The Glory Days of September

After the slow, hot days of summer, September with its often cooler, drier days is a welcome relief.

A chestnut-sided warbler in the fall

A chestnut-sided warbler in the fall (Photo by Kaaren Perry on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Most of the fair-weather songbirds are still here, but some are already on the move by the beginning of the month. I looked out on a wet day in early September and caught a flush of birds taking shelter in the juniper tree beside my study window.

I easily identified a black-and-white warbler, black-throated green warbler, blue-headed vireo, two red-eyed vireos and a black-capped chickadee. But one bird stumped me. It turned out to be a first fall female chestnut-sided warbler, according to my Peterson bird guide, what he once called one of the “confusing fall warblers,” those that no longer sport the bright colors of spring. They are mostly the males but also include females and the young of the year.

In addition, with no need to attract mates, most male songbirds no longer sing which makes identifying them even more challenging. An exception is the common yellowthroat that is still singing his distinctive “witchedy, witchedy” song in mid-September. He also retains his black mask but neither the olive-brown female nor their young—all with yellow throats and breasts—have masks.

A yellow-rumped warbler in the fall

A yellow-rumped warbler in the fall (Photo by Ryan Mandelbaum on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

I’m not a keen birder, like two of my sons, so I am content to leave the sorting of the puzzling birds to them. Still, I appreciate yellow-rumped warblers that visit our First Field in flocks. They may be mostly brown and white in fall but both sexes and the immatures always sport bright yellow rumps.

Ovenbirds too remain the same, looking much like thrushes except for the orange patch lined in black atop their heads. In September the adult birds have left for their wintering grounds in Mexico, Central America or the West Indies, and their offspring have to manage on their own. They are much bolder than their parents and continue walking on the woods floor when I encounter them.

A chipmunk in a Pennsylvania forest

A chipmunk in a Pennsylvania forest (Photo by Brian Henderson on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

One beautiful September day I sat inside our three-acre deer exclosure on Turtle Bench watching chipmunks, including one that had a hole at the base of a witch hazel tree a couple feet from the bench. But first one young ovenbird, followed by a second one, walked past and poked on and under the leaves searching for food. The first one ranged back and forth and then wandered off but the second ovenbird stayed near the bench probing at dead leaves. The youngster leaped up several times to snatch insects from a red oak seedling, but eventually it also wandered away. And all the while numerous chipmunks chased and called, ignoring me just as the ovenbirds had.

I’m never happier than when I can watch wildlife unaware of or uncaring of my presence. The easiest mammals to watch on our mountain are porcupines. One September morning I was almost to the top of our First Field Trail when I spotted a large, probably male, porcupine heading my way. I moved to the side of the mossy trail as he stumped past. Then I decided to follow him.

He sniffed at ferns as he passed them and clambered over or under fallen trees. He seemed bent on moving rapidly straight into the upper end of the exclosure fence. Since I was several hundred feet from one of the three gates into the exclosure, I paralleled him on the trail outside.

Occasionally, he stopped and sniffed but kept walking fast. He reached the Turtle Bench area where I had been sitting only moments before. I carefully opened the gate and eased my way into the exclosure. He sniffed around the base of our 1812 red oak tree and then headed directly toward me. I moved aside as quietly as I could, but the dried leaves crunched beneath my feet and he was alerted. He looked up, sniffed in my direction, and I could hear the clattering of his teeth as he fanned his quill-filled tail. Still, I didn’t move and he made several attempts to come toward me, clearly wanting to go through the gate area and back to the First Field Trail. Finally, he gave up, turned, and walked down through the middle of the exclosure.

A porcupine on the forest floor

A porcupine on the forest floor (Photo by Steven Kersting on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

I let him get ahead of me before quietly following. He circled a few trees sniffing and then sniffed and reared up on his hind legs like a woodchuck. Again he started toward me, but then turned and disappeared into a large area of horse balm and spotted touch-me-nots and flushed a young ovenbird. I assumed the porcupine either hid there until I left or went out through the fence.

Even though he knew something—a possible threat—was nearby, he didn’t climb a tree to escape as porcupines usually do. At 20 feet away, I had heard his warning teeth clacking. He seemed to have excellent hearing and sense of smell, but he showed no interest in food like a porcupine I had watched in the summer carefully picking and eating Pennsylvania smartweed from a large patch of stiltgrass.

I decided he might have been tracking a pre-estrous female. According to Uldis Roze, in his book The North American Porcupine, mid-September to mid-October is the mating time for porcupines, and males begin by following odor plumes sent out by pre-estrous females. Since females are only in heat 8-to-12 hours a year, males like to be on site several days in advance, guarding a female by climbing into her tree and waiting on a lower branch, sniffing the air or her branch to see if she is ready to accept him. The males often wait several days and sometimes compete with other males for her acceptance. The porcupine I followed did rub his head at the base of several large trees leaving his own scent I assumed, although Roze didn’t mention this action in his book.

Monarch butterflies on goldenrod

Monarch butterflies on goldenrod (Photo by Rachel Laubhan / USFWS on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Once I lost sight of the porcupine, I walked over to our 37-acre First Field, which was covered with goldenrod and asters. Dozens of monarch butterflies nectared on the wildflowers along with pearl crescents, smaller butterflies than the monarchs but also colored orange and brown. Unlike the monarch caterpillars, which fed on our common milkweed leaves in mid-summer, the pearl crescents’ food plants are asters.

We have several aster species in our woods as well as in the field. Aster means “star,” hence the words “astronomy” and “astronaut.” In September the Ojibwa Indians smoked asters in their pipes to attract deer and other game. I’m not sure how that worked, but I suppose archery hunters could try it!

Asters, with 55 species in the northeast and goldenrod with 50 are true native wildflowers. The Chippewas called tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima), the last of the five species to bloom in our field, “squirrel tail” because they grow so tall.

A red admiral butterfly on goldenrod

A red admiral butterfly on goldenrod (Photo by BBureau on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Our field of gold draws other migrating butterflies in addition to monarchs. All three are in the genus Vanessa. Most notable are red admirals, which are black with orange and white markings and migrate south for the winter. So too do the orange, black and white, painted and American ladies, all of which also nectar on the goldenrod and asters.

Green darner dragonflies hawk insects above the field on their way south. Sometimes near dusk I have counted as many as 50 hunting on our barn bank.

September is the last month to find blooming wildflowers. At the base of First Field is a wet area that is excellent for turtleheads. Their genus name Chelone is Greek for “tortoise” because their pink and white flowers look like the heads of turtles. Orange and black Baltimore checkerspot butterflies lay their eggs only on turtlehead leaves+, and those butterflies are usually not found more than 10 yards from a patch of turtleheads, as I’ve discovered. The flowers are pollinated by large bees strong enough to push their way into the turtleheads’ one-to-two-inch-long flower tubes to obtain nectar at the bases of the flowers.

A female hummingbird perched among some jewelweed

A female hummingbird perched among some jewelweed (Photo in memoriam: Steve Burt on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The spotted jewelweeds, also known as touch-me-nots, in the wetland section of our exclosure, have orange-spotted, cornucopia-shaped flowers designed to be pollinated solely by hummingbirds. Their long bills pick up pollen grains from inside the top front of one flower and drop them on the inside top of the next flower when they probe for the nectar. I spend hours there watching as ruby-throated hummingbirds zip from one jewelweed to another. I have also seen bees stealing nectar from jewelweed by biting through the backs of these flowers instead of trying to push their way through the blossoms.

Near the end of September, most of the wildflowers are fading, but by then the witch hazel and black birch understory have turned golden and the black gum trees are red, gold, orange, or pink, giving those of us who hike or hunt in the September woods a special early showing of autumn color that almost makes up for the loss of wildflowers and migrating songbirds, butterflies and dragonflies.

 

A Visiting Porcupette

“Mom, there’s a porcupette in your herb garden,” our son Mark said.

A porcupine in our field

A porcupine in our field (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

I hurried out to see it. The little creature was tucked in against our brick chimney and flapped its tiny tail when I put my hand near it. Apparently, it had climbed up the slope from the overgrown flat area below.

The porcupette seemed young to be out and about on its own, especially in midday, because there was no sign of a mother porcupine. Still, we knew of at least one adult porcupine living under the guesthouse and spending its daylight hours high in a large white pine tree a few hundred feet along our access road.

I wondered if the porcupette was hungry and put some lettuce leaves close by for it, but the youngster remained huddled against the chimney for several hours and never touched the food.

A porcupette on a post

A porcupette on a post (Photo by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

I had not seen a young porcupine before and could not judge how old the porcupette was. Even though it was April 9, we had had another cold blast from the Arctic, and since my herb garden was on the south side of the house, the porcupette may have wanted warmth instead of food.

The following day there were two fresh inches of snow on the ground. Once again the porcupette appeared near midday and huddled against the chimney for the rest of the day. But late in the afternoon, an adult porcupine waddled up the slope and, when I went outside to look, she climbed a black walnut tree near the chimney. She never went near the pup, but I assumed she was the mother.

According to Uldis Roze, who wrote The North American Porcupine, often mother porcupines don’t defend their offspring. Furthermore, Roze claims that usually, during its first six weeks of life, a porcupette is too weak to travel long distances with its mother. She stays near her offspring by day, sleeping in a tree, while the youngster remains hidden in a ground den or in the hollow base of a tree. Then at night the mother comes to her pup to nurse it.

At birth a porcupette is well-developed and weighs about a pound. It is completely covered with black fur and quills, the latter stiffening in an hour. Our porcupette looked a little larger than one pound but, as usual with wild animals, I chose not to interfere with it by attempting to weigh it. Also I knew that its tail of quills was fully functional.

However, if the porcupette was older than six weeks, that meant it had been born in mid-February. This seemed unlikely since a female porcupine is pregnant for seven months, which would mean she had been bred in mid-July instead of the usual mid-October to mid-November breeding period of Pennsylvania porcupines. Even if she had bred as early as mid-September, her youngster would have been as young as a week when we first saw it. Maybe, like human babies, the porcupette had mixed up its days and nights. Whatever the case, it looked as if neither mother nor baby had followed the usual porcupine playbook.

A close-up pf a porcupine on our property

A close-up pf a porcupine on our property (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

A female porcupine mates once a year during an 8-to-12-hour period, but the lead up to it is fraught with screams even if she is sitting next to a prospective mate on a tree branch who has been lured there by following a vaginal mucus mixed with urine odor she has emitted.

During one porcupine courtship Roze witnessed near sunset in New York’s Catskill Mountains, the female retreated, turned her back and slapped him with her tail. He retreated and she sat facing him while still on the branch. She then began eating a twig she had snapped off. Again, he approached her and she kept feeding. She squawked at him and he retreated once more. He tried to touch her gently and she turned around and screamed. He backed off and tried to approach her as he made a chuckling sound, but she continued eating. Finally, they ate quietly side by side until it was too dark for Roze to see any more.

Roze concluded, “I realize I have not been admitted to a mystery. Despite years of study by naturalists, many aspects of porcupine reproduction behavior still retain this quality of half-revelation.”

A porcupine in a hemlock tree on our property

A porcupine in a hemlock tree on our property (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

That “half-revelation” was experienced by Kurt Engstrom on October 6, 2006, during archery deer season on SGL#176 near State College. Kurt is a friend of ours who keeps a detailed journal of all his hunting experiences. He was in his deer stand in the early morning and beginning at 8:00 a.m. intermittently until 10:00 a.m. he heard “moaning and chirping coming from the ridge, maybe 80 yards away. Finally, at 10:15 a.m., I had to go find what was making the noise. Approaching the noise, I found a large porcupine on the ground and then [saw] the second one about 7 feet off the ground in a small tree growing at a 45 degree angle out of the ground. The one in the tree [was] smaller and turned facing down the trunk at the one on the ground.” Female porcupines are smaller than the males and she was the one making all the noise that Engstrom had heard.

At that point, he gave up hunting for the day. Had he stayed around he might have seen what a few researchers have–the actual mating of the two prickly creatures. It happens on the ground after he has thoroughly wet her down with his urine. She may shake herself and retreat if she’s still not ready or she may acquiesce if she is. She raises her hind quarters and curves her tail back over her quill rosette which allows him to briefly mount her and mate. Between rest periods they repeat this sequence until either one tires, climbs a tree, screams at its mate, and ends their mating phase. He goes off and she is on her own as a single mother-to-be.

Although her pregnancy lasts seven months, during the winter she conserves her energy by spending most of her time in a den. The fetus remains small, but during the last month of pregnancy, when spring food of tender new leaves is available, the fetus doubles in size before it is born, usually in May or June.

The mother nurses her offspring for 127 days probably, Roze says, because her leaf diet is poor and she needs this extended nursing period. Once, before dawn, Roze listened to a mother nursing her pup. …”it was a musical affair… Both….were vocalizing continually, the baby in a higher register, the mother answering in contralto…the music continued uninterrupted for 30 minutes…”

A porcupette in coastal Maine

A porcupette in coastal Maine (Photo by Chiot’s Run on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Whatever the age of our porcupette, it appeared around noon on April 12 and clambered through our old discarded Christmas tree lying on its side near our bird-feeding area, and then it climbed a black walnut tree sapling. It went nearly to the top, gnawed a little on the bark, and headed back down, rear end first and front legs clinging to the tree trunk as it slowly descended to the ground. It walked over to a pile of ash logs and disappeared at 1:00 p.m.

Later that day, near five in the afternoon, I glanced out the kitchen window and saw it sitting in a branch sticking out near the top of a large split black locust tree that had fallen over the previous year.

The following day the porcupette was out on the back slope by 7:15 a.m. eating grass. Then it walked back to the broken-off black locust tree and climbed up to the new, young sapling growing out of it. I could see where it had gnawed off small patches of bark. It did more gnawing and climbed carefully down and then up again as if it was practicing its climbing skills.

A porcupette eating grass in Pawtuckaway State Park, New Hampshire

A porcupette eating grass in Pawtuckaway State Park, New Hampshire (Photo by Colleen Prieto on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Near dusk we saw the porcupette down slope near the ash branches eating grass for dinner at 7:00 p.m.

At last, on April 14 it was warm and clear. I spotted the porcupette in the juniper tree in my herb garden and had a perfect view of it from the stairway window. I watched as it figured out how to climb down through the maze of prickly branches and trunk which was more complex than the simple black locust it had climbed the previous day. It even tried to go head first but quickly reversed itself and used its sharp claws to cling to the woody surface as it went down bottom first. Once it regained the ground it trundled down slope to the broken-off locust tree and disappeared into its hollow trunk. That was the last we saw it.

We hoped it had joined its mother in the woods, spent the summer with her, and gained its independence when its mother entered her breeding phase. Both had taught us that even animals as common as porcupines have much to teach us about their lives.

 

Winter Porkies

porcupine up a tree in a snowstorm

Porcupine in a snowstorm, below the Road to the Far Field

Deep winter and at last a good tracking snow had fallen. While I may puzzle over some tracks, there is no mistaking those of porcupines. They plow through the snow on their naked, flat, pigeon-toed feet like miniature bulldozers, and when the tracks freeze, deer, opossums and foxes use them as winter highways.

When we first moved to our central Pennsylvania mountaintop in 1971, seeing a porcupine was a rare occurrence, but over the last couple decades porcupine numbers on our square mile of property have proliferated. During several days in early January last winter I found abundant tracks and numerous porcupines along the trails and in a variety of trees. Tracks wandered into and out of our three-acre deer exclosure, in and around our Norway spruce grove, and along the Far Field Road. Porcupines sat high in trees beside our hollow road, on top of Sapsucker Ridge, down in Roseberry Hollow and near the top of a Norway spruce tree. The latter was snoozing as its quills whitened in the falling snow.

Without leaves on the trees I could see many debarked crown branches. On Dogwood Knoll I found tiny pieces of bark at the base of a large chestnut oak tree, a sign that a porcupine had been eating the inner bark of one of the favorite trees of some of our porcupines. They also like red oak and sugar maple. Because they prefer small branches near the tops of these trees, we rarely lose a hardwood tree to their winter gnawing.

A tree de-barked by a porcupine near the spruce grove

A tree de-barked by a porcupine near the spruce grove

But our Norway spruce grove is porcupine central in the winter. Like white spruce further north, Norway spruce is a favorite winter food for porcupines. In addition, it provides excellent protection from winter weather. Porcupines like hemlocks too, especially for protection, and they eat the needles and twigs but not the bark because it is too strong in tannins. Our hollow hemlocks used to be popular with porcupines in the deep winter, but as the hemlocks have thinned and, in some cases, died from the ravages of the hemlock wooly adelgids, porcupines, ever adaptable, have switched to other trees, most notably our Norway spruces.

Porcupine tracks led into the grove from Sapsucker Ridge and the Far Field Road. By late January numerous spruce trees bore fresh tooth marks from gnawing porcupines. Porcupines move slowly in the woods, just as I do, so they are easy for me to track. Unlike colder, northern places, where they are out mostly at night, here they are out and about both night and day. No doubt our porcupines were especially hungry last winter because the acorns, one of their favorite autumn foods, had failed for three years.

One day I surprised a porcupine sitting on the snow-covered Far Field Road. When I approached it, it stood up and slowly climbed a large sugar maple tree. Fifteen days later, in early February, I followed what may have been the same porcupine from the base of the spruce grove to the Far Field Road. The trail ended at the entrance to a hollow, fallen log below the road where a porcupine turned its back to me.

According to Uldis Roze, who has spent 24 years studying porcupines in the Catskill Mountains of New York state, porcupine fur has excellent insulating properties, which allows them to use hollow logs, trees, and rock crevices as winter dens. Usually they turn their backs to the den openings, sit with their bodies propped up by their tails, and hold their front paws against their chests. They turn their hind paws sideways so their naked foot pads don’t touch the ground. When resting in high trees, they roll up into balls and can withstand extremely cold temperatures. No wonder they are able to live as far north as northern Alaska, Quebec, and Labrador, in fact, at or beyond the tundra line.

A young porcupine in deep snow by Martin Male

A young porcupine in deep snow (photo by Martin Male, CC licence)

By mid-February, the so-called “polar vortex” was not only dropping our thermometer to as low as ten degrees below zero on some days, but it began to snow in earnest. And again I found the same porcupine tucked into the hollow log along the Far Field Road, its back white with snow.

With 18 inches of snow on the ground, I broke out my snowshoes and headed up to the spruce grove. As I broke trail around the grove, I saw fresh porcupine tracks and then spotted a porcupine at the base of a spruce tree. It started up the tree when it realized I had seen it, but it didn’t climb more than a few feet before it went around to the back of the trunk as if once out of sight, I would forget it was there. Then I noticed a circle from its body at the base of the tree as well as a pile of cylindrical, gray and/or brown, inch to an inch-and-a-half-long porcupine scat (droppings). It must have been there for some time.

I also broke trail along the Far Field Road and encountered the porcupine in the same hollow log after a night of stripping bark from the lower spruce grove trees, just as the one I saw earlier specialized in the upper part of the grove.

Every time I passed the Far Field Road hollow log for most of February, the porcupine was either in the log or plodding its way back to it. And then tragedy struck. On February 27 I found a dead porcupine behind the spruce grove, still clinging to the thin branch of a black locust tree. Apparently, it had fallen from the large spruce it was gnawing and had broken the locust branch off on its way to the ground. Probably it had died sometime after it had hit the icy snow since there were puddles of urine around it.

Remains of the dead porcupine in the spruce grove, 7 months later

Remains of the dead porcupine in the spruce grove, seven months later

Roze says, in his book The North American Porcupine, that porcupines risk injury and death from falling out of trees because they are relatively heavy and prefer to feed far out on branches that are often brittle. I know I’ve watched them foraging on hardwood tree branches, expecting them to fall any moment as they crawl farther and farther out on a limb that bends with their weight. Sometimes porcupines do fall, but they are usually badly hurt. For instance, one of Roze’s study animals had a series of injuries that he called “consistent with falling belly-first out of a tree.”

According to Roze, another researcher, Wendell Dodge in western Massachusetts, who autopsied 200 porcupines back in 1961, found healed leg, hip, and rib fractures, broken teeth, injured eyes and ears, hernias, and soft-tissue injuries. One even had a four-inch-long pine branch in its abdomen.

A week later, in early March, I checked on the dead porcupine and found a live one sitting next to it on the ground under the large spruce tree almost as if it was holding a late wake for it. Eventually it shuffled over to the spruce trunk, deftly climbed its mostly bark-stripped trunk, and moved far out on the limb.

I followed other porcupine tracks from the upper section of the grove over to the neighbor’s clearcut on Sapsucker Ridge. There I saw a small but old chestnut oak and a bent, larger one, both of which had debarked branches. Beneath them were bark pieces and scat littering the ground. I continued following the tracks for 20 feet to the remains of a hollow tree log left by the loggers. At its entrance was a huge pile of porcupine scat. I knelt down on the snow and peered inside the log. A porcupine was tucked into it.

Both log dens were 200 feet or so from the spruce grove. While porcupines wander much greater distances during the summer, their temporary winter dens, which they use for an average of 23 days, are usually within 300 feet of their food trees. The spruce grove porcupines followed that pattern.

A porcupine in one of the hemlock trees down in the hollow

A porcupine in one of the hemlock trees down in the hollow

The same porcupine appeared three days later at the base of the large spruce where the other porcupine had died and reluctantly climbed the tree when I spoke to it. It looked as if that beautiful tree had been completely girdled high up. So too had at least four other large spruces. But according to Gary Gillmore, a state forester, Norway spruces throw out new limbs if they have been topped.

By March 10 I was seeing as many as four porcupines feeding in our hollow hemlock trees, leaving nipped twigs and scat on our road. Although this was still winter food, probably they had left dens upslope early and were using hemlock habitat for shelter, meager though it was.

Near the end of March, I found only two porcupines in hardwood trees and they were eating buds. The rest seemed to have disappeared once spring arrived. But I had enjoyed my porcupine winter and the chance to learn a little about how they survive the cold months.


All photos taken on the mountain by Dave Bonta, except where indicated.

Mindful Creatures

This column was rejected by the new editor of Game News because of what he considered to be controversial content. No doubt he knows his audience. But I would like to put this column out for my web readers who may find it useful and may, like me, wonder why so many people are willing to believe that their domestic pets have minds but not wild animals who, we must admit, have much harder lives to live. Surely we have all evolved from the same beginnings, and surely that means that other mammals, like us, as well as birds and other creatures, must have minds that resemble ours, even if they are not nearly as well-developed. On the other hand, many of these species have lived longer on this earth than we have.

North American porcupine close up

Up close and personal with a porcupine

For almost half my life, treating wild creatures as thinking beings was scorned as anthropomorphizing them. Most scientists considered them to be little more than thoughtless robots. They neglected the study of animal minds because they didn’t believe that they could tell the difference between automatic, unthinking responses on the part of animals from possible behavior that showed an ability to make choices in what they do.

In school, students learned that it was unscientific to ask what an animal thinks or feels. If they were so bold as to ask, they were “actively discouraged, ridiculed, and treated with open hostility” as Donald R. Griffin wrote in his ground-breaking book Animal Thinking back in 1984. A renowned bat biologist, his previous book, in 1981, The Question of Animal Awareness, had been the subject of widespread derision. Still, he was able to give many examples of seemingly thoughtful wild creatures who, when they were confronted with new problems, acted creatively to solve them.

The writings of Griffin and other scientists, interested in what Griffin called cognitive ethology, have encouraged some scientists to study learning in vertebrate and invertebrate animals. They have been bolstered by the work of neurobiologists, who study the brains of animals and have made some amazing discoveries, most notably the fact that an animal that has loops between its thalamus and its forebrain is a conscious thinker. Birds and mammals, including humans, have these loops. So too do reptiles, although their loops are minimal.

New Caledonian Crow painting by John Gerrard Keulemans

Corvus moneduloides, New Caledonian Crow (John Gerrard Keulemans, 1877)

If you call someone a “bird brain,” you are paying them a compliment. Birds, especially those in the Corvid family, have brains that weigh almost as much as ours do in relation to our total body weight. Our brain weighs three pounds or 1.9% on average of our body weight. Ravens and most crow species have brains that make up 1.4% of their body weight, although the super learners in the Corvid family—New Caledonian crows—possess brains that comprise a whopping 2.7% of their body weight. These percentages compare with those of similar-sized mammals such as small monkeys. Other bird species, even smaller songbirds like chickadees, also have amazing brains.

These discoveries and many more have been recently pulled together in Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans by Dr. John Marzluff and Tony Angell and Bird Sense: What It’s Like to Be a Bird by Dr. Tim Birkhead. Both of these books are written for a general audience but they make use of dozens of scientific papers with such titles as “Stress, Corticosterone Responses and Avian Personalities” (my italics) by J.F. Cockrem in the Journal of Ornithology and “An Intelligent Crow Beats a Lab” by A. Straub in Science.

All of this is an introduction, of sorts, to bird, mammal, and reptile behavior my husband, Bruce, our son, Dave, and I observed last June. None of it was particularly cutting-edge, but more than once I wished I had a better understanding of animals’ minds. Or, in the words of Griffin, “We like and admire other animals… because we enjoy trying to imagine what their lives are like to them…”

Dave exchanges threat displays with a porcupine

Dave communes with a porcupine (photo: Bruce Bonta)

That’s what I did wonder one June morning when a large porcupine waddled toward me on the Far Field Road. I stepped off the road and watched as it advanced. Because of its whitish quills, it looked as if it had a halo over its shoulders. Once it paused to scratch itself. When it was almost abreast of me, it turned and crossed the road, headed in my direction.

“Hello,” I said. It stopped and spread its tail to impress me with its quills. I continued talking quietly to it. Finally, it turned around and leisurely retraced its steps. Then it left the road and went into the woods where it slowly hitched its way up the largest chestnut oak tree beside the road. It flattened itself out on one of the highest branches overlooking the road directly above me, alert and watchful, until I moved on.

I’ve encountered numerous porcupines on our trails, and usually they hiss, spread their tails, and scramble up the nearest tree. But this porcupine, which looked like a grizzled old timer, didn’t seem fazed by me. Was it the animal’s age, experience, calmer temperament, or something else, I wondered, as I continued on my way.

Several nights later, Bruce was awakened by a bang on the back porch below the bedroom. He got up, grabbed his flashlight, and went downstairs to investigate, thinking that maybe a burglar was trying to get inside.

He tiptoed out to the kitchen, turned on the porch light, and saw not one but three masked bandits—a mother raccoon and her two kits. Since we had taken in our bird feeders two months before, he couldn’t figure out what they were doing as the little ones climbed up on the railing and the post that supported the porch roof. He shone his flashlight on first one kit, then the other, and finally on the mother but none of them seemed bothered by the light.

Raccoon family unit

Raccoon family unit (photo: Bruce Irschick, Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license)

He watched as they sniffed and explored. At last they climbed off the porch and trundled over to the outside cellar steps. Then one of the kits poked around in the grasses just below our sitting room bow window. That was when the mother raccoon noticed Bruce watching them. Or perhaps she smelled him through the screened window. She snarled loudly, but all three raccoons kept poking around in the underbrush as they made their way slowly toward the front of the house and out of sight.

This time it was Bruce who wondered about the mind of a raccoon, and the next morning Dave solved the mystery. He noticed that a bald-faced hornet nest (Dolichovespula maculate), which had been attached to the porch roof, lay in gray tatters on the porch floor. In that case, the mother raccoon had been teaching her kits about one of their favorite foods. I was reminded of a Nature show I had watched on PBS about how cleverly raccoons adjust to and find food and shelter even in busy cities. According to raccoon researcher, Stan Gehrt, raccoons are incredibly adaptive. Even their personalities change from shy and reclusive in the country to bold in the city as they use their hand-like paws and mammal-sized brains to defeat humans’ numerous attempts to design raccoon-proof garbage cans.

The male flicker at the nest hole

The male flicker at the nest hole (photo: Rachel Rawlins)

During last May and June Dave enjoyed sitting on his front porch and watching a yellow-shafted flicker family set up housekeeping in a dead elm tree at the edge of his yard. For more than a week in early May, the male and female took turns excavating the hole said to be 13 to 16 inches deep. Muffled knocks from inside the dead elm led to a flicker head popping out of the hole and flinging a bill full of wood chips into the air.

Eventually, by mid-May, their excavation work was over, and the female laid her 5 to 8 eggs. Then the parents attended the nest in shifts, each one doing its share of work. They were due to hatch in 11 to 13 days. In the meantime, they fought off a pileated woodpecker, downy woodpecker, and another flicker, all coveting the nest hole, and reminding me of the many times I have watched flickers over the years try to establish a nest in a black walnut tree hole beside our driveway. Never once have they been successful because of gray squirrels who consider it their home.

On June 12 Dave noticed that both parents were outside the hole at the same time for as long as 15 minutes, and he wondered if the eggs had hatched. The next afternoon he again saw both parents outside, and the male sounded agitated. The female sat on a dead elm branch a few feet above the nest hole.

The black rat snake after its meal of flicker young

The black rat snake after its meal of flicker young

That’s when Dave noticed something sticking out of the cavity. It was the head of a black rat snake. Somehow the reptile had realized a meal awaited it 25 feet up the nearly smooth trunk of the dead elm and managed to climb it.

It remained in the hole, digesting its meal until 10:30 a.m. the following day, and Dave watched as it spent 50 minutes slowly descending the tree trunk, seemingly studying all the alternatives each time before moving to a new knot, branch, or other protrusion where it could gain some purchase. It used a tall lilac shrub limb to move from the elm trunk to a dead branch that arched up from farther down the tree and then followed that branch to a lower spot on the lilac and on to the ground.

All of this reminded me of the most notorious article I ever wrote that was published in Bird Watcher’s Digest about watching a black rat snake get into and out of a house wren nest built inside one of our back porch posts. It took the snake one hour and forty minutes as it maneuvered up to our second floor, peered into windows, slowly lowered its body down the shingled porch roof and down the post into the nest. When it finally emerged, it worked even harder finding its way out by way of the drain pipe, down the post, and on to ground with many stops as it seemed to think its way past obstacles and over rough spots. As Griffin wrote, “mental events such as consciousness and awareness are indicated by surprising yet effective solutions to changing, unforeseen, and uncommon problems.” Both Dave’s snake and especially mine seemed to show such awareness.

Black rat snake in a black walnut tree

Black rat snake in a black walnut tree

It had been a scolding Carolina wren, not the silent flicker parents, who sounded the snake alarm. And it was a Carolina wren who sang along with a mezzo-soprano in Massenet’s opera Werther, which Bruce and I were watching during a hot June afternoon. The wren was busy putting twigs in the gap next to our living room window air conditioner. I checked the pitch of both the soprano and the wren and realized they were performing a kind of duet. Was the wren challenging what it thought was a wren intruder or did it enjoy the music? This time I was reminded of a white-tailed deer that stood still outside our kitchen window years ago when I was playing Mendelssohn’s Elijah. She looked as if she was listening to the music.

Carolina wren at the window

Carolina wren at the window


Our last bird observation went on for much of June when an eastern whip-poor-will chose our yard and Dave’s for his evening and dawn chorusing. A couple times he landed on the flat porch roof outside our bedroom window. Once when I was awakened by him at 5:00 a.m., I put my glasses on and snuck to the window where I had a view of him belting out his calls at deafening volume for about five minutes. He seemed so small to have such a loud mouth and reminded me of Dr. Seuss’s assertive Lorax in the way he stood.

The whip-poor-will was, of course, acting as male whip-poor-wills always do in spring and early summer. I only wondered about him because he started later and stopped earlier than whip-poor-wills are reported to do. But then the life style of these birds is still poorly understood because of their secretive, nocturnal lives. No doubt they too are able to solve unexpected problems with enterprising solutions, the strongest evidence, Griffin concludes, that suggest animal consciousness.


Photos by Dave Bonta except where indicated.