Elephants are champions of family life. Generations live together and cooperate in raising young and other communal tasks.

Like homing pigeons just in from a cross-country flight, kids and grandkids began circling our home and dropping in starting just before Christmas. Throughout the holiday season we have enjoyed their company and we reveled in what it means to be family, a relationship that we sometimes believe is uniquely human.

That is not the case. In nature, family is shared in a wide variety of ways, from bizarre to, well, almost human. There seem to be so many styles and methods of achieving family life that they defy categorization.

Elephants are often the example that everyone thinks of when they consider animal families, and rightfully so. While the families are matriarchal, with adult males around only long enough to breed a ready female, a herd exhibits many family traits. For instance, mothers nurse their babies for up to six years and other females are actively engaged in raising and protecting the calves and youngsters.

Each elephant herd consists of multiple generations with daughters remaining with the group for life and cousins, sisters and young males also hanging together in the groups. Outside these groups are clans of other elephants that stay within a mile of each other and are almost all related. There is a high degree of cooperation and even friendship. They recognize and greet old relatives and friends even after years of separation and seem to mourn their losses. Yes, I realize that such talk smacks of anthropomorphism. My advice? Get over it. Research is demonstrating that animals are not the biological machines they were once thought to be.

A measure of family is pair bonding. Having a life partner is not just a human experience. For many animals the pair bond is lifelong, even if the pair splits up for part of the year. Often called, “mating for life” some of the species that form strong pair bonds include bald eagles, swans, sandhill cranes, beaver (this is very rare among rodents), and gibbons.

Animals seem to realize that having a life partner takes effort too. For instance, sandhill cranes, although mated for life, continue an annual mating ritual that includes dancing together, tossing sticks in the air, and loud calls to each other to reinforce the bonding. The branch-swinging gibbons form strong lifelong bonds and both male and female share all family duties. They spend time throughout the year building their bond through mutual grooming and just hanging out together. Beavers spend as much time working on their relationship as the do gathering food and maintaining their dams. Yes, there is occasional philandering among these species, but apparently not enough to break up the pairs.

Orcas, a.k.a., killer whales, also form family groups. These groups, called pods, can be large, and like elephants, daughters stay with their mothers for life. Males will leave the pod to find mates, but usually boomerang back. The incredible thing is that orcas can live to be 90 years old so there may be many generations in a single pod.

Gray wolves form interdependent packs where the alpha male and alpha female do the breeding, but the entire pack helps to raise the pups. At around three years old, grown pups either leave the pack to form their own or stay on as permanent members. This is a pretty big decision biologically. The alphas mate for life so deciding to stay with the pack means that there will be no opportunities for breeding until the alphas die. That is really taking one for the team.

A family gives structure to relationships, creates bonds, and promotes survival even among full-grown offspring. It is just too bad that animals don’t have a holiday season to make them better appreciate the family that they have, and I’m glad that human families don’t need an excuse to get together.

TAX DAY is coming! Here is a chance to do something good with a bit of your tax return and make the day less painful.

Donate part of your tax return to support wildlife in Idaho!

On the second page of the Idaho Individual Tax form 40 you have the opportunity to donate to the “Nongame Wildlife Conservation Fund”.

Check-off this box on your next return or ask your tax preparer to mark the Nongame check-off on your behalf. You can donate any amount you wish, it all helps to support the wildlife you love.

If you are not from Idaho, check with your own state wildlife agency about how you can help. Many states have a similar program.

Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho