Sumac

Sumac

By: Steve Roark

Sumacs are very common in our area, most often found in overgrown fields and areas that have been disturbed.  While considered a weed by many, it does have the virtues of providing cover and food for wildlife, and nice fall coloration for human enjoyment.

Sumacs, also called “shumate” by some, are woody shrubs that tend to grow as multi-stem clumps with fairly smooth brownish bark spattered with small lines or dots.  The average sumac is around 7-10 feet tall but can reach 20 feet.   The leaves are compound (more than one leaf) and configured like a feather, having 10 to 30 leaflets. The leaves are among the first to change color in the fall and are a brilliant red. Their flowers bloom in horn-like clumps at the tops of the branches, and around September those clumps form showy, bright red fruit that is quite striking. The shrubs are underutilized as a landscape plant for color and interesting form.

Sumac smooth.jpg

The two most common sumacs in our area include smooth and winged sumac.  There is also a small bush-like species called fragrant sumac that only has three leaflets.  There is a poison sumac that can cause dermatitis like poison ivy, but it’s only found in swampy places and not in our area.  Sumacs are in the same family as poison ivy, but most species lack the irritating oil.

In the past sumac had several uses.  Native Americans rarely smoked pure tobacco, but would create blends that included cured sumac leaves.  They also enjoyed making a lemonade-like beverage from the fall fruit.  The berries are covered with tiny red hairs that contain malic acid, the same acid found in unripe apples.  If you want to try the drink yourself, here’s a recipe and a warning: Be sure to correctly identify any wild food before eating and try only small quantities at first in case you have a food allergy.  Gather the ripe fruit clumps before hard rains wash out most of the acid. Put the heads in a large container and cover with water.  Pound and stir for 10 minutes with a wooden pestle or potato masher. Strain the resulting juice through several layers of cloth to remove all the fine hairs.  Sweeten to taste.  Indians liked this drink so much they would gather large quantities of the seed heads in their prime and dried them indoors so they could be used all winter.

Native Americans also used sumac to treat quite a few maladies.  A tea made from the leaves was used to treat diarrhea, asthma, and mouth disease.  A tea made from the bark was used to treat dysentery and fever. Tea made from the roots was used to induce vomiting.

Birds are the main wildlife users of sumac for food, especially during the important winter months.  Grouse, turkey, quail, bluebird, cardinal, and crow all consume the fruit, while rabbit and deer will eat the twigs, fruit and bark.

 

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Box Turtle Trivia

Box Turtle Trivia

By: Steve Roark 

The way a turtle is put together is pretty much the reverse of ours.  I mean look at it: we have soft body parts protecting a hard-inner skeleton.  Turtles have a hard-outer skeleton protecting inner soft body parts. The most common turtle you’ll run into around here (and one you probably aggravated when you were a kid) is the eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina).

  The box turtles is also called a “tarpin”, “terrapin”, or “wood turtle”.  They have a high dome-like upper shell that can is black or brown with yellow, orange or olive blotches.  The lower shell is unique compared with other turtles in that it is hinged so that when the turtle draws itself in, the lower shell folds tightly against the upper shell all the way around, completely “boxing” the turtle safely inside.

The lifestyle of the box turtle is slow and easy.  The only animal that really does any harm is the human, especially one in an automobile.  Since they lack teeth, turtles must feed on soft foods such as worms, insects, mushrooms, and berries.  They can survive for extended periods without food, but feed heavily when it is plentiful.

Although they are primarily land dwellers, box turtles like to soak themselves for hours in mud or water.  During extended dry weather they will often burrow beneath logs and rotten vegetation and wait it out, then reappear in large numbers after a hard rain.  They spend their winters this way as well.

The way to tell male box turtles from females is to look at the lower shell.  If it has a small depression towards the rear, it is male. The purpose of the indention is to allow mating to take place, which can be tricky while wearing a suit of armor. Some claim that males have red eyes while females are brown, but I’m not sure this is dependable. After mating the female eventually digs a hole with her hind legs and lays white eggs in soft soil.       Turtle, Box photo.jpg

Box turtles are long-lived creatures compared to other animals, averaging 30 to 40 years.  Though not scientifically proven, there are reports of some exceeding 100 years, including one claimed to be have lived for 138 years, based on a date scratched on its shell.

Here are some interesting distinctions of box turtles: Unlike many other reptiles, box turtles have eyelids, which they close when sleeping of course, but also when they are happy (I didn’t know you could tell). Because they lack a flexible ribcage (the shell is their version of ribs), they have to force air in and out of their lungs through movement of their limbs.  Their range of hearing is mostly in the low frequency range, which allows them to hear things like ground vibrations from movement of other animals, and also the location of nearby streams. The individual plates that make up the shell (called scutes) grow by adding layers, and so have rings that can be counted to determine the turtle’s age.

 

 

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Wildlife Friendly Fence Rows

Wildlife Friendly Fencerows

By: Steve Roark

Some landowners will no doubt frown when I say that a grown-up fencerow is desirable, and I’ll admit I’ve done my share of cleaning them up.  But from a wildlife perspective a brushy fencerow can do some of positive things.

Probably the primary function fence rows perform is escape cover, which allows birds and animals to venture out into open fields and pastures.  Birds are highly beneficial in controlling insect pests, and predators help keep mice, moles, and groundhogs in check.  Fence rows also provide excellent habitat for nesting birds.  There are usually 10 times more nests in a fence row site than in an equal area of natural forest.  The reason may be that birds like to nest where they can protect their territory, and the narrow strip of vegetation fence rows provide means intruders can only come from two directions rather than all around. Fencerows also act as a corridor for squirrel, deer, and other animals to safely move from one woodland area to another.

Fence row

If you want to manage your fencerows for wildlife, here are some recommendations:

  • Keep tall trees thinned out to promote more shrubby growth. This will attract cardinals, catbirds, thrashers, and other small birds.
  • Don’t cut snags (standing dead trees), as these are used by woodpeckers and other cavity nesting animals. Build and put out nest boxes to encourage more cavity nesting birds and wildlife.
  • Fencerows should be at least 10 feet wide. An unmown strip of ground will produce herbaceous weedy cover in the first year and small shrubs in two to six years, and nature will quickly create vegetative cover.
  • Plat diversity is important. You can encourage variety by selective mowing and tree cutting along the fencerow.  Leave and encourage food producing trees like persimmon, cherry, and serviceberry.
  • Keep an eye out for exotic invasive plants and don’t let any become established in the fencerow. These guys can spread quickly and mess up native plant populations. A good website to learn more about invasive plants is Invasive.org. There is an identification manual that is useful. I say again, don’t let invasives get a toehold.

 

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Murmurs about Mimosa

Murmurs about Mimosa

By:  Steve Roark

Mimosa (Albizia julibrissin) is an imported ornamental that is very common in our area and is most noticed when it produces its fluffy pink flowers in the summer.  Its commonness is worrisome from a forest health standpoint.Mimosa leaf flower photo.jpg

Mimosa is a native from Iran to Japan, but it was brought to North America as a yard ornamental. It then naturalized into the wild and is easily found growing along roadsides and on abandoned land. It is a smallish tree growing to only about 40 feet tall, but has a wide spreading crown.  It has feather-like compound leaves that are 9-12 inches long and made up of many small finger-like leaflets.  The flowers are fragrant and look like bright pink powder puffs.  The fruit is a long bean pod that turns brown and hangs on the tree on into winter.  Teas and tinctures made from the bark and flowers have traditionally been used as an herbal medicine to improve mood and relieve anxiety.

What worries me about mimosa is its encroachment, for I’m seeing more and more of it around.  It’s listed as an exotic invasive plant, meaning it has potential to shove out our native trees which are much more important for timber and wildlife, and messes with the forest ecosystem.  If you have mimosa on your property and are not using it as a landscape plant, I recommend eradication to prevent its spread.

The list of invasive exotic plants is getting longer each year: kudzu, multiflora rose, buttercup, autumn olive, tree of heaven, and a multitude of other plants are taking over in places and their control gets more expensive each year.  Beware of what you plant on your land.  Do some research to make sure you’re not turning loose a green Frankenstein.

 

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Snake Bit

Snake Bit

By: Steve Roark

When you run across a snake, their normal reaction is to get away. But if they feel threatened enough all snakes will bite defensibly.  If you are bitten, here are some recommended first aide treatments.

Try to determine if it’s venomous or not. If you’re confident it’s not you can treat the bite like you would a puncture wound. Check with your doctor to see if you might need a tetanus shot booster.

If you know it’s a venomous snake or you’re just not sure, assume it is. Our two local poisonous snakes are the copperhead and the timber rattler.  Both are pit vipers that deliver a toxin through hypodermic fangs.  If the bite is on the arm or leg, keep the bitten area below heart level.  Keep calm and don’t exert yourself, as this will only spread the venom more quickly.  Snakebites are usually not fatal, so don’t panic. Call 911 or get to an emergency room as soon as possible. Give them a description of the snake if you can. The head of a venomous snake is bigger than its body with the jaws protruding out.  With non-venomous the head and body are the same diameter. Not as easy to see is the eyes.  Venomous snakes have vertical eye slits like a cat.  Non-venomous have round eye pupils.

Snake, copperhead.jpg

 

The treatment of cutting the bitten area and sucking blood from the wound is not recommended, as this may cause a bad infection or even sever a vein or artery.  Use of a tourniquet to slow the flow of venom is also not recommended.

When you see a snake out in the woods away from your home, try not to let fear control your actions to the point where you instantly kill it.  Keep in mind snakes provide beneficial pest control…they eat a lot of rodents.  A mutual respect for each other will keep both you and the snake alive and well.

If you’re outdoors a lot it’s a good idea to learn how to identify copperheads and timber rattlers, and there are plenty of references on line.  You are most likely to get bitten if you step on one, so watch where you put your foot down, especially in heavy brush. And please don’t let the fear of snakes prevent you from enjoying the outdoors.  Just be careful out there.

 

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Snake Folklore

Snake Folklore

By: Steve Roark

Snakes have fascinated and frightened people for centuries, which has led to some pretty interesting stories about some of them.  I did some research on some sayings about snakes I heard as a kid to see how they held up under scientific scrutiny and animal behavior.  Here’s a rundown of what I found.

Snakes Chase People:  This is usually attributed to a snake called a black racer (Coluber constrictor), noted for its slithering speed. According to herpetologists (folks that study reptiles) snakes don’t give chase, but rather their instinct is to flee.  What likely happens is the snake and the person are both scared silly upon contact, and both just happened to run in the same direction.  Black racers will show fight when they are cornered, lunging at you and rattling their tails in dry leaves so they sound like a rattlesnake.snake clip art.jpg

Copperheads Smell Like a Cucumber:  This one is the hardest for me to let go, because I swear I have smelled cucumbers twice, both times in the woods after dark, and I was creeped out.  But I did not see any snake around.  Many snakes do emit a fluid-like musk when frightened to discourage predators, and the smell is unpleasant and does not remind you of a salad. Some snakes will also poop when frightened, again to create a discouraging smell for predators.  Some of you may be pleased to know that when a snake scares the crap out of you, you were possibly doing the same to the snake.

Snake Revenge:  The story goes that some snakes travel in mated pairs, and if one is killed the other will try to get you back.  Snakes don’t have the brain power to grasp the concept of revenge, and do not travel in pairs.  The only time you will see two snakes close together is during mating season, or if they are sharing a common shelter.

Snakes Go Blind During Dog Days: Science dudes say nope. Snakes do lose vision as they shed their skin periodically.  To help the old skin slide off, a whitish lubricant is secreted under the old skin, which causes the scale over the snake’s eye to cloud over, temporarily impairing vision.  But snakes shed skin all summer, so it happens at other times besides the heat of August.

A Snake Must Coil Before It Can Strike:  A snake can bite or strike from any position.  Coiling does increase the distance it can strike.

Rattlesnakes Can Be Aged By Their Rattles: A rattlesnake adds one rattle every time it sheds its skin, which happens several times a year.  Rattles can also break off, so counting them is an inaccurate aging method.

 

 

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Wildlife Cover

Wildlife Cover

By: Steve Roark

From past biology classes you know that all animals require the right habitat that provides all that they need to survive.  Habitat needs can be broken down into three basic components: reliable water, food, and cover.  While water and food needs are easy to understand, cover is more dynamic, and its use varies from day to day and season to season.

In a nutshell, wildlife cover is a space where an animal can be kept safe from predators.  Vegetation is an obvious example of cover, but so are rocks and brush piles.  All wildlife species need a variety of cover types to survive.  The following is a rundown of some that should be provided for optimal wildlife populations.

Thicket Edge Winter.jpg

Nest Cover: Birds, small mammals, and insects use trees and shrubs for nesting.  This includes the leafy cover and cavities in trunks or limbs.

Brood Cover: Once born, cover to raise and nurture young to maturity takes on various forms.  Some raptors need trees with an open canopy, while some songbirds need closed canopies or heavy brush.

Roosting Cover: Every layer of vegetation, from tall overstory trees to grass and shrubs on the forest floor, is a favored cover while sleeping for wildlife of some sort.

Escape Cover: Animals often need a quick getaway place, and the type needed varies by species.

Loafing Cover: These are quiet areas where an animal are able to spend time in relative safety from predator or human disturbance.

Thermal Cover: This is most important in cold climates.  Protection from temperature variation, wind, and storms are essential in harsh weather.

When it comes to habitat development, if you build it they will come.  So, whether you’re attracting a single species or several types, a little research will assure you get satisfactory results.  Several sources for more information are from local state wildlife and forestry agencies, and County Extension offices.

 

 

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