You may remember this news on 23 December 2021: “Three days before Christmas a 260 pound black bear was trapped behind Boy Scout Headquarters in Downtown Pittsburgh where he’d been living for more than two weeks on a wooded hillside.”
How did a black bear end up in a city that’s nearly surrounded by rivers? Did he walk through the East End neighborhoods?
The clue comes from the bear’s first sighting in the Strip District, a neighborhood built on the Allegheny River floodplain. He probably came from the north and swam across the Allegheny.
The sun was shining and the temperature was in the mid 30s when six of us arrived at Beaver Meadows Recreation Area in the Allegheny National Forest on 12 Jan 2022. We were there to find 40 red crossbills (Loxia curvirostra) reported on 29 December. Just one perched in profile would be enough for me. I had to see the beak.
This one dragged his tail as he bounded across the path, planting his back feet in the prints of his front feet as he hurried from one subnivean hole to the next.
Since meadow voles have relatively short tails my guess is that the print was made by a white-footed mouse, (Peromyscus leucopus) pictured below. Notice the long tail.
We saw many other tracks including:
Fox on the lake ice
Otters slid on lake ice near their den. A local man helped us with this ID and showed us a photo of the otters.
Red squirrels made small highways between trees.
This was my first ever look at snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus) tracks but I recognized the distinctive large hind feet that spread like “snowshoes” to help them walk on snow. (An optical illusion may make the footprints appear to bulge. My boot is at bottom of the photo for scale.)
Here are two sets of snowshoe hare prints, plain and marked up with notes. In the smaller track the hind feet are just less than 4″ long. In the larger the hind feet are about 6″ long.
And here’s the mammal that makes these prints. Snowshoe hares are active at night, dusk and dawn so of course we didn’t see any.
Ultimately we saw 10 species of birds, only 26 individuals, five of which were red crossbills. It was worth the trip for the snowshoe hares. Yes I did see a crossbill beak.
Three days before Christmas a 260 pound black bear was trapped behind Boy Scout Headquarters in Downtown Pittsburgh where he’d been living for more than two weeks on a wooded hillside. He would have gone unnoticed except for the huge mess he left at the dumpsters every night.
The Energy Innovation Center, next door to the Boy Scouts, set up a surveillance camera and caught him in the act.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission trapped a 200-pound bear next to a dumpster in the Energy Innovation Center’s parking lot along Bedford Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh Wednesday morning. pic.twitter.com/TRLSpiZyDR
After four months on the loose the wild zebras of Maryland are back on the farm from which they escaped in August. News of their return was announced on Tuesday 14 December 2021.
Spokesmen for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the Prince George’s County Department of the Environment confirmed that the zebras have been captured, but they could not provide details on when the recovery took place.
Neither the USDA nor Prince George’s County Animal Services were involved in the capture. They said they were notified Monday that the zebras had been recovered and returned to their herd last week.
We humans assume that what we see is what everyone else sees, including other species. But this isn’t so.
Peregrines see much finer details at a greater distance that we do. The details don’t blur for them in a 200 mph dive. (Click the link to learn more.)
Cats cannot see red-green nor distant details, but they see much better in the dark. Who needs distance vision while looking for a nearby mouse at night? Click here to see photos of our vision versus cats’. Notice the normal vs. red-green-color-blind examples below.
White-tailed deer see regular blaze orange as gray but if the orange has fluorescence it stands out for them. Their vision is best in the blue range so that they see well in twilight.
Birds see ultraviolet light though we cannot. Here’s how we know this and a hint at what birds look like in ultraviolet light.
Do other species see what we see?
No. Birds see more.
(peregrine photos by Chad+Chris Saladin, deer photo by Kate St. John, remaining photos from Wikimedia Commons)
The study found that beyond 50 meters (about 164 feet) in daylight or 30 meters (about 98 feet) at twilight, when most predators hunt, stripes can be seen by humans but are hard for zebra predators to distinguish. And on moonless nights, the stripes are particularly difficult for all species to distinguish beyond 9 meters (about 29 feet.) This suggests that the stripes don’t provide camouflage.
The zebra stripes seemed to dazzle the flies so much that they couldn’t manage a controlled landing. Flies zoomed in too fast and either veered off just in time — or simply bumped into the zebra and bounced off. The flies didn’t seem to like the zebra coats on horses, either, but their bare heads were fair game.
It’s hard to keep track of wild zebras in Maryland from 200 miles away, but I couldn’t help wondering if the two escapees are still roaming Prince George’s County. As of this morning, Google cannot find any news that the zebras have been captured — yes, it would have been big news — so it’s safe to assume they are still at large.
Even if you live near them it’s hard to keep track of the zebras. A lot has happened since they escaped in August.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic scientists wondered if other species could catch the virus and transmit it back to humans. Fortunately, so far no COVID-infected animals have transmitted the virus back to us. However white-tailed deer easily catch COVID from humans and spread it deer-to-deer.
NPR reports that a study of deer in Iowa last year found that deer are very susceptible to COVID. During most of the year 30% of tested deer had COVID, but during hunting season with more human contact 80% of deer showed signs of infection. Deer also spread it easily among themselves so that the prevalence of COVID in deer is now 50 times that of humans.
Deer are lucky. COVID doesn’t make them sick and it doesn’t kill them. But the fact that the virus that causes COVID, SARS-COV-2, circulates so widely among a common North American mammal may come back to bite us.
If deer become a reservoir for SARS-COV-2 and eventually transmit it back to us or to our livestock or companion animals (dogs and cats), then it has a good chance of mutating into something more unpleasant. At the very least it will never disappear.
The fact that deer catch COVID should not surprise us. SARS-COV-2 jumped from bats to humans and then spread easily from human-to-human. Here are some other viruses that cross species.
Influenza originates in aquatic birds (ducks), jumps from birds to domestic pigs, from pigs to humans, then human-to-human. Because the virus evolves so fast a new flu vaccine is needed every year.
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 …