A Three-Week Inquiry into the Predator-Prey Relationship

Written by Jim Huckabay on August 14, 2019. Posted in Uncategorized

The moment Homey introduced himself, I knew this was going to be one of those phone calls. “Look,” he said, “I have an idea for something you should write about – or maybe revisit, if my dad is right.” Once we got a bit centered, he explained. “We have been talking with our son and daughter – 11 and 13 – about bullying and abuse and violence and all those things we tell each other to talk with our kids about, and how to respond or not respond, and who to talk to if there’s trouble, and all that business. They’re great kids and there’s just so much we want them to know. At some point, my dad said ‘Well, we are all outdoor and wildlife nuts, maybe you should help them understand how the natural world of predators and prey works. Might help them with their own decisions.’ Then he said that, like maybe 15 or 20 years ago, you and that bird whisperer woman, Deborah, wrote something that he used when he was talking with me and my brothers. Do you think you guys might do something like that again?”

I told him I would think about it. As I did, I realized that, with the #metoo movement, the news and media filled with stories, advice and whatever, the subject of the predator-prey relationship is as relevant now – if not more so – than it was in when we first discussed this in 2003. I called Deborah Essman, and a couple others who concurred with our (and Homey’s) thinking. Thus, for this week and two more, we shall consider the predator-prey relationship.

Somehow, nearly three decades ago, I stumbled across the summer 1991 issue of “Parabola – The Magazine of Myth and Tradition.” Still published quarterly – each issue on some particular topic – Parabola (parabola.org) is currently using the byline “The Search for Meaning.” At any rate, the issue I found was titled “The Hunter.” The 100-plus pages of 20 ancient and new writings on my favorite activity were delicious. Two of the writings, however, haunted me.

As a kid, I wondered about robins eating worms, people eating animals, and critters eating other critters. I’ve spent days of my life watching coyotes and cats catch and play with food. Often, when hunting (being a predator) I have found myself deep in thought about the relationships involved. At odd moments throughout my life, I have pondered the intricacies of this prey-predator relationship. Deborah and Bill Essman and countless others have, as well.

It is not just about wildlife, either. We’ve seen the TV dramas. We’ve watched abusers and sexual predators talk about how they recognize a victim – prey – the moment they see him or her. I coached my young sons and daughters on important, related, life skills, teaching them to carefully observe their surroundings, to pay attention to how they were moving and interacting in public, finding options if something seemed “off,” and so forth. I always acknowledged that there are, indeed, a few evil people in the world so focused on their intentions that no amount of preparation could protect their prey. “If somehow you become a victim, don’t waste time blaming yourself,” I would tell them, “focus on being a survivor.”

The two Parabola articles to which I alluded, above, were about the truth lived by predators and their natural prey – animals and beings with an innate understanding of their roles on the planet. The authors had thoughts, also, about humans and the sacred understanding of such relationships.

The first article in that summer issue was “The Never-Ceasing Dance,” by Martha Heyneman. Martha wrote of being in struggle dressing an unruly toddler when a flurry of red and a streak of white suddenly caught her eye…

“Across the hall is the baby’s room, and in it the diapering table – turquoise blue. A low beam of morning sunshine lies across the table and illuminates the stacks of neatly folded diapers so they give off a vaporous white light. Against this background and in this light an astonishing drama is being enacted.

“A strange white cat has got in through the small door in the basement through which our own cats come and go at will. The flurry of red was a young male cardinal. He has taken refuge on the turquoise table, and now the cat has leapt up heavily and joined him. They are face to face, inches apart, looking into each other’s eyes. Neither one moves.

“Never have I witnessed, as I am witnessing now, the moment before the kill. The two are unaware of my presence. I feel like a country bumpkin who has stumbled into the sacred precinct of a great mystery. In the brilliant light the white cat and the red bird on the turquoise table are like a pair of flamenco dancers when the spotlight suddenly flashes on to reveal them motionless in its cone of swirling smoke, eye to eye, he erect and defiant in a red dress, she in a skin-tight white suit, taut as a coiled snake ready to strike, the air around them full of the accelerating rattle of castanets…

To be continued…

All About Black-Billed Magpies

Written by Jim Huckabay on August 7, 2019. Posted in Uncategorized

Magpies are all around the town and country of our Central Washington Paradise this summer. Few creatures are as striking as these black and white, long-tailed, black-billed birds. Flashy, big, boisterous and loud, their black plumage shimmers with bronze and blue or green and purple in the sun. So formal and straight-laced looking, it couldn’t possibly be guilty of all those bad things people say.

Its habits of attacking the eyes of injured or sick animals, raiding other birds’ nests, and picking at sores of cattle and horses have not endeared it to us. The first written report of a sighting was by Zebulon Pike in 1806. On November first, according to Pike’s journal, magpies “alighted on [our horses], and in defiance of their wincing and kicking, picked many places quite raw.” Magpie’s name is said to be short for “maggot pie,” for its eating of maggots off decaying meat, although some insist it is short for Margaret, or is an old term for “chattering female.”

Into the 1930s, periodic contests were held around the West to exterminate magpies. Thousands more died from poisoned baits placed for predators. Very few birds have been so reviled.

Yet, this is a very intelligent bird. The Earthfire Institute (earthfireinstitute.org/story/the-intelligence-of-magpies/) reports research showing that the brain size and cognitive abilities of corvids (crows and magpies) are relatively similar to those of the great apes. The birds may be among the most intelligent of all animals. Corvids’ brains are built very dif­fer­ently from ours, and they use portions of their brains with no counterpart to human brains. Their intelligence evolved quite differently than hours, yet they plan, they remember, they learn.

Magpies can, and do, learn to talk; google “black-billed magpie talking” and dazzle your kids and family with the videos you find. (No, it does not have a split tongue, and splitting its tongue does not help it talk.) My up-the-Little-Chumstick-Creek-out-of Leavenworth, Washington, Uncle Ed Palmquist, often told of rearing a magpie in Wenatchee in the 1920s and teaching it to talk. At the age of two, it was trapped and killed outside its entry and exit window which had been absentmindedly closed by his mother. The culprit, he said, was a “f#$%!* cat.” His mother reported hearing what sounded like the bird’s voice calling “Help! Cat! Help! Help!” but did not respond quickly enough.

While magpie makes a variety of whistling, cackling, and trilling sounds, its primary call has been described as a series of “jack jack jack!” notes with a rising “Maayg?” It is highly adaptable, with a perfect bill for its varied diet. It caches food when it has an excess, and eats more insects (including grasshoppers and ticks) than any of the other jays, ravens and crows in its family.

Were it not a bird, the magpie would probably be an architect. Nests, often easily seen perched in brush and trees, are constructed of sticks, with a mud cup, and sometimes look like small adobe houses lined with horse hair, fur or fine grasses. The nest will generally be used year after year, and may be two feet or more in diameter and several feet from top to bottom. It is not unusual for this mud and stick home to have a domed roof and two side doors (one likely for the long tail).

Black-billed magpies form long-term pair bonds, often staying together throughout the year. The pair will rear one brood from seven to ten greenish gray eggs, heavily spotted with brown. The female incubates for 16-21 days, and the male feeds her during that time. Both parents bring food (nearly always animal flesh) to nestlings, who leave the nest within 30 days.

Other birds quickly take over abandoned magpie “homes.” Some cavity nesters, such as the American kestrel, will move right in. Great horned and long-eared owls have been observed building their own nests atop the sturdy foundation provided by the magpies.

In keeping with the wishes of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association’s Science Education Committee, I include the following. Magpie is in the crow and jay family and its scientific name is Pica pica. It is a broad-winged bird to 22 inches long (with tail). It is highly adaptable, with a perfect bill for its varied diet of insects, carrion, baby birds and small vertebrates, with some fruit and seeds. Communal and protective birds, groups of magpies will often mob hawks and other predators. Find more in “The Birder’s Handbook” by Paul R. Ehrlich, David S. Dobkin, and Darryl Wheye, any good field guide, at  www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Black-billed_Magpie  or google them.

Magpie is a favorite among birdwatchers in the state, and can be easily found in our east-of-the-Cascades countryside and towns. Forget its reputation; where would we be without scavengers such as the magpie, to clean up dead critters?

Inspiring Lifelong Outdoor Kids

Written by Jim Huckabay on July 31, 2019. Posted in Uncategorized

The topic of our impromptu confab outside Ellensburg’s Bi-Mart was “getting and keeping little kids hooked on outdoor stuff.” Homey, hand wrapped around a couple shiny new youth fishing rod/reel sets, had two questions.

“Yeah,” he said, “I really want to get my preschoolers hooked on fishing, but more than that, Jules and I are wondering about getting them outdoors in some sort of school or regular activity. Friends have mentioned KEEN, but where do we start?”

KEEN (the Kittitas Environmental Education Network), of course, is our very active Central Washington kids’ advocate, under its Outdoor Nature School banner. It offers a Pond to Pines summer camp, the summer-long Science in the Parks Program across Ellensburg, and that great little Friday pre-school class at Helen McCabe State Park. I figured they might yet get their little ones into the kind of program they wanted, and a moment on our cellular devices found KEEN’s site at www.ycic.org/outdoor-school.

As they look ahead to keeping their youngsters involved, I suggested they might find any number of kid initiatives by googling something like “kids in the woods initiatives.” A big one is the federal Every Kid in a Park initiative, which gives every fourth grader across America a free pass (family included) to federal parks, lands and waters for one year (everykidinapark.gov/). There is a terrific set of worldwide ideas and resources on the Richard Louv-inspired Children & Nature Network at www.childrenandnature.org. For good measure, I suggested they pick up two books: Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder and How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature.

“Okay, cool,” Homey said. “Now, what about the fishing stuff? I love fishing, but it can be pretty boring for little guys who need action. How do we get that started?”

“Well,” I opined, “there are any number of kids-only fishing sites around Paradise. Check the new fishing pamphlet and try one of those. There are plenty of hungry fish of various types scattered about. The last of the Hucklings always loved Helen McCabe Pond – they caught everything from tiny sunfish to a five-plus-pound channel catfish there. And they liked the trout in the little youth-only streams around town. Find some spot with hungry little fish and enjoy their joy. Oh. And another book with some useful info is William G. Tapply’s Pocket Water – Confessions of a Restless Angler. The chapter you want is ‘Raising Fly Fishermen for Fun and Profit.’ Get your kids on the water. Treasure these years with them…”

That particular chapter in Tapply’s book is loaded with wisdom. His ideas are just as much about helping them master life itself as fishing. Following are excerpts I particularly enjoy.

“Kids—boys or girls, it doesn’t matter – are born with an innate love of fishing. The tug and throb at the end of the line triggers in every kid something atavistic that causes her to laugh and squeal ‘I got one!  I got one!’  Unless some adult comes along to spoil it, that kid is hooked. [I]f you resist the urge to tell her what she’s doing wrong, she will gradually get better at it.

“Kids are democratic. To them, a fish is a fish. Sunfish, horned pout, bass, trout:  the main difference to a kid is that sunfish are the prettiest. All shapes, sizes, and colors of fish merit equal fascination, and the more different species kids encounter, the better they like it. Catching many small fish is better than a few large ones, although they do like the scary hard pull of an occasional big one, and they should have that experience, too.

“Kids like to catch fish. Adults learn the aesthetic pleasures of fishing without catching anything, but it’s an acquired taste… Take your kid to a warmwater pond, slough, or lazy creek, where life fairly bubbles in abundance and variety, and where you’re never sure what might be tugging at the end of the line, but it’s a sure bet that something will be. Choose a warm, soft, sunny summer afternoon, even if you think the fish will bite better in the rain or toward dusk… Adults can fool themselves into enjoying discomfort, but kids are too smart for that.

“Even if you want to raise a trout-fishing partner, start her out on panfish. Kids are big on instant gratification. They want results and they want them now… They have short attention spans. Their minds wander… Their entire world is a wonder. Frogs, dragonflies, painted turtles, ducks, muskrats – all those denizens of warmwater places fascinate kids as much as fish do…

“Give them short, frequent doses of fishing. Anticipate when they’ll get bored and quit five minutes earlier. If they’re not catching anything, do something else. Try frog hunting or crayfish catching. Throw stones…capture rusty beer cans and bring them home with you…don’t make a lesson out of it… Kids are, in fact, suspicious of lessons… Stay out of their way…  They will become skilled and will ask when they’re ready.

“Kids want to know the names of things. Kids like it when you can tell them what things are… they also like it when you tell them you don’t know. This assures them that they can trust you.

“Kids notice things adults take for granted or have stopped noticing – the ‘chirrup’ of red-winged blackbirds…a swallow’s wingtip on the surface of a glassy pond…the garish neon shades that dress damselflies and dragonflies…the purple of a bluegill’s throat…  When they point it out to you, you’ll marvel at it, too, the way you once did…

“Adults can learn a lot from kids…”

Of California Condors and Turkey Vultures

Written by Jim Huckabay on July 24, 2019. Posted in Uncategorized

You no doubt heard this last week that the decades-long effort to revive the nearly extinct California condor has hit a milestone – the 1,000th condor chick hatched recently in Zion National Park, in southern Utah.

In 1982, 22 California condors existed in the wild. Captured and held in captivity for safe keeping, and a breeding program to reintroduce them, the first youngsters were released back to the wild in 1992 in California and 1996 in Arizona. There are now more than 500 condors. About half of them flying over parts of Arizona, Utah, California and northern Mexico.

This is a big deal. Female condors lay one egg per nesting attempt, and they don’t nest every year. Reaching adulthood is a challenge for condor chicks. Adult condors may restrain an overenthusiastic nestling by clamping it down with a foot on its neck (this is also a common way for an adult to get a youngster’s bill from its throat at the end of a feeding). Young depend on parents for a year or more, and reach maturity in eight years. They often take months to perfect flight and landings, with crash landings observed several months after a first flight. Of today’s 500 living birds, the oldest has reached 40 years, although they may live to 60 or more.

Worldwide, there are some 23 species of vultures. The New World vultures – scientific family Cathartidae – includes seven species of vultures and condors in the Americas. Three species are North American: California condor (Gymnogyps californianus Shaw), turkey vulture (Cathartes aura Linnaeus) and black vulture (Coragyps atratus Beckstein). Vultures are generally called birds of prey because of diet, but in fact they are most related to storks and herons.

Black vultures are only found in the southeastern U.S. states and Mexico. Today, California condors are found in the canyons and mountains of the states and regions mentioned above, although in Lewis and Clark days, 1805, they were observed in the Northwest. Turkey vultures are our common scavenging friends here in Paradise. Indeed, they are now expanding their range into Canada and across the U.S.

I’m often asked about sizes of these vultures. Clearly, the condor is the largest, weighing from 16 to 22 pounds, some four feet from nose to tail and about nine feet from wingtip to wingtip. The condor is the largest North American bird (there are larger condors on the planet). Our turkey vultures, a distant second, may weigh over five pounds, reach nearly three feet in length, and boast six foot wingspans. The black vulture of the Southeast will weigh up to four pounds, reach 2.5 feet in length and have wings that cover nearly five feet.

Vultures and condors are communal feeders, gathering on carcasses to feed. A soaring condor or turkey vulture may spot a carcass the size of a jackrabbit from four miles away, and see gatherings of its fellows from eight miles. (The turkey vulture is one of very few birds able to find food by scent.) At carcasses, the condor will dominate the feeding – observed yielding only to the sharp and powerful talons of the golden eagle. Featherless heads allow them to probe and dig through a carcass without becoming caked with gore, and their digestive systems have been shown to kill most any ingested virus or bacteria. These birds – Nature’s waste disposal technicians – perform a valuable service for which they are perfectly suited.

Low wing loading (bird weight to wing area ratio) and low aspect ratio (length to width of wings) enable them to soar easily, slowly, and steadily on relatively light thermal updrafts. Turbulence found with such wing characteristics is largely alleviated with the spreading of the stiff, tapered primary feathers at the wing tips. For all vultures, relatively weak pectoral muscles can limit takeoffs; after a big meal, a condor or vulture may puke up (regurgitate for you sophisticates) part of a big meal to be light enough to take off. These birds can go without eating for a couple weeks, and can actually store meat in a sort of crop when excess is available – and takeoff is manageable.

Both birds thermoregulate on hot days by dumping their own body waste over their legs. The evaporating liquid cools the blood flowing through the legs, thus cooling their body cores. They bathe regularly to prevent waste buildup on their legs.

California condors are year-round residents in their habitat. Our turkey vultures arrive in April to breed and rear young. By first snow, they will be cleaning up the dead in the Bahamas or Central or South America.

These are unique, fascinating, and misunderstood creatures – among my favorites to watch. While I studied them years ago in Colorado, I bow to Deborah Essman, the Bird Whisperer of Paradise, who has caught, handled, fed, dissected and been puked upon by vultures, yet retains a wild enthusiasm for them.

The Science Education Subcommittee of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association suggests “condors” or “vultures” at www.allaboutbirds.org/ for far more info than I include here.

Go look around canyons and cliffs in our valley or urban/rural areas most anywhere in the state. Watch for bare heads and wings in a shallow “V” shape (eagles soar with flat wings). Find a “kettle” of vultures – any number of them soaring on a thermal (aka, committee, wake, venue or volt of vultures). As they ride, they are said to be “kittling.” Go look. It can be almost breathtaking.

Butterflies and Moths

Written by Jim Huckabay on July 17, 2019. Posted in Uncategorized

Frankly, with the cool – thus far – and cloudy summer in Central Washington, I have not seen my normal bounty of butterflies and moths. On the other hand, several homeys have reported seeing various “flowers of the air” in the Yakima River Canyon, up on and around Table Mountain, and among the wildflowers around Gingko State Park. The perennial discussion of ‘what is butterfly and what is moth” was in the midst of a couple of those reports.

Which of us has not been fascinated by a brilliant flash of color landing on a plant nearby? Thus, the Watchable Wildlife Subcommittee of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association has revisited its list of suggested resources. Members continue to recommend certain books and field manuals, but have added a couple very rich and family-oriented web sites.

As we begin this discussion, let us first ponder the risky life of the butterfly or moth; if it does not drown, or break a wing in the wind or a rough landing, or get eaten by some bird or other predator, it may end up on the wrong end of some homeowner=s wish to get it off the screen door. Appreciation for the surviving “air flowers” begins with their striking patterns and colors, then morphs into identification.

Identification might start with adults, of course, and the time of activity. Most butterflies are diurnal (active during the day) and brightly colored. Butterfly bodies are generally slender and not especially pubescent (hairy). On the other hand, most adult moths are nocturnal or crepuscular (active at dawn/dusk). While some moths are brightly colored or have colorful wing “eyespots,” most have drab, bulky, quite pubescent bodies with cryptic wing patterns, helping them blend into surroundings.

The acid test for differentiation is the shape of the antennae. Except for one tropical group (not an issue here), all butterflies have simple antennae that end in a swelling or “club,” which may be very pronounced, or quite subtle. Moth antennae, on the other hand, will range in shape from simple points to a feather‑like appearance; none will have that clubbed tip.

Your personal study might start at www.butterfliesandmoths.org. This stunning site covers all of North America, including reports from in and around Paradise. The organization is aiming to collect, store, and share species information and occurrence data. (Your participation is requested – just take and submit photographs of butterflies, moths, and caterpillars.) This is a rich site, worth your exploration, with pictures, records of sightings, and natural histories.

While you’re online, check out the Washington butterfly Association – the WBA – at wabutterflyassoc.org for stunning videos and photos from across the planet and abundant info about these fascinating animals. Join the association, if you like, and get in on classes, the annual conference, and newsletter links to current butterfly news. Monthly meetings are held at the Center for Urban Horticulture in Seattle, at the Corbin Art Center in Spokane, and online through Zoom. Take yourself or your gang on one of the butterfly or moth events held around the state.

Once you’ve gone that far, you will likely be wanting a good guidebook. Start with the general “Audubon Field Guide to the Pacific Northwest.” Then get serious with one of Robert Michael Pyle’s books, such as his amazing “Butterflies of Cascadia.” If you are really lucky, you may find, online or in a local book shop, Michael’s early handbook, “Watching Washington Butterflies,” published through the Seattle Audubon Society in 1974. You will find others at your favorite bookstore or library.

As summer moves, you will find fewer and fewer butterflies and more caterpillars and pupae. Classifying caterpillars or pupae into their proper butterfly or moth categories is a great family challenge. In fact, there are few ways to tell them apart at the crawl-around stage. I have yet to find a really useful guide to pupae identification, although I still hear rumors of one coming. “Caterpillars of Pacific Northwest Forests and Woodlands” (Jeffrey C. Miller’s terrific work) comes close, with a broad range of butterfly and moth caterpillars. I would certainly recommend that you check out the larval photos in Jim Kaufman’s AButterflies of North America.@ The book “Moths of North America,” by Jerry A. Powell and Paul A. Opler will help you identify a particular specimen or its family. Online, the Bug Guide Group hosts meetings and field experiences across the country for most any bug or caterpillar imaginable. They have up-to-the-minute photos of butterflies and moths, along with info to help identify pupae and caterpillars of all sorts on their site at bugguide.net/node/view/151691.

You probably want to know that this coming week (7/20 through 7/28) is “National Moth Week 2019.” Moths are perhaps the most unheralded, yet highly effective, of our pollinators. There are several activities in Spokane and elsewhere around the Northwest. Find some amazing pictures and discussion at wabutterflyassoc.org/7-20-7-28-is-national-moth-week-2019/.

This is the season, the temperature, and the time. Check out woodlands, meadows and muddy areas. Wander streams and the River, and south facing snow-free areas in the high country.  Robert Michael Pyle would remind you to observe these amazing creatures slowly and cautiously.

Review your books and the web. Take the family or a friend. Go look. Get photos. Make a forever summer memory.