I knew a man who referred to those black and white, long-tailed birds as “Holstein Pheasants.”
He used to say, you can shoot pheasants, can’t you? Magpies are loved or hated. Few are without opinions when it comes to these protected, I remind you protected, birds.
In Asia, they are revered for good luck; while their relatives, the crows, are omens of bad luck.
The black-billed magpie of Utah is related to the yellow-billed magpies in California and more distantly to the European magpie and the Korean magpie.
They all have a similar general appearance, black and white with a long black tail.
Our Black-billed magpies mate for life and stay together until one dies. Then the other may find a new mate.
Their home-building skills will not produce awards for neatness on the outside. But are marvels of architecture.
Nests are collections of loose sticks, mud, bark and other available materials, often built on older nests. A hood of loose sticks covers the nest with multiple entrances.
And the inside is lined with soft grasses and other materials.
Once the nest is built, the female lays six or seven eggs. While she sets on the eggs, the male feeds her for up to 18 days. The parents feed their young about two months, even though the young fledge in about a month. Upon independence from their parents, the young flock with other young magpies.
Magpies can be seen harassing hawks, eagles and owls as they perch in trees.
But despite the begrudging landlords, owls and hawks often take up residence in old magpie nests.
Bold and gregarious, magpies are well adapted to man. They are the bane of back yard bird feeders, driving songbirds away and eating everything in sight.
I know at least one local birder, however, who enjoys magpies and attracts them with Cheetos and soft cat food, but on the other side of the house from her regular bird feeders.
Magpies are opportunists and nest raiders. They are despised by hunters because they clean out unprotected and abandoned nests.
And fruit growers fight them with netting, flags and pyrotechnics. But don’t hold that against them.
These Holsteins clean up roadkill, tent caterpillars, grasshoppers and many other things that we’d rather not see or smell.
For Wild About Utah, I’m Dick Hurren.
Photos: Courtesy Bridgerland Audubon Society Image Files
Text: Stokes Nature Center: Lyle Bingham and Dick Hurren
When something is unique to a particular geographic area it is said to be endemic to that area. Not too long ago, while preparing for a lecture on Utah’s biodiversity, I was amazed to discover that Utah ranks sixth in the nation for its number of endemic species. Only Hawaii, California, Texas, Florida and Georgia have more. The Hawaiian islands are totally isolated –a factor that encourages endemics. California and Texas have enormous land area so I’m not surprised they have the space for more species to evolve. And Georgia and Florida are warm and wet states where you would expect biological richness! So what’s Utah doing so high on this list?
It turns out that our unique plants give us this high ranking. Utah has 2602 plants in all plus 393 subspecies or varieties. With 247 endemics Utah has an endemism rate of 8.2%. That’s pretty amazing.
Some areas of Utah have a lot more endemic plants than others. The Colorado Plateau in the south and east of Utah has the most. On the Plateau, erosion has exposed a long succession of different rock layers, and the rock has weathered into a patchwork of locally unique soils. Ecologists have found that isolated or peculiar soil types are like a nursery for endemics. Fine textured soils, saline soils or those that are highly alkaline are associated with highest levels of endemism.
Environmental extremes in the desert such as high temperature or low rainfall prompt evolutionary adaptations that eventually lead to speciation. For example, cushion plants are common on the Plateau—these are compact, low growing, mats often with large and deep tap roots adapted to slow growth in a nutrient- poor and water-restricted environment. In Utah deserts, many different buckwheat and milkvetch species adopted the cushion plant structure thus forming new species.
Variations in elevation can isolate species and create localized versions of widespread plants. High elevation areas can act as islands within the Colorado Plateau separating plants into distinct populations until they diverge over time. The La Sal, Abajo and Henry Mountains form mid-high elevation islands whose resident species are becoming more and more unique, forming endemics such as Chatterly onion, La Sal daisy, Cronquist’s buckwheat, Navajo Mountain penstemon, and Dwarf mountain butterweed.
We all know that Utah is a special place to live, but just knowing that our plants are so unique is another good reason to go out and explore.
Photos: Courtesy State of Utah; Division of Wildlife Resources
Text: Stokes Nature Center: Jessica Welsh and Holly Strand
Utah’s state bird is is commemorated as the seagull, more accurately the the California Gull. Known in Utah for having saved the pioneers from the Mormon cricket invasion of 1848 and subsequent years, gulls hold a hallowed place in local history.
Seagull is a generic term referring to gulls of all types. Gulls we are familiar with range from the small 11-inch Bonaparte’s gull with a 32-inch wingspan to the 20-inch Herring gull with a 55-inch wingspan. They are white, grey and some have black heads. Young go through phases giving them different appearances as they mature over two to four years depending upon the species.
Many Gulls migrate to parts of Utah and some pass through in their migration to more northern regions. Ring-billed gulls are here during the fall, winter, and spring. The occasional Herring or Thayer’s gull may visit us in winter. A few black-headed Bonaparte’s gulls pass through reliably in spring and fall during migration. Upon rare occasions, we are even visited by Herrman’s, Western, Glaucous, Glaucous-winged, Mew, yellow-footed , Sabine’s, Iceland, and lesser black-backed gulls.
In spring, the California gulls and the much smaller and black-headed Franklin’s gulls return to nest. They migrate from southern states or the pacific coast and raise their young locally on islands in fresh and salt water.
Gulls clean up. They frequent garbage dumps, and irrigated, plowed or manure-covered fields. These carnivores eat insects, worms, crustaceans, fish and the occasional french fry in a parking lot. Opportunistic, they watch and raid unprotected nests of other birds, eating eggs and young. Sometimes flying singly, they are more often found in flocks. In flocks they defend against predators by harassment and intimidation.
Thayer’s and Herring gulls have been known to use tools. They have been seen dropping shellfish on asphalt or concrete roads to crack them open and eat the contents.
At the store, take a moment to think about our state bird. In the dump, and in waterways, gulls can become entrapped in six-pack rings. Do your part to prevent this by cutting up these plastic rings before disposing of them. Or better yet, buy cans loose or in boxes instead of rings.
Utah’s wintry weather seemed interminable this year, but at long last, full summer is upon us. Balmy days ripen the bounties of our orchards and gardens, including vast quantities of squashes: zucchini, crookneck, banana, butternut, and later, the pumpkins for Halloween. Squashes require pollinators. . Foraging bees inadvertently move the pollen from the male flowers to fertilize female flowers. Such pollination by a bee will result in the seeds you encounter when you slice open a squash. Without developing seeds, no squash will form, so pollination by bees is vital.
New research is showing that a specific group of unmanaged native bees is largely responsible for pollinating our squashes, gourds and pumpkins. From Maine to California, and all around Utah, these so-called squash bees are busily visiting flowers of all of our squashes, from acorn to zucchini. In fact, they are only visiting these flowers, as these bees are strict floral specialists. Beginning at dawn, male squash bees can be seen darting among squash flowers, seeking receptive mates and the odd sip of nectar to fuel their flight. Females load up on nectar and the bright orange pollen to cart back to their nests. Unlike honeybees, each female squash bee has her own nest, consisting of a simple underground burrow. She provisions each of her offspring with a cache of pure squash pollen and nectar. By 9AM, their frenetic morning of foraging complete, female squash bees head home to rest and work on their nests. Through their early morning foraging activities, they daily pollinate each day’s new flush of flowers.
If you grow squashes, you are likely to find their flowers being visited by squash bees. Look for these bees around breakfast time, between sunrise and 8:30. They fly more quickly and deliberately between flowers than the slightly larger, later-flying honeybees. Unlike honeybees, female squash bees carry their pollen dry in a brush of hairs on their hind legs. Later, you may discover sleeping male squash bees by pinching the wilted, closed flowers. A drowsy buzz reveals a defenseless male squash bee sleeping within. There he will snooze until dawn, which brings a new flush of flowers, and with it, another chance for every squash bee Romeo to find his buzzy Juliet. All this drama, and you thought you were just growing zucchini!