Archive for the 'Mammals' Category

Nov 21 2011

The Observer Effect

Published by under Mammals

There’s a principle in physics called the observer effect that states the observer cannot help but affect the outcome of the experiment. 

I think this applies to mice.

After your advice last week I put a peanut-butter-laden snap trap inside the ductwork at the only spot that’s flat.  Though it was rather far from the mouse’s last known location, he should have smelled it.  It was upwind.  Two days passed.  No mouse.

Saturday morning I was contemplating a change to my bait strategy when Emmalina took a deep interest in the kitchen heat vent again.  I lifted the vent cover and the unseen mouse immediately scrabbled deeper into the ductwork.  Aha!   He was near the top.

I wanted to use a snap trap but there’s no way to keep a healthy cat out of the kitchen.  The entry has no door to close and there’s a window pass-through to the dining room. 

So I erected an elaborate contraption which wouldn’t have been necessary if I didn’t have a cat.  I took off the vent cover, put a snap trap near the opening and covered all of it with a cardboard box.  I taped the box to the floor, not because I feared the mouse would escape, but because I knew Emmalina would overturn the box if I didn’t nail it down. 

We waited.

Sunday morning Emmalina was sleeping on my lap when we heard the mouse climbing up the vent.  I froze to wait.  She jumped into action.

The mouse kept making noise until Emmy danced on top of the box and tried to dig everything away from the wall.  He scrabbled back into the vent and now, 24 hours later, we have not heard him since. 

This morning I again peeled the blue painter’s tape from the box seam and checked inside.  Nothing.

Am I too impatient or is it time for a new strategy that’s less prone to error?

I don’t know how to compensate for the observer effect.

(photos by Kate St. John)

18 responses so far

Nov 17 2011

Mouse in the House

Published by under Mammals

Monday morning, 5:30am:  I am sitting in the kitchen “mainlining” a cup of coffee when a very small scratchy noise attracts my cat’s attention.  I don’t hear it but I can tell from her reaction that we have trouble. 

Emmalina is in hunting mode, completely alert, ears pointed forward, stalking the heat vent under the kitchen table.  I put my head under the table and now I hear it too.  Aaarrrggg!  There’s a mouse in the ductwork.

I had hoped it wouldn’t come to this. 

Emmalina had been giving me hints about this critter for more than a week.  She spent extra time in the basement and came upstairs wreathed in cobwebs with that hunting glow in her eyes.  I suspected she was tracking a mouse so I laid traps (safely out of her reach) where I thought a mouse might be, but I never caught anything.  Neither did Emmalina.  Instead she stared at the ductwork crisscrossing the basement ceiling.  I was too dense to figure out why.

All of this transpired while the weather was warm and the furnace was barely running.  This morning the temperature is near freezing and the heat is on. 

Warm air wafts through the kitchen.  Emmalina pauses to sniff the air.  Scent of mouse?  Fortunately I can’t smell it… yet.

So now what?  Should I seal the outside of the house with the mouse indoors?  Is it wise to put peanut butter laiden traps inside the vents?  Can I lure the mouse out of the vents… and how?  Will it die in the ductwork and make the whole house stink?

This is an opportunity for crowdsourcing.  Dear readers, your advice?

(photo by Kate St. John)

26 responses so far

Nov 01 2011

A Bat on Halloween

Published by under Mammals,Schenley Park

While walking home in the rain last night I saw a brown lump on an oak tree in Schenley Park.

Only a foot off the ground and smaller than the palm of my hand I thought it was a mushroom — until I got close.

It was a little brown bat and he was sleeping.

Without any experience in identifying bats my guess is that he was the most common bat in Pennsylvania, quite literally a “little brown bat,” Myotis lucifugus, whose scientific name means “mouse-ear light-fleeing.”

I didn’t want to wake him so I held my umbrella over my cell phone and took his picture from three feet away.

Even in this distant photo you can see his folded wing on the right and his tiny brown ears pointing down.  Remember, he’s upside down so his ears are at the bottom.  Click here to see what this species looks like up close.

Since bats eat flying insects their food supply disappears during Pennsylvania winters so they must hibernate or migrate to survive.  This little guy has spent the last few months fattening up and mating in preparation for hibernation.  Soon he will adjourn to a damp cave or abandoned mine shaft to hibernate with his fellows in a place that stays above freezing.

Interestingly, if this one is female she will store the male’s sperm in her uterus all winter, fertilize one egg in the spring and give birth to a single baby in late May or early June.

But that’s a long way down the road.  Halloween is over.  It’s time to find a cave.

I don’t expect to see this bat on the oak tree today.  But I will check.

(photo by Kate St. John)

UPDATE Nov 1:  Alas! The bat was there this morning.  He’s dead, though I didn’t touch him to make sure.  Theory: He’s perched right next to a busy road.  Perhaps he was hit by a car and still mobile enough to roost but too injured to live.  Alas!

UPDATE Nov 2:  I saw a bat flying in Schenley Park this evening.  Maybe my bat still lives!

UPDATE Nov 4: I saw a bat flying in Greenfield tonight at dusk. I never noticed them this late before.

4 responses so far

Oct 09 2011

Bird of Fur

Published by under Mammals

Yes, the squirrels have been busy.

Lynne Wohleber’s feeder is exactly the right size to hold this one.

Sooooo cute!

(“Bird of Fur” photo by Lynne Wohleber)

3 responses so far

Oct 01 2011

Winter’s Coming

Published by under Mammals,Phenology

Welcome to October.

What a difference a day makes!  Yesterday’s high in Pittsburgh was nearly 60oF with a strong wind from the southwest but today it will be in the 40′s, the low in the upper 30′s, winds from the north and rain.  The next good flying weather for migrating birds won’t be until Tuesday.

Meanwhile, if you watch your bird feeders you’re sure to see hungry squirrels.  This weather reminds them they don’t have much time left to store food for the winter.

Look closely at your squirrels and you’ll see their fur is changing from brown to gray so they’ll be camouflaged in the snow.  Their tails change first, as you can see on this squirrel posing near Marcy Cunkelman’s feeder.

Posing? Hah! He’s waiting for her to stop looking at him so he can pounce on the peanuts.

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

One response so far

Jul 08 2011


Published by under Mammals

Is this massive bull elk curious?  Challenging?  Or is he just saying, “Welcome to Benezette?”

When European settlers came to North America, elk (also called wapiti) ranged in the eastern U.S. from northern New York to central Georgia but we cleared the forest and hunted the elk, reducing their habitat and numbers until Pennsylvania’s last native herd died out by 1877.

In 1913 the Game Commission reintroduced elk from the Rocky Mountains to their last known location in north central Pennsylvania.  The herd, now centered in Benezette, Elk County, remained small until the late 20th century.  Since then they’ve expanded in Cameron, Clearfield, Clinton and Centre counties as well.

Elk prefer forest edges and open meadows.  In summer they eat grass and flowering plants; in winter, leaves, bark and twigs.

These animals are huge.  The males are 25% larger than the females and can weigh up to 1,100 pounds.  They stand 50-60 inches tall at the shoulder and their antlers can span five feet.  This headgear is heavy, up to 25 pounds.

Bulls grow new antlers every year.  They shed them in February and March and begin to regrow them immediately up to an inch per day.  To give you a sense of this rapid growth, these antlers are only four to five months old.  Wow!

Right now the elk herd is dispersed.  The cows went off alone in June to give birth to their single calves.  The males, meanwhile, are wandering and grazing.  The herd will meet up in the fall for the breeding season, called the rut.

If you want to see Pennsylvania’s elk herd, plan a trip to Benezette in September or October when the bulls will be bellowing and jousting to see who can claim the most and best cows.

Will you see this particular bull when you go?  If you do, don’t get this close!   He’s going to be in a fractious mood.

His photographer, Paul Staniszewski, saw him only two days ago in Benezette.  Paul has years of experience photographing elk and even he was surprised by this close approach.  As he says, “I have been trying to photograph an elusive bull elk known locally as “Attitude” and I finally got an opportunity yesterday [July 6].  I was about 20 feet away when I snapped this photo and he continued to walk toward me to about 5 feet away.  I could have touched him… Scary stuff… ”

As Paul said, “You can see in his face why they call him “Attitude.”

For a slideshow and information on Pennsylvania elk, see Paul Staniszewski’s website and the links on his web page.

(photo by Paul Staniszewski)

8 responses so far

Jun 02 2011

Chipmunk Fight!

Published by under Mammals

How often have you seen chipmunks peacefully browsing together? 

Not very often, and there’s a reason. 

Chipmunks are very territorial.  They really don’t like each other except as babies or juveniles who just left the nest.

I’ve seen chipmunks chase each other and tussle but they’re so fast that I can’t tell what they’re doing.  

Last weekend Shawn Collins had his camera ready when two chipmunks went after each other.  And, yes, they were so fast it was hard to get a clear shot. 

Look at this flash of fur!  Ow!

Soon it was over and the loser ran away.

The victor remained for a parting portrait, the tumble of battle visible on his fur.


Not to another chipmunk!


(photos by Shawn Collins)

5 responses so far

May 21 2011

Two Mornings of a Fawn

Published by under Mammals

On Friday Jennie Barker, who lives in the north suburbs of Pittsburgh, sent a series of photos with the subject line, “Why I didn’t cut the grass yesterday.” 

Here’s the story in her own words. 

“I had finished the front yard and moved to the back, when I found…

“We keep a wire fence around this young dogwood to keep the deer from eating it. Last year, a rabbit made a nest within the fence, but crows took all the young. This year, we put bird netting across the top of the fence to protect the rabbits. As I took this photo, a rabbit stood nearby, looking at the intruder in its spot.

“This is why I stopped cutting the grass and put the lawn mower away.

“This morning, the fawn is gone, leaving behind only a depression in the grass.”

That was the first email but within an hour Jennie wrote again and said,

“I didn’t finish today either.  After sending the pics of the fawn under the dogwood, I fired up the lawnmower and headed to the back yard, only to come across . . .”  (the brown spot at the edge of the mulch)

(…again, just a little brown lump…)

(Here it is up close.)

Jenny decided to do the best she could.

“I left a 10-12 foot area unmowed so as not to scare it. A doe watched me from the cover of a large bush as I worked.  I was out of sight of the fawn briefly, and when I returned, it was gone. It is probably tucked away in another safe spot in the yard – there are plenty.  For now, my yard work is done.”

And that’s how a fawn spent two mornings.

(photos and story, thanks to Jennie Barker)

6 responses so far

Apr 05 2011

Ticks Found Here!

Here’s a scary thought:  Bush honeysuckle increases the risk of tick-borne disease. 

It’s not only scary, it’s true!

A team of scientists with tick expert Brian F. Allan from Washington University in St. Louis conducted an extensive study of the relationship between ticks, deer and the invasive plant known as bush honeysuckle

Though the study was done in the suburbs of St. Louis what they learned applies to Pennsylvania as well.  Namely, that in dense stands of bush honeysuckle there are a lot more deer than usual, a lot more ticks than usual, and a higher proportion of the ticks carry disease.

More deer than usual?  The researchers ran deer density counts inside and outside the honeysuckle areas.  In the honeysuckle zone there were 5 times as many deer.

A lot of ticks?  You bet!  One of Brian Allan’s tick traps caught 5,000 nymphal stage ticks in a single location.  Ticks don’t walk far to get a meal — less than 10 feet – so that spot in the honeysuckle was loaded and dangerous.  

Even worse, when they ground up the ticks and tested the mash for bacterial and deer DNA, they discovered that ticks found inside the honeysuckle zone were 10 times more likely to carry bacterial disease than those outside — and they caught it from deer blood. 

So why do deer like honeysuckle so much? 

People used to think that deer liked honeysuckle for its berries but the researchers proved the deer don’t care about the fruit.  Deer hang out in the honeysuckle because it provides great cover.  It’s 18% denser than our native vegetation and it’s first to leaf out in the spring (it’s the only green shrub right now) and it’s last to lose leaves in the fall.  Deer love it.  They sleep there.

The result is that you’re much more likely to catch a tick-borne disease if there’s a lot of bush honeysuckle around.  In Missouri you’ll catch Ehrlichiosis, in Pennsylvania, Lyme disease.

Bush honeysuckle is everywhere, especially in parks and gamelands.

But there’s one positive take-away.  This news may prompt people to try harder to eradicate bush honeysuckle — and that would make our native plants very happy.

Read more about the study in this October 12, 2010 article in Science Daily.  Don’t miss Brian Allan’s description of his tick trap.

(photo of bush honeysuckle leaves in the Spring by Marcy Cunkelman)

6 responses so far

Feb 10 2011


Published by under Mammals

Last week groundhogs had their day.  This week possums are vying for the spotlight. 

Possums have come up five times in the last seven days and the more I’ve looked into them, the more intrigued I’ve become.  Did you know that….?

  • Virginia opossums (Didelphis virginiana) are North America’s only marsupial. 
  • Their ancestors were from South America but they split from them during the Cretaceous (age of the dinosaurs) and started moving north.  They are still moving north and have now reached southern Canada.
  • Possums are the size of a large housecat with a pointed snout, shaggy fur and a naked prehensile (grasping) tail.  This one looks so cute because his ugliest features are not accentuated in his portrait.  It helps that he didn’t smile for the camera.
  • Possums have 50 teeth in their little mouths and look especially grisly when they smile.  (Adult humans have 32 teeth.)
  • They often smile where they’re afraid and always smile when they “play possum” in which they pretend to be dead by rolling over, drolling with an ugly smile, tongue hanging out, eyes closed and a slowed heartbeat.  They can be catatonic like this for four to six hours!
  • Possums will eat just about anything and become ill if they don’t have an extremely diverse diet. 
  • They are prolific.  The female’s pouch has 13 nipples for up to 13 live young.  This makes up for their survival disadvantages which are…
  • Possums have very low intelligence, poor eyesight (nearsighted), poor hearing and a slow bumbling gait.  Any possum who decides to eat roadkill easily becomes roadkill himself.
  • Possums are normally nocturnal but in times of short food supply you may see them foraging during the day.  That’s when Cris Hamilton found this one on her deck eating fallen bird seed.
  • Their thin ears and naked tail are especially prone to frostbite.  Joan Silagy saw a frostbitten possum at Blue Marsh last week.
  • Possums can live well in the city.  Last Saturday night I saw a one on my city street just after hearing how possums invaded someone’s home (inside the walls!) in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.  That double-whammy started my possum streak.
  • Virginia opossums live only about two years in the wild because they face so many predators and the challenge of winter.  The ARL Wildlife Rehabilitation Center has a possum missing an ear and half its tail because a dog attacked it.  (See his thank-you card here which you receive after sponsoring him here.)
  • The possum’s enemies expanded his range.  Southerners who liked possum stew took them to California for food during the Great Depression. 

I could go on and on about possums but I’ll leave you with this Possum Celebrity Moment:  A cross-eyed possum at the Leipzig Zoo has so captured the hearts of the German public that the zoo has had to improve her display so that more people can see her — and she’s not even on display yet!

(photo by Cris Hamilton)

8 responses so far

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