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Mammals

Eastern Chipmunks Nesting

Eastern Chipmunks breed twice a year, typically in March/April and in June/July.  After mating, the female chipmunk outfits a central nesting chamber deep within the ground with leaves.  She will give birth to four to six young in about a month.  When born the young are about the size of a jelly bean, toothless and furless with closed eyes and ears. The mother raises her young by herself and by the time they are a month old, they begin to emerge from their burrow.  At this point they are about two-thirds the size of an adult chipmunk.  (Photo: female Eastern Chipmunk collecting leaves for her underground nest)

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Young Snowshoe Hares Dispersing

Snowshoe Hares have up to four litters a summer (females mate within 24 hours of giving birth).  Their litters range from two to nine young (leverets), with larger litters the further north you go. Unlike cottontails, the Snowshoe Hare gives birth to precocious young – their eyes open shortly after birth, they have a dense coat of fur, and they are able to weakly move about within 30 minutes.

The female leaves the nest once she’s through giving birth, and returns once a day to nurse her young.  By the fourth day, the young hares scatter from the nest.  They reassemble at the same time each evening and their mother appears and nurses them for five to ten minutes.  She then leaves and the young disperse. This behavior continues for about a month, until the young are fully weaned.  (Thanks to Virginia Barlow and Wendell for photo op.)

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Beavers Feeding Young

In summer Beavers spend considerable time on land searching for, cutting and bringing vegetation back to their young in the lodge.  Their woody plant preference (they eat large amounts of herbaceous plants during the warmer months, but also some trees) tends towards the inner bark (cambium) of willow, aspen, maple, birch, cottonwood, beech, poplar, and alder trees. This beaver, however, has retrieved a Red Oak sapling for its offspring.

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Virginia Opossums Breeding

2-18-19 opossum 025If you see a Virginia Opossum in your travels, it could well be on the hunt for a mate at this time of year. It’s even possible you may hear one if you are close enough and the timing is right, as male opossums attract females by making clicking sounds with their mouth.

The breeding practices of this marsupial are unusual, to say the least. The male opossum has a bifurcated (two-pronged) penis (see photo inset), and the female has two vaginas. Not only is their reproductive anatomy somewhat unusual, but the behavior of their sperm is as well. During maturation, sperm pair up inside the male reproductive tract and remain paired after entering the female. Just prior to fertilization the sperm pair separate (into two spermatozoa). This phenomenon occurs only in American marsupials, and not Australian. No definitive explanation exists for this, but perhaps paired sperm increase motility in the female reproductive tract.

(NB: Having an opossum on your land is a real asset – according to biologist Richard Ostfeld, one opossum can kill and eat some 5,000 ticks in a single season. Opossums are said to destroy roughly 90 percent of all the ticks they encounter.)

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North American River Otters Foraging For Fish

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Whether or not North American River Otters made the original holes evident in Wednesday’s Mystery Photo, they were responsible for keeping them open by frequently poking their heads up through them for some air. Congratulations to Noel K. for being the first to correctly identify their surface holes.  This was a tricky Mystery Photo, as there were none of the usual signs of otter activity (tracks, fish remains, etc.) on the ice surrounding the holes.  This is probably because the ice was too thin to support the weight of an otter.  To find the most humorous response, scroll down on Wednesday’s Mystery Photo comments until you get to Peg Emerson’s.

These semiaquatic members of the weasel family are active year-round and while they are mainly nocturnal and crepuscular during the summer, they are frequently spotted during the day in winter.  If otters encounter open water, they rarely resist the urge to enter it and pursue resident fish.

Thanks to their webbed feet and streamlined body, otters are accomplished swimmers and divers. They are able to reach a depth of around five feet and remain submerged for up to four minutes as they hunt underwater. Top swimming speed is seven miles per hour. (They can achieve a speed of up to 18 miles per hour when running and sliding on snow or ice.)  While fish are their mainstay, these carnivores also consume frogs, snakes, turtles, insects, birds and bird eggs and the occasional mammal (mainly muskrat).  Though called “river” otters, they forage in fresh, salt and brackish waters. (Thanks to Rita and Dave Boynton for photo op.)

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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 Giving Birth

deer and fawn alert _H6A8525 copy (002)White-tailed does give birth at the end of May and the beginning of June. A doe giving birth for the first time usually has one fawn; in subsequent years, two or three fawns are common. For the first three or four days after it is born, a fawn is odorless and is well camouflaged thanks to its spotted coat.

During this time the mother leaves her offspring (who remain motionless during her absence) and goes off to feed. (It can be three weeks or so before the fawns follow their mother when she feeds.) The doe stays away as much as possible from her fawns during these first days and weeks to prevent her own body scent from giving away their location. She returns to nurse her young eight to ten times in a twenty-four-hour period.

People discovering what looks to them like an abandoned fawn should know that although the doe may not be in sight, she most likely is within hearing distance and is probably watching them. The fawn has not been abandoned and should not be disturbed. (Thanks to Erin Donahue, who took this photograph.)

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Red Fox Kits Maturing

5-25-18 red fox kit_U1A4366Time is marching on…the blue eyes of Red Fox kits are turning brown, as they do once a kit is around two months old. Their coat is slowly being replaced by the reddish hairs for which they are named. While kits still spend most of their time close to their den, individuals will take short exploratory walks by themselves. Frequently they accompany their parent on forays during which they are instructed on the finer points of being a successful predator.

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Black Bear Yearlings Still Nursing

4-6-18 mother black bear with three yearlings nursing in light snow by MHolland 1077

Female Black Bears mate every two years. Their young are born in January or February and  they stay with their mother for the first year and a half of their lives. Although many sources state that cubs are weaned during their first summer, I discovered firsthand that young bears continue to nurse well into their second year (even though they’ve been eating solid food since they were a few months old).

Two different times while I was within a stone’s throw of her, the mother lay down on the ground and her yearlings proceeded to nurse. Soon, in May or June, shortly before she mates, the mother will drive her yearlings away, forcing them to disperse. Life’s lessons have been taught. By their second spring the yearlings have learned the basics from their mother: what to eat and where to find it, how to defend themselves, where to find safety and how to interact and communicate with other black bears. and they should be able to survive on their own.

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Black Bear Yearlings Active

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Just like other young mammals, young Black Bears are highly energetic. When they aren’t sleeping, they can be found wrestling, biting, grooming, climbing and playing hard with each other. All of these activities, including the pictured yearlings mock-fighting, equip them with necessary survival skills.

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Exploring With Senses

4-6-18 black bear yearling on back 1058The yearlings were constantly engaged in exploration and play that makes use of all of their senses – playing with sticks, needles and anything else they can find to manipulate with their huge paws, chewing saplings, smelling everything from chewed sticks to each other’s scat, clawing, biting and rubbing on tree trunks, and even approaching me in order to see exactly who and what I am. (Several times I had to shoo one of them away, for fear their mother might object to its close proximity to me.) Some of this exploration serves as the beginning of scent-marking that they will use to communicate with other bears their entire lives, while some of it appears to be just plain fun.

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Tolerant Black Bear Mothers

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The yearlings continually challenge their mother’s patience as well as each other’s to see just how much will be tolerated. They climb on, bite, claw and test their mother in much the same manner as toddlers do their (human) mothers. At the same time, when she demands that they follow her instructions, such as climbing a tree when danger approaches, they immediately obey. (Photo: mother bear (lying down) indulging her playful yearling)

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Black Bears Emerging From Hibernation

3-26-18 black bears sleeping 1545

A year ago, in April 2017, while following Black Bear tracks in New Hampshire, I had the good fortune to encounter the bears themselves. Because Black Bears have started coming out of hibernation (April is when most do so) I felt it was timely to share some of my photographs and observations of that encounter. (I did not do so a year ago for fear of bringing attention to and thereby disturbing these bears.)  As I followed the bear tracks, I eventually came upon a refuge, or “babysitter,” tree – where bears rest and cubs/yearlings take refuge when their mother goes off foraging or when she senses danger. I had read about such trees, but never discovered one myself. It was very recognizable — a very large White Pine surrounded on the ground by bear scat and gnawed saplings – fresh signs that bears frequented this area. At the base of the tree were several large “bowls” or indentations in the pine needles that looked as if large animals might have bedded down repeatedly in them, forming nests.

I continued tracking, eventually turning around to head back to where I entered the woods. On my return I passed by the babysitter tree again. To my utter delight I discovered a mother bear with her three yearlings fast asleep in the beds at the base of the tree. It was snowing lightly, and I surmised that this family had recently emerged from their deep winter’s sleep and was still a bit groggy. (Adult males are the first to emerge; females with cubs are the last.) While the yearlings slept on, the mother opened her eyes and decided to tolerate my presence for the next couple of hours. In Naturally Curious posts this week and next, I will share this once-in-a-lifetime experience with you as well as the behavioral observations I made.

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Happy Groundhog Day !

2-2-18 woodchuck IMG_2381The Woodchuck, or Groundhog, is one lucky creature, considering past practices. The observation of “Groundhog Day” originated in the mid-1800’s, and by the late 1800’s and early 1900’s the celebration consisted of feasting on this rodent. A formalized hunt took place and participants then dined on Groundhog (which purportedly tastes like a cross between chicken and pork) and drank Groundhog punch. Since then, the Groundhog has evolved into a forecaster of weather, rather than a meal.

While New England Woodchucks are curled up in their hibernacula,  Punxsutawney Phil is busy seeing if he can see his shadow today (in which case we’re in for six more weeks of winter) or whether cloudy skies will prevent that from happening and spring is right around the corner. I’d bet on the former.

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Beechnuts & Black Bears

11-22-17 black bear scat and beechnuts 049A7821One need look no further than this Black Bear scat to know that American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) nuts (hard mast) are a preferred food for Black Bears, both in the fall and spring. They are an important food source for other wildlife as well, including White-tailed Deer, Fishers, Wild Turkeys, Ruffed Grouse and many small mammals and birds.

There are very good reasons why beechnuts are a preferred food for so many creatures. They have about the same protein content as corn but five times the fat content. Compared to acorns, beechnuts have nearly twice as much crude protein, twice the fat of white oak acorns and about the same fat content as red oak acorns. Research on the importance of beech mast for Black Bear reproduction shows that in northern Maine, 22% of the female black bears that were reproductively available reproduced following falls when beechnut production was poor. The proportion of reproducing females increased to 80% following falls when beechnut production was high. (Photo:  Black Bear beechnut husk-filled scat, 1 1/2″ diameter)


Beavers Breaking Ice

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We’re right on the verge of when beavers will no longer be able to smell fresh air, see the sun and obtain fresh bark. Until the temperature drops to around 16 degrees F. they continue to break through the thin ice covering their pond. Once the temperature remains in the teens or lower for several days, they no longer try to break through the ice and are sealed under it until spring, unless there’s a mid-winter thaw.

Once beavers are confined by the ice, their activities outside the lodge are minimal. Beavers leave their lodge in winter primarily for three reasons: 1) to swim out to their winter food supply pile and retrieve a branch which they bring back into the lodge to eat, 2) to defecate in the water, and 3) to mate in January or February. Other than these excursions, they spend most of their days in the dark, enduring life in a lodge that has a temperature of about 34 degrees F. (Thanks to Kay and Peter Shumway for photo op.)


Black Bears Foraging

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This is the time of year when Black Bears are looking for every available source of food in order to bulk up before entering hibernation. During this period of gorging (hyperphagia) Black Bears consume large quantities of fruits, berries, nuts, grasses, roots and insects.

In particular, they favor the brood (larvae and pupae) of ants, due to their relatively high content of fat and protein. Black Bears find brood by detecting the pheromones and other chemicals such as formic acid that ants use for communication and defense. Research has confirmed that Black Bears will dig up as many as 200 ant colonies a day, flipping rocks, moss and leaf litter over and tearing apart logs, stumps and snags (such as the one pictured), using their canine teeth and claws to gain access to the ants. Once they have torn apart the stump or snag, they use their long, sticky tongues to gather brood. Anthills are avoided except for when Black Bears are extremely hungry, due to the fact that bears prefer not to get a lot of soil or sand mixed in with the brood they’re eating. (Thanks to Virginia Barlow for photo op.)


The Varied Diet of Muskrats

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Muskrats are primarily herbivorous. The majority of their diet consists of the tubers, roots, stems, leaves and fruit of a variety of aquatic and terrestrial plants, particularly those of bulrush, cattail and arrowhead. A diet of high fiber is possible because of bacterial fermentation which takes place in their intestines. The digestion of many herbivores is aided by bacteria, but many plant-eaters are restricted in what they can eat because they are unable to change their diet without killing the bacteria. Muskrats, however, can and do consume large amounts of meat (frogs, fish, turtles, crayfish, etc.) and still maintain a healthy population of fiber-digesting bacteria. (Thanks to Jeannie Killam for photo op.)


Black Bears Communicating

6-21-17 black bear by Alfred 2017-05-24 15.35.19Black Bear males are not shy about making their availability and intentions known to the opposite sex. Their most prevalent means of communicating this information is to leave their scent on trees (as well as other structures, such as telephone poles– see photo) by scratching them with their claws, biting them and rubbing on them with their shoulders, back and neck. Often they will use the same marking tree year after year, with signs accumulating on the tree.

Both males and females mark trees year-round, but at this time of year, at the peak of their mating season, males are especially active markers, in order to convey their social identity, reproductive status and location to female passersby. One might consider such marking trees as ancient “scratch.com” mating sites. If you find one, be sure to look for stray hairs that have been inadvertently left behind. (photo by Alfred Balch)

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Muskrats Busy Feeding Young

6-1-17 muskrat & bedstraw 006

Birthing time for Muskrats is late April/early May, so this year’s young are roughly a month old. Weaning begins now and young Muskrats, who have been able to swim since they were two weeks old, begin foraging for themselves. Parents continue to supplement their offspring’s diet during this transition.  Although Muskrats are omnivores, the majority of their diet consists of the roots, stems, leaves and fruits of aquatic vegetation. However, when you’re feeding half a dozen offspring, you harvest whatever is available, including bedstraw (see photo).

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This Year’s Black Bear Cubs Growing Up Fast

5-8-17 black bear cub 054

It’s hard to believe that four months ago when it was born this Black Bear cub weighed less than a pound and measured about eight inches in length! Most Black Bears mate in June, but because of delayed implantation their fertilized eggs don’t implant in the uterine wall and the embryos don’t begin developing until the fall (if the mother has had a sufficiently nutritional diet), just as the mother is entering hibernation.

The cubs are born in January, after only a few months inside their mother. They are just a fraction of one percent of the mother bear’s weight, compared to an average human baby that is about seven percent of its mother’s weight. The cubs nurse constantly for the next four months (during which time their mother is not eating or drinking).  The fat content of Black Bear milk can be as high as 20-25 percent. Human milk is comparable to cows’ milk, generally ranging between three and five percent fat. (A biologist who had the opportunity to sample Black Bear milk reported that it was similar in taste to sweetened condensed milk.)

In April, when the cubs emerge from their den, they weigh about six pounds.  Milk production and intake now increases four-fold. Peak lactation (45 ounces of milk per day per cub) occurs in June and July. As a result, the cubs have a huge growth spurt their first summer and will weigh between 40 and 60 pounds by the end of it.

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Red Foxes Giving Birth

3-22-17 red fox kit IMG_7433Red Fox vixens are giving birth to one to seven pups (usually three to five) in their underground dens at this time of year. The pictured pup is about four weeks old, and is starting to acquire its sand-colored coat. Red Fox pups are born with a temporary coat of dark grey-brown fur which we rarely see, as they stay in their den for the first month or so, where their mother provides warmth and milk.  At the age of four weeks or thereabouts, the pups begin to emerge from the den and sit, nap and play near its entrance. At that time they grow a second coat that is very close to the color of the sandy terrain in which their den is usually dug. Their red coat, for which they are named, develops later in the summer.

Although it’s too early to see Red Fox pups, keep an eye out for active dens which are easiest to find where there is still snow on the ground, as the dirt around the entrance is usually visible. Males can sometimes be seen going back and forth, delivering food to the vixen and her pups.

The next Naturally Curious post will be 3/24/17.

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Eastern Chipmunks Emerging & Mating

3-13-17 e. chipmunk IMG_2353

All winter long, Eastern Chipmunks have been intermittently napping and running to their underground larder to snack every week or two. As spring approaches, the timing of their emergence above ground is affected by the weather, even though their tunnels are 18” – 36” below the surface. Within the last week chipmunks have been seen above ground.  One would think they must be in a state of confusion, given the erratic weather we’ve experienced this spring.

Chipmunks waste no time once they are active.  Most adult females are in breeding condition when they emerge (as opposed to males, which are in a state of constant readiness) and mate within a week. This involves 10-30 couplings within about a 6-7 hour receptive period.  In a month or so, the results of these efforts will be born.

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Striped Skunks Seeking Mates

3-9-17 skunk 118

Striped Skunks are on the prowl, as your nose may have told you recently – males are eagerly seeking out the company of females at this time of year and are often hit by cars traveling at night. The peak of the Striped Skunk breeding season — the third week of March — will soon be upon us. Males will mate with several females in succession and then they often protect their harem against other males by hitting them (other males) with their shoulders or biting their legs. Once a female has been successfully bred, she will not allow further mating activity and will viciously fight any male that attempts it.

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