15 November 2010

White-Tailed Deer

Odocoileus virginianus

Hunting season began several weeks ago and one of the primary animals being hunted is an animal we might just as easily spot in our backyards as in the woods—the white-tailed deer.  The white-tailed deer is beginning its rut soon (most sources estimate that the white-tailed deer population of Western Montana breeds from late November to early December).  During this period, bucks mark their territory with ‘scrapes’ and ‘buck rubs’ and compete with other bucks for territory and mating privileges.

White-tailed deer are the most widely-distributed and most common of the large mammals in North America, with populations occurring in Southern Canada and stretching into Mexico.  There are only a handful of areas in the United States in which white-tailed deer are absent—Hawaii, Alaska, and parts of the Southwest.  White-tailed deer populations nationwide have exploded.  In the early 1900s, there were roughly 500,000 white-tailed deer in the nation.  Current figures put the population at somewhere between 15 and 20 million.  The white-tailed deer population’s successful rebound has been contributed to the implementation of hunting regulations and the founding of federal agencies charged with managing and maintaining natural resources.  Furthermore, the elimination and drastic reduction of populations of key deer predators, such as grey wolves and mountain lions, has contributed to this rebound.  The white-tailed deer’s move from relative scarcity to such large numbers is now becoming problematic for people who find themselves struggling to keep deer out of their backyards or worry about possible deer collisions when driving.  According to Montana FWS estimates, the state of Montana’s population of white-tailed deer is 249,001. 

The distinguishing feature of the white-tailed deer (from which its name derives) is the white underside of its tail, which it sometimes displays while running.  Several hypotheses have been given for the evolutionary advantage of the white-tailed deer’s ‘flagging’ behavior—including that it communicates awareness to a would be predator, that is alerts fellow deer to potential danger, or that it can be a cohesive signal, particularly for a doe to keep her fawns nearby.  So far, there hasn’t been enough conclusive evidence to determine which of these hypotheses might explain the deer’s ‘flagging’ behavior. 

The male white-tailed deer have antlers which they shed and re-grow every year.  Antler growth begins in March or April and deer antler growth can reach astonishing rates.  Some bucks’ antlers will grow as much as ½ an inch in a single day!  The antlers continue to grow throughout the summer months and are covered in a soft skin called ‘velvet.’  In the fall, the antlers harden during the process of calcification.  During the fall, you might also spot bucks rubbing their antlers against tree trunks in an attempt to remove the velvet from their antlers.  Bucks also use their antlers to mark their territory with ‘buck rubs’ and as a weapon in clashes with other bucks when defending or fighting for territory.  The bucks lose their antlers in the dead of winter.  These antlers, rich in calcium build-ups and other nutrients, are understandably difficult to find in the woods.  Upon falling to the forest floor, they are quickly devoured by squirrels, mice, porcupines, and other small animals. 

Deer-Car Collisions        
1.5 million deer-automobile collisions cause an estimated $1 billion in automotive damages and 200 deaths annually.  According to State Farms, Montana has the 4th highest frequency of deer-car collisions, and 1 in 82 drivers in Montana will have collisions with a deer over the course of the next year.  The construction of wildlife crossings, such as those recently added to Highway 93 (read more in this article from the Missoulian) might reduce the frequency of deer and human fatalities resulting from automobile collisions.  Deer-car collisions generally peak during breeding season as males, in their frenzied competition, temporarily lose their cautiousness.  And, as winter sets in, deer come into our backyards in search of food, and are most active at dusk and at dawn.  Drive cautiously!  

12 November 2010

Wild Turkeys

It is the holliday season and soon families will be sitting down for Thanksgiving dinner.  But the wild turkey we usually see in photos or pictures is not the same as the domestic turkey that we serve at Thanksgiving. Domestic turkeys weigh twice what a wild turkey does and  most domestic turkeys are so heavy they are unable to fly.  The great majority of domesticated turkeys are bred to have white feathers because their pin feathers are less visible when the carcass is dressed, although brown or bronze-feathered varieties are also raised. Wild turkeys, while technically the same species as domesticated turkeys, have a very different taste from farm-raised turkeys as well. Almost all of the meat is "dark"  with a more intense flavor.

Males have iridescent red, green, copper, bronze and gold feathers. They use these bright colors to great advantage when attracting females during breeding season. Females have brown or gray feathers. They make great camouflage and hide hens when they sit on their nests.  

Males have brightly colored, nearly featherles heads. During breeding season the color of their heads alternates between red, white and blue, often changing in a few seconds. A hen's head is gray-blue and has some small feathers for camouflage.

Both males and females have fleshy growths on their heads known as caruncles. They also both have snoods, fleshy protrubances that hang over their bills and can be extended or contracted at will. The snood of an adult male is usually much larger than that of a female. No one knows for sure what these growths are for, but both probably developed as ways to attract mates.

A male turkey grows a cluster of long, hairlike feathers from the center of its chest. This cluster is known as the turkey's beard. On adult males, these beards average about 9 inches long.

10 to 20 percent of hens also grow beards.  The longest beard on record is more than 18 inches long.

Wild turkey legs are reddish-orange with four toes on each foot. Male wild turkeys grow large spurs on the backs of their lower legs. These spurs are pointed, bony spikes and are used for defense and to establish dominance. Spurs can grow up to 2 inches in length. The longest spurs on record are 2.25 inches long.

Wild turkey tails are usually 12 to 15 inches long and are banded at their tips. The color of the bands in the tail varies by subspecies.

Peacocks aren't the only birds who use their fancy tails to attract a mate. Each spring male turkeys try to befriend as many females as possible. Male turkeys, also called "Tom Turkeys" or "Gobblers" puff up their bodies and spread their tail feathers (just like a peacock).


The Merriam’s turkey is Montana’s newest upland game bird. A native of the pine-oak woodlands of Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona, it was first introduced into central Montana in 1954.  Releases were made in the Long Pines of southeastern Montana near Ekalaka and near Ashland. As turkeys prospered in these areas, more birds were trapped and transplanted to other parts of the state. Since the early 1950’s, all areas of the state considered to be suitable wild turkey habitat have received transplanted birds. Merriam’s turkey habitat in Montana is generally restricted to open ponderosa pine woodlands in rugged terrain. Turkeys have been most suc¬cessful in woodlands where about one-half of the vegetative cover consists of ponderosa pine with the remainder grasses, deciduous trees, and shrubs in scattered openings and drainageways throughout the woodland.

Spotlight On...Skunkbush Sumac

Skunkbush Sumac
Rhus trilobata
Anacardiaceae (Sumac Family)
Quick ID:  

Look for shrubs with wide, dense crowns, generally no more than 4' high but spreading out to 8'.  The alternate leaves are downy, dark green above and pale below, and divided into three coarsely toothed ~1" leaflets.  In spring, beginning before the leaves appear, tiny yellow flowers cluster at the ends of the stems.  These give way to clumps of hairy little red-orange fruits around mid-summer, which hang onto the stems long after the leaves have dropped.  New twigs are covered with an ochre velvet much like new antlers.  It's easy to see the plant's progression of growth when looking at the branches; each previous year's wood is smoother, more inflexible, and colored differently.  Like counting tree rings, examining the length, form and character of branches' annual growth can be an interesting peek into recent history.  Call it another way of reading, or of listening, or call it a chilly botanist's daydream on a grey November morning....
               Here is the drought year.  That piece is the summer the giant Ponderosa Pine fell down, opening the canopy to let the sunshine fall through.  This is last spring, when a mule deer nibbled the soft spring growth, see how it branches out?  And here, this fuzzy tip is what has appeared since things woke up this spring.
And so it goes... 
There are at least four varieties of Rhus trilobata found in North America (some sources recognize six), most of which are mainly clustered in the deep southwest.  Rhus trilobata var. trilobata is the only one found in Montana; its range spans from the Pacific coast eastward to the tallgrass prairie states, from southern Canada to northern Mexico, up to about 7000' elevation.  Varieties tend to be more branched and compact in the southwest part of their range, and taller in the north.  Sumac can grow in a wide diversity of habitats, from dry to mesic (moderately wet) areas, on slopes, in thickets, canyons and stream banks.
What's in a Name?
The family name Anacardiaceae is in reference to Anacardium, the cashew, and its vaguely heart-shaped fruits (cardium=heart).  Rhus, in turn, is the Greek name for sumac, which itself is ultimately derived from the Syrian summaq, "red".  The specific epithet trilobata refers to the three-lobed leaves.  Skunkbush sumac is also known as Rhus aromatica, for its supposedly horrible, skunky-smelling leaves.  Me, I've squished and sniffed these leaves a thousand times, and don't think it's disagreeable at all.  They smell green, resinous, a little like acrid pine.  Some folks won't go near it though, so, as LB likes to say, "You don't have to take my word for it."  Best to sniff for yourself.
As usual, there are too many common names of R. trilobata to list here, but depending where you live, you might also hear it called sourberry, three-leaved sumac, fragrant, ill-scented or stinking sumac, squawbush, quailbush, lemonade sumac, basketbush, polecat bush or lemita. 
This is a plant with a long history of edible, medicinal and functional uses.  Like other sumacs, the berries are super-duper sour, and fun to pop in your mouth on a hot summer day.  They taste like lemony pine needles, and can be used in drinks, bread, soup, etc.  The leaves and inner bark can be used in teas and poultices for such diverse ailments as colds, itches, stomach problems and hair loss.  A black or orange dye can be make from the roots and berries, respectively, and the flexible young branches are good for basket-weaving.
The family Anacardiaceae is full of irritating or otherwise dangerous plants, including poison sumac, poison ivy, and poison oak.  (Thanks to Fabric Guy for the informative picture.)  Poison sumac doesn't grow in the west, and wouldn't be mistaken for skunkbush even if it did.  The ranges of poison ivies and oaks, however, do overlap, and the three-leaved nature of these plants can make them hard to distinguish from skunkbush (especially the shrubby poison oak).  In general, poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) and poison ivy (T. radicans) have a stalked middle leaflet, while R. trilobata's has no stalk.  They also have greenish flowers and white fruits, as opposed to yellow flowers and red fruits.  Even with well-honed ID skills, people who are super-sensitive to poison ivy should stay away from any member of the Anacardiaceae family.  Sadly, this also includes mangoes, which a lot of people are sensitive to.  I once ate so many mangoes my lips swelled up like a grouper, but that's a story for another day.
Wild Gardening:  
With its soft texture in winter, bold spring greenery, glistening red berries and brilliant fall color, Rhus trilobata is an absolute pleasure all year long.  It's fairly easy to find commercially, and naturalizes well to form windbreaks or shelterbelts.  Because of its strong root system, it's a good choice for erosion control.  Plants need full sun to part shade, room to spread, and good drainage, but will tolerate nearly any type of soil, cold, or drought.  
One of the joys of gardening with native plants is the opportunity it provides for observing backyard wildlife.  Keeping a list of birds and their arrival dates each year, discovering a cache of winter food or watching pollinators busy with their summer tasks are a delight in themselves, and knowing that you're helping conserve essential habitat by providing food and shelter is just icing on the nature-cake.  In this spirit, skunkbush sumac thickets provide great hiding and nesting cover for small mammals, and the persistent berries are an important source of food for winter songbirds and upland gamebirds.  Here at the Nature Adventure Teaching Garden, the golden Rhus, tawny chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) and evergreen mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius) make for a fall display that just couldn't be prettier.    

    Spotlight On... features Montana native plants that are currently on display in our natural areas.  Have a plant that you'd like to see featured?  Let us know!