Category Archives: Mammals

Cheep and Chip, Tock or Knock

Chipmunk with full cheeks,  Cap Tourmente NWA, Canada (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

1 October 2023

Fall migration has been intense over Pittsburgh lately and promises to be excellent tonight and tomorrow as well. Yesterday morning I went birding at Frick Park, expecting to find loads of warblers. No such luck. The birds flew over without stopping. However, for chipmunks it was a fantastic day.

Despite the current warm weather, chipmunks (Tamias striatus) are frantically gathering food to store in their underground burrows where they’ll spend the winter. Since they can’t use their paws to carry food, they fill their enormous cheek pouches.

What could possibly make their cheeks so fat? How about acorns?

Chipmunk stuffing an acorn in his cheek (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

With so many chipmunks scurrying in autumn, you rarely see two together. Chipmunks are antisocial but they like to make calls to warn each other of predators. Among their most common calls are two kinds of warnings.

Cheep or Chip: “Danger from the ground!” This call sounds almost like a bird and warns of nearby terrestrial predators such as a cat, fox, coyote or raccoon.

video embedded from @MarkCz on YouTube

Tock or Knock: “Danger from the air! I see a hawk!” This is a useful call for birders that tells us to search for a hawk nearby. However, chipmunks know that hawks fly rapidly through the forest so all of them take up the call, far and wide, even though the hawk is not near them. Tock! Tock! Tock! Where is that hawk? Erf!

video embedded from Mybackyardbirding on YouTube

Read more about the chipmunk’s calls at North American Nature: What Sounds Does a Chipmunk Make?

(credits are in the captions)

It’s Time to Hear the Elk

Elk bugling in Elk County, Pennsylvania (photo by Paul Staniszewski)
Elk bugling in Elk County, Pennsylvania (photo by Paul Staniszewski)

29 September 2023

If you’ve been waiting to hear the elk bugling in Pennsylvania, now’s the time to make the trip to Benezette, PA.

In September and October Pennsylvania’s elk (Cervus canadensis) are in the rut, their annual period of sexual activity. The bulls gather harems, pursue the females, antler-spar with other males, and “sing” a bugling love song.

Like white-tailed deer, male elk grow new antlers every year but these cervids are huge. Males are 25% larger than the females and can weigh up to 1,100 pounds with antlers that can span five feet.

Consequently it’s a bit surprising that the bugle is such a high-pitched call. Its bell-like echoing carries far in the woods and fields.

Visit the Elk Country Visitor’s Center in Benezette to see and hear the elk, perhaps even in the parking lot.

If you can’t be there in person, watch the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s live stream

p.s. Elk, also called wapiti, were reintroduced in Pennsylvania in 1913 after we extirpated them in the late 1800s. Did you know white-tailed deer were reintroduced to Pennsylvania, too? 

(photo by Paul Staniszewski)

What Makes a Tiger Successful? Personality Helps

Siberian tiger at Zürich Zoo (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

2 August 2023

The Siberian tiger (Panthera tigris altaica) is the largest tiger subspecies and one of the most endangered animals on the planet. It nearly went extinct in the 1940s due to habitat loss and poaching, but conservation efforts in Russia allowed the population to increase to 400-500 in the wild. This map shows how their range contracted from the 1800s to the 2010s.

Range of the Siberian tiger in the 1800s (pink) and the 2010s (red) – map from Wikimedia Commons

Saving the tigers requires knowing more about them but there are so few in the wild and they are so spread out that studying them would be too intrusive.

Instead a recent study of the dispositions of tigers interviewed the caretakers of 248 semi-wild tigers living in two large wildlife sanctuaries in northeastern China. The goal was to learn the the tigers’ personality traits, the traits that work well and those that don’t.

The research team invited more than 50 feeders and veterinarians to fill out questionnaires with lists of 67 to 70 adjectives that described tiger personality traits for each cat in their care. These words ranged from “savage” and “imposing” to “dignified” and “friendly.” The researchers designed the questionnaires to mimic human personality tests.

… Two distinct personality types emerged that accounted for nearly 40% of the tigers’ behaviors. Tigers that scored higher on words such as confident, competitive, and ambitious fell under what the researchers labeled as the “majesty” mindset. Those that exhibited traits such as obedience, tolerance, and gentleness were grouped together under the “steadiness” mindset. Together, these two personalities explained 38% of the behavioral differences displayed by the tigers in the study.

Science Magazine: Tigers have distinct personalities according to big cat questionnaire

The study then matched the personality ratings of the individual cats to their success in life. “Based on their weights and eating habits, the tigers with majesty mindsets were generally healthier than those with steadiness personalities. They hunted more, mated more often, had more breeding success and appeared to have a higher social status than the steadiness tigers.” — Science Magazine

So for most of the tigers it comes down to Majesty …

Siberian tiger at (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

or Steadiness.

Siberian tiger at Duisberg Zoo (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Understanding their personalities will ease tiger-human interactions in the wild.

BONUS! When I researched this article I learned there are more tigers in captivity in Texas than in the wild. According to some estimates, there are 2,000 to 5,000 tigers in Texas compared to 3,900 in the wild (total of all tiger subspecies).

Compared to most other states Texas has generous (some say “lax”) wildlife-as-pets laws. Pet tigers are supposed to be registered in Texas and the owner must carry $100,000 in liability insurance but the number of registered tigers is lower than the actual number that live in the state.

For instance, take the Bengal tiger who roamed the streets of West Houston in May 2021. Houston is one of the few places in Texas where pet tigers are illegal so of course the 9-month-old tiger, named India, was not registered. The tiger caused a stir after he jumped out of his enclosure and walked around the neighborhood. The owner bundled him into an SUV and drove away, evading police (mistake! The owner was out on bond in a murder case). Eventually the wife turned over the tiger to police and it was given safe haven at the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch where there are other tigers. Read all about it in the Houston Chronicle: Everything we know about the tiger seen roaming a west Houston neighborhood.

p.s. What was it about escaped wild animals 2021? Three months later 3 zebras escaped in Maryland.

(photos and maps from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Animals on Candid Camera

Young bobcats explore near a camera trap at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, NM (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

21 July 2023

Happy Friday! It’s time for wildlife’s own Candid Camera show.

Above, two young bobcats explore near a motion detection “camera trap” at Bosque del Apache. Below, a backyard cam caught the moment when a fox found a skunk in the dark.

Trail cam snaps an encounter between a red fox and a skunk (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

At Melissa Crytzer Fry‘s video camera trap in the Sonoran Desert, a mother Gambel’s quail chased away danger. Turn up the sound and find out what upset her.

A bobcat took a dust bath in front of the same camera.

In the woods, two trail cams were bruised by black bears and lived to tell the tale. First, Mama and cubs:

Then, a young bear scratched his back … on the camera housing.

Smile, you’re on Candid Camera. 🙂

(tweets are embedded, photos are from Wikimedia Commons)

In the Presence of Wolves Coyotes Make a Bad Bet on Humans

Coyote in western Washington state (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

19 July 2023

Some fears, based on a species ancient experience, are bred-in-the-bone and guide behavior for millennia. For example, some people automatically fear snakes even though they never encounter them. This makes sense as an ancient fear spawned from early humans’ experience in Africa.

In the same way coyotes fear wolves. Coyotes are relatively small and hunt alone while wolves are twice the size and hunt in packs. A lone coyote can be eaten by wolves unless it manages to run away.

Size comparison of wolves and coyotes in North America (image from US Fish & Wildlife)

When wolves move in, coyotes leave the area and move closer to humans. Theoretically, the enemy of my enemy is my friend so humans would provide a shield against wolves.

Bobcats exhibit the same behavior in the presence of cougars, whom they fear.

Bobcat near Tucson, Arizona (photo by Donna Memon)
Cougar (Puma concolor) at Glacier National Park (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Unfortunately, getting close to us is a bad bet for coyotes and bobcats with scant experience of humans. A recent study by Laura Prugh in northern Washington state, found that for 35 satellite tracked coyotes and 37 bobcats, the majority of those that died were shot.

Prugh’s work showed that in the case of coyotes and bobcats, gambling on safety with humans was a losing bet. Of the 24 coyotes that died, 14 were at the hands of people (13 shot and one roadkill). None were killed by wolves. Of the 18 dead bobcats, people killed 11. All told, a coyote was 3 times more likely to die at the hands of a human than in the jaws of a carnivore, the researchers found. For a bobcat, the odds were even higher at 3.8 times.

Anthropocene Magazine: Coyotes gamble on human company to avoid wolves. It’s a bad bet.

Learn more in Anthropocene Magazine –> When coyotes gamble on human company to avoid wolves it’s a bad bet.

p.s. Yes, there are coyotes in the City of Pittsburgh. Those who live in cities are much better at coping with us. See Anthropocene Magazine: Coyotes live in almost all US cities.

(photos credits are in the captions, click the links to see the originals)

Most Feared at a Picnic?

Black Bear (photo by Chuck Tague)
Black bear (photo by Chuck Tague)

13 July 2023

What animal is most feared at a picnic? If a bear shows up it’s very frightening but if everyone shouts he’ll leave.

When it comes to fear this slow-moving docile animal makes everyone freeze in place. Oh no!

Don’t move! Don’t. Move.

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

Read more about skunks in this vintage article:

(photo credits in the captions)

Bird on a Groundhog?

Cattle tyrant bird on a capybara (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

30 June 2023

You’ll never see this bird and mammal wandering in North America.

The bird is the cattle tyrant (Machetornis rixosa) of South America, related to the great kiskadee whose northern range extends into south Texas.

The mammal is the world’s largest rodent, a capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris), also in South America.

Capybaras are semi-aquatic (“hydro” in their genus name) and very social, living in groups of up to 100 individuals. See both characteristics in this video.

Capybara’s are so large that a raptor can look small when perched on one of them as shown in this vintage article.

Who’s The Biggest Threat to a Nest?

Raccoon in a tree (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

13 June 2023

When I saw a blue jay eating a baby bird in Schenley Park last week I jumped to the conclusion that jays are a huge threat to nesting birds … but are they? A 2016 analysis of 53 North American nest-predator studies, comprising more than 4000 camera-monitored nests, found that the top predators are far different than I expected. The biggest threat to a nest varies by region, habitat, the size of nesting adults, and the height of the nest.

Across the North American continent about 37% of nest predation is done by mammals, a combination of “mesopredators” (raccoons, foxes, squirrels) and rodents.

The proportion of known-identity predation events attributed to each major nest-predator guild from 1917 nest-predation events (graph from DeGregorio et al, BioScience, Aug 2016, colors added)

The most likely predator varies by region. Hot colors on the maps below indicate the top category of predators.

The predicted predator-specific nest-predation probabilities across North America for (a) corvids, (b) mesopredators, (c) snakes, and (d) rodents (DeGregorio et al, BioScience, Aug 2016)

One of the 53 studies, published in 2007, listed predation counts by species in the continental U.S. Thompson et al’s top six nest predators are shown in the slides below.

  • #1. Rat Snake

Interestingly southwestern PA doesn’t have a single top predator because there are so many to choose from. Fortunately, even though predator richness is greatest at mid-latitudes (such as Pittsburgh), it is a poor predictor of predation probability.

So who’s one of the top nest predators in Pittsburgh? He’s looking at you (at top).

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, annotated maps and graphs from Nest Predators of North American Birds: Continental Patterns and Implications, DeGregorio et al, BioScience, August 2016)

(*) Perhaps this is The Revenge of the Mammals: When dinosaurs, birds’ ancestors, ruled the Earth they feasted on mammals, all of whom were tiny and hid underground. Now the tables are turned and small birds are at the mercy of mammals.

Bear Trashes Truck

A bear wanted to get in this vehicle, California, 2016 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

8 June 2023

Just because black bears don’t have thumbs doesn’t mean they can’t get into cars and trucks. If there’s food inside a vehicle they have a big incentive to open it, even if it means breaking the glass and bending metal, as shown above in California.

This week in Evergreen, Colorado a bear smelled dog food inside a truck in a driveway. Since the truck was unlocked he didn’t have to break the windows and doors to get in.

See what happened next in this tweet from Colorado Parks and Wildlife — Northeast Region (@CPW_NE).

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, tweet embedded from @CPW_NE)

80% of the World’s Dogs Are Street Dogs

Village dog in Ecuador (photo by Kirk Johnson via Flickr Creative Commons license)

23 May 2023

An article about tracing the DNA of the famous sled dog Balto included this (paraphrased) fact about dogs:

Geneticist Kathleen Morrill compared Balto’s DNA with more than 600 genomes of wolves, coyotes, and dogs of different breeds including modern sled dog breeds such as Siberian huskies, more physically and genetically isolated sled dogs in Greenland, and “village dogs”— ownerless canines that live in Africa, South America, and Asia and make up 80% of the world’s dogs.

Science Magazine: Hidden details of world’s most famous sled dog revealed in massive genomics project

Being from a place where free-ranging dogs are rare because they’re collected by Animal Control, I was amazed to learn that more than three quarters of the dogs on Earth are “village” or “street” dogs.

I had a taste of this on my trip to Ecuador in February. I saw many, many free-ranging dogs in the cities, villages and the rural countryside.

Street dogs in Ecuador (photo by Zebo Serrano via Flickr Creative Commons license)

The dogs in Quito understood busy streets and the ebb and flow of traffic. They jaywalked when the street was clear to feast on the garbage bags placed on the median for collection. This was obviously a problem in rural places where people built raised platforms for their trash bags.

Not all of the dogs were on the street. I saw them perched on balconies …

Dog on a balcony, Ecuador (photo by Man Bartlett via Flickr Creative Commons license)

… and on roofs.

Dog on the roof, Ecuador (photo by F Deventhal via Flickr Creative Commons license)

At first I thought the street dogs were ownerless strays but then I noticed some had collars.

Veterinarian Nancy Kay visited Ecuador in 2016 and asked questions about the street dogs. She learned that most had owners but the owner-dog relationship is different than we’re used to in the States. Her insights include (paraphrased from her The Street Dogs of Ecuador blog):

  • “Much like ravens and crows, these street dogs always managed to get out of the way [of vehicles] just in the nick of time.
  • For the most part the dogs are owned solely for the purpose of property protection.
  • While the dogs go home at night, most of their daylight hours are spent out on the streets.
  • Most receive a modicum of food from their owners, so must rely on food found on the streets to sustain themselves.”

Learn more about the street dogs of Ecuador in veterinarian Nancy Kay’s blog: Speaking For Spot, The Street Dogs of Ecuador.

p.s. There are no ravens or crows in Ecuador. Perhaps dogs fill that niche.

(None of these photos are mine. Credits and links to the original photos are in the captions)