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Animal Diets

Time To Take Down Bird Feeders !

3-25-19 black bears 1214Black Bears have just started to emerge from hibernation in northern New England, and their appetite is fierce. Male black bears will typically drop between 15 and 30 percent of their body weight, while reproductive sows can lose up to 40 percent of their weight over the winter. Although omnivores, a black bear’s diet consists of 85 percent plant material, especially in the spring and summer. At this time of year bears favor the tender emerging shoots of sedge and grasses, willow catkins, leaf buds and skunk cabbage. However, these plants are not always available to them when they first become active. Being opportunists, if bears can’t find natural food sources, they go looking for alternatives, such as those provided by humans.

Sunflower seeds are a Black Bear’s dream come true, nutritionally speaking. A bird feeder full of them replaces hours of foraging in the wild. With an outstanding sense of smell (many times greater than a bloodhound’s), Black Bears will find and raid feeders at this time of year when there is a lack of other food sources. Therefore, if you wish to avoid creating a “nuisance” bear, it is advisable to take down your feeders by April 1st. Black Bears have excellent memories, particularly regarding food sources. They will return time after time, and may resort to unwanted (by humans) behavior in order to get more of the food that was at one time available. Once this occurs, their well-being is jeopardized.

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Eastern Gray Squirrel Diet Preferences

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The diet of Eastern Gray Squirrels is extremely varied. Depending on the season, buds, fruit (such as the pictured crabapples being consumed), maple and oak flowers, berries, seeds, fungi, the inner bark of maple and elm, insects, and young birds are eaten. However, nuts are by far the main component, which is reflected in their distribution; the range of Gray Squirrels coincides strikingly with that of oak and hickory forests. Especially during the colder part of the year, nuts, acorns and maple seeds, or samaras, that they have stored for winter consumption are the mainstay of their diet. (Research shows that Gray Squirrels recover 85% of the nuts they store.)

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White-tailed Deer Browsing

1-10-18 white-tailed deer eating hemlock 049A1922Microorganisms inside a deer’s four-chambered stomach enable cellulose in the plant material consumed to be digested. In winter, the microorganisms within the deer stomach are different from the microorganisms in spring, summer, and fall. This change allows deer to digest a diet of woody browse during winter months and turn the high-fiber diet into proteins through intricate physiological processes. Among their preferred browse are White Cedar, Yew, American Basswood, Alternate-leaved and Flowering Dogwood, Maples, Staghorn Sumac and Witch Hobble.

Offering food items during this period other than woody browse (such as hay) is detrimental to deer, as it requires different microorganisms in the stomach in order to be digested. Thus, even though a deer’s stomach might be full (of hay, for instance), it may starve due to the inability to digest it.   (Photo: White-tailed Deer browsing on Eastern Hemlock)


Squirrels Digging For False Truffles

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Such creative and informed answers to yesterday’s Mystery Photo, and many that were right on the mark!  To set the stage, several 2” to 4”-deep holes riddled the ground under a stand of Eastern Hemlocks. Something had obviously been digging for something, but who and what? Close inspection of the holes revealed two things. The animal that had dug the holes had run into some thick hemlock roots, and with a clean 45° angle cut, had snipped them in order to have access to the soil beneath them. Secondly, some of the holes had pea- to marble-size, spherical tan objects that resembled puffballs both lying at the bottom and wedged into the sides of the holes.

Only because I had read Paul Rezendes’s Tracking & the Art of Seeing years ago did I recognize these holes and spherical structures within as the work of an animal looking for false truffles (a genus of fungi) to eat. By putting the various clues together – a hemlock stand, 3” to 6”-wide holes, clean incisor-snipped roots, and a few remnant truffles – the mystery at to what was being sought was solved.

As to who had done the digging, white-tailed deer, squirrels and porcupines all fancy false truffles. Both porcupines and squirrels have incisors that would make a clean cut through the roots. If porcupines had been digging here, there would likely be scat and/or quills lying about, which there were not. Thus, most likely it was a squirrel that had smelled, unearthed and eaten the false truffles.

Rezendes found that the truffles he discovered had dried spores inside them, and assumed that this made them undesirable to the animal that unearthed them and therefore they were not eaten. The spores of the truffles I found were not dried out, so I have no idea why they weren’t eaten, but I’m very glad they weren’t, as their presence allowed me to solve this mystery and see this phenomenon which I’ve been looking for for decades.

It may interest some to know that false truffles and Eastern Hemlocks have a symbiotic relationship. The fungi are attached to hemlock roots, so the minerals and water they absorb are available to the hemlocks. The hemlocks provide the fungi with sugars that they (hemlocks) produce through photosynthesis. Squirrels (and porcupines and white-tailed deer) and eastern hemlocks have a similar mutually beneficial relationship in that hemlocks provide the truffle-eaters with food, and the squirrels, porcupines and white-tailed deer disperse the spores of the truffles they’ve eaten. (Caution: Do not eat false truffles – they are considered toxic to humans.)

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Coyotes and White-tailed Deer

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Coyotes will eat just about anything they come across – rodents, rabbits and hares, beavers, muskrats, birds, even garbage. Whatever is available and whatever they can catch they will consume. Very often you find white-tailed deer hair in their scat (see photo), and while a majority of the time it comes from deer carcasses that they have come across, there are two times of year when they are known to hunt deer. One is in the spring, when fawns are vulnerable, and the other is during the winter, when one of two conditions are present that favor coyotes: when the snow is deep and deer have to struggle to move faster than coyotes, and when there are crusty conditions, when coyotes are held up on top of the crust, but deer break through, often cutting and exhausting themselves.

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White-tailed Deer Winter Diet

1-4-16-fungus-eaten-by-deerimg_0948The diet of White-tailed Deer varies with the seasons, but in general deer require a high-quality diet and tend to choose the most nutritious options available. In addition to mast (fruit, acorns, beechnuts) and browse, herbaceous plants and fungi make up the greatest portion of their food. However, their foraging choices are extensive. White-tailed Deer have been known to consume the washed-up carcasses of alewives after they (the alewives) have spawned as well as insects, mice and the nestlings of ground-nesting songbirds.

Microorganisms inside a deer’s four-chambered stomach enable cellulose in the plant material consumed to be digested. In winter, the microorganisms within the deer stomach are different from the microorganisms in spring, summer, and fall. This change allows deer to digest a diet of woody browse during winter months and turn the high-fiber diet into proteins through intricate physiological processes. Offering food items during this period other than woody browse (such as hay) is detrimental to deer, as it requires different microorganisms in the stomach in order to be digested. Thus, even though a deer’s stomach might be full (of hay, for instance), it may starve due to the inability to digest it.   (Photo: shelf fungus eaten by White-tailed Deer, showing lower jaw incisor grooves)

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White-tailed Deer Diet In Transition

10-25-16-deer-scat-20161017_5319Even if you didn’t know that a white-tailed deer’s diet changes in the fall, their scat would be a dead giveaway. Its texture and formation are excellent indicators of what a deer has been eating. During the summer, individual pellets are often lumped together due to the moisture content of their summer diet (grasses, clover, alfalfa, apples and other herbaceous food). As winter approaches, deer transition to a diet of twigs, leaves and acorns which results in the formation of individual, dry pellets. At this time of year, it is possible to find both forms of deer scat.

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Black Bears Gorging

10-28-16-corn-203Black bears are omnivores as well as opportunists.  They will eat almost anything that they can find, but the majority of their diet consists of grasses, roots, berries, nuts and insects (particularly the larvae).  As the days cool, and the time for hibernation nears, black bears enter a stage called “hyperphagia,” which literally means “excessive eating.”  They forage practically non-stop — up to 20 hours a day, building up fat reserves for hibernation, increasing their body weight up to 100% in some extreme cases.  Their daily food intake goes from 8,000 to 15-20,000 calories. Occasionally their eyes are bigger than their stomachs, and all that they’ve eaten comes back up.  Pictured is the aftermath of a Black Bear’s orgy in a cornfield.

If you  share a bear’s territory, be forewarned that they have excellent memories, especially for food sources.  Be sure not to leave food scraps or pet food outside and either delay feeding birds until bears are hibernating (late December would be safe most years) or take your feeders in at night.

NOTE:  Orders for 2017 Naturally Curious calendars must be received by October 31.

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Beavers Consuming Herbaceous Plants

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One associates Beavers with a fairly strict diet of bark and twigs. While their winter diet consists primarily of woody plants, they consume a variety of herbaceous and aquatic plants (as well as woody) during the spring, summer and fall months. Shrubs and trees make up roughly half the spring and autumn requirements, but as little as 10% of the summer diet when herbaceous plants such as sedges and aquatic plants become available.

Recent observation of a local active Beaver pond revealed that Interrupted Fern (Osmunda claytoniana), Jewelweed/Touch-Me-Not (Impatiens capensis) and grasses are high on the list of preferred foods of one Beaver family during the summer, although woody plants such as poplars (Populus spp.) and Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera) have also been consumed in fairly large quantities.   All too soon Beavers in the Northeast will be limited to the bark of branches they’ve stored under the ice. Until this time, they take advantage of the accessibility of more easily digested herbaceous plants. (Thanks to the Shepards and Demonts for photo op.)

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White-tailed Deer’s Diet Changing With The Season

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Being ruminants, white-tailed deer have a four-chambered stomach which allows them to digest a wide variety of food, including leaves, twigs, fruits and nuts, grass, corn, alfalfa, and even lichens and fungi.  Their stomach hosts a complex set of microbes – organisms such as bacteria, which are too small to be seen with the naked eye – that change as the deer’s diet changes through the seasons.

In general, the green leaves of growing plants are consumed in the spring and summer, while fruits and seeds are eaten as they become available. Hard mast foods, such as hickory nuts and acorns, are an extremely important component of fall and early winter diets when deer need to establish fat reserves. The buds and twigs of woody plants are a mainstay of their diet in winter.

At this time of year it is not unusual to see deer grazing in fields that are just starting to have a touch of green. Grass is a welcome change from their winter woody diet, but it only comprises a very small (less than 8%) of a deer’s overall diet, due to its low crude protein and digestibility. Because their rumen (the stomach chamber where most microbial fermentation takes place) is small relative to their body size, a white-tailed deer’s diet must be high in nutritive value and capable of being rapidly degraded in the rumen.  Therefore, white-tailed deer rely primarily on alfalfa, clover, beans and other legumes, additional herbaceous flowering plants, and browse, all of which have more protein and are more easily digested than grasses.

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Beavers Seeking Herbaceous Plants

3-16-16 beavers out IMG_1252A recent light snow provided an opportunity to confirm that northern New England beavers have gained access to land and are seeing the sun for the first time in several months. They, along with any beavers living north of the 39th parallel, may well reap some benefit from the change in our climate. Further south, there is no real winter and beavers do not have to cope with a limited amount of stored food for there is usually no ice on ponds. Milder winters and early springs mean more time for Northeastern beavers to access herbaceous food and fresh bark, and less time locked under the ice.

Unbeknownst to many, a large portion of a beaver’s spring, summer, and fall diet consists of herbaceous food – grasses, sedges, ferns, fungi, berries, mushrooms, duckweed and even algae. When beavers first leave their ponds in the spring, one of the first foods they head for is skunk cabbage, as it is one of the earliest flowering plants to emerge (often when snow is still on the ground). Beavers also relish the new foliage of aspen, willow and alders. When they are accessible, the rhizomes, leaves and flowers of both yellow and white pond lilies are favorite foods. Come late fall, when lush greenery has disappeared, beavers up their intake of bark (cambium) and store a pile of branches on the bottom of the pond   close to their lodge, where they have underwater access to it all winter.

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Meadow Voles Food for Coyotes

1-11-15 coyote  192When there is deep snow on the ground, white-tailed deer are often preferred-eating for eastern coyotes, with snowshoe hares not far behind. While small rodents are also consumed during the winter, they make up a larger proportion of a coyote’s diet during spring, summer and fall. With only a few inches of snow on the ground currently, meadow voles are still very vulnerable to predation, as the tufts of grass where they tend to nest are still visible.

Tracks indicate that a coyote stopped to investigate numerous grass tussocks scattered throughout a nearby field recently. Near several of these clumps of grass were slide marks (see foreground in photo) where the coyote had jumped, landed and slid. The groove made by the coyote’s sliding foot always ends with a foot print. At this particular site, the coyote had pounced, slid and then dug and uprooted a nest, possibly procuring a vole, but leaving no trace of success behind. What it did leave behind was scat (3 o’clock in photo), with which the coyote claimed ownership of the site.

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Fishers Eating Fruit & Marking Territory

11-20-15 fisher scat 134When one thinks of fishers, meat-eating predators come to mind. While it is true that the fisher is a generalist, opportunistic hunter and scavenger, and feeds on any prey it can catch and kill (snowshoe hares, rabbits, squirrels and other small rodents, birds, bird eggs, smaller weasels, shrews, porcupines, raccoons, amphibians, reptiles, carrion and a very occasional cat or chicken), it also consumes fruit and nuts, especially when prey is scarce.

Given the amount of apples that are available this fall, even if prey isn’t hard to find, it is not too surprising to see fisher scat composed solely of apples at the base of this scent marking post (confirmed by fine fisher hairs at the very tip of the stump as well as scat).

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Eastern Newts Dining on Wood Frog Eggs

4-28-15 newts2 329Wood Frogs mate and lay their eggs in ponds and occasionally vernal pools before heading back to their terrestrial, wooded habitat. Amphibian eggs are subject to predation by numerous predators, including leeches, fish, aquatic insects and salamanders. Eastern Newts (aquatic as larvae and adults) are carnivorous and consume insect larvae, fingernail clams, leeches and amphibian eggs, among other things. At this time of year, Wood Frog eggs are plentiful and easily accessible, as the individual masses, each consisting of 1,000 to 2,000 eggs, are deposited adjacent to each other on submerged vegetation. Hungry newts can feed for hours without moving more than an inch, and many often do. After discovering an egg mass, a newt plunges its head into the clump of eggs, grabs one and, with great shaking of its head, separates an egg from the mass and quickly swallows it. Seconds later the newt repeats this process, and continues doing so until it is satiated.

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Good Winter For Meadow Voles – Not So Much For Woody Plants

4-16-15  meadow vole sign 009Warming temperatures have revealed the considerable amount of activity that occurred under the protective deep layer of snow this past winter. In addition to a multitude of exposed meadow vole runways, there are ample signs of the voracious appetite of this small rodent. Given that more than 90% of a meadow vole’s diet consists of vegetable matter, that it can eat more than its own body weight in 24 hours, and that it breeds throughout the year, it is no surprise that the bark of many woody plants was consumed this winter, resulting in much girdling, and thus the demise, of many shrubs and saplings.

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White-tailed Deer Scraping Bark

3-3-15  deer scraping2IMG_0490During the winter, white-tailed deer browse on the twigs, buds and bark of trees. Deer have incisors in the front of their bottom jaw, but none in the front of their top jaw, just a hard palate. They grip the bark with their bottom front incisors and scrape their jaw upwards, leaving behind grooves the width of their bottom incisors. Often there are frayed ends of bark at the top end of the groove, due to the deer having to use its hard palate and incisors, rather than two sets of incisors, to separate the bark from the tree. Favorite trees include red and striped maples, oaks, poplar, pines, hemlock, arborvitae and balsam fir.

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Coyotes Feeding on Deer Carcasses

12-22-14 deer carcass 394Ninety percent of a coyote’s diet is animal matter, including creatures as varied as meadow voles, mice, muskrats, raccoons, beetles and grasshoppers — basically, anything it can outrun. Coyotes have the reputation as major predators of deer. While research confirms that deer (and rabbits) comprise a good portion of a coyote’s diet in the Northeast, the majority of the deer that coyotes consume is scavenged as carrion (see photo). Because they cannot move as fast as adult deer, fawns are more vulnerable to coyote predation.

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How Beavers Digest Cellulose

12-26-14 beaver sign 125Some beavers are still managing to find openings in their ponds which give them access to fresh cambium, the soft layer of wood just under the bark of a tree. Cambium contains a lot of cellulose, in addition to starches and sugars. Like all herbivores, beavers do not possess enzymes that are capable of breaking down the large cellulose molecules (cellulases). In their place, beavers employ micro-organisms, such as bacteria, that can break down cellulose.

These bacteria are located in a pouch called a cecum, located at the beginning of the large intestine. (Ruminants such as moose and deer have rumens in place of ceca.) Colonies of these microorganisms in a beaver’s intestines digest up to 30% of the cellulose from the woody material that it eats. Further nutrients are recovered in the form of fecal pellets that the beaver re-ingests.

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Muskrats Enjoying Last Days Above Ice

12-22-14  MUSKRAT IMG_3496Muskrats and beavers are eking out the last few days that they will spend above the ice for perhaps several months. Fortunately for muskrats, they can hold their breath and remain under water for up to 20 minutes, time enough to get from one unfrozen patch of water to another. Once the ice freezes completely, muskrats will use ‘push-ups’ or ‘breathers’ as resting places and breathing holes — masses of vegetation collected from underwater and pushed up through cracks or holes in the ice.

Throughout the year muskrats eat the roots and stems of a number of aquatic plants as well as crayfish, frogs, turtles and other prey, when available. Unlike beavers, muskrats don’t store food for the winter, but forage for vegetation (see green plants on ice). Sometimes muskrats will feed from the winter food supply piles gathered by beavers. They have also been known to use the walls of their own lodge as food.

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Cow Moose Bulking Up for Winter

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Moose Gaining Fat Reserves

9-10-14  moose standing in water 277Being an ardent admirer of moose, I am devoting today’s post as well as the next two posts to the largest member of the deer family. Even if it weren’t seven to ten feet long and didn’t weigh over a thousand pounds, a moose would be an impressive mammal, with its high, humped shoulders, broad, pendulous muzzle and long, coarse hair.

Moose are voracious eaters, consuming roughly 44 pounds of plant material a day. In the winter their diet, mainly the bark of woody plants, provides only about 70% of the energy they need to survive. Thus, during the spring and summer they spend up to 12 hours a day foraging, often for aquatic plants, and acquire more than 200% of the energy they need. Hundreds of pounds are gained, with the excess stored as fat reserves for the coming months. Even so, moose lose up to 20% of their weight over the winter. (Thanks to all who wished me happy recharging!)

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Black Bear Scats Reveal Diet

8-25-14  black bear blueberry scat 062Black Bears are eating heavily now, in preparation for the coming winter when they will not eat or drink for several months. Some of what goes in must come out, however, and it can tell you a lot about the diet of an animal. Black bear scats typically weigh ½ to 1 pound or more. They have different shapes and consistencies, depending on what the bear has eaten. Black bear scats may be tubular or loose, depending on the amount of moisture in the food that the bear ate. Scat from succulent vegetation or berries is typically loose. Interestingly, black bear scats do not have an unpleasant smell if the bears ate only fruit, nuts, acorns, or vegetation — they smell like a slightly fermented version of whatever the bear ate.

At this time of year, Blackberries, Wild Sarsaparilla fruit and Blueberries are ripe and favored by bears. You can determine what a bear has been eating by the shape and size of the seeds in its scat. (A bear’s scat can consist of just one type of fruit if there is an ample supply of that fruit.) Wild Sarsaparilla seeds are crescent shaped, Blueberry seeds are tiny and sand-like, and Blackberry seeds are larger than Blueberry seeds. Blueberry scat (pictured) usually includes whole berries that were not soft and ripe enough to be broken up in the bear’s stomach. Bears hardly stop to chew berries. Instead, they swallow them whole and let the muscular, gizzard-like section of their stomach grind the pulp off the seeds. (Thanks to Jeannie Killam for photo op.)

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Hungry Black Bears

4-25-14 black bear IMG_3624When Black Bears emerge from their dens in the spring, they have lost between 15 and 40 percent of their weight, and food is in short supply. About 85% of a bear’s diet is vegetation, and most trees and shrubs have not leafed out yet. Black Bears often head to wetlands, where grasses and sedges are beginning to sprout. Nutritionally the shoots of these plants provide them with some of the protein they need, but this source of nutrients is short-lived, as the shoots are tender for only a few days before hardening with cellulose. Roots, bulbs, corms and tubers of plants such as Skunk Cabbage and Jack-in-the-Pulpit are sought after, as are the buds of trees, but bears must wait for the bountiful supply of berries and nuts that mature in summer and fall. Those bears living near humans come to rely on foods inadvertently provided by these humans, such as highly nutritional sunflower seeds being fed to birds. One can hardly blame bears for taking advantage of this available source of food during this challenging time. Feeders and cans containing seed should be put in a bear-proof location if you don’t want to encourage “nuisance” bears which, unfortunately, are sometimes killed just for trying not to starve to death.

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Signs Of An Active Beaver Pond

4-7-14  floating beaver logs IMG_0159Beaver ponds have finally started to melt, making it easy to determine whether or not there have been beavers living in any existing lodges over the winter. The tell-tale sign is floating de-barked sticks and branches. During the winter, beavers leave their lodge and swim out to their underwater food supply pile and haul branches back into the lodge where they chew them into foot-long pieces for easy handling. The bark is removed and eaten as the beaver holds the stick and turns it, much as we consume corn on the cob. When little or no bark remains, the stick is discarded out in the open water. These sticks remain hidden underneath the ice on the surface of the water until warm weather arrives and the ice begins to melt. At this point the sticks and branches become visible, and often extend several feet out from the lodge. These sticks will not go to waste, but will be used for dam and lodge repairs. (Photo taken standing on lodge.)

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