Snow Fleas

Snow Fleas, Bridgerland Audubon Amalga Barrens Sanctuary
Copyright © 2008 & Courtesy: Jim Cane
Bridgerland Audubon Society

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.

Now, in the waning days of winter, you can see Nature’s winter flea circus perform. Look for warm snow surfaces that are peppered by tiny black flecks that resemble a parenthesis on your 1040 form. Bend down to regard these flecks carefully, or scoop some up. If they move, then you are likely eye to eye with snow fleas.

Fear not, for they aren’t really fleas at all. They aren’t even insects! Snowfleas belong to the order Collembola, the springtails, closest relatives to the insects. Springtails are so named for a fork-shaped appendage, the furcula, folded beneath the abdomen. The animal can snap its furcula open like a barrette clasp, catapulting the wee creature several inches forward through the air.

Springtails are rarely noticed, but it’s worth seeing their miniscule acrobatics. It helps to have something white against which to view them. The white warmed surface of the late-winter snowpack provides one opportunity. Or you can often see springtails by placing a white card on the needle duff of a conifer forest floor, where springtails help decompose fallen needles.

Atop the snow, snowfleas apparently graze for algae and fungal spores, but really, how would anyone know? In turn, are there wee predators from which snowfleas must, well, “flee” in this chilly habitat?

Snowfleas aren’t social, but they sure can be numerous. Last March, the manager of Bridgerland Audubon’s Barrens Sanctuary estimated a population of some 8 billion snowfleas springing about just within the confines of their 140 acre reserve.

With those kinds of numbers, pets and Utahns everywhere can be grateful that snowfleas really aren’t true fleas, leaving us to enjoy the pleasure of tromping around on a sunny winter’s day.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.


Photo: Courtesy & Copyright © 2008 Jim Cane

Text: Jim Cane, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Edible antifreeze promises perfect ice cream, Tom Simonite, 11 January 2008, New Scientist

Beneficial/Neutral Insects, University of Minnesota Extension Service,

Snow Flea, Study of Northern Virginia Ecology, Island Creek Elementary School, Fairfax County Public Schools,

Boxelder Bug Poetry

Boxelder Bugs
Courtesy Michigan Department of Agriculture

Hi, I’m Holly Strand from Stokes Nature Center in beautiful Logan Canyon.

Bill Holm, author, poet and essayist from Minnesota, died last week. He wrote and taught in the English department at Southwest Minnesota State University for 27 years. Why I do I mention this on a program about Utah nature? Because through his writing, he helped me come to terms with one aspect of Utah nature that I found troublesome at first —the ubiquitous and abundant boxelder bug.

“My boxelder bugs have odd preferences,” Holm wrote “They love radio dials, phonograph speakers, amplifiers, pianos, and harpsichords. Some would argue that this is because of the warmth and vibrations, but I prefer to think it is because of their taste for Bach and Vivaldi.”

The red and white bugs are essentially harmless. They might stain walls or carpets if you squish them. However, they are annoying primarily because they enter homes and other buildings in large numbers. Once in, they’ll find their way into your personal effects. Like your hair or your toothbrush or the glass of water you keep on the bedside table.

After hearing me go on a boxelder bug rant, a friend gave me Holm’s book Boxelder Bug Variations: A meditation of an idea in language and music. It changed my attitude toward with household invaders, as now I think of them as poetic. Maybe if I read a few verses, you will feel the same:
First, a boxelder bug prayer:

I want so little
For so little time
A south window,
A wall to climb,
The smell of coffee,
A radio knob,
Nothing to eat,
Nothing to rob,
Not love, not power,
Not even a penny,
Forgive me only
For being so many.

In this one, Holm describes a method for disposing boxelder bugs:

Take two bricks.
Creep deliberately up
Behind the boxelder bug,
Being careful not to sing—
This will alert him.
In a graceful flowing gesture,
Something like a golf swing
Or reaching for your lover in the dark,
Gather up the boxelder bug
On the surface of the left brick
Bringing the right brick
At the same time firmly down
Together with the left brick.
There will be a loud crashing,
Like broken cymbals,
Maybe a breaking of brick, and
If you are not careful,
Your own voice rising.
When the brick dust has settled
And you have examined your own hands,
You will not see the boxelder bug,
There is a small hole in the brick
And he is exploring it,
Calmly, like a millionaire
In an antique shop.

And finally, three boxelder bug haiku:

(1) Careful if you kill him!
There may be an afterlife
For both of you.
(2) Those black spots in your lamp?
Only bugs who didn’t make it
Into the next world.

And finally…

(3) The piano string stops trembling
But boxelder bugs
Keep dancing.

Thanks to Jen Levy for introducing me to boxelder bug poetry, and to Milkweed Editions for permission to reproduce Bill Holm’s work.

The Rocky Mountain Power Foundation supports research and development of Wild About Utah topics.

For Wild About Utah and Stokes Nature Center, I’m Holly Strand.


Photo: Courtesy Michigan Department of Agriculture

Text: Stokes Nature Center: Holly Strand

Sources & Additional Reading

Boxelder Bug Variations: A Meditation on an Idea in Language and Music, Holm, Bill, 1985, Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions

Boxelder Bugs Fact Sheet, Erin Hodgson, Alan H. Roe, USU Cooperative Extension:

Men’s Hair and the Male House Finch

Male House Finch

Male House Finch

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.

A man’s vanity is nowhere more apparent than for the hair atop his head. As men age, their hair may whiten, thin or disappear. As a remedy, some men use dyes or hair growth potions.

But imagine this: What if the right food alone could restore the virile dark hair of youth?

There is a common songbird at your birdfeeder this winter that can do just this. It is the male house finch.

[House Finch Call – #3 Songbirds of the Southwest Canyon Country]

As with many songbirds, the female house finch is drab compared to the brightly colored male. He sports a showy brow and bib in colors that range from tomato red to orange to straw yellow. Like the tomato and carrot, these colors come from pigments called carotenoids. All birds with red feathers get these carotenoid pigments from their diet, ultimately from the plants that can produce them.

What does the red feather color mean for the house finch?

The ornathologist Geof Hill of Auburn University experimentally altered head feather colors of male house finches. To make red-headed males into carrot tops, Jeff used peroxide. Red hair die achieved the opposite transformation. He then let the guys compete for the attentions of females.

Jeff’s experiments demonstrated that plumage does make the male. The redder the male’s head, the higher his place in the pecking order. And the more females that he could attract. Conversely, redheads lost rank after bleaching. Among male house finches, blondes really don’t have more fun.

So now you can predict the likely winners and losers in the mating game from just a glance at the male house finches at your seed feeder. As is common in science, this discovery leads to new questions: What food makes the male’s head feathers red? Is it some red fruit or berry? Why do some males manage to get more carotenoid pigments than others? Do they instinctively know the right seed or fruit to eat? We humans must get our carotenoids from plant sources too, such as the carotine that we transform into Vitamin A for night vision. The produce aisle at the grocery store might be a much different place though if the right fruit or vegetable could transform our hair color too.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.


Photo: Utah Division of Wildlife Resources

Bird Sounds: Courtesy and Copyright 2008 Dr. Kevin Colver, Songbirds of the Southwest Canyon Country

Text: Jim Cane and Linda Kervin, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

House Finch, Carpodacus mexicanus, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources,

House Finch, Utah Bird Profile,,

A Red Bird in a Brown Bag: The Function and Evolution of Colorful Plumage in the House Finch , Dr. Geoffrey, E. Hill, Oxford University Press, September 2002
ISBN-13: 9780195148480,

A Tribute to Birders

Outdoor enthusiasts on a
birding adventure in Logan Canyon
Courtesy Stephen Peterson

Hi, I’m Holly Strand from Stokes Nature Center in beautiful Logan Canyon.

According to Chris Leahy, in his encyclopedic book, Birdwatcher’s Companion, birdwatching refers to “the regular, somewhat methodical seeking out and observation of birds, whether for pure aesthetic pleasure or recreation, or for a more serious, quasi-scientific motive.“

If you are in America, the term birdwatcher is most often applied to people with a passing interest in birds, perhaps as backyard bird aficionados. In contrast, birders are people who seek out birds “in a more serious and energetic manner, either to hone field-identification skills, or to amass an impressive life list.” A life list is simply a record of all the species of birds that one has seen during his or her life. An impressive list in North America may consist of 6 00-700 birds. A person who travels to see birds may have a list of 4000+ .

The demographics of birders are interesting. A 2001 study estimates that there are 46 million birders or birdwatchers 16 years of age or older in the US. Within this collective group, the average person is 49 years old , has a better than average income and education, and is more likely to be female, white and married. Among Utah residents , 27 % of the population qualify as birdwatchers. Utah ranks 18 among states according to % of residents who watch birds. Montana is first at 44%, followed by Vermont at 43%.

However, 88% of the birders considered by this study were categorized as casual or backyard birdwatchers. If you consider only avid birders with carefully-honed identification skills and people who keep life lists, the gender balance shifts dramatically. That’s why most sources consider birding a strongly male –dominated activity. In fact, birdwatching has been described to be an expression of the male hunting instinct as well as linked with the male tendency for “systemizing” which has to do with organizing, categorizing, listing and counting.

A subset of the avid birder group is formed by twitchers. A twitcher is devoted to ticking off as many birds as possible for his or her lifelist. I am told that in the UK twitchers will appear suddenly as a ‘flock’ in some remote corner of the country (or someone’s backyard) whenever a very rare bird has been spotted—usually a migrant blowing in from Europe or North America. Twitchers use the latest in communication media –hotlines, mailing lists, eforums, bulletin-boards, and web-based databases to find out when a rare bird is in the vicinity. Then they will use whatever means available –perhaps a helicopter!—to get there as fast possible. Here in Utah, a twitcher might use the hotline on as one source of information.

Those of you who associate with birders will probably agree that they are as fascinating as the birds themselves. Here’s to you, my avian-loving friends.

Thanks to the Rocky Mountain Power Foundation for supporting research and development of Wild About Utah topics.

For Wild About Utah and Stokes Nature Center, I’m Holly Strand.


Photo: Courtesy Stephen Peterson, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Text: Stokes Nature Center: Holly Strand

Sources & Additional Reading:

Leahy, Christopher. 1982. The Birdwatcher’s Companion. An Encyclopedic Handbook of North American Birdlife. NY: Grammercy Books.

Maddox, Bruno. 2006. Blinded By Science Birding Brains: How birding in Central Park in an age of terror makes the man. Discover. Science, Technology and the Future. published online November 30, 2006 ( accessed February 14, 2009)

Pullis, La Rouche, G. 2003. Birding in the United States: a demographic and economic analysis. Addendum to the 2001 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation. Report 2001-1. US Fish and Wildlife Service. Arlington, VA.