Three fungal curiosities

a tree-swallower, a “bleeder,” and a “nest”

This essay is about an eclectic assortment of fungi, my choices being based entirely on happenstance and whim.

One September day on the Outer Point trail, we spotted a very large, yellowish patch on a tall alder snag. That patch covered most of one side of the snag; at a guess, it may have exceeded ten square feet. At first glance I thought it was a huge crustose lichen, but no, it was a fungus. On certain places on this expansive crust, there were small ridges like miniature conks, and on their undersides were numerous pores where spores would be produced. The crust has covered mosses and engulfed the stems of licorice ferns.

Photo by Jennifer Shapland

I went back to look at it about ten days later, and now the surface featured many shallow furrows that had turned brown. The furrows were four or five millimeters wide and several inches long, crisscrossing the flat surface of the big fungus. Were they the work of slugs or land snails, grazing their way along? No, there were no marks of the scraping radula or tongue. A few days later, another observer suggested that wind-bent branches hit the fungus. No, when I tried it, small branches striking the surface didn’t leave furrows like that. A few more days later, we finally noticed that all the furrows occurred between human knee height and head height. Then I found that I could mimic the furrows very well with the flat of a fingernail. So we—finally!– concluded that these furrows are just graffiti. Much less interesting than slug trails, but perhaps closer to truth. ‘Twas a shame to deface such a beautiful organism.

What is this magnificent, hall-of-fame specimen? It seems that nobody really knows! It might be X or maybe Y, or something else altogether. Several mycologists have been consulted, with no concrete results. A sample sent to a lab for DNA analysis might yield a solid answer.

A strange fungus sometimes seen near the visitor center, among other places, is called the bleeding tooth fungus (Hydnellum peckii). Its name is not about bleeding teeth; it’s a tooth-fungus (with spore-bearing ‘teeth’ instead of gills or pores) that seems to ‘bleed’. The immature cap is white, but sometimes there are little pools of red fluid on the surface. Another name, perhaps for the more squeamish observers, for this critter is strawberries and cream. As far as I can tell, nobody really knows why those pools form on the cap. The present idea is that it’s a way to get rid of excess moisture, as some other fungi and some plants do by exuding droplets of water. But why are the pools red? Is the color just an incidental by-product of some metabolic process?

Photo by Jos Bakker

This fungus is mycorrhizal, forming connections with the roots of conifers and exchanging nutrients. The cap turns dark as it matures and produces spores. The stalk is thick and short, so short that the cap is often semi-buried in moss and debris. That raises the question of how the spores get dispersed from under the cap.

Yet another curiosity is a bird’s nest fungus (Nidula candida), a decomposer living on dead wood and rotting vegetation that is quite common around here. It earned its name from its appearance: the mature, reproductive form features a small (roughly one cm) cup containing several little round (somewhat flattened) objects. So it resembles a miniature bird’s nest with eggs. The ‘eggs’ contain spores. The cap is ingeniously built so that a raindrop can splash the ‘eggs’ out of the cup to a distance of a meter or more. The ‘eggs’ of some bird’s nest fungi (but not ours) are ejected with long, sticky threads, which catch on vegetation as they fly off. Eventually the ‘eggs’ deteriorate, releasing the spores. The spores germinate, producing stands called hyphae; two hyphae of the right mating type can merge to develop a nest-like fruiting body. Splash-cup dispersal mechanisms are uncommon means of spreading offspring around, but they are known also from some plants.

Photo by David Bergeson

Bright spots

after a soggy summer

The autumn equinox is past, and the days are rapidly getting shorter. It was an exceptionally rainy summer and we can’t expect fall to be much different. Sigh. But there have been some bright spots along the trails in forest and meadow.

One happy sighting in a meadow on the Peterson Lake trail was a bird busily foraging in the mosses, but it was partly obscured by clumps of taller vegetation. All I could see was a brown back and bits of moss flying every which way. I watched for a few minutes, but the flurry of flying moss continued without revealing the forager. So I slowly crept in a circular path to get a different perspective and eventually won a quick side view of the bird’s head. Ah…a red mark on the face and maybe a dark spot on the chest. Then the bird took off, exposing a big white rump patch (but not the colored underwings). OK, of course! A northern flicker, a woodpecker known to forage often on the ground. They nest here occasionally, but I’ve only seen them in Southeast once before this.

A female flicker peers from her nest cavity on Douglas. Photo by Bob Armstrong
This male flicker has the red face mark of the western form and the red nape mark of the eastern form, so it may be an intergrade. Photo by Bob Armstrong

Another enjoyable sighting occurred near the Spaulding Meadows trailhead. A brown creeper zipped across the trail, landed on a tree trunk, and hopped its way up, using its tail as a brace in proper creeper fashion. It was soon followed by another one, which also landed on a tree trunk. But this one quickly moved onto the underside of a branch and hitched its way along, upside down, using just its sharp little claws. It seemed to be quite comfortable in that position and put on a nice little show of its expertise.

We don’t have to go to Vermont or Wisconsin to see good fall colors, even though we don’t have the great stands of oaks and maples. Our colors tend to come in smaller patches, but they offer their own visual treats. A band of cottonwoods on the far shore of Herbert River somehow managed to glow in yellow and gold above a swirl of river mist, despite a steady rain. Willows often turn yellow, but some bear vivid displays of orange and red (why??). The multi-colored leaves of highbush cranberry can be yellow, pink, bright red, crimson, or combinations of those. On the forest floor, bunchberry leaves make carpets in shades of yellow, orange, and red. I also enjoy the pale yellow tapestries of enchanter’s nightshade leaves that call attention to this tiny plant. Still smaller but eye-pleasing are the several kinds of red berries—devil’s club, bunchberry, red huckleberry, bog cranberry, and best of all, the translucent, almost-glowing highbush cranberry. These ‘little points of bright’ matter!

Not to be ignored are the woolly-bear caterpillars, the larvae of the spotted tussock moth. As they grew, they passed through several molts and changes of appearance, and the last instar has the familiar black bands on front and rear with a yellow or orange band in the middle, with some long white tufts. They eat leaves of deciduous trees, but in fall we see them crawling around, looking for a place to build a cocoon and spend the winter.

Fall rains also liven up the lichens and mosses, which are looking quite happy. Fall-fruiting fungi appear—including some showy white ones with a vase-like cap (since I’m a ‘fungignoramus’, I won’t attempt to provide a name).  

The Herbert River trail has always seemed rather dull (until you get close to the glacier area)—lots of the same thing for a long way. But that is unfair! There are actually zones of changing vegetation as one goes up the trail, quite noticeable when I pay attention.  And recently I found several colonies of what turns out to be a common species called the stiff clubmoss, bearing its cones on the tips of the twigs—and thus easily distinguishable from the running clubmoss, with cones on long stalks. How I managed miss the stiff clubmoss all these years, I don’t know, but now that I’ve learned it, I have discovered it in other places too.

For a curious naturalist, sometimes a bright spot (of a sort) comes in the form of a mystery. Along the lower part of Eagle River, a little above its junction with the Herbert, I noticed an odd collection of animal scat. There were maybe fifteen deposits, all within about two meters of each other. They had a variety of sizes and shapes, from cylindrical to lumpy, and all were black. Bears would seem to be the most likely perpetrators. But why so many scats in one place? Bears just defecate where they happen to be and don’t—as far as is known to several wildlife biologists—make communal latrines. One suggestion is that a family of bears had a secure resting place somewhere nearby and used that place for an extended time. But does that account for the very localized deposits? The mystery remains.

Bristletails

often-overlooked insects from evolution’s earliest days

Arctic bristletail. Photo by Aaron Baldwin

Bristletail is a name applied to several different kinds of small, wingless insects, all of which have three long, thin appendages at their rear ends; these ‘tails’ often bear lots of little bristles, hence the name. Official taxonomy, however, now divides them into separate categories. Here I am focused on one group, called the jumping bristletails—because they can jump several inches up and away from a perceived threat. The jump is accomplished by using some of their six legs and body flexure.

Jumping bristletails are one of several groups that arose very early in the course of insect evolution. They’ve been around for about 400 million years or so, ever since most of the land plants were mosses and lichens. A modern representative known as the Arctic bristletail (Petridiobius arcticus) lives on our rocky shores. A careful look at certain parts of the shoreline in daytime might reveal them as they forage and sun themselves and occasionally jump around or at least their molted exoskeletons stuck on a rock; however, they are reputed to be more active at dusk and night. They share their shoreline habitat with harvestmen, millipedes, slugs, spiders, and who knows what else.

This species eats mostly lichens. Young ones hatch from overwintered eggs in early spring. Growing and molting through the summer, they are near mature by autumn.  They overwinter again, in rocky crevices or under moss, and continue to grow through a second summer, reaching maturity at the end of that summer. That’s when mating occurs (the process in this species is so far undocumented by scientists), and eggs are laid in moss and debris among the rocks.

In general, the various species of jumping bristletails occupy a variety of habitats, including leaf litter and under stones, in bark crevices, in places ranging from high in a tree canopy to deserts and the arctic. They feed on algae and organic debris, as well as lichens and mosses. Their exoskeleton is very thin, so they are often at risk of desiccation. The small body, less than an inch long, is covered with small detachable scales that might make them difficult for a predator to grab.

They are unusual insects in several ways. In their lifetime of up to about four years, they molt many times, three to five times a year or even more, depending on how fast they are growing. When ready to molt, they glue themselves to a hard substrate and crawl out the old exoskeleton. Young and old ones look alike except for size; there is no metamorphosis. They may take two years to mature. After some courtship dancing, most reports say that males typically accomplish mating indirectly: they spin a silk thread and attach packets of sperm there for a female to pick up. It is not clear just when the eggs get fertilized…perhaps when the eggs are laid. Females scatter their eggs in crevices and other protected places, where they may remain dormant for several months.

Bristletail exoskeletons. Photo by Bob Armstrong

One arboreal species can steer its descent from the tree canopy with a long filament extending from its rear end. The filament has been shown to be necessary for a successful glide and for landing. Who knows what other amazing things may emerge as we learn more about these unusual insects!

Little invertebrates like these must have many predators. Spiders are reported to eat them. Foraging birds are likely to pick them up. Who else?

Thanks to Aaron Baldwin, ADFG, and Matt Bowser, USFWS Kenai, for helpful information, and to Bob Armstrong for spotting the array of exoskeletons that led to this essay. See Bob’s videos at his website www.naturebob.com.

Club Mosses

and the evolution of land plants

Common club moss. Photo by Bob Armstrong

On a recent walk near Echo Cove, I noticed a lovely patch of a club moss sporting dozens of erect spore-bearing ‘cones’. We have several types of club moss here, but the only one I recognize (so far) is Lycopodium clavatum or running club moss. It often has long stems that are covered with short leaves, and they ‘run’ over the ground before making erect branches that bear cones on stalks. Despite their common name, club mosses are not mosses at all; they are on a different branch of the evolutionary tree.

I knew that they originated a long time ago, although they were not the first plants to live on land. But seeing this modern specimen made me think about the evolution of early land plants and the problems that attend a change from an aquatic to a terrestrial environment.

The first land plants belonged to a group of green algae (called Charophyta), some of which became terrestrial perhaps 500 million years ago. It is not clear why they did so, although some researchers suggest that land-living allowed escape from various alga-eaters in the water. But land-living meant that these early colonists risked desiccation: both the plant and its spores had to be protected from drying. This could be done in two basic ways: avoid the problem by growing and producing spores only in wet conditions, or develop water-impervious layers around the plant and its spores. Furthermore, although they were already able to photosynthesize carbohydrates (from carbon dioxide and water), now they had to get the necessary carbon dioxide in a gaseous form, from air. Most of the early land plants were very thin, often only one cell thick, so gases could readily diffuse in and out.

The first non-algal land plants were liverworts and mosses, appearing roughly 450 million years ago. These plants grow close to the ground or other surface, seldom extending upward more than a few centimeters. Although they live on land, they need at least a film of water for reproduction: sperm have to swim to reach eggs to fertilize. They occupy two branches of the evolutionary tree that are adjacent to each other but totally separate from the branch that leads to all other living land plants.

Around 430 million years ago, there was a new development that changed everything. It is not well understood how it happened, but some presumably moss-like land plants developed vascular tissues that conducted fluids from one part of the plant to another, so they were no longer dependent on diffusion. That made a big difference! Thus were born xylem, for conducting water mainly upward, and phloem, for conducting carbohydrates from the green leaves to the rest of the plant. This made possible the development of root systems that both anchored the plants in the ground and allowed the uptake of water from the soil. It also made possible the vertical development of woody stems that raised the leaves well above the ground surface, reaching more light and air, and eventually developing large trees.

One of the first offshoots of the major lineage called vascular plants–which now could exploit both the soil and the aerial space above ground–was a cluster of minor lineages that included the club mosses and quillworts.  Among the fossils of the early forms of club moss was a tree that sometimes grew to be 100 feet tall. Unlike the trees we are familiar with, the trunk of these tall club mosses was not stiffened mainly by wood but mostly by its bark. Some researchers suggest that these trees grew for a number of years but died after reproducing once. They were once widespread on different continents but faded away by about 300 million years ago. That left the un-treelike forms to continue and they are with us yet.

Still to come were the ferns (there were now-extinct types that made seeds) and other familiar modern plants. These invented seeds by covering embryos with maternal tissue. The added tissue provided more protection from drying and often developed structures adapted for dispersal on land. In most cases, the enclosed embryo was also endowed with a packet of nutrition for seedling growth. They developed pollen grains to carry sperm cells through the air so they were not dependent on water for reproduction. Eventually the developmental pattern of some leaves changed, producing flowers for attracting pollinators.

The world changed entirely with the arrival of an array of vascular plants with seeds and pollen. Now there were grasslands and forests providing habitat as well as more food and more ways to get it for more kinds of animals, which embarked on their own various evolutionary trajectories.

Carrots and their wild relatives

a complex family of plants

Species of the carrot family (formerly named Umbelliferae, now Apiaceae) are still called umbellifers informally, referring to the structure of the flat-topped inflorescence, called an umbel. The nominate example of this family is the domestic carrot, which typically has a thick, straight, tapered taproot containing of about 15% carbohydrates, some vitamins and minerals, and a lot of water (according to one source). Carrots were originally domesticated in Asia, over a thousand years ago. Parsley, parsnip, and celery are other familiar members of the family. They have many wild relatives, of which perhaps seven genera are said to occur in the Juneau area.

The roots of these species are sometimes described as taproots and sometimes as clusters of fleshy roots; and sometimes the same species is described has having both kinds of root systems. Frustrated by the vagueness and possibly conflicting descriptions, I dug up a few specimens of four fairly common species to see for myself. Because I don’t know how long or how vertical a root must be, in order to be called a taproot, here I will just mention there being a main root, if a thick one occurs at the base of the stem. Thick and fleshy roots, in general, are storage organs for these plants, a source of energy for growth and reproduction.

Out on local beaches and gravelly meadows, we find beach lovage (Ligusticum scoticum). The roots of beach lovage are a popular bear food, as seen recently in the meadow near the Boy Scout camp. In the big meadow at Eagle Beach this year, lovage plants had been common but were almost entirely demolished by hungry bears. The roots were gone, leaving a few reddish leaf stalks near the hole. Elsewhere in North America, other lovage species are sometimes called ‘bear-root’ in Native languages, reflecting harvesting by bears. My excavations indicated that lovage usually has a short (about an inch or two—just a little snack!) main root, bearing several thick, fleshy side roots, in total perhaps equivalent in size to a small-to-medium carrot.

Those side roots may be likely to break when a bear digs for the main root, leaving fragments that can regenerate; a big, carroty main root might not be able to do that, because the whole thing probably would be dug up. Various Native groups that harvest some of these carrot-family relatives take just the main root, leaving the side roots for future growth. Could it be that short main roots with storage in side roots are somehow an adaptation (in part) to the risks of being dug up—a way of surviving (via regenerating fragments) that’s not available to strictly single-main-rooted forms?

We have two species of Angelica: sea-coast angelica or seawatch (A. lucida) and, less commonly, kneeling angelica (A. genuflexa). Both are dug up by bears, which eat the roots and sometimes the lower stem and leaf stalks. My little excavations indicated that there is usually a short main root with some fleshy side roots.

Hemlock parsley (Conioselinum pacificum) that I excavated all had a short main root supporting a cluster of fleshy roots, but another local naturalist found one with a long main root. A year or two ago, there were many reports of bears digging up this plant in the Eagle Beach meadow. This year in the same part of the meadow, I found that, while bears had taken almost every lovage root in part of the meadow, some hemlock parsley was still standing there.

A field of hemlock parsley, shortly before bears demolished the plants. Photo by Doug Jones
Conioselinum root. Photo by Bob Armstrong

Cow parsnip (Heracleum lanatum) has a hefty, sometimes both fat and long, main root, sometimes with side roots, but I have not seen evidence of bears digging up this plant. I’ve seen the seeds in bear scats, where they eventually germinate quite well. In addition to domestic livestock, marmots, bears, deer, moose, and many other animals in other areas are known to eat the upper, vegetative and floral parts, which one report says provide a decent source of protein. Stems and leaves are reported to be a major food source for bears in Montana. However, I’ve not observed vertebrate use of this species here; other local naturalists have documented that the leaves are eaten by marmots; stems and leaves may be eaten occasionally by bears and rarely by mountain goats. That begs a question: why are there so few observations of wildlife use of this very common plant here?

The stems and leaves of sweet-cicely (Osmorhiza) are part of bear diets at least in some regions, but the two or three local species are not very common here and I’ve not seen signs of vertebrate usage.

Pacific water-parsley (Oenanthe sarmentosa) is suspected of being poisonous, largely by taxonomic association with highly toxic relatives. However, cattle are reported to eat the foliage without ill effects. I found no information about wildlife usage.

Cicuta douglasii (Douglas water-hemlock) is extremely poisonous to grazing livestock and probably bears and moose too, although I have found no reference to wildlife usage. The roots and base of stem are said to particularly toxic. (Note: this is not the same as the species called poison hemlock, Conium maculatum, which reportedly does not grow near Juneau.)

Humans eat many of these species, presumably avoiding the most toxic ones; however, some toxins are found in other carrot-relatives– Be careful of eating these species. Ligusticum roots and leaves have made good human food, although it has been used by certain Native cultures to poison fish. Heracleum flowering stems can be eaten, if peeled; but the juices of this plant contain furanocoumarins that on human skin may be activated by sunlight to produce nasty blisters. Angelica stems and leaf stalks are edible; Conioselinum roots are used by humans in some regions. Roots and leaves of Osmorhiza are said to be edible. Despite rumors of toxicity, Oenanthe roots and stems are eaten by people in some places.

Note: “hemlock” derives from old English words meaning straw or stalk and plant; in other words, a plant with hollow stems. That has nothing to do with our local tree of the same name! The hemlock tree got its name, supposedly, because of a perceived similarity of the smell of its crushed foliage to the smell of the poison hemlock plant.

Autumn Begins

bears digging, some unusual flowers, and a lovely purple mushroom

On yet another gray, wet day, some friends went up the Eaglecrest Road in early September, frequently stepping off the road to make way for big equipment. Some headed for the Nest, while I and some others searched for the rare white-petalled variety of dwarf fireweed (a.k.a. river beauty). Sadly, it was done flowering—as was almost everything else. There were a few laggard monkshoods, yellow rattle-box, and groundsels, and I saw some delayed salmonberries just ripening. Deer cabbage leaves shone with yellows and golds. It was really autumn at Eaglecrest.

White fireweed. Photo by Kerry Howard

I was interested to hear reports of a Clark’s nutcracker in the area, and there were several bird-watchers on the road, hoping to spot it for themselves. This bird is normally found in montane conifer forests from central BC southward, but I’m told it occasionally ranges north to the southern Yukon and is very rarely seen in our coastal conifers.

Marsh felwort. Photo by David Bergeson

Looking back to our so-called summer: a trip to Crow Point and the Boy Scout beach in mid-August found the little gentian called marsh felwort in its usual place near the trail on flat, gravelly soils. Five pointed petals make bluish or lavender stars that usually appear in August. This little annual plant occurs widely in the northern hemisphere. In the spruce groves there were fairy rings of white mushrooms and a clump of giant purple mushrooms known as purple (or violet) corts. Corts belong to a multi-species complex in the genus Cortinarius and form mycorrhizal associations with the roots of spruces and other trees. Also, around one big spruce tree, I saw a palatial squirrel midden with numerous entrances, one of the most impressive middens I’ve even seen. A lot of spruce cones were demolished to make a pile that size.

Photo by Jennifer Shapland

Both brown and black bears frequent these meadows, and I recently saw tracks of both species. We often see bear diggings here. Usually the bears have been digging roots of Angelica lucida (‘seawatch’), occasionally also eating the lower stems and leaf stalks. But this time, there was one area where bears had concentrated on digging up beach lovage; dozens of holes were marked by the discarded reddish leaf stalks. When the roots of these perennial plants are eaten, presumably the population of those species is reduced, thus reducing their future availability as bear food—unless the plants set enough seed before the roots were eaten, and the seeds germinate well, to establish a new generation of those species in the area. Also, a few side shoots and root fragments survived the digs and can regenerate full plants, but would this be enough to replace those eaten?

Another August hike took us—squelching all the way—to Cropley Lake in hopes of finding a blue gentian in flower and the yellow fireweed. Success! Also known as yellow willowherb, it usually grows along damp creek-sides and in montane meadows. It looks very different from the common pink-flowered fireweed, which is now classified in a different genus altogether. We also enjoyed some stands of the deep, rich purple monkshood flowers. There were hundreds of fringed grass of Parnassus flowers; in a previous essay, I related the history of how it may have got its name.

Yellow fireweed. Photo by Anne Sutton

At the very end of August, I went with a friend to the first meadow on the Spaulding trail. All across this meadow, we found many small diggings in the moss, leaving no evidence of who made them or what might have been taken. We found the seed heads of the strange little wetland plant called Scheuchzeria (sometimes called pod-grass). Widespread in the northern hemisphere, it has is currently classified in its own taxonomic family, and I have found very little information about its ecology and behavior.

A brief stop on a log for a snack provided a lucky sight of two chickadees: After conversing with each other in a nearby pine (no doubt about the odd lumps on the log), one by one they came down to a fruiting skunk cabbage. On each visit, the bird plucked one seed off the club-shaped infructescence, leaving a little empty pit, and flew off, but quickly returned. Jays and other critters sample these seeds too, sometimes leaving big bare patches, but it was good to see these little guys in action.

Singing

birds sing for many reasons!

A mid-August walk finds the woods almost silent. A raven talks, a jay complains, an eagle titters, a squirrel chatters. If you are lucky, a little group of chickadees will come by and visit. But bird song is over for the year. Warblers are on the move, singly and in small groups, ready to spend the winter down south.

Why should the absence of bird-song make me think about singing? Maybe when the spring chorus is in full swing, I’m too busy listening, but now I have time to notice the emptiness.

It has long been known that male birds sing to attract mates and advertise their nesting territories. Songbirds commonly learn at least part of their breeding season songs by listening to their fathers’ songs and perhaps also those of their neighbors. In some cases, localized dialects develop, in which all the males sing very similar songs and females tend to prefer males that sing the local version. This is apparently more likely in birds that are year-round residents; examples are heard in the songs of white-crowned sparrows along the west coast. Sometimes song learning in migrants also occurs on the wintering grounds where populations can mix and hear each others’ songs as they warm up for the spring season. And some birds, such as mockingbirds and starlings, readily mimic the songs of other species.

Something different has happened with the white-throated sparrow, which nests all across northern North America. Its characteristic song consists of two notes followed by three triplets, rendered in English in the U. S. as “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody. Over a decade ago, however, a change was noted in the song of males in western Canada (where the song is said to say “O sweet Canada, Canada, Canada”). But those western males weren’t singing the triplets anymore; they were now singing duplets instead. And, strangely, this new version of the song spread gradually eastward, to Quebec (as of 2020). No one really knows why the new song is taking over; one suggestion is just that the females like the novelty of it, which raises the question of what the next novelty might be!

In other cases, changing conditions may cause birds to change their songs so as to be heard more clearly by each other. Several studies have shown than birds in cities sing at a higher pitch than their country relatives, perhaps to be heard over the background cacophony of city noises, many of which have low pitches. Social context also matters: birds tend to sing longer and faster songs in areas where their populations are denser and there are more potential territory intruders.

Many studies have shown that singing has huge effects on emotional, mental, and even physical well-being of humans. Those of us who have enjoyed choral singing with local groups know well some of those benefits. More recently, research has found that birds probably get similar benefits. Now it seems that, in addition to attracting mates and advertising territories, they may also sing for the pure pleasure of it, as Darwin once suggested.

Starlings gather in large flocks when the nesting season is over. In those flocks, both males and females sing a lot—not the songs of the breeding season, but more unstructured, less ritualized songs. In studies with captive starlings, researchers had found that, given a choice, the birds preferred to be in aviaries where they had previously participated in group singing—perhaps because it was pleasurable. Then the researchers experimentally manipulated the levels of the birds’ natural opioids; opioids are the chemicals that induce feelings of well-being and pleasure and they also reduce pain. Their production can be stimulated by certain conditions, such as being in a safe place with friends, and activities, such as eating and singing. So we—and birds too, perhaps–feel good when those things happen. And feeling good may, in turn, favor more associations with safe places and more eating and singing.

The researchers demonstrated that, using drugs, they could stimulate the production of natural opioids by the body and trigger lots of group singing, simultaneously reducing stress-related behaviors. Conversely, when the production of natural opioids was experimentally reduced, group singing was also reduced…and the birds no longer preferred to be where they had experienced group singing before. There may be more to the emotional life of birds than we give them credit for!

Two trails

…and some bird stories

A group of friends went up the Granite Basin trail in mid-August. Lots of work has improved the trail mightily, and big boards stashed alongside indicate that more work may be planned. Snow still covered the trail at the place where spring avalanches always dump their icy loads. That was perhaps a measure of how unseasonably cold this ‘summer’ has been.

Salmonberries were ripening at trailside, but in one place skimpy, pale leaves made it clear that the canes had only recently come out from under snow cover. Purple fleabanes (or daisies) and grass-of-Parnassus flowered. White mountain-heather and partridgefoot were in full bloom. We found odd red structures on one mountain-heather and did not have the least idea what they are; we found out that they are a result of a fungus infection that makes the plant turn leaves into false flowers, with nectar(!), to attract insects that then spread the fungus.

Mountain-heather “false flowers”. Photo by Kerry Howard

Clouds hung low that day, obscuring any long vistas. They lifted, just slightly, about midday; not enough to even say there was watery sunshine. But that was enough for the marmots to come out and ‘sun’ themselves on the rocks. Folks watched a dipper foraging in the pool above the falls, where we often see them. Those who ventured farther into the basin saw ptarmigan, including chicks.

Ptarmigan chick. Photo by David Bergeson

The previous week I went to check out the Horse Tram trail. From the Boy Scout trail, the route goes up the hill a bit and then there’s a junction (with a yellow marker).  The original tram route went down over the saddle into Amalga Meadow, but the newer route heads up the hill to a little meadow and then down to a cove and toward the Eagle Valley Center in Amalga Meadow. Some work had been done on the stretch going up the hill but then there was a long, muddy, squishy reach to the small meadow (but work was in progress). From the meadow on down toward the EVC, the trail is now in great shape.

Parks and Rec hikers used to do a loop, from the Boy Scout trail up the (then-unimproved) Horse Tram trail to the little meadow, down to Amalga Meadow, and back up over the saddle where the bent and twisted tram tracks are still visible in places to the junction and on down to the Boy Scout trail. The old tram-track trail over the saddle is now badly eroded and overgrown, and it’s hard to pick up that trail from Amalga (even when you know, in general, to aim for the saddle). If a hiker wants to do the loop, it’s easier to do it in the other direction: over the saddle from the junction down into Amalga, where it is possible to pick your way by several damp routes over to the trail up to the small meadow and back down the hill.

As we hiked down on the good trail from the little meadow recently, a family of chickadees flitted around our heads, quite fearlessly. So we wondered if they sometimes got treats from people at the EVC. Sapsuckers had made a double row of sap wells up the side of a damaged spruce –not a usual place for their wells. In the wet meadow, a bear had dug up one skunk cabbage out of thousands that grow there; so we had to ask Why that one in particular?

Here are some bird stories: A friend sent me a video of a raven following a marmot, pecking at its tail; the marmot continues to browse, the raven continues to pester its tail. Pure mischief!! Not at all like ravens and crows pecking at an eagle’s tail to distract it from a captured salmon. Ravens also destroy the padding on car-top canoe carriers; is that just for fun and something to do when bored? A friend tells of watching a raven carefully selecting a spot to cache something held in its bill. The raven could see the observer well, but it completed the cache and flew off. My friend went to the cache and found—a small, smooth quartz pebble. Trickster, indeed!

Finally, one day in August, I came up the steps into my living room and, as always, glanced out the front windows. There was a fair-sized, brownish lump on the railing, looking a bit disheveled. Huh?? Oh. That heap of stuff is a juvenile goshawk! It was glaring at a cat crouched a few feet away in the living room. The bird was ‘mantling’—displaying by hunching over, raising the feathers on its upper back (its mantle), and spreading its wings. Typically used as a display to protect a captured prey from challengers, it can also be a defensive display, it seems (it held no prey). So it was a stand-off—neither cat nor bird liked the other one. I later saw the goshawk perched in a nearby tree. What drew it here in the first place? Maybe a duck or two on the pond (I once saw a goshawk take a duck there), but perhaps more likely the hairy woodpeckers that frequent my peanut-butter feeders. Goshawks commonly forage by dashing through tree canopies, snatching squirrels and woodpeckers from branches and tree trunks; at least in some places, woodpeckers are a common prey.

Animal percussionists

diverse ways of communicating through rhythm

The percussion section of an orchestra is usually stationed behind the other performers. The percussionists move smoothly from one noise-making instrument to another, banging, rattling, swishing, clacking and clicking, and thumping. They coordinate with the other performers and the conductor, to create a unified production.

The animal kingdom has its percussionists too, although they are certainly not orchestrated to coordinate with each other. Each type does its thing for its own reasons, on its own time, and in its own place. Nevertheless, in a broad, ecological perspective, they are part of a unified whole, and the world would be a poorer place without them. Here’s a sampling of percussionists among the animals.

Some critters use tools, of a sort, to make a percussive noise. Woodpeckers drum on trees (preferably hollow) or rain spouts to advertise their territories and availability for mating. Beavers slap their broad tails on the water as a warning signal. Monkeys and bears clatter and snap branches as a threat to potential enemies. Horses may stomp their feet on the ground in a confrontation with other horses.

More commonly, animals use various body parts as noise-makers. Annoyed rattlesnakes give warning by shaking their tail rattles. A displaying male peacock may rattle and swish the feathers of his gaudy train. Click beetles have a spine on one segment of the thorax that can be snapped into a notch on the adjacent segment when the beetle flexes its body; a loud click is made when the spine is released. Release of the spine quickly straightens the flexed body and flips an escaping beetle into the air; the click startles a would-be predator .

Many insects, some spiders, and even some birds drag a scraper over a ridged surface to make noise; this is called ‘stridulation’. Crickets rub one wing against another; grasshoppers rub a hind-leg on the forewing; a moth rubs a leg on a swollen part of the hind wing; some ants rub two abdominal segments together. Insects stridulate for various reasons, including mate attraction, territorial defense, as a warning signal, or (in ants, for example) a call for help from colony members. A species of neotropical manakin has two modified feathers on each wing, one with ridges and a stiff one to rub over the ridges. A displaying male raises his wings and shakes them back and forth very rapidly (perhaps 100 times a second!), to attract females.

A freshwater fish called a ‘drum’ has special muscles that rub on its swim bladder, making a grunting sound. Cicadas have special organs in their abdomens that make a buzzing sound when muscles pull them in and out of shape; the abdomen is mostly hollow, which intensifies the sound. When mature cicadas emerge from their larval life underground and ‘sing’ to attract mates, the racket can be deafening.

Snapping shrimp make a loud pop with one enormous claw. A very quick closing of that claw forces out a rapid jet of water. There is then a drop of pressure behind the jet and a bubble forms; this is known as cavitation. The bubble implodes with a loud pop when pressure from surrounding seawater rapidly rises again. The sonic shockwave from the popping bubble is used to stun or kill potential prey, such as a small fish or crab.

A ruffed grouse male advertises his territory and attracts females by standing with the tail braced on a log or small mound. He ‘drums’ by repeatedly cupping the wings forward and then quickly pulling them back. The sudden compression and release of air pressure produces low-pitched sound as air rushes into a momentary vacuum (cavitation again). It’s a high-energy display, starting slowly and speeding up to a continuous thunder.

Bird tails

versatile appendages

I recently watched a brown creeper hitching up a little spruce tree just outside my window. Brown creepers typically forage for invertebrates by moving vertically up a tree trunk, hooking their sharp little claws into the roughness of the bark. They actually hop upward, moving both feet at the same time, while the body is braced by the tail. The two central tail feathers are strong and somewhat pointed, although the outer tail feathers have softer tips. The tail is essential to the creeper’s upward locomotion.

That elementary observation made me think more generally about the tails of birds. Their tails are made of feathers supported by a bony structure comprised of fused tail vertebrae. The feathery tails are obviously important in aerial locomotion and maneuverability; that role has been well-studied and we easily see it when watching eagles or gulls swooping back and forth. But here I want to focus on some particular uses of the tail that have special functions, such as seen in the brown creeper.

Like brown creepers, our wood peckers climb tree trunks by hopping upward while braced by a strong tail. The strong, pointed tail feathers are also very important when the woodpecker is excavating a cavity, bracing the body while the bird hammers away. Three-toed woodpeckers have especially strong central tail feathers, allowing them to rear back on tiptoes and put the whole body behind the strike. In contrast, sapsuckers excavate chiefly by using just head and neck movements, and their central tail feathers are not quite so robust.

Red-breasted sapsucker. Photo by Kerry Howard

Both creepers and woodpeckers molt their tail feathers in an unusual pattern. Most birds are said to shed the central ones before the outer ones. But creepers and woodpeckers keep the central ones until the new outer ones have fully regrown, to maintain at least some tail support for their climbing activities while the new central tail feathers are growing in.

The little aerial insectivore called Vaux’s swift (and its eastern relative, the chimney swift) is unable to perch on twigs. It clings well, however, to vertical surfaces such as the interiors of hollow trees (or chimneys) where it nests. Aiding the vertical cling are its spine-tipped tail feathers that press against the walls, helping support the bird in that orientation.

In other birds, raising and spreading the tail fan makes the birds look bigger. Male turkeys, for example, display their spread tails when they puff up and strut to impress females and other males. A ruffed grouse male raises his tail fan during the drumming display that advertises ownership of the display site and attracts females. Female grouse may use a raised tail fan when defending a brood of chicks.

Some birds have turned tail feathers into sexual adornments. Males of some of the African widowbirds and whydahs have tail streamers several times longer than the body—aerodynamically somewhat disadvantageous but apparently alluring to females. Similarly, males of certain manakins in the neotropics and birds-of-paradise in New Guinea have long, decorative tail feathers with odd shapes useless for flight.  

Ring-necked pheasants, native to Asia but introduced elsewhere, have colorful, long tail feathers that they spread, raise, and orient toward another bird during courtship or intimidation of other males. There are many kinds of pheasants in Asia, often with fancy tail displays… including, of course, the biggest, most famous pheasant of them all—the peacock, a native of India but domesticated around the world. All that beautiful color and shimmer of a peacock’s ‘tail’ display is not made by tail feathers at all! The real tail feathers are dull, stiff things supporting the gaudy display from behind. The display itself is formed by upper tail coverts—body feathers on the rump that have become decorative and long. Perhaps the fanciest true tail belongs to the lyrebirds of Australia. Male superb lyrebirds have huge, ornate tails used in courtship. Some of the feathers are fluffy, some are wiry, and two elaborate ones make the lyre-like shape. Males display on a cleared mound on the forest floor, raising the elaborate tail, and dancing, while mimicking the sounds of many other birds. That display is better seen and heard than just imagined; videos are readily accessible on the internet.