QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

Nature is amazing, often unfathomable, and that generates lots of questions. Trying to find answers to questions about nature has kept scientists busy for a thousand years. You too likely have questions.

You can ask a question using our Contact Us form and we will do our best to answer it.



July 9, 2017


Ken of Idaho Falls wrote:  "We were seeing magpie birds everyday in our yard & now we don't see any. We wonder why we don't see them now?"

July 9, 2017

Hi Ken,


I will take a guess that what you were recently seeing were fledglings and their parents. Now that the fledglings are grown and on their own, they are dispersing to make their own way in the world. 


May 9, 2017

We believe a Baltimore Oriole visited the back yard this morning. Has anyone else seen one in the Idaho Falls area?  Lori

May 11, 2017

I asked my Audubon friend, Mark Delwiche, to field this question. Here is his answer: 

Hi Terry,

It’s not unheard of, there are a few records in the area.  And who knows with weather the way it has been?  If they can get a picture it would be worth submitting to the bird records committee.  Or put it on eBird, and the committee will very likely contact them.


Mark.


I also suggested to Lori that she look at a Bullock's Oriole in her bird guide and see if that could be what she saw. The Bullock's Oriole is common in our area.


April 18, 2017

Carolyn from California wrote the following:

Okay, I have a problem that isn't solved here, or any place I've looked so I am in hopes that you can help me solve it. 

I caught a skunk in my Have a Heart trap and put it in the trash can full of water like  proposed. Somehow one end of the trap came open in the process. I now have a live skunk treading water inside the closed trash can. My question is, how can I ' do away with it now?  How long can a skunk tread water?

Thank you for any help you can give me. 

 P.S.  I thought about shooting it with a pellet gun but I'm afraid it would spray when it dies. 

Here was my reply:


My guess is that by the time you read this, the skunk will have succumbed to exhaustion and drowned so long as it cannot stand on the trap or anything else. They sometimes do release stink when they die (I once shot one in a similar situation and it released two pencil lead-sized streams). I think the drowning, as difficult as that sounds, is the most humane and minimizes the release of odor.

If the skunk CAN stand on the trap and catch a break, you could try carbon monoxide. This is a bit complicated but it works. you would need a lawnmower or some other combustion engine. get a length of hose to capture the exhaust and then put the hose into the garbage can and cover as best you can with a lid. Start the mower and let it run for 10-15 minutes. The idea is that the fumes from the exhaust will eventually euthanize the skunk. how long that takes depends on how well sealed the garbage can is.

Euthanizing is always unpleasant business and should be done as humanely and as quickly and painlessly as possible. These are the best ways I know how. 

Good luck and let me know how it goes.

Regards,


Terry Thomas

www.nature-track.com

Carolyn replied:

Hello Terry,


Yes I have buried the skunk. It did not survive long in the  water and for that I was relieved. I was  happy  that it didn't spray. 

We catch a lot of skunks, 56 since moving into town, and used to haul them out of town but now that we are older, the State Trapper had told us that we should not do that but drown them instead so that's what we do now. We had lived out of town on 7 acres for 29 years and our dogs kept them away but having moved into town about 20 years ago and we have no dog  to chase them away.  

Not sure why the trap's door came open but I will figure out how to remedy that so we don't have the problem again. 

I will keep the lawn mower running  idea of pumping carbon monoxide into the trash can IF it does happen again though. Thanks you for your help. I really appreciate it.


Thanks again,  Carolyn




February 13, 2017


Susan from New York wrote again with some questions about feeding birds. Below is part of her email: 

So my thinking was that if I had this safe, dedicated space for my herbs and veggies, it would be OK to invite everyone into the yard. But like you said in one of your essays, some guests are not as welcome as others. The snake thing is huge with me, not looking for them, they can stay at the far perimeter, but what I'm concerned about is being naive, the big goof who puts stuff out there and attracts a menagerie that's causing a problem and won't go away. People in back of me have kids, dogs and chickens. Will I be attracting coyotes, raccoons and bears? Lyme disease is big around here -- I love deer, but can't afford to be stupid about them. I want as many birds as possible, as many different kinds, but will my feeding them attract the wrong animals to my property? I have a bird bath that I put up soon after I moved in that no one used, at least during the day. Back where I came from, it was like a town pool -- I had a five pound robin that came once a day to bathe and he knocked all the water out of it. I have two stumps in the back yard, I have the bath on one and I'm going to get another for the second. I think as I mentioned to you, there's a racket here at night in the summer, but no birdsong in the morning. And the public hiking trail to one of the mountains (the range is the Hudson Highlands) is just up my street, it dead ends there, so it seems unnatural to me that I don't have birds. I do have trees, but all the lower branches have been removed, they only start maybe two or three stories up, and I think they are mostly maple. 

When the weather turned, I cheated, I put stuff out to feed whoever, and it disappeared-give me your thoughts on this one, I actually had a whole pineapple that had hung around a bit too long, so I threw it a distance from the house. Couple of days later, I saw it by that lower deck, but it looked all in one piece. When I went outside, it had been completely hollowed out, with the thinnest bit of the core intact. I Googled that and a couple sites said deer like pineapple -- really?? I was thinking raccoon. My garbage cans are the heavy kind issued by the refuse company, so that's never been an issue. 

I did buy a box of ready-made suet blocks during the autumn, I don't have a feeder for them yet, I just toss them now and then and they disappear -- I was also reading your recipe for suet. So the thing is -- what do you recommend I put out, the kind of feeders, and the kind of food, to attract birds? What should I avoid? There is a built-in planter on that deck that runs the length of it that I figured I'd plant in bee balm to attract them, and then butterfly bushes of some kind here and there (we don't get hummingbirds around here, too far north, they tell me.) The NYS biologist told me to plant shrubs, but the ones that would help the birds would also attract deer...I'm just at a loss and again, don't want to do anything stupid, so I would be grateful for any and all expertise you want to share with me. 

My best to you,

Susan



Hi Susan,

 As for your bird feeding questions: the first thing I would do this spring is to plant some native fruit-bearing shrubs around the yard. This will be especially true around where you want to place your feeders. the birds are going to need cover nearby in order to feel comfortable using your feeders. Yes, they may be of interest to deer and you may need to protect them for several years until they are well established. If you stick with native shrubs, they will not be any more attractive than the surrounding habitat. 

 At all costs, avoid YEW trees of any kind. The vast majority are deadly to wildlife and pets and even humans. Here in Idaho, we have had over 200 big game animals--elk, moose, mule deer and pronghorn--killed by ornamental yews this year alone. Yews are evergreens with flat needles that are usually pointed at both ends. If you suspect you have a yew tree in your yard, take a branch in to an expert for identification. If it is positive, I recommend removing it completely. Don't just cut it off, either dig out the root or apply straight glyphosate (RoundUp) to the stump as soon as you cut it.

 

Next, when you place your feeders, make sure that cats can't set up ambushes for the birds. Put the feeders high enough that a cat can't jump up and get one.

 Squirrels are going to be an issue where you live so you are going to want to fit your feeders with squirrel deterrents. Several that work well include a mesh with about 1.5-2 inches squares that can surround your feeder. You can likely buy one already made or see what they look like at your local hardware store. You can also place the feeder on a post away from trees (squirrels are great jumpers) and wrap the post with roof flashing, a shiny slick metal that comes in rolls. Again, check at your hardware store. 

Throwing out suet blocks without putting them in a feeder is likely feeding neighboring dogs and cats but not doing anything for birds. You definitely need a suet feeder and they are relatively cheap. You can also build one yourself if you are so inclined. Just use hardware cloth with about 1/4 inch mesh. I have had so much activity on mine from starlings and magpies that I built one that forces the birds to feed upside down. This has helped to discourage the pests but not completely. You can see how to make one by scrolling down in the Blog section on the website. About half way down you will find several things that readers have sent that might be of use to you.

As for bird feed, if bears are an issue in your neighborhood, you may have to get creative in how you hang your feeders. Bears really will go to great lengths to get to a feeder. You might want to consult your Department of Natural Resources biologist on that one. Coyotes and bears will only be attracted by food sources that they can actually get at, so if your feeders are not messy and aren't accessible, I don't think you will be encouraging them.

 Other than that, the general rule of bird feeding is that over time, the more foods you can put out, the better your chances of attracting more species. The number one best food is black oil sunflower seed. Nyger seed in mesh feeders will attract finches, suet attracts woodpeckers, live mealworms or freeze dried ones will attract bluebirds and other insect lovers. Fruit can attract a number of birds--oranges are a particular favorite of orioles. Another attractant is grape jelly. No, that is not a misprint. Orioles in particular like it, but a number of birds will dine at a table set with grape jelly. 

As for other things that birds might enjoy, consider the following: 

 Nesting material: during nesting season, hang out a mesh bag or a suet holder stuffed with  dry grass, string, wool, strips of cloth, hair trimmings and similar items. Birds will use these items to make their nests. Dryer lint is not recommended as it may retain water and can be full of chemicals that might harm the birds.

 Eggshells: Particularly during the nesting season, birds benefit from the extra calcium provided by egg shells. Clean out your breakfast egg shells, bake them in the oven at 250 degrees for 20 minutes and then crush and set out for the birds.

 Grit: birds need tiny pieces of grit to help with digestion in the gizzard. The small stones help breakdown the tough seeds and other foods they eat. Sand and tiny stones work well.

 Be aware that attracting birds may take awhile, sometimes a long time. You may put out a lot of food that goes to waste before you get results, especially if your yard isn't particularly bird friendly right now.

 As far as foods to avoid, I don't put out mixes of seed. These are usually heavy on millet which attracts house sparrows. Other than that, there isn't much I avoid.

 The bird bath is always a good idea. You can make it more effective by adding a little movement to the water. That can be accomplished with a small recirculating pump (check with your local nursery) or even just poking a small hole in a gallon paint can or large soda bottle, filling it full of water and hanging it over your bird bath. The idea is to get a drip not a steady stream or you will quickly run out of water. So the hole does not need to be large.

 As for what happened to your pineapple, I would think that deer, squirrels and raccoons all could have fed on it.  

 Good luck on your projects.

 



February 9, 2017


Susan, from faraway New York, wrote with the following question: 


Hi, I am new to a rural area in NY state; there's a six foot vinyl solid fence on one side that has been damaged three times in 6 weeks, the support bars cracked, panels flying. Police say it's deer. Could they really do that kind of damage to a fence like that? Thanks


Hi Susan,

 Yes, deer could damage your vinyl fence. Deer weigh over a hundred pounds, often a lot more, and vinyl fences aren't as strong as they look. A deer crashing into the fence at high speed could break it up. 

I think the question is really, WHY are they crashing into your fence? That isn't normal behavior and in my experience with mule deer, they don't like to try jumping over solid objects, even if they can physically do it. So why then, are they crashing into your fence? I can think of several possible explanations:

1. There is something on the other side of that fence that is highly attractive to them. I find this highly implausible.

2. The fence is new and the deer are not yet used to it. However, within a six week period, they should have acclimated to it.

3. Something, like a neighborhood dog, keeps chasing them into it. This has more possibilities. Frightened deer can do some crazy stuff and bouncing off your fence in an attempt to escape a predator is not far-fetched at all, especially if the fence is relatively new and crosses a former escape route. I am trying to envision the damage, it sounds substantial, and that would likely be painful and not something a deer would choose to do routinely. That supports the theory that something is chasing them into the fence.

4. My final scenario depends on the time of year. If all the damage is happening from mid November to mid December, it could easily be that you have several dominant bucks in the area and they happen to be squaring off to find out which is the biggest and baddest right next to your fence. Rutting battles can be pretty intense and they would not care about your fence. Again, if the damage is occurring during that time period, this is, to me, the most likely scenario. 

If you are not certain that deer are doing the damage, I would suggest going out and looking at the damaged areas very carefully. I would look for tracks in the immediate area and for hair and possibly even blood on the fence itself. I would also look carefully at the damage. Does it seem to be impacted from one direction or is it torn apart? If it is torn apart, it might not be deer at all, but possibly a black bear. 

I would love to hear the outcome of all this if you can drop me a line again sometime. Also, I am curious how you found my website--did you just stumble on it or have you been a follower for awhile?

Regards,

Terry Thomas

After further thought about Susan's dilemma and after actually seeing photos of the fence, it is my conclusion that it isn't deer or bears or even Sasquatch. I think the neighbor on that side is upset because the fence blocks the view of the street when he tries to back out of the driveway and he kicks the fence down so he can see. I hope Susan lets me know someday how the situation works out. 



January 23, 2017

Joan Lass of Yuma, AZ wrote the following regarding the January 12th column entitled, Should We Feed Elk?


Hi Terry,

this article is one of those "we'll be damned if we do and damned if we don't."    We feel so sorry for the animals.  

Like you say, "we the people keep encroaching on their habitat and they have no where else to turn."   It is truly a SAD situation and needs attention as soon as possible.  

We really enjoy your wildlife articles, but ones like this make us sad and feeling helpless.

When we lived in central Oregon, we had herds of deer, elk and antelope in our yard every evening eating our grass.  It was truly an enjoyment to watch them.                                                         


I responded to Joan that perhaps Part 2 of this column, which was printed on January 19th, might answer some of her concerns.

My belief, and that of most professional biologists, is that with feeding and concentrating wildlife, we are headed for a train wreck that could be far worse than not feeding. Chronic Wasting Disease has the potential to literally erase entire herds. Worse, it can spread quickly off of the feed grounds into other animals not even associated with the feed grounds.

If we truly want to do what is best for the animals, we will need to carefully evaluate winter feeding and the potential it has for disaster. 

And that brings up the main premise of Part 2: if we want wildlife and development, we need to start planning long before projects begin. Wildlife biologists should be at every table where plans to develop winter range are discussed. If this is too much bother or seems to infringe on someone's property rights, then the alternative is not feeding, it is fewer big game animals.



Question: Your Post Register column is always outstanding.  Thanks so much for your contribution.  A question: this week we've noticed huge flocks of robins flying around our neighborhood. Are they in transit?  What do they eat at this time of the year?

Bill Lloyd



Hi Bill,


Thanks for reading the column. I appreciate the compliment and the feedback.

As for your question about the large flocks of robins you are seeing (December 3), I think what you are seeing are robins that don't migrate. I have noticed over the 25 years I have been in Idaho Falls that more and more robins seem to be spending their winters here. I had one at my birdbath just yesterday, and you know how cold it has been. If that bird was going to migrate, it would have done so by now. As for the large groups, that seems to be what birds do this time of year. I am sure that there is safety in numbers and some birds huddle together at night for the added warmth. This is a common behavior for robins during late fall and winter.

As for what they eat, I suspect that fruits such as hawthornes, mountain or European ash berries, chokecherries and such are their mainstays. Insects, as you might suspect, are at a premium right now. I have freeze-dried mealworms in one feeder, but I have never seen a robin try to get to them. I suppose that a tray feeder would be better but the dang mealworms are so light weight they blow away in the slightest breeze. I haven't taken the time to figure out the best way to present them to robins. Perhaps a suet feeder on its side would work.  I will try that and let you know.




QUESTION:  3-19-15  Thank you for the last three years of your wildlife column in the Post Register. I have learned a great deal.

While I enjoy your essays re: other parts of the country, I am a 'spudhead' and prefer anything Idaho. I live west of Blackfoot, about 1.5 miles from the river. Would you write a dissertation re: the absence of blackbirds and magpies in this area?. From what I read, it is due to the bird flu. However, why does it affect the black birds and no others? And why does it come and go? Two years ago, I saw a magpie and some crows. Last year, I saw none.

 I used to get angry at the magpie's noise; however, today I miss them. I also miss seeing them dive bombing cats, dogs and other birds!

 The big question-is there anything that can be done bring the birds back permanently.

 NANCY of Blackfoot


Thanks for reading the column, Nancy. I always appreciate hearing that someone gets a benefit from it.

Your comment about not being able to see black-billed magpies and blackbirds (I assume you mean Red-winged blackbirds) is interesting as these are two of the most common birds in our area and elsewhere in the west. The Cornell Ornithology website,  http://www.allaboutbirds.org/ states that magpies are widespread from Alaska to northern Arizona and from the Dakotas west to the Pacific. With an estimated 5.4 million breeding pairs, they are considered a species of least conservation need.

If magpies have suddenly become scarce in your area, I would first wonder if there is a neighbor with an itchy trigger finger. Magpies are beautiful and intelligent birds but they can also be troublesome. Not only are they ofttimes noisy, they are prone to raiding pet food bowls, driving other birds from feeders, pecking at newborn livestock, depredating (destroy) duck nests and sundry other petty crimes that make them unwelcome neighbors for some. When human tolerance wears thin, they often take matters into their own hands following the old adage of, shoot, shovel and shut up despite the fact that magpies are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. That doesn't make it right but it happens. 

Magpies are also members of the Corvidae family and as such are very susceptible to West Nile Virus. This mosquito-borne virus can become a problem at times but seems to have dropped down to background levels so I doubt it is the cause.

Magpies make domed nests and prefer to nest in thorny trees such as Russian olive and hawthorn but just about any tree or structure may hold a a nest. Look around your area and see if nesting trees and other nest sites have been removed recently. This is where I would bet the problem is. Habitat change is the most common reason for population declines in most wildlife species.

As for bringing magpies back, if there is habitat anywhere nearby, there will likely be magpies so long as they are not persecuted. 

As for red-winged blackbirds, again according to Cornell's website, they are one of America's most abundant birds. There are year-round populations in every state in the continental United States and most of Mexico and Central America. With that said, since 1966 RWBs have declined by about 30 million--from 180 million to 150 million. Still plenty to go around but a significant decline nonetheless. Regardless, they are still considered a species of least concern.

Once again though, if there is truly a decline in your area, I would look to habitat change as the culprit. RWBs prefer to nest in thick marsh vegetation such as cattails. if you had a marshy area in your neighborhood that has been converted to some other use, that might be the reason.

The bottom line for any wildlife decline is almost always related to a reduction in habitat. It sometimes takes wildlife a little time to respond to diminished habitat but it happens just as surely as the sun rises in the east. We will never have more wildlife than we have habitat to support it. If we continue to develop habitat into human uses, we should expect to see wildlife continue to dwindle. Habitat and wildlife numbers are inseparable.

Thanks for the question, I hope this helps.




QUESTION: 1-8-15 Terry, A question as to the greatly reduced population of hares, and rabbits in SE Idaho. Answers vary from predators to farmer poisoning. My best guess is an attack of the mange that hit the fox population a decade ago, and may have effected the rabbit/hare pop.  Jere C.


An interesting question, Jere. I too have wondered why black-tailed jackrabbits have never rebounded to the levels of the "bunny bash" days. However, I am also glad they have not. Swings in rabbit and hare populations are expected. However, when populations become extremely large, they can alter habitats and that may suppress their populations for many years.

Personally, that is what I think happened to the black-tailed jackrabbits although the exact mechanism still eludes me. Here is the scenario though: It is well known that many plants that are subjected to heavy herbivory increase the amount and type of defensive toxic chemicals they produce. If this happens over a broad area, it is reasonable to conclude (although this is far from being conclusive) that it would have severe impacts on herbivorous populations.

However, I cannot contest the possibility of some disease factor as disease transmission is also often a product of high populations. Poisons are unlikely though because of the large area involved.

Finally, I would not concur with an argument that rabbit numbers are way down from historical, so long as you are not comparing to the few years in the 1980s when jackrabbit numbers were extreme. I see plenty of rabbit sign when I wander about. There are lots of reports of rabbits, both black-tailed jacks and cottontails this year. Granted, as mentioned, rabbit and hare populations are cyclic (and the reasons for that are not well known), so we will always see times of abundance and times of scarcity. Which of those is the "appropriate" population level?

It is clear though that normal predation does not drive the population swings. In fact, it appears to be just the opposite: rabbit populations drive the number of predators that depend upon them.

Thanks for writing.

Regards,

Terry

 



Feeding black-capped chickadees

 

In regard to my recent posting on black-capped chickadees, Bob C. from Idaho Falls wrote the following:

 

“I read and enjoyed your column about chickadees in the Post Register. I thought you’d be interested that the chickadees at our house like dried mealworms (available at WalMart) about ten times better than they like bird seed. We have a separate feeder containing only mealworms, one of six types of food we put out for birds (not counting sugar water for hummingbirds in the summer). It took the birds 3-4 weeks to realize what was in there, but they have not stopped visiting it since. A few house sparrows visit that feeder too, but not many. Interestingly, the magpies have also learned about the mealworms. They can’t fit onto the feeder so they look on the ground under the feeder, hoping to find dropped mealworms.”

 

That intrigued me.  I have purchased the freeze-dried mealworms before and tried rehydrating them. The birds showed little interest before the things rotted. I had never considered them for winter food, thinking that they would just freeze solid after my re-hydration. So I was curious about how Bob was doing it and I emailed him back. I asked if he was using the mealworms dry or was re-constituting them.

Bob replied that he uses them dry. That really simplifies things and I have since added mealworms to the backyard buffet.  I will let you know if and when the birds find them.

Thanks for the advice, Bob.


Terry


Help Idaho Wildlife

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. 

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. Go figure. 


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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), The Best of Nature 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.

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