Porcupine Quill
Copyright © 2009 Jim Cane

We address a prickly topic this week: one of the more intriguing and unusual mammals native to Utah – the porcupine. These shambling, large rodents would be defenseless if not for their dense cover of modified hairs called quills. Porcupines have about thirty thousand quills covering their back and tail. When disturbed, they clack their teeth in warning and raise the long quills on the back to form a random pattern that completely protects them. The quills are not hollow as some people believe. Porcupines do not throw their quills; an attacker must make contact. But once they do, the backward facing microscopic barbs on the greasy quill tips draw the quills into the attacker’s flesh. The short quills on the tail are particularly treacherous. In a split second tail flip, quills can penetrate the body so deeply that they disappear.

Porcupines range throughout Utah in diverse habitats. They are predominately nocturnal. Their diet is vegetarian. In spring they feast on leaf buds of deciduous and conifer trees and succulent ground vegetation. In summer and fall, they nip off the ends of branches to get to the leaves, nuts and fruit. Nipped branches frequently litter the ground under trees where porcupines dine. In winter, they resort to twigs and needles of evergreens and the inner bark of trees. This winter diet is nutrient poor and starvation takes its toll.

Porcupine in Tree
US FWS Digital Library

Porcupines are perhaps easiest to spot in winter when they may be seen high up in small conifer trees. Their tracks in the snow are distinctive. The foot prints are large and shows the whole foot. The belly usually scuffs in the snow and sometimes you can even detect the side-to-side sweep of the tail. So in these waning days of winter, remember to be watchful for Utah’s prickliest mammalian resident.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.



Text: Linda Kervin, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:




Roze, Uldis, 1989. The North American Porcupine. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press. Also available as http://www.amazon.com/North-American-Porcupine-Uldis-Roze/dp/0801446465

Spruces in the Urban Landscape

Colorado Blue Spruce
Courtesy Linda Kervin

A spruce tree was felled in my neighborhood recently. I have no quarrels with its removal, especially since it was leaning over my roof. But some wild neighbors were not so upbeat about the incident. A Red Squirrel scolded anyone within earshot. It had lost its secure pathway between the front and backyards. Now it must run on the ground before once again climbing into the safety of loftier pathways.

Spruce trees have much to offer the non-human inhabitants of our urban landscapes. The noisy Red Squirrel may also have been complaining about the loss of a nest. Both squirrels and birds like to nest in spruce trees.
The dim interior of the spruce is a good place to look for owls roosting during daylight.

Spruce trees shelter animals during storms, their dense branches providing a dry, calm haven from wind, rain and snow.

Spruces offer a high perch from which every bird, house finch to crow to robin, can declare their territory by song sung lustily from the topmost branches.
When the Sharp-shinned Hawk swoops the birdfeeder for a feathery meal, the juncos and chickadees scatter to hide themselves in the spruce’s embrace.

Last winter, flocks of White-winged Crossbills descended upon Utah. Their bill crosses at the tip, which makes it perfect for prying open spruce cones to get to the tasty and nutritious seeds. These birds wander the Northern Hemisphere in search of abundant cone crops of spruce and other conifers.

The noble, lofty spruce is more than a decorative landscape tree. It offers food, home, safety and shelter to our wild neighbors.

Our theme music was written by Don Anderson and is performed by Leaping Lulu from their CD High Road, Low Road. Our bird music is provided by Kevin Colver.

Text: Linda Kervin, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:


USA National Phenology Network

Audio:  mp3 Listen to WildAboutUtah

Courtesy USA National Phenology Network

The study of recurring plant and animal life cycle events is phenology. It is the calendar of nature. This includes when plants flower, when birds migrate and when crops mature. Phenology is relevant to interactions between organisms, seasonal timing and large-scale cycles of water and carbon. Phenology is important to us for many reasons. Farmers need to know when to plant and harvest crops and when to expect pests to emerge. Resource managers use it to monitor and predict drought and assess fire risk. Vacationers want to know when the best fall colors will be or when the wildflower blooms will peak. Timing varies but we can discern patterns.

The USA National Phenology Network monitors the influence of climate on the phenology of plants, animals and landscapes. They encourage people to observe phenological events such as flowering, migrations and egg laying. The Phenology Network provides a place to enter, store and share these observations, which are then compiled and analyzed nationwide. Participants range from individual observers in their own backyards to professional scientists monitoring long-term plots. My husband and I monitor leafing and flowering of lilacs, a key species in the program.

These observations support a wide range of decisions made routinely by citizens, managers, scientists and others. This includes decisions related to allergies, wildfires, pest control, and water management.

I urge you to participate. The National Phenology Network has many public, private and citizen partners. It is a great way to become involved in a nation-wide effort to better understand our environment. All this information and much more is available at the National Phenology website, to which there is a link from our Wild About Utah website.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.


Text: Linda Kervin, Bridgerland Audubon Society
Additional Reading:

USA National Phenology Network, http://www.usanpn.org/

North American Bird Phenology Program, USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, https://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/bpp/BecomeAParticipant.cfm

The Logan Christmas Bird Count

The Logan Christmas Bird Count: A Mountain Chickadee One of 103 bird species found in the 2007 Bridgerland Audubon Christmas Bird Count Photo Courtesy Bridgerlandaudubon.org
A Mountain Chickadee
One of 103 bird species found in the 2007
Bridgerland Audubon Christmas Bird Count
Photo Courtesy Bridgerlandaudubon.org

The Christmas holidays bring us a bevy of welcome annual traditions. Even now I can smell the cookies, hear familiar caroles and see the decorated tree. I hear the western screech owl too, for I also join in the Logan Christmas Bird Count. These are exhaustive one day surveys of all the individuals of every species of bird that can be found in a locality. Christmas Bird Counts began 109 years ago in New York City as a holiday alternative to the excesses of the so-called “side hunt”. From that first inspiration, the Christmas Bird Count has spread to all 50 states, Canada, Mexico and beyond. Last year, most of the 2100 counts were in the US, totting up 57 million individual birds representing nearly 2000 species. Here in Utah, we reported 180 bird species. Provo holds honors as Utah’s first Christmas bird count, held in 1903. Today, hundreds of Utahns participate in 20 local counts, from Saint George north to Bear Lake.


I always join Bridgerland Audubon’s count in Logan, which has been running for 52 years. Last year, we finally topped 100 bird species in our allotted count circle of 150 square miles, the effort of 61 birders. That’s remarkable for a chilly winter’s day, considering that many of our feathered friends, such as hummingbirds, flycatchers and more have hightailed it south for the winter, but note that some northerly species, such as roughlegged hawks, view Utah as the balmy endpoint of their fall migration.

Christmas Bird Counts offer something for everyone, from novices to seasoned birders, and from simple feeder counts to backcountry walkabouts. I’ll be up in the predawn, listening for owls. Every count’s data contributes to long-term research about winter dispersal patterns of birds, their population trends, and impacts of troubles like West Nile virus, which is especially hard on crows, magpies and jays. If you like birds, join in the fun and make the Christmas Bird Count one of your holiday traditions.

All counts are scheduled between December 14 and January 5. Utah’s Christmas Bird counts are listed on our website: just search for Wild About Utah. Our Logan count is on Saturday, December 20. That evening, we’ll flock together for a big potluck and count compilation party.


Photo: Courtesy BridgerlandAudubon.org www.bridgerlandaudubon.org

Text: Bridgerland Audubon Society – Jim Cane

Additional Reading:

Christmas Bird Counts in Utah, Utahbirds.org, Milt Moody, Webmaster, http://www.utahbirds.org/cbc/cbc.html

The 109th Christmas Bird Count: Citizen Science in Action, National Audubon Society, Inc. http://www.audubon.org/bird/cbc/index.html

Idaho Circles: http://app.audubon.org/cbcapp/findCircles.jsp?state=US-ID&start=1

Utah Circles: http://app.audubon.org/cbcapp/findCircles.jsp?state=US-UT&start=1