An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide


Bird Nests: Look But Don’t Collect

11-23-15 mourning dove nest2  005It is prime time to look for bird nests now that leaves have fallen and heavy winter snow has not arrived. Nests such as this Mourning Dove nest are visible and still in fairly good condition. Much can be learned from examining the habitat, exact location, size, shape and construction material of these avian nurseries. But the nests must be left where they are, for possession of not only a bird, but of a bird nest, egg or feather of most migratory birds, even for scientific research or education, is illegal if you do not have a Federal Migratory Bird Scientific Collecting Permit.

Ninety-seven years ago the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), one of our oldest wildlife protection laws, was created. Basically it is a law that protects birds from people. It was made in response to the extinction or near-extinction of a number of bird species that were hunted either for sport or for their feathers. According to the United States Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), “The MBTA provides that it is unlawful to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, possess, sell, purchase, barter, import, export, or transport any migratory bird, or any part, nest, or egg or any such bird, unless authorized under a permit issued by the Secretary of the Interior.” A list of the species this law pertains to can be seen at

Not all North American bird species are protected under the MBTA. (Passenger Pigeons were not protected, and they no longer exist.) Birds that are considered non-native species such as the House Sparrow and the European Starling are not protected, and many hunted or game birds, including ducks, geese, doves, and many shorebirds are subject to limited protection and can be hunted in season.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently working on strengthening this bill to better protect birds from modern-day threats (windmills, cell phone towers, etc.). According to USFWS estimates, power lines kill up to 175 million birds a year. Communications towers account for up to 50 million kills, and uncovered oil waste pits account for up to another 500,000 to 1 million deaths. Data on wind turbines are harder to come by, but current estimates are around 300,000 bird fatalities a year. A number of companies in the oil and power-line sectors have already developed and implemented best practices to protect birds. Let us hope that this trend continues.

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Fishers Eating Fruit & Marking Territory

11-20-15 fisher scat 134When one thinks of fishers, meat-eating predators come to mind. While it is true that the fisher is a generalist, opportunistic hunter and scavenger, and feeds on any prey it can catch and kill (snowshoe hares, rabbits, squirrels and other small rodents, birds, bird eggs, smaller weasels, shrews, porcupines, raccoons, amphibians, reptiles, carrion and a very occasional cat or chicken), it also consumes fruit and nuts, especially when prey is scarce.

Given the amount of apples that are available this fall, even if prey isn’t hard to find, it is not too surprising to see fisher scat composed solely of apples at the base of this scent marking post (confirmed by fine fisher hairs at the very tip of the stump as well as scat).

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Thimbleweed Seeds Dispersing

11-9-15 thimbleweed 087Often Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana) is overlooked when its white flowers are blooming during the summer, but its seed head is rarely missed in the fall. When flowering, stamens surround a green cone that elongates into a cylindrical fruit twice as long as it is wide, giving this member of the Buttercup family its name. The seeds mature in the fall, and the style, part of the female reproductive structure that remains attached to the developing seed, develops a woolly texture, turning the “thimble” into a ball of fluff. A close look reveals that this “cottonball” consists of many tiny dark seeds, each of which bears a cottony tuft to enhance its dispersal by the wind.

Thimbleweed produces chemicals which inhibit seed germination and seedling growth in many species of plants, so often the ground is relatively bare around this plant. Mammalian herbivores usually leave Thimbleweed alone because the foliage contains a blistering agent that can irritate the mouth parts and digestive tract.

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Red Squirrels Winter-proofing Nests

11-18-15 red squirrel2  032Red Squirrels are active year round and have nests that they can retreat to at any time of the year. These nests are used for shelter and rest, for over-wintering and as brood chambers. Red Squirrels build them in a variety of spots (tree cavities, old woodpecker holes, middens, rock piles, rotting logs, tree canopies) with a variety of material (twigs, branches, leaves, shredded grape bark, etc.).

Regardless of where they build their nest or what they build it with, Red Squirrels line it with fine, relatively soft material, such as grasses, bark fibers, feathers and fur. If a Red Squirrel happens upon potential nest-lining material, including an old dog towel hung out to dry, it will readily chew it into shreds and carry them back to its nest.

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Black Bears In No Hurry to Den This Year

11-16-15 black bear apple scat 026Bountiful acorn and apple crops have enabled black bears to delay denning this fall, as this recently-discovered apple-filled bear scat attests to. Denning is triggered by a seasonal shortage of food, low temperatures, and snow cover on the ground. When these conditions cause bears to den, they typically stay within their summer range boundaries. On average black bears enter their dens in November and emerge in April, but this varies considerably with crop and temperature conditions.

Denning sequence usually begins with yearlings, followed by pregnant females, then solitary females, females with cubs, adult males, and last, subadults (not sexually mature) of both sexes. Most dens are excavated below ground, and on well-drained, upland sites. Rarely are they re-used in consecutive years. Adult males are the first to emerge in the spring, followed by subadult males and females, then females accompanied by yearlings, and finally, females with cubs of the year.

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Jelly Fungus Fruiting

11-15-15  jelly fungus IMG_1009The term “jelly fungus” is an informal one applied to species of fungi that have a gelatin-like consistency. The reason for this texture is that the structural filaments, or hyphae, of these fungi have walls that are not thin and rigid as they are in most other species, but instead shrink and expand in response to moisture. The hyphae are expanded and gelatinous when moist, but during dry periods they collapse and become rather hard and resistant to bending. These tissues are able to exist in a dry state for many months and, when exposed to moisture, quickly expand to full size. They may be among the earliest fungi seen in the spring because they have remained dry and inconspicuous all winter, only to revive with the first melting snow or during winter thaws. Jelly fungi come in several colors. Some of the orange and yellow forms found growing on deciduous trees, especially oaks and beech, are called “witches’ butter.”

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Pileated Woodpecker Droppings

11-12-15 pileated droppings 015Pileated Woodpeckers usually defecate frequently during the day at their foraging sites. As they pry off long slivers of wood to expose carpenter ant galleries, the wood chips pile up on the ground. A substantial pile usually indicates that the woodpecker has been working long enough at this site for there to be some droppings in the pile.

Pileated Woodpeckers eat ants, primarily carpenter, and beetle larvae throughout the year. Fruit and nuts are eaten when available. The primary food shifts seasonally, with fruit mainly in the fall, carpenter ants in the winter, wood-boring beetle larvae in early spring, and a variety of insects in the summer.

Like humans, birds excrete metabolic waste products, mainly nitrogen, which remains after food is broken down. Humans excrete waste nitrogen as urea in urine, which is diluted with water. Birds, needing to be as light as possible for efficient flight, do not have heavy, water-filled bladders. They excrete nitrogen as a chemical called uric acid in a concentrated form with no dilution necessary. The white outer coating of bird droppings is uric acid. The insides of the droppings are the actual feces, or the indigestible parts of a bird’s diet. A Pileated Woodpecker’s droppings at this time of year consist of bits of carpenter ant exoskeletons and a surprisingly small amount of wood fiber (see insert). Birds simultaneously evacuate uric acid and feces from an opening just under the tail called the cloaca or vent.

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