Although muskrats are primarily nocturnal, you occasionally see them in the daytime, especially in the spring and fall. They often reside in ponds or marshes, where they live in the pond bank or build their own house out of mud, cattails and other available plant material. Muskrats are herbivores, favoring cattail roots, arrowhead, bur reed, pickerelweed and other aquatic vegetation. The pictured muskrat is not feeding, however — more often than not muskrats eat their food where they find it, especially during the warmer months. It is doing its share of parental care — this is the time of year when the first of several litters of muskrats are born. While the mother nurses her four or so young, the father spends time gathering bedding material for his offspring. The muskrat in this photograph spent a morning cutting and gathering several mouthfuls of grasses growing by the side of the pond. When he couldn’t fit one more blade of grass in his mouth he would scurry down the bank and disappear into a burrow which most likely led to a chamber where his young are being raised. Like their beaver cousins, muskrats tend to keep a tidy house and forage for fresh bedding for their young with some regularity.
This is the time of year when two-year-old beavers leave their lodges and strike out on their own, primarily because the woods surrounding a pond usually can’t support more than one family of beavers. Beavers are exceptionally territorial; once they’ve established a lodge, they do not take kindly to interlopers. In order to make this perfectly clear to house-hunting young beavers, in the spring resident beavers build what are called scent mounds — piles (up to three feet in height, but usually much smaller) of mud, leaves and pond-bottom debris — around the perimeter of their territory. They then smear castoreum, a substance that comes from their castor sacs, over the mound. Chemicals in the castoreum convey to roaming young beavers that this particular pond is spoken for.
It’s not easy being a female porcupine. You mate in the fall and are either pregnant (7 months) or lactating (4 months) for the next 11 months before you have one month’s break and begin this cycle all over again. This time of year porcupines are giving birth to one young that is covered in fur and quills and weighs about a pound. The young porcupette is born headfirst in a sac, in order to protect the mother from quill damage. Its quills are soft at birth, but harden within an hour. (Thanks to Kay and Peter Shumway for photo op.)
At least one porcupine got a jump on humans this sugaring season. A porcupine eats outer tree bark in order to access the phloem (layer of inner bark cells that transport nutrients) and cambium (produces phloem and xylem cells) layers of a tree, its primary winter diet. In eating these layers, the porcupine unintentionally cuts into the xylem, or sapwood, where water and dissolved minerals (sap) are transported between the roots and crown of the tree. Unintentionally, porcupines tap the trees whose phloem and cambium they eat. In this case, the weather had warmed up enough to cause pressure in the tree, which in turn caused the sugar maple’s sap to flow just as a hungry porcupine happened along. Soon thereafter, the temperature dropped, causing the sap to freeze, forming icicles. While they looked good enough to sample, one whiff of them told me that sap was not their sole ingredient! (They were located beneath the porcupine’s den in a hollow tree, from which urine flows freely.)
It’s fairly obvious when there are active porcupines in the woods, as they leave all kinds of signs. The females, who often spend the day in a hollow tree or rock den, come out at night to eat (males often spend several days up in a tree), and leave very pronounced 6” – 9” trails back and forth to their feeding trees. Along this trail, in addition to an occasional quill, there are often pellets of scat as well as urine, which both your eyes and your nose can detect. Porcupines discard the tips of hemlock branches when they’re through eating the tender buds and leaves up in the canopy, and consequently the ground under a feeding tree is often littered with “nip twigs.”
A white-tailed deer’s diet consists of a wide variety of herbaceous and woody plants, the ratio of one to the other being determined by the season. Fungi, fruits and herbaceous plants form much of the summer diet. Dried leaves and grasses, acorns, beechnuts and woody browse are important autumn and early winter food. After snowfall, the winter diet consists mostly of woody browse (twigs, leaves, shoots and buds) from many different trees (maples, birches and cedars among them). Come spring, deer eat buds, twigs and emerging leaves. Deer are ruminants (as are cattle, goats, sheep and moose). They have a four-chambered stomach, which is necessary in order to digest the cellulose in the vegetation they consume. Food goes first to the rumen, the first of the four chambers, which contains bacteria and other microorganisms that help digest the cellulose. Food is circulated from the rumen back to the deer’s mouth by the second chamber, or reticulum, and the deer ruminates (“chews its cud”). The third chamber, or omasum, functions as a pump, sending the food to the final chamber, the abomasum, where the digestion process is completed.
Common Juniper (Juniperus communis) is one of the few evergreen shrubs in New England and has one of the largest ranges of any woody plant. You often find it in old pastures and meadows, where its sharp needles protect it from most herbivores. It is a member of the Pine family, and even though its fruits look like berries, structurally they are cones (with fleshy scales). Whereas most of the cone-bearing members of the Pine family disperse their seeds in the wind, Common Juniper uses birds and mammals to do this deed. Cedar waxwings, evening grosbeaks and purple finches consume quantities of juniper fruit, and many other songbirds are frequent visitors. White-footed mice and white-tailed deer occasionally eat the fruit as well. While not aiding the dispersal of seeds, humans do use the fruit to flavor gin.
Shorter days and longer nights trigger a flurry of activity for beavers. There is a lodge to be built, rebuilt, enlarged or repaired and a dam to be built, repaired or reinforced. As, or more, important than these tasks is cutting, gathering and transporting a supply of food for winter. Once the pond is frozen, the only food available to beavers is that which they have stockpiled under the ice. Thus, beavers spend many an autumn night adding to a growing pile of submerged branches close to the lodge. More thought is put into the harvesting of a winter food supply than one might imagine. Before cutting down a tree a beaver often tests its readiness by biting into the bark. If it is not in just the right condition — for instance, if there is still too much sap in the tree — they may speed up the drying of the bark by girdling it, and returning in several days to cut it down. If limbs and branches are stored underwater before the bark is ready, they will ferment and sour, making them unfit for food.
The mating season for moose (Alces alces) is just starting, and it peaks around the end of September or the first week in October. By this time bulls have shed the velvet that provided a blood supply to their antlers while they were growing during the summer. Occasionally you see the remains of the velvet hanging from their antlers at this time of year (see photograph). During mating season, bulls are rushing through the forest, seeking a receptive cow and engaging in mock battles with other bulls for the female’s attention. A bull uses his antlers in these challenges, engaging in “antler-pushing” with other males. He also uses his antlers as a tool for thrashing brush and for rooting plants from the bottom of ponds.
Now is the time when your garden is most likely to have visits from resident woodchucks. These large, herbivorous rodents are eating fast and furiously as the days get shorter, in an effort to put on a layer of fat that will sustain them through hibernation. The middle of the day is typically spent sunning themselves, but early morning and evening will find woodchucks eating and putting on a layer of fat equaling about a third of their weight. They lose anywhere from 20% – 37% of their body weight during hibernation. If they don’t gain enough weight now, they won’t survive until green grass and other plants are available again in the spring. Hopefully knowing this will make sharing your garden with an uninvited guest a bit easier.
Most terrestrial snails are herbivorous, feeding on a wide range of vegetation. The snail’s mouth is on the bottom of its head near the shorter pair of tentacles. Snails (and all molluscs) consume their food not with mouthparts, like insects, or teeth, like mammals, but with a rasping tongue or radula. Snails don’t bite their food, but rather, rasp or scrape it. The radula is covered with rows of tiny “toothlets” which rasp particles away from vegetation and move them back towards the snail’s gullet. Different species of snails have differently-shaped toothlets. The radula is used by the snail not only to process food, but to clean bits of dried mucus from its shell. Supposedly if you listen hard, you can actually hear a rasping sound when the latter is occurring. (If you look hard, you can just barely see the orange radula of the land snail in the photograph.)
A doe giving birth for the first time usually has one fawn. The following year, and until she is quite old, twins are the norm. Triplets are fairly common, quadruplets are known, and there are at least two records of quintuplets. Fawns nurse for eight to ten weeks before being weaned. It’s apparent from this doe’s udder that her young are still nursing in late July.