Jack Considers Bird Brains

CT image of a Bird Brain Golden Woodpecker, Melanerpes aurifrons https://www.nsf.gov/news/mmg/mmg_disp.jsp?med_id=79726
CT image of a Bird Brain
Golden Woodpecker
Melanerpes aurifrons
https://www.nsf.gov/news/mmg/mmg_disp.jsp?med_id=79726
When I was a young lad being called “bird brain” was an indication that one was lacking in mental capacity.
Over the years I’ve come to question this connotation, and might even consider it a compliment. I suggest that quantity of this gray matter might be outweighed by quality.

Consider the hummingbird brain. Slightly larger than a bibi, it is very capable of feats beyond our imagining. Think unerring migration over hundreds of miles, efficient pollination while suspended in air, extraordinary flight capability, adjusting to extreme environmental challenges of cold, heat, predation, nourishment; exquisite nest design and construction, and so on.

Clark's Nutcracker Courtesy US Fish & Wildlife Service Dave Menke, Photographer
Clark’s Nutcracker
Courtesy US Fish & Wildlife Service
Dave Menke, Photographer

Regarding memory, nothing has been found to match the recall ability of the Clark’s nutcracker, which can bury thousands of pine nuts in rugged mountain terrain, finding them with uncanny ability following months of absence. Of course they hoard far more than needed, allowing many to germinate into seedlings- an amazing keystone species responsible for planting millions of trees from Mexico to Canada – this “squirrel bird” of the Rockies.

I’ve watched crows dropping nuts on roadways so they can be crushed open by passing vehicles, then flying down to eat the contents between oncoming traffic. And gulls dropping rocks on our pets to shoo them away from food dishes so they can have their turn at the table.

An ice fisherman was puzzled by a thief who was stealing his fish by pulling the line out of the ice hole and removing the fish. The culprit was finally observed- a raven- who used its beak and feet to gradually pull up the line with fish attached- an easy catch!

How about those mimics- parrots, corvids, starlings, gray catbirds, and the masterful mocking bird who can expand their repertoire of mimics to nearly 100 imitations without a pause.

And let us consider the remarkable Peregrine falcon. How is it possible that this lovely bird can strike a fast moving, highly maneuverable target as it drops from the heavens at a speed approaching 200 mph? Eyes, muscles, and nerves woven in such a manner that allow it to perform this feat is beyond comprehension.

I’ll conclude with perhaps my favorite bird attribute- their vocalizations. The more scientists learn, the richer their communications appear, possessing qualities once ascribed solely to the human language. Recent research has revealed that birds use syntax, which is altering the sequence of notes for variable meanings. Call order matters to them, much like word order does to us. The sound of birds calling isn’t just pretty. It’s full of meaning. I dare you to call me bird brain!

This is Jack Greene and I’m Wild About Utah

Credits:

Pictures: Courtesy US National Science Foundation & Courtesy US Fish & Wildlife Service, Dave Menke, Photographer
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Bird IQ Tests: 8 Ways Researchers Test Bird Intelligence, National Audubon, Alexandra Ossola, 9 Dec 2015, http://www.audubon.org/news/bird-iq-tests-8-ways-researchers-test-bird-intelligence

Bird Intelligence: Using Tools, Speech, Memory, Interactive Toys, and Emotional Displays
Veterinary & Aquatic Services Department, Drs. Foster & Smith, PetEducation.com, Petco Wellness LLC, http://www.peteducation.com/article.cfm?c=15+1795&aid=3342

Here’s Why ‘Birdbrain’ Should Be a Compliment, Simon Worrall, National Geographic, 15 May 2016, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/05/160515-genius-birds-animal-intelligence-ackerman-ngbooktalk/

 

Fire

Boise Interagency Fire Center entrance sign. Courtesy of National Interagency Fire Center.
Boise Interagency Fire Center entrance sign. Courtesy of National Interagency Fire Center.
The haze above Cache Valley begins to dissipate after weeks of hovering low and thick like a winter inversion, even as the Goring and Hansel Point Fires rage on just west of the Wellsville Mountains that bookend the valley. Both blazes, just two of the more than ten active fires in the state, are still less than 50% contained. Farmers and ranchers in Box Elder County are now doubling as volunteer fire crews.

To date, the National Interagency Fire Center has reported over 5.1 million acres burned in nearly 39,000 individual fires throughout the Western US and small pockets farther east. According to the agency’s website, “more than 28,000 firefighters and support personnel are [currently] working on 100 large fires that have burned 1.6 million acres.” And so goes another fire season.

Night view of burning pine trees and power pole. Courtesy of National Interagency Fire Center.
Night view of burning pine trees and power pole. Courtesy of National Interagency Fire Center.
It’s a hard thing to play spectator to—these yearly displays of destruction. It’s an even harder thing to draw a silver lining around, considering the potential for loss of land, property, and sometimes even life that each new fire season brings; but that’s what I’ll try to do here. As part of a recent Utah Master Naturalist course in which I participated with USU’s Extension Office, I was reminded of the extreme import of fire here in the West.
Ecological processes are complex and dynamic; and, here in the West, fire is a critical piece to that constantly morphing puzzle. Let’s consider a mature forest, for instance. Here in Utah, one might consist of large, shade tolerant spruce and fir groves. Free of any human intervention, these groves would occasionally succumb to wildfires which would act as cleaning crew for the collection of understory growth and dead plant material that litters the forest floor.

Such phenomena accomplish two tasks: one, frequent fires reboot the process of ecological succession wherein grasses, shrubs, and early succession species such as aspen trees and lodgepole pines take up the yolk of repopulating the forest; this leads to the second achievement of regular, unsuppressed wildfires—forest health. A dynamic, changing forest full of actively diversifying plant species are less susceptible to pests and disease. Wildfires mean forest longevity. Moreover, frequent fires limit understory fuels and produce low-intensity burns that are less likely to completely destroy a forest.

In the late 19th/early 20th century, though, this was a hard pill to swallow, and understandably so. Fire, as I said earlier, can be a threat to land, property, and life. Thus, we inherited a policy of fire suppression throughout the Western United States which, though it may sound fruitful, has accomplished quite the opposite of our intentions. Fire suppression allows understory ladder fuels to accumulate in quantities that, when finally ignite, produce high-intensity blazes that are consummate in both their size and scope; they burn quickly and exhaustively. This presents problems on its own, but climate change also promises to lengthen our fire season by as many as three months in some areas of the West.

So what does that mean for those of us who make our home in the Western states? Well, first we must remind ourselves each season that fire is indeed part of the ecology of the place we call home, and with that in mind take steps to insulate ourselves from its most dangerous characteristics. This includes creating and respecting buffer zones between human settlements and forests that are particularly susceptible to wildfires. Californians know this all too well by now. Additionally, responsible behavior when playing in or travelling through the Western wildlands goes a long way to preventing wildfires. Being aware of fire bans and mediation efforts is the best way to meet Smokey’s expectations.

I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy US National Park Service
Text: Josh Boling, 2018

Sources & Additional Reading

Utah Fire Info Box

Williams, Carter, Update on Fires in Utah, KSL.com, Jun 25th, 2018, https://www.ksl.com/?nid=148&sid=46349568

Piute Farms Waterfall on Lower San Juan – a Tributary of Lake Powell

Piute Farms Waterfall on the San Juan River, An Example of Superimposition Courtesy & Copyright Mark McKinstry, Photographer
Piute Farms Waterfall on the San Juan River, An Example of Superimposition
Courtesy & Copyright Mark McKinstry, Photographer

Piute Farms waterfall is a 25-ft high cascade that has formed along the San Juan River and spans its entire width. The location is a remote spot in an upstream arm of Lake Powell reservoir.

To reach the falls it takes a rough two-hour drive from Mexican Hat, or a 100-mile-boat ride from Bullfrog Marina in Lake Powell.

It formed when the tributary re-routed itself, cut through a thick layer of sediment, and began flowing over a bedrock cliff.

Scientists call this phenomenon superimposition.

Jack Schmidt, Janet Quinney Lawson Chair of Colorado River Studies in the Quinney College of Natural Resources at USU explains, “When reservoirs are created by the construction of dams, the sediment load of inflowing rivers is deposited in the most upstream part of the reservoir. In Lake Powell…the deposits in the…San Juan arm of the reservoir are as much as 80ft thick.”

“[If} reservoirs…drop…the inflowing rivers erode into the accumulated sediment. There is no guarantee the location of the new channel will be in the same place as…the original channel.”

The San Juan River’s original route was buried under the thick layer of sediment. The river’s response was to form a new channel one mile south of the original route and over the ridge.

Schmidt continues, “A [similar] thing…happened in Lake Mead reservoir where an unrunnable rapid formed near Pearce Ferry where the new Colorado River flows over a lip… [of] consolidated sediment. Although not a vertical waterfall, Pearce Ferry Rapid is sometimes more dangerous to boating than any rapid in the Grand Canyon!”

With future droughts, we can expect reservoirs to be at low levels for extended periods, and superimposition will continue to occur forming additional waterfalls and obstructions. Managers monitor the positive and negative effects of these changes.

One impact of the Piute Farms waterfall is a novel subpopulation of endangered razorback suckers which are now blocked from swimming upstream to spawn.

Endangered Razerbck Sucker Captured near Piute Farms Waterfall Courtesy & Copyright Mark McKinstry, Photographer
Endangered Razerbck Sucker
Captured near Piute Farms Waterfall
Courtesy & Copyright Mark McKinstry, Photographer

Zach Ahrens, Native Aquatics Biologist at Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and graduate student at USU says, “The razorback and other native fishes in the Colorado River basin have evolved over millions of years to play their roles in spite of the extremes of temperature and flow in their riverine environment. Given the uncertainty of future climate and water resources…it’s important to do what we can to ensure their continued survival.”

Before the waterfall formed, managers were not sure what percentage of razorback suckers travelled this far upstream.

Endangered Razerbck Sucker Captured near Piute Farms Waterfall Courtesy & Copyright Mark McKinstry, Photographer
Endangered Razerbck Sucker
Captured near Piute Farms Waterfall
Courtesy & Copyright Mark McKinstry, Photographer

Mark McKinstry, Biological Scientist from the Bureau of Reclamation, explains, “It took perseverance, technology, and dedication of a lot of different folks to find where…the Razorbacks are and understand the fish’s life history strategy.”

Peter MacKinnon with the Quinney College of Natural Resources at Utah State University and Biomark Inc. provided the technical expertise to set up a method to insert Razorback suckers with pit tags (similar to those used in cats and dogs) then track them with antennas placed below the falls.

With this tracking method, managers and researchers identified more than 1000 razorback suckers below the falls, apparently trying to ascend the waterfall. Approximately 2000-4000 suckers live in the San Juan River. It is estimated about 25% of the razorbacks are unable to spawn – because the waterfall blocks fish passage. This could influence the population of the endangered fish.

The Bureau of Reclamation consulted with experts on how to help razorback suckers get past the waterfall so they can move upstream and spawn. The most feasible suggestion seems to be, to build a naturalized fish passage around the side of the waterfall. Managers and volunteers would build a trap location on the upstream side of the passage where fish moving upstream could be captured; volunteers could then release the captured razorbacks and other native fish upstream where they choose to spawn.

Phaedra Budy, professor in the Watershed Sciences Department and Unit Leader for U.S. Geological Survey Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit said, “The Razorback sucker has intrinsic value to the San Juan River and beyond, is a critical member of the ecosystem, and deserves every effort for recovery.”

Managers and researchers hope their information gained and recovery efforts will give the endangered razorback suckers an increased chance for survival in its changing environment.

This is Shauna Leavitt and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy & Copyright © Mark McKinstry
Text: Shauna Leavitt, USGS Utah Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University

Sources & Additional Reading

Waterfall Still Blocks San Juan River, River Runners for Wilderness(RRFW), https://rrfw.org/riverwire/waterfall-still-blocks-san-juan-river

https://www.americansouthwest.net/utah/monument_valley/piute_farms.html

Razorback Sucker(Page 68), Utah’s Endandengered Fish, 2018 Utah Fishing Guidebook, Utah Division of Wildlife Services, https://wildlife.utah.gov/guidebooks/2018_pdfs/2018_fishing.pdf

Fish Ecology Lab, Utah State University, 
https://www.usu.edu/fel/

Leave it to Beaver

Leave it to Beaver: Beaver Dam and Pond Courtesy and Copyright Bethany Neilson, Photographer
Beaver Dam and Pond
Courtesy and Copyright Bethany Neilson, Photographer
A few years ago the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources conducted a wonderful workshop for educators to provide them with materials to take to their classes to help students understand the many issues dealing with wildlife.

As an introductory activity, the Ranger asked each of us to name the animal we thought that had the greatest influence or impact on ecosystems. People mentioned Deer, Cougars, Moose, Wolves and so on until it was my turn. Without hesitation I said “Beavers”. One of the teachers laughed at me and mocked my answer trying to embarrass me. So I asked the Ranger to repeat the question: Which animal did we think had the greatest influence or impact on ecosystems.

Leave it to Beaver: Beaver Dam Releasing Water Courtesy and Copyright Bethany Neilson, Photographer
Beaver Dam Releasing Water
Courtesy and Copyright Bethany Neilson, Photographer
“Oh”, I said making certain I had now understood the question. “In that case I have no hesitation now in saying the Beaver.” The room grew quiet, but the Ranger agreed with my answer.

Leave it to Beaver: Below a Beaver Dam Courtesy and Copyright Bethany Neilson, Photographer
Below a Beaver Dam
Courtesy and Copyright Bethany Neilson, Photographer
There is no question that all animals impact ecosystems. Heavy grazing or browsing by deer or elk can change the structure of forests and meadows. Predators, or the lack of them, can definitely alter what happens to those species. But consider the beaver for a moment. There are positive and negative things they do, but they definitely impact ecosystems. So consider this love-hate relationship humans have with them.

Yes, they will take down some trees to build dams and lodges. Problems might include:
The potential flooding of homes, agricultural land, timber land or orchards;
Their abandoned dams can create floods as they collapse;
There is potential flooding of roads and blocking of culverts;
And the deterioration of stream banks can occur.

But in a natural setting, where they do not impact roads or developments, beavers can do amazing things.
On the positive side, they create ponds which:
Provide habitat for trout;
Provide drinking water for all the animals in the area, from birds to bears;
Provide a storage of water that could be critical in drought conditions;
Trap silt and control small floods;
Invigorate the sprouting of early riparian and wetland plants;
Can help combat the effects of continual rising temperatures and earlier Spring snowmelt by maintaining a water supply for ranching, wildlife and native vegetation;
And they are basically constructed and maintained at little or no cost to humans.

Utah State University, and the Division of Wildlife Resources, have been developing partnerships with landowners to help restore beavers in locations where they can succeed and provide benefits to the land, wildlife, and ranching efforts. In areas where there are few trees, they construct Beaver Dam Analogues by pounding fence posts across streams, weaving willow branches between them, and plugging the base with large rocks and mud. These are similar to natural beaver dams and give them a good start to build their own homes there.
If you are aware of any beavers in questionable areas, contact

USU Watershed Sciences or the DWR to help relocate them where they can impact ecosystems in positive ways.

This is Ron Hellstern, and I am Wild About Utah.
 
Credits:

Images: Courtesy & Copyright Ron Hellstern
Text: Ron Hellstern, Cache Valley Wildlife Association

Additional Reading

North American Beaver, Castor canadensis, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Wildlife Notebook Series No. 24,
http://digitallibrary.utah.gov/awweb/awarchive?type=download&item=56529

UTAH BEAVER MANAGEMENT PLAN 2010–2020, Developed with the Beaver Advisory Committee, DWR Publication 09-29, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, 2010, https://wildlife.utah.gov/furbearer/pdf/beaver_plan_2010-2020.pdf

WATS 6860 – Partnering with Beaver in Restoration Design, University Catalog 2017-2018, Utah State University, http://catalog.usu.edu/preview_course_nopop.php?catoid=12&coid=93002

Beaver: Restoration liaison between riparian and upland systems. Joe Wheaton, Assistant Professor, Utah …, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=62A3RqL7Xp8

WEBINAR: Cheap and Cheerful Stream Riparian Restoration with Beaver. Joe Wheaton …
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m1uysDrOI_w

Beaver Restoration Workshop, Partnering with Beaver in Restoration, http://beaver.joewheaton.org/

Webinar: Cheap & Cheerful Stream Restoration – With Beaver? http://beaver.joewheaton.org/beaver-news/webinar-cheap-cheerful-stream-restoration-with-beaver

Science Unwrapped Talk by Joe on Beaver
http://beaver.joewheaton.org/beaver-news/science-unwrapped-talk-by-joe-on-beaver

Videos & Movies
http://beaver.joewheaton.org/videos–movies.html

Joe Wheaton – Beaver: Restoration liaison between riparian and upland systems
https://forestry.usu.edu/videos-conferences-webinars/conferences/restoring-west-conference-2013/joe-wheaton

Dr. Joseph Michael Wheaton, Watershed Sciences, Associate Professor, https://qcnr.usu.edu/directory/wheaton_joseph
Utah Water Watch, Beaver Monitoring App, http://extension.usu.edu/utahwaterwatch/citizenscience/beavermonitoringapp/

Beaver Dam Mapping App Now Available for Citizen Scientists, http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/environment/item/148-citizen-scientists-can-now-use-an-app-to-help-map-beaver-dams-in-utah


ARKive Images of Life on Earth, Information Sheet on Castor Canadensis (including some outstanding videos) http://www.arkive.org/ – (BBC Natural History Unit)

  • American Beaver – Overview
  • American Beaver in the Lodge with Young
  • American beaver felling trees and storing food for the winter
  • American beaver scaring moose away from its lodge
  • American beaver returning to its lodge with food

  • Collen, P. and R.J. Gibson. 2001. The general ecology of beavers (Castor spp.), as related to their influence on stream ecosystems and riparian habitats, and the subsequent effects on fish – a review. Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries 10: 439–461, 2001. http://www.springerlink.com/content/v48769740n817601/fulltext.pdf [ Accessed May 1, 2010]

    Prettyman, B. 2009. Utah wildlife: Leave it to the beavers. Article in Salt Lake Tribune, October 16, 2009. http://www.sltrib.com/ci_13570110 [ Accessed April 29, 2010]

    Smithsonian Castor Canadensis Information Page http://www.mnh.si.edu/mna/image_info.cfm?species_id=32 [ Accessed April 29, 2010]

    Big Bend Habitat Restoration Project: A Natural Work of Heart, Open Spaces-A Talk on the Wild Side, US FWS, http://www.fws.gov/news/blog/index.cfm/2016/3/25/Big-Bend-Habitat-Restoration-Project-A-Natural-Work-of-Heart [Accessed March 31, 2016]

    Beaver Dams Strengthened by Humans Help Fish Rebound
    60-Second Science – July 25, 2016 – By Jason G. Goldman02:29 http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode/beaver-dams-strengthened-by-humans-help-fish-rebound/ Also available through the podcast https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/60-second-science/id189330872?mt=2