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The Local Wild: Indian Paintbrush.

While the State of Minnesota is solemnly awaiting the weather to catch up with the Spring Equinox, my son and I ventured southward to Texas for a weekend to visit family. While traversing my parents’ one-acre lot my young son discovered a small bunch of bright pink flowers and happily proceeded to pick them from the yard. For the full visit, despite my efforts to goad him into admiring other white or blue posies, these large, pink, single-stemmed flowers became a favorite of his to search out, pick, and collect.

A little introspection revealed the flowers were the Texan variety of Indian Paintbrush, a flower so named because it looks like its end has been dipped in bright paint. A little research showed that Indian paintbrush comes in a wide variety of colors and—lo and behold!—is native to the North Star State, too, although in a different color.

Its scientific genus is Castilleja: Castilleja for the Spanish botanist who discovered them (Domingo Castilleja) and, in Minnesota, Coccinea, meaning “red”, is the species. With almost 200 species within the genus, Indian paintbrush is native across most of North America, from southern Texas all the way up into Canada.

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A close up of an Indian Paintbrush spotted in the Dallas, Texas area. Yellow tips of the flower can be seen hiding among pink leaf bracts. This variety can range in color from magenta to hot pink or deep pink. Minnesota versions are commonly scarlet or yellow. / Photo: Cua Myer.

In contrast to it being pretty, it turns out Indian Paintbrush is a greedy, thieving little plant. Like mistletoe, which pulls its nutrients from host trees, Indian Paintbrush is a hemiparasitic, which means it derives some of its nutrients—like water and minerals—from surrounding greenery even though it’s still getting energy and nutrients through photosynthesization of sunlight. For gardeners, this means Indian Paintbrush can be damaging to nearby flora, so it’s best to plant far away (if you’re intentionally planting it) or weed them out if discovered near or in gardens.

The flower of the Indian Paintbrush is well hidden: The colored portions of the plant are actually leaf bracts, not petals, and the flower—a small, pointed, yellow segment—hides bashfully within them. The leaf bracts come in a variety of colors: white, magenta, purple, deep red, orange, and yellow.

Despite its thieving and bashful qualities, this plant holds medicinal value for those looking to forage. Colored leaf bracts can be consumed in small amounts and in moderation (perhaps as a colorful sprinkling atop a salad) and are said to have a mild sweetness. Consumption of these colorful parts only—green parts of the plant and roots should NOT be consumed!—provide high levels of Selenium, which may aid in rheumatism and boost the immune system.

With almost 200 species within the genus, Indian paintbrush is native across most of North America, from southern Texas all the way up into Canada.

Bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds love this plant! If you’re interested in adding Indian Paintbrush to your landscape to beautify your own segment of the local wild and help propagate this native plant, seeds can be purchased from these and other websites: Seed-balls.com, AmericanMeadows.com, and VermontWildflowerFarm.com. It’s a tough little plant to get going, though, so NatureSeed.com suggests planting seeds in “rocky, sandy soil with good drainage and place in full sun or part shade. Remember to include a host plant or two, preferably plants that are naturally found sharing the same habitat as Indian paintbrush.”

I am looking into a handful of seeds to scatter along the edge of our driveway, which is altogether sunny, sandy, and rocky (gravel driveways, anyone?), with lots of native grasses and weeds for this little hemiparasite to feed off of. Wish me luck, and happy painting, everyone!

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Many thanks to Cannon Beacon for allowing me to publish Local Wild entries on this blog.

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The Local Wild: Mosquito Season

While we’re still in the thick of the wet, muddy havoc of Winter Melt-Off 2019—and the Cannon River is still receding from its escape from its banks—the minds of optimists are deep in dreams of warmer spring and hotter summer weather. The ongoing joke claims Minnesota has only two seasons: Snow and Construction. I thankfully don’t drive often enough through construction zones to have it impact my life in such an acute and disparaging way, but I do have my own, rural version of our state’s two-season condition: Snow (there’s always snow) and Mosquito.

I had hopes that the record-breaking freeze would wipe out most of this year’s mosquito population, only to be corrected by a friend who said the mosquito population will be in full-swing, if not extra potent, this year due to the resulting wetness of the still-lingering snow. Even folks in Georgia are expecting bad mosquito populations this year, so it’s not just us Mid-Westerners suffering.[1] Drat.

I have my own, rural version of our state’s two-season condition: Snow (there’s always snow) and Mosquito.

In my last Local Wild column, I discussed the snow midge, a wintry mosquito doppelganger. Midges are unlike mosquitos in that they have no biting proboscis, don’t carry disease, and, other than being annoying when they swarm, are harmless to humans. However, like midges, mosquitos are surprisingly hardy over-wintering insects.

Exactly how a mosquito endures cold weather differs by species, but most of them will go into diapause—a state akin to, though different from, hibernation—when temperatures drop below 50°F. According to Pestworld.org, “The mosquito responsible for transmitting Zika…overwinters in the egg stage. … [Eggs stay] in water-holding items [and] enter a state of diapause, a process that suspends their development during the coldest months.” For some species, adult females die after a final spout of winter egg-laying and the eggs go into diapause; adult females of other species may not die, but will instead hide (in the ground, a tree hollow, a barn, etc.) and go into diapause themselves.

Diapause is activated by hormones that pause an organism’s development until better conditions ensue. Adult female mosquitoes who go into diapause can extend their usual 6 to 8-week lifespan to up to 6 months, allowing them to wait out most winters unscathed and ready to propagate when they warm enough to awaken, like this week when we’re expected to hit 50+°F.

But enough about the wonders of mosquito over-wintering. What about how to control them in the spring and summer?

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Standing water from overflows of the Cannon River could result in unanticipated ponding, creating massive breeding grounds for mosquitos. / Jessica Woken

First, the obvious: Get rid of any standing water or containers that might catch and hold water, including recesses in the ground that may turn into long-standing puddles.

Next, kill or deter the existing mosquitoes by use of chemicals, electric zappers, or a combination of natural methods, like chickens and plants.

If you’re not one to spray vast areas with pesticides and are hesitant to invest in an electric mosquito trap—they can range from $50 to $900—consider planting (in a garden), potting (around the house), or pruning (native plants) the following to help keep mosquitos at bay:

  • Plant or pot: Citronella, lemongrass, lavender, peppermint, basil, lemon balm, rosemary, sage, marigold, chrysanthemums, garlic, catnip
  • Prune: Wild Mint, Sweetgrass*

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Wild Mint. Image: Wikimedia Commons. Lazaregagnidze (photographer), 11July2011.

As a bonus, mosquito-repellent plants offer up a side of landscape beautification as well as opportunity to attract beneficial insects we actually want around, like bees and butterflies.

Keeping chickens may also help control the mosquito population, as the birds will do their able share of eating as many mosquitoes as they can. (I’ve seen members of my own flock race across the yard in hot pursuit of a mosquito snack.) Some researchers believe chickens may be the next big thing in mosquito control and malaria prevention![2] Keep in mind, though, that having chickens can also backfire if their run is prone to muddy puddles or the coop isn’t kept clean and dry, both of which serve as excellent mosquito housing.

Good luck, and Happy Mosquito Season! (I think?)

*Author’s Note: Sweetgrass is a natural insect repellent traditionally used by Native Americans. It’s key chemical, coumarin, is also the special ingredient that makes Avon’s ‘Skin So Soft’ a popular insect-repellent lotion![3]

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[1] Walker, Doug. “Mosquitos could be a big problem this spring.” Rome News-Tribune, 01Mar2019. URL: http://www.northwestgeorgianews.com/rome/news/local/mosquitoes-could-be-a-big-problem-this-spring/article_905cd592-3c47-11e9-a80d-3fa27c05430e.html. Accessed: 21Mar2019.

[2] Horowitz, Kate. “Could Chickens Be The Mosquito Repellants of the Future?” MentalFloss.com, 20July2016. URL: http://mentalfloss.com/article/83461/could-chickens-be-mosquito-repellents-future. Accessed: 21Mar2019.

[3] “Using Sweet Grass To Repel Mosquitoes”. CBS MN, 19Aug2015. URL: https://minnesota.cbslocal.com/2015/08/19/using-sweet-grass-to-repel-mosquitoes/.

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The Local Wild: The Most Common Mammal Never to Be Seen.

I went outside to close up my chicken coop a few weeks ago when I was surprised by the glistening of two very large and very dark eyes staring at me from over the rim of a rubber trough filled with cracked corn and feed. I inched closer to inspect and — that was close enough! — the mysterious creature darted out of the trough and over the wire fence, into the woods. Having finished my chore and quite perplexed, I entered the house and, removing my coat, declared to my husband who was down the hall, “I just saw the weirdest little critter out there in the feed bowl…”

“I just saw the weirdest little critter out there in the feed bowl…”

Turns out that weird little critter was a flying squirrel, a rare sighting not because the animals are rare themselves, but because (1) they’re nocturnal and (2) they are, both literally and figuratively, flighty.

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The darkened territory indicates the habitat of the Southern Flying Squirrel. (Image altered to show close-up of Minnesota and surrounding areas.) Credit: Darekk2, Wikimedia Commons, 14Jan2014.

Flying squirrels don’t truly fly (bats are the only mammals to do that) but, like the curious flying fish, flying squirrels glide. Two stretches of skin between their front and rear legs make for excellent paragliding sails; these flaps of skin are called patagia (singular: patagium). And, they have not only patagia to help them aloft. Flying squirrels also have cartilage spurs at each forefoot wrist, another nifty anatomical tool that helps them glide up to 300 feet and make impressive 180-degree mid-air turns. As Mother Nature Network describes, flying squirrels’ cartilage spurs “can be extended like an extra finger, stretching out the patagia farther than the squirrel’s tiny arms could on their own”, thereby making their patagia tighter and bigger and more effective.

The variety of gliding rodent I encountered in my chickens’ feed bin was most likely a Southern flying squirrel, one of two species residing in Minnesota. Of these, the Southern variety is smaller and keeps to the combination deciduous-hardwood forests of the central and southern parts of our state; the coniferous forests of the north are home to the aptly named Northern flying squirrels.

Southern-Flying-Squirrel

A Southern flying squirrel in the branches of a red maple tree. Note the large dark eye and patagium. Credit: Ken Thomas, Wikimedia Commons, 29May2008.

These elusive rodents owe much of their ridiculous cuteness to bewitchingly dark eyes that are hugely disproportionate compared to their chipmunk-sized bodies. Those eyes are so big that they rightly overwhelm the little creatures’ skulls! Their purpose: to capture as much light as possible in the pitch-dark of night.

Speaking of pitch-dark, I hope you’ll remember from the last Local Wild entry that a total lunar eclipse is due upon us on the night of the January 20th full moon. Folklore and science—as well as some EMTs and a couple of midwives I know—tell me lunar cycles affect life here on Earth. I don’t know what that means for nocturnal rodent activity, but I’m guessing there will be much confusion for our flying squirrel friends as the bright full moon turns a sudden dim and bloody red. Maybe, like some nocturnal lemurs which also sport big eyes for nighttime activities, they’ll just keep to their hollow-tree nests for the course of the cosmological event.

Regardless of what the upcoming lunar eclipse does to flying squirrels’ evening plans, I feel lucky to have seen one in the flesh. As one North Carolina Wildlife Profiles report reads: “[The Southern flying squirrel] with the big saucerlike eyes is probably the most common mammal never seen by humans”.

Indeed, I believe I have possibly seen the rodentia equivalent of Sasquatch.

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Many thanks to Cannon Beacon for allowing me to publish Local Wild entries on this blog.

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The Local Wild: Look Skyward to Ground Yourself This Winter.

With the shortest day of winter behind us, we can begin to look into the new year with anticipation of more sunshine and new beginnings. Even with that positivity, the ground outside is still hard and uninviting; it can be difficult for some of us to see the light at the end of the season’s dreary, icicle-laden tunnel, especially now that the holiday sparkle is also behind us. But—fear not!—there are ways to connect with nature and remain grounded even during these days of long nights. Ironically, you can do so by looking aloft, at the night sky.

If there’s one thing the frigid winter air offers us, it’s crystal clear nights. It isn’t a figment of your imagination that January and other cold months have clearer skies: It’s fact! How? Warmer air holds more moisture, and moisture holds onto dust and air pollutants that cause the atmosphere to appear hazy and thereby dilute our ability to view stars, planets, and other astronomical (literally and figuratively!) events. With colder weather the moisture levels in the air drop, which in turn causes dust and pollutants to also drop—to the ground, that is—leaving clearer, more pristine skies above that are perfect for appreciating wintertime’s celestial offerings.

Two of the soonest events to occur are the Quadrantids Meteor Shower, on January 3 and 4, and the Total Lunar Eclipse, which will happen on the night of January 21.

The Quadrantids Meteor Shower appears annually and the event is thought to be produced by dust left behind by an extinct comet discovered by scientists in 2003. Though the shower technically runs from January 1-5, this year it’ll peak the night of the 3rd and morning of the 4th. Best viewings will occur after midnight and the absence of a bright moon will improve the meteors’ visibility, which will primarily originate from the constellation Boötes, “The Herdsman”, though the “shooting stars” can appear anywhere in the sky. (The constellation Boötes is one of the largest in the sky and can only be seen from the Northern Hemisphere. It can be found at the tail end of the popular Big Dipper constellation, which is made up of stars from the less familiar and larger Great Bear (aka Ursa Major) constellation.)

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The Boötes constellation sits at the tail end of the Great Bear constellation (i.e. the “handle” end of the more familiar Big Dipper constellation). Photo: Wikimedia Commons. Original: Lockyer, Norman. “Elements of Astronomy,” 08Jan1875.

As for the Total Lunar Eclipse, that happens when the Earth comes directly between the Sun and Moon. The result: A Moon covered completely by the Earth’s shadow that glows ominously in the sky a rusty-blood red. We can only cross our fingers and hope our view of our planet’s only natural satellite isn’t hindered by cloud cover or inclement weather.

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The rust-red moon as seen during the total lunar eclipse on January 31, 2018. Photo: Wikimedia Commons. Alfredo Garcia, Jr. 31Jan2018.

Winter officially ends March 20th, on Spring Equinox. That means we have only a few more months of cold, crystal skies left! So pull out those blankets, boots, mugs of hot beverages, and whatever else you’ll need to stay cozy before the haze of warmer weather clouds our nighttime view of these wonderful local wild celestial shows.

(For a more complete listing of celestial events for the U.S., please visit Sea and Sky’s Astronomy Reference Guide at www.seasky.org/astronomy/astronomy-calendar-2019.html.)

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Gifts Had, Shared, Multiplied.

In addition to being a stay-at-home mom and writer (as if that weren’t enough), I’m a musician. As I prepare to leave the Minnesota chill for our annual Christmas trip to Grandma’s House in California, I’m putting together a song list for a Los Angeles County drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility ministry I’ll be performing at on Sunday, December 23rd. This is my first time volunteering to provide a worship experience at this rehab ministry, or even a place remotely like it. I don’t know what to expect, if I’ll enjoy it, if I’ll walk away heartbroken or inspired by the people in attendance, if I’ll do it again. If… anything.

Regardless of those answers, I’m already feeling the benefits of my heart offering to the Kingdom’s cause. No, not some self-satisfaction with my own generosity (how vain!), but a quiet joy—a fulfillment of my call to worship—in knowing I am utilizing a talent built within me by God and offering it out to others in a way that only I uniquely can.

I’m already feeling the benefits of my heart offering to the Kingdom’s cause: A quiet joy—a fulfillment of my call to worship.

Perhaps that is part of what accepting Jesus into our lives is about: Not about accepting gifts from outside ourselves, but accepting, and using, the gifts within us that, in their use, gift others.

Pastor John Piper of Minneapolis implores: “lay down all your idolatry and false worship to find your ultimate satisfaction in a God who finds his glory in your satisfaction. Such a world have we been given.” Amen!

This season, I wish everyone a plethora of gift exchanges! Not only an abundance of blessings from gifts received from others, but also the intimate, private blessing, healing change, and quiet joy the use of personal gifts provide to ourselves.

Merry Christmas to all!

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Thanks to the Beacon paper of Cannon Falls, MN for allowing me to share this message on my page.

Ref: Piper, John. “Worship: We Get Joy, God Gets Praise.” Desiring God, 26June2017, www.desiringgod.org/messages/gospel-worship/excerpts/worship-we-get-joy-god-gets-praise.

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The Local Wild: Nice Ice, Baby.

It’s often the common, less outstanding things in our lives we take for granted which end up being the most important. Take water, for instance. We have a lot of water here in Minnesota — and we’re darn proud of it! — and when our local wild enters its wintry stages all that water turns into a lot of snow and ice. We drive through it, around it, over it (hopefully not under it!). We scrape it, brush it, shovel it, and melt it away so that we, in turn, can get on our merry way. All the water we have in all its various forms is so everyday that we hardly take a second look or consideration.

But we really should, if only to be impressed by Creation once more.

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A small stream remains liquid in temperatures well below water’s typical freezing point. Credit: Jessica Woken.

I was mystified the other day while watching my ground spring’s little rivulet ebb downhill toward our pond. Mystified because, well, I knew the waters temperature had reached freezing point — thermometers had dipped and stayed below 32°F days prior — yet, it wasn’t frozen. That moving water doesn’t freeze is common knowledge, but that simply begged the question: why doesn’t it?

Before we scratch that itch, I want to illustrate how water is nothing short of magnificent, specifically this property: that, in a solid state (ice), water floats upon itself. This is not a property unique to water, although it is rather rare in nature. Did you ever stop to consider that if ice didn’t float life as we know it would not be possible? It’s true!

Water is nothing short of magnificent, specifically this property: that, in a solid state (ice), water floats upon itself.

Imagine a world where ice sinks. In this world is a pond teaming with life. Then, imagine that water freezing bit by bit; the chunks of ice sink to the bottom of the pond as new ice forms on top. Repeat this until ALL the water is frozen. No water remains; just solid ice. Plants will die because they can’t live encapsulated in an icy tomb. Same for fish, frogs, crayfish, or other creatures that are food for predators like cranes, bear, eagles, and mink, so those prey die along with their associated predators. Even forgetting food altogether, animals don’t DRINK ice, so dehydration takes them even if they have food to eat. In this imaginary world where ice sinks, the food chain ends at the proverbial water level. That, in our real world, ice floats, keeping everything within water bodies safe and alive, really is very, very nice!

In regards to rivers and streams staying fluid, it’s what holds the ice crystal molecule together that keeps moving water liquid for longer: hydrogen bonds.

As molecular bonds go, the hydrogen bonds that convert liquid water into ice are relatively weak and can be broken by biological forces like motion or heat. Think of those hydrogen bonds like the static electricity holding a pair of balloons together, where the balloons represent water molecules: Sure, the static electricity will hold the balloons together if they hover in windless air, but once a breeze blows, they’ll easily separate, becoming “fluid”. The fast the wind moves, the stronger the static charge needs to be to hold the balloons together.

It’s a very crude explanation for something so complicated but, for purposes of understanding why our streams and rivers refuse to freeze when the rest of the wilderness is at a chilly standstill, it works.

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Resident ducks and swan eagerly await visitors at who will toss them some treats from the feed machine at Minnieska Park. Credit: Jessica Woken.

So, whether or not you want to get wrapped up in the complicated workings of water molecules when temperatures drop below 32°F, get out there and enjoy the trickling, rushing, splashing, and flowing of some of the liquid water features our spectacular (albeit, cold) local wild has to offer.

P.S. Another fun fact: University of Utah chemists declared in 2011 that, in just-right conditions, water really doesn’t HAVE to freeze until it reaches -55°F. Yikes! They called this “supercooled water”, and let’s hope we never have to find out for ourselves what is so “supercool” about -55°F! (Read more about it at: https://phys.org/news/2011-11-supercool-doesnt-.html.)


The Local Wild is a series of twice-monthly editorials published by the Cannon Falls Beacon. Many thanks to the editor for allowing me to share these articles on my personal page.

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The Local Wild: Crayfish: The Poor Man’s Muddy Little Delicacy

Let’s just get this out of the way: I love seafood. Not so much fish (unless it’s whole, head-on), but more so the weird, curious, more interesting types of water-derived meats. I’m talking scallops, mussels, clam, octopus (yes!), oyster, eel, and let’s not forget crab and lobster. Yum!

scribble-maps_Minneapolis-to-Atlantic

Thanks to ScribbleMaps.com, we now know it’s almost exactly 1,000 miles from Minneapolis to the nearest Atlantic coastline.

Considering Minneapolis is about 1,000 miles from the Atlantic Ocean and 1,500 from the Pacific, it’s no surprise that Minnesota doesn’t offer up much of a seafood selection. I usually make due with frozen shrimp or fish from the grocery but, if I’m feeling particularly exotic, I venture to the nearest Asian market to quench my seafood appetite. (Being half Asian, I’m partial to not only unique Asian seafood offerings (dried squid strings, anyone?) but also other delectables that fondly remind me of my mother’s kitchen).

Our property here in Cannon Falls has a small man-made pond fed by a constant flow of freshwater from a hillside local wild spring. When we first moved here, the pond was occupied by a small school of pan fish; one huge, very elusive bass; an army of frogs (yes: a group of frogs is really called an army); and, to my elation, a healthy population of crayfish.

My Arkansan dad taught me to call those tasty little creatures crawdads, but the small shellfish go by a surprising variety of other names: crayfish, crawfish, crawlfish, crawldads, freshwater lobsters, mountain lobsters, mud bugs, and (in Australia) yabbies, gilgies, koonacs, redclaw, or marron. What a mouthful!

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What do other people in the US call crayfish? My Arkansan dad says “crawdad” (as do I!). Credit: Joshua Katz.

 

And quite literally just a small mouthful, actually. Crayfish offer little more than a bite of tail meat and a heady—seriously, from their heads—slurp of crustacean-type foie gras. Amy McCarthy, editor of Eater Dallas and Eater Houston, wrote in 2017: “If you’ve been eating crawfish all this time and [left] the heads behind, you’ve sadly been missing out.” She explained further:

“…there is an organ inside [the crayfish head] frequently mistaken as a brain or a big glob of crawfish fat. That mysterious blob is actually the crawfish’s hepatopancreas, which [functions like a liver] … In terms of flavor, the hepatopancreas (often called “crawfish butter”) is sort of like what foie gras would taste like if it came from the sea. As such, it’s a poor man’s delicacy.”

Rusty Crayfish Wisconsin DNR

The rusty crayfish, one of the two invasive crayfish species in Minnesota. Credit: Wisconsin DNR.

What’s the difference between crayfish and lobster? The most obvious difference is size—crayfish are much smaller—but the other is that lobster live in saltwater while crayfish are a freshwater animal. Thus, Minnesota and its “10,000” freshwater lakes (plus all its rivers and streams) makes for an appealing crayfish habitat. According to the Minnesota DNR, there live five species of crayfish in our state: three native and two invasive. (As of 2007, a published paper from Brigham Young University counted over 640 species, with about 382 living in North America alone. That’s a big crayfish family!)

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A tidy — though muddy — little crayfish mound. Credit: Jessica Woken.

Crayfish are generally nocturnal and very shy, so it’s rare to see one out and about unless you’re really looking (or hunting). One of the most obvious signs of crayfish population in a body of freshwater is the presence of mud mounds or “chimneys” around the water’s perimeter. These volcano-looking mounds are the tops of crayfish burrows. They measure about 6” in diameter and are topped with a very neat, almost perfect, little 1-2” access hole.

The crayfish population at my own pond remains strong, despite me catching and boiling some for an exotic treat one afternoon, much to the worry of my husband who was convinced I’d get ill from some mystery disease (Note: I did not). This past September I spotted a handful of the softball-sized mud mounds, so it’s nice to know I haven’t completely disturbed the crayfish population with my voracious and curious seafood appetite. And, seeing as they’ve been living here for some years, burrowing deep into the mud to keep from freezing over winter, I think it’s safe to say that there yet lies abundant hope for next spring’s crayfish catching season at this girl’s personal local wild pond. (Psst: Crayfish season goes from April 1 to Nov 30 and, yes, you do need a fishing permit.)

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This article is one in a series written for a column titled “The Local Wild” in the Beacon newspaper of Cannon Falls, MN.

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The Local Wild: Coyotes, the “Barking Dogs” of North America.

I spent the last two weeks of October visiting family in the high desert of Southern California. That particular part of SoCal is not as glamorous as some mid-westerners assume all of California to be. It’s made of dusty mountains, scrub brush, strong afternoon winds, dry air, and autumn temperatures nearing the 90s. Even so, that particular area has its local wild charms like every other place. One of those charms is shared with Minnesota’s local wild. Which one? The wandering coyote!

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A common coyote in Death Valley, California. Photo: Creative Commons.

Many may argue that coyotes can hardly be considered local wild “charms”. These predators are commonly labeled as pests; dangers to small children and pets; carriers of disease; and damagers of property (for instance, they are known to chew off sprinkler heads in search of water). Coyotes do offer some good, though unfortunately the benefits they provide often get ignored in the shadow of their bothersome antics.

Map of Great Plains

The green area indicates the Great Plains, the original territory of the now wide-spread North American coyote. Image: Wiki Commons.

But how did coyotes become so numerous and pesky to begin with? Sadly, us humans are to blame. Before strong hunting regulations were in place hunters freely took out larger predators like bear, mountain lion (aka puma), and wolf that kept the coyote population in check. With those big animals out of the picture, coyotes—which were primarily limited to the Great Plains—were able to easily spread. They’re now a common, and still spreading, predator in North America (yes, even on up in Canada, the Arctic, and down into Mexico!).

In a previous Local Wild where I discussed the famed (or infamous?) Asian Beetle, I explained basic taxonomy using dogs as an example. In that article we learned that coyotes’ scientific (taxonomic) name is canis latrans. The Latin name translates to “barking dog” and is an ode to the sounds coyotes make. But how many different sounds do coyotes make, and why do they make them?

Coyote language is an impressive blend of howls, yelps, barks, yips, whimpers, and calls, all with specific meanings and applications. As far as “how many”, that’s complicated. It’s not so much the number sounds themselves, but the combinations of the sounds that makes coyote communication—otherwise known as “song”—so fascinating. A small trio of coyotes can sing together and make themselves sound like a whole choir is singing together! Some believe coyotes imitate other animals in an effort to lure prey to their location, though that is largely disputed.

Like other scavengers—opossum, turkey vultures, and even bald eagles—coyotes eat carrion, helping to clean dead animal carcasses from the wilderness, an essential but yucky task. But because they’re also skilled hunters of live prey coyotes help keep populations of rabbit, squirrel, gopher, vole, raccoon, opossum, and even woodchuck in check. What would happen if the number of coyotes were to retreat back down to near zero? Well, those smaller populations would boom, creating a whole new local wild problem!

Coyotes are mostly solitary hunters but they’ve been known to hunt in groups when times get tough, like when food becomes scarce deep into a Minnesota winter. They are social animals, though, and live together in packs ranging from 3 to 30 strong. Hunt solo, live together: That’s the coyote way!

All this isn’t to say that coyotes shouldn’t have their limits. I keep poultry and wouldn’t want a “Barking Dog” barking up any of my trees! You can deter coyote from your property by keeping pet food locked up or inside at night, or by installing motion activated lighting or putting out deterrent sprays or alarms. If nothing is working, know that its always open season for coyotes and in many areas property owners are permitted to take coyote by certain means if the animal is damaging property or poses a danger.

Readers are urged to contact the MN Department of Natural Resources (www.dnr.state.mn.us) for laws and details about handling troublesome coyote.

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Discover more about the beneficial coyote at Project Coyote.

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The Local Wild: The Frighteningly Fast Funnel Weaver Spider

October is here and that means Halloween decorations abound. I’m not a big fan of gory, ghoulish décor or equally grisly horror films, but I do enjoy the more whimsical decorations and entertainment. Of these my favorite are the adorable, often fluffy spiders. I’m tickled by their friendly, yellow eyes glowing from their perfectly round heads; their cartoonish grins affixed via white paint or stitching; and their long legs, soft and spindly, appearing to dance jubilantly even from a standstill (or, rather, a hang-still).

Unfortunately, real life spiders are not—in my mind—at all adorable. Or fluffy. Or jubilant. The film “Arachnophobia” really ruined me and, though I don’t run screaming from the sight of a land-dwelling arachnid, I do keep a wary eye open for them and their webs as I move through the local wild.

My most recent encounter was with a spider who decided to get cozy in a recess of our home’s stone façade, right next to the front door. From the looks of its web it was a barn weaver spider, a small, brown, deeply introverted yet frighteningly fascinating variety of arachnid.

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A common barn weaver spider in waiting at the far end of its signature funnel-like web. Photo: Jessica Woken.

Barn weaver spiders are a common type of spider of the family Agelenidae. These spiders enjoy quiet places with lots of dark corners like wood piles, basements, and barns to build their signature funnel webs. The openings of the webs are wide and non-adhesive and progressively narrow into a funnel and end at a sticky silk den where the spider spends most of its time. Barn funnel weavers are not poisonous and will only bite if provoked or startled. Bites are generally mild or even painless and rarely require any medical treatment.

Forget its odd web, though. That’s not the truly fascinating thing about these spiders: it’s their incredible speed you should be mesmerized by. Many describe them as “very fast”; I saw one enthusiastic blogger write “startingly fast”. I, however, prefer to categorize funnel weaver spiders with superheroes like The Flash. It’s difficult to visually catch these arachnids moving from their dens to outer webs as they launch onto prey and to say it happens in the blink of an eye feels absurdly inaccurate. To give an example, a YouTube videographer reduced the playback of a recording of a weaver spider retreating to its den to 5% speed. Even so, the videographer was still barely able to catch the spider FIRST turning around and THEN running away. That said, I consider their quickness more of a teleportation situation and, if these spiders have superpowers like that, I’d rather leave them to their introverted lifestyles at the base of their sticky dens.

Mother Nature does not give anything in the local wild superpowers without reason, and the truth is the weaver spider’s non-adhesive outer web means they need to be quick enough to run out of their dens and catch their prey—generally flies and gnats—before it gets away. One variety of funnel weaver was clocked at 1.73 ft/s. That’s “only” 1.18 mph to us humans but when you consider the size of the runner—that particular specimen was ½-inch long—1.18 mph is incredible! Need some math to convince you? I’m happy to comply!

Let’s say a ½-inch spider has a ½-inch running stride and that this spider runs 1.18 mph. Compare it to the average human’s running stride—66 inches—and we can use basic algebra to calculate X, the human’s comparative speed. The answer? A blazing 155.76 mph.

As a kid in Southern California I’d taunt the west coast’s funnel weaver variety by tossing small pieces of grass onto the outer edge of the web, tricking the poor arachnid introverts into darting out in anticipation of a meal. The spider would appear only to be met by a lousy snip of grass and a human child’s goofy grin. Trick or treat, indeed!

Simply, I’m just glad bigger, more aggressive spiders, including the adorable Halloween decoration varieties, are not weaver spider-fast.

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3

The Local Wild: Asian Beetles & Ladybugs: Same Family, Different Name.

Bust out your vacuum cleaners and hand vacs, folks—it’s beetle season! Autumn is typically greeted with cheers at the colorful foliage and cooler weather but it’s also met with a collective moan of irritation because we know that the local wild’s cool-weather nuisance, the Asian Lady Beetle, is not far behind.

When I refer to these non-native insects as ladybugs many folks are quick correct me with a “They aren’t ladybugs. They’re Asian beetles.” Perhaps they feel as if the term I use is putting them in the wrong? The trouble is they aren’t wrong… but neither am I. This is one of those rare instances where both parties are correct! How? Let me explain by offering a quick refresher course in basic taxonomy, the science dedicated to the classification of organisms.

Scientists classify organisms according to named groupings that cascade from general to specific: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species, Subspecies, with some trickling and even more precise categories beneath. We’ll use man’s best friend to illustrate how this categorizing system works.

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Taxonomy, levels of categorization.

Wolves, coyotes, and domestic dogs all belong to the kingdom canis, which translates simply to “dog” from the Latin. As you travel further down the taxonomic ladder the animals split off from one another. Coyotes branch away first into their own species, latrans (the scientific name canis latrans translates to “barking dog”, an ode to the wide variety of sounds coyotes make), while wolves and domestic dogs are together in the species lupus (“wolf”). Domestic dogs go a step further into the subspecies familaris, which scientifically categorizes them as canis lupus familiaris or, translated, “the family wolf”.

When it comes to Asian beetles, calling them ladybugs is not incorrect, it’s just less specific. All ladybugs belong to Coccinellidae (say “cox-in-elly-die” and you’ve got the pronunciation right), the widespread family of beetles ranging in size from 0.8 to 18mm that are most easily identified by their smooth, spotted, domed shells. Asian beetles split from other ladybugs down the line into Harmonia (genus) and Axyridis (species). Taxologically they’re referred to as harmonia axyridis. “Asian lady beetle” is the common name people use around this local wild, even though the insect also goes by these other names: Harlequin ladybug, multicolored Asian ladybug, Japanese lady beetle (not to be confused with the Japanese beetle, a different pest entirely), and even Halloween beetle due to their October swarming habits.

Asian beetles have a signature M-shaped black marking on the protonum, the exoskeleton plate covering its thorax, and they can have anywhere from 2 to 22 spots with colors that vary from yellow to red. Asian beetles are generally considered beneficial since they are voracious predators of garden- and crop-harming pests, and indeed that’s why they were brought to North America in the first place in 1978: to get rid of crop pests in place of harmful pesticides. Asian beetles go from helpful to harmful when they swarm, seeking a safe and warm hibernating space, and often move in such numbers that they negatively affect humans’ quality of life. Some individuals experience allergic reactions—ranging from eye irritation to asthma—to the noxious yellow secretion the beetles let loose in self-defense or upon death.

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The signature “M” shows proudly on on the protonum of this Asian lady beetle.

If residents wish to deter these beetles without using artificial pesticides, consider mixing together 2 cups water, 5 drops dish detergent, and 10-15 drops of Tea Tree oil in a spray bottle and spraying around doors, windows, or other places Asian beetles like to gather and enter the home. (Beware: Tea Tree oil is toxic to cats. If you keep or have cats that wander around your home, consider a citrus essential oil instead.) I have personally found this Tea Tree oil mixture to be effective.

In closing, if anyone insists our pesky non-native coccinellidae be called Asian beetles instead of just ladybugs, perhaps, in the name of fairness, they should also insist dog owners refer to their canines not merely by kingdom but by most specific subspecies. In which case, congratulations to all you folks with domestic dogs: You can now tell people you don’t have a dog, but a Family Wolf.

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This is one in a series of articles written for The Local Wild, a bi-monthly column in the Cannon Falls Beacon.