Mystery of the Missing Jewel

 

 packrat1Paige and her favorite cousin Madeleine (Maddie for short) were excitedly planning their summer vacation together.  This would be a special summer for the eighth graders.  Paige lived in Arizona and Maddie lived in Utah and they didn’t see each other very often, although they emailed, skyped and texted back and forth every week, sometimes several times a week.  Paige’s mom had finally agreed that it was time to get the two cousins together again, after not seeing each other for three years.  Maddie’s mother, sister to Paige’s mom, also thought this was a good plan.

Excitedly, the girls made their plans.  They were to meet at Grandpa Jensen’s summer home in Bear Lake, Idaho, the first week of August for a whole week. Grandpa and Grandma would meet Paige at the Salt Lake airport and pick up Maddie at her home and drive them to Idaho.  At the end of the week, Uncle Jared, who also lived in Bear Lake, would return them both to the airport.  There, Paige would catch her plane and Maddie’s family would meet her.  Uncle Jared would then go to a seminar and workshop at the University of Utah on Monday morning.  The plans included two days at the lake, one day hiking Paris Peak and surrounding mountains, one day at the famous Minnetonka Cave, and one day picking huckleberries in the nearby mountains.  If they were really lucky, the luscious red raspberries, the pride of Grandpa’s garden, would also be ready to pick.

Plans intensified as the summer began.  Ideas floated fast and furious about this thing, that thing and everything.  There were important decisions to be made about what  clothing to take (including coats), what personal hygiene items, and of course, what gift to give each other.  Both girls loved jewelry, so that made it easier to pick out the very best gift.  Paige selected a nice party ring with a simulated green emerald.  Maddie found an attractive wire-wrapped princess-cut transparent quartz crystal pendant.

School finally let out, June and July dragged along.  When August arrived, each girl packed and re-packed.  Some days they would text each other as many as five times to make sure they didn’t forget anything.  They even asked their mothers to help them put some menus together to help Grandma with the cooking.  One of their favorites would be huckleberry pie—IF they were successful in finding and picking enough of the small flavorful, but elusive wild purple berries.

Finally, the big day arrived!  Paige was transported to nearby airport by her family and goodbye’s and hugs were given.  The flight was routine by exciting to Paige as this was her first trip in a plane.  After arriving, Grandpa, Grandma, and Maddie found Paige in the baggage terminal.  Paige had forgotten to pack her lotion in the checked baggage and it was not allowed in her carry-on.  Soon, grandparents and girls were  happily on their way north for the three hour road trip to Bear Lake.

Arriving at the older home where their grandparents spent their summers, Paige and Maddie were given choices of rooms:  downstairs in a shared room or in the attic.    They unanimously chose the attic.  The rest of the day was spent in becoming re-acquainted with the farm, outbuildings, garden, and the mountain that arose at the rear of the property.

As the bright sun waned in the West, the traditional presents were made ready to give to each other that first night at Grandma’s home.  In order that both grandparents could participate, the girl’s volunteered to help with the meal, do the dishes, bring in the clothes from the outside clothes line and help finish mowing the lawn.   A number of “ooh’s” and “ahh’s” followed unwrapping of the gifts.  The simulated quartz pendant looked so much like a diamond.  The green emerald ring was a beauty to behold and it fit Maddie’s hand perfectly.  After further conversation, it soon became time to retire to the attic for the night’s rest.  Of course, it took an hour or two of conversation to summarize several year’s of events before finally drifting off.

Activities during the balance of the week went better than planned:  the lake was warm and the sun bright, but not enough to penetrate the ample sun block.  The hike up Paris Peak was a bit grueling but well worth the view from the top. A great time was had by sliding down a remaining drift of snow along with a snowball fight.  The cave was beautiful but a little eery.  Each evening, happy fatigue finished the day.  The huckleberries, though tedious to pick, made a wonderful pie, and the famous red Bear Lake raspberries were just coming on.  Helping to pick, the young ladies ate more than those eventually finding their way into the pails.

On Friday, Paige and Maddie asked, “Grandpa, may we sleep overnight in the old cabin on the family property up the canyon?”  Situated several miles west of town up the canyon was an 18th century one room log cabin owned by the family.  It had withstood well the passage of time with a little help from a great uncle.  The sole window in the first floor was broken, but the door still worked.  In the loft where the girls chose to sleep, there were no windows, but a smooth particle board floor was in place.  Carrying their sleeping bags and air mattresses up the fold-down ladder, they chose places near the center of the room to make their beds.  Goodbyes were said to Grandpa as he left and they prepared to spend the night after inflating air mattresses.  As the darkness encompassed them about, out came the flashlights.  A cool canyon breeze soon encouraged the young ladies to retire to their sleeping bags.  Each removed her new jewelry, setting their pieces on the floor beside their bags.  An owl hooted in the distance and an unidentifiable howl was heard far away.  An occasional bellow from range cattle and calves in the pasture next door punctuated the silence.  The gurgling sound of the nearby creek acted almost as a sedative and soon carried them away into dreamland.

The next morning, the sun was shining brightly when Paige and Maddie awoke.  Groggily shaking their heads to remember where they were, each girl gradually awoke.  Looking up in the rafters, Paige screamed, “Look at that thing.”  Calming down a bit after realizing its harmlessness, they determined that it was just a spotted bat.  It was clinging to a crack where the two angles of the roof cam together.  Then, reaching for her ring, Maddie’s hand groped into emptiness.  Now wide-eyed, she looked again.  Her ring was nowhere to be seen.  Standing up, she shook her bedding and clothes—no ring!  Both girls searched frantically and fruitlessly for an hour, even looking in the cracks next to the wall and downstairs—but still, no ring.

Teary-eyed, Maddie cried with frustration.  Paige tried to comfort her to no avail.  Somberly, they feasted on the sandwiches Grandma had packed for them.  Soon, Grandpa arrived and heard the sad story.  Together they again searched, finding nothing.  Riding together in Grandpa’s old truck, they made their way the several miles down the rough graveled canyon road to the summer house.  Arriving, Grandma heard the same story.  The phone rang.  It was Paige’s mother.  After exchanging family news, her mother said, “Oh, by the way, the jewelry store called and said that a terrible mistake had been made, that a ring with a real emerald, probably worth over a thousand dollars, was mistakenly give to you in place of the green cubic zirc ring you purchased for Madeleine!”  The phone slipped from Paige’s hand and hit the floor with a thud!

The remainder of the visit passed by in a flash of revisiting the old cabin, fruitless searching, again and again, with plenty of tears added in.   Even the delicious raspberry shake Grandma fixed for the girls prior to their departure on Sunday morning seemed somewhat tasteless.  Bidding goodby, the girls were soon in Salt Lake.  Paige arrived home later the same day and Maddie with her family.  Events of the trip were hashed and re-hashed time and again.  The jewelry store people threatened to sue for the loss of the emerald, but eventually did not, realizing it was their own fault.  Paige and Maddie continued to be good friends over the years, even through college into their marriage lives.

The rest of the story.  Ten years passed– a family reunion was again held at Grandma and Grandpa’s Bear Lake cabin celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary.  Twenty one grandchildren, five great grandchildren, and all six of Grandma and Grandpa’s children were present.  One night was devoted to showing family pictures and relating family stories.  Of course, Paige and Madeleine, now each married and each with young babies, related the story of the emerald ring, still wondering what on earth could ever have happened to it?  At the conclusion of their story, Grandpa, now in his 90s, stood up and began to speak slowly.

“I have been waiting some time to tell the rest of the story you have just heard.  Many of you remember that old family cabin the girls have been talking about up the canyon on the property that belonged to my father, inherited by my brother.  It stood there for well over 100 years.  My brother’s children sold the property about two years ago and the cabin was taken down to make way for a more modern summer home.  With a degree of sadness in seeing the old landmark go down, I drove up the canyon the day the old log walls and roof were demolished and hauled away to the landfill.  After the trucks left, I walked around inside the original rock foundation trying to envision the pioneers and their primitive building tools as they labored to build the cabin with logs hauled by horses from several miles further up the canyon.  There was quite a lot of debris, there, including droppings from rockchucks and skunks that had probably passed many a winter under the old cabin, sheltered from the harsh storms.  In one corner, there was what appeared to be an ancient stick nest.  I kicked the sticks and dry grass and leaves around a bit—a flash of reflected light came from its contents.  Looking closer, I saw several pieces of old window glass, a shiny rock or two, a silver dime, several old nails, and other objects that presumably a pack rat had carried there.  You all know that pack rats are named for their habit of carrying attractive bright and other strange objects they encounter back to their nests.  Stirring around further into the remnants of the old nest, I found more debris, including this:”  Grandpa held up his aging, now trembling closed hand.  Gradually opening it, he handed Maddie a shiny ring with a large green stone.

About Wood Rats, Also called Pack Rats:

Wood rats belong to the Genus or group called Neotoma (see photo above).  Some 12 species or kinds range over much of the U.S., into Canada and Mexico.*  Several species are known only from islands of the Gulf of California, off the Pacific coast of northwestern Mexico, Baja California.  Wood rats are fairly large somewhat resembling the common house rat.  Most are nocturnal in their behavior, but have been seen to be active during the daytime.  Fur is brownish above, with white underbellies with bushy tails. Sexes are similar in coloration.  Two to four young are born in the spring through the summer.  Wood rats feed on seeds, nuts, acorns, fruits, green plants and store food in their nests; they do not hibernate, but remain active during the wintertimes.  Wood rats live four to five years in the wild.  Nests consist of large stick houses on the ground, in trees, sometimes in abandoned buildings.

*Hall, E. R.  1981.  The Mammals of North America.  John Wiley & Sons, New York.

 

 

 

 

Animal Wisdom Surpasses That of Humans

BearIIIRecently, some newspapers and other media were full of news about a huge storm bearing down on the Northeast U.S.  Even prior to the storm, it was reported that some store shelves were bare due to panic buying.   I remember a number of years ago while living in Oklahoma where severe ice storms rarely occur.  Following one such rare event, grocery store shelves were almost bare.  I experienced this personally.

Most of us did not live through the Great Depression of the 1930’s, when there was little work and food.  Soup lines were long, gas was rationed, and the necessities of life were scarce, even if one had the funds.  It was a most difficult time that brought much suffering.  Those who had the vision to store necessities ahead did much better.  Our grand and great grand parents figured out how to live off the land without depending on visiting a store every day or two.  Life was hard then, but through hard work, they survived by growing their own food in fields and vegetable gardens.  They canned vegetables and stored potatoes, cabbage, and carrots in root cellars dug underground.  Some milked cows and raised chickens—they survived!

Unfortunately, some of us humans pay little attention to the Boy Scout motto, “Be Prepared.”  One may ask, prepared for what?  Baden-Powell, founder of scouting, when asked that question responded by saying, “Be prepared for Any Old Thing.”   Most of us have grown up in a time of plenty when shortages have been pretty much nonexistent.

The analogy to made here is that even “lowly” animals better prepare for their known future than do most humans, the so-called “intelligentsia” of earth forms of life, for the unknown future.  For example, in preparing for the inevitably bitter winter that periodically arrives like clockwork every October or November, animals prepare instinctively in a variety of ways.  Most members of the squirrel family, bears, bats, some reptiles and amphibians hibernate.  That is, they put on extra layers of fat by eating excessively in the late summer and fall.  Then, when sufficiently cold weather arrives, they secrete themselves in their burrows or caves or attics or underground and then sleep through the winter.  Their bodies survive by using the fat reserves.  Other small animals prepare for the long and cold winters by storing food.  These sleep some during the winter, but awake every so often to eat stored food, then sleep again.  Pikas or rock rabbits store food by cutting and hauling grass and plant parts to areas near where they live.   In late fall, these small “haystacks” dot the talus slopes where pika dens are located.  Tree or red squirrels cut pine cones from evergreen trees, extract seeds, then bury them for subsequent retrieval.  Chipmunks, who depend primarily depend upon seeds for food, gather these during the summer, making small temporary caches or burial sites.  Later, they revisit the sites and carry the cached seeds in their internal cheek pouches to their dens for wintertime use.  Pocket gophers, living underground in subterranean tunnels, rarely appearing aboveground, carry plant parts including roots in their external cheek pouches to their underground dens.  These are known to also actively burrow during the winter underground under snow cover to secure food from plants.

Why is it so foreign for humans to prepare?  How much effort does it take to gather together several days supply of food/clothing/bedding materials?  Food to last three days, some nine meals, can fit into a fairly small backpack.  True, one may have only one-course meals (single kind of food), but that certainly beats the alternative of nothing to eat.  Have you ever been truly hungry?  That is, have you gone without food for more that two days at a time?  If so, you probably have no desire to repeat that experience.  How would you feel if your family was starving and there was nothing you could do to help them?

In the USA, we have been extraordinarily blessed to mostly have what we need to sustain life.  However, recent events indicate that this may not always be the case.  Look at the Haitian earthquake, the Tsunamis of Indonesia and Japan, tornadoes, hurricanes of the last 10 years.  Living in South Carolina several years ago, several train cars carrying chlorine gas wrecked.  Several died from breathing chlorine fumes and nearby homes and businesses were evacuated for some time.  After evacuation orders, there was only a short amount of time to grab an emergency kit and quickly depart away from the danger zone.  This occurred only four or five miles from where we lived; although it did not affect us directly—it certainly could have.   I have personally served in five or six disaster cleanups from Hurricanes Andrew and Katrina, from flooding in Georgia, tornadoes in Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, and tornadoes in North Carolina and witnessed the accompanying devastation to homes and belongings.  Where houses still remained standing, and they did not in Homestead, Florida, we assisted in literally gutting them due to water and wind damage.  We carted refrigerators filled with rotting food, soggy bed mattresses, once-beautiful wood furniture, clothing, family heirlooms and other household items to nearby roadsides.  There, these piles of ruined household goods awaited transport to landfills.

In conclusion, let us learn from the past.  There is an old adage to the effect that those who do not learn from the past—are doomed to repeat it.  There is still hope that we humans will yet learn from animals.  the difference is:  They prepare instinctively; We humans have to prepare consciously, certainly more difficult.  We need to adopt the mindset to “Be prepared for any Old Thing” at any time in any place when unforeseen and unknown future disasters may occur.

What Is A Chipmunk?

chipmunkIAmong the most common kinds of wildlife observed by backpackers, campers, picknickers is a small mammal, a member of the squirrel family, Sciuridae, called chipmunks.  These inquisitive and handsome animals often entertain family members, especially children, during forays into natural areas such as national forests and some public parks.

Chipmunks range throughout the U.S, and into Canada and Mexico.  They have stripes (usually white) lengthwise along their brownish bodies, from their tails to their noses.  They commonly sit upon their “haunches” (rear feet) with their somewhat bushy tails waving and jerking as they vocalize, or chirp.

Chipmunks are not true hibernators, but rather store up food in the summer times for wintertime use.  They may sleep for a few days at a time while holed up in their dens, but intermittently wake up and feed upon their stored food.  Dens may be located in rocky cliffs, underground in burrows, or other places offering relative security.  They are quite adept at handling food with their forefeet as they sit.  They are herbivores and mainly feed upon seeds, but also consume other plant parts.

The Eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus) species has the largest areal presence in North America.  It ranges from southern Canada through most of the southern U.S. states, and from the Mississippi River east.  I count 39 additional chipmunk species* belonging to the Genus Tamias (formerly Eutamias) scattered mostly west of the Mississippi River, some extending well into Canada.  There are a number of locations where ranges of more than one species overlap.  Scientists call this “sympatry,” as opposed to “allopatry” (which means that ranges do not overlap).

Perhaps the chipmunk with the most extensive distribution west of the Mississippi into much of Canada is called the Least chipmunk.  I have encountered this small member of the squirrel family in many unlikely habitats including in sagebrush stands, ditchbanks, roadsides or other disturbed habitats.  One often hears a “chattering “ call as the chipmunk streaks away to safety, with its tail high in the air.  Chipmunks are found in a variety of different habitats.  They are seen on cliffs to pine forests to aspen stands to other natural habitats, even including disturbed habitat such as old strip mining areas, clearcut lumbering areas, abandoned roads, etc.  The ways in which chipmunk species are differentiated from one another includes:  differences in coloration and stripes, skull measurements and skull shape, bacular differences, etc.

I am particularly fond of chipmunks.  I researched the ecology of the cliff chipmunk (Tamias dorsalis) as a thesis requirement many years ago in Logan Canyon, Utah.  Unlike its sister species, cliff chipmunks have dark rather than white striping.  In the canyon, cliffs contour the mountainsides high above the river in the bottom of the canyon.  The cliff chipmunk is aptly named as it inhabits these perpendicular cliffs; some cliffs are up to a hundred or more of feet in vertical height.  This chipmunk with its unique toes and toenails is able to navigate over the face of vertical rocks with impunity.

My study consisted of capturing the chipmunks in the springtime in live traps, marking them with dye, recording locations of capture.  Then I traversed the mountainside rock slides below and above the cliffs to identify my previously marked animals.  With binoculars, I kept track of their locations and the kinds of plants they were feeding upon.  My objective was to determine the size of the area in which they travel about (called home range) over time.  Also, I identified and compared the different kinds of plants they fed upon as the seasons progressed.  It was also quite intriguing to observe these small animals carry seeds in their cheek pouches and then bury them in the dirt in small surface “caches.”  Later in the fall, they would return to these caches and retrieve the seeds, carrying them to their individual den areas within the rocky cliffs for wintertime use.

May you, as I have, find immense enjoyment from watching and interacting with these small and attractive wild creatures.

I published a small 45 page soft bound booklet entitled, “How to Study Chipmunks – Ecology,“  that is available FREE for ordering; cost is only $2 for U.S. (residents) postage and handling.  Send to “Chipmunk,” 11 East 500 North, Orem, UT   84057.

*Hall, E.R. 1981.  The Mammals of North America.  John Wiley & Sons, New York.

 

 

Strange Giant Fossil Clams Found

Clam1A local daily newspaper* recently published an account the discovery of giant fossil clams.  These measured four feet across, twice the size of any living species, and found in Utah for the first time.  Similar fossils are said to have been found in Colorado and Kansas, but this is the first time such prehistoric invertebrates have been found this far west.  L. Logan and K. Carpenter of the Utah State University-Eastern’s Prehistoric Museum* found a number of fossils in the Book Cliffs, near the Green River.  A number of clam remnants encountered were eroded so badly they could not be collected, but finally one was found with little erosion damage.  This specimen was collected and taken to the Museum.  The giant clam fossils were found in mancos shale, named for the Mancos Sea that is thought to have cut through North America from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico in the far distant past.  The foto above shows typical extant East coast clams.

A little bit about fossils.  Fossils are the remains, impressions or traces of the bodies of organisms which have been preserved in rocks from previous geological ages.**  Fossils that retain perfect or only slightly modified forms of plant and animals are rare.  Over many years, plants and animals have had their outer skeletal parts dissolved by chemical processes, then replaced by minerals such as silica, calcite, etc.  There is almost always the loss or dissolution of the original structure.  Again, various minerals replace dissolved skeletal parts so that none of that original part remains.  However, sometimes fossils have retained the original patterns perfectly both externally and internally (exoskeleton, endoskeleton); these are the most desired and sought after, but—also the most rare and difficult to find.

Indeed, there are some few examples of actual fossil skeletal materials remaining after thousands of years.  These include skeletal parts found frozen within ice in Siberia and the skeletons of higher animals preserved in asphalt in Rancho la Brea in California.

Of course, the likelihood of fossilization for any given plant or animals is very small.  After death, as these are most often eaten or destroyed or simply decay away on the surface.  Obviously hard body components such as teeth, bones, shells, and wood are the most likely candidates for fossilization.  Vertebrate paleontologists have created new species of vertebrate animals based on fossil teeth (dentition) found, often in caves.  Certain conditions must be met, however, for fossils to form.  First, the body or plant must be covered fairly rapidly after death—most commonly with sediment.  Sediments offer protection from mechanical damage, normal biological decomposition, or the actions of water or atmospheric events.  Thus marine or aquatic organisms are much more likely to become fossils than land dwelling (terrestrial) animals or plants.  Additional important requirements for fossilization are extreme pressures generated by multiple layers of sediment and detritus above and…. time.   Extreme pressure over many thousands, even hundreds of thousands of years, often produce recognizable animal and plant species.

Now some more about clams in general.  Clams or “mussels” are often called “bivalves.”  The “bi” refers to two, and the “Valve” refers to the shell; or in other words, two shells.  The innermost layer of the shell is called the “mother of pearl.”  It consists of alternating layers of limey and horny material.  This produces an attractive iridescence which diffracts light and which in the past, has made clam shells much sought after to make buttons and jewelry.

Clams are, of course, marine or aquatic organisms.  They lived in the sandy bottom of bodies of water and can be dug up from sandy seaside beaches.  Clams and their kin may be found throughout the earth from the deepest marine seas to shallow fresh water rivers.  Clams have no head.  They have a mass of flesh in the ventral (lower) part of their bodies called a foot, which, when the shells open can be extended and provides slow movement as it contracts and expands.  The two “mantles” are fleshy lobes inside the shell that secrete the bivalve shell and the “hinge.”  The hinge opens to allow food-bearing water to circulate within the mantle.  Food is captured and enters a crude digestive system.  When enemies threaten, the clam simply closes up tight to protect its inner self.  A single large muscle is responsible for governing opening or closing of the bivalves.  This muscle is the sought after morsel that humans find so delectable in making clam chowder.

My own experience with clams came as a result of an invertebrate biology class I took while a student at the University of Oklahoma’s Lake Texoma Biological Station with four classmates.  Dr Barry Valentine (Ohio State University) taught the class and we traveled throughout southern Oklahoma waterways in pursuit of fresh water clams of which there are a number of species with varying architecture.  Most of the specimens we collected were from animals already expired.  However, at the end of the class, besides the master collection which yielded new distribution information of several species, we each had a collection of attractive and varied fresh water clams.  Mine eventually went to Weber State University.  Overall, It was a most memorable biological collecting experience!

*Liesk, J.  2013 (4 Feb).  Giant Clam Fossils Unearthed.  Deseret News, SLC, UT.

*Prokop, R. and V. Krb.  1995.  Fossils.  Magna Books, Leicester, England.

***Utah State University – College of Eastern Utah.  2013. News, Big Find-Giant Clams. website:  eastern.usu.edu

Amazing Fact: Wildlife’s Worst Enemy

Feral_catFeral cats are defined as domestic (home) cats gone wild.  Even reading or writing about them often elicits emotional outbursts from cat lovers.  Domesticated cats have been and remain one of the favorite choices for pet lovers.  Thus, broaching the “downside” of cats may easily raise the ire of those who treasure their favorite animal as not capable of doing anything wrong.

Wild or feral cats bring a negative downside to their domesticated house cat “siblings.”   They cause significant predation of small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.  Besides being a general nuisance, they can transmit such disease organisms as rabies and toxoplasmosis.  Along with house pets that are allowed outside, “human-linked” feral cats are said to be the leading cause of death for birds and mammals.  Their most likely prey animals are squirrels, shrews, mice, voles, and rabbits.

Biology of feral cats.*  Feral cats weigh up to eight pounds, are up to 36 inches long and live in the wild up to five years.  Domestic or home cats may live as long as 15 years.  Feral cats may live in barns of other outbuildings, alleys, sewer systems, overgrown areas, under bridges, along creeks, or other places offering shelter.  They roam in an area of 1.5 square miles, their home range.  For food, they feed upon human refuse, birds, small mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and human-provided food.  Feral cats can potentially produce up to five litters/year, beginning generally in the spring when the increasing length of daylight triggers female estrus.  Two to 10 young are born in each litter after a 65 day gestation period.  The Humane Society has estimated that one pair of cats potentially can produce progeny numbering 400,000 under ideal conditions with no deaths.  It is estimated that there are 60 to 88 million domesticated cats in the U.S, with an additional 60 million more belonging to the feral ranks.

A systematic review and estimate of cat caused mortality in the United States by S.R. Loss, T. Will, and P.P.Marra** suggested that cats kill 1.4 to 3.7 billions of birds and 6.9 to 20.7 billions of mammals each year.  Most of the damage is caused by un-owned cats, which are most likely the greatest single source of human-related mortality of U.S. mammals and birds.  Based on these figures, the enormity of this impact on natural populations of wildlife has long been underestimated.  However, cat lovers insist that cats are wrongly being blamed for bird habitat loss, and animal loss actually due to chemicals used in fertilizers, and insecticides.  Human impact is to blame for the real threat to birds, they say.

George Fenwick, president of ABC, is quoted*** as saying, “To maintain the integrity of our ecosystem, we have to conserve the animals that play integral roles in those ecosystems.  Every time we lose another bird species or suppress their population numbers, we’re altering the very ecosystems that we depend on as humans.  This issue clearly needs immediate conservation attention.”

Past policies dealing with stray cats has been to capture them, neuter them, then return them to their hunting grounds—where they continue to prey upon the same wildlife which also serves as prey for owls, eagles, and hawks.

As a biologist, the writer has frequently encountered stray or feral cats in the field.  In fact, I inadverdantly caught one while attempting to trap red foxes a number of years agounder a highway overpass in South Dakota. My own opinion on the feral cat subject is to seek to maintain traditional natural balance in the ecosystems.  Inasmuch as humans are blamed for domesticating the European and African wild cat, today’s cats, seven thousand years ago, we should do our best to manage them for the purpose intended—solely that of being house pets.  It is irresponsible to allow cats to become wild or feral.  Small mammals and birds have ample predator pressure to survive under natural conditions without the added hazard of becoming prey to prowling domesticated cats, including those gone wild.

*Hildreth, A.M., S. M. Vantassel, and S. E. Hygnstrom.  2010.  Feral cats and their management.  University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Nebraska Extension, EC1781.

**Loss, S.R., T. Will and P.P. Marra.  2013.  Nature Communications, 4, No. 1396, 29 January.

***Collins, L. M., 2013.  Outdoor cats kill billions of birds, mammals.  Deseret News, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Have You Checked Your Wildlife Checklist, Lately?

Vulvpes vulpes

 

Of the 800,000 total animal species (or kinds) in the world, how many have you seen personally?  Have you kept track of those you have seen (probably not as these include insects and other invertebrates)?  Have you ever heard of an animal checklist?

Perhaps you are familiar with a group of devoted animal adherents called “birders.”    Birders or “bird watchers” are well known for constantly looking for (and often keeping  records) birds they see and can identify.  Many use “checklists.”  A checklist is a printed listing of all birds known from certain areas, such as a state or national park, state, or geographical area, perhaps even an entire country or continent.  There are blanks in each checklist beside each bird’s name to record specifics about sightings (date, location, etc.).  There are around 8,600 bird species worldwide, so there are almost always birds to see and record wherever you live.

Bird watchers may visit any place where a bird is likely to be seen, including their own backyard feeding station, neighboring orchards or even nearby public parks.  Some visit specific habitats, such as marshes to look for wetland-adapted shore birds.  When seen, definite sightings are recorded on checklists as they are identified.  Novices, even veterans, carry field guides containing avian color photos or pictures or other information so identification can be certain.  Many birders maintain lifelong checklists.  Being a bird watcher includes having a curiosity/love for birds, a pair of binoculars and willingness/ability to make the effort to get out-of doors, perhaps travel, and identify feathered fauna in a variety of weather conditions.  At least once a year at Christmastime, birders organize and participate in an end-of-the-year census or bird count to assess numbers and presence of species of local and migratory birds.

Not so common are other animal checklists.  My favorite animals are mammals, so I will discuss them here as examples.  There are only about 60 percent as many species of mammals, 5,000, as compared to birds; only amphibians have fewer species than mammals, about 1,500.

Most mammals (except bats) are confined to the earth’s surface or subsurface, and their movements are much less rapid and less likely to be seen than birds.  Hence, the process of building an extensive checklist of identified mammals is more laborious than birding–though equally rewarding.  These watchers are folks who similarly look for and record sightings and experiences with mammals.  As you know, mammals are warm blooded animals with hair, females with milk glands giving birth to living young (we humans are classified as mammals).  Common animals classified as mammals include aquatic mammals (such as whales, dolphins, seals, manatees), aerial mammals (bats) and terrestrial four-footed mammals (as elephants, bears, squirrels, mice, kangaroos).  These are widely distributed throughout the earth.  There have been extensive mammal extinctions in earlier periods of the earth’s history and even today some kinds of mammal populations are so low they are considered threatened and/or endangered.

Animals, including mammals, can be detrimental to man.  Some destroy grain, cereal and other crops, some are vectors harboring disease organisms, and some are known to physically attack humans.  However, many kinds of mammals have been useful to man throughout the ages.  Even today, they serve as beasts of burden, transportation, medical research subjects, and subjects of aesthetic enjoyment.  Mammals continue to be useful for food, fur and body parts, as pets, as quarry in sport hunting and even for subsistance survival in some parts of our planet.

Mammal sightings may occur in zoos, animal parks or actually out in the wild—in national forests and wilderness areas, in oceans and rivers; in fact, in almost any habitat imaginable.  A favorite activity of some families is to visit national and state parks, water parks, shorelands, ride ATV trails, etc., all the while keeping a sharp eye out for wild mammals.  Newly identified mammals are readily added to personal or family checklists  which continue to grow and grow.

There are a number of sources of checklists.  Many parks, national and local animal interest groups, nature trails, etc., maintain checklists of local animals.  Look on the internet under “Checklists” to find one you might be interested in.  One such mammal checklist is found at: nsrl.ttu.edu/publications/opapers/ops/op229.pdf.  This checklist lists all mammal species and subspecies north of Mexico (in the U.S. and Canada) giving common, scientific and subspecies names.

Let’s briefly talk about animal names.  As humans, each individual has unique names, usually two or three names that become ours alone, as Alex Brian Smith.  In the past, some human cultures have used only a single name, leading to great confusion among descendants trying to find their ancestors.  Among animals of similar kinds (or species; not as each individual as in humans), each has a unique name or “handle” called a scientific name.  A scientific name is a universally recognized two or three word name given to specific kinds of animals.  No two different kinds of animals have the exact same scientific name, even though some species are quite similar.  The first part of a scientific name is the Genus, followed by the Species name.  For example, a red fox’s scientific name is Vulpes fulva.  As shown here, when written out, scientific names are underlined or printed in italics.  Often, scientific names reflect a quality of the animal in Latin word roots:  “fulva” means red.  Along with the scientific name, most animals also have a common name, as “red fox” above.  Common names are easier to use and remember.  However, a difficulty is that several very distinct and different kinds of animals may all have the same common name (See Wildlife2Day. com website article, “When is a Gopher Really a Gopher?).

Kinds of animals living close to one another interbreed and produce fertile offspring.  These are considered by scientists to be the same species.  Over time, members of the same species living apart and under different environmental or other stresses may eventually adapt body differences, such as differing hair coloration.  These are then given “subspecies” names, the third name following the genus then species name to distinguish them from each other–but they can still crossbreed and reproduce fertile young.  Changes resulting from environmental factors (flooding, catastrophic storms, coal strip mining, production of dense smoke by new factories), human activity (turning former habitat into housing subdivisions, roads, airports, etc.), or other factors often cause a permanent separation of similar animal populations.  Over longer periods of time, even thousands of years, this separation or isolation (and possibly) other factors may result in formerly adjacent, similar species to no longer have the ability to crossbreed and produce fertile young.  Hence–a new species!

When Is a “Gopher” Really a Gopher?

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In Louisiana, they’re called salamanders; in some Midwestern states, they’re called moles; universally, the proper common name is “pocket gopher” for the rather unique, burrowing mammal native to both North and Central America.  Scientists include them all under a family name, Geomyidae.  There are three main Geomyid genera (groups) in North America north of Mexico:  Pappogeomys–yellow-faced pocket gopher (with the largest body size, found in the southern U.S.); Geomys – plains pocket gopher (distributed primarily in middle U.S.) and Thomomys—northern and western pocket gophers (western U.S. and southern Canada–probably the smallest, but most widely distributed and with majority of named forms [subspecies] of all pocket gophers).

The “Gopher” confusion.  Local naming or common nomenclature can be confusing between the pocket gopher and squirrel family, two families of underground dwellers.  Local usage often confuses outsiders and befuddles natives.  Animals called by Dakota locals as “gophers” or “gray gophers” are really ground squirrels.  The University of Minnesota sports teams known as the “golden gophers,” are really 13-lined ground squirrels and Minnesota itself is known as the “gopher state”—residents are sometimes called “gophers.”  The gopher name goes even further—a land tortoise of the southern U.S. that burrows into the ground is called a “gopher.”  A “gopher snake” is a  non-poisonous North American reptile.  The Bible recounts “gopher wood” as being used in the construction of Noah’s Ark.

A little more about ground squirrels, family Sciuridae:  I count 23 species of ground and rock squirrels in North America.*  In the Dakotas, there are three species:  Franklin’s, Richardson’s, and the Thirteen-lined (sometimes called flickertail or gopher).  Richardson’s ground squirrel is smoky-gray with a short tail.  Franklin’s ground squirrel is the largest and darkest with the longest tail.  The Thirteen-lined ground squirrel has 13 stripes running lengthwise.  All ground squirrels are diurnal (active during the daylight), omnivorous (consume both animal and plant parts), and are often seen aboveground.  They have good eyesight and hearing.  Their dens are burrows dug into the earth; the dislodged soil is usually not noticeable as it is scattered near the burrow entrance.  Ground squirrels and some other squirrel family members (marmots, groundhogs or woodchucks, prairie dogs) are true hibernators and hibernate during winter months in nests within their earthen tunnels.  Other family members, chipmunks and tree squirrels, do not hibernate but remain intermittantly awake and active during wintertimes.  These subsist on seeds and other food stored up or buried during the previous summer’s growing season.

The true “pocket gopher,” family Geomyidae, on the other hand, spends at least 90 per cent of its life in dark underground tunnels.  It is active during parts of both the day and night.  It probably sees and hears poorly, is an herbivore (feeding only upon plants and plant parts, roots) and is active throughout the wintertime.  Pocket gophers construct rather extensive burrow systems, typically pushing excess dirt to the surface, forming asymmetrical mound-like piles of varying heights and volume.  The underground burrow system itself is sealed off from the surface and new burrows are constructed mainly as additional food supplies are needed, year round.  During the winter, dirt dislodged from new digging is pushed into tunnels dug under surface snow.  When the snow melts, these “cores” of solid dirt are to be seen on the surface, scattered haphazardly with no apparent order.

Pocket gophers are approximately the same size as small rats or Richardson’s ground squirrel, although I have trapped some Geomys (see foto above) that approached a full pound in weight, the size of a large rat.  Pocket gophers have very short necks, small beady eyes, small ears, and long incisor teeth which remain outside and visible even when the mouth itself is closed.  They have external cheek pouches in which they carry food plant parts.  All of these adaptations are useful to this subterranean life.  With the exception of the breeding and young-rearing seasons, pocket gophers are solitary mammals living alone in their own burrow systems.

The northern/western pocket gopher is grayish to black with “unkempt-looking” fur.  The plains pocket gopher has generally “slicker” fur, is larger and more reddish-brown in coloration with a groove on each of its protruding incisor teeth.  The yellow-faced pocket gopher is large and is yellowish in color.

Some gardeners, home owners, farmers find that pocket gophers often become nuisances and damage garden vegetables, lawns and fields.  However, these animals are useful to their local habitats and environment.  In a typical one acre tract containing seven animals, a population of pocket gophers will “plow” or cover the equivalent of this one acre with 6 inches of soil every 60 years.  Thus minerals are re-circulated, and the soil is loosened, becoming more porous which allows water and plant roots to penetrate deeper.  Porous soil produces a fuller more prolific vegetational regime or cover which builds up humus—rendering it more fertile.

In summary, much less confusion for everyone would occur if pocket gophers were always called “pocket gophers” and all ground squirrels were correctly called “ground squirrels.”  Or, wouldn’t it be more appropriate that you, as a University of Minnesota sports fan more correctly yell, “Go, Go, Go Ground Squirrels?”

* E. R. Hall, 1981.  The Mammals of North America.   John Wiley & Sons, New York.

The Golden Squirrel Looks Like…. But is Not…. a Chipmunk

Have you ever been hiking in the summertime and suddenly seen a flash of gold that disappears almost in thin air? If so, it’s likely that you have come across a ground squirrel, a golden-mantled ground squirrel, in fact. Were you able to see where the flash disappeared to? Unless you are especially observant, you may not have noticed an partially hidden opening to an underground burrow. Ground squirrels get their names from where they live—–underground!

If you have ever heard the phrase “Mother Earth,” it certainly applies to many animals that live under or close to–the earth. Earth gives some underground shelter and safety from their predator enemies. For others, it provides soil which grows aboveground cover and hiding places. For all, without earth/soil there would be no food plants grown, which would affect all of us. Some animals dig their own burrows, some take over deserted ones, and some cohabitate, invited or not. Some of the common animals directly utilizing tunnels beneath the surface include mammals: voles (meadow mice), groundhogs, marmots (also known as rockchucks), badgers, beavers, weasels, moles, chipmunks, prairie dogs, gophers; Birds: burrowing owls; amphibians: crayfish or crawdads; Reptiles: snakes. .

Ground squirrels are fairly common in western North America. The common ground squirrel genus formerly known as Spermophilus has recently been divided into eight (8) genera, one of which is called Callospermophilus,* to which the golden mantled ground squirrels belong. There are three recognized species, Callospermophilus lateralis with 13 subspecies, C. madrensis, and C. saturatus with one subspecies each. The name Callospermophilus is derived as follows: kallos from Greek meaning beauty, spermatos for seed, and phileo for love. All ground squirrels are true hibernators and disappear in the fall until March or April. They live in nests located in underground burrows and sometimes store food in the fall for consumption when hibernation ends in the springtime.

The golden mantled ground squirrel (Callospermophilus lateralis) is probably the easiest of all ground squirrels to identify. It has a white stripe running from its hind quarters to its front quarters bordered by a black stripe. The white stripe does not continue across the side of the face as do chipmunk stripes. This squirrel is found in 11 of the westernmost U.S. states and extends into Alberta, Canada, but not into Mexico.

Molly Bartels and Doug Thompson** wrote a nice summary of the golden mantled ground squirrel, its habits, habitat, reproduction, range and distribution, etc.
Breeding season begins shortly after emergence from hibernation in the spring, and two to eight young are usually born in July after an average gestation period of 30 days. They may live up to five years in captivity and seven or more in natural habitats.

Golden squirrels prefer sunny habitats and inhabit forested or sparsely brushy territory, recently burned forests and sometimes even in sagebrush or meadows. They are usually silent, but can make several kinds of calls. These squirrels are omnivores, that is, they will consume both flesh and plants. Normal food includes herbaceous plants and pine nuts. When eating, these squirrels will customarily sit on their haunches and manipulate food with their forefeet, a fun photographing opportunity. In the fall, these squirrels store fat for survival during long winter hibernations. Food and even bedding materials may be packed into their cheeks pouches for transport to their nests. Natural enemy predators include badgers, coyotes, bobcats, skunks, weasels and hawks. They are inadverdant hosts to several kinds of parasites including fleas, ticks, sandflies, protozoans and bacteria.

* Helgen, K.M., K.M. Cole, L.E. Helgen and D.E. Wilson. 2009. Journal of Mammalogy, 90(2):270-305. ** Mammalian Species (American Society of Mammalogists publication), 1993, No. 440.

One-Eyed Sentinel of Aberdeen

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One-Eyed Sentinel of Aberdeen—A Saga Set in the 1970’s

Perched on a railing four stories up, the two Great Horned Owls appeared from the street below as tiny, feathered statuettes, though in reality they approached two feet in height with a wingspan of up to five feet. For almost four years, with the exception of about a month each summer, this pair of owls has kept their vigil in the Aberdeen, South Dakota, Brown County Courthouse tower, only a few yards away from the great multifaceted clocks. Chimes boom out on the hour, but these sounds so foreign to nature appear to have had little effect on these feared birds of prey.

The female is blind in her opaque yellow right eye for some unknown cause. She has laid a total of nine eggs in the past three seasons in early spring. In 1976, she initially laid two white eggs which froze–perhaps due to wind chill temperatures which have often been well above minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit in the wintertime, though somewhat warmer at time of early spring egg production. Instinctively striving for a successful mating, she laid an additional three eggs which were subsequently incubated about 30 days before hatching three young. Due to unknown factor(s), all three died shortly afterwards and their remains vanished.

The next year, the female laid two eggs that hatched in a month. As the young matured, the white feathers of the two young were easily visible from the ground below. Twice, these two partially fell, partially glided to the earth below but were soon returned to the tower by concerned county workers. The young disappeared a few days later after learning to fly and have not been seen again.

A sizeable population of pigeons have made the courthouse tower their home for many years. Some years previous, tons of accumulated pigeon droppings and debris crashed down into the inner courthouse corridor far below causing structural damage to the building. So, as a result, prior to the owl’s presence, Brown County officials regularly paid up to $200 per month for cleaning and removal of pigeon droppings. In fact, after the owl pair first moved into the tower, country officials were so desirous of insuring their permanent residence, that they provided raw flesh as food. The birds not only refused to eat it, but they subsequently left the tower briefly. Following residential occupation by the two Great Horned Owls, the pigeon cleanup costs were cut by 90 per cent.

Pigeons nesting further up in the courthouse dome of the bell tower offered a convenient and ready source of food. The owls, with their sharp, grasping claws and razor-like tearing bills are uniquely equipped to capture and kill unsuspecting prey. The term “Tiger of the Air” has been aptly applied to this courageous, powerful and bloodthirsty predator. Several times in the early pre-dawn hours, one of the owls was observed dive-bombing a pigeon in flight. The immediate result was a great flurry of feathers resulting in the hapless victim, grasped by vice-like claws in midair, being carried back to the tower roost for a tasty meal.

The author remembers a wintertime personal experience with a Great Horned Owl only a few miles away from the Courthouse. I had set a number of traps with the intent of capturing red foxes for their pelts which were bringing $60 at the time. Following standard fox trapping protocol, I had carefully de-scented traps and carefully set two of them near each other in a field not far from a small pond. The double springed traps consisted of a spring on one side attached to jaws surrounding a trigger in the middle with an attached spring on the other side. When checking the traps a day or so later, I found a dead jackrabbit in one of the traps and a very much alive Great Horned Owl in the other. I had no quarrel with the owl and set about to release it as harmlessly and efficiently as possible. However, due to the nature of the double springed traps which required simultaneous compression of each on each side, I had a problem. For, as I sought to release the spring with my hands on each side of the trap, the owl would attack me with wings and bill–so I had to use one hand and arm to shield myself from the owl’s attacks, which prevented compression of both springs of the trap at the same time with each of my hands. After a few futile efforts to open the trap with one hand, I finally was able to use one knee to compress a spring on one side at the same time as I pressed the other with one hand, all the while fending off the owl’s attacks with my free arm and hand. This done, the jaws still refused to open to release the bird, so it took a few more tries of jarring the trap back and forth before the jaws finally opened and released the big bird–which wasted no time in flying off. The scenario that originally resulted in the two trapped animals side by side probably began when the rabbit stepped on the trigger and while flailing around trying to escape, the Great Horned Owl, cruising above for food, spied the bunny and deemed it an easy meal. However, in alighting and seeking to secure it, the owl had itself become caught in the other trap. Subsequently, the owl had killed the rabbit, but remained trapped itself. It is possible this was one of the Tower Great Horned Owls, but there is no proof.

Postscript:
Owls are nocturnal; that is, they are most active during the night time. Their large disc-like eyes are capable of detecting the slightest movement in limited night light. Their wings are feathered especially to facilitate silent flight—-the element of surprise to unsuspecting prey. Their diet is diverse, mainly dependent upon kinds and numbers of prey animals available. A variety of nocturnal (sometimes diurnal) animals including skunks and jackrabbits are common owl cuisine; however, only captured living creatures are eaten, never prey already dead such as those dined upon by eagles and vultures and other avian scavengers. Great Horned Owls, with peculiar feathery tufts at the sides of their heads resembling horns from a distance, are among the largest of all owls and are said by some naturalists to be the most savage birds of prey. They are common throughout North America, most generally living in forested and brushy areas, canyons, cliffs and deserts. A peculiarity of owls is that their eggs (usually two) are laid at intervals so that there may be an older maturing fledgling hatched in advance of other unhatched egg(s) in the same nest.

Farmer Bob and the Pocket Gopher

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Hello.  I’m Guy Gopher.  I live in old farmer Bob’s prized alfalfa field—at least I used to live there.  Let me tell you about our “war.”

My two sisters and I were born in a burrow under the ground.  Mama gopher’s burrows of several dozen feet in length were located in a fertile field at the mouth of an Idaho canyon.  The sloping ground allowed rain and irrigation water to quickly drain away, so we didn’t have to worry much about being flooded out of our burrows—a main worry of many of our relatives.  Our nearby cousins living in very flat nearby fields where the farmer flood-irrigated periodically experienced awful problems, even displacement from burrows for a time, exposing them to enemy predators.

Our life was like heaven.  We were one happy gopher family!  Then it happened—Mama gopher called a family meeting.  “Guy, you and the girls are all grown up enough to dig your own burrows.”  Though we probably wouldn’t be going far, we said our fond goodbyes and each began digging our own new underground tunnels, which varied in depth between one and four feet below the surface.  Nests would be placed in the deepest parts of the tunnel with small caches of plant for food nearby.  Feeding tunnels were close enough to the surface to have access to plant roots which were our source of food.

At times, we would dig a short burrow off the main tunnel which we called laterals. One kind of lateral was a short burrow dug up to the ground surface where excess dirt from new tunnels could be pushed with the front part our chests and forefeet, forming a small, irregular “mound” of dirt on the aboveground surface. The bad part about this was that it gave our enemies instant information as to our likely whereabouts.  So, in order to disguise our main tunnel locations as much as possible, we would plug these little surface “lateral” burrows, usually located directly adjacent to the mound, with one to several feet of compact soil. The part of the field Mama suggested I go was at the edge of a productive alfalfa field and in a raspberry patch.  I loved the taste of alfalfa roots and when procuring food, would fill my cheek pouches–extra pockets outside but near my mouth–with alfalfa and dandelion roots and other nearby plant parts and carry them back to my home den area.

By the time winter arrived, I had many lateral tunnels branching off from the main tunnel in most every direction.  We gophers hardly ever went aboveground as there were so many predator dangers there, including cats, dogs, foxes, humans, etc.  However, I kept warm and cozy in my deeper nest area even during below zero temperatures above.  During earlier wintertime when there were several feet of snow on the ground’s surface, I dug only a few additional tunnels because nearer the surface, the ground was frozen and it was downright hard to dig.  Later in the winter when I did begin burrowing more and dug some short lateral tunnels to the snow-covered surface.  Then I went up to the surface and carved out tunnels between the snow and the ground surface into which I could push my excess dirt from my new tunnels.  After the snow melted these snow tunnels, now filled with compacted dirt, appeared as cores of solid soil meandering unevenly across the landscape on top of the ground.

When springtime finally did come, I found out right away that old farmer Bob both detested and hated us pocket gophers—that’s when our infamous “war” began.  I never completely understood why, because I only did what I had seen Mama do and then follow my instincts.   I admit that I probably damaged a few of his ‘ol plants—but, he would never have probably missed them!  Obviously, that was not the mindset of farmer Bob!  First, he tried to drown me when he watered his plants.  He had found a recent surface mound and dug down through the plugged access tunnel until he came to my main burrow.  Soon, a wave of irrigation water rushed towards me.  I can swim when I have to–but it certainly is not my favorite sport!  As the water level in my main tunnel rose rapidly, I first did my best to build a dam to stop the water, then I swam to the part of my burrow which was higher in elevation than the water source and curled up and shivered awhile and slept until I felt better and drier.

A few days later after the water was dried out, I made the mistake or digging new surface lateral tunnels to deposit excess soil into mounds on the surface.  That did it!  Soon I felt the ponderous vibrations of a heavy vehicle overhead.  I heard a shovel, digging into my main tunnel.  Then, I began smelling something yukky–what I later found was automobile exhaust—it made my head ache, so I immediately blocked my side of the tunnel with extra dirt I was pushing.

Farmer Bob must have gotten awfully frustrated, because I kept pushing up excess digging soil, forming mounds on the surface.  One day, I smelled a new scent identified as oats and corn. They were poison, but I didn’t know it.  I probably would have helped myself to them, but an uninvited meadow mouse, accidentally roaming through my burrows, ate all of the grain before I found it and lay dead in the bottom of the burrow.  I began to get the idea that someone up there didn’t like me!

A few days later, I found some strange smelling metal object in my runways. I later found they were called “traps.”  By now, I was becoming very cautious.  As I quietly investigated the strange objects, I heard a “click” as the trap tripped.  It’s jaws grabbed my fur and pinched me real proper, but I was able to free myself.  That really scared me, so I was VERY careful from then on.  Later, I heard the farmer say as he checked his traps, “That pesky gopher is smarter than I am.”  I felt real proud!

From then on, each time I made a mound, even discretely, there would be a metal traps in each direction down the main tunnel.  I was wise to the traps, even though some were set very cleverly.  I would carefully trip each one and push dirt around them so they were very difficult to remove from above.  Every day as Farmer would come to check his traps, I would hear him say something like, “Dang it, foiled again!”

With so many hazards to look out for, I finally told myself, “Guy, it time to be discrete and retreat.”  So, I tunneled under the nearby fence out of the berry patch into the alfalfa field and begin constructing new tunnels.  I noticed that Farmer Bob continued to check his dreaded traps inside the raspberry patch for an entire week—I smirked to myself.

My most dramatic near-encounter with old farmer Bob occurred the very next spring.  I had moved back to the raspberry patch burrows.  By now, I figured that I knew all of his sneaky tricks.  I even carefully hid my mounds of extra dirt among the nearby weeds bordering the field.  I was so wrong!  The third day after I had concealed several mounds, the dreaded metal traps again appeared in my tunnels.  While I was scurrying about trying to cover them up, I came a across a curious circular band of metal with a rock fastened to it.  After I had finished tripping traps and covering them, I noticed the circular object still stuck in my burrow floor.  The very next time I dug a lateral tunnel to get rid of extra dirt, I made sure that I pushed it together with the excess soil to the surface.

Then an extraordinary thing happened:  Sure enough, Farmer found the new mound of soil and was fussing around trying to figure out how to shoot something called “tear gas” (whatever that was) into my tunnels, when he must have spotted the circular metal object. “Gazooks,”  I heard him yell, “Here it is—my grandmother’s diamond wedding ring, the one I lost 50 years ago when I was a little kid picking peas in her garden.  That pesky gopher found it.”  I heard him shout all the way to the house as crashed headlong through row after row of his prized berry bushes.

Well, that’s the end of my story, sort of, that is.  Today I am sitting in a tunnel under my very own berry patch, planted especially for me by my good friend and neighbor, farmer Bob, right next to his own patch.  He even planted some delicious veggies, alfalfa and allowed dandelions to grow alongside to vary my diet.

“You see, I’m what you might call one very lucky GUY!”

 

Postscript Have you ever seen a live pocket gopher?

There are several species of pocket gophers in the U.S., mostly in the western and southern parts of the country.  Gophers are not popular with many farmers, ranchers and gardeners due to damage wrought on plant and crop roots.  The northern pocket gopher, Thomomys talpoides, inhabits parts of most of the western United States as well as several southwestern Canadian provinces.  There are 58 named subspecies.  Coloration is variable depending on subspecies, from yellowish brown to grayish brown to almost black, and they are normally the size of a large mouse.  Pocket gophers are fossorial (living underground) mammals and have poor eyesight, but their short hairless tails are sensitive to backwards movements in the dark underground tunnels.  Large facial whiskers are sensitive and also assist in movement, even in the darkest of tunnels.  Forefeet have long claws.  These and teeth are used in digging burrows.  Burrows consist of a main tunnel with lateral side branches which originate from the main tunnel.  Gophers are herbivorous and often construct a nest with nearby food caches containing shrubs, grasses, forbs and tree roots.  At rare times they may feed upon aboveground vegetation. Nests may be in burrows from one to four feet below the surface.  An average of three to four young are born from March to June and there is usually only one litters/year, possibly two in the southern portions of their range. The gestation period is about 20 days.  Sexual maturity is reached at one year.  Longevity rarely exceeds five to six years.