Identifying Pesky Poop

Identifying Pesky Poop

By Steve Roark

 

I really enjoyed my career as a forester, partly because of the variety. It was rare that I did the same thing two days in a row. I could be walking in the woods collecting field data in the morning and be on a wildfire that afternoon. If you like routine, forestry is not for you.  One unique task I did on occasion was identifying animal poop, especially when people would find droppings in their house and badly wanted to know what uninvited visitor left it.

Animal excreta deserves more credit that people give it.  It is often the only way you know an animal was present, and if you can get good at poop identification you can know what left it.  Scientist studying some species of wildlife can examine its poop to determine its diet, or what species are using a certain habitat. The science-ese term for poop is scat, and the study of poop is called scatology. Would that not be a cool topic of conversation at a party when asked what you do for a living? Heh!!

Poop, bat.JPG

My experiences in scatology normally involved identifying what animals were using certain woodland habitats.  But on occasion I was asked to identify droppings found in someone’s house, so they would know what critter they were dealing with to get it out of the house. Often the scat I examined was really small. Most people have a handle on identifying mouse droppings, but beyond that it gets sketchy.  So what follows is a quick lesson in identifying scat you would most likely find in your house or campsite.

Mouse: brown or black droppings shaped like grains of rice but not as big

Cockroach: big ones leave droppings similar to a mouse but with blunt ends, and the surface has ridges running longways. You’ll need a magnifying glass to see the ridges.

Bat: similar to mouse droppings but have a shiny rough surface and pointy at both ends. Can be found stuck to vertical surfaces.

Rat: Dark color and the shape of a grain of rice, but bigger.

Squirrel: Slightly smaller than a grain of rice, with blunt ends.

Reptile: includes snakes and lizards; Shiny brown with a blob of white on one end. If you dissolve the droppings in water, strain them through a paper towel, and see insect fragments, it’s probably a lizard. If you go through this much trouble, you have the makings of a scatologist

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A Thorny Subject

A Thorny Subject

By Steve Roark

My job as a forester was a blessing to allow me to get out and enjoy the beauty of our woods and fields and get paid for it. But there were plants out there that would suck some of the joy of being outside.  I’m talking about plants that can make you bleed because of their thorns; things like blackberry, escaped rose bushes, and my worst nemesis: sawbriars. I’ve come off wildfires with literally every square inch of my legs scratched from these painful vines.Thorny plant.JPG

Thorns is the general term for those stiff, pointy outgrowths on certain plants, and their function is to deter animals from browsing on them for lunch. But to a botanist there are thorns and then there are other types of prickly appendages, based on what they were derived from. For instance, thorns are modified branches. Honey locust and hawthorn grows true thorns.  The rose does not produce thorns, but instead its sharps are called prickles, which are derived from modified epidermis (bark) tissue. Blackberry sharps are also prickles. Spines are derived from modified leaves, and the most well-known plant with spines are cacti.  Another example of spines are those found along the edge of holly and thistle leaves.  Yet another category of things that stick and hurt you are trichomes, those tiny hairs that irritate the skin when brushed against, and the best (or is it worst?) example of that is stinging nettle, another plant I’ve had the displeasure to have known often.

Another word used to describe painful sticking plant parts is briar or brier.  It’s mostly used when describing plants like sawbriar and its similarly evil cousins catbriar and greenbriar.  Since briars are derived from modified bark, they are technically prickles. But “briar patch” is a well-entrenched Appalachian term used to describe a tangled mess of prickly plants.

Thorns have some historic significance. Genesis mentions them as a punishment for the original sin: “Both thorns and thistles it (the ground) shall grow for you…. (Gen. 3:18).  Jesus was forced to wear a crown of thorns at his crucifixion. A familiar symbol of Scotland is the thistle, which originated from a story that an invading Norse army attempting a night attack was betrayed when they encountered thistles in the dark, and their painful cries alerted the Scots.

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Pondering the Milky Way

Pondering the Milky Way

By: Steve Roark

I hope each of you have had the opportunity to be in a really dark place on a clear night and caught a glimpse of a shimmering, sort of thin fog like band of light across the sky.  This time of year it runs high overhead.  It helps to let your eyes adjust to the dark before trying to see it, and any street lights or the moon ruin your chances.

What you are looking at is the edge-on view of your home galaxy.   The stars of our galaxy form a broad, flat disk, in which the Sun and Earth are located about two thirds of the way out from the center. When we look into the disk, we see the combined glow of millions of stars, which make up the band of light called the Milky Way.

The number of stars in the Milky Way can only be estimated at best, but it could be as high as 300 billion.  Discovering planets around other stars (over 2000 so far) have led to speculation that most stars have planets around them, upping the chances I suppose of there being other life out there looking at our star and wondering if there’s life on it.  The bigness of Milky Way Galaxy is beyond comprehension.  The book answer is that the disc is 100,000 light years across, and since a light year is roughly 6 trillion miles, let’s keep it simple and say it’s really big.

Milky way in sky.JPG

The Milky Way galaxy is rotating around its center, and at our location the disk is rotating at around 140 miles per second.  In the time it takes you to finish this sentence, you will have been moved through space 750 miles.  In the time it takes you to ponder that, you will have moved another 700 miles.

All of this pondering can make one feel pretty small. But rejoice in the fact that the Earth and all of its life forms are unique… in the galaxy at least.  In the entire Universe is another matter.  You see there are 60 known galaxies in existence for every human being on the planet, with each galaxy containing at least 100 billion stars each.  So with those kind of numbers there may be planet out there with someone on it that looks just like you… only maybe with a green complexion….or maybe a third arm.  Who knows?

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A Cosmic Perspective

A Cosmic Perspective

By: Steve Roark

 

I was mowing the grass the other day and, not particularly enjoying it, mused over what a dull thing to be doing.   I was not taking things into perspective.

While I thought I was puttering along on my mower at a blazing two or three miles per hour, I was in fact mowing grass on a surface of the Earth that was spinning at a rotation speed of 1037 miles per hour.  While spinning at this breakneck speed, the Earth and I were whizzing around the sun at a speed of 1110 miles per hour. That’s like driving to Myrtle Beach in 23 minutes.

Galaxy.JPG

While zooming along at all these speeds is exciting to think about, they are nothing compared to the fact that our Sun is spiraling around the heart of the Milky Way Galaxy, with the Earth and myself in tow, at an incredible 500,000 miles per hour.  That’s going from here to Alaska and back in one second.

But wait!  While I was mowing, spinning, rotating, and spiraling at astonishing speeds, the entire Milky Way Galaxy, consisting of a few hundred billion stars (ours included), is streaking towards a group of galaxies called the Virgo Cluster at a speed of over one million miles per hour.  I was forced to concede at this point that my mowing job was awesome!!!

Looking at the Universe as a whole may make one feel rather small and insignificant, but that’s not true.  For in all the vastness of the Cosmos there may be countless numbers of life forms, but none of them will be like us. We are a rare species. In a hundred billion galaxies, we are, by design, unique.

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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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