The pollinated and fertilized white flowers of Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) have recently developed into the red fruit for which this plant is named. Many people are familiar with its relative, Common Elderberry (S. canadensis), which produces dark purple fruit that is used to make jams, jellies, pies and elderberry wine. While Red Elderberry fruit can be used to make all of these, its raw berries are toxic. Red Elderberry’s popularity is greatest with pollinators, birds and four-footed mammals.
The cyanide-producing toxins in its flowers, (raw) fruit, stems, bark, leaves and roots do not seem to discourage wildlife’s attraction to Red Elderberry. The odor of its flowers, its nectar, and its highly nutritious pollen attract many ants, bees, wasps and flies. At least 50 species of songbirds eat the bright red fruits, including red-eyed vireos, ruffed grouse, song sparrows, gray catbirds, brown thrashers, and thrushes. Squirrels, mice, raccoons, and black bears also eat the fruit. Porcupines, mice and snowshoe hares eat the buds and bark in winter. The foliage is usually avoided by herbivores, although white-tailed deer and moose browse on it occasionally.
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In the winter Moose feed mainly by browsing on twigs and by scraping bark off of trees. Like White-tailed Deer and other ruminants, Moose lack incisors in their upper jaw; they bite off their food between their lower incisors and a hard pad on the upper gum.
An obvious sign of Moose is the “incisor scrapes” they make when removing bark from trees with their lower incisors. An upwards movement of their head enables them to scrape a strip of bark from the tree. Sometimes instead of a clean scrape, neatly cut at both ends, you will see shredded bits of bark flapping at the top of a scrape. This occurs when a Moose begins a scrape and then grabs the piece of bark between its incisors and hard palate and pulls it upwards, peeling off a strip.
When in Moose habitat, look for the incisor scrapes of Moose on Red and Striped Maple, Willow, Trembling Aspen, Balsam Fir and Mountain Ash. Moose scrapings can be found starting as low as ten inches from the ground and can extend as high as eight feet (most likely made by a Moose standing on snow).
Ruffed grouse, white-tailed deer and moose, all prey species and all plant eaters, share certain characteristics that have to do with food consumption and digestion. They all tend to eat large quantities rather quickly in one spot, and then move to another, safer, spot to digest their food. This technique minimizes the amount of time that they are likely to be out in the open and focused more on eating than on predators. Eating quickly and storing the consumed food in a chamber and digesting it later at their leisure, under cover, makes a lot of sense.
All three animals have a multi-chambered stomach and microorganisms efficient at breaking down cellulose and extracting nutrients from plants. After browsing on branches and buds, deer and moose seek shelter where they then regurgitate and chew their cud. Grouse do not linger over their meals – 20 minutes of foraging will sustain them all day. Leaves, buds and twigs are stored in their crop (a wide portion of the esophagus) until the grouse seeks shelter, where the food eventually reaches their gizzard. Here, with the aid of gravel, it is ground up.
If predictions for the future of our climate are accurate, and if no significant measures are taken to counter it, one of the hardest hit animals in North America will be the Moose. While well-adapted to winter conditions, Moose start experiencing heat stress when summer temperatures get above 57°F. Why this intolerance to heat? A highly insulative coat, thick skin and low surface to volume ratio. When faced with very warm summers, Moose start spending more time in the shade, in cool water and in locations with cooling winds. They also frequently move to higher elevations. When it gets really hot, they stop foraging for food during the one season they have to bulk up.
Not only will their chances of survival during the coming winter be compromised as a result of this, but successful reproduction is far less likely. In addition, heat stress can cause lowered immune response which leaves the affected animals more vulnerable to disease and parasites such as winter ticks and brainworm. Adding to these challenges, the make-up of woody plant species in boreal forests will also be affected by warmer temperatures, which in turn will affect both the browsing choices and the availability of shade for Moose.
It is theorized that within the next 100 years temperatures will rise on average 9 – 13°F. in winter and 6 – 14°F. in summer (New Hampshire Fish & Game). On top of that, Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire are at the southernmost part of the Moose’s range. The future does not look bright for the largest member of the deer family in the Northeast.
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It is fairly well known that the Moose population in the Northeast (and elsewhere) has plummeted — New Hampshire has lost more than 40% of their Moose in the last decade, and this trend is occurring throughout northern New England. Global warming is at the heart of this decline. Warm winters have allowed the tick population to soar, and blood loss due to ticks has weakened Moose, making them susceptible to anemia and unable to fight off disease. The negative effect of warmer temperatures doesn’t stop there. Summer heat stress promotes weight loss, a fall in pregnancy rates and increased vulnerability to disease. Excessive warm weather drives Moose to seek shelter, rather than forage for much-needed food. This phenomenon has been described by Moose biologists as “one of the most precipitous non-hunting declines of a major species in the modern era.”
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Moose are in their element during northern New England winters. Their bodies are built for snowy, cold conditions. Moose lose relatively little heat due to their large body which gives them a low surface area-to-volume ratio. Long legs enable them to travel through deep snow. However, when the snow gets to be more than 28 inches deep, the energy expended to find food is not worth it. Under deep snow or crust conditions, moose often seek shelter in stands of conifers where the snow is not as deep and where browse is available.
Conifers are beneficial to moose in yet another way. Moose are able to withstand very cold temperatures –in fact, they become uncomfortable (and have been known to pant) when winter temperatures are higher than 23°F. Their coat consists of long, hollow outer hairs and a dense soft undercoat. Our winter temperatures can be quite variable and moose depend on the shade of coniferous cover to keep them cool during our warmer winter days.
Moose are ruminants, as are cattle, goats, sheep and deer; they have a four-chambered stomach, which is necessary in order to digest the cellulose in the vegetation they consume. Food goes to the rumen and the reticulum, the first two chambers, which contain bacteria and other microorganisms that help digest the cellulose as it mixes with saliva. Here the food separates into solids and liquid material and the solids clump together to form the cud, which is regurgitated and chewed a second time in order to break it down into smaller bits. The third chamber, or omasum, functions as a pump, sending the food to the final chamber, the abomasum, where the digestion process is completed.