Some observations

…from a so-called “summer”

During this so-called summer, our rambles yielded a number of nice little observations, along with a few of another kind. Here is a sample:

Near the glacier, a family of five raucous young ravens yelled constantly for food. They were as big as their parents but clearly intended to go on being fed as long as possible. This is probably the family that was raised on the hillside above the visitor center and fed partly on tern and gull chicks. One young raven sat atop the pavilion, where it was mobbed by barn swallows protecting the last broods in nests under the roof.

In July, for a time, the air was filled with flying, fluff-borne offspring of the cottonwoods. They collected in damp wads in roadside ditches and wafted into my garage in bundles. On the East Glacier Trail, we found a place where the ground was covered with mature female cottonwood catkins. The ripe, round pods of the catkin had not opened of their own accord, sending out their flying seeds. Instead, hundreds of pods had been opened and seeds carefully extracted from amid the white fluff. We soon saw the perpetrator: a red squirrel, which was in the very act of nibbling seeds from more pods.


Later, at home, I saw my local red squirrel had a doorway matted with discarded white fluff, left over from its seed harvest. Under that mat was the usual litter of spruce cone cores, ejected from the burrow.

Trips up Gold Ridge were plagued by rain and wind, almost every time we went there. We did see a marmot collecting hay; its mouth bristled with the leaves of grasses and herbs. It was already getting ready for its long hibernation (commonly about eight months).

On another day up there, we were watching marmots when we were surprised to see one being chased by a black dog. The marmot barely escaped, partly because we yelled at the dog. The surly owner of the dog declared that he did not care about the posted rule that dogs on that trail must be on leash, and besides, there were other marmots up there. As he and his marmot-chasing dog went on up the trail, a chorus of marmot warning whistles rang out across the entire hillside, and we didn’t see another marmot for four hours.

Dogs are not a marmot’s best friend. Photo by Jos Bakker

Even in the rain and wind, we enjoyed the flower show on the ridge, as always. One patch of narcissus anemones flowers had been assaulted by some herbivore, one that just took a bite out of each petal and managed to drop a few. We guessed that a family of grouse had been having lunch there. On the ridge top, we found a young ptarmigan, with no family members in sight. So we wondered if the rest of the family had come to grief. This young one was good at hiding: as we carefully looped around it, it circled around a sharp rock to keep the rock between itself and us.

In the summer of mostly yukky weather, I have not seen many bumblebees. Near the glacier and in some other spots, the many lupines, which are normally bee-pollinated, are setting no fruit, suggesting poor pollination. One nice (!) day in Gustavus, when bees should have been active, we took a walk through a field with acres of blooming lupines, but we saw no bees. This made us wonder if perhaps our record-setting wet summer might have drowned them in their ground nests, leaving few to pollinate the flowers.

Since all those words were drafted, we entered a spell of wonderful real-summer weather. What a treat! Another trip up Gold Ridge yielded a willow ptarmigan attending a single large chick, and they came right up to us, for a good look (by both parties). On a long hike over Mount Troy, we found a bench covered in deer cabbage. In the midst of the lush green foliage were several large beds, where something had rested for a long time. Some of the deer cabbage leaves had been mowed off in swathes, leaving a tall stubble. Then, aha, I noted some of the largest bear scats I have ever seen. Lunch at the top of Troy was celebrated with lots of chocolate, including birthday cake, while overhead, a few hawks soared, starting their fall migration.

Another huge treat was the opportunity to watch a group of Dall’s porpoises cavorting around our whale-watching vessel. What a show! I can’t say how many there were, because they were coming in from all directions to play in front of the boat. The bow of the boat was not very high, so we could see them well, as they zipped back and forth, changing direction with a tail flick. An amazingly quick breath snatched at the surface is enough to keep one zooming around for several passes in front of the bow. Suddenly, they were all gone. How do they coordinate their departure, and where do they go?

Animals at play

a widespread pleasure

Any observant dog owners can recognize the invitation-to-play posture of their dogs, sometimes addressed to persons, and sometimes to other dogs. Surely none of us doubts that dogs love to play, with balls or sticks or each other. And cat owners watch their feline friends toss and chase toy mice, frolic with rumpled scatter rugs, and push pingpong balls under the couch only to fish them back out again. A favorite trick of some cats is ‘ambush’…running ahead of a person or another cat, hiding behind a door, and pouncing out as the victim passes by. Some cats and dogs even know how to make jokes, sometimes deliberately and mischievously misleading their humans or each other in frivolous ways. Of course, dogs and cats are domestic critters, which often have lots of time for frolicking, because they usually don’t have the need to find food or escape from enemies or find mates; the same is true for animals in captivity, which often need sources of amusement.

What about animals in the wild? Do they play too? Sure; especially younger ones, but adults too. Wolves and coyotes tussle and chase. They use the same play-invitation postures among themselves as dogs do; our late-lamented black wolf, Romeo, used to invite passing dogs to play. On-line sources offer plenty of examples: young elephants mud-sliding and mud-wrestling or macaques repeatedly leaping from a tower into a pool of water or….you name it.

Play behavior often has some utilitarian physiological functions, such as muscle toning or sharpening reflexes or improving coordination. It can also have useful social functions, such as learning the rules of interaction among members of a group (e.g., don’t play too roughly!) or establishing a dominance order. But play behavior would not be so common among critters if it weren’t simply FUN.

It took a long time for humans to recognize that animals, both domestic and wild ones, like to have fun. Having fun requires a degree of intelligence that humans have been slow to admit is found in animals—irrationally and wrongly preferring to think ourselves superior to everybody else.

Here are a few examples of animals that play, mostly from animals that we often see around here.

Young marmots box and wrestle on the threshold of their den. Bear cubs tumble and tussle with each other, sometimes engaging mama as well; so do beaver kits and young ones of many other species. Mountain goat kids sometimes bounce from ledge to ledge, apparently just because they can and it is fun.

Young humpback whales sometimes cavort, fluke slapping, pectoral slapping, and breaching, as if saying Hey mom, look at me! A local photographer watched one breach seventeen times in quick succession!

Photo by Doug Jones

We can see ravens having fun. They might fly up with a feather or some other object, and then drop it, only to swoop down and catch it again; or maybe a friend would dart in to snatch it away. Sometimes there is a game of keep-away: I’ve got a toy, you try to get it from me. We’ve watched ravens roll down a snowy slope, or slide like a toboggan, only to trot back up to the top and do it over again.

Crows play, too. There is an on-line video of a European crow sliding down a snowy roof while standing on a plastic lid; then it picked up the lid, went back to the top of the roof, and slid down again. What a hoot! (I couldn’t leave that one out, even though it is not local). Our northwestern crows sometimes dangle upside down from a branch, not reaching for anything nor avoiding something, just showing off. The biggest showoffs dangle on one foot: see what I can do! Then they may swing back upright with a wing-flap or two, or let go and try it again on a different branch.

Otters slide down muddy or snowy slopes. Some slide tracks are many yards long, and the otter then continued onward to wherever it was going. This is an energy-efficient mode of transportation—just push off and let gravity do the rest. But sometimes they are not really going anywhere, just down a small slope and back up again, to do it all over once more. Sometimes a whole slope will be covered with their slide marks. It must be fun!

Dall’s porpoises sometimes come to ride the bow wave of a fast-moving boat. A little group of them seems to appear from nowhere and together they ride that wave, sometimes for a considerable distance. Then they are gone, as suddenly as they came.

One day at Eaglecrest I found a place where ptarmigan had pranced around, leaving lots of footprints. These were interspersed with a number of slide marks, about three feet long, going down a little slope. We know that ptarmigan often glide to a stop when they come in for a snow-landing, leaving a short slide mark, but the marks I saw did not look like landing marks. They made me think of the otter slides, so I wondered if ptarmigan can play too. I turned up only one report, which says that flocks or family groups of willow ptarmigan frolic together, crouching low with head extended, jumping around, and flapping one or both wings. I would love to see that!

Protective associations among animals

sticking together, for mutual benefit?

As I was reading a research paper about the foraging behaviors of killer whales (orcas), I found a small paragraph about some observations in Prince William Sound that seemed, at first glance, peculiar.

The researchers reported that Dall’s porpoises were often seen in close association with killer whales—swimming with a pod of the whales, popping up in front of the whales’ noses, and even playing with the whales’ calves! One Dall’s porpoise stayed with a pod for over four months. These observations begin to make sense when one recognizes that these killer whales were residents—the type of killer whale that eats only fish. Clearly, it would be folly for the porpoises to hang out with transient killer whales, which gobble up porpoises, seals, sea lions, and even other whales!

Other marine mammals that are prey for transient killer whales were also associated with pods of resident killer whales in the same study. Steller sea lions dove in and out among the whales on several occasions. A minke whale swam with a resident pod for several hours.

These observations were sufficiently frequent and consistent to suggest that the porpoises, sea lions, and minke whale were probably getting protection from predators such as the transient orcas. Transients and residents don’t mix, so by hanging out with residents, the other mammals increased their chances of avoiding the transients.

Those observations got me thinking about other protective associations. Here are various examples: Several kinds of fishes associate with sea anemones. For instance, clownfishes make themselves impervious to the stinging cells of their particular kind of anemone by making tentative approaches, gradually acquiring a covering of the anemone’s mucus—which then prevents the discharge of the stinging cells when the clownfish touches the host anemone’s tentacles. Some fishes that are close associates of anemones even feed their anemone by dropping bits of food into the anemone’s mouth.

The lion’s mane jellyfish of our cold North Pacific waters harbors a variety of small fishes and invertebrates among its tentacles. The portugese man-of- war jellyfish hosts a small fish that color-matches the dangling tentacles of the jellyfish; the fish is partially immune to the stinging cells of the tentacles. Still other small fishes lurk among the spines of sea urchins; their color patterns and behavior make them relatively inconspicuous there.

Lion’s mane jellyfish with silver spotted sculpin. Photo by Annette Smith

The sandwich tern is reported to nest very commonly in colonies of black-headed gulls or arctic terns, where the active nest defenses of those birds help protect the nests of the sandwich tern too. Some neotropical wrens like to nest in acacia trees that are inhabited by protective ants (or wasps), favoring trees with aggressive, active ants, which can deter predation by other birds, monkeys, and snakes.

A most unusual case was reported for the relationship between the giant cowbird and nesting oropendulas and caciques (colonial blackbirds that makes deep, pendant nests) in Panama. The cowbirds are brood parasites, laying their eggs in other birds’ nests, usually to the detriment of the hosts’ chicks. Giant cowbirds favor oropendulas and their relatives as hosts. Normally, the hosts would try to keep the cowbirds from placing eggs in the host nest, but in this case, strong defense against the cowbirds only happened in some colonies—those that were also defended by aggressive wasps and bees. In other colonies, with no protective wasps, the cowbirds were less unwelcome. Why would oropendulas ever allow cowbirds to drop eggs in their nests?

A major enemy of oropendula and cacique chicks is a botfly. Adult botflies lay eggs on the chicks, and the botfly larvae burrow into and feed on the chicks’ bodies. Chicks with botfly infestations often die. Apparently the wasps and bees present in some colonies somehow reduced botfly attacks. In the other colonies, without wasps and bees and where cowbirds were allowed, it turned out that cowbird chicks preened their host nest-mates, removing botflies, so the host chicks actually survived better with cowbirds than without them.

It is not clear how widespread that wonderfully complex situation might be—does it occur in other parts of Latin America, with other oropendulas and caciques, with other wasps or bees and other botflies? Or is it unique to the local circumstances of that study? Then we can ask What made those circumstances so special?