Archive for the 'Mammals' Category

Oct 09 2013

Cute, Curious, Combative

Published by under Mammals

Red squirrel (photo by Shawn Collins)

So cute!  But watch out, he’s fierce.

His small size, soft red fur, fluffy tail and big eyes are certainly cute but the red squirrel is also curious and combative.  I think his food habits made him that way.

Unlike gray and fox squirrels, red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) don’t bury one nut at a time.  Instead they gather food in a big cache called a midden in a hollow tree or underground.  This takes a lot of time and effort:  climb the trees, walk the branches, bite off the green cones, watch them fall, scurry down later and collect the cones, repeat the process. Along the way they pause to eat at the same prominent locations leaving debris piles, also called middens, that seem to say “I am here!”

The red squirrel defends a 1 – 8 acre territory against everyone, especially other red squirrels.  He’s curious about new arrivals but then, watch out!

First line of defense?  Shout at the competition!  Burst into a sudden loud chatter that slows to a wheezy hiccup.  Really mad?  Jerk your tail and stamp your feet.  Really, really mad?  Chase!

In coniferous forests that’s usually another red squirrel but in mixed forests gray squirrels also get a verbal beating and relentless pursuit.  Though the red squirrels are only 1/2 to 1/3 the size of the grays, the red ones always win.

I, too, have been ejected from a red squirrel’s territory.  He used his voice.  Click here to read about it.

Now that winter is coming the red squirrels are changing into their drabber winter coats and rushing to increase their middens.  They have no patience for anyone.

Cute… ?

Don’t push me!

(photo by Shawn Collins)

5 responses so far

Aug 30 2013

Head-to-Head in Elk County

Published by under Mammals

Bull elk sparring (photo by Paul Staniszewski)

Looking for some excitement?  Want to see large animals go head to head this fall?

This week Paul Staniszewski of Elk County reminded me that the elk rut has begun.  He wrote:

Labor Day usually marks the end of summer. For the Pennsylvania elk herd the shortening length of daylight hours each day triggers an annual event known as the “rut”. The rut usually lasts from late August until mid-October.  … A lot of sparring between bulls takes place that makes for dramatic photographing opportunities.

Male elk bugle and spar to establish dominance in the mating hierarchy.  They’re so preoccupied that Paul has captured some great photos, especially near the Visitor Center on Winslow Hill Rd in Benezette.

Benezette is a 2.65-hour drive from Pittsburgh so you might want to make a weekend of it.  Plan your trip and learn more about the elk here.

(bull elk sparring by Paul Staniszewski)

17 responses so far

Aug 05 2013

Every Dolphin Has A Name

Published by under Mammals

A Bottlenose Dolphin plays in a boat's wake (photo from NASA archive via Wikimedia Commons)

We’re used to the notion that we name dolphins (remember Flipper?) but did you know that dolphins name themselves and call each other by name?

Last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland published a study of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) that explains how dolphins communicate by name.

Using underwater microphones they recorded dolphins’ voices and discovered that each one had his own unique whistle, a signature sound.  Having matched the signatures to individuals they then played back the sounds, one at a time.  The dolphin who “owned” the sound responded.

This is just like what humans do.  If you call out “Kate,” I’ll respond — if I hear you.

Hearing is probably the reason why dolphins have named themselves.  They live in a world where it’s hard to see but easy to hear (sound travels better in water than in air).  They also live in a social group that’s always on the move.  When a friend has swum out of sight they call him and the friend answers.   This makes it easy for the group to stay together.

Researcher Vincent Janik points out that individual communication is also important for mothers and calves. Baby dolphins rely on their mothers’ milk until they are three years old yet they’re just as mobile as their mothers.  What an advantage that they can call each other by name!

Read more about the study and see a video of the research at this link at BBC News.


p.s.  This confirms my belief, garnered from T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, that many animals have their own secret names.  We just don’t know what they are.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

One response so far

Jun 25 2013

They’re Off the Clock

Published by under Bird Behavior,Mammals

Svalbard reindeer (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Last Friday the solstice set our annual biological clocks.  Every day the sun triggers our circadian rhythm. But what if we lived where the sun never sets?  How would we synchronize our daily internal clocks?

In the arctic where day and night last for months a circadian rhythm would be annoying if not a handicap.  Since “day” has no meaning, arctic reindeer solved the problem by turning off their internal 24-hour clocks.

In mammals the circadian rhythm causes melatonin levels to rise at night and fall during the day.  This happens whether or not the sun gives us a cue.

Scientists studying reindeer in Norway (Rangifer tarandus, the same species as caribou) found that they have no rhythmic melatonin cycle.  Instead their melatonin rises or falls abruptly in response to light.  On or off.  No daily clock.

Reindeer need to know the time of year so they can synchronize migration and breeding, but this is easy to do at the equinox when the sun rises and sets.

On Svalbard where this reindeer lives, the sun rose on April 16 and won’t set until August 27.

No wonder he doesn’t care what time it is.  Some days I wish I didn’t care either.

Read more about this study in Science Daily, March 2010.


(photo of a Svalbard reindeer, a subspecies of Rangifer tarandus, from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

One response so far

Jun 19 2013

I’m a Porcupette

Published by under Mammals

Porcupine youngster, Lycoming, May 2013 (photo by Meredith Lombard)

When I saw this cute photo by Meredith Lombard I knew I had to write about baby porcupines but I soon learned that the truth about these rodents is stranger than fiction.

For starters, baby porcupines are called porcupettes.

Each porcupette is a precocial only child, born with open eyes, well formed teeth, a full coat of fur, and able to climb trees a few hours after birth.  In only two weeks he eats green plants.  In three months, he’s weaned.

Like his parents he has three kinds of fur: a woolly undercoat, long coarse guard hairs, and sharp hollow quills with barbs at the tip that slant backward.  When born his quills are soft and harmless (good thing for his mother!) but within half an hour they’ve stiffened into the protective coat that saves his life.  The only place he doesn’t have quills is on his belly — just like his parents.

Neither he nor his parents “throw” their quills but the quills are so loosely attached that they stick easily to any critter that comes close.  That includes dad when he approaches mom to conceive a porcupette. Needless to say copulation is a very careful business.  No hugs are involved, but there’s a lot of courting to get her in the mood.   Dad whines and dances on three legs, showing her his equipment.  When she says “You’re the one” he showers her with urine.  Then they mate.

I’m not kidding.

All of this happens in October or November.  Seven months later: a porcupette.

(photo by Meredith Lombard)

3 responses so far

Jun 13 2013

Deer Are Not Vegetarians

Published by under Mammals

While hiking in the Laurel Highlands several weeks ago I heard a hooded warbler alarm call.  I looked for the bird and discovered a large deer browsing in the area of the warbler’s voice.

Though I couldn’t see the warbler I knew why he was upset.  Deer eat birds’ eggs, baby birds and any small bird that can’t fly away.  The deer was as big a threat to his nest as a bear.

Years ago at Powdermill Banding Station I learned that deer are one reason they’re careful to quickly retrieve birds from the mist nets.  If they delay, deer eat the birds trapped in the nets.

In the video above two parent birds try to drive off a buck who’s browsing in the vicinity of their nestling.  The nestling tries to escape but cannot fly well.  The parents’ efforts were to no avail.

Deer are so omnivorous that trail-cam studies have shown they’ll readily eat from carcasses of their own species.

Nature is full of surprises.  Deer are not vegetarians.

(video from YouTube)


7 responses so far

May 14 2013

Not Tame, But Trusting

Published by under Mammals

Doe and fawn (photo by Sharon Leadbitter)

It used to be that wild animals avoided human contact but that’s not true in Pittsburgh anymore.  We have hawks, wild turkeys, foxes and deer in the city.  Not every animal can cope with city life but the individuals who can tolerate close human approach are doing quite well in our parks and cemeteries.

Sharon Leadbitter visits Allegheny Cemetery often and frequently saw this doe and fawn last summer.  They weren’t tame but they learned that Sharon isn’t dangerous. This was reinforced for the fawn every time it met a human and Mom said “It’s ok.”

Fawns are born in May in Pennsylvania so by now this baby is an adult and it’s mother has a new fawn.  I’ll bet this doe will let Sharon meet her new fawn, too.

And there will probably be four deer this year.  This doe plus her new fawn, and this fawn (now an adult) plus her fawn.  That’s how easy it is to end up with a lot of deer.

(photo by Sharon Leadbitter)

7 responses so far

Apr 11 2013

Raccoons Getting Active

Published by under Mammals,Schenley Park

After a quiet winter this week’s warm weather has brought out the raccoons.

On Monday I heard a strange noise above my head in Schenley Park.  Two raccoons were arguing high in a tree.

Then late at night I heard the scratchy sound of raccoons disagreeing in my back yard.  Safe indoors, my cat looked in the direction of the sound but was unimpressed.

Fortunately we don’t have a cat door or we might have had a visitor like the one in this video… !


(video from YourDailyFunny on YouTube)

2 responses so far

Dec 30 2012

Totally Off Topic

Published by under Mammals

This post is totally off topic — not about birds or nature — but it’s so funny that I laughed and laughed.

I have a cat and I have a computer.  Thus far I have avoided acquainting my cat with the printer.  The video shows why.


(video by mihaifrancu on YouTube)

5 responses so far

Dec 26 2012

Go on a Virtual Safari, Help Science

Published by under Beyond Bounds,Mammals

Nature observers and webcam lovers, here’s an opportunity to go on a virtual safari and contribute to science from the comfort of your home.

The University of Minnesota has been studying lions in Africa’s Serengeti for over 45 years.  Several years ago, in an effort to determine the population of other species in lion country, they installed 225 motion-detection cameras to record all the animals, both day and night, that pass by the study sites.

They now have thousands and thousands of photographs that contain an animal of interest … but which animal?   And how many?  And what are they doing?  Are there Wildebeest? Zebras? Serval cats?  Eland?  Guinea fowl? Grant’s gazelles (above)?

The task of identifying and counting the animals in so many photos was too huge for just a few people so they teemed up with Zooniverse to launch the Snapshot Serengeti website. It’s a citizen science project and you can help.

Visit to see the photos.  Try the tutorial. Learn how to identify the animals and how to use the clues for animals you’ve never seen before.  Then checkmark three items: what species, how many, what they’re doing.  Click Finish and you’re onto the next photo.

Of the two Zooniverse projects I’ve tried so far I like this the best.  At first I wasn’t very good at wildebeest vs. eland vs. buffalo but I quickly got better.  I could really tell I’m a “bird person” when I was excited to see two guinea fowl, and then a secretary bird!

Try it yourself.  Sign up at, sign in and you’re off on safari!

(screenshot from Snapshot Serengeti)

One response so far

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