Owls and iPods

Great Horned Owl and Chick, Courtesy US FWS Digital Library, George Gentry Photographer
Great Horned Owl and Chick
Photographer: George Gentry
US FWS Digital Library

Hi I’m Holly Strand.

In early spring, my friends and I went owling in a northern Utah canyon. We were hoping for modest success—just to see or hear a northern pygmy or great horned owl — both common owls in our area.

To better the odds we brought an iPod with prerecorded owl sounds. We played the northern pygmy call for 20-30 second intervals and listened intently in between intervals.

After 10 minutes of off-and-on playbacks we heard an answering call from a nearby conifer grove. We were ecstatic that we had made contact with an actual owl. But wait! Was it an owl we heard or just another iPod user?

Pygmy Owl, Courtesy US FWS Digital Library, Bob Miles Photographer
Pygmy Owl
Photographer: Bob Miles
US FWS Digital Library

According to David Sibley, author of the Sibley Guide to Birds, the proliferation of digital audio devices and recorders among birders has both pluses and minuses. On the plus side, you can often entice certain birds out of hiding using playbacks. For example, if a territorial male thinks a rival bird is threatening to encroach on its territory, he may come out to confront the intruder. Or he may sing his “I’m Here, So Stay Away” song. A female bird might approach the recording source as a potential date. Using playbacks, you can target specific species to see or hear without disturbing others.

On the flip side, overuse of these playback devices can cause unnecessary stress and distraction in the target birds—and annoyance among other birders. In one study, the use of playbacks upset the avian apple cart by causing high-ranking black- capped chickadee males to lose status. The rest of the flock perceived them as losers as they were unable to drive away an unwanted phantom intruder.

Because the widespread use of recorded playbacks is relatively new, proper etiquette is still evolving. But here are some key points.

  • Keep the volume low and use only occasional snippets of sound—less than 30 seconds at a time. Leave a long pause between snippets. Definitely do not broadcast loud or continuous sound.
  • It is illegal to disturb endangered or threatened species. And these recordings can be interpreted as disturbance. So stick with sounds of non-threatened species.
  • Finally, check the rules at your birding location. The use of playback is prohibited in some parks and refuges.

For source material and websites with bird sound recordings, go to www.wildaboututah.org.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Holly Strand.


Photos: Courtesy US FSW Digital Media Library
Text: Holly Strand

Sources & Additional Reading:

Sibley, David. 2011. The Proper Use of Playback in Birding. Sibley Guides: Identification of North American birds and trees. http://www.sibleyguides.com/2011/04/the-proper-use-of-playback-in-birding/ [Accessed May 19, 2011]


Soundscapes for Birders by Kevin Colver http://www.7loons.com/

http://www.xeno-canto.org/ shared bird sounds from the whole world

Beletsky, Les, editor. 2010. Bird Songs Bible: The Complete, Illustrated Reference for North American Birds Contains digital audio player.

Ipods and mp3 apps:

iBird http://www.ibirdexplorer.com

Audubon Birds Field Guide http://www.audubonguides.com/field-guides/mobile-apps.html

The Sibley eGuide to the Birds of North America http://www.mydigitalearth.com

Sage Grouse, Pronghorn Antelope and Fences

Greater Sage Grouse
Courtesy US FWS
Stephen Ting, Photographer

As Robert Frost famously wrote in his poem, Mending Wall, “Good fences make good neighbors”.

Fences keep livestock from crops, children from traffic and delineate boundaries. In the intermountain West, fences are important to keep livestock where we want them and away from where we don’t. But wildlife of open sagebrush habitat did not evolve with fences. Sage Grouse and Pronghorn Antelope have had a particularly difficult time adapting.

Sage Grouse are stout, chicken-like birds found only in sagebrush, whose foliage features prominently in their diet. Sage Grouse were once abundant, but their numbers have plummeted due to habitat loss. Today they are candidates for listing as an endangered species. In flight, these large bodied birds like to skim over the sagebrush canopy and so doing, careen right into fences. One Utah study attributed 1/5 of Sage Grouse deaths to fence collisions.

[Kevin Colver recording: Songbirds of Yellowstone and the High Rockies]

Courtesy US FWS
James C. Leupold, Photographer

At dawn during the spring, male Sage Grouse congregate on ancestral dancing grounds to attract mates. The birds fly to these lek areas before sunrise so may not be able to see a fence before they collide. Other areas of special concern include the crest of low hills and the midst of wide open flats. Where grouse are common, flagging a fence or otherwise making it more visible can help considerably to reduce airborne fence collisions.

For Pronghorn Antelope, however, the top of the fence is not the issue. They are the swiftest game animal in North America. As with bison, market hunting in the 19th century decimated their populations. This trend has reversed, but here also, fences are a problem. Pronghorn are sprinters, not hurdlers and rarely jump a barrier over 3 feet tall. They choose to go under or through fencelines. A simple solution for barbed wire fences is to string smooth wire for the bottom strand at least 18 inches above the ground. This simple fence fix enables pronghorns to scoot below the fence unscathed as they migrate between winter and summer grounds

The perspective of Pronghorn Antelope and Sage Grouse could be summed up in the lyrics from a Cole Porter song: Don’t fence me in.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.



Photos: Courtesy US FWS: Images.fws.gov
Audio: Kevin Colver, Songbird Selections
Text: Linda Kervin, Bridgerland Audubon Society
Additional Reading:


Lives of North American Birds. Kenn Kaufman. 1996, Houghton Mifflin Company., http://www.amazon.com/American-Peterson-Natural-History-Companions/dp/0395770173

Don’t Fence Me In: If sage-grouse had a song it would be “Don’t Fence Me In”, USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service, http://www.mt.nrcs.usda.gov/technical/ecs/biology/sagegrouse/dontfence.html

Safer Fencing Can Help Save Western Birds, Environmental Defense Fund, http://www.edf.org/article.cfm?contentID=9126


Maliseet Snowshoe
Photo Courtesy & Copyright Hudson Museum, University of Maine

Imagine yourself living in Utah hundreds of years ago – before cars, before horses, before European influences. Summers provide you with abundant game and a multitude of plants for food and other materials, but the winters are harsh and full of snow. How did Native Americans manage to survive winter without modern amenities like snow plows and grocery stores? These hearty individuals owe their ability to hunt and travel in our snowy climate to one important tool – the snowshoe.

Snowshoes have been a part of life for humans in cold-weather climates for at least 6,000 years. From what historians can tell, people living in central Asia learned to strap thin planks of wood to their feet in order to help them travel through deep snow. Snowshoes work by increasing the surface area of the wearer’s foot, which distributes his or her weight across more snow – allowing them to basically float on top of the snow.

Western Subartic Antique
Indian Snowshoes. circa 1890 – 1920.
Photo Courtesy & Copyright VintageWinter.com

From this common ancestor in central Asia, both snowshoes and skis arose. Over the years, people began to spread out and move to new locations. Those who went west, into Europe, eventually developed the ski and those who went east across Siberia and into the Americas developed the snowshoe. The early snowshoes used by Native Americans were constructed of a wooden frame which was laced with babiche, un-tanned animal hide.

While we will likely never know why that first person decided to strap a plank of wood to their foot, perhaps they took their cue from Mother Nature. You see, humans are not the only ones who have figured out how to keep ourselves afloat on snow – some members of the animal world have too, and Utah holds two standout examples: the aptly named snowshoe hare and the Canada lynx. Both of these animals have extraordinarily large feet, which act much the same as our snowshoes, distributing the animal’s weight across a larger surface area.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that both snowshoe hares and Canada lynx share this amazing adaptation. These two species are closely connected to each other in a special relationship: that of predator and prey. Leaving us to ponder the question: whose snowshoes came first, the lynx or the hare?

Eastern Subartic Indian Snowshoes. circa 1855 – 1900
Photo Courtesy & Copyright VintageWinter.com

For more information and photos of traditional snowshoes, please visit our website at www.wildaboututah.org. Thank you to the Rocky Mountain Power Foundation for supporting the research and development of this Wild About Utah topic.

For the Stokes Nature Center and Wild About Utah, this is Andrea Liberatore.


Photos: Courtesy Hudson Museum,
University of Maine
Nick Thomas, SkiEO, VintageWinter www.vintagewinter.com
Text: Andrea Liberatore, Stokes Nature Center

Vintage Snowshoe Slideshow
Visit the Vintage Winter Sports Museum
Courtesy & Copyright VintageWinter.com

Additional Reading:

Prater, Gene. 1998. Snowshoeing, 3rd Edition. Seattle: The Mountaineers

Zeveloff, Samuel I. 1988. Mammals of the Intermountain West. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press

Botanical Velcro® aids seed dispersal

Burdock Flower
Courtesy & Copyright 2009 Jim Cane

The splendid blooming meadows of summer are fulfilling their reproductive imperative now as they mature and disperse the fruits and seeds that resulted from pollination. Plants can’t walk or actively fly, so to disperse from the mother plant, seeds need to catch a ride. Wild gourds bob down flooding arroyos, thistledown floats on the wind, and red barberry fruits hope to catch the eye of a hungry song bird.

Certainly the most annoying means of dispersal is employed by seeds that stick in fur and socks. Some like cheatgrass are driven home by sharp barbed seeds that poke and hold like the porcupine’s quill. Others form evil pointy burrs, like those of puncturevine, that can flatten a bicycle tire. And then there is burdock. This European weed infests moister disturbed sites in Utah. Its burrs cling tightly to hair and clothing.

Burdock Hooks
Courtesy & Copyright 2009 Jim Cane

Sixty years ago, the Swiss engineer, George de Mestral, became intrigued by the seed heads of cockleburrs and burdocks. They had entangled his dog’s fur and stuck to his pant legs during a montane hunt. How did those burrs cling so steadfastly? Aided by a hand lens, you can see what de Mestral saw: ranks of hook-tipped bristles that snag clothing and fur. Burdocks inspired de Mestral’s invention of Velcro, whose patented nylon bristles are hooked over just like burdock’s and latch on just the same. When next you are beset by burdock burrs, inspect one closely and admire the inventiveness of nature. Then please terminate its dispersal by placing it where the seeds of this weed can’t germinate and grow!

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.

Photos: Courtesy & Copyright Jim Cane

Text: Jim Cane, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Velcro ® brand is a registered trademark of Velcro Industries B.V. www.velcro.com

Velcro USA Inc. Celebrates 50th Anniversary, (Press Release)

Invention of Velcro ® brand Fasteners, Fastech of Jacksonville, Inc., http://www.hookandloop.com/extra/inventionnew.html

Greater Burdock, Arctium lappa L. NRCS Plants Database, http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=ARLA3

Seed Dispersal, Missouri Botanical Garden, http://www.mbgnet.net/bioplants/seed.html