birds, reptiles and amphibians. Leaves also indirectly support wildlife habitat in general by improving overall soil and plant health.
As leaves are falling and you’re raking them up this month, think about these Top Ten Reasons to use those leaves as mulch:
- Provides food source for beneficial insects which improve the health of the soil and in turn are eaten by wildlife
- Improves and adds nutrients to the soil
- Increases and strengthens plant root growth
- Regulates the temperature of the soil, keeping it cooler in summer and warmer in winter
- Reduces weeds, as long as the mulch is weed free and deep enough to prevent weed germination or smother existing weeds
- Prevents the surface of the soil from cracking or eroding by retaining moisture
- Prevents rain water from running off the soil and disappearing down a storm water drain
- Prevents water from splashing up onto plants which slows the spread of soil-borne diseases
- Prevents the soil from crusting or compacting
- Creates a natural forest floor environment
Without leaf litter on the soil, rain will release clay and silt particles, increasing sedimentation, reducing the soil’s capacity to absorb water, and accelerating soil erosion. Leaf litter also reduces wind erosion by preventing soil from losing moisture and providing cover.
Leaves are valuable soil amendments because they’re the dominant pathway for nutrients to return to the soil, especially nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P). These nutrients accumulate in the top layer of soil until leaves decompose, by rainfall and organisms, and leach or release the nutrients into the soil below.
A wide range of organisms takes part in the decomposition process, most relatively inconspicuous, unglamorous and, from a conventional human perspective, even undesirable. This detritivore community includes beetles and their larvae, flies and maggots (the larvae of flies), woodlice, fungi, slime molds, bacteria, slugs and snails, millipedes, springtails and earthworms. This community works out of sight and gradually, over months or years. Cumulatively, they are the unsung heroes who convert all dead plant and animal material into forms that are useable for growth.
There are several ways you can use leaves as mulch:
Slow-Compost Method: Rake the leaves off the lawn (assuming you still have lawn) and pile on flower beds to make the rich hummus and leaf mold that you would find in a mature forest. The leaf nutrients will leach out while the remainder of the dried leaf will slowly compost over the winter, putting nutrients directly back into the soil with the aid of the detritivores. This is a great method for soils that are clay, compacted or dry, and it won’t smother or burn plants.
Lawn-mower Method: Run your lawnmower over the leaves and then rake onto plant beds. This is a great alternative to purchasing beauty bark or wood chips. When spreading the leaves, be careful not to cover the plant crowns. Shred large leafs like big leaf maple to break down more quickly. Large, leathery, evergreen leaves like madrona, laurel and photinia need to be shredded unless they can be allowed to decompose over several years in a back corner. Evergreen leaves can be added to a hot compost pile to accelerate decomposition.
Both of these methods are excellent ways to encourage beneficial insects in your yard. Beetles, spiders, and centipedes readily crawl under leaves for protection through the winter, as well as deposit eggs in the soil or leaf litter.
Compost Pile Method: Store leaves in feed sacks and add to compost pile as brown material over winter. An abundance of leaves can be in a wire cage for decomposition over the winter. By spring, the compost is ready to spread on beds or can be added to the food waste compost bin.
Livestock Method: If you keep poultry or livestock, use your supply of leaves for litter or bedding along with straw or hay. Leaf mold thus enriched with extra nitrogen may later be mixed directly with soil or added to the compost pile or spread throughout the garden.
If you don’t have enough leaves from trees on your own property, ask a neighbor if you can rake their leaves onto your yard. They may think you are crazy, but you’ll be walking away with valuable free soil amendments and a boost for your backyard wildlife.
|It was almost like a scene out of Halloween movie.
(This popular story is recycled from a past “Crossing Paths” edition.)
It was almost like a scene out of Halloween movie.
Backyard wildlife enthusiasts in western Washington reported finding six dead bats scattered on their porch and lawn.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) biologist Chris Anderson, based in the North Puget Sound region office in Mill Creek, explored the possibilities with the concerned reporting party.
The neighborhood was full of birds, bats, raccoons, squirrels, and cats, Anderson learned. When he first suggested there might be a situation that allowed a house cat – a potentially very effective predator – to take advantage of the local bats, there wasn’t initially much belief.
But when the property owners set up a night watch to learn what was happening, the results were as educational as scary….
They keyed in on a locally-familiar, free-ranging, homeless cat hiding by their flowering yucca plant.
Yuccas flower both day and night and are great nectar sources for butterflies and moths. They hadn’t realized until that night how attractive yucca nectar is to night-flying moths, and they watched many coming in to feed.
And then nature’s food chain displayed itself.
The feeding moths attracted hungry bats, swooping in to grab a meal of moth. The feeding bats, in turn, were killed by the quietly waiting cat.
With two more dead bats left by the cat on their lawn, two things became clear: the cat wasn’t necessarily hunting out of hunger, and for the sake of the neighborhood’s wildlife, it needed to be removed from the area.
The situation was relayed to neighbors, some who may have been feeding the homeless but tame cat, and then it was taken to a shelter for care and adoption by a cat lover who will keep it indoors.
“These folks gave both the bats and the stray cat itself a break,” Anderson said. “It was really the best option. And the situation helped them realize that free-ranging domestic cats are deadly to wildlife.”
Americans’ most popular pet is also one of the most harmful to backyard wildlife.
Our 84 million or so pet cats, plus perhaps at least that many homeless feral cats, kill billions of birds, small mammals and other wildlife each year.
Anderson is a cat owner who believes we can have both in our lives.
“Research shows that spending time with pets and spending time watching wildlife both lower stress levels,” Anderson said. “So why not have both?”
Anderson walks his cat outdoors on a leash with a harness, but otherwise keeps it indoors. “He didn’t like the leash when we first adopted him,” he said, “but he adjusted to it and my two dogs. Now my cat enjoys the outdoors safely, both for him and for wildlife.”
The lives of free-roaming pet cats are often cut short by vehicle collisions, disease, poisoning, parasites, territorial fighting, and predation. According to the Humane Society, indoor cats and those confined or controlled when outdoors can average at least three times the lifespan of free-ranging cats.
Wildlife definitely benefits from keeping cats indoors and under control when outdoors.
Extensive studies of the feeding habits of free-roaming domestic cats have been conducted over the last 55 years throughout the world. These studies show the number and types of animals killed by cats varies greatly, depending on the individual cats, the time of year, and availability of prey. Roughly 60 to 70 percent of the wildlife cats kill are small mammals; 20 to 30 percent are birds; and up to 10 percent are amphibians, reptiles, and insects.
Some free-roaming domestic cats kill more than 100 animals each year. One well-fed cat that roamed a wildlife experiment station was recorded to have killed more than 1,600 animals (mostly small mammals) over 18 months. Rural cats take more prey than suburban or urban cats. Birds that nest or feed on the ground, such as California quail, are the most susceptible to cat predation, as are nestlings and fledglings of many other bird species.
Well-fed cats kill birds and other wildlife because the hunting instinct is independent of the urge to eat. In one study, six cats were presented with a live small rat while eating their preferred food. All six cats stopped eating the food, killed the rat, and then resumed eating the food.
Other studies have shown that bells on collars are not effective in preventing cats from killing birds or other wildlife. Birds do not necessarily associate the sound of a bell with danger, and cats with bells can learn to silently stalk their prey. Even if the bell on the collar rings, it may ring too late, and bells offer no protection for helpless nestlings and fledglings.
Wildlife rehabilitation centers report that most small animals injured by cats die. Cats carry many types of bacteria and viruses in their mouths, some of which can be transmitted to their victims. Even if treatment is administered immediately, only about 20 percent of these patients survive the ordeal. A victim that looks perfectly healthy may die from internal hemorrhaging or injury to vital organs.
Anderson noted that the idea of trapping, spaying/neutering, releasing, and leaving food out for feral cats is misguided.
Cats are solitary animals, but groups of feral cats often form around an artificial feeding source, such as garbage dumps or food put out for them. These populations can grow very quickly, even if most are spayed or neutered -- it only takes one intact cat to start multiplying!
These feral cat colonies can have significant impacts on wildlife populations and feeding doesn’t prevent them from following predatory instincts. Feral cat colonies can also cause significant health risks to other cats and humans.
“Cats are good pets but lousy outdoor companions,” Anderson said. “It’s a cat’s nature to stalk prey, even when they’re well fed. We cat owners need to take responsibility for them and keep our wildlife safe.”
For more information see American Bird Conservancy’s “Cats Indoors” campaign at http://www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/cats/ .
|House finches on sunflower
Your family may be making those fall outdoor chore lists, as daylight hours shrink, temperatures drop, and the urge grows to “batten down the hatches” in the yard and garden.
Here’s another “to do” list from your local wildlife “family” that you may find easier to check off:
- Leave some “dead heads” on your flowering plants to provide seeds for some of us birds and other animals
- If you must rake leaves off grass lawns, just pile them under some shrubs, bushes or other nooks and crannies to provide homes for those insects that we birds love to eat; leaves make great mulch to help your plants, anyway!
- Keep that dead or dying tree right where it is (unless, of course, it’s truly a hazard to you), so we can feast on the insects in the rotting wood or make winter roosts or dens in its cavities
- Give yourself and your mower a rest for at least a portion of your lawn so we’ve got a patch of taller grass to hide and forage in
- Save just a little of that dead bramble thicket for us – it makes great winter cover and we don’t need much! Fall is a good time to plant shrubs, so replace invasive, exotic Himalayan and cutleaf blackberries with native plants of higher wildlife value like blackcap (native black raspberry) or red raspberry; native currants or gooseberries found in your area; or native roses such as Nootka or baldhip.
- Pile up any brush or rocks you clear around your place to give us another option for nests and dens
- Take it easy on yourself and let go of the “perfect” garden image; we wild animals like less tidy, “fuzzy” places because there’s usually more food and shelter there
- Get yourself a comfortable chair, sit back, and congratulate yourself on having made a home for wildlife and a haven of relaxation for yourself!
|In the United States alone, free-roaming domestic cats kill at least 1.4 billion native birds and at least 6.9 billion native mammals annually.
The domestic cat (Felis catus) is considered one of the world’s worst non-native invasive species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
World-wide, cats have contributed to the extinction of 33 wildlife species and continue to adversely impact a wide variety of species, including those that are threatened or endangered. In the United States alone, free-roaming domestic cats kill at least 1.4 billion native birds and at least 6.9 billion native mammals annually.
About 20 percent of all injured wildlife brought to Washington’s wildlife rehabilitators across the state are harmed by cats. Many of those cases are occurring now when young wildlife is especially vulnerable, from ground-nesting birds like quail to nest-box users like bluebirds.
The easiest and most effective way to control this damage is to keep cats indoors.
Free-roaming cats usually have short, miserable lives, due to collisions with motor vehicles, attacks by other domestic and wild animals, accidental poisoning or trapping, and parasites and diseases. The Humane Society of the United States reports that the expected life span of an indoor cat is at least triple that of cats that spend their lives outdoors.
Indoor cats can be kept exercised, entertained, and otherwise healthy in a number of creative ways, as advocated by the American Bird Conservancy’s “Cats Indoors!” campaign (see http://www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/cats/index.html.)
Feral cats – those untamed strays that now total up to an estimated 10 million throughout the United States – also seriously damage wild bird and other wildlife populations.
While domestic cats are solitary animals, colonies of feral cats often form around food sources like bird feeding stations, garbage dumps, or places where people deliberately leave food for them. In fact, many colonies of feral cats are supported by well-meaning but misinformed advocates of what’s become known as “TNR” management: Trap, Neuter, Release.
The theory behind TNR programs is eventual reduction of feral cat colonies. But sadly, such claims are not substantiated.
Research by Darcee Guttilla and Paul Statt from California State University (see report in the Journal of Mammalogy http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.1644/09-MAMM-A-111.1) shows continuing negative impacts to wildlife.
Cat colonies often serve as dumping grounds for other unwanted cats. The food provided usually attracts more cats. Contrary to TNR proponent beliefs, colony cats do not keep other cats from joining the colony. As time goes on, some colony cats become too wary to be caught, so rarely are all spayed or neutered. With females capable of producing up to three litters of four to six kittens each every year, it doesn’t take long to grow a feral cat colony.
Well-fed cats, either feral or domestic, become “super-predators” of birds and other wildlife. The need to eat and the instinct to hunt can and do function separately. Any cat owner can attest to this fact with stories of “gift birds” laid at their feet by feline companions.
In addition to their threats to wildlife, feral cat colonies pose human health risks. Even TNR-managed colonies can spread disease such as ringworm, toxoplasmosis, cat scratch fever, and rabies, since every cat is not captured regularly for health care.
TNR management of feral cats is clearly not in the best interests of anyone, and it often overwhelms the ability of well-meaning people who genuinely want to help animals. It also undermines efforts of responsible pet owners who keep their cats indoors.
For more information, see the American Bird Conservancy’s “Cats Indoors!” campaign at http://www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/cats/index.html.
Doe deer leave their fawns alone temporarily to avoid drawing predators with their own body scent.
It’s fawn-napping time again.
And we don’t mean baby deer taking naps.
No, unfortunately it’s that time of year when too often too many people “kidnap” fawns -- and other wildlife babies -- found outdoors.
They often think they’re saving an abandoned baby, says Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) biologist Patricia Thompson.
“But most of the time they’re actually kidnapping a baby out from under the watchful eye of a nearby but unseen mother deer,” Thompson said. “It’s the annual re-run of “The invasion of the baby snatchers.”
Thompson, who coordinates Washington’s licensed wildlife rehabilitator program, takes calls nearly every day at this time of year from well-intentioned but uninformed people.
Sometimes she can talk people into leaving the fawn where it is or putting the fawn back where they found it so the doe can reunite with her baby again. But too often she has to enlist the help of a licensed rehabilitator trained in wild animal care.
“An uninjured fawn really doesn’t need human care,” she said. “It needs its mother. In the rare case of a truly orphaned fawn, it needs a special diet and treatment, as well as no human contact to eventually be rehabilitated back to the wild.”
Thompson says it’s frustrating because WDFW has been promoting “leave wild babies in the wild” forever, and information has been available for years on WDFW’s website.
“Sometimes I think people just can’t help themselves,” she said. “When a wild baby seems helpless or abandoned, you want to help.”
But that help can ultimately be a death sentence for young wild animals, which are often intentionally left alone for hours while their parents gather food.
Doe deer leave their fawns alone to avoid drawing predators with their own body scent. Young birds commonly leave the nest before they are fully-feathered and are fed on the ground by their parents for a day or two until they are able to fly. It is common to see very young American robins, spots and all, on the ground waiting to be fed by mom or dad.
More often than not, just leaving a young animal alone affords it the best chance for survival.
Leaving these babies alone means you need to confine cats, dogs and other pets that can cause lethal injury. One of the most common causes of injuries to wildlife, is attacks by cats. Any animal attacked by a cat needs a wildlife rehabilitator’s care, even if it does not look injured. Cat bites often cause serious infection.
One of the few situations in which almost anyone can help wild babies is when very young, un-feathered birds have fallen out of the nest and are on the ground.
If you can find the nest and safely reach it, simply pick up the nestling with a gloved hand and put it back in the nest. Contrary to popular belief, the parent birds will not reject their young because it’s been handled by humans.
Thompson recalled a situation where a fawn was hung up in a fence, probably while trying to follow its mother. It was freed by a neighbor who watched it run around by itself for a day, but then witnessed it reunite with its mother to nurse.
In another incident, a fawn brought in to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator was returned to the pick-up spot within 24 hours. When released by the rehabilitator, the fawn cried out and within minutes a doe appeared, stomping its feet at the human (who quickly exited so the two could reunite.)
Wild animals of any age that show obvious signs of illness or injury such as bleeding, vomiting, panting, shivering, or ruffled feathers or fur, or that are just lethargic and make no effort to escape your approach, may indeed be in need of care. However, call a wildlife rehabilitator first before attempting to pick the animal up.
Most Washington counties have wildlife rehabilitators, listed with phone numbers and addresses for 24-7 access on the WDFW website at http://wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/health/rehabilitation/index.html.
If you and a wildlife rehabilitator decide it might be best to help the animal, find out from them how to safely contain and transport the animal. Always wear gloves when picking up a wild animal to place it in the container. Until the animal is transported to the rehabilitator, keep it in a warm, quiet, dark place.
Another way to help wildlife, whether or not you find an injured animal in need of care, is to support your local volunteer wildlife rehabilitators. All of these volunteers must establish and maintain a good working relationship with a cooperating veterinarian, and many are veterinarians themselves; none can charge for their services to wildlife, but may accept donations.
|Skunks and raccoons are the most common “nuisances” reported to Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) offices every spring.
It’s wildlife reproduction time, and depending on the species, that can mean too much of a good thing for even the most wildlife-friendly homeowner.
Skunks and raccoons are the most common “nuisances” reported to Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) offices every spring. As these animals find crawl spaces, outbuildings, and other nooks and crannies to set up housekeeping for their babies to come, homeowners fear potentially nasty encounters with pets or children.
Squirrels, rabbits, moles, marmots, bats, snakes, and starlings are among the other wildlife species preparing to raise families that are potential nuisances around human homes.
If some of these new families are not what you had in mind for your Backyard Wildlife Sanctuary, think about what’s attracting them and remove those attractants as soon as possible to avoid problems.
The number one attraction for females of many species at this time of year is a warm, dry, easily defended area that makes a good den or nest. Close up spaces that attract them, including basement window wells, areas under porches and decks, garage and shed entries of even the smallest dimensions, roofing gaps, uncapped chimneys and vents, and attic rafters.
A close second for lots of wildlife is an easy food source.
- Keep pet food and water and garbage inside.
- Fence gardens and secure compost piles.
- Clean up feed spilled on the ground from bird feeders, or discontinue feeding altogether for now.
- Pick up fruit that falls off trees.
If it’s too late for these preventive steps and animals are already in place and causing problems, you may need to remove them. If you want to attempt it yourself, check out “Evicting Animals from Buildings” in WDFW’s “Living With Wildlife” series on the website at http://wdfw.wa.gov/living/nuisance/evicting.html.
If you’d rather hire someone to take care of the problem, any WDFW office can refer you to a Nuisance Wildlife Control Operator (NWCO). Although they must be licensed through WDFW, and conform to its regulations, they are not state employees. They operate as private enterprises and set their own fees.
Under the authority of their WDFW permit, NWCOs can trap, capture, and transport “classified” (protected) species like raccoons, opossums, skunks, and other wildlife year-round. (Both native deer mice and non-native house mice and Old World rats are “unclassified” or unprotected species that can be trapped by anyone at any time.) For more information, see http://wdfw.wa.gov/living/nuisance/damage_control.html.
Some streamside landowners find themselves battling backyard beavers that gnaw down trees and flood yards with their dams.
Some streamside landowners find themselves battling backyard beavers that gnaw down rees and flood yards with their dams.
But even after removing dams or even the beavers themselves, most streamside landowners find themselves losing the war. That’s because the old adage “busy as a beaver” is true, and because streams will always attract beavers.
Understanding more about this species and how they can benefit other wildlife, along with the steps required by law to address beaver problems, may help some landowners call a truce and learn how to co-exist with beavers.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) habitat biologist Jamie Bails says that when she hears from landowners with beaver problems, most want a quick and simple solution to a complicated and long-term situation. They want to know who to call to trap the beaver or how to remove the dam so that the stream doesn’t flood the yard.
Landowners can work with WDFW to protect their property from damage by wildlife. Removal or modification of a beaver dam in Washington requires a Hydraulic Project Approval (HPA) because it involves in-stream work that can potentially affect fish and other wildlife. This permit can be obtained by contacting WDFW habitat biologists like Bails, who visit the site to determine if there are other reasons why the property is flooding, and submitting a simple application (see http://wdfw.wa.gov/licensing/hpa/.)
Removing or even just modifying a beaver dam to lower the water level usually results in the resident beavers re-building within 48 hours. Beavers like to maintain a certain level of water in the pond so that they can enter and exit their lodges under water and be protected from predators.
As hard as a landowner tries to remove a beaver dam, the beaver works harder and wins.
Removing beavers themselves is permitted to protect property, but it can be just as frustrating. There are some non-government organization efforts to live trap and re-locate beavers such as with The Lands Council in eastern Washington (see http://www.landscouncil.org/beaversolution/.) But because beavers are an abundant game species, most removal is through the use of licensed trappers or a WDFW Nuisance Wildlife Control Operator who can be contracted for a per-animal fee (see http://wdfw.wa.gov/living/nuisance/nwco.html.)
Even if an entire family of beavers (typically up to 12 individuals) is removed from a stream, it may take only six months for another beaver family to move into the vacated territory. Within two years, streamside landowners can count on another beaver situation developing.
Bails says that instead of trying to outcompete these masterful dam builders, streamside landowners should consider looking at ways to co-exist with them – especially since beaver dams have an important role in the stream ecosystem.
If flooding is temporary during periods of high flows, a beaver dam can be temporarily modified to lower the water level without removing the entire structure. Beavers typically repair a dam within 48 hours, but modifying the dam buys a little time to lower the water level during heavy storms and protect driveways or other infrastructure.
Remember that for every stick removed from the dam, the beaver returns and cuts down another tree or shrub. Beavers may reuse sticks, but they are more likely to cut living vegetation. Consider how many trees you are willing to lose if you tear down the entire dam.
Flooding is not always due to a beaver dam but rather a plugged or undersized culvert. It’s easy to unplug the culvert periodically, but the larger problem might be that the culvert is undersized for the channel width and needs to be enlarged. When the culvert is replaced, the beaver loses the advantage of creating a pond in that location and moves to another area.
If a beaver dam has permanently flooded your backyard, plant a buffer of trees or flowering shrubs along the bank to hide the water and reduce bank erosion. While it may take a while to establish vegetation, over the long term a buffer creates valuable songbird, amphibian and waterfowl habitat. Use plant species that are not used for dam building or forage by beavers, and place wire cages around the trees or temporarily fence the area.
Beaver dams help create refuge ponds for juvenile salmon in the summer when many small streams are dry. Adult fish evolved to swim over beaver dams as water levels rise in the fall. If they can’t make it over dams, they simply spawn in suitable downstream gravels. In the spring and summer, juvenile fish find holes or cascades to get above the dam and occupy the ponds.
Another important reason to call a truce with your beaver neighbors is the water supply benefits that are provided during the summer months. With a dam in place, there is a continual source of water in the stream. The dam improves water quality by filtering pollutants and trapping sediment.
Beavers can cause problems in a landscape built by humans, but they are the only species that succeeds in changing that landscape for the better.
For more information on beaver biology and ways to manage beaver dams, see WDFW website at http://wdfw.wa.gov/living/beavers.html
Photo courtesy Tom Munson
Whether in your own backyard or at a local festival, March is full of wildlife viewing opportunities as birds and other animals are on the move.
Here’s what’s happening this month in Washington:
- The annual gray whale migration is under way and whale watchers could have several opportunities in March to spot the large marine mammals. The whales are making their annual journey north from the coast of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean, where they spend the summer feeding before heading south again. While most continue on to Alaska, some gray whales linger in the waters of the Pacific Northwest during the spring and summer months, dipping into the Strait of Juan de Fuca and other areas of Puget Sound. The best way to spot a gray – from land or sea – is to look for "spouts" of water that can reach 10 to 12 feet in the air when the whales exhale. For recent whale sightings, visit Orca Network.
- Birdwatchers have an opportunity to take part in the 10th annual "Wings Over Water" Northwest Birding Festival March 14 - 16 in Blaine, Semiahmoo, and Birch Bay. The festival features wildlife viewing field trips in the northwest corner of the Washington, plus speakers and raptor presentations. For more information see Northwest Birding Festival.
- Tundra swans are returning to northeast Washington and March 22 is the annual Tundra Swan Festival at Calispell Lake in Pend Oreille County. This annual event is sponsored by the Pend Oreille River Tourism Alliance, with pre-and post-swan-viewing talks at the Kalispel Tribe of Indians’ Camas Wellness Center at Usk. For more information and registration see Tundra Swan Festival.
- Spring arrives in the Columbia Basin with the return of the first sandhill cranes this month. About 35,000 cranes migrate through the Pacific Flyway and many make stopovers in the Basin in the spring on their way to nesting sites in Alaska. The greatest concentration of cranes are found in the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge marsh units, Frenchmen Reserve, Potholes Reservoir, Scootney Reservoir, and Winchester Reserve. Good numbers of the big birds are usually in the area through mid-April. The 16th annual Othello Sandhill Crane Festival is March 28-30 this year and registrations for limited-capacity bus tours, field trips and other presentations are now underway on-line.
- The Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society will conduct its 11th annual Olympic BirdFest in Sequim, April 4 -6, with opportunities to view a wide variety of both wintering and spring migrating birds on the Olympic Peninsula. Field trips are planned for Sequim Bay, Port Angeles Harbor, Ediz Hook, Dungeness Spit, the Elwha River, Salt Creek and at Neah Bay, as well as trips through wooded areas to view songbirds and see owls in the evening and boat trips to Protection Island. This festival is in partnership with the Dungeness River Audubon Center and Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe.
More Spring wildlife action can be enjoyed at many of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) wildlife areas and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife refuges across the state. You can locate these public lands to plan visits at http://wdfw.wa.gov/lands/wildlife_areas/ and http://www.fws.gov/refuges/refugeLocatorMaps/washington.html .
|For some birds like crows, chickadees, robins, and blackbirds, a communal winter roost can make the difference between life and death. Photos courtesy of UW - Bothell
By Jamie Bails, WDFW habitat biologist
Winter can be a critical time for the wildlife species that don’t migrate out of Washington or hibernate until spring.
For some birds like crows, chickadees, robins, and blackbirds, a communal winter roost can make the difference between life and death.
Communal winter roosts can provide protection from predators with safety in numbers, foraging opportunities alongside experienced birds, and even warmth with shared body heat in small spaces. Roosts can also provide the social interaction necessary to find mates, come spring.
Crows are among the best known and studied communal winter roosting species in Washington. One of the largest crow roosts – up to 10,000 birds -- is on North Creek in King County, just east of the University of Washington Bothell campus.
Each night from late fall through winter, an hour before dusk, long lines of crows begin to gather from all directions. First, they land in the top of cottonwood and willow trees, calling and socializing. Then as night falls and the trees fill up, they move down to the middle of the trees, huddling close together for warmth and protection.
This massive crow roost is a relatively recent phenomena. In 1997, the University began a stream restoration project on North Creek to turn a pasture infested with reed canary grass into a highly functioning and diverse wetland. After a few years, the planted cottonwoods, alders and willows were large enough to provide nightly shelter, and crows from as far east as Sultan, north to Everett and south to Kirkland began to gather.
Research by Professor John Marzluff, of the University of Washington School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, and others, has shown that social hierarchy seems to play an important role in the organization of the roost site. Senior members may occupy higher perches, while younger individuals settle in the lower areas. At night, most crows move down into the thicker branches to reduce the effects of wind and rain.
Research has also shown that the young crows form circles around the elders, maybe as trade for a day of good foraging and companionship. Thus, the elder crows are afforded more protection from predators, like great horned owls. With many eyes and ears watching, it would be difficult for any predator to attack an individual in this roost.
For more information on the Bothell crows and Marzluff’s research, see http://www.uwb.edu/visitors/crows .
The term “roosting” generally refers to communal birds that remain together in large flocks like this. But it can also refer to a period of inactivity, similar to sleeping at night. Some birds roost alone, only pairing up for nesting season.
Many species roost in cavities made by woodpeckers in decaying old trees with broken tops, called “snags.” Smaller species, like bushtits, kinglets and juncos are more likely to roost in closed cavities, alone or in small groups. Three to four black-capped chickadees will group together in a confined space, using their body heat to warm the air around them and save energy.
Larger birds like robins, stellar jays, and varied thrushes, often roost in the canopy of evergreen trees or tall shrubs.
Birds that overwinter here generally are built to stay warm, given enough food and shelter. They fluff up their feathers, draw their head in or tuck it under a wing, and shiver. They may scrunch down by bending their legs, or tuck one foot up under their feathers to further reduce heat loss. During the night their body temperature may drop 10-15 degrees to slow their metabolism and conserve energy. This survival technique, called “nocturnal hypothermia,” is used for the most extreme cold nights.
Male red-winged blackbirds are known to flock together at night in winter, usually in dense evergreens, thickets or shrubs near agriculture fields, pastures and grasslands. Such roost sites can be located when you see large flocks soaring across the fields in search of insects. Once breeding gets underway in spring, male blackbirds night roost alone near their female and her nest.
You can provide winter roosts for resident birds on your property in several ways:
- Maintain clusters of trees, shrubs and large brush piles
- Maintain a “snag” or dead or dying tree, if it’s not a safety hazard
- Provide an artificial cavity or roost box in a sheltered spot like the south side of a building or tree; these can be the same as nest boxes, cleaned out after last summer’s use
- Control dogs and especially cats, particularly at night, to prevent disturbance to roosting birds
|A popular way to view birds this month is to participate in the 114th annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC) with one of Washington’s 46 official counts scheduled between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5, 2014.
Watching wild birds or other wildlife use our backyard feeders during wintery weather surely makes us feel good.
But does it help wildlife?
Studies show that only small pockets of bird populations occasionally benefit from supplemental feeding under extreme and persistent weather conditions.
Most birds do not depend solely on feeders in their foraging, many obtaining only up to one-fifth of their nutrition at feeders. Feeding can’t replace natural habitat needed for winter cover and spring nesting and rearing. And poorly maintained feeding stations can actually harm birds by spreading disease.
Research also shows that the most readily-available feed – grains like whole corn and oats or seeds like sunflower and millet – are not easily digested by wild ungulates like deer or elk. It can take several weeks for deer to adjust to the change from natural browse plants to an artificial diet, and if they don't have enough fat reserves to carry them through the adjustment period, they can die of starvation even with a belly full of undigestible feed.
The best way to help any wild animal survive a severe winter is to maintain high-quality habitat plantings year-round. Wildlife that goes into the winter in good condition is most able to survive deep snow, ice and cold temperatures. Even in well-functioning natural ecosystems, however, some animals succumb during winter months. The winter season has always kept wildlife populations in balance with available habitat.
Another way to help wild animals in winter is to avoid disturbing them. Animals must conserve their energy to survive winter conditions. Human disturbance causes them to move about more than they naturally would. Keep cats and dogs confined, and slow down when traveling in motor vehicles through deer and elk habitat.
Wildlife watchers also need to watch with care – keep your distance, don’t approach wildlife directly, and move slowly. If the animal shows signs of noticing you, you’ve already gone too far. Back off and let it be.
The main benefit of wildlife feeding is that it provides a direct, intimate view of wild animals for more than 50 million Americans who provide backyard feeding stations of some kind.
Experts in Cornell University Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch, which collects winter bird feeder use data from volunteers across the country, say most bird feeding does neither significant good nor significant damage. It’s something
we do for ourselves, they say, and because it has a lot of educational value, the program continues in its 27th season with more than 20,000 participants.
Up close and personal encounters with wildlife can and do trigger lifelong interest in and compassion for wildlife, desire to learn more, and ultimately the “bigger picture” understanding of the need to maintain and enhance year-round wildlife habitat.
Certainly some of the charter members of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) Backyard Wildlife Sanctuary program began with feeding alone and quickly expanded their efforts to landscaping for wildlife.
If you choose to feed birds, please keep the following in mind:
- Use tube feeders for birds to reduce accumulations of droppings that can spread disease; if you use platform feeders, provide only a day’s worth of seed at a time.
- Clean and disinfect feeders at least once a month with a solution of one part bleach to nine parts warm water; rinse and dry disinfected feeders thoroughly before re-filling.
- Pick up spilled food or waste from the ground at least once a week.
- Discard feed that is wet, looks or smells moldy, has fungus on it or has been contaminated by rodents.
- Locate feeders where there is no immediate cover for cats to wait in ambush, but close enough to cover to allow birds to escape natural predators like hawks.
If you think you want to feed deer or other wild ungulates, think first about the following:
- Feeding should start early in the winter season to allow animals’ digestive systems to adapt, and continue through March or April when natural browse is again abundant.
- The best artificial deer feed is a pelleted ration of about 50 percent alfalfa and 50 percent barley and corn; elk are able to transition fairly quickly to alfalfa hay.
- Once a diet shift has occurred, one white-tailed deer can consume three to four pounds of pelleted feed daily; in just four months, one deer could consume almost 500 pounds of feed.
- Concentrating deer and elk at a feeder can create problems by making the animals more vulnerable to disease, predation and poaching.
- If feeding areas draw animals across well-traveled roads, they are more likely to present a safety hazard and be hit by motor vehicles.
- Deer and elk drawn to artificial feed also can damage nearby agricultural areas, trees, or landscaping, especially if the artificial feed supply is not maintained through the winter.
- WDFW feeds some deer and elk on public lands only where needed to prevent agricultural damage to adjacent property (ie. Oak Creek) or where natural winter range has been destroyed by wildfires or other natural disasters (ie. Mount St. Helens).