Friday, August 9, 2013

Elk: The Animal Whose Name Actually Means Moose

The majestic elk (Cervus canadensis) is one of the largest species of Cervidae, or deer family, in the world. Natively found in North America and eastern Asia, their great adaptability has lead them to threaten some endemic species and ecosystems in countries they have been introduced in, including Australia, Argentina and New Zealand. There are currently one overall subspecies (Cervus canadensis canadensis) found in North America, with eight groupings, two of which are extinct. Those groupings include:
  • Roosevelt Elk
  • Tule Elk
  • Manitoban Elk
  • Rocky Mountain Elk
  • Altai Wapiti Elk
  • Tianshan Wapiti
  • Eastern Elk (extinct)
  • Merriam's Elk (extinct)
Male elk in Rocky Mountain National Park
In North America, their historical range covered most of the United State and Canada, but several subspecies went extinct at least 100 years ago due to possible over hunting and habitat fragmentation, resulting in a modern range now limited to mainly the mountains of the west. Of all North American subspecies, there is an estimated number of over 1 million individuals. Prior to European colonization, there was an estimated 10 million individuals.

The Rocky Mountain elk subspecies has successfully been reintroduced in small populations in the Appalachian region of the United States, including North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky. Those populations have now migrated and expanded to patches in Virginia and West Virginia. Elk have also been reintroduced in small populations to Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and two islands in Alaska.

Male elk in Rocky Mountain National Park in late July. Notice the soft, velvet layer on the antlers.

Male and females show sexual dimorphism; where males grow antlers, females lack. Males start growing their antlers in the spring and shed them each winter. While actively growing - as much as 2.5 centimeters per day - antlers are covered with a protected velvet, a layer of vascularised skin. The velvet is shed after the antlers are fully developed, usually towards the end of summer. Antler retention is actually connected to testosterone levels in male elk. When testosterone levels drop after the breeding season, this triggers the shedding of antlers in late fall/early winter.

Three male elk grazing in an alpine meadow located in Rocky Mountain National Park

Adult elk usually roam in single-sex groups till mating season. Formally know as a rut, the mating season occurs in late summer through fall, where mature males (bulls) perform some intense and... interesting... behavior. Bulls will join female (cow) groups and will try to defend and ward off other males. Opponents will bellow bugle calls (see below) and parallel one another, basically sizing the other up. If a bull doesn't back down, they will lock antlers, which can sometimes lead to serious injury. To attract females, bulls are known to dig holes in the ground, urinate is said holes, then roll in said urine. This urine soaks hair gives them a distinct oder which attracts cows. Bugling is also often associated to attracting females, where they gravitate towards males that bugle the loudest, longest and most often.

Elk's bugle call

Interesting Tid-bits

  • Elks migrate with the changing of seasons, moving from higher country in warmer weather, to lower elevations during colder months.
  • Elk are ruminants, meaning they have a four-chambered stomach. Elk will graze on grasses and shrubs, regurgitate the semi-digested plant matter, known as cud, and chew it again.
  • The name elk actually is the early European name for moose, which comes from Old Norse elgr and German elch, which all refer to moose. When early European settlers came to the Americas, they thought the animal resembled a moose. Elk are not moose, but the name is still used in North America, while the name elk is still used in Eurasia for the moose (confusing... I know).
  • Elk are also known waapiti, or wapiti, meaning white-rump in Shawnee and Cree. To try and help with the whole elk-moose fiasco, the name is mostly used for the Asian subspecies, since elk in Eurasia means moose! What a pain in my waatipi.
  • The extinct Irish elk is actually not a member of the genus Cervus, therefore are technically not an elk at all, in modern terms.
  • The gestation period for young is typically 240 to 262 days and offspring are born at the ripe weight of 33-35 pounds. Calves are actually as large as an adult white-tailed deer by the time they are six months old!
  • Elk are a highly sought after game species, prized for its lean and flavorful meat.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

House Finch

House finches, Haemorhous mexicanus, are one of my favorite bird feeder birds. The general curious nature and spark of color provides an enjoying viewing experience. They tend to collect at feeders in small groups and sit perfectly still while they shell seeds with their large beaks, making them great birds for children and adults alike to sit and watch for extended periods of time.

Male house finch harvesting some food

House finches can now be found across the continental United States, however, that is not their natural range. They are actually native to the deserts, grasslands, shrub lands and open forests of the western United States. In 1870, they were introduced to Hawaii from San Francisco and became abundant on all major island by the early 1900s. In 1940, a small group house finches was released on Long Island, New York, where they spread quickly and have now become a staple siting at feeders. They are commonly found in city parks, backyards, and urban centers across the continent. They are so prevalent, scientists predict there is somewhere between 260 million and 1.4 billion individuals across North America!

Two male house finches

House finches show sexual dimorphism, meaning males and females are noticeably different. Males have a beautiful rosy red coloration on the head and breast, while the females are a plain gray-brown. All birds, however, can't make their own red and yellow colorations directly. Male house finches actually get their red color from the pigments contained in its food during molt. The more pigment in the food, the redder the male. The redder the male, the sexier, for females typically mate with the reddest male the can set their eyes on.

Interesting tid-bits
  • Nestling's diets are not supplemented with insects, but instead are fed only plant materials. This is a relatively rare behavior compared to other bird species.
  • Male house finches are known to feed their female counterparts during courtship rituals
  • Usually breeds 2+ times between February and August.
  • To combat casualties due to nest mite infestations, the mother will often lay eggs of one gender for each brood, increasing the chance of survival.
  • A victim of Brown-headed Cowbirds, a brood parasite, but since cowbirds require a supplement of insects in their diet, the young rarely survive in house finch nests.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Hummingbirds: The Little Birds That Could

Probably one of the most sought after bird family and probably the most recognizable, hummingbirds are almost a thing from a fantasy faerie world. The majority of hummers fall into the pint-size category between 3-5 inches, however, the Bee hummingbird is a ridiculously scant 5 cm in size, making it the smallest extant bird species known. There are 17 known hummingbird species within North America, 356 world wide and 51 of them are endangered.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird © Matt Brincka

For being so small, they are packed with an arsenal of adaptations. They are able to hover in mid-air while beating their wings an exhilarating 12-80 times per second (depending on the species). They can reach speeds of nearly 35 mph and are also the only known group of birds that can fly backwards. That's right... backwards!

Broad-tailed Hummingbird © Matt Brincka

Since they are so small, they have an amazing heartbeat of roughly 1200 beats per minute and have the highest metabolism of all animals (except insects); a necessity to support the rapid beating of their wings. A high metabolism requires a lot of food, in which they consume more than their own weight in nectar each day, visiting hundreds of flowers to get the needed food. It is said hummingbirds are always hours away from starvation... so what do they do when food is scarce? What do they do during the night? Hummingbirds are capable to go into a state of torpor, a hibernation-like state. Topor is not hibernation, but it is similar. When going into topor, a hummingbird can lower their metabolic rate to nearly to 1/15 of its normal rate, with a heartbeat of only 50-180 beats per second.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird © Matt Brincka

To attract these beautiful litte buggers, go grab a hummingbird feeder at your local store. Don't, however, buy the dyed humming bird food. It is much healthier (no artificial dyes) and easier to make your own.

Fool-proof hummingbird food recipe
4 cups of water (filtered if possible)
1 cup of white sugar
  1. Bring water to a boil
  2. Take water off of heat
  3. Add sugar and stir to dissolve sugar
  4. Let nectar cool to room temperature
  5. Place in a clean humming bird feed
***Make sure you check your feeder for mold periodically. If mold is found, dump food and disinfect with warm water and soap. Rinse thoroughly with fresh water once clean.

Interesting tid-bits
  • The Aztec god Huitzilopochtli is often depicted as a hummingbird.
  • They are able to assess how much sugar is in the nectar they eat, and often reject flowers with less than 10% sugar.
  • Hummingbirds don't only eat nectar! To meet their needs for protein, amino acids, vitamins and minerals they prey on insects and spiders.
  • Many hummingbird species make their nests out of spider silk.
  • Longest recorded lifespan is 12 years.
  • Some hummingbird species in North American are known to travel hundreds of miles during migrating. The ruby-throated humming bird actually flies non-stop over the entire Gulf of Mexico!

If you need a larger version of this very interesting infographic, click the picture or find an even larger version here.

Record your sitings and help with hummingbird conservation at National Audubon's Hummingbirds At Home website or phone application and at eBird.

An interesting website to learn anything from hummingbird first aid to hummingbird stories is the World of Hummingbirds. Enjoy!

Pictures in this post were taken with a Samsung Galaxy SII... only proving you don't need a $10,000 camera to get awesome pictures. You just need brave wildlife!