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Native Californian, biologist, wildlife conservation consultant, retired Smithsonian scientist, father of two daughters, grandfather of 4 small primates. INTJ. Believes nature is infinitely more interesting than shopping malls. Born 100 years too late.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Slinky grim reaper of the underworld

Long-tailed weasel with prey.

There's a good reason weasels are long and skinny.

It's "essential to the profession of a burrow-hunting rodent predator...", wrote weasel expert Carolyn King.

This photo of hunter and quarry was taken in a mountain beaver burrow, and it would seem to prove the point.

But did this long-tailed weasel kill the golden-mantled ground squirrel in the burrow?  Or did it dispatch the rodent above ground and then drag it into the burrow?

Golden-mantled ground squirrels are common in the area, but you find them in dry open coniferous forests rather than the riparian woodland and thickets where mountain beavers dig their burrows.

I've camera trapped this mountain beaver burrow almost seven months in the past 4 years, and the graph shows that golden mantled ground squirrels are not among its users.

I suspect the weasel killed the ground squirrel above ground and dragged it into the burrow to feed out of harms way. That's how weasels operate.

But as the graph shows, a weasel is more likely to encounter a mountain beaver in this burrow than a golden-mantled ground squirrel, and the chickarees and voles down there certainly run the risk of meeting this slinky grim reaper as well.

One other observation: the camera failed to record the resident juvenile and adult mountain beaver during the last sampling period. At least one mountain beaver has always been present.

Has the weasel appropriated this mountain beaver's underworld?

Is its nest now lined with the soft pelts of the previous residents?

I'll update you next month.

A chickaree shells a fir cone in the underworld earlier this month.


King, C. 1989. The natural history of weasels and stoats. Cornell University Press, Ithaca.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Errant Mountain Beaver

Folks up here on the ridge were recently roused to declare their biophilia when a mountain beaver was reported swimming down the Butte Creek Flume.

One of our local naturalists, a retired bike-riding school teacher known by his avatar Forest, documented the rare event in video.

This is the first verified record of mountain beaver in Butte County, and the discovery begs the question: From whence the errant rodent?

I'm an enthusiast of these guinea pig size rodents, and I recognize their haunts when I see them, but I have never seen their signs in the county of Butte.

They require lush vegetation for food and live in moist habitats with shallow water tables, Their burrows often tap into underground springs.

I guess I have to look a little harder.

Arctos, an extensive database of zoological records, lists mountain beaver specimens from several counties in the Sierra Nevada, including Shasta, Plumas, Eldorado, Sierra, Nevada, Placer, Mono, Mariposa, and Tulare.

I suspect this particular rodent entered the flume voluntarily, swam around, and went with the flow.

But here's the rub. Its flume float could not have been longer than about 3 miles.

If the rodent had embarked on its swim further upstream it would have passed into a deadly siphon that conveys the water down and then up a ravine.

Even Houdini couldn't have made it through that siphon alive.

If the mountain beaver's odyssey started above the siphon, it had to travel by land to bypass the siphon and reach the flume's navigable portion.

Unfortunately, the neighborhood's flumes do not lead to suitable habitat for mountain beavers. So I doubt this rodent's trip led it to greener pastures.

It was an unusual event and it makes you wonder.

Did the mountain beaver abandon its home because of the drought? Or was it just a normal attempt to disperse that few people ever see?

We're lucky to have naturalists like Forest here.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

A California Grizz Story Resurrected

For readers of this blog who wonder now and then about the California Grizzly, or grizzly bears in general, Natural History Magazine has just published a fascinating story about the death of California's second to last golden bear . . .  and its sequelae. The author is historian Josh Sides. 

Read about it here

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Young Fluffy

This little fellow, a fledging Western Screech Owl showed up this afternoon out of nowhere.

It was on our neighbor Dave's driveway, and the AT&T man (who was repairing a squirrel-chewed telephone line) put the owlet on a limb and out of harms way.

Neighbor Dave told neighbor Richard, who told me, and I grabbed my camera and snapped these photos.

Seeing a live owl or a young fluffy like this always makes my day.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Memories of Ted Reed, Part 2

Another installment from my presentation at the National Zoo last month.

The Clash of the Cultures – academics and managers

Ted Reed hired a top notch staff. The National Zoo in the 1970s probably had more Ph Ds than any other American zoo. 

But Ted had created a 600 lb gorilla. 

His scientists were free-thinkers, could "pile it higher and deeper" than most zoo folk, often disagreed with each other, and could be relied upon to question the Director's decisions.

The zoo's Academics were from the University of Free Thought, and its Managers were from an altogether different universe.  

The clash was about the quest for truth versus the quest for organizational wellness.

Ted wasn't used to the ways of the zoo's new academic culture.

One of the freethinkers was Professor Edwin Gould, who had quit his job at Johns Hopkins University to become the zoo's Curator of Mammals.

Ed Gould, in field garb in Canada
late 70s.
At the time there was an arthritic and tired old Bruin at the zoo named Smokey the Bear.

The iconic Smokey roused the Professor's deepest sentiments, and true to his academic upbringing Ed wanted to air his feelings with the Director.

He made an appointment with the Director, and shared his views about the lessons of wildfire in the American west, about fire ecology, and about the misguided policy of the US Forest Service.

He finished his discourse with a zinger: “We all we know it’s a lie.”

Ted had listened patiently.

“Gould, forget about Smokey. Smokey’s a big hit with the visitors and the Congress, and he’s here to stay. Go back to your office and think of some neat animals we can get for the public.”

Walking back to his office, Gould could only chuckle at the Director's skillful dismissal.

The Problematic issue of Species Selection

Selecting species for the newly acquired Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Virginia, was often more contentious than Smokey's presence in DC.

Dr Reed convened a CRC planning committee and monthly meetings were held at the center.

The committee selected the Pere David’s deer as the first species to go to the center.

Aaron, in full rut, one of the first Pere David's deer at the
National Zoo's Conservation and Research Center. 

They had bred themselves out of space at the zoo, and moving animals to Front Royal solved the zoo's surplus deer problem.

The Scimitar horned oryx was the second species selected.

Scimitar-horned oryx at CRC in the mid 1970s. SNZP photo.
Then Dr Reed threw in a wild card – Bactrian camels, and the staff grumbled. The zoo didn't have Bactrian camels, and what's more, captive "Bactrians" are domesticated.

Ted didn’t care. Bactrian camels were uncommon in zoos at the time, and they were a “bread and butter” species. When mom and dad took the kids to the zoo, one of their expectations was to see camels.

Ted wasn’t to be deterred, and I am glad he stood his ground.

Meade Barn, the Bactrian camel facility
Meade Barn was retrofitted for camels, and the new camel herd arrived from the Minnesota Zoo with fanfare.

The Governor of Minnesota and his selected staff arrived by helicopter, and Dr Reed and a few NZP staff  attended the ceremony at Meade Barn.

We actually received two breeding males, Humphrey, named for a popular country hit by Blanchard and Morgan, and the small-bodied Jimmy,

Even with 30 acres to explore, Jimmy spent all his time trudging a small figure 8 in the turf. He was totally deranged, and a sad example of what happens when animals are penned up in small enclosures.

But Humphrey showed all the promise of a breeding male.

The magnificent Humphrey.
During the winter rutting season he urinated on his tail and flapped it on his rear hump, and rubbed the coffee-colored fluid from his poll gland on the front hump.

Humphrey was also assertive and challenging to other camels, another sign of the testosteronized male.

Our opinions about Bactrian camels quickly changed.

They were cool mega-mammals, and charismatic in their own distinctive way. We started collecting data.

Humphrey takes on a rival. 

A year passed. When Dr Reed visited the center he wanted to see camels first, and asked when we were going to have babies.

Humphrey wasn't delivering the goods, so we organized an observation team to monitor breeding activity.

The research team that monitored reproductive behavior of the camel herd. 

Then our veterinarian, Mitch Bush, and colleagues examined Humphrey more closely and attempted to collect semen.

They discovered that our stud "shot blanks".

Despite his macho appearance, his testes had never descended into the scrotum. He was cryptorchid. He was the great pretender.

Word of Humphrey's impotence soon spread to other zoos, and that year the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (now the AZA) honored the National Zoo with four awards . . .

I was there when Ted received the award, and he played the fool artfully.

Recently, Ted's son Mark informed us that the award was the straw that broke the camel's back.

Ted believed that zoos generate enough levity without the help of special awards from the AAZPA.

He prodded the association to change their policy.

The next year AAZPA's  board of directors announced they were discontinuing the Zoo-Goof-of-the-Year-Award.  

I was disappointed with that decision, but it was one more example of the clash of the cultures.


Thanks to Kris Vehrs and Barbara Bueschel for locating the Associated Press clipping, to Ed Gould for sharing his memories of his early days at NZP, and to Mark Reed for filling me in on the consequences of the AAZPA's last Goof of the Year Award.

Wemmer, C. and J. Murtaugh. 1980. Olfactory aspects of rutting behavior in the Bactrian camel, Camelus bactrianus ferus. Pp 107-124 in Chemical Signals, Vertebrates and Aquatic Invertebrates (D. Muller-Schwarze et al, eds) . 

Thursday, June 5, 2014

My New Screen Saver

I get off on plutons.

So, this is my latest screen saver -- El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.

I took it a couple days ago with a Lumix FZ200.

The images from the hand-held camera were a wee blurry, but this one was taken on a tripod with delayed exposure.

Can you see the 3 climbers?

If John Muir saw Yosemite today he would be horrified, but for the rest of us, it is certainly still worth seeing.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Memories of Ted Reed

Buckminster invites the author to a sparring match (ca 1979)

There is a reason you haven't heard from me lately. 

I was busy writing my personal memories of the late Theodore H. Reed, who died last year at the age of 90. 

Ted Reed was Director of the Smithsonian National Zoological Park from 1955 to 1982, and he hired me in 1974 to work at the zoo's Conservation and Research Center.

Several colleagues joined me recently at the National Zoo to memorialize Dr. Reed and celebrate the National Zoo's 125th anniversary. 

Here's one of my anecdotes from the late 1970s.  

"In due course, the Zoo and its conservation center became destinations worth seeing, and Ted hosted visiting VIPs with a personal touch. 

One of those VIPs was the Director of the Zurich Zoo, Heini Hediger, who was well known as the father of Zoo Biology.

In those days, a curator who hadn't read Hediger's books, Man and Animal in the Zoo, and The Psychology of Animals in Zoos and Circuses hadn't done his or her homework. 

Ted had me open gates, and do "the show and tell".  

At Greenhill Barn we had a herd of young Eld's deer that had been hand-reared for studies of reproduction, and being a keen student of ungulate behavior, I demonstrated the universal signal used by deer to terminate unwanted social interaction, such as invitations to spar with the antlers. 

The basic rule is this: Don't make eye contact. Turn away and just graze or pretend to graze. 

We observed this cut-off signal many times in different species of deer.

Even a person can give the signal by turning away and plucking grass with the hand. 

On this occasion my imitation worked like a charm.

Buckminster was game for a sparring match, and followed me around poking me in the butt.

I just kept plucking grass, and soon he lost interest and started grazing.  

Ted called the next day, and asked me to get photos of the sequence with Buckminster.

Hediger had been impressed and wanted the photos for his lectures. 

"Dr. Reed, it doesn’t always work. I’m not sure he’ll do it again.” 

Ted's response? “Just get it. He did it yesterday, he’ll do it again.”  

It took a while to get those pictures, but Ted's prediction was right. 

Buckminster finally tired of horning me in the butt and started to graze.