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Animal Signs

Unusual Beaver Activity

Beavers are known for their ever-growing incisors which allow them to cut trees down, eat the cambium (a nutritious layer just beneath the bark) and cut what’s left into pieces they are able to haul and use as building material for dams and lodges. More often than not, it’s straight forward work.

Occasionally not every step is taken – you can find standing trees that had the bottom three or four feet (as high as the Beaver could reach) of cambium removed without the trees being felled.  You can find de-barked logs that have been left where they fell and not carried or floated to the dam or lodge as construction material.  It’s also not unusual to find standing trees where several times a Beaver has attempted but failed to cut all the way through.

Recently John Twomey brought to my attention a tree felled by Beavers unlike any other I’ve ever seen:  one or more Beavers had cut down a Paper Birch and eaten the cambium layer, leaving the tree clean of bark.  At some point they cut into the tree every 18 inches or so, not quite severing the pieces, but leaving them connected by a core of wood that ran the length of the tree. If any readers have seen anything similar to this, or if you have an idea as to why Beavers would have cut the tree in this fashion, Naturally Curious would love to hear from you.  (Photo by Prentice Grassi of his sons investigating said tree earlier this spring.)

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Eastern Gray Squirrels Lining Nests

Congratulations to Wanda Rice, the first Naturally Curious reader to recognize sign made by a squirrel collecting nesting material. Many people thought it might be a porcupine at work, but porcupines, as “hellomolly” pointed out in her comment, do not leave strips of bark hanging, while squirrels do.

In the Mystery Photo, an Eastern Gray Squirrel had been shredding and collecting the thin bark of a Maple Sugar sapling to line its nest with.  Gray squirrels nest throughout the year, but nesting activity peaks during their two mating seasons (December -March, and May – July).  They build two types of nests – large, round, leafy nests among tree branches (dreys) and cavity nests, the latter being preferred during the colder months. Abandoned woodpeckers nests as well as natural-formed cavities provide additional protection in the winter from predators as well as the elements. (Drey broods are 40 percent less likely to survive than squirrels born in tree cavities — a hole no wider than three or four inches protects them from large predators such as raccoons.) Both types of nests are lined with soft material such as lichen, moss, grass, pine needles and shredded bark.

The effect of a squirrel’s stripping a tree’s bark depends on the extent of the damage. Usually a young tree is chosen due to the thinness of the bark and the ease with which it can be stripped.  Although a tree can survive with some of its bark removed, it will die if the damage is too severe or bark is stripped off around the tree’s circumference.  Stripped bark not only provides nesting material but the process of stripping the bark exposes the tree’s cambium layer which contains the nutrients and sugars a tree has produced and which squirrels readily consume. (Eastern Gray Squirrel photos by Margaret Barker Clark)

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Red Foxes Marking & Mating

It’s that time of year again, when the odor associated with skunks wafts through the air, even though most skunks are denned up and in a state of torpor.  This odor is the perfumed urine of Red Foxes, especially intense during their mating season, which begins around the middle of January. They use both urine and feces to communicate their presence, dominance and sexual status to other foxes and do so frequently (urinating up to 70 times per hour when scavenging at this time of year!).  Stumps, logs and other raised surfaces often serve as scent posts.

According to scientist Dr. Mark Elbroch, Red Foxes “employ any of 12 different positions to urinate upon precarious perches…”.  It’s fun to imagine exactly which one was used that allowed both a foot print and urine to appear on the pictured raised log!

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Coyotes Scavenging

Coyote tracks from three different directions led to an area where a deer’s well-cleaned skull was the only remnant of a communal meal. It had been dug up from a spot nearby where it had been cached, and carried to a more protected area to work on.  Coyotes are omnivores, but about 90% of their diet consists of mammals.  Coyote scat I’ve examined has included, among other things, the hair of Muskrat, Snowshoe Hare, White-tailed Deer and small rodents as well as feathers, grass and apples.

Coyotes are commonly blamed whenever there is a decline in the White-tailed Deer population.  Studies involving the removal of deer populations in a given area have not found any evidence that Coyote removal caused an increase in the deer population, nor did it affect the overall deer population growth. The fact that Coyotes are not causing deer populations to decline can also be seen in the devastating effect White-tailed Deer are having on forest ecosystems throughout the eastern United States as the Coyote population increases.

That’s not to say Coyotes don’t hunt deer – they do, primarily in the spring (fawns) and in the winter, especially when there is enough snow and/or crust to slow deer down but not Coyotes. However, much of their venison consumption is a result of their scavenging deer carcasses, which they do any time of year. Examine Coyote scat and the chances are great you will find deer hair in it; chances are also great that it came from a carcass, not a living deer.

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Beavers Foraging

Even in the coldest of winters, there is often a thaw around this time of year that frequently allows beavers to escape the cold (+/- 34°F) dark lodge where they reside during most of the winter.  Our most recent thaw was such that in many beaver ponds, ice didn’t even have to be broken in order for resident beavers to forage for food on land.

When beavers are confined to complete darkness (under the ice) their 24-hour circadian cycle extends to a 28 hour day. During this time beavers sleep for longer periods at a time and thus need less food.  As spring approaches and the days lengthen, the slightest exposure to daylight will reset the beaver’s biological clock back to the circadian cycle. (Leonard Lee Rue, Beavers)  (Photo by Alice Trageser)

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River Otter Scat

Because fish make up a large part of their diet, North American River Otters live along streams, lakes and wetlands.  Although crayfish, hibernating frogs and turtles, insects and other aquatic invertebrates are also consumed in the winter, the telltale identifying feature of otter scat (spraint) this time of year is the presence of fish scales.

Look for otter scat on raised areas near water, especially the shortest distance between two water bodies or on peninsulas.  It is usually found on the ground, but occasionally on logs and at the intersection of two streams. Otters frequently form large latrines of multiple scats.

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Wrong Mystery Solved!

My apologies to the 50+/- NC readers who responded with great creativity to the latest Mystery Photo!  The photographer and I had a miscommunication, and I misdirected readers about the actual mystery you were to solve!  I thought the photographer had observed a goose making the two parallel lines in the ice with their feet (nails) as they landed. However, these two lines are actually just cracks in the ice, as many readers guessed (Susan Cloutier was the first to correctly identify them).   While Canada Geese do use their feet as well as their wings as brakes to slow themselves down before they land and they do have a hind toe which conceivably could scratch the ice, the landing imprints of the geese (and what I should have asked readers to identify) are actually in the upper half of the photo (see red circle) where the snow has been plowed aside, revealing the darker ice underneath.   The presence of a considerable amount of goose droppings confirms the identity of the birds landing on the ice.

Observers often ask how Canada Geese or other waterfowl can stand for long periods of time on frozen lakes and ponds.The legs and feet of waterfowl play an important part in maintaining their body temperature.  In the summer, their large, flat feet cool their body by releasing a good deal of heat.  In winter, the heat exchange system (counter-current circulation) in a bird’s legs prevents a great deal of body heat loss due to the fact that the warm arterial blood going into the bird’s feet is cooled by the colder blood traveling back to the body in adjacent veins.  Constricted blood vessels in their legs further conserves heat. (Photo by Mike Hebb)

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Photo Op Alerts

Over the years I have discovered and photographed most of my blog post subjects, but every once in a while someone lets me know about something out of the ordinary that they think I might be interested in photographing.  (Scattered flying squirrel tails, black bear dens, red fox litters and nesting birds come to mind.)  I am immediately on the road if it is something that I think might make a great post (and might possibly still be there by the time I arrive).  Distance and subject matter are heavily weighed before causing my car to contribute even more to greenhouse gas emissions…however, anyone who would drive 2 ½ hours to photograph a Monkey Slug has obviously contributed to climate change.

When I have had the opportunity to photograph something because of someone’s generosity in sharing the subject and location with me, you will see “Thanks to ___ for photo op (opportunity)” at the end of the post.  I am eternally grateful to anyone who thinks of me and takes the time to let me know about something noteworthy.  It doesn’t have to be something as earth-shattering as mt. lion tracks, for instance – kill sites, animal beds and caches, otter slides – anything that isn’t too commonplace and tells a story will have me at your doorstep.  To contact me please call 802-279-2330 and leave a message if I don’t answer. I am located in Hartland, VT (just south of White River Junction) and unless it actually is a mt. lion track sighting or something equally rare or that I’ve never seen, I probably won’t be tempted to drive more than a couple of hours. Thank you so much! (Photo: White-tailed Deer cached by and then dug up and eaten by a Bobcat.  Thanks to Otto Wurzburg for photo op.)

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Moose Beds

In winter, Moose prefer to use powder snow areas in mixed forests, under large conifers, as bedding sites. They can rest while standing or when bedding on the ground. When standing, a moose’s head and neck are relaxed but its ears are constantly moving in order to detect sound coming from any direction.  When bedded on the ground, a moose’s legs can be tucked under its body or extended (when laying on their side).

A favored resting and sleeping position of antlered bulls is on one side of their body, with legs stretched and one antler touching the ground. Moose have the ability to nearly disappear if they bed down in snow. A bedded moose does not move and looks very much like a stump or rock.  When they rise, they often leave shed hairs and scat in the depression they’ve made in the snow.

A large bed with one or two smaller ones indicates a cow and her calves have bedded down together.  (Thanks to Kit Emery for photo op.)

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Red Squirrel Belly Flop

Congratulations to Mary Pratt, the first reader to correctly identify the impression a Red Squirrel left in the snow.  Red Squirrels are fiercely territorial, and will chase each other furiously in order to defend their territory and their food caches. The photographer, Susan Bull Riley, witnessed this behavior as she watched two Red Squirrels racing after each other in the crown of a maple tree.  Suddenly one of them fell to the ground, where sleet and wet snow cushioned its fall and recorded the belly flop landing.  No time was lost in the resumption of the chase!

There were many “Flying Squirrel” responses, which makes great sense as they are approximately the same size as a Red Squirrel (just an inch or two shorter in length) and are gliding from tree to tree or from tree to the ground.  My assumption is that a Flying Squirrel’s landing impression might show some of the patagium, or membrane, that stretches from a squirrel’s wrists to its ankles, due to the fact that it is extended as the squirrel glides. (Any firsthand Flying Squirrel landing-in-snow impression observations welcome.) Thanks to all who submitted an answer to this Mystery Photo.  Many were very amusing!

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Snow Fleas Emerging

4-12-19 snow fleas_U1A6604Yesterday was the kind of day when you could not take a step without knowing you were crushing hundreds of Snow Fleas, or Collembola, those tiny black specks on the snow. Their presence is a hopeful sign in northern New England, as it often signals the coming of spring, which we are more than ready for.

This non-insect arthropod is a type of springtail (not a flea). Springtails are no longer considered insects, but are classified as hexapods. These miniscule creatures sometimes come to the surface of the snow on warm winter days but are active year-round in leaf litter, feeding on algae, fungi and decaying organic matter.

Snow Fleas do not bite, nor do they sting. What they do do is catapult themselves impressive distances by means of an appendage on their underside called a furcula which snaps and propels them through the air. They have a soft landing due to three anal sacs that they evert from their anus just before launching themselves. (To see a photograph of these sacs go to a 2012 NC post on Snow Fleas: https://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com/2012/03/09/snow-flea-mystery-appendage/) (Photo: Snow Fleas clustered in the track of a Black Bear that recently emerged from hibernation)

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Meadow Vole Tracks & Tunnels

2-4-19 meadow vole_U1A2759Tracking animals can be an elusive endeavor because so many things can alter the condition of the tracks. Have recent flurries erased the details of an imprint? Has the sun melted and enlarged a track? Was every toe registering? Did wind-blown snow cause the tracks to vanish into thin air? Was the animal walking, loping or tunneling or a combination of all three?

The reason you use more than just one track to gather information, such as the stride of the animal and the width of its trail, is that sometimes the individual tracks defy the hard and fast rules of some tracking guides. A commonly accepted generality is that Deer and White-footed Mouse tails leave drag marks, and Meadow Voles’ shorter tails don’t. However, in the right conditions, even a vole’s one-inch tail can drag (see photo), though not creating as long a line as a mouse’s tail would. The Meadow Vole whose tracks are in this photograph was loping along when it suddenly decided to seek cover under the snow and began to (try to) tunnel. Perhaps a predator instigated this behavior.

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Foxes Scent Marking

12-14-18 fox tracks_U1A8060Foxes, like all canids, tend to mark their territories frequently with both scat and urine.  Both convey information to other foxes regarding hierarchy and sexual status, in addition to marking territory. As these Gray Fox tracks crossing a pond illustrate, it’s rare for an elevated object in a fox’s line of view not to be visited and anointed. Research shows that when scavenging, foxes urinate up to 70 times an hour, allowing just a small amount of urine to be left in any one place.  In addition to rocks, stumps and other raised objects, the remains of a meal are often urinated on, indicating that the nourishing portions have already been consumed.

Red Foxes are generally solitary animals, except during their courtship period, which occurs any time between December and February.  At this time mates pair up, so it is not unusual to see two sets of fox tracks together.  This is also the time of year when the males’ urine acquires a strongly pungent, skunk-like odor detectable from hundreds of yards away.

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Black Bears Scent Marking

4-20-18 black bear biteIn the Northeast, Black Bears typically emerge from their dens in April and mate sometime between mid-May and late June. Prior to mating, Black Bears of all ages and both sexes announce their presence to other bears by rubbing their scent on marking trees (maintaining several on their territory). These “trees” often include utility poles, such as the one pictured. While most of the marking is done by mature males during the mating season, this week’s storm provided proof that scent marking actually resumes in April soon after bears come out of hibernation.

Scent marking can include a bear’s rubbing its shoulders and neck against the tree/pole as well as clawing and biting the tree. Claw marks are usually quite shallow, but incisor bites are deep enough that pieces of bark and wood are sometimes pulled out.  This photograph shows where a Black Bear stood on its hind feet and with its head sideways, grabbed the pole with its mouth open and closed its jaws, scraping a horizontal groove across the pole as its upper and lower canine teeth came together.  The height of the bite was about six feet.

Fresh bear signs indicate that it’s time to bring bird feeders in (either permanently or, at the very least, at night), in order to avoid creating “nuisance” bears,  thereby putting the bears’ lives at risk.

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Two Songbirds And A Mouse

3-9-18 mystery photo2 049A1842

Two different kinds of signs — droppings and incisor marks – reveal the inhabitants of a woodshed during a very cold spell. The partially-eaten, shelled acorns have tiny grooves in them (difficult to see well in photo, my apologies), made by the incisors of a very small rodent, likely a White-footed Mouse or a Deer Mouse (the animals, much less their signs, are extremely difficult to tell apart, even if both species are sitting in front of you).

The two remaining signs are droppings from birds that sought shelter overnight inside the shed. Mourning Doves have very distinctive scat — individual round droppings, each about 1/4″ in diameter, consisting of coils of dark, solid waste which sometimes have a dollop of white uric acid on top.

The third and last sign is also bird droppings, but unlike the Mourning Dove’s, these are white and log-like. If you’ve been inundated with Dark-eyed Juncos this winter, you should be able to find these on the ground where they congregate.

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Fisher Dines On Two Flying Squirrels

3-1-18 fisher scat and flying squirrel tails 049A3138 (1)Although Coyote tracks led me to this kill site, the Coyote was only inspecting the remains of two Flying Squirrels. Fisher tracks and scat confirmed that it was the predator.

Deciphering the story in the snow was possible through a familiarity with certain details of both the predator and prey. A Flying Squirrel’s tail is distinctively flattened, and the fur on it is very light and silky. There is no mistaking it for any other animal’s. (This would be difficult to discern from a photograph!) One entire squirrel’s tail was in a depression, where the squirrel had unsuccessfully sought shelter in a tunnel it had started to dig. The second tail had been ripped into bits and pieces. The Fisher claimed its kill and/or territory by depositing its characteristically small, twisted, pointed scat at the kill site. (Not an uncommon practice of many predators.)  Always fun to be able to piece together some of the drama that occurs nightly in our woods and fields.

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Coyote Beds Reveal Females In Estrus

coyote bed estrus 049A3316Female coyotes have one heat, or estrus, a year, sometime between January and March. As the time approaches, mating pairs scent-mark in tandem. The female urinates and then the male usually follows suit and urinates adjacent to it. After mating, the reverse takes place, with males often urinating first and the females adding their scent afterwards.

Once estrus arrives, drops of blood are often evident in the female’s urine, but scent-marking isn’t the only place you see evidence of estrus. If you come upon a coyote bed in the snow this time of year, inspect it closely — the females’ beds often will have drops of blood in or near them (see photo). A recent discovery of a group of five coyote beds showed evidence that at least two of the beds had been occupied by adult females in estrus.

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Fisher Landing

2-21-18 fisher tracks2 IMG_0794

Although capable of climbing trees, Fishers spend most of their time on the ground under dense woodland canopy. In the winter Fishers constantly leave sign while traveling two to three miles a day in search of squirrels, shrews, mice, voles, porcupines, hares and grouse, among other things, to eat. Beds at the base of trees, small saplings bitten, rubbed and rolled on, scat and urine marking – all are quite commonly encountered when following Fisher tracks. The Fisher sign I find quite elusive and therefore very rewarding to come upon is the imprint they make when they land in the snow after jumping down from a tree they’ve climbed. (Photo: landing imprint)

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Raccoons Stirring

2-16-18  raccoon tracks IMG_2312.jpg

Even in mid-February, there are signs of spring.  Tracks of animals that hole up during the cold winter months and emerge when the nights are warmer are starting to be seen.

Raccoons often seek shelter in dens for months at a time during the winter (they don’t technically hibernate, but experience torpor).  When night temperatures rise above freezing they abandon their hollow tree cavities, often following streams or visiting wetlands. Although they occasionally may forage for aquatic prey such as fish or crayfish, Raccoons in New England eat very little during the winter. Rather, they utilize the fat they store in the fall, which is often more than 40% of their body weight. By the time spring arrives, they may have lost half of their fall weight.

If you find tracks this time of year that lead to or away from a den they may well be those of a male Raccoon who has emerged to seek out a mate.

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Coyotes Courting & Mating

1-24-18 coyote tracks 072While I can’t say definitively that these are the tracks of mating Coyotes as I was not witness to the activity itself, it is a distinct possibility. Female Coyotes come into heat only once a year, for two to five days sometime between January and March. For two to three months prior to mating, there is increased howling and scent-marking (often in tandem, one after the other) on the part of both male and female. A pair of Coyotes may mate with each other for up to 12 consecutive years, but not necessarily for life. (Inset photo is of female in estrus scent-marking.)

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Porcupine Trails

1-12-18 mystery photo 049A2042Porcupines are forced to exert a lot of effort if they are in need of food and the snow is deep. Unlike many rodents that are light enough to travel on top of the snow, Porcupines must plow their way through it. Their weight, short legs, and bare footpads make traveling in snow challenging, to say the least.

If the snow is deep, the winter ranges of Porcupines are considerably smaller (18 acres in one research study) than their summer ranges (160 acres in same study).  Because of the energy needed to travel through the snow, Porcupines usually feed just a short distance from their winter dens, more often than not within 200 feet. Their feeding trails from rocky or hollow tree dens to their woody food sources (often Eastern Hemlock-note bits of branches on snow in photo, American Beech and Sugar Maple), are very distinctive. They are used every night when Porcupines leave their dens to feed and again several hours later when they return.  These trails become well marked with urine, and less frequently with scat and quills. (Photo insert: Porcupine rock den entrance)

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Snow Stories Begin

1-5-18 owl print in snow - Rob Foote IMG_4571 (002)

With snow on the ground, the season of stories in the snow has begun. Many of the animals that remain active in New England during the winter are nocturnal so we rarely get a glimpse of them. But, more than at any other time of year, we are privilege to their activities due to the tracks and traces they leave in and on the snow during the night.

Much information can be gathered from these signs. Often at a kill site, the identity of the predator as well as the prey can be determined by shape, form or measurement. One can see from this photograph that a bird of prey (measurements indicate a barred owl) swooped down on a small rodent (judging from tracks, probably a meadow vole) and was successful in capturing it.

Even though a kill scene such as this, or any other wildlife activity recorded in the snow, may reveal the probable identity of the characters in the story, there are always more questions than answers, which is what gets us out in this frigid weather, day after day. The main question I’m left with after viewing this scene is why do voles and mice risk their lives by travelling on the surface of the snow at times, when they just as well could have covered the same ground in the maze of tunnels they’ve created deep in the subnivean layer between the ground and the snow (where they would be out of sight of hungry predators)? (Thanks to Rob Foote for photo.)

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White-tailed Deer Scent-Marking

11-20-17 buck rub049A7932

Scent-marking plays an important communication role in the animal world. A variety of species use glandular secretions to convey (for some distance) messages. From beavers spreading castoreum on scent mounds to fishers leaving their scent every time their hind feet touch the ground, the woods are alive with messages often undetected by most humans. Some of these are left by White-tailed Deer, which have two primary scent-marking behaviors: antler rubbing and scrapes.

One used to associate an antler rub with the act of a buck removing drying velvet from its antlers. However, it turns out that very few rubs are made by deer removing antler velvet, a process that’s normally completed within 24 hours. Instead, most rubs are made by relatively few dominant bucks to signal their readiness to breed and to mark their territory.

All White-tailed Deer possess specialized forehead glands that become increasingly active in autumn, particularly in adult males. All bucks spread their scent by rubbing their foreheads (which contain specialized scent glands) against trees and shrubs that have smooth bark, few, if any, lower limbs and are ½” to 4” in diameter. (Older bucks also will rub trees six or more inches in diameter.) In the Northeast, Trembling Aspen, Staghorn Sumac, Red Maple, and willows are often used for this purpose.

Mature, socially high-ranking bucks exude greater amounts of the glandular secretion than do younger males or females. They begin marking their territory soon after losing velvet and continue marking until they cast their antlers in December or January. The chemical signals left at a rub site tend to suppress the aggressiveness and sex drive of young males. However, those same signals stimulate females. The amount of rubbing an individual buck does depends on the level of testosterone in his blood, which in turn is largely determined by the animal’s age and dominance status.

We may not be able to detect the chemicals on a rub, but it’s hard to miss the sight of the light-colored blazes that magically appear in the woods at this time of year. (Photo: White-tailed Deer rub on Staghorn Sumac. Thanks to Chiho Kaneko and Jeffrey Hamelman for photo op.)

 


Black Bears Raiding Brood

11-1-17 bear binging 049A7147Previously this fall I posted about Black Bears foraging ferociously in the fall in order to store fat (sometimes doubling their weight) before hibernating. That post showed an ant-infested tree that had been ripped apart. As winter approaches, signs of bears’ frenetic gorging (hyperphagia) increase dramatically. Protein-rich sources such as Bald-faced Hornet nests (suspended from branches) and Yellow Jacket nests (in cavities in the ground) are highly sought after.

If you look closely, you’ll see that the claws of the bear that attempted to raid the hornet nest (suspended ten feet above the ground) were able to reach just the bottom portion of the nest, tearing the outer multi-layered, paper envelope but not reaching the brood-containing cells within. The Yellow Jacket cells containing brood (eggs, larvae and pupae), on the other hand, were all removed from the ground nest and consumed. All that remains is a portion of the outer envelope and a few adults.