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  • What You Need to Know About Feeding Wildlife in Your Backyard

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    Tags: feedings, animals, wildlife, birds, squirrels

    Created: 10/31/2014      Updated: 8/8/2016

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    I have recently received many questions about feeding animals so I thought a general discussion about backyard feeding of animals like birds and squirrels would be useful. Feeding animals can be fun and it provides an opportunity to watch the animals closely. On the other hand, feeding can concentrate diseases dangerous to the animals and sometimes to you, and can attract pests and predators.  

    Birds on birdfeeder

    To deal with the disease problem keep your feeders, baths, and the area you feed in clean and sunny. Also keep an eye on frequently used perches and loafing areas. Remove food debris daily, hose down everything with water, use soap when appropriate (I like Dawn best—skip anti-bacterial varieties) and use a mild bleach solution to regularly clean bird baths, feeders and other appliances. Rinse and dry well. UV light is your friend -- it kills most disease causing organisms pretty quickly but it doesn’t penetrate shade or underneath objects. 

    You might also consider moving your feeding site around. It’s difficult to remove every last bit of chaff, crumbs, and poop, but ants, earthworm, millipedes and many other garden organisms will do the final cleanup for you. While these invertebrates are beneficial components of our neighborhoods, rats and mice are pests that will also move in to clean up debris from your feeding stations. The reason rats and mice are a problem is because they can cause substantial economic damage through their gnawing and foraging activities. More importantly, they can carry diseases that can be readily contracted by humans. Many municipalities have banned bird feeders simply because they quickly become rodent feeders and thus a public health concern. By keeping a scrupulously clean feeding station, you greatly minimize the chance of making your yard a vector of human or wildlife disease.

    Squirrel eating

    Although you may have certain species in mind when you put out a feeder, many species will be influenced by the additional food you have introduced to the environment. To maximize the chances of seeing your target species, make sure you are providing the most appropriate food. If you want to see goldfinch, you must supply thistle seeds. If you supply hazelnuts you might see squirrels and woodpeckers, but sparrows will ignore you. Cracked corn is, in general, just a filler that does little to attract the species most people want to see. If it is present in your seed mix, there’s a good chance it will be tossed out of the feeder in favor of more palatable food like millet only to later attract rodents. Regardless of what you put out though, you will also attract non-target species. Sugary hummingbird feeders will also give you a chance to watch a variety of bee species. Seed feeders will often bring squirrels to your yard, but the songbirds they attract will also bring raptors. These birds of prey can’t feed their young on seeds, they must have meat. Don’t feel badly if you find feathers and other sign of a predation even hear your feeder. This is simply an indication that nature is at work in your neighborhood maintaining the strength of your avian friends and increasing biodiversity.

    If you want to minimize predation you can feed infrequently or move your feeder around regularly. While this will keep the predators guessing, it will also keep your target species guessing so you might not see the large and regular concentrations of birds that you would with a more regular feeding time and place. Of course, if you are unlucky enough to live in a place where cats roam at will, nothing you do will be enough to prevent predation and you will have less diversity at your feeders.

    Finally, when choosing a place to put your feeder, make sure you don’t become the predator — via your house. Windows can kill a lot of birds. During the day, birds usually hit windows because of a mirror effect where the window looks like open sky or a sheltering bush. At night, lights lure birds too close. There are many online resources to help you determine how to prevent your house from becoming a deathtrap. Making the windows visible is important. It’s hard to avoid putting feeders in places where there is some danger from windows though, since a primary reason for feeding animals is to see them better. So, in general, feeders should be sited close to the windows. This not only improves viewing but it also limits the danger of windows for birds because, if they are frightened when at the feeder and take off in the direction of the window, they aren’t flying very fast when they hit it. If the feeder is further, the bird gathers enough speed to cause a concussion when it hits.

    Steve Sullivan, Senior Curator of Urban Ecology

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  • Join the Chicago Herpetological Society for Cold-Blooded Weekends at the Museum

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    Tags: living collections, herpetology, snakes, reptiles, amphibians, turtles, museum events

    Created: 10/20/2014      Updated: 8/8/2016

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    The first full weekend of every month, the Nature Museum becomes a herpetologist haven! That's when the Chicago Herpetological Society and the Junior Herp Society hold their monthly meetings, and invite the public to join in on the fun. What is the Herpetological Society? In this post, the Chicago Herpetological Society's Rich Lamszus introduces us to it.

    Chicago Herpetological Society logoJunior Herp Society logo

    The Chicago Junior Herpetological Society

    The Chicago Junior Herpetological Society is about sharing the love of amphibians and reptiles with the younger generation, and fostering an appreciation of wildlife and nature through educational speakers and hands-on interaction.

    Children holding baby snakes in Junior Herp Society meeting

    The goal of the CJHS is to establish a learning environment where younger kids are mentored by older kids with knowledge of reptiles and amphibians, under adult supervision, in the beautiful museum setting. The regular monthly meetings of the Chicago Junior Herpetological Society take place at The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, on the Sunday of the first full weekend every month, from noon till about 1:30. Meetings are free to members of the CHS and visitors to the museum. 

    The next meeting will be on November 2 and will be our second anniversary meeting. Our speaker will be Yvette Mendez and her topic will be Reptile Parents and Reptile Babies. Colleen’s Critter Corner will feature frilled lizards and blue tongued skinks and differences in keeping them. 

    You can learn more about the CJHS here.

    The Chicago Herpetological Society

    The Chicago Herpetological Society is a non-profit all volunteer organization dedicated to the conservation of all wildlife, especially reptiles and amphibians, the cooperation of amateur and professional herpetologists toward a more complete understanding of herpetofauna, and the education of the general public about these often misunderstood but fascinating animals.​

    Visitors as Junior Herp Society meeting

    The CHS, established in 1966, is made up of hundreds of people who love reptiles and amphibians and want to do what they can to help other people understand this not-so-mainstream devotion. From encouraging the public not to fear snakes, to helping someone learn how to take care of her brand new gecko, we are spreading knowledge and spreading compassion for these creatures who are so often labeled in a negative way. We welcome anyone who shares our passion to join us! General meetings of the Chicago Herpetological Society are held on the last Wednesday every month at 7:30pm at the Notebaert, with the exception of Christmas Eve this year. Meetings are free to attend. 

    The next meeting on October 29 will feature news and announcements, an awesome raffle and our speaker will be Chris Gillette. The topic will be “Behavior of American alligators and crocodiles in captive and wild situations”. We are also gearing up for next year’s ReptileFest, the nation’s largest educational herpetological event. ReptileFest 2015 will be on April 11 and 12, from 10am to 5pm in the University of Illinois Phys Ed building. Mark your calendars, this will be the 22nd year of this wonderful show. You can learn more about the Herpetological Society here, and learn more about ReptileFest here.

    Hope to see you there!

    Rich Lamszus

    CHS, CJHS

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  • Rodent “Pests” and How to Deal With Them

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    Tags: rats, mice, squirrels, chipmunks, pests, pest removal

    Created: 10/15/2014      Updated: 8/8/2016

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    First, let’s get one thing straight. Pests are only pests because they’re doing something that interferes with something you want to do. Western ranchers view wolves and bison as pests; pelicans and cormorants are pests to some fishermen while snakes and otter are pests to others; a bobcat is beautiful to most people but can be a pest to a chicken farmer.

    Squirrel in trash can

    That said, rodents can significantly interfere with some of our goals related to our gardens, homes, and health. The range of solutions to the problem is more or less the same regardless of whether we’re dealing with a mouse, vole, chipmunk, tree squirrel, or even a lot of non-rodents.

    Poison

    I don’t like to use poison in most cases. First of all, any poison that can kill one kind of mammal, can kill any other kind of mammal; this includes you, your neighbors, and many pets. Such poisons usually also kill birds, reptiles, and fish. 

    Block of rodent poison

    To reduce the likelihood that “non-target” species will ingest the poison, it is mixed with wax, grain, and flavoring to form a little block that is then put into a plastic box that the rodent has to crawl into to access the poison. However, if the poison killed quickly, the rodent population would eventually figure out that they shouldn’t eat it. Instead, many of these poisons work by making the gastrointestinal tract leaky. Essentially, over time, whatever ate the poison will bleed to death internally.

    Poisoning is a slow death. Worse, the animal may die in a place where a dog or cat, hawk or owl, or some other animal may eat it, then die of secondary poisoning. Assuming the poisoned pest is not eaten, it may die inside your wall or crawl space, often making quite a stink. The stink is relatively short term though and when it goes away you may think all your troubles are over. However, you now have a mummified body in your wall which will attract a wide range of insects, notably the Dermestid.

    Dermestids are a kind of beetle which, as larvae, feed on dead, dry flesh. They will also feed on leather, fur, wool, and many other fibers and textiles. They can very quickly build up large populations even on something as small as a mouse carcass. Eventually they spread through the house and will happily eat that nice jacket you stored away during the summer, or your carpets, even the feathers in your pillow. Having eliminated a single rodent pest by poison, you now have hundreds or thousands of insect pests to deal with.

    Sometimes though, poison is the only solution. It can be used very effectively when deployed and monitored by trained and dedicated people. But, in a household situation, poison is rarely a good solution and often causes more problems than it solves. Instead, try one of these alternatives:

    Trapping

    For a problem that is acute – that is you have a pest currently causing damage – a trap can solve the problem quickly. Snap traps, box traps (like the Tomohawk or Havahart for large animals, or the Sherman for small ones), repeating traps, and sticky traps are all options, but some a better than others.

    Rodent snap trap

    I like snap traps. When baited correctly in a household situation, they rarely capture non-target species. They usually kill cleanly and humanely without any training on the part of the operator. They don’t need to be monitored because either they caught something and killed it or they didn’t catch anything. If you’re afraid of catching your fingers while setting traditional snap-traps, shop around for plastic ones that can be set by simply stepping on a treadle.

    Box traps and repeating traps are very useful but have two problems for the homeowner. They need to be monitored daily to ensure trapped individuals don’t suffer for lack of food and water. Monitoring has the added problem of disturbing the site and reducing trap success. The worst problem though, is that once you catch something, it has to be killed. Most homeowners simply don’t have the skills to humanely and cleanly kill rodents.

    The challenges of monitoring and euthanasia are compounded with sticky traps. From the moment the animal enters the trap, it begins suffering. These traps capture a wide range of non-target species, including reptiles, amphibians, and birds. Vegetable oil can be used to free an animal from the goo but a residue will remain that can impede movement and grooming, and the stress of handling is often enough to kill the animals a short time later. There are small sticky traps with a very thin coating of goo that are designed to aid in insect monitoring. I use these regularly but I don’t see any good reason to use the sticky traps designed to catch rodents.

    In household situations, I advocate strongly for snap traps. Regardless of situation or trap though, trap placement will strongly influence trapping success.

    Steve Sullivan, Senior Curator of Urban Ecology

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  • Fall Plant Factoids

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    Tags: fall, autumn, fall plants, autumn plants, fall facts

    Created: 10/8/2014      Updated: 8/8/2016

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    (Do you need an introductory paragraph? No. No you do not. So I’m not writing one. If you’re unsure about what subject matter you will encounter in the following paragraphs, please reread the title. Thank you for your understanding. This really saves me a ton of work.)

    Foliar Flagging

    Sumac exhibiting foliar flagging
    Sumac exhibiting foliar flagging

    You remember how you were taught in school that chlorophyll masks the other pigments present in leaves, and that when chlorophyll production stops in the fall, these pigments become visible? Of course you do, because you loved science, which makes you wholly superior to those mouth-breathers who’ve forgotten all about leaf pigmentation. But did you ever stop to wonder what those other pigments are doing in the leaves in the first place? Well, it turns out they might be doing lots of things. Like murder. Or something more benign, but equally fascinating, like foliar flagging.

    Let’s say you’re a sumac tree. You want birds to eat your berries, because they will then fly away, pooping out your progeny hither and yon like tiny, gross little Johnny Appleseeds. So you make your berries bright red and obvious to hungry birds. But birds are kind of dumb, so why stop with the berries? Why not turn your leaves a similar color, so even the most dim-witted and unobservant avian can’t help but notice you and your pretty berries, free for the munching? Turns out a number of trees and shrubs use this strategy – certain dogwoods and Virginia creeper to name a couple. 

    Conifers That Didn’t Get the Memo

    Dawn Redwood
    Dawn Redwood

    Ever have one of those dreams where you show up to school naked and everyone else is fully clothed? And then your substitute teacher shows up, except it’s Henry Kissinger in a clown costume, and he announces that he’s your real father? No? Just the first part, you say… Huh… Anyway, if you’re a Dawn Redwood, a Larch, a Tamarack, a Bald Cypress, or a Chinese Swamp Cypress, (or a Ginkgo, if you wanna be inclusive) you live out that archetypal Freudian quagmire every fall. All the other conifers are standing there fully clothed in green needles, while yours are falling away, one by one, until there you are all starkers, just in time for the coldest part of the year. Why? Aren’t there good reasons why needle-leaved plants are typically evergreen? Yes, but look at the big picture. There are advantages to having needle-shaped leaves: they retain water better, they’re less attractive to insects, and they take fewer nutrients to produce than broad leaves. And there are advantages to being deciduous: it avoids problems with freezing and over-drying in winter, reduces herbivory, and prevents breakage from snow and wind. So it’s not too surprising that some trees can make the seemingly contradictory “deciduous conifer” lifestyle work for them.

    Free Stuff You Can Eat

    Yew berries
    Yew berries

    Autumn is not just about pretty colors, falling leaves, and the sudden appearance of pumpkin spice everything. The fruits of many plants also mature at this time of year, making it the perfect time for nature snacking. Those aforementioned sumac berries, for example, make a nice tea. (You’ll want to sweeten it. It’s sour from malic acid, the same stuff that’s in a sour apple.) Or try some hackberries – they’re ripe when they’re smooth and dark brown. If you value your teeth, don’t bite down hard; just chew off the outer coating.  You’ll see why they’re also called sugarberries.

    If you’re feeling really adventurous, try a yew berry, but DO NOT EAT THE SEED INSIDE!! It’s poisonous. I’m serious about this, guys. Deadly. Freakin’. Poisonous. However, the flesh of the red ‘berry’ (not really a berry, but that’s a subject for a different blog post) is sweet, non-toxic, and sort of gelatinous. To be safe, squeeze the seed out, throw it away, and lick the fruity goop off your fingers. You’ll be glad you dared yourself to try it. 

    Seth Harper, Horticulturist

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