Skunks (family Mephitidae) don’t get their due. Recognized mostly for their harsh smell (so distinct, animals that have never even seen a skunk know the scent); and for their cartoon counterparts (which, for some reason, usually have a french accent even though none are native to Europe); skunks are most often portrayed in comedy settings; are thought badly of; or not thought of at all (behind every great comedian is sadness, they say). Yet skunks are one of the most significant insect predators, every night consuming up to a half pound of beetles, worms, grubs and other six-legged pests from gardens and fields.
Usually seen only at night – a nocturnal species – skunks join raccoons; coyotes; possum; bobcats and even foxes who have learned in the world of humans, it’s often safer in the darkness than in the daylight when most people are out and about and likely to chase you or yell at you or even to be hit by a car.
“Just the standard nighttime patrol here, nothing to see, go about your business.”
Because the nighttime is unfamiliar to most people (those fairy tales about creatures in the night didn’t just come from someones imagination), we also don’t often think about night-time animals and the lives they live while we are asleep. So on this Fourth of July weekend, when parties and campfires and, to animals the most strange, noisy, and frightening of all, fireworks light the sky, we should remind ourselves of those that aren’t outside just a few nights, but every night. As we celebrate our Fourth (which is about freedom from persecution – not freedom to do whatever we want anytime we want) remember the freedoms and lives of wildlife aren’t based upon an historical and annually celebrated event; but on their ability to survive in a changing world.
Michonne Says: It’s best just to stay underground at night. There’s all sorts of dangerous things out there and who knows what they’re doing. I don’t want to know.
Every dad, the saying goes, has his day. And that day is today!
Humans, of all animals, generally spend many years with mom and dad, who are here to provide support and guidance – even when we are adults ourselves and dad’s not so much helping, as showing up at odd times to demonstrate how to re-wire an electrical outlet or trim a tree or barbeque a turkey, which are all useful skills but not necessarily useful at this moment. While our dad might know best, in the animal world most dads don’t stick around long to teach most anything – in many species fathers leave shortly after young are born, or in some cases even before. To be fair many wildlife moms loose interest in young a year or less after they are born, kicking them out of the house – nest, burrow, or meadow clearing – when the young are barely able to care for themselves (‘still in graduate school’ is no excuse).
He: “Say, what’s for dinner?” She: “It’s a surprise….”
So in honor of dad here’s our best wishes for a day when you’re appreciated not necessarily for what you do, but for who you are. And dad, it’s a day to be glad you’re one of the human-type fathers, and not, say, a male spider who is often eaten, head first, by his partner for not taking out the trash or some other offense, real or imagined.
Michonne Says: I’ve got to say, marmot fathers don’t seem to do much. Sometimes they watch for danger and give a warning whistle but usually they just lay on rocks in the sun and they don’t dig burrows or gather soft grass for nests or even tell many stories. I don’t understand why they’re here at all.
Officially, the first day of summer isn’t marked with the end of school; the appearance of inflatable pool toys and barbeque gear in the stores; or even days so hot it seems that summer not only has arrived, but will last forever. The recorded start of summer is the Summer Solstice, this year June 20. Astronomically this marks the point when the sun reaches the highest position above the equator, to which it has been ascending since last winter; and after this date, it’s all downhill as the sun lowers, bit by bit, and the days become a little shorter, the temperature a little cooler, and in the stores we start to see summer gear replaced with Christmas merchandise. Which, according to the retail calendar, should start happening about June 21.
Michonne Says: Sometimes the hot-time is so hot marmots just go inside our burrows and sleep. Who would want to be out in all that hot-heat? Well maybe lizard-snakes that sit all day in the sun but never get hot and maybe birds that don’t seem to know better. And marmots if we get hungry and want to find some flowers to eat.
Remember to apply sunscreen if you’re going outside in the summer. Or sun-tan lotion, depending on which vending machine you find.
Upon the start of summer, we can look forward to balmy days of sunshine gentled by a calm breeze; picnics under a shady tree; relaxing by the pool, lake or on the beach; and hours and hours of daylight to enjoy all these things, and more. But for tens of thousands of recent college graduates, the carefree days of summer are set aside and the search for a job begins (“sure I’m working. looking for a job is a job itself!”). Those liberal arts degrees that seemed like such a good idea four (or more) years ago might not now look so promising. So what to do with your dance degree? Your fine arts accomplishments? The research on Renaissance Refinements? Why not become a sheep shearer?
In case you didn’t know, the majority of wool – that material usually reserved for expensive sweaters and high-end business suits – is the hair of the average domestic sheep (Ovis aries). (Wool can also come from other animals, such as the Alpaca (Vicugna pacos); Rabbit (family Leporidae); Musk Ox (Ovibos moschatus) and of course the Llama (Lama glama ) which is also fun to say – but none of those are closely related to sheep, which only complicates the issue). And just like our hair keeps growing and growing, so does the sheeps’ – so much so that if the wool isn’t sheared – cut off – it becomes matted, uneven, and could even hide parasites and lead to sheep health problems. But not everyone with a pair of scissors can shear a sheep – it takes skill; patience; the proper demeanor and personality; and up to a week of formal education and hands-on practice before anyone can take on the occupation of shearer to the sheep.
And, surprisingly, quite the occupation it is, too. Shearers can earn from $50 to $100 per hour; work with animals; decide when and where you want to work, traveling as close – or as far – as you’d like. There’s currently more sheep that need shearing than there are skilled shearers, and in some areas the skill is so much in demand special schools have been established and are open to anyone with the interest, personality, ability to pay a reasonable tuition and who move really, really fast; not while shearing, but just to enroll. In California, where there is a particular shortage of shearers, the University of California Hopland Research Center shearing program typically fills to capacity within hours of announcement.
“When the day spa was advertised as ‘Shear Delight’, this isn’t what I had in mind.”
While a physical job not for the faint-hearted (working with sharp clippers, electrical cords and animals that would rather be left alone), many shearers and shearing students say there’s more art to the work than expected, comparing it to a dance between the shearer and the sheep where every movement has a purpose and a rhythm is created between shearer and shear-ee. So maybe that dance and fine arts degree might be helpful, after all. Renaissance history is still questionable.
Generations ago, once someone had fulfilled their university requirements, it was said they had ‘earned their sheepskin’, which made little sense as every essay, thesis, dissertation, diploma and degree has been printed on paper for hundreds of years. Now we know what that saying really meant.
Michonne Says: I’ve seen those fuzzy-whites when they have a lot of fur, and later when the men take the fur. I don’t think the fuzzies like it much because they always look embarrassed that their pretty fur is gone. It always grows back, but I don’t think they know that. It’s hard to feel good about yourself when you have short fur and everyone’s looking at you.
Memorial Day was created as a time to show recognition and respect for men and women who had given up everything to help work toward a better world. Now, Memorial Weekend has become a time for vacations, sports, cook-outs and much of the remembering isn’t about those who sacrificed to make our lives better, but remembering to buy the kinds of sodas everyone likes. As we sit down at our campground, picnic site, or dinner table with family and friends it’s easy to forget why we have this day of remembrance, and the world we often take for granted. Just don’t forget to check that everyone at the table is really on the invitation list.
The average Black Bear (Ursus americanus) really smells. That is, they have a highly sensitive sense of smell (and a unique personal odor, also, particularly after more than half a year of hibernation inside a sealed den. In the same situation, the same could probably be said for any of us). But one of the more unique characteristics of our ursine friends isn’t necessarily his lack of personal hygiene, but his sophisticated sinus, more complex than the nose of most any other animal and able to direct a bear toward his territory; other bears; nutritious food sources; or trouble.
Dogs are generally regarded as having an extreme ability to recognize and follow scents. For centuries used to track other animals; search for lost or stolen items; and trained to identify almost imperceptible odors overlooked by humans, dogs have often been the hero when it comes to following even the slightest fragrance. But the average black bear is seven times more sensitive to smells than the most talented bloodhound, and has 100 times greater smell-ability than a human! The bear sense of smell is so great, it’s been a challenge to accurately measure and estimates range from the ability to clearly smell things one or two miles away; up to 20 miles on a good day. (Which, for a hungry bear, a good day means one with lots of over-ripe fruit or fish that have been left out in the sun too long). It is known that black bear cousins, the Brown bear (Grizzly) can smell the dead body of an elk that is submerged underwater; and another relative, the Polar Bear, can track seals below two feet of ice.
Even though the venders never stop in his neighborhood, Maxwell always looks forward to Food Truck Friday.
So, as humans are fond of surrounding ourselves with odoriferous things (maybe because we apparently can’t smell what’s right in front of our noses); and bears are really, really good at smelling everything for miles around; this sets up the potential for trouble. In some areas of the United States there are more bears (and other wildlife) than most humans realize; in fact in many wilderness areas and national parks bears can sense every visitor even though miles away (so lay off the discount cologne, no one wants to smell that all day). But while bears are great at smelling, they’re not very good at identifying the difference between a smell that might actually be food, and something that might smell good, but can’t be eaten. A dirty barbeque grill; candles; garbage; soap; and even air freshener all smell interesting and potentially (to a bear) could be edible. One whiff of an open bottle of sun tan lotion left sitting in camp, and soon you’ll have a bear trying to see if there’s anything in that bottle good to eat. Which is not only immediately dangerous for the bear (they never pause to read the ‘do not drink’ labels); any bear that learns humans have lots of interesting and maybe edible things just sitting around could become a nuisance bear, seeking out humans and human-things – which leads to the bear being captured and often killed. Just remember, if you can smell it – a bear has already smelled it. And might be on his way, right now, to your tent if you haven’t secured all smellables in bear -resistant containers.
So, with this story about the finely conditioned bear scents, it only makes sense that we start a new feature about bears, as there’s too much information to include in a single message all there is to know about bears; bear behavior; and the presence bears have in many of our daily lives: rather it be a fear, kinship, or the closeness of unseen bears within nearby forests. Anything less could lead to pandamonium. (Which isn’t a bear at all).
Michonne Says: Marmots take long naps in the cold-time too and we never smell as bad as bears. I remember one time….oh, this isn’t about how bears smell, it’s what they smell. I don’t know anything about that.
This weeks’ fast-breaking ruminant news has been an announcement of the American Bison (Bison bison) as the official National Mammal of the United States. (The official animal symbol of the USA is the Bald Eagle. And also, for now, the official bird). And, as the news announcers chew on this (many of whom wouldn’t know a Bison from a Beagle), we’re certain to hear the name ‘Buffalo’ mentioned from time to time. Which, if the reporters had quoted from an actual buffalo, these news bites would have correctly identified the Bison and Buffalo as two different, and not that closely related, animals living in different parts of the world and having entirely different histories. But maybe that was too much information for the news outlets to stomach.
Bison enjoyed running long before it became the trend to post selfies of your daily workout.
Bison are a member of the bovine family, generally large, herding, grassland animals that are found, in one species or another, across much of the world. Cows, which are specially bred bovines, are now nearly everywhere on earth there is man. It’s generally believed that cows (and other bovines) have four stomachs – which is somewhat true, as they actually have four compartments of a large stomach, each of which partially digests the tough, fibrous grass and other plants these animals eat. And also why they spend so much time eating, as there’s only a limited amount of nutrients in grass. Bison – for tens of thousands of years the most numerous bovine (or ruminant animal) in North America – could be found practically across the continent: From Atlantic to Pacific coasts; north into Alaska and south into Northern Mexico. Described by Native Americans as ‘too numerous to count’ the Bison was a revered and irreplaceable resource, providing many native nations, particularly those in the central US, with virtually everything they needed to survive. Over time nearly all bison were exterminated, largely because they were seen as a threat to western expansion (and with so many, how could killing a few thousand here or there make any difference). In less than a hundred years the only wild populations remaining in the US were a few small herds in the Midwest – largely the areas of Oklahoma, Kansas, Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas – and within a few decades these were gone also.
Which is strange that an animal that so many people were so anxious to be rid of, has been commemorated on currency; flags; postage stamps; statues; and other remembrances usually reserved for things people, well, appreciate, respect and value. Maybe by the designation this past week of the Bison as the National Mammal – along with the endless work that has gone into protecting the animals that remain and restoring their native environment – the Bison has finally achieved the recognition it deserves. Even though it’s still regularly mis-named as an African or Asian Buffalo that are only distant cousins.
Michonne Says: Those fuzzy-head bisons are one of the main reasons the little flag-tail squirrels live underground. The fuzzy-heads never look where they’re going and they will step on you without a second thought. I’ve heard the dangerous rattler-snakes make their loud rattler noises just to keep the bison from stepping on them, so those bisons don’t seem to pay much attention to anything. There’s not many fuzzy-heads or rattler-snakes living around marmots – I don’t think they like the rocks – but if they did live here, I’d stay underground too.