Canada Geese and Interesting Mating Games

Written by Jim Huckabay on May 23, 2014. Posted in Uncategorized

If you’ve spent much time this spring around one of the nesting ponds or along the river, you’ve been hearing it, too. I’m thinking of the urgent pleadings of a love-struck Canada goose – Branta Canadensis.

Several proposed pairings have been regularly chasing each other over Evolutionary Abode these past couple weeks. This spring, those trips to and from Manastash Creek, Cove Lakes, nearby ponds or wherever have been loud and boisterous.

Each time I hear it, that piercing and heart-wrenching “car-uunk, car-uunk, cur-wahnk@ sweeps me back to a crisp early June 1995 morning on a tucked-in mountain lake in Central Colorado. The Hucklings and I were on a camping/fishing adventure. As we ate our sourdough pancakes, we watched and listened as one goose noisily chased another up and down the lake for the better part of an hour. The loud calls echoed again and again off the hills across the lake. Only the geese knew what was being said, of course, but it sounded to me like the desperate, pleas of a love-struck goose. Twelve-year-old Tena decided that it was a boy goose chasing a girl, and demanded to know what on earth could be so urgent. How does a father respond? I finally just said, “I’m sure we’ll have a lot of talks about that in the next few years.”

Over several decades of watching and listening, those springtime rituals in the Midwest, on the Colorado plains and around Paradise have never failed to hold my attention. What could be more pitiful than those pleading calls? I have often wondered just how much pleading one goose must do to get the other to seriously consider a relationship. A great deal of research over the past forty years has shown that most reproductive decisions are made by the females of species, and, of course, there is more to that story.

It was an off-the-cuff, but heated, discussion of goose relationships which led to some of the most interesting things I have learned about geese and their mating habits.

In late 1989, a few months into my Colorado outdoor column, I got drawn into a conversation about geese and their mating habits, as compared to men in general – and my conversation partner’s man in particular. She was pretty upset, and I happened to be the closest man as we left a hearing on problems with geese and city parks. In truth, I was simply the backboard off which she bounced her done-me-wrongs. She punctuated the completion of her list with, “Well, at least geese mate for life and know how to be faithful – put that in your male chauvinist pig attitude and smoke it!”

I couldn’t help myself. I was duty-bound to explore the question. It took very little research to discover what waterfowl specialists had found. In any given clutch of four to ten eggs on arctic breeding grounds, there was DNA evidence of fertilization by at least two ganders, and sometimes as many as four. Geese may, indeed, mate for life, but they fool around.

Mallard duck studies found similar situations in duck breeding grounds. And buddy Bob Hernbrode of the Colorado Division of Wildlife passed along a memo from the research center in Fort Collins; a fair percentage of twin deer fawns actually had two different daddies.

Then there was that January, 1999, issue of Scientific American. Attached to an article about DNA microsatellites was a sidebar titled “Searching for Papa Chimp.” Pascal Gagneux and David Woodruff of the University of California at San Diego, with Christophe Boesch from the University of Basel, used DNA tracers to probe the mating habits of a group of wild chimps in West Africa. Of 13 offspring, it was shown that seven could not have been fathered by any of the males in the group. Apparently, the authors concluded, “at least some of the female chimpanzees must have sneaked into the surrounding forest for trysts with males in other groups. Such adventures might explain how even small groups of chimpanzees maintain a great deal of genetic diversity.”

It all made sense, really; after all, a female must introduce as much genetic diversity as possible to sustain her species.

At the time, I felt a responsibility to pass along the findings of philandering geese, ducks, deer and chimps. Responding letters, as I recall, contained accusations of biased research and a few observations about my shortcomings as a writer and male of the species.

Be that as it may, I continue to be transfixed by the pleadings of spring geese so fervently committed to the future of their species.

All about the Quest for Near-Impossible Permits

Written by Jim Huckabay on May 16, 2014. Posted in Uncategorized

Every year, during the few weeks before May 22, a good many of us who hunt begin seriously considering possibilities. We think about hunting some critter we have long dreamed of pursuing, or hunting in some season or place we have long dreamed of hunting. Getting a license for one of these “possible” hunts can be like winning the lottery and chasing those almost impossible permits can drag across decades. Some of our hunting friends chuckle about this and many of our non-hunting friends just laugh and shake their heads. The most often asked question is “What are the odds this year?”

Here’s how this all happens. Sometime in April, the Washington Big Game Hunting Seasons & Regulations booklet shows up online and at license outlets. In that booklet are the dates and conditions under which most any of us can purchase a license for deer or elk or bear or whatever and go hunt one of the “general” seasons for some specific game. In that same booklet, however, are literally hundreds upon hundreds of “special” hunts – those areas with limited access, or permission to take a specific animal not available to general hunters, or at a time outside the general season. One must apply for these special hunts.

On the row for each hunt in the booklet, one will find a) the number of permits to be drawn this year, b) the number of applications for those permits last year and c) the average number of preference points used by last year’s successful applicants. (One gets an additional preference point for each year one is not drawn – an additional “ticket” in the drawing for each point.)

To apply, one buys an application, the cost of which varies with the perceived value of the hunt ($7.10 or $13.70 for residents). One then applies for one or more of the special hunts by May 22, says a series of prayers, or performs traditional rituals, and waits. The drawing results are released by the end of June. This same scenario plays out all over the country.

Most of us have already decided that this is the year we have enough points to finally have a great adventure hunting moose, or bighorn sheep or a big bull elk. This is in spite of rather long odds. Let me give you a couple examples. This is my lucky year for a moose adventure – I can feel it – even though last year 14,149 hunters applied for 21 permits, my 14 points will do the trick. I also will draw a bighorn sheep permit with my 9 points, although last year 5,081 hunters applied for the 4 permits in my area. I have applied for several other special hunt permits, too, each with long odds. Still, I only need one permit in each of those hunts, and this is my year.

In some states, there will be leftover licenses after the draw takes place. Each year, for example, we still purchase “leftover after the draw” licenses for our annual Wyoming deer and antelope safari. And, once upon a time in Colorado, if we weren’t drawn for a tag, we would line up outside the Division of Wildlife gate the night before licenses were handed out on a “first come-first served” basis. All night it was coffee, charcoal heaters and big dreams until the gates opened at 7 a.m. When our part of the line reached the license writers, we would choose from what was still available and likely end up hunting some area we had never been in. It was high adventure. Sadly, such opportunities are becoming ever fewer and farther between.

Alas, in Washington, as in most states these days, there are no leftover permits – just too many applicants. Still, to those of us who annually, ritually, seek special draw-only big game permits, this is sacred stuff. Admittedly, there is the remote possibility that my name will not be drawn for one of these treasured permits. After decades of application, in several states, I have come to understand that NOT being drawn simply means that my number will come up next year.

If you have been procrastinating, I remind you that your special hunting season permit applications are due by midnight, May22. Buy applications at a license dealer or online and submit your choices toll-free at 877-945-3492 or fishhunt.dfw.wa.gov/.

If we are somehow overlooked again in the June draw, there is always the raffle. For somewhere between 6 and 23 bucks, we can buy a chance on an extra deer or elk permit, a goat, sheep or moose tag or a combination of several of them. Instructions start on page 85 of the 2014 booklet. Purchase raffle tickets by July 15, and we will be notified that we’re winners in mid-August.

Homeys occasionally suggest that all these applications and licenses drive the cost of the meat I make up to “somewhere around ten bucks a pound.” Of course, that is foolish accounting. Any accountant worth his or her salt would assign the cost of gear, fuel, licenses and application fees to recreation – like going out for dinner or a movie. The meat itself is free – a great gift.

Make it a Mothers Weekend

Written by Jim Huckabay on May 9, 2014. Posted in Uncategorized

It was another of those off-Reecer Creek meetings of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association. The subject on the floor was Mother’s Day and how it might most appropriately be celebrated. Homey Name-Me-And-You-Suffer-A-Long-Lingering-Death pretty much had it worked out.

“Think about it,” he opined. “For some of us, our mothers actually took us out and trained us. For most of us, though, our mothers kept us safe in the outdoors, and we probably never knew it; we figured it was our dads who took care of all that. My pop made sure that my kid sisters and I knew how to safely hike, shoot, camp, make a fire, clean fish, gut a deer, operate the lawnmower and change a tire long before we were teenagers.

“I came home during my second year of college for our family deer hunt, and somehow we ended up leaning against the same tree up in the Naneum eating our lunch stuff. One of my buddies had lost his dad that year, and had all these things he wished he’d said to him. …I sure as hell didn’t want to be him. Anyhow, I couldn’t quite figure out how to say what I had to say, but in the middle of chewing a mouthful of dad’s elk sausage, it just tumbled out of me. I told him I just needed him to know how much I loved him and how every day I was grateful for all he taught us about being wise in the world.

“For a long time, seemed like, he just looked at me. Finally, he said, ‘You’re welcome. It was my job. And I loved it.’ Then he grinned and chuckled. ‘You’re thanking the wrong person, you know. …When you were about four, you were just crazy about being outside, and going fishing, and arguing for your own guns. Your sister was a little over two, your baby sister was about due, and you had been ripping it up outside all day. After you were down, your mother took my hand and explained my future.

“‘She told me that she wanted all of her kids to grow up outside. Safely. She knew that accidents happen, God forbid, but my job was to make sure that you all knew everything you needed to know to be safe in all the places and ways you might grow up in the world. The way she looked at me, I knew she was dead serious. She said that if any of you ever got into trouble because of something you didn’t know about being safe – something I hadn’t seen to you learning – I would never again enjoy some of the most pleasurable things in my life. I think I became a good dad.

“So then my dad grinned one of his big joyful grins and said, ‘So, you better thank your mother, boy.’ I did, too.”

That story turned our minds. We all started thinking again about how our own mothers supported our needs to be outside, and sparked our desires to fish, hunt, hike and play.

My mother caught one fish in her life. I don’t think she ever shot a firearm, and I know she never went hunting. Still she demonstrated over and over how one honors the life taken for a family’s sustenance. Fish and game was always a gift. It was always a blessing, and always treated that way. When Cousin Ron and I were boys, bringing home fresh-caught trout or wild-picked asparagus, she would smile and remind us all of the sweet healthfulness of such wild foods.

My aunt Teen, Cousin Ron’s mother, prepared our fish and game with respect and love. She made a point of telling us she was proud of our ability to help nourish the family with fish from the Naches or birds from the Lower Valley.

Over the years, I got a similar response every time I brought my mother mallards, geese, pheasants, grouse, quail, doves or fish or big game. They were cleaned, of course, when I offered them, as that demonstrated respect. If we didn’t respect the wild things which gave themselves, she would say, we would not be well nourished. Early in my life she smiled and said, “When you clean your fish and game before you offer it that shows respect for me, too.”

Grandma Minshall, in Tacoma, fawned over any fresh food that Grandpa (or any of the rest of us) provided from the sea, field or garden. “Such great providers,” she would smile.

As our mother stories wound down, Homey jumped in. “All right. I have this worked out. Make it a ‘Mother’s Weekend.’ Get her out hiking or shooting. Pick a bouquet of real flowers out in the foothills. Then take her to the NRA Foundation Banquet Saturday night so she can help raise funds to teach kids to be safe around firearms, and have safe places to learn to shoot. Then treat her to something special for food Sunday – like a gourmet preparation of something you brought home – or even one of the buffets around town. Treat her like you really understand that she made you the outdoor guy you are, you know?”

Happy Mother’s Weekend, moms! And thank you.

Antlers, Horns and Shed Hunting

Written by Jim Huckabay on May 2, 2014. Posted in Uncategorized

It was one of those off-Reecer Creek meetings of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association – a Friday cup with a couple homeys early in the spring. We were wishing we could send up a copter to locate some of the early horn hunters rumored to be in places they weren’t supposed to be and with vehicles on closed roads in areas open to a shanks mare – walking – search.

Questions on the floor had to do with off-road vehicles (ORVs) ripping across closed public ground and on private ground without permission. We wondered if that wasn’t part of the reason for so many of this spring’s elk issues in the valley, and talked about ethical horn hunting. Somewhere in there, we considered the question of “horn” versus “antler.”

The questions, concerns and excitement over shed antlers extend far beyond Paradise. “Horn hunting” is a big deal for a lot of reasons. Looking for old antlers adds to the pleasure of a hike through deer and elk winter range. Somewhere among any wildlife nut=s prized possessions will be a shed antler with an enthusiastic story about where and when.

In Washington, any naturally cast, or shed, antler you find is yours to keep, and there are plenty of areas to poke around for them legitimately. Most of our public ground has been open to walking and looking throughout the winter. With the exception of preserves and national parks, or on private land where it is prohibited, you are free to hunt cast antlers. The ethics pledge of RCRGWD&OTTBA members, however, requires that we wait until antlers are naturally cast off.

Popular areas here include the L.T. Murray, Quilomene and Whiskey Dick Wildlife Areas, which opened yesterday at 6 a.m. (May 1) to motorized vehicles on open roads. Naturally, it is expected that you will respect the deer, elk and other critters which are still coming out of winter.

Finding antlers can be a challenge of course. John McGowan, the long-time manager of the Oak Creek feeding site west of Naches, describes antler hunting as “tough hunting over miles and miles of rough country – kinda like an adult Easter-egg hunt.”

So what about that question of “horn” versus “antler?” HORNS grow every year and are never shed. They are made of keratin, much like hooves and fingernails. Bighorn sheep and mountain goats grow horns. ANTLERS are bone, grown by the Cervidae – the deer family. They develop, mature and are shed on an annual cycle apparently related to length of daylight and testosterone levels.

Antlers grow as blood‑engorged tissue, protected by velvet – a hairy skin. They may grow three or four inches daily (if we grew bone like that, a broken leg would heal in three days). By late summer, the bone in the antlers is fully developed and hardened and the velvet is rubbed off for the mating season.

Antlers are dropped at the time of lowest testosterone level, mostly from December through February. Those testosterone levels drop because of decreasing activity of the pituitary gland, largely due to winter’s shorter hours of daylight. And, animals which do the most breeding, and therefore use up more testosterone, generally lose their antlers first. Young males, thus, may hang onto their antlers until well into spring. When the testosterone level finally dips sufficiently, a layer of cells at the base of the antlers granulates and the antlers drop away at the pedicel. That granulating process may happen within 24 hours. Casting off the antlers is likely a painless, if somewhat disconcerting, process.

Finding sheds is a huge deal. Check out The North American Shed Hunters Club in Wisconsin, (www.shedantlers.org), for example. You will find their two-day annual meeting, guided shed antler hunts, Doug Coleman’s shed hunting video, the “NASCH Record Book” and prizes for the shed measuring contest. Want to read about getting kids involved? See Robert Loewendick’s Ohio story of getting kids involved at www.backwoodsbound.com/yantlers.html. Wanna know what they’re worth or how to make furniture of fixtures with them? See www.bigantlers.com. Explore the web and you will see that shed antlers are, indeed, a huge deal.

Go walk and look. Enjoy these perfect days afield. Be thoughtful around the wildlife you see.

Welcome to spring in Paradise.

Butterflies and Hummingbirds – Flying Flowers

Written by Jim Huckabay on April 25, 2014. Posted in Uncategorized

As is his wont, fellow homey Dick Ambrose (above the fold, of course) has handed you one of the great gifts of the season: places to lose yourself in the scents and colors of wild flowers. This, it has been suggested, may be a wild flower spring to behold – the result of our past few months of somewhat offbeat weather. It is said that when a flower lives through difficult seasons, yet manages somehow to achieve its perfect bloom, the entire world changes. Go and enjoy. Look and listen, also, among those earthbound blooms, for the “flying flowers” which depend on them.

Many of our hummingbirds and butterflies have already returned to the foothills of Paradise. Many more are on their way, anticipating the nourishment which awaits them among the brilliant colors of spring. As they gather that nourishment, they will bring their own flashes of color.

Thus, I recommend that, as you prepare for your walking exploration of one or more of Dick’s wild flower patches, you prepare yourself as well for those creatures which see those flowers through different lenses. It is easy; today there are almost unlimited resources available for learning about hummers and butterflies or moths.

For hummingbirds, start at Lanny Chambers’ site, www.hummingbirds.net. Here you will find terrific migration maps, cool videos, great photos, new science and information about hummer festivals all over the country. At www.hummingbirds.net/states.html you will find info by state and province across North America. More locally, find DFW’s tips for attracting and maintaining hummingbirds in backyards around the state at wdfw.wa.gov/wlm/backyard/humming-facts.htm. Virtually all nature guides will have sections on hummers, and they are available in our libraries and bookstores.

We generally see three different hummingbirds here in Paradise. The two‑and‑a‑half‑inch calliope (Stellula calliope) is the smallest of U.S. birds, and the male is the only hummer whose throat is streaked, with red-colored feathers against white. The black-chinned (Archilochus alexandri) is the only North American hummer with a truly black throat. Rufous (Selasphorus rufus) is named after the male’s solid rust‑colored back. These tiny birds have traveled thousands of miles, from wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America. The males arrive first, with females later.

Whether it is among wild flowers or at your feeder, hummer time is circus time. Hummers go through nectar like jet fuel, and a flower can mean life itself. A rufous male may dive-bomb some kid standing too close to “his” feeder or flower, making a life-long memory. A hummer dances up to a flower and a trail lunch becomes a celebration. A young bird, startled off its food, somersaults into a rolling escape maneuver and the awe of that moment becomes family legend. Really, what is more cool than the zippy up, down, back, forth or “stop!” of these tiny aerialists?

With butterflies (and moths, as well, actually), I always start thinking about life risks. If the little flying flower does not drown, break a wing in the wind or a rough landing, or get eaten by a predator, it may end up on the wrong end of some homeowner=s fervent desire, or command, to “Get it off the screen!” By the way, our butterflies have antennae with bulbs, or “clubs” at the ends, while moth antennae may be simple or feathery, but without a clubbed tip.

Begin your field prep with a good nature guide, such as the “Audubon Field Guide to the Pacific Northwest.” After that, get into serious fun with one of Robert Michael Pyle’s remarkable butterfly books. Check out “The Butterflies of Cascadia,” and try to find the out-of-print classic “Watching Washington Butterflies.” The latter is rare, but worth almost any price if you can find it. (If you find it and don’t want to buy it, let me know.)

Robert would remind you to move beyond the wild flowers and check out woodlands, meadows and muddy areas, wander streams and rivers, or south facing snow-free areas in the high country. And he would ask that you observe these amazing creatures slowly and cautiously.

In addition to Homey Dick’s wild flower walks, consider taking your gang on one of the field trips hosted by the Washington butterfly Association. Join the association, if you like, and get in on classes, conferences and newsletter links. Monthly meetings happen at the Center for Urban Horticulture in Seattle. Find everything you need to know at www.naba.org/chapters/nabws.

At www.thebutterflysite.com/washington-butterflies.shtml you will find a comprehensive list of butterflies of Washington State, with links.

Do your homework. Review the books and the web. Take those you care about to see some of the miracles of spring. Get photos. Make a memory now to carry you through our next inevitable winter.