Sunday, April 30, 2023

Barred Owl

"Who cooks for you….who cooks for you all?” rings out in the dusky horizon as the barred owl makes his presence known to anyone who is listening. These large owls are the most vocal of all the owls living in North America. At least eight known songs, calls and vocalizations are attributed to this owl, earning it the nickname of Old-eight hooter. Like all animals there are many colloquial names attributed to them depending upon the region in which they are found. In the far north they are referred to as Le Chat-huant Du Nord or the hooting cat of the north. They may also be called the Northern barred owl, striped owl, hoot owl, or my personal favorite the rain owl, because of their love of rainy weather and their tendency to call loudly after a recent rainstorm. Over the past week I have spotted a barred owl leaving a hollow tree directly in front of our house. We have heard this same owl and her mate many nights over the past month calling, often so loudly we are awoken out of deep sleep. I am hopeful that she has chosen this particular tree to nest and we will soon see a new owl family in our backyard. Because of these close encounters with the female each time she flees the tree, I was prompted to write about them this week.

Easily recognized, the barred owl is slightly smaller than the great horned owl, and weighs approximately three pounds, with a wingspan up to thirty nine inches. They are mottled brown or gray and cream with brown vertical bars on the underparts and down the back and horizontal bars on the breast. The wings and tail are barred with white and brown. It is this pattern that earned them the common name of barred owl. They are the only “typical” owl with dark brown eyes, all other typical owls have yellow eyes. The only other owl in Missouri with dark eyes is the barn owl and they are classified in a group all to themselves. Unlike many owls, the barred owl does not have ear tufts. Instead, their head is smooth and rounded, giving them a rather chubby appearance. Ear tufts serve no function in hearing, but instead may be used to give the illusion of a larger silhouette , or in communicating distress, fear or alertness. There is also some who believe the ear tufts break up their shapes in a form of camouflage. Like most owls they are nocturnal but are also known to be active during daylight hours and may be spotted flying or heard calling at any time during the day.

These owls rely heavily on old growth forests

Barred owl eating a rodent
with deciduous hardwood trees, evergreens and in some area’s conifers. Increasingly they have become more synanthropic, adapting well to life near humans. In urban settings where large trees are available these owls have done well and are frequently seen roosting in backyards, and parks. They require hollow trees, broken snags and occasionally the abandoned nests of other animals to create their own nesting site. From one to three eggs will be laid and incubated by the female. The male will keep watch over his family and bring food to the female that she will feed to their offspring. Both parents play an active role in rearing their young. Like many bird species the parents can be particularly territorial and protective of their offspring and will vocalize their displeasure at your presence, or even attack when sufficiently provoked. One such barred owl lived in Salem, OR. This owl frequently attacked joggers at a local park when they would jog near the nest site. The attacks often left talon marks or gashes in people’s heads. This earned the owl a nickname of Owlcapone. Best to give nesting birds their space…especially birds large enough to hurt us. At approximately six weeks the young will begin taking short flights from the nest to nearby branches where they will call incessantly begging for food from the parents in an activity called branching. The parents are kept busy playing hunt and seek as they locate each begging baby to feed it. At ten to twelve weeks of age the owlets will graduate to fledglings and begin flying and are capable of hunting and caring for themselves. They usually stay close to their siblings for many months before finally finding mates for themselves and raising their own families.

Barred owls are found throughout most of North America, with three subspecies. The Northern barred owl is located in the Eastern United States, and the pacific Northwest, the Texas barred owl, is found in Texas and the Florida, or Southern barred owl is found the Southern United States. Historically the barred owl was absent from the Pacific Northwest, but with the expansion of forests throughout the Great Plains along the Missouri River and its tributaries it has allowed the barred owl to expand its range. Finding sufficient foraging habitat, protection from weather and concealment from predators gave them all the advantages they need to head westward into new territories. The increase in forested areas is due to the suppression of wildfires by the European-American settlers and the ceasing of controlled fires traditionally set by Native Americans, plus an increase in the planting of trees. The barred owl’s expansion into Oregon and Washington has created a direct threat to the threatened spotted owl. Barred owls are larger, more gregarious by comparison and compete for food, nesting locations and territories. The smaller spotted owl cannot compete with this new interloper. Many biologists are beginning to recommend culling the barred owl to allow for the spotted owl population to rebound. Another threat facing the spotted owl due to the barred owl is their ability to hybridize. Both owls are closely related and can crossbreed, thus creating a whole new set of issues for the spotted owl population.

The diet of the barred owl is highly variable with rodents such as voles and mice making up the majority of what it eats. They may also eat reptiles, amphibians, insects, birds, and even fish. Many fishermen have reported seeing barred owls roosting and hunting from docks. At least five species of fish have been found in dissected owl pellets including bullhead and bass. They will wade into the shallows of a stream, creek, small river or lake and capture fish and even crayfish. The crayfish eating barred owls often have pink-tinged feathers under their wings. This is caused by the keratin in the crayfishes exoskeleton, much like the flamingo turns pink because of the shrimp it consumes.

We are all familiar with the story of Harriet Tubman and the underground railroad, but what many may not know is she was an avid naturalist and had a deep connection to the natural world. She was known to have used the call of the barred owl to communicate to individuals seeking freedom on the railroad when it was safe to come out of hiding. 

 Several years ago I received a call from a lady I know who said she had an owl stuck in her chimney. It had been there for many hours and did not seem to know how to climb back out and sitting just above the damper clinging to the bricks. At the time I was working at the Conservation Department as a naturalist and after checking with the agents they said it was fine for me to go try and help. I showed up with my daughter to help me and we set to work to try and free this very scared owl from his current predicament. After opening the damper and looking up into the shaft I could see the owl holding on for what appeared dear life. When he spotted a face looking up at him, he was even less encouraged to come down. We debated as to the best way to proceed and finally it was decided to use a telescoping rod to dislodge his feet and hopefully get him to drop onto the soft pads we had put down in the bottom of the fireplace. After several attempts we were successful and he landed with an undignified plop. Free of the chimney we now had to get him out of the house without causing injury to him or destruction to the house. Suddenly he came to his senses and took off flying right for my friends head and she hit the floor with a scream. It was total chaos for several minutes before he spotted the light coming in through the front door. He flew to the door, but was hesitant to fly outside. After some gentle coaxing he finally realized he was free to fly and with those large wings he lifted off and flew out the front door as if he always did these sort of things. Parked in front of the house were two men working on their car. The look on their faces as they witnessed this large raptor fly out of my friends house was priceless. It was an unforgettable experience to say the least. 

Babies have been fledgings in recent weeks to start their own lives in new territories and the song of the barred owl will continue to ring out “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all?”

Sunday, April 23, 2023

Dickcissel---the poster bird of the prairie

Several years ago, I was invited to attend a bioblitz in southern Missouri on one of the few prairies remaining in our state. For those that do not know what a bio blitz is; it is an annual event usually hosted by environmental-minded groups to inventory the plant and animal life found on a prairie or other natural area. For this particular blitz I was there as the “expert” entomologist. I am far from an expert, but I am not one to turn down an opportunity to hang out with a group of like-minded people with something to teach me. The prairie is a wonderous place with so much diversity in plant, bird, and insect life. One of first things I began to notice were these beautiful birds perched on fence posts in various spots around the prairie. They resembled meadowlarks but were much smaller. They were too colorful and big to be sparrows and since I had never seen one before I wasn’t sure what they were. Soon I had an ID from one of the bird experts in attendance.

This beautiful little bird was a Dickcissel, originally, they were referred to as black throated buntings. Scientists have had an exceedingly difficult time classifying these birds and they have undergone several classifications over the years before finally landing in their current group classification of Cardenolide. Males are very colorful and somewhat resemble meadowlarks with their black collar and yellow breast. Females on the other hand are muted in coloration by comparison and look more like sparrows. Both sexes have a yellow line above their eye, a rusty patch on their wings and a light-colored conical bill that very much resembles the bill on a cardinal. Which is one of the reasons they are currently classified in the same family group as cardinals. Although as more information is learned about them, this could likely change. The dickcissel gets its name from the call they make while in flight. It can vary some in the syllables as well as the intensity, but it usually goes something like this “dick-dick-dickcissel-cissel.” This unmistakable call helps ornithologist identify them during nighttime migration events and allows for monitoring of population densities.


They are a common sight throughout the Midwest during the late spring and summer months. These birds migrate back into the United States late in May or early June, which is much later than most birds returning to their breeding grounds. Dickcissels nest near the ground and typically build their nests in grassy meadows, prairies, or other tall grass areas. Males may have as many as six mates, although two or three is typical. Males will vigorously guard their territory from rival males. While the males are busy puffing out their chest and chasing off the competition, the females are looking for suitable sites to build their nest and lay their eggs. Once the eggs hatch the female will rear them to full fledglings on her own. After the young leave the nest, they go their separate ways. Unlike many bird species that mate for life, the dickcissel is a polygamist and will have multiple mates and a whole new set of mates the following year. Young bachelor males often do not get the chance to mate, but they will have the opportunity next season.

In their winter range they may be a pest to grain farmers because of their habit of forming large flocks and feeding on the grain seeds. Early in fall these birds begin forming loose flocks that gradually grow in number by mid to late fall. It is common for a flock heading south to contain millions of birds. It is this tendency to congregate in such large flocks that causes so much trouble for grain farmers in their overwintering sites. They head south to Southern Mexico, Central America and Northern South America where Venezuela is especially plagued with these birds and have traditionally used poisons and other methods of ridding themselves of these birds. Fortunately, various bird groups and other environmental groups have done an excellent job of educating farmers in these areas on other methods to scare of a hungry flock of these birds. In the Midwest breeding grounds, dickcissels face several additional threats: cowbird parasitism, the destruction of nests and nestlings by mowing machines, and loss of habitat due to changing agricultural practices and succession. Additionally, the use of pesticides kills off the insect population they depend on while rearing young. With the increase in wind turbines, we are also seeing an increase in deaths during migration events when birds fly too close to the spinning blades. The wintering population of these birds can become highly concentrated at certain favored roosting sites. A single "successful" poisoning event of a large flock of roosting birds could significantly reduce the world population of dickcissel. Currently the estimated population is at twenty-seven million, which sounds like a lot of dickcissels, but we all known how quickly that can change…. just think about the Carolina parakeet or the passenger pigeon that historically numbered in the millions and are now extinct.

Formerly common in farming regions of the eastern states, especially on the Atlantic coastal plain, the dickcissel disappeared from that region by the middle of the last century and is now most numerous in the Midwest. It appears in small numbers on the East Coast during the fall migration and on occasion will visit winter feeding stations, often with house sparrows. 

Since my initial introduction to the dickcissel on the prairie that weekend in southern Missouri, I have become more cognizant of the species around me and frequently notice the dickcissel on our farm. They are always a welcome sight in the summer as they sit on the fence posts singing “dick-dick-dickcissel-cissel.”

Monday, April 17, 2023

NoMO Trash April

Very few things will get an outdoor enthusiast as angry as being faced with someone’s litter, or trash if you will. We have all experienced it, walking our favorite trails, visiting our favorite parks or other natural areas, and coming face-to-face with garbage. This can be anything from soda cans and beer bottles to dirty diapers and old tires. It makes no difference what the trash is, the results are the same, unsightly litter that harms the environment and the animals that live there. It has now become the responsibility of conscientious, civic minded individuals to clean up after those who won’t clean up after themselves. Countless tons of trash are picked up each year in Missouri alone, by organizations that recognize the importance of removing this potentially harmful litter before it causes untold amounts of damage to our soil, water, and wildlife.

This is frustrating to say the least, after all why should we have to be the ones to pick up after those irresponsible individuals who made the mess? We do it because we know it is the right thing to do. Working as a naturalist gives me the opportunity to educate the youth of our state about the importance of cleaning up after ourselves. The Missouri Conservation Department designates April as NoMO Trash Month and launches a campaign each year to educate Missourians about the cause-and-effect issues of litter. We encourage the philosophy “If you pack it in, pack it out!” Don’t rely on other people to pick up after you.

I came face-to-face with one such cause and effect of littering. One evening several years ago, I was out walking around the backyard when I heard my daughter yelling. I could only make out “Mom, hurry, SNAKE!” I ran to see what the commotion was about and discovered a Western (black) rat snake near the backdoor. It was about two feet long and had most likely just come out of hibernation. This in and of itself is not unusual, we see a lot of black snakes in our yard. However, this was the first time I’ve encountered one with a plastic band around its midsection. I soon realized this snake was in trouble and would not survive another season with this bracelet of trash around its middle. It would not be able to eat properly and who knows what other internal damage the snake would end up suffering. I quickly grabbed the snake before it could disappear and earned a bite for my trouble. How could I blame the snake? It had just woken up from 5 months of winter and was most likely hungry, it had a restrictive band around it that probably made mobility uncomfortable and was now being snatched up off the ground by a giant potential predator. I’d bite me too!

I found my husband and showed him the snake and asked him to help me help the snake. We debated for a few minutes on the best way to proceed, and ultimately decided that sawing the plastic ring off was the safest and best way to remove it. I held the snake, under strict instructions from my husband to not let the snake bite him! This was no easy feat, I had to maintain a firm grip on the snake without squeezing too hard, I had to hold onto the piece of plastic to keep it from moving so that my husband could saw it, and I had to make sure the snake was not coming into contact with the saw blade…..I only have two hands! After 20 or 30 minutes we finally had the band sawed but we could not get it off the snake! The snake was still too fat to slide it off and I was about ready to cry. All that work in vain? Then my husband got an idea, he retrieved a handy-dandy tool that spread the plastic apart. He held the plastic open, so I could “feed” the snake through it and finally free it. I looked at the snakes wounds and fortunately they did not look severe. There was no blood, and nothing was festering. This snake was lucky and will recover from his experience. I released him to a safe place in the yard to regain his strength and to hide and lick his wounds so to speak.

Many would say….”so what, that is just one snake, and I don’t like them anyway!” No animal deserves to suffer a slow agonizing death that was preventable in the first place. This piece of plastic originated in the crawl space under our master bathroom. We hired a plumber several years ago to do some work in the bathroom; he had to cut various pieces of PVC pipe and left behind his litter. If this person had taken a few minutes and picked up after himself this snake would have never ended up in such a predicament.

UPDATE: I saw this particular snake several years later in my front yard, and he was doing well, although he was still showing the scars from his experience.

I for one appreciate the snakes that live in my yard and on the eighty-six acres we own. They provide rodent control, and I can honestly say they do a superb job of it to. I have not found a sign of a mouse in our house in many years!

Would left behind by the PVC
Many animals are not so lucky and never get rescued from the litter they find themselves entrapped in. They suffocate, strangle, and die slow agonizing deaths. The Conservation Department has a turtle by the name of Peanut. Peanut is a red ear slider that found itself stuck in the plastic rings that soda pop is carried in. He could not remove the plastic himself and the plastic did not dissolve. Year after year Peanut carried his plastic ring everywhere he went. He grew, but the plastic ring did not expand with his growth, consequently he became malformed. He was eventually found by some fishermen who took him to a veterinarian. They were able to remove the plastic ring and after x-rays determined he was one lucky turtle and suffered no internal injuries. He will forever be misshapen and resemble the peanut after which he is named. Peanut is an ambassador for the “no more littering campaign” and travels the state sharing his story with the public. If you want a chance to see Peanut in person, he makes a guest appearance each year to the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia. A quick search on the internet will reveal many such stories about animals suffering unnecessarily due to the litter left behind by irresponsible humans. 

 With the return of spring and outdoor activities we will all be spending more time outside, remember to pack it out, if you pack it in, it only takes a few minutes to do the right thing……. all the wild animals will thank you.

Monday, April 10, 2023

Witches Fingers

One of the most unique, if not downright unusual fungi to be found in our backyard gardens is one called the dog stinkhorn, or witches fingers. These oddities in the fungi world are related to the puff ball mushrooms, but have a feature that puff balls lack. They stink! The common name of stinkhorn is not by accident, when scientists first encountered them I am sure the conversations were straight up as strange as the mushroom itself. The scientific name is mutinus caninus, which literally translates to "dog-like penis.".  This phallic-shaped mushroom reminded early mushroom fans of certain body parts of their canine friends and thus earned the mushroom a moniker that is as off putting as the smell associated with it.

These mushrooms start life buried in loose soil, mulch and other loose organic matter as an egg-shaped bulb. During rainy, cooler seasons, like autumn and late spring the “egg” will crack open and the stem of the stinkhorn will emerge and grow at a rapid pace. It is reported to grow six inches in less than six hours!  The orange-pink mushroom has a slime called gleba covering the top portion of the stalk.

This is the goo that produces the smell associated with the stinkhorn. It is said to smell like a cat litter box to some, and to others like rotting meat, only stronger in its intensity. Because of this odor gardeners around the globe are on a mission to eradicate it from their beautiful flower beds. After all we cannot have anything that smells like cat feces interfering with the delightful smell of our roses. It is an absolute assault to the olfactory system. How did the stinkhorn find its way into the gardens of amateur and professional horticulturists, botanists and other gardening aficionados? By way of the mulch and soil they use of course. The spores of this fungus live in mulch and soil and when those substances are purchased and placed in our gardens and yards, we transport the spores and viola, we have a smorgasbord of stinky fungi seemingly overnight.

Not all is bad however, these mushrooms are very competent at breaking down organic matter and making your soil richer and healthier. With a more nutrient rich soil, your flowers and other plants will benefit. The stinkhorn itself cannot harm you or your plants. However, the hot boiling water and bleach solution many use to rid themselves of this uninvited, stinky garden intruder may. The gleba covering the tip of the horn, because of its very stinky compounds, attracts flies, ants and other insects who find themselves slogging around in a gooey substance that would be much like us mucking around in thick mud. They take spores of the stinkhorn with them when they finally divest themselves from what they assumed would be tasty meal. Each time the fly or ant stops in a new location, spores are left behind, just like bees transporting pollen. Thus allowing the stinkhorn to conquer gardens one mulchy path at a time. Once the rain washes the stinky goo from the stalk of the mushroom, creatures like carrion beetles, burying beetles and even snails or slugs may find them a tasty addition to their diet. It is not uncommon to find stinkhorns with holes eaten from them hinting at a dinner time visit from one of our other garden visitors. The one above was feasted on by an American carrion beetle ( he is visible on the side of the stalk).

There are twenty-two species of stinkhorns within this family of mushrooms. Each one has a unique and interesting shape, and most have some sort of stinky attractant to get insects to aid them in spreading their spores to new areas. It is reported they are edible, but how a person could get past the smell and convince themselves to try it is beyond me to understand. The edibility is debatable among mycologists and depending upon who you ask you may be told DO NOT eat or go ahead, they are delicious. I guess it is up to each person to decide. In Ireland and England their popularity is much more readily accepted, and some chefs equate their taste and texture to a radish that tastes like a water chestnut. It is the egg-like structure, in its earliest stages that is edible, once it is a fruiting body above the ground it is best to avoid it entirely. These witches eggs, as they are sometimes called should be peeled and cooked well before consuming. As with all mushrooms always make sure you have a correct identification, if in doubt DO NOT EAT!  The early egg stage of this mushroom is similar in appearance and texture to the early stage of another mushroom we absolutely want to avoid and that is the deaths cap mushroom. Supposedly the stinkhorn egg will have a gooey green center…sounds appetizing, doesn’t it?

As you work in your gardens this spring, sprucing them up with fresh mulch and soil keep an eye open for the witches eggs. You can remove them and with any luck you will succeed in keeping these stinky little fungi from sprouting their witches fingers. Or if you are like me, let them stay and watch as nature does its thing, and your soil becomes richer for it. 


Monday, April 3, 2023

Red Milk Snake

Red touches black, friend to Jack; red touches yellow you're a dead fellow! How many of us have heard this little rhyme or one similar to it to help us distinguish the harmless milk snake from the potentially dangerous coral snake? I think most of us have. It reminds us that animals often use mimicry to help them survive in their day-to-day lives. Mimicry is used by many animals to avoid predation. The viceroy mimics the monarch, which contains a toxic poison gleaned from milkweed plants they feed on as caterpillars. Potential predators know this and avoid anything colored like a monarch. The viceroy through adaptation has cashed in on this by adopting the same coloring and markings. So much so they often fool humans into a wrong identification.


Milk snakes are just one example in a long line of mimics that have benefited from looking like their potentially dangerous counterparts. The premise is "if you look dangerous, you must BE dangerous." However, the reality is this may not always work in nature, just like with the monarch and the viceroy, milk snakes are often subjected to mistaken identity. There are many instances of milk snakes being born with aberrant (odd) markings, colorations, or patterns that do not follow what we consider the norm. For example, there are milk snakes that exhibit all black coloration with yellow striping or marks. Or some that have a red and black checkered-like pattern with orange markings on their head. One thing that is apparent-----Mother Nature does not always follow the rules. There are actually more harmless species in the United States that fit the “kill a fellow” part of the rhyme than there are coral snakes that the rhyme is designed for. Did you know there are four species of non-venomous snakes in the United States that feature coloration like the coral snakes, even going so far as to have the red touching yellow? So how is a person to know what snake they are looking at? The best thing to do is research.
Learn to identify snakes by other key characteristics, and not rely solely on color and pattern. While it is true that this rhyme started somewhere and probably has at least some basis in fact, and in most cases may guide you to a correct assumption in your ability to identify the snake you are faced with. In Missouri red milk snakes are the typical red, black and white, although some may be muddy looking and be more grayish in color than white and the red may be shades of orange-red, copper, or a dull red. Some are vibrant fire engine red and stark white with black stripes. So even among Missouri’s population there is high variability in the coloration. However, the pattern is nearly always the same with red, touching black.


Red milk snakes are related to the family of snakes that include king snakes, and like king snakes are fond of a serpent diet. They frequently feed on other snakes, including venomous snakes. Anytime I have ever encountered red milk snakes it has been in the same habitat as copperheads or rattlesnakes. This may elude to their preference for or certainly their ability to eat vipers. Their diet will also consist of small lizards, and various rodents. Reaching lengths of approximately three to four feet they are medium-sized snakes with a somewhat docile nature. They will bite or musk to defend themselves like any snake may, but they are not as feisty about confrontation as other snake species can be, say for instance a water snake!

Perhaps no other snake in our country has as much myth surrounding it as the milk snake. When Europeans were settling into their new home in a new country and were faced with the milk snake, it reminded them of the dangerous species they were familiar with in their home country. Adders are a European snake that somewhat resembles a milk snake, enough so that these early settlers often referred to the harmless milk snake as the checkered adder or spotted adder. Consequently, many milk snakes were needlessly killed from a gross lack of understanding about the strange fauna of this unfamiliar territory they were living in. This mistaken identity and misinformation persists today in much of the milk snakes range and they are still persecuted. It seems old habits and wives tales do not disappear overnight. On top of that, many who recognize the milk snake have been informed at some point in their lives that they got their name from their habit of stealing milk straight from the udders of livestock in the barns they frequent. While this sounds ridiculous to our ears today, in those days people were often more naïve and knowledge was not at their fingertips as it is today. We can laugh at this seemingly ignorant belief, but to those early settlers having spotted a snake slithering out of their milk barn---- that snake could have only been there for one reason----to help itself to a tasty milk treat straight from the source. Not once giving thought to the amount of rodents also attracted to that barn and the feed within. Little did they realize that snake was removing potentially dangerous and damaging vermin.

Thankfully, there is a shift taking place in our country and people are beginning to understand the importance snakes play in a healthy ecosystem. While it is true that snakes generate fear in people and many are still needlessly killed, fortunately this is not as prevalent as it once was. Younger generations are adopting more positive attitudes about snakes and are playing an active role in educating older generations about the importance of snakes. Even those who loath or fear snakes often admit they understand that snakes play an important role in rodent control and balancing the environments where they live. Next time you reach for the hoe to eradicate your yard of an unwelcome slithery visitor, consider taking a step back and appreciate the role this guest is playing in keeping rodents away from your home.