Earth Almanac: November/December 2008

Audubon    Nov./Dec. 2008
Mountain Ash
Darlyne A. Murawski/NGS Image Collection

Tasty Berries

In high country and north country, from Newfoundland to Georgia and as far west as the Dakotas, clusters of red-orange berries bow the pliable branches of mountain ash. Feasting on this gaudy fruit are mammals—especially mice, squirrels, and humans—and such birds as red-headed and pileated woodpeckers, ruffed grouse, ptarmigan, sharp-tailed grouse, blue grouse, jays, thrushes, and waxwings. Most people find the berries too bitter to eat raw, but they add sugar and render them into wines, pies, and preserves they generally consider delicious. The tree’s twigs and leaves are a favorite browse of white-tailed deer, and where populations of these animals have irrupted in the absence of natural predation—such as in parts of Pennsylvania and New York—mountain ash has been eliminated from the forest mix. Seedlings are available at most nurseries. Make sure to plant them in full sunlight and in fairly moist soil. In addition to attracting wildlife to your yard and brightening the winter scene, they will ward off the malevolent effects of all witchcraft—at least according to British sources that have been feted as highly reliable, though not recently.

Chum Salmon
Hiroya Minakuchi/Minden Pictures

Frozen Fish

Long after most other anadromous fish have spawned, when ice glazes dead reeds and piles black and silver bands around side channels, chum salmon surge into their natal streams. As they mill around in shallow water their exposed backs may freeze, a mostly inconsequential hazard since, like all our Pacific salmon, they are now living gametes, literally rotting away as all energy is diverted to reproductive organs. Soon they’ll die, infusing sterile headwaters with marine protein without which few of their progeny would survive. Chums are also called “dog salmon” because they appeared only after people had dried sufficient fillets of other species and were thus used to feed sled dogs, or perhaps because ripe male chums develop long, canine-like teeth. They are the second-largest Pacific salmon (after kings) and by far the most widely distributed, ranging from Oregon to the Sea of Japan, Siberia, the Arctic Ocean, and western Canada to the MacKenzie River. Like pink salmon, but unlike kings, cohos, and sockeyes, juveniles migrate almost immediately to the sea, where they feed on zooplankton until they grow large enough to take fish. They’ll spend three to six years in the salt, then return for their one-way spawning run.

Tundra Swans
David Trozzo

Swan Song

Usually you hear them first—a flight call reminiscent of Canada goose music—and they will be far in front of the sound by the time it reaches you. Look up and you may see their V formation silhouetted against sun or moon, sometimes a mile high and, if there’s a strong north wind, moving at close to 100 miles per hour. They’re tundra swans migrating from their Arctic breeding grounds to winter on the interior West’s open water, in the Great Lake states, and along both coasts to southern California and South Carolina. We almost lost these birds to market hunting in the early 1900s, but they’ve rebounded so dramatically that some states now allow sport hunting. Part of the reason for the species’ success is its adaptability. For example, most of the eastern birds used to winter on Chesapeake Bay, but with increasing competition from alien mute swans, most now spend the cold months in coastal North Carolina. Historically, tundra swans ate mostly submerged vegetation, though with widespread wetlands destruction, many have moved inland to feed on grain crops.

Daniel J. Cox/Natural Exposures

Skunk Bear

In tundra and boreal forests of Europe, Russia, Siberia, and Alaska, and in the wild country of the western United States, most notably central Idaho, winter belongs to the wolverine. This, the largest and least-known member of the weasel family, rarely weighs more than 35 pounds, yet it is capable of running down and dispatching full-grown elk and mountain sheep. And it can dig through packed, icebound snow and gnaw through frozen carcasses and bones. Because of these adaptations it is often closely attended by foxes, which gorge on the leftovers. The wolverine marks trees in the fashion of bears, clawing and biting bark and perfuming trunks with powerful musk from its anal and ventral glands—behavior that has earned it the alternate name of “skunk bear.” So adept is it at avoiding traps and opening doors, windows, and even cans with its teeth that it has long been supposed to be in league with the devil.

Swallowtail Butterfly
Joel Sartore

Sleeping Beauties

Suspended batlike from twigs and fence rails east of the Rockies and camouflaged brown or green, black swallowtail butterflies are sleeping away the winter as cashew-shaped chrysalides. If you find one, touch it and it will sometimes wiggle its “tail.” Don’t be afraid to move it to your garden or doorstep, but keep it outside and don’t detach it; take the whole stick or, if possible, a splinter from the fence, and secure the butterfly above ground. In spring check it regularly. As the days lengthen it will turn translucent, and you’ll be able to see black, spotted wings. Any help you give the adult as it struggles from its confinement will abort the wing-hardening process.

Red Fox
Steve Hinch

Red Alert

Red foxes—the most successful and widespread wild canid on earth—are now mating. Listen for their high-pitched love songs, sounding less like barking than screaming. There are few places where you won’t encounter red foxes. Their native range is North Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America’s boreal regions, but in the 17th century, fox hunters, frustrated by our native gray foxes that climb trees instead of running for the hounds, introduced English red foxes to the colonies. Assisted by escapees from fur farms, the species quickly spread to temperate and tropical regions as far south as Central America. In such places as California and Australia, red foxes are a major threat to ground-nesting birds. Still, in most areas they are a beautiful and, at worst, benign part of the wild scene. And while the English race has genetically swamped our natives, the taxonomic difference appears slight. The red fox’s reputation for cunning is well deserved, though intelligence might be a better word. When pursued by dogs or predators it may backtrack or run through water to hide its scent. It’s a resourceful hunter, and in winter it’s adept at locating prey under the snow. Perhaps the best indication of the animal’s intelligence, however, is its passion for play. You can frequently find fox dens by the purloined toys piled around the entrances—dolls, plastic trucks, balls, rattles, etc. And golfers are sometimes amused to see a red fox dash out of the woods and snatch a ball from the green (although their amusement rapidly diminishes as the fox’s game continues). For a video of the red fox hunting in the snow, click here

Golden-crowned Kinglet
Robert Royse

Little Big Bird

The golden-crowned kinglet, named for the yellow crown that flashes open whenever the male is excited, keeps all who notice birds mindful of two cheering thoughts: there is no such thing as “the dead of winter” and much of the living beauty that surrounds us is accreting. This, the world’s smallest perching bird, once nested almost exclusively in the boreal forests of Canada and the northern United States, but with widespread plantings of spruce and fir, it has extended its breeding range as far south as Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. In winter you’ll encounter these hardy mites in any of our states, often in the company of brown creepers, nuthatches, chickadees, and downy woodpeckers. Listen for their buzzy zree or zee-zee-zee. And watch as they hang upside down, flicking tails and wings, and gleaning insect eggs and larvae from bark. They will usually let you approach to within a few feet.

Swamp Rose
Will Cook/Courtesy of USDA Forest Service

Rose for All Seasons

A “rose is a rose,” unless it’s a swamp rose, in which case it is different than all others. This is the only member of the family that tolerates—in fact, likes—bogs, swamps, and poorly drained, acidic bottomland. Like other roses it thrives in full sunlight, but it also does well in partial shade. From Nova Scotia to Minnesota and Florida to Mississippi, its branches and thorns provide shelter for birds and small mammals year-round. In summer the nectar in its striking pink blooms sustains bees, butterflies, and other insects, which reciprocate by disseminating the pollen. Now the blossoms have given way to equally beautiful red fruits—“hips,” relished by countless species of birds and rodents, which reciprocate by broadcasting the seeds in their droppings. A cultivar with double flowers rather than the normal single one is widely available at nurseries. But wild swamp roses can be propagated. Collect the ripe hips. Wash the seeds thoroughly or then place them a warm place (76 degrees) for three to five months. Next place them in a wet, cold (40 to 42 degrees) place for three months. (An alternative method is to collect the ripe hips, dry the seeds, and then give them a five-minute bath in sulfuric acid.) Finally, plant them in pots with a seed-germination mixture and a slow-release fertilizer.


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