An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide – maryholland505@gmail.com

Mammals

White-tailed Deer Fawn Survival

Both behaviorally and physically, White-tailed Deer fawns have adaptations that enhance their survival – they remain lying down and motionless for their first few weeks while their mother is off foraging and stir only when she returns periodically to nurse them. They are scentless for their first few days, and dappled coats enable them to be well camouflaged.  Reduced heart rate and breathing when danger is nearby also increase their ability not to be noticed. 

Even so, fawns have a low life expectancy.  Once detected by a predator, they are very vulnerable. Black Bears and Coyotes, especially, are quick to take advantage of this easy meal. Proof of this can be found in the scat of these predators. (Inset photo: Black Bear scat containing the hair and bones of a fawn).

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North American River Otters Mating and Giving Birth

North American River Otters are induced ovulators – copulation releases the female’s egg from the ovary.  Once the egg is released and fertilized, however, there is a nine to eleven month delay before the embryo begins actively developing (delayed implantation). Actual gestation takes about two months. Thus, otters sometimes give birth up to a year after mating, just before their next breeding cycle.  April and May are busy months for this semiaquatic mammal.

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Black Bear Cubs Sampling Solid Food But Continue to Nurse For The Next Year

Black Bears only mate every two years, due to the fact that their cubs are not weaned until they are a year and a half old.  When born in January, a cub weighs less than a pound and is roughly 9” long.  For the next three months it nurses steadily on its mother’s very rich milk (20-25% fat compared to a human’s 3-5%).  Depending on the number of siblings a cub has as well as the amount of milk its mother produces, it weighs between four and six pounds when it emerges from its den in April. 

Soon thereafter the cub starts sampling the food that its mother eats, but swallows very little. Slowly it begins to eat and digest solid food (cubs are partial to ant brood when very young), but it will still be nursing for the next year, right up until next April or May, when it is weaned by its mother who will then turn her attention to finding a mate. 

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Striped Skunks Out & About

If anyone wants to become familiar with Striped Skunk sign, now is the time to do so, especially if there is still snow on the ground where you live.  Both male and female skunks have been out searching for potential mates for the past month or two, but it hits a fever pitch in March, the peak of their breeding season. If you follow their tracks, be prepared for an extensive outing – they travel as much as two and a half miles a night in their quest for a mate!

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Black Bears Giving Birth

It’s hard to imagine at this time of year, but sometime between the last half of January (the full moon in January is often called the ‘bear moon’) and the first part of February Black Bears give birth to between one and five (usually two) tiny, blind, almost hairless, 9-inch long, one-half pound cubs, each about the size of a chipmunk. The cubs are totally dependent on their mother for food and warmth.

Most dens are exposed to the cold air, as they are located under fallen logs and brush, or are dug into a bank. Occasionally they are on the ground with little or no cover; in all of these locations, the mother acts like a furnace, enveloping her young and breathing on them to keep them warm. The cubs do not hibernate, but nap frequently. Like human mothers, Black Bear mothers sleep when their young sleep, and are alert when their cubs cry and let them know that they are in need of attention. (Photo: taken in March of two-month old Black Bear cubs)

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Bobcat “Sit-down”

If you live where there is an abundance of rabbits or hares, you may have a population of Bobcats as well.  These felines are elusive and shy — setting eyes on a Bobcat is a notable event.  One must, for the most part, settle for signs of their presence and the chances of this are much greater in winter.

Bobcat signs include tracks, scrapes/scat, beds, kill sites (https://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com/2021/02/19/bobcats-preying-on-rabbits-hares/) and cache sites (see https://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com/2015/01/21/a-bobcats-white-tailed-deer-cache/) .  Tracks are by far the most common sign.  Occasionally you come across a protected spot where a hunting cat has sat and surveyed the area for prey (see photo). Because time was spent in the same position the details of its tracks can be well defined in the right snow conditions: four toe impressions (one slightly leading) with a large heel pad that often shows two lobes at the top and three on the bottom, and no claw marks.

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Raccoons Still Active

Due to the warm fall and early winter we’ve had this year, raccoons are still out and very active.  They spent the fall building up an extra layer of fat – about one third of their total weight. This layer provides insulation and sustenance when the weather gets seriously cold and they seek dens (hollow trees, underground burrows, etc.) in which to sleep away the harshest winter days. 

Although they do not hibernate, raccoons can sleep for up to a month at a time and escape the inhospitable conditions of winter in the Northeast.  When the weather eases up, they become active again and their tracks are evident in the snow. Although solitary most of the time, raccoons have been known to participate in group denning during the most bitter cold spells. 

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Beavers & Pounding Headaches

Beavers will do their very best to secure fresh cambium as long as they have access to land.  Even when thin ice starts to form, they are undeterred.  You can hear them as they use the top of their heads to bump up against the ice in order to break through and create a pathway to shore.  Thanks to Kay Shumway, a beloved friend, I had ten good years of observing this behavior every late fall/early winter.  Eventually the thickness of the ice confined the beavers to their lodge and the surrounding water beneath the ice, but until that happened you could count on seeing the sun glinting off the ice shards that inevitably ended up on top of the beavers’ heads.


Young Raccoons Beginning To Venture Outside Of Den

Young raccoons usually will remain in their natal den until they are eight to ten weeks old.  Around this time they start to eat solid food, grow very rapidly and begin to explore at night with their mother.  Usually in late August and September they begin to go out on their own but the family gathers in the fall and dens together through the winter before dispersing in the spring.

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A Busy First Month

We are seeing Red Fox kits above ground as they emerge from their den for the first time since birth, but much has transpired since they were born a month or so ago. Like other canids, including coyotes and wolves, their natal coat of fur was charcoal brown.  A new, second, coat of sandy-colored hair (that matches the sandy soil of the den site) has grown in, to be replaced again within the next two months by a brilliant red coat. The weaning process, which won’t be completed for some time, has begun by the time the kits venture above ground. Their eyes have opened (at 10-12 days), their first set of teeth has come in and they have established hierarchy among themselves.  Down in the den during the past month vicious fighting has taken place among the kits in order to determine which kit was “top dog,” or the alpha (usually the largest kit) and gets the lion’s share of the food delivered by the parents.

By the time we see Red Fox kits, much has happened in their young lives.  They’ve gained sight, a new coat, a set of teeth, the introduction of solid food, and most importantly, hierarchy has been established. Peace now reigns and we get to enjoy the kits’ playful antics as they are introduced to the world above ground.

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Beavers Gathering & Caching Winter Food Supply

Beavers are busy reinforcing their lodges and repairing dams as the days shorten and temperatures fall.  Once these tasks are taken care of, they begin gathering and storing all of the food that they will need this winter, for once ice forms they will no longer have access to land.

Their winter food cache is placed as close to the entrance of their lodge as possible, as the inhabitants of the lodge will be swimming out to this pile frequently to obtain food.  After hauling branches and saplings to the lodge, the beaver dives down and jabs the butt end of the branch into the mud at the bottom of the pond.  Additional branches are woven into this base layer until eventually most caches weigh two or more tons. One can often see the pile’s top branches and leaves rising above the surface of the water. 

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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

11-30-18 otter with fish_U1A2403

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

11-16-18 gray squirrel_U1A1563

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

3-30-18 yearling black bears mock fighting 1276

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

3-28-17 black bears playing 1368

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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