Category Archives: Mammals

The Wild Zebras of Maryland

Zebras sneezing, Lake Naivasha, Kenya, 2007 (photo by Eric Brelsford via Flickr Creative Commons license)

15 October 2021

The saga of Kodiak the Steller’s sea eagle who escaped from Pittsburgh’s National Aviary on 25 September ended when he was captured on 3 October. Not so for the wild zebras of Maryland. No one thought they would still be roaming in October and yet …

On 31 August, three (*not five) zebras escaped from an 80-acre farm off Duley Station Road in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. One was found dead in an illegal snare trap on 16 September. Now more than seven weeks later two are still on the loose in Prince George’s County. It’s not for lack of trying.

Zebras are genetically programmed to escape lions, hyenas and cheetahs so they’re naturally wary and very fast. They can’t be caught by chasing, they have to be corralled. Caretakers and Prince George’s County Animal Control have been trying to lure them into a pen. The zebras are having none of it.

At first there were many reports including this 7 September news story from NBC Washington. Click here to read the details. (Note: With six zebras in camera view, I believe this footage was taken above the farm.)

Plus this nighttime sighting reported by on 24 September.

But the news is quieter now. The zebras have plenty of grass to eat and lots of places to go. They’re winter-hardy and can be out there indefinitely.

Despite every attempt to domesticate them, zebras are forever wild.

p.s. For weeks the media reported that 5 zebras had escaped but on 14 October the Washington Post reported it was only three. At first three traveled together, then one died and it was two. Three + two = five? Not in this case.

UPDATE on 18 October: The latest plan for capturing the two zebras is to use more zebras!

(photo by Eric Brelsford via Flickr, embedded videos and tweet from NBC Washington, WUSA9. Check @MarylandZebras for updates)

The Black Walnut Challenge

Black walnuts just fallen from the tree (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

10 October 2021

Black walnuts are ripe now and falling from the trees. Guarded by a black-staining husk and a very hard shell, getting to the walnut meat is a challenge for humans and squirrels alike.

Humans gather and process in bulk. Squirrels gather and eat one at a time. Humans use tools, squirrels use teeth.

Both of us get walnut stains on our hands. Squirrels also get stains in their mouths.

Stains on the hands after hulling 500 black walnuts (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

For a squirrel, husking a single black walnut takes about 8 minutes (watch 8 minutes here).

Fox squirrel opening a black walnut (photo by Donna Foyle)
Fox squirrel gnawing a black walnut (photo by Donna Foyle)

Opening the shell can take 40 minutes. (See photos and description at How to Open a Black Walnut). While the squirrel is gnawing the shell, you can hear a scratchy sound. Have you heard this sound in the woods? Watch and listen in the video below.

For an individual human it takes 3-4 weeks to gather, husk, clean, dry (3 weeks), and shell black walnuts. It makes sense to do this in bulk as shown in the video below.

Black walnuts are a challenge … so I buy them at the grocery store.

p.s. Read more about black walnuts at the Phipps #bioPGH blog.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Donna Foyle)

Otter Have a Happy Friday

“And that is the story of how otters made me late for dinner” — Ollie @whalefern

8 October 2021

A week ago Ollie @whalefern was sitting on a fishing dock in a state park in (I think) the Pacific Northwest when seven river otters showed up.

At first the otters played and groomed but soon they fell asleep in a heap. Ollie couldn’t leave the dock without disturbing them. No way!

See Ollie’s story — “How otters made me late for dinner” — and lots of otter antics at this link. Scroll to the top after you click to get to the beginning!

Happy Friday!

(embedded tweet from Ollie @whalefern)

Baby Weasels Play to Learn

Short-tailed weasel adult, also called stoat (photo by USFW via Wikimedia Commons)

13 August 2021

Short-tailed weasels, also called stoats or ermine (Mustela erminea), are small fierce predators that can kill prey four times their size (photo of killing a rabbit here). As babies they learn to tackle and hold by playing with their siblings.

Orphaned stoats miss these important lessons if they remain alone. In the video below from the UK, two orphans meet for the first time, then play and play and play.

By the way, wild weasels are not good pets and it is illegal to keep them without a permit. If you want a pet weasel, get a ferret.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original. YouTube video embedded from The Dodo)

A Bear Was There

Black bear track with human hand and dog pawprint for scale, 22 July 2021, Moraine State Park (photo by Kate St. John)

25 July 2021

When four of us walked the Muddy Creek Trail at Moraine State Park last week we found something we hadn’t expected. In the mud at our feet was a very large footprint. A bear was there.

None of us knew much about animal tracks but the footprint was unmistakably a large black bear (Ursus americanus), easy to identify because it’s the only bear species in Pennsylvania. Debbie hovered her hand nearby for scale.

Why is this bear track so narrow front-to-back? Black bears don’t roll their feet heel-to-toe like we do so their heels don’t always register. This illustration from the National Park Service shows front and hind tracks. I have shaded the heels that leave shallow or no prints. Bears step forward on their tiptoes. (*)

Track of a black bear, shaded to show registration (image originally from Yellowstone

Immediately we wondered how recently the bear had been there. Was it hiding in a nearby thicket? The track tells a story, some of which I am too uninformed to decipher.

At first glance the bear print seems to show just palm pad, toes and claws, but a smaller print came later, superimposed on the bear’s shallow-registered heel. The smaller mammal walked by after the bear was gone, perhaps long gone.

Who was that smaller mammal? People walk their dogs on this trail. Was it a dog print? I know very little but I’ll attempt to identify it. (I used for these details.)

The print is round and doesn’t show any claws (canines usually show claws). The fourth toe is lower than the others, the second toe is highest. My guess is it’s a feline and too large for a house cat. Was it a bobcat? I should have taken more photos. (**)

I did take more bear track photos. Here’s a hind foot. Notice the pointy heel.

Black bear track, hind foot, 22 July 2021, Moraine State Park (photo by Kate St. John)

And perhaps a front foot.

Black bear track, 22 July 2021, Moraine State Park Muddy Creek Trail (photo by Kate St. John)

In any case, both animals were gone before we arrived. Pennsylvania black bears avoid people unless habituated to our feed or garbage.

Why was the bear there? Bears use our trails and roads for the same reason we do. It’s easier than wading through the underbrush.

(*) Did you know that cats and dogs always walk on their tiptoes? A subject for another day.

(**) UPDATE: Expert tracker David Rohm says the small round print looks good for bobcat.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Backyard Cats

Bobcat in a Tucson backyard (photo by Donna Memon)

9 July 2021

Backyard cats in Arizona are a lot more interesting that the ones we have in Pittsburgh.

Instead of small domestic pets or feral cats, both Felis catus, Arizonans have bobcats (Lynx rufus) that come to drink from the water bowls …

Bobcat in a Tucson backyard (photo by Donna Memon)

… then lay down in the shade …

Bobcat yawns in a Tucson backyard (photo by Donna Memon)

… and have a nice long sleep.

Be careful when you open the door!

(photos by Donna Memon; embedded tweet from @KateSmithAZ)

Stay Away From My Baby

Raven strafes a coyote that got too close to her youngster (screenshot from tweeted video by @CrytzerFry)

8 June 2021

Ravens and coyotes can work together but not when a fledgling raven is involved. A motion detection camera captured this mother raven’s reaction when a coyote came too close to her fledgling.

Keep your distance! Stay away from my baby!

p.s. Sometimes ravens and coyotes work together. See these anecdotes from the Adirondacks ( and San Francisco (

(screenshot from embedded Twitter video by Melissa Crytzer Fry @CrytzerFry)

Back Up So I Can Take Your Picture

Short-tailed weasel (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

6 April 2021

Clare Kines @NunavutBirder tweeted this encounter with a short-tailed weasel.

Also known as stoats or ermines, short-tailed weasels (Mustela erminea) have a circumpolar distribution. This one was filmed in Nunavut, the most northern of Canada’s Arctic territories.

See more at Clare Kines’ award-winning photography website.

(tweet by Clare Kines. photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Birds Decline, Small Mammals Thrive in a Hotter World

Cactus mouse (photo by J.N. Stuart, Creative Commons license via iNaturalist)

8 March 2021

What is the future of life on Earth as the climate warms? Which species will thrive and which decline? A study published last month in Science indicates that “in a warming world, it’s better to be a small mammal than a bird.”

In the early 1900’s Joseph Grinnell made extremely detailed records of flora and fauna in California’s Mojave Desert for the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. A century later the average temperature in the Mojave is now 2oC (3.6oF) higher. Using Grinnell’s records a team led by Eric Riddell resurveyed Grinnell’s locations to find out how birds and mammals fare in hotter, drier conditions.

If you like birds, you won’t like the news.

[In the Mojave Desert] Over the past century, occupancy of small mammals remained stable while birds severely declined.

On average, every spot surveyed had lost more than 40% of its desert bird species, such as American kestrels or mountain quail. At most sites, even the remaining species were scarcer.

Science Magazine: In a warming world it’s better to be a small mammal than a bird.
American kestrel, 2013 (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Small mammals get around the heat problem by staying underground during the day. Birds don’t have this choice and they have an additional disadvantage — their bodies use more energy to stay cool.

It looks like there will be fewer birds in a hotter world. Read more in Science Magazine: In a warming world it’s better to be a small mammal than a bird.

p.s. There is a bird who stays underground during the day and eats small mammals in the Mojave Desert: the burrowing owl.

(cactus mouse photo by J. N. Stuart via iNaturalist (CC BY-NC-ND), American kestrel photo by Cris Hamilton)

Was The Close-up Worth It?

Striped skunk, Cokeville Meadows NWR, Wyoming, Sept 2015 (photo by K. Theule/ USFWS)

This is not my story but it’s a good one.

In September 2015 K. Theule of the US Fish and Wildlife Service was in the office at Cokeville Meadows NWR, Wyoming when she saw a skunk outside the window. She picked up her camera and …

Sometimes as a photographer, I don’t make the wisest decisions. Usually it’s a light or angle or exposure mishap. However, today my risk assessment wasn’t fully completed before I poked my head out the office door. After pressing the shutter a few times I was left wondering if the smell was going to last. But who can resist a skunk only 10 feet in front of your office door?! Just a warning to any visitors this week – the Cokeville Meadows office might stink a bit for the next few days.

description of skunk photo by K. Theule on Flickr, USFWS Mountain-Prairie

“Worth the stink? Still not sure…”

Worth the stink? Still not sure … (photo by K. Theule/ USFWS)

(photos by K. Theule/USFWS via Flickr Creative Commons license)