Sunday, October 2, 2022

Least Chipmunks

On a trip to South Dakota, near a woodland where we had rented a cabin, we began noticing tiny chipmunks running all around the grounds near where we were staying. Every trip out west is sure to bring with it sightings of chipmunks, and this trip was no different. These small, quick moving, agile chipmunks are called least chipmunks and are the most common of all chipmunks in their range. They are found throughout the great plains, westward to California and in many northern states. Least chipmunks are the smallest of the chipmunk species found in the United States, females may reach lengths up to nine inches (including the tail) with males being slightly smaller.

Their color varies from grayish to reddish-brown with a cream or white underside. There are five brown or black lines separated by four cream or white stripes running down their back. Two light and two dark stripes run from the tip of the nose through the eye and the top of the head. The bushy tail is orangish-brown. These hyperactive rodents are found busy gathering nuts, berries, seeds, and insects during the daylight hours. Because of their diurnal habits exposure to nocturnal hunters like owls, foxes, raccoons, weasels, and other predators is minimized. Although animals such as hawks and snakes, that are active when chipmunks are scurrying around, will still snatch one for a quick meal when they can. And when I say quick, I mean it. These speedy little chipmunks can run at speeds up to four and half miles per hour! They are not only fast, but they are also great climbers and jumpers, so any predator bent on a least chipmunk meal is going to have to work for it.]

Chipmunks, like many rodents’ store food for use during winter and other times when food might be scarce. They use specially adapted cheek pouches to stuff food into for transporting to hidden caches under logs, rock piles and in tree cavities. Because their favored foods are tree nuts and seeds, they are considered seed dispersers and help transport seeds and nuts to new locations thus expanding the range of many plants and trees.


The least chipmunk is often mistaken for the yellow pine chipmunk that shares much of the same range and habitats. The YPC is bigger and much more territorial, often chasing the smaller least chipmunk away from available food sources. Despite this apparent bullying behavior, the least chipmunk is able to survive on less food than most chipmunks and tend to be more plentiful in areas where food sources are scarce.

These little chipmunks are not true hibernators like bats, and other mammals. Instead, they enter into a type of slumber called torpor. They will slow their metabolic rate and reduce their body temperature, which reduces their need for food. They do not pack on fat like other animals do before a long winter of hibernation. Many times, during the winter they will wake up and seek out their caches of food for a quick meal and find water if available before going into a deep sleep again. When spring returns, they are active again. On cooler days, these little chipmunks often climb trees seeking out a higher vantage point to bask in the sun and warm themselves.

 The biggest challenges facing chipmunks are human activity. This comes in the form of habitat destruction as well as poisoning and trapping. Many people consider chipmunks pests and target them much like other rodents. However, least chipmunks pose no significant issues for humans, other than maybe in campgrounds where they tend to beg for treats in a form of conditioning. Who hasn’t tempted a chipmunk closer to them with a tasty peanut or piece of granola? Once a chipmunk associates a human with an easy food source they will hang out where the humans are.


The Iroquois tribe talks of how the chipmunk got his stripes. Back when the animals were in charge of making big decisions such as whether we should have eternal night or night and day, the bear being the biggest and the strongest of all animals climbed to the highest mountain. Deer, raccoon, chipmunk, wolf, and many others followed. On top of the rocky, treeless mountain the bear growled in his strongest voice that the world should have only darkness. The Wolf and raccoon, being too scared to do otherwise, agreed with bear. However, the tiniest animal of all, the chipmunk spoke up against the bear. He wanted there to be both daylight and darkness. The bear grumbled, and growled, and said, “No! Darkness only!” The chipmunk continued to chatter and talk and kept the bear so distracted all night long that the sun began coming up in the East. The other animals having never seen a sunrise before were mesmerized by the beauty. The bear realizing what had happened was angry at the chipmunk and quickly chased him down the mountain. Bear was fast and reached out with his giant paw, but chipmunk got away, although not before bears long claws scratched his back. To this day you can see the stripes on the chipmunks back.

These spunky little rodents are one of my favorite mammals, and no trip out west is complete unless I spot one. These small chipmunks are not only cute but provide much needed nutrition for a variety of predators. They disperse seeds and contribute to increasing the range of many plants. Their antics are entertaining and fun to watch making any camping trip or hike in the woodlands more enjoyable. Sometimes just taking time to appreciate the smallest things bring the biggest joys.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Squash Bugs, the bane of Pumpkins everywhere!

A few months ago, I noticed a pumpkin vine growing alongside one of our buildings. I had not planted it but recalled throwing a couple of pumpkins out last winter in that area. These voluntary pumpkin vines grew, bloomed, and started producing beautiful white pumpkins. I was excited by the prospect of having pumpkins I grew, even if by accident, to add to my fall d├ęcor. I was especially excited by the idea considering each year that we purposely planted pumpkins they did not develop beyond lots of leaves, and vines, rarely any fruit. Now it appeared I was accidentally successful. The pumpkins got bigger, and my anticipation of beautiful, large pumpkins grew right along with them. Until the unthinkable happened! The scourge known as squash bugs found my one-and-only vine. They descended upon it like a hungry plague of locusts. One day all was well, a week later an infestation! I was able to rescue three not quite fully developed pumpkins before the vines withered and died.

Squash bugs in the family of leaf-footed bugs are the bane of pumpkin and squash growers everywhere. As adults they spend the winter in leaf litter, under rocks, ground debris and even inside buildings waiting out the cold. When spring returns the females seek plants in the cucurbit family which includes pumpkins, squash, cucumbers, and melons. Typically, they will mate in May or June and lay small clusters of about twenty eggs on leaves between the veins where a V is formed. Occasionally they will lay eggs on the stems of the plants. Females are capable of producing up to two hundred and fifty eggs each season! The eggs hatch in about ten days and the young will reach the adult stage in four to six weeks. Young nymphs are light green in color with a black head and legs. Adults are about five-eighths of an inch in length, and brownish to gray in color with alternating orange and brown stripes on their abdomen. Their hind legs are noticeably thicker or wider than their other legs, giving them the name of leaf-footed bugs. They are often mistaken for stink bugs. Whereas they are in the same order of true bugs, they have a more shield shaped body and squash bugs are more elongated. There is usually one generation per year, but in warmer climates they may produce a partial second generation that does not complete its lifecycle to the adult stage. These late growing nymphs will die when the temperatures drop below freezing. Typically, life stages overlap, and eggs, early nymphs, older nymphs, and adults will be found together. 

Squash bugs in the order Hemiptera, are classified as true bugs with piercing, sucking mouthparts. In the case of these bugs, it is believed they use their mouthpart, called a stylet, to inject an enzyme to break down plant tissue making it easier for them to slurp up the liquified plant matter. The repeated mouth jabs and toxin injection damages the inner vessels of the plant that carry nutrients and water to the tissues. You will notice a distinct yellow spotting of leaves that eventually turns brown giving the leaves a mottled look. In older sturdier plants this feeding activity is generally not a huge issue for the plant, however huge infestations will create a situation where the plants are overwhelmed and may die. Young seedlings and small vines are easily overtaken by the feeding of these bugs and often do not recover. It was believed that squash bugs did not carry pathogens or diseases to plants, that it was the feeding activity alone that caused the damage. Recently a disease has been associated with the squash bug, cucurbit yellow vine disease (CYVD) it is harbored in overwintering adults and passed to the plant in early spring. This pathogen causes rapid yellowing and wilting and kills the plant, thus quickly decimating your crop. 

How can you protect your crops from an onslaught of these tenacious pumpkin loving munching machines? Keep your plants healthy and strong by fertilizing and watering regularly. Strong, sturdy plants are less likely to be affected by the feeding habits of these bugs. Be diligent in checking your plants once or twice weekly. Each time you find eggs, crush them. Nymphs and adults should be crushed or thrown into a bucket of soapy water. This can be challenging as their instinct is to hide under leaves when disturbed, often going unseen. You can trap squash bugs by placing cardboard, plyboard, or tin along the garden or near the plants. They will use this refuge to hide under at night. In the early morning you can scoop them up and dispose of them. Remove plant debris during the growing season to reduce areas where they can hide. Clean up your growing area each fall to eliminate areas where they can take refuge in the winter. Rotating crops each season will also help in reducing the number of squash bugs that find your plants. All of this sounds like a lot of work because it is but using chemical control has limited effect on squash bugs. Adults have an unusually high resistance to the chemicals available over the counter to the average gardener. If you notice leaves yellowing or wilting early in the growing season the only option may be insecticides. If this is your only recourse for controlling them, target the nymphs, rather than the adults, as they are more susceptible to the chemicals and your chance of success is greater. Apply your insecticide in the early morning or late evening hours when there is limited bee activity. Remember your chemical is not only going to kill your target pest insect, but also your beneficial ones. Always follow the instructions carefully. You may be tempted to apply more thinking it will be more effective. This is not the case; in fact, it rapidly creates resistance in insects causing bigger headaches down the road.

After picking my three precious pumpkins I relinquished the dying vine and one lone wilted pumpkin to the squash bugs. With due diligence, some patience and hard work on your part it is possible to stay one step ahead of these little pests.

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Sunday, September 4, 2022

Witches butter, curse or cure? You decide.


When we think of parasites, if we think of them at all, we typically don’t consider mushrooms within that category of ilk. The truth is most mushrooms are parasitic in nature and aid in the break down of organic matter. One of my favorite mushrooms to find when out hiking is witches’ butter. These vibrant yellow mushrooms go by many different names including fairy butter, buttercups, and yellow brain fungus to name a few. Their scientific name is Tremella mesenterica and in Greek translates to “Of the middle intestine.” Like all mushrooms they lack chlorophyll and instead get their nutrients by feeding on plant and animal matter. There are three types of witches’ butter, two are vibrant yellow and one is orange. The yellow varieties feed on other fungi presents on hardwood trees. These “other” fungi usually appear as a scabby growth on the bark of the trees and are working as a decomposer to turn the tree into organic matter that will benefit the forest floor. This essentially makes witches’ butter a parasite feeding on a parasite. The orange variety is found on conifers like pine and hemlock and does not feed on other fungi, but rather acts a decomposer of the trees themselves.

These mushrooms are classified as jelly mushrooms, and if you have ever encountered one it is easy to see why. They have a slimy, rubbery texture that bounces back when touched. It may be this slimy exterior that earned them the common name of butter, as the texture is reminiscent of margarine. They are considered edible, but not a favorite to forage due to their lack of taste. Face it anything with a common name like “yellow brain fungus” and a scientific name that literally translates to mean intestines, doesn’t exactly entice one to partake. However, what they lack in taste they make up for in texture and are often added to soups as a nutritional filler. Some people claim they bread and fry them, and they resemble calamari in taste and texture. Maybe I will give this a try in the future, I do love calamari.

They are often referred to as the survival mushroom as most foragers agree they are edible in the raw state. However, keep in mind this not true for nearly every other mushroom. All mushrooms should be cleaned and cooked before consuming. Even with this particular species caution should be used when considering consuming them in the raw state as each individual may react differently. I read a story about a grandmother who foraged with her granddaughter. The little girl was drawn to the witches’ butter and after getting permission from her grandmother would consume them raw on each outing into the woods. This went on for years and the little girl had no ill effects from partaking in these flavorless mushrooms. They however could not figure out why she felt compelled to eat them, until it was later revealed at a doctor’s appointment that she had respiratory problems. It is known by the Chinese that witches’ butter is good for breathing issues, as well as for your immune system. Studies are now showing promise as potential treatments for diabetes as well. Could it be this young girl was experiencing a form of pica that caused her to crave the very mushroom that could treat her breathing issues?

After heavy rains the bright yellow fruiting bodies will appear on downed logs or decaying trees in deciduous hardwood forests. They are only present for a short time and soon dry and shrivel into a reddish-brown mass that blends in well with the bark of trees. Rest assured though, as soon as the rains return so too will the yellow jellies. The purpose of these jelly-like masses is to send spores into the wind to spread the mushroom to other locations. There aren’t any other mushrooms that look quick like the gelatinous, convoluted clusters that is witches’ butter. They grow in tiny masses about a half to one inch in diameter. These mushrooms may be found at anytime of the year, including winter if there is sufficient rainfall and moisture. It is a welcome sight on the drab winter landscape to find these sunny colored mushrooms.

 These mushrooms may also be found sprouting from the doorways of barns, houses, or even from wooden gates. In ancient Europe, when homeowners found a cluster of these mushrooms sprouting from their door jam, it was believed their home was under the curse of a witch. The only way to break the spell was to stab the yellow jelly-like masses with something sharp releasing the curse. The trouble was as soon as it rained again the mushrooms would hydrate and bloom again and the poor residents must have felt as if they could never rid themselves of the witches curse permanently. Short of replacing the door jams or gates they would have had the curse befalling them after each rainfall. In Sweden it was believed that witches’ butter was the bile spewed forth by the witches themselves; hexing anyone who found it near their home. The only way to rid yourself of the curse was to burn the slimy mass in a fire. These superstitions followed many European immigrants into the New World and over time created a mistrust of eating mushrooms…. any mushrooms, even if properly identified as being safe. In truth many mushrooms are safe, delicious, healthy and have medicinal qualities that can benefit most anyone. However, ALWAYS make sure you know 100% what you are foraging and preparing to eat. 

“There are old mushroom hunters and there are bold mushroom hunters. But there are no old bold mushroom hunters.” 

Always err on the side of caution.