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E-mails to a Wildlife Biologist: Answers to Your Random Wildlife Questions

E-mails to a Wildlife Biologist: Answers to Your Random Wildlife Questions

While doctors may find themselves assessing a friend’s mystery pain at dinner parties, and lawyers field inheritance questions at family reunions, wildlife biologists are often on the receiving end of “what is this [insert unknown bird, reptile, plant here]?!” emails. Some questions are easy to answer, while others more obscure, but all are always interesting. We thought it might be fun to answer and share some recent wildlife questions from friends and family. They run the gamut from croaking toads to howling coyotes, tick checks to frost flowers. Hopefully one or two may answer a wildlife question you’ve wondered about.

Where do fish go when it floods?
This year, much of Central Texas witnessed “historic” floods. We’ve all seen news footage of formerly slowly meandering creeks now turned into raging, white-capped rivers. Ever wonder where the fish go when their home turns from calm to calamitous? Are they all swept down river? In a nutshell, no. Fish hunker down wherever they can find slack water and protection from the fast current – in reeds and woody debris along the banks, near the bottom where the rapid current eases, and in smaller, more slowly moving tributaries. The Llano River Watershed Alliance posted an interesting take on the impact of flooding on fish following the devastating May 2015 floods. Large flood events can clear out vegetation-choked channels and restore diversity, and while some fish such as Largemouth Bass and Flathead Catfish may find it more difficult locating smaller prey now dispersed across a wider area, others, like the Alligator Gar, take advantage of the floodplain to spawn. Learn more from How Do Fish React During Floods?.

Why does it seem like ticks are no longer a problem?
Many of us who have lived in Texas for a few decades or so no doubt recall the days of being thoroughly checked for ticks after we spent time outside and, most likely, we had at least one firmly attached little sucker on us. But, today, few of us have probably even seen a tick in our neck of the woods. So, what happened to ticks (not that we miss them)? Along with decimated quail populations, you can blame (thank?) fire ants for the tick’s decline. Fire ants are voracious tick eaters, so as the number of imported red fire ants continues to grow so, too, the population of ticks declines. But don’t feel too warm and fuzzy toward these non-native pests, in addition to quail and songbird populations, they have also played a role in the decline of other beloved species including the Texas horned lizard. Learn more about what fire ants eat on extension.org.

Why do tree leaves change colors?
If you’ve ever been to Lost Maples State Park, you know that the East Coast and its famed fall colors has got nothing on Vanderpool, Texas, in autumn. As National Wildlife Federation explains our “evergreens can hang on to their leaves through winter, because their foliage is coated in a wax that helps protect against cold, and their cells bear anti-freeze chemicals that ward off winter’s worst woes.” But for broadleaf, or deciduous, trees, as winter approaches, “they undergo chemical and physical changes that produce autumn hues.” As daylight declines, the production of chlorophyll, the green pigment that allows plants to absorb sunlight and turn it into food that can be stored for winter dormancy, slows until it finally stops. Then, as the “green pigment ebbs from the leaf, other pigments hidden in the greenery during warm months begin to appear.” The yellow, orange, brown, red, and purple colors, that have been there all along but are no longer masked by green pigment once the chlorophyll disappears, can now be seen. For much more on the most colorful hallmark of fall, see Why Leaves Fall From Trees in Autumn.

Will hummingbirds die if they don’t eat every 10 minutes?
Hummingbirds have the highest metabolism of any warm-blooded animal. For some context, their metabolic rate is roughly 100 times that of an elephant, and their heart rate can reach as high as 1,260 beats per minute. Because they burn food so quickly, hummingbirds eat often and more than their own weight in food each day. While it is true a hummingbird might very quickly starve to death if it does not eat in a relatively short period of time, they are able to survive overnight without eating by going into a state of “torpor” to conserve energy. During this sleep-like state, their body temperature can drop by 50 degrees and heart slow to fewer than 50 beats per minute. Breathing may even stop for a period of time. In short, hummingbirds really do need to eat every 10 minutes or so during active daylight hours, and they could starve to death within an hour, but when they are unable to feed they can survive by entering a state of torpor.

Why do toads croak when it rains?
Remember Sea-Monkeys? They would come to life when you added water? If you’ve ever heard a cacophony of croaks when it rains, you may have wondered if the same principle applied for toads. After days, weeks, even months here in Texas without a single ribbit, when the rain finally comes, the toads come out. In a hot, sunlit environment they are more likely to dry out, so not only do they simply prefer a wet, dark environment, it’s also prime time for mating in no small part because they’re feeling good. The croaking is male frogs trying to attract mates and warn off rival suitors. When it rains, toads make hay while the sun doesn’t shine.

How do birds stay warm in the winter?
In the autumn, birds prepare for the coming cold by molting and then growing in more and thicker feathers, as well as eating more to add weight and layers of fat. You’ve probably seen a bird perched on a fence or branch, looking particularly fluffed and plumped, but that’s not just because they ate more; by fluffing their feathers, birds add in an insulating layer of air. Trees and plants with dense, thick branches, such as Ashe juniper, provide shelter from the chilling wind, rain, and snow. Smaller birds, such as chickadees, also survive the severe cold by going into a state of torpor; their body temperatures drop and breathing, heartbeat, and metabolism slow to conserve energy. Want to know how other Texas wildlife stay warm in the winter, check out Coping With the Cold: How Texas Wildlife Stay Warm in Winter.

What is a “frost flower”?
After a blast of cold weather overnight, some of us have awakened to the sight of what looks like small white bags blown all over our property, but closer inspection reveals the suspected litter to be frost flowers looking more like spun sugar. As explained by Texas Parks and Wildlife, this beautiful and rare phenomenon happens “when air temperatures are freezing but the ground still is warm enough for the plant’s root system to be active. Plant juices flow from these roots up into the stem, where the cold air freezes them. As the moisture in the plant freezes, the ice crystals push out through the stem…Only a few species of plants are capable of producing these icy creations. The frostweed, Verbesinia virginica, which commonly occurs in Texas, is one of them.” More on frost flowers from Texas Parks and Wildlife.

Why do coyotes howl?
A coyote’s howl on a cold, dark winter’s night can make you believe their chilling song is dedicated just to frightening you, but the actual reason is that they’re calling their family pack back together after a period of individual hunting. Howling also notifies other packs that this is their territory. And while the howling may sound like it’s coming from a large pack, in reality, it may be just “an auditory illusion called the ‘beau geste’ effect. Because of the variety of sounds produced by each coyote, and the way sound is distorted as it passes through the environment, two of these tricksters can sound like seven or eight animals.” Learn more from Coyotes: Decoding Their Yips, Barks, and Howls.

Why are Purple Martin houses white?
Not only does white housing seem to help attract Purple Martins, the light color reflects heat, helping regulate the temperature and keep nestlings cooler. For more details on ways to attract a colony to your property, visit Wild-Bird-Watching.com.

Is it really illegal to pick bluebonnets?
Despite what you may have heard and long abided by, it’s not against the law to pick bluebonnets. But while it’s not illegal to pick them, it is illegal to trespass on private property covered in bluebonnets. And, legal or not, as Texas Twisted notes “it’s just inconsiderate… They’re not there just for you. Take all the pictures you want, but leave the little beauties for the rest of us.” Learn more about the origins of the bluebonnet urban legend on TexasTwisted.com.

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