Archive for the ‘Herbivores’ Category

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Where are you from Mr. Finch?

April 6, 2016

Tis the season to look up at an ocotillo plant and find a small red and brown bird with an ocotillo flower in its mouth.  This is the House Finch, Haemorhous mexicanus.

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You may have heard that these creatures are recent imports, but that’s only true if you live in the eastern United States. Unlike many other U.S.animal arrivals, they are not native to Asia or Europe, but to the western U.S. and Mexico.

They took an uncommon journey to get the east—they were imported decades ago to Long Island by dealers who had the idea of selling these cheerful little folks. But either people were not buying, or somehow the birds escaped, and soon had a great time spreading all over the east coast. Now they have the curious distribution of heavy populations along the eastern US, and the western side of the continent, but have only recently converged toward the Mississippi.

Maybe they were avoiding riverboats?

In any case, look for these lively birds around feeders, and, way back west, in blossoming ocotillos.

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What kind of Rat?

November 9, 2015

A Pack Rat, that’s what!

More specifically, a White-throated Woodrat, Neotoma albigula.

There are several different kinds of related Woodrats, just to make things confusing for humans. And in addition, Woodrats are not the same as the rats we usually think of, when we think of rats–those are the Old World Rattus rats.

Woodrats or Pack Rats look more like giganto mice, with their big ears and big dark eyes. Their tails are also fuzzier than the bare Rattus tails.Packrat

These amazing creatures can survive on the moisture they get from the vegetation they eat, and do not need to drink water. How’s that for a desert adaptation!

Quite a while back we talked about Pack Rat middens, the amazing homes the White-throated Woodrats build in the desert.

These folks must have special skills, to build such large defensive structures without getting nasty stab wounds, since middens often include a lot of cactus branches.

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Zoo or Noooo?

September 26, 2014

How can you tell if the prairie dog in the picture has been living in the wild or a zoo?

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Check out how pudgy the creature is.

Zoo animals often gain a lot of weight—from eating so many carrots!

On the other hand, or paw, wild prairie dogs stay lean by going to the gym several times a week.

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New Desert Creatures Mysteries e-book

August 12, 2014

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Now you can get a great Desert Creatures Mysteries e-book.

It goes into detail about the strange animals of the desert, and some of the cool science about them.

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/455225

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Packrat Middens

November 3, 2013

Packrats, Neotoma albigula, make interesting nests in which to store their treasures—and themselves.

When you are out in the desert, the trick is how to spot a packrat nest. It’s not always easy. I guess that’s the idea, when you are building a hideaway.  Basically, look for a crazy, almost random pile of sticks and leaves, and often cholla cactus stems. The nests can range from a foot to 8 feet wide, and are often at the base of a shrub or cactus.

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Apparently, If you went inside a packrat nest or midden, an activity the packrats vigorously discourage, you might find shiny bits of human treasures—foil, metal, or other bright objects, since packrats seem to like shiny things as much as we do.

Packrats do like cholla cacti, somehow managing to avoid their really nasty and determined thorns. There’s even one variety called the jumping cholla—I would stay away from those! The name comes from how easily a stem can get detached and glom onto you. A packrat favorite! Cholla stems are certainly a good defensive addition to a habitation—the dry stems are probably even nastier than green ones. According to the Desert Museum, packrats love to eat prickly pear fruit. So they are really cactus creatures.

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Limiting factors in the desert

September 16, 2010

In some ways the term “limiting factor” is almost a definition of deserts, because deserts lack one or more essential ingredients for the survival of most kinds of plants and animals.

First, a desert is, by definition, a place with very little available water, either because there is little rainfall, or because it evaporates so fast. It may also be that most of the precipitation is unavailable because it is frozen most of the year, as in the far north or south, or in some high altitude regions.

Some areas may get bursts of moisture, even flooding, but it is episodic and not dependably available most of the year.

Temperature is another limiting factor. Many deserts get too hot for most organisms. Some deserts near the north and south poles are too cold. And yet others have wide swings in temperature.

Wind is another. There are few trees or shrubs to stop the wind. Desert mountains, river-courses or other sheltered areas may harbor small oases in their wind and sun shadows.

One unusual limiting factor is lack of sunlight. This can occur in deserts near the poles.

Especially interesting are the adaptations that plants and animals have developed to deal with these limiting factors. Many of them are what we talk about here.

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Choose native plants for your desert landscape

July 22, 2010

One way to figure out what plants will be suitable and attractive in your desert landscaping is to go to a nearby natural area and see what is growing wild.

Make sure you select a location that is similar to yours in exposure, dryness and altitude.

Take photos or make a list of plants you find attractive. Never dig up native plants! They are fragile and rare, and in most places it is illegal to do so.  Almost everything you will see is available in plant stores. Photos will also help you arrange your landscaping, showing which plants grow together, and how much space they need.

Then go to the web or in plant books to learn about the plants you have found, or take your photos to a local nursery that specializes in native plants, and decide which are for you.

The variety of desert plants is surprising: cacti, shrubs, vines, spring-flowering annuals, many kinds of perennials. A big virtue of native plants is that they  require little in the way of extra water and plant food, and are easy to maintain.

One thing to keep in mind about native plants–some of them grow very slowly, so it may take a while for your landscape to mature. But there is nothing to match their beauty, and their ability to attract native fauna.

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On little coot feet

July 21, 2010

The American coot looks like a little round black duck. With a white snoot. And mad red eyes.

But it is not, not a duck.

After you look for a while, it also looks like a young chicken, a pullet, with a football shape, but rounder than a football.

A chicken, getting warmer.

Coots are in fact related to chickens, and more closely, to mudhens. (Go Toledo!)

While we think of them as northern wetland animals,  you can actually find them in the Sonoran desert, on some of the occasional lakes in the desert. They swim around, most often in pairs, and dive to gather vegetation, and the, um, scum from the bottom that they eat.

But the most amazing thing about coots is their feet. They have very strange feet. Not just plain chicken feet. But not duck feet, webbed paddling feet either.

They have these strange little flaps on the sides of their toes, very clever flaps actually, that make their toes very wide when they step down, or when they push against the water, but fold up to slender claw-width when they lift their feet, or bring them forward in the water, or take off in flight.

They are not easy to spot– you have to be quite close, or have the coots pose just right, then you can see them.

So if you see a round black swimming chicken-duck-bird with a white bill-beak and crazy red eyes, make sure you look for their really crazy black and gray flapped coot feet.

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A thorny issue

June 23, 2010

Related to the last post, it is amazing how many kinds of thorns, bristles, hooks, spikes, prickers, sharp edges, pointed leaves, pointed branches, as well as claws, scales, fangs, spines, and hooves you find in the Sonoran desert, and generally in the arid western USA.

In a contrary kind of way, almost all of these indicate that there’s probably a nice, juicy, succulent hunk of flesh nearby.

But you’ll get hurt if you try to get at it!

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Why does the cactus look like that?

June 16, 2010

The first thing you notice about a cactus is generally the spines. Some have short, nasty little almost invisible fishhooks, some inches-long needles. Then there’s the form of the plant. Most cacti are plump, rounded, often stubby. They tend to be grayish-green in color. And they usually do not have obvious leaves.

Why?

Whenever you come across questions like this, think about the ecosystem where the organism lives. Cacti live in dry climates with a lot of sun, and few other plants, especially leafy ones.

So keeping cool is an issue. A light neutral color does not absorb a huge amount of the sun’s heat. There are very few plants with dark bark, or skins, or leaves in the desert.

Retaining moisture is perhaps the most important issue for a desert plant. The blunt, compact shape of cacti, their thick skins, and lack of leaves are all moisture-conserving features.

And lastly, toothsome, moist leaves would attract all kinds of herbivores. So the lack of leaves discourages plant-eaters, and the big spines and tough hide protect any soft, moist tissue a cactus does have.