By Kennedy Zittel, Assistant Naturalist
Now that the weather has gotten colder, we have begun to say goodbye (for now) to some of our animal friends here at Woodland Dunes. With the cold comes hibernation, and one of our hibernating friends is the woodchuck! Woodchucks (Marmota monax) are large rodents that belong to the squirrel family. On average woodchucks are 16-27 inches from the tip of their nose to the tip of their tail and they can weigh roughly around 10 pounds. Woodchucks are diurnal, meaning that they are awake during the day, so when they are not hibernating we often get to see them around the nature center buildings. The ones here spend their days sunning themselves on the boardwalk behind the barn, sitting on top of the deck railing to get a better view, and occasionally climbing into the bird feeders to munch on seed. And to be honest, since it happens infrequently it is pretty comical watching the round rodent try to squeeze into the little bird feeder. Making the 3 foot climb to the birdfeeder is no trouble for a woodchuck, in fact, they are actually very good climbers and can even be commonly seen sitting up in trees.
Staying within a few hundred feet of their dens, woodchucks will only travel long distances to search for food or to find a mate (mating season for them is March-April). Young woodchucks will only stay a short period with their mom, and leave the den mid-July. Hibernating October to March, woodchucks have to spend the rest of the months building up fat reserves to help them survive sleeping through winter. Contrary to their name, woodchucks have very little to do with wood. They mostly feed on a variety of fruits and green plants, with the occasional flower, insect, and tree bark. Their name doesn’t refer to wood at all, instead it is derived from the Algonquian word for them, wuchak.
Often people refer to woodchucks as “pests” but really they are just trying to live as they normally do in an ever-shrinking habitat. As we humans continue to spread out we will just have to learn and appreciate coexisting with the wildlife that was already here.
Woodchucks play an important part in the local ecosystem. In addition to being food for other animals, they provide farmers and gardeners with some helpful things. When they dig, woodchucks aerate the soil allowing for plant roots to get oxygen. The digging and burrowing also helps to mix up the soil so plants can absorb nutrients that they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. Organic matter accumulates on the top of the soil whereas other nutrients like calcium, iron, and phosphorus often sink deeper into the soil with rainwater, so by digging, those nutrients can reach the plant roots closer to the surface and the organic matter can sink deeper for things like earthworms to munch on. Their burrows also provide homes for amphibians, reptiles, chipmunks, and other small mammals after the woodchucks have left. One cool thing is that even when woodchucks are still using their burrows and dens, other hibernating animals will go into one of the burrow rooms for the winter! This means that other animals like possums, raccoons, skunks, and rabbits can all be roommates with woodchucks over winter.
Now, if that isn’t enough reasoning for why they are neat to have around, woodchucks are also responsible for two major archeological discoveries! In Ohio at the Ufferman Site woodchucks unearthed countless artifacts that were from a Cole Native American village. In Pennsylvania, a woodchuck unearthed artifacts that helped scientists discover the 19,000 year old Meadowcroft Rockshelter site – which is the oldest evidence of humans in the Americas ever found.
Not only are woodchucks good for the soil and other animals, but they have helped us understand more about our history. So the next time you see a woodchuck digging around, instead of being upset over it, think of what it is doing for the soil, and perhaps check out the area after it leaves. As you never know what cool discoveries those little furry archeologists may dig up.
photo of woodchuck in feeder by Kennedy Zittel
I won’t be banding birds on Thanksgiving, but I will plant the last few trees of the year. And while I do so I’ll think about my family, the people in our community who appreciate trees, the people who support our nature center, and the beings of the forest we are working to re-create. With the hope that we can better learn to appreciate both each other and nature as well.
Ripples from the Dunes, by Kennedy Zittel, Assistant Naturalist
On warm days here at the Dunes it isn’t uncommon to see a common garter snake basking in the sun alongside the trails. Common garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis) are some of the most abundant snakes throughout the eastern portion of the United States. They live in a wide variety of habitats such as meadows, woodlands, marshes, hillsides, edges of lakes/streams/ponds, and are common in urban areas too.
Garter snakes are variable in color pattern but typically have three light colored stripes that run along the length of their body. They can even grow to be five feet long! Though males are typically smaller than females are. Garter snakes eat earthworms, amphibians, slugs, snails, insects, crayfish, small fish, and small snakes. To avoid being eaten, they rely on camouflage. Their stripes make it difficult for predators to see them amongst the grass. If spotted they will flee into water to avoid land predators. If they cannot flee, they can strike and bite though they aren’t venomous. If you have ever picked up one though you may also know that if grabbed they will release a foul-smelling secretion to deter predators. Yuck!
Now that the weather is colder…what happens to the snakes? Common garter snakes hibernate late October through March. Since they are cold blooded, their hibernation is called brumation. If the weather is warm enough though they will wake up to sun themselves outside. Since the snakes have no arms, using a shovel would be pretty difficult, so instead of digging their own hibernation space they use natural cavities (fallen logs, stumps, under rock piles) or will use old animal burrows.
Sometimes hundreds of snakes will hibernate together in large groups to help stay warm. This hibernation space is called a hibernaculum. Lying together prevents heat loss and keeps the snake’s body temperature from dropping too low. Since they are cold blooded, snakes lack the ability to generate body heat internally. Instead they rely on external sources to help regulate and maintain their body temperature. This is why garter snakes bask in the sun to help maintain their body temperature (to around 85 degrees Fahrenheit).
While they are hibernating, they can absorb moisture through their skin, however, they cannot eat during this time because their body temperature is too low to digest food. Like other hibernating animals, snakes will build up fat reserves to help them make it through winter. Once the weather warms up and spring comes around the snakes will emerge and bask in the sun alongside the trails once more.
By Kennedy Zittel, Assistant Naturalist
Psithurism: The sound of the wind in the trees
From: Greek word “Psithuros” meaning to whisper
For nature lovers, the fall is both wonderful and sad all at once. A season of hellos. A season of goodbyes. A season of changes. In the fall we say hello to migrating birds that are either just passing through or those that choose to come and stay here for the winter. In the fall we also prepare to say goodbye to many of the creatures we grew accustomed to seeing each day as they prepare to sleep throughout the cold winter. The green leaves we grew used to seeing above our heads and alongside us as we walked the trails are now turning shades of reds, oranges, yellows, and purples. The grass that used to grow green now turns to different shades of brown under our feet. Though this season is a whirlwind of changes that seems to always fly by so quickly, it truly is one of the best times to hear the songs of the forest.
Taking a stroll through the forest in the fall allows us to hear the psithurism of the trees around us. Those leaves that are now a sunrise color palette overhead begin to turn brittle and cling to the branches with an ever-decreasing strength. When the wind blows through the branches the leaves change the volume from a once soft whisper to a loud rustling noise. This increase in volume begins to turn a walk through the forest into an almost musical experience. The wind howls its own portion of the fall song while it helps the leaves rustle and rattle in the branches above. With every step you take you add to the music with soft crunching noises that we associate so well with fall.
Animals like squirrels and rabbits scurry through the fallen leaves looking for the last bits of food before the winter. Birds that are migrating through change up the forest’s song each day. Depending on who is singing, the songs from the brush alongside the trail can vary day by day. The last of the frogs croak and peep one last time before they make their beds below the leaf litter until spring. Acorns and pinecones fall to the ground from the sky above with soft thumps as they land at the base of the trees, just waiting to be carried away by a hungry animal. The once green grass turns to shades of brown and whooshes in the wind.
As the season progresses the wind begins to blow with a stronger force. The once loudly rattling leaves now turn into a decrescendo of rustles until they all soon fall to the forest floor. The animals that were once scurrying around are now asleep in their winter homes, not ready to make a noise until spring comes. The birds are done migrating through, and those that are left are here for the whole winter. Creating a more steady song in the forest. Frogs are now underground waiting for spring to thaw them out before they begin their song again. The conifer trees held onto their modified leaves and continue to do so as the wind whistles softly through their branches. Though one might think that the end of fall has brought a grand pause in the forest’s music, it has merely just created a new song for the time being. You can still hear the forest whisper and sing as you walk, just a different more soothing song as the blanket of snow covers the ground and ice crystals cling to the branches alongside the trail. Regardless of the season, it is always good to go out and listen to nature around you, as you never know what kind of concert it is ready to put on until you get out and listen.
Ripples from the Dunes, by Kennedy Zittel, Assistant Naturalist
During our owl-themed school program when we ask the children to describe similarities and differences between some of the owl photos it often comes up that some of the owls have “ears” whereas some do not. This is an excellent observation and allows me to share one of my favorite nature-words. Those are not actually the owl’s ears, oftentimes we refer to them as ear tufts, but, there is an official and way more fun word for those tufts on the owl’s head. Plumicorns! Plumicorns are a tuft of lengthened feathers that are found on the head of various owl species. The word comes from the latin words “pluma” meaning feather and “cornu” meaning horn. Plumicorns = feather horns!
Now, if those ear tufts or “plumicorns” aren’t actually the owls ears… where are their ears? Owls’ ears are hidden under the curved lines of their facial disc on either side of the owl’s face. Some owls, such as the Great Horned Owl can even raise its facial disc feathers to amplify sound. Similarly to how if we cup our hands behind our ears the sounds can become louder. Another cool thing about owl’s ears is that their ears are offset with the right ear being a bit higher than the left ear. Because of this, sounds will reach one ear before the other and the owl will then tilt its head until the sound is coming into both ears at the same time…and when it does find that balance it will be looking directly at the source of the sound!
So, if plumicorns aren’t ears…and are just feathers…what are they for? Excellent question! Scientists aren’t sure yet as to what the exact reason for the plumicorns existence is yet, however, there are a few hypotheses that could explain why some owls have them. One of the guesses for why owls have the ear tufts is to help them camouflage. The ear tufts break up the silhouette of the owl and allow them to blend in with branches and other natural features easier. Another guess for why they have ear tufts is for intimidation. By raising and lowering the ear tufts owls can look larger and intimidate other large predators away from their space. Other possible reasons are for communication, species recognition, and for courtship.
Now, even though scientists are unsure as to what the ear tufts are for, they are sure as to what the ear tufts are not for. They have nothing to do with sound and have no impact on the owl’s hearing. They are definitely not ears, as the ears are again towards the side of the owl’s head by their facial disc. The tufts are not crests. Crests are generally a one structure thing at the center of the bird’s head though like ear tufts they can be raised and lowered for communication. The tufts are also not plumes, which are longer and showier feathers that are used during breeding displays. Plumes are often lost after the breeding season whereas the ear tufts are kept year round.
Another interesting thing is that not all owls have plumicorns. Only about 50 of the 225 living owl species have plumicorns. Some of the notable ones around Woodland Dunes with plumicorns would be the Great Horned Owl, Eastern Screech Owl, Short-eared Owl, and Long-eared Owl. Owls without plumicorns from around this area are the Barred Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Barn Owl, and Snowy Owl. Though there is no exact reasoning for why the owls have those feathers yet, they sure are cool!