Because of the popularity of hazel nuts, it is surprising to find viable fruits on Beaked Hazel (Corylus cornuta) in mid- to late winter. Ruffed Grouse, Wild Turkey, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Beavers, Snowshoe Hares, Raccoons, Red Squirrels, Eastern Chipmunks and White-footed Mice all vie for these delectable nuts.
This multi-stemmed, wind-pollinated shrub bears fruit that is wrapped in a modified leaf (involucre). Beaked Hazel (as opposed to American Hazel, Corylus americana) is named after the tapering beak-shape of its nuts’ involucres. One might suspect that any fruits remaining on hazel shrubs at this time of year must not be edible, but the photographed specimen was very tasty!
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There were some extraordinarily creative guesses for this Mystery Photo, with several correct ones that identified the cottontail rabbit nest pictured yesterday. Two species of cottontails can be found in New England – the common Eastern Cottontail Rabbit and the increasingly scarce New England Cottontail Rabbit. Although the two species are very difficult to tell apart, young New England Cottontails usually have a black spot between their ears and never a white spot, which makes this nest that of an Eastern Cottontail. The female rabbit digs a nest hole about four inches deep and up to eight inches long, usually in grass or thickets where it is well concealed. She lines it with grass and fur plucked from her body. After her 3 – 9 young are born, she covers the nest with her fur and dry grasses and leaves the are in order not to draw attention to the nest. She returns at night to feed the young, squatting over the nest while her young reach up to nurse. Unlike hares, rabbits are born blind with only a sparse covering of hair and remain in the nest from three to five weeks, when the white blaze on their forehead starts to disappear. Snowshoe hares are born with eyes open, fully furred and disperse from the nest soon after birth. (Thanks to Noreen Anderson for photo.)
If you ever think you work hard for the food you eat, try tracking a fisher! I would estimate that I followed a fisher’s tracks for at least three miles today and other than stopping to mark its territory once, and investigate a log or two, there was not a sign of its finding a thing to eat. Fishers travel widely in search of prey — one was recorded travelling 56 miles in three days. The fisher I followed traveled through prime snowshoe hare (their most common prey item) habitat, as well as areas where porcupines have been known to den. A fisher’s food requirements are about one snowshoe hare per week, a squirrel or two per week, or 2 – 22 mice per day. A porcupine will feed a fisher for a month or so. (Note snowshoe hare tracks on bottom left of photograph, and fisher tracks running diagonally across the image, where the fisher left its mark.)
Rabbits and hares generally deposit their scat pellets one at a time, so when you find several in one spot, you know they’ve been there a while, either eating or resting. The little round, brown, fibrous rabbit and hare pellets we are familiar with have actually been ingested twice – a process referred to as coprophagy. On its first passage through the digestive system, bacteria act on the food in the large caecum (a pouch near the start of the large intestine, which most herbivorous mammals possess) reducing it to a more easily digestible form and concentrating it, particularly its vitamin B and protein content.The caecum, however, is past the portion of the digestive tract in which most resorption takes place. It is therefore necessary for the animal to reingest the resulting pellets, which are soft and green and covered with mucous, to extract as much of the nutrition as possible. These soft pellets are eaten directly from the anus. Coprophagy increases protein digestibility from 50 percent in one pass through the digestive system to 75 to 80 percent upon reingestion. Cellulose digestion is increased from 14 percent in one pass through the digestive system to two or three times that amount when the feces is re-ingested.