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Coyotes

Coyotes Scent-marking & Mating

You may have been hearing Coyotes howling more than usual lately.  This is because their mating season has begun, and they are much more vocal prior to and during it.  Another Coyote sign to be aware of this time of year is the abundance of Coyote scent-marking, with both urine and feces.

Female Coyotes come into heat, or estrus, only once a year for two to five days, in late January or February in the Northeast.  It is not unusual to come across spots where both male and female Coyotes have scent-marked during this time.  Often one will mark on top of or next to its mate’s marking.  Sometimes the female’s blood can be seen in her urine, or, in the case of the pictured marking, her blood dripped onto the snow as she investigated her mate’s urine.

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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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Coyote Breeding Season Beginning

Female Eastern Coyotes only experience estrus once per year for up to ten days and male coyotes only produce sperm during the time females are receptive.  This usually occurs sometime between late December through March.

One unusual aspect of the coyote breeding season is the coyote’s ability to change its breeding habits according to its population status. When their population is threatened and/or pressured, coyote litter sizes go up. They use their howls and yipping to assess coyote populations — if their howls are not answered by other packs, it triggers a response that produces large litters. (I have yet to understand the biological specifics of  this adaptation.)

The normal size of a coyote litter is five to six pups. When their populations are suppressed, their litters get up as high as 12 to 16 pups. Research shows that the number of coyotes in a given area can be reduced by 70 percent but the next summer their population will be back to the original number.

(Photo: blood droplets where a female coyote in estrus urinated. Photo taken 12/4/19)

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Coyotes Scavenge More Deer Than They Kill

1-4-19 deer skull eaten by coyotes IMG_2423Coyotes are considered opportunisitic omnivores and will eat just about anything. As the seasons and the availability of foods change, so does the coyote’s diet. During the summer, coyotes feed upon berries and insects. Small mammals are an important prey of choice during the fall and into the winter. As winter becomes harder and small mammal populations decline, coyotes turn toward their largest prey – white-tailed deer.

It is not uncommon to come upon deer carcasses in the winter which have been cleaned within an inch of their life by coyotes, illustrating their preference for this ungulate. However, the majority of deer carcasses consumed by coyotes are not killed by them, but are discovered as carrion or road kills. Coyotes infrequently kill healthy adult deer. Occasionally, working in packs, they will chase them down. Scat dissection shows that in late spring, coyotes prey on fawns.

A study of coyote predatory behavior in New York state several years ago found that during the winter, only 8% of adult deer carcasses visited by coyotes had been killed conclusively by coyotes. The remaining 92% were scavenged by coyotes after being killed by vehicles and other injuries. The adult deer that were killed by coyotes had severe pre-existing injuries and were likely to die from other causes in the absence of coyote predation.

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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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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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Coyote Beds

2-22-17-coyote-beds-049a4655Like most carnivores, coyotes do not have permanent homes, other than the maternal dens in which they raise their young.   In the winter, coyotes do not usually seek shelter in a den, but rather prefer to sleep outside, preferably out of the wind in a hollow or under an overhang, a fallen tree or the spreading boughs of an evergreen (see photo, where two coyotes bedded down). A study on the relative time coyotes spend resting or hunting found that they spend more time resting in these sites in the winter, when they depend more on carrion, than in the summer, when small rodents are readily available and more time is spent finding and catching prey.

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Great Horned Owls & Striped Skunks

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Striped Skunks do have predators other than Great Horned Owls (bobcats, foxes and coyotes-fishers have been known to prey on skunks, but very infrequently), but these predators have to be pretty desperate before they will prey on a skunk.  Automobiles and disease kill more skunks than all of their predators put together, but Great Horned Owls have the distinction of being the primary predator of Striped Skunks.

Being a nocturnal hunter, a Great Horned Owl necessarily consumes prey which are nocturnal. Striped Skunks are active at night and are consumed by Great Horned Owls with regularity, even though a skunk can weigh up to three times as much as a Great Horned Owl (average GHO weighs a little over 3 pounds) and has a potent way of defending itself.

For many years scientists assumed that birds had a poor sense of smell because the area of a bird’s brain involved in smell is relatively small compared with the area found in mammals.  However, recent research reveals that birds have a high number of active genes that are associated with smell, and many species may have an excellent sense of smell.  It’s fairly safe to assume, however, from its consumption of skunks, that the Great Horned Owl’s sense of smell is not very well developed. In addition, if a skunk sprays, much of the odor is absorbed by the Great Horned Owl’s leg feathers, which extend down to its talons.

A favorite memory of mine is walking through a field at dusk and suddenly noticing a strong skunk-like smell coming from above, not below, me. A Great Horned Owl silently flew overhead, with only the tell-tale smell of a recently-captured skunk announcing its presence.

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Using All Your Senses

1-26-17-deer-urine-049a2725Many wild animals are nocturnal or crepuscular, limiting our chances of firsthand observation of them. Those of us curious to learn more about their lives take advantage of whatever signs these elusive animals leave. In winter, evidence of their presence in the form of tracks and scat can tell us not only their identity, but their diet, direction of travel, size, etc. Beds, kill sites and signs of feeding also provide crucial information. There is one more sign that is often overlooked and under-utilized for identification purposes, and that is the scent of an animal’s urine.

Not everyone will necessarily wish to add this identification tool to their arsenal of naturally curious skills, but for those willing, scent-detection can be extremely useful, especially if conditions for tracking are poor, or if scat is not found. Not only is the scent of a species’ urine distinctive, it can often be detected at a distance. At this time of year (breeding season) red fox urine can easily be mistaken for striped skunk spray. Porcupine urine is strong and distinctive, but hard to describe. Once you’re familiar with it, it can guide you to the location of a den. Coyote urine is very dog-like; bobcat very cat-like. Surprisingly agreeable is the pine-like scent of White-tailed Deer urine (pictured).

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Coyote Breeding Season Approaching

1-23-17-two-coyote-trails-img_6155While coyotes form packs consisting of two breeding adults (the alpha pair) and up to eight offspring, they often are solitary hunters, leaving only one set of tracks. At this time of year, however, it is not uncommon to find two coyotes traveling together. The reason for this is that the peak of coyote breeding season is in late January and February, and for two or three months prior to this they engage in pre-mating behavior. Signs to look and listen for include two sets of tracks (headed in the same direction) that periodically separate and then rejoin one another, scent marking and duet howling.

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Bedfellows

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When I head out to photograph for a blog post, my quest is usually for signs of animal behavior (unless I’m focusing on plants). I fail more often than I succeed, but once in a while I hit the jackpot. I am well aware that what I call a jackpot may not be considered as such by others…and I know my heart beats fast at sights (and smells) that others’ hearts do not. Today’s post may be such an occasion.

I decided to follow coyote tracks this week in the hopes of finding evidence of some kind of canine activity. After an hour or so of crossing fields and woods, the coyote entered thick brush, so dense that even it must have had some difficulty slipping through the brambles. At the edge of this brush, its tracks led to an old stump, on the top of which the coyote had curled up and taken a nap or a much-needed rest. Eventually it jumped off the stump and continued its journey.

Coyote beds are not that rare a find, but they are always fun to come upon. Thinking I had captured a worthy post photo/topic, I clicked away, after which I observed the coyote bed more closely. It was then that I detected something small and dark in the snow at the edge of the bed (circled in red in photo). Close examination revealed that a very engorged tick had evidently had its fill of coyote blood, and had dropped off into the snow. Frosting on the cake for this morning’s quest!

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Low Water Levels Provide Palette for Tracks

10-27-16-tracks2-1The low water levels in our ponds this fall do have one benefit – visitors leave obvious signs in the exposed muddy banks. It is fairly astounding how much nocturnal and crepuscular wildlife regularly visits these spots and remains undetected by humans under normal conditions.

 Under cover of darkness, White-tailed Deer, Mink, Raccoons and a variety of birds and small mammals frequently visit and leave traces of their presence in the form of tracks. Other creatures whose tracks you may well find in the exposed mud of wetlands this year include Beavers, Muskrats and River Otters.

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Beavers Especially Vulnerable

9-28-16-coyote-and-beaver-20160927_3275Little did I know when I wrote yesterday’s post about the silver lining of our low water levels that I would so quickly encounter another predator benefiting from the current drought. I have spent a considerable amount of time this summer watching three generations of beavers do their best to survive as their pond proceeded to diminish to the point of exposing one of their lodge entrances and confining them to an increasingly small body of water. The underwater entrances to a beaver lodge are vital to their protection, and predators are well aware of this.

Yesterday the importance of water as a protective barrier was made very clear to me when a coyote appeared on the opposite shore of the beaver pond from where I sat. It stood for several seconds exactly where the beavers leave the pond on their way to nearby woods to cut poplars and birches which they haul back to their pond to eat. A well-worn trail marks the spot. You could imagine the coyote, upon surveying the shallowness of the pond, telling itself to be patient, as better days were just around the corner.

Moments after the coyote left, the mother beaver got out of the pond precisely where the coyote had been standing and took a few steps before sniffing the ground and then the air (see insert). Being nocturnal, beavers have an acute sense of smell which they use for detecting danger, food and for communication with each other. It took mere seconds for the beaver to detect the scent of the coyote, at which point she turned and sought refuge in the dwindling amount of water remaining around her lodge.  May the heavens open up soon.

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Forest Floor Mystery: Pellets? Old Scat? Cache?

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Lying at the base of a large Eastern Hemlock I recently found two piles of bleached bones.  One pile consisted of mostly vertebrae; the other pile had numerous tibias, humeri and ribs.  All were the appropriate size and shape to have come from several Eastern Chipmunk skeletons – at least four or five.   How did they end up in two distinct piles?

The lack of any fur indicated that regardless of how these bones came to be here, they were deposited quite a while ago.  The lack of any partial skulls or jaw bones and the large number of bones in each pile led me to believe that these were not the remains of two pellets that had been regurgitated by resident Barred Owls. No wild owl pellet I’ve ever dissected, including the large pellets cast by Snowy and Great Gray Owls, has contained even half this many bones, and most contained at least part of a jaw bone.

If not pellets, then scat?  How likely is it that a predator could catch and consume multiple chipmunks rapidly enough so that they would end up in the same pile of scat?  One feasible explanation could be that a fox, coyote or fisher preyed on young, inexperienced chipmunks, but the bones were adult-size bones.

Perhaps these two piles are the remains of a predator’s cache – perhaps a bobcat?

The possibilities are endless as to how this chipmunk graveyard came to be.  However, none of the theories proposed here can explain the dissimilarity between the types of bones in each pile.  If any naturally curious readers have insight into this phenomenon, your thoughts are welcome!

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Scent Posts

2-17-16 scent posts 026Scent posts can serve as territorial markers as well as a means of conveying hierarchy, breeding status, gender, fitness, etc. When you think of a scent post, where an animal deposits its scent either by rubbing, urinating or defecating, one often thinks of it as being used by one animal to communicate with other individuals of the same species. However, for whatever the reason, a rock, stump or the junction of two trails can prove irresistibly appealing to more than one species. Each chooses to leave messages for other members of its respective species at the same location. In this case, two predators, a Fisher (left) and an Eastern Coyote (right), left their scat at the base of a rotting stump. The tracks of both of these animals were evident throughout the area. In sharing the same scent post, were they vying for the same territory, advertising for a mate (both are at the peak of their mating season), or simply making their presence known? Unfortunately, the human nose isn’t equipped to answer this question.

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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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Scat Revelations

12-14-15 coyote scat 021Predators and scavengers of all stripes are reaping the benefits of deer hunting season. A close look at the composition and form of the pictured scat reveals much more than the fact that a coyote dined on a white-tailed deer. Note that the scat consists almost entirely of deer hair. When a predator such as a coyote comes upon a carcass, it tends to eat the internal organs first, which produce black, moist, soft scats with next to no bones or hair in them. As it continues to feed, the coyote’s scats contain more and more bones and hair, until eventually that is all they consist of.

There are two conclusions one could make when analyzing this scat. One is that the coyote whose scat this is was finishing up the tail end of a deer carcass. It is also possible that this coyote might not have been at the top of its pack’s hierarchy. The alpha pair usually has first dibs on the internal organs, with lower members of the pack having access to the less choice parts, such as hair and bones.

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Coyotes Mating

1-30-15 coyote2  143Coyotes mate in January and February, but pre-mating behavior started two to three months ago. During this period scent marking increases, as does howling, and males wander far and wide. Female coyotes come into heat only once a year. When this happens, and two coyotes pair up, they may howl in a duet before mating. If there is an ample food supply, most females will breed and between 60% and 90% of adult females will produce a litter. The size of the litter fluctuates with the size of the rodent population; lots of rodents means larger litters. The same pair of coyotes may mate from year to year, but not necessarily for life. (Photo taken at Squam Lakes Natural Science Center)

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The Effects of An Icy Crust on Wildlife

1-19-15  ruffed grouse snow cave IMG_8590This winter has brought us several storms that have ended in rain and were followed by plummeting temperatures. Just a few inches down into the powdery snow on top of the ground there is a ¼”-thick crust, and if you dig down several more inches, there is a second layer of ice, roughly 1/8”-thick. When a thick, icy layer of crust forms, it can have a dramatic effect on the lives of wildlife both above and below it.

Some animals are relatively unaffected by the presence of a crust but many predators and prey are significantly helped or hindered by it. Ruffed grouse cannot seek overnight shelter from the bitter cold and/or predators by diving into a foot of soft snow and creating a snow cave (see photo). On the other hand, small rodents have a distinct advantage — mice and voles have several layers of ice between themselves and hungry coyotes, foxes and owls. Snowshoe hares lose the advantage they usually have on deep, soft snow — “snowshoes” that keep them on top of the snow when the bobcat or fisher chasing them has to flounder through it. Turkeys don’t have the strength to dig down through one thick crust, much less two or more, in order to reach hidden acorns. If a deer is being chased, its pointed hooves will break through the crust, slowing the deer down, whereas the crust may well support a lighter predator, allowing it to outrun the deer. Red squirrels have to work much harder to reach their cached winter cones and to create tunnels.

What is a mere inconvenience to us humans literally is costing as well as saving the lives of wildlife this winter.

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Snowshoe Hare Succumbs to Avian Predator

1-14-15 snowshoe hare kill site 076The drama that goes on in our woodlands is never-ending, and winter provides us with a window into life and death scenarios. One of the most sought-after prey animals in northern New England is the snowshoe hare. Bobcats, lynxes, coyotes, foxes and fishers are some of the mammalian predators of this lagomorph. In this particular case, however, the predator had wings (determined by wing imprints in the snow and lack of tracks). While great horned owls do prey on hares, there was a tell-tale sign that it was a hawk, not an owl, which produced this pile of fur and bones. If you look to the upper left of the photograph, and to the upper right, you will see lengthy curved lines of bird droppings, or sprays, that were left by the predator as it plucked its prey. Because it was ejected forcibly, and didn’t just drop down on the snow where the bird was situated, the scat leads one to the conclusion that it was a hawk, not an owl, which deposited it. A woodland accipiter capable of capturing a snowshoe hare after an extensive chase, which this was, is the northern goshawk. (Thanks to Nicole Cormen for photo op.)

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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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Coyote Shelter

2-24-14 coyote shelter 078Like many carnivores, coyotes do not have permanent homes, other than the maternal dens in which their young are raised. After being active at dawn and dusk (as well as occasionally during the day and night), they are apt to rest, curling up in beds they make in the snow right out in the open. However, they will take advantage of a sheltered spot, such as this hollow stump, if it presents itself. Tracks leading into and out of this stump, in addition to many hairs on the ground inside it, left no question as to what canine had sought shelter here from the cold, winter wind.

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White-tailed Deer Scavengers

deer carcass2  028According to NPR, each year Americans waste 33 million tons of food (and much of this ends up in landfills where it produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas). This situation is totally alien to that of other animals in the natural world, which seem to find a use for any and every organic particle. Great crested flycatchers incorporate shed snake skins into their nests, beavers build dams and lodges with branches they have eaten the bark off of, ermine line their nests with the fur and feathers of prey — the list goes on and on. When it comes to food, there is equally little waste. The carcasses of animals do not linger long, as almost every atom of their bodies is recycled. Fishers, coyotes, foxes, raccoons, opossums, bald eagles, hawks, woodpeckers, ravens, crows and many other animals make short work of a dead deer in winter. Come spring, if there’s anything left, the final clean-up crew consists of legions of turkey vultures, beetles, flies and bacteria, among others. How unfortunate we’ve strayed so far from a process that’s worked for so many for so long.

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