Archive | December 2013
The Golden-faced Charmer
We started at Britannia Point to check the rapids for two male Harlequin Ducks. We found them fairly quickly, along with several Common Goldeneyes, some mallards, a Red-breasted Merganser, and some distant Common Mergansers hugging the Quebec shore.
A Nocturnal Visitor
On Thursday night, just as we were finishing dinner, I noticed my cat Phaedra staring out the patio door, all hunched up with her ears flattened as if she were about to pounce. She typically adopts this posture when watching the squirrels or chipmunks that come up onto our back deck looking for peanuts, but as it was fully dark out I realized that something else must have caught her attention. We have had raccoons come up to our back door at night before (once), but I didn’t think she would see a raccoon as potential prey. When I went over to look, I found this guy instead:
It is either a White-footed Mouse or a Deer Mouse, both members of genus Peromyscus. These two species are almost impossible to tell apart unless you have one in your hand. Both are brown above and white below, a colour pattern that extends to the tail. Both have large ears which have little fur covering them and big, protruding eyes.
In Deer Mice, the two colours of the tail are sharply defined, while in White-footed Mice the line between the two is less distinct. Another characteristic which differentiates these two species is the length of the hind feet: Deer Mice generally have hind feet that are 22 mm or less, while White-footed Mice usually have hind feet 22 mm or more. The colour of the fur can also help distinguish these two species, however it is not a reliable trait as these two species have different geographic variations. In general the Deer Mouse has a richer, brownish or tawny pelage, whereas the White-footed Mouse tends to have a pelage that is more pinkish-buff or grayish, with scattered dark hairs.
Both of these mice are excellent climbers, and the White-footed Mouse is known to be a strong swimmer. Both species are commonly found occupying man-made structures such as barns, garages, storage sheds, and even houses. During the winter, the Deer Mouse often travels above-ground, which makes it vulnerable to nocturnal predators; their tiny skulls are one of the most common items found in regurgitated owl pellets.
The mouse appeared to be eating the red peanut skins that the squirrels had left behind earlier that day. I cracked open the door and took the below photo:
It got spooked after that, then fled into the night. This was only the second time I’ve seen a mouse feeding in my yard; though Phaedra has been checking the back deck every night since, we haven’t seen it again. Hopefully it survived the cold weather and the snowstorm we had this weekend!
When Owls and Airplanes Don’t Mix
I was sickened to hear that three Snowy Owls were purposely shot and killed at New York City’s JFK Airport this past weekend. Why? Even though they are protected from trapping and shooting (according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, anyway), they were added to the Port Authority’s list of birds it may kill to protect airplanes from bird strikes after one of them apparently resting (the article uses the term “nesting”) on top of a taxiway sign on a runway got sucked into an airplane turbine. Other birds that have been added to the “kill list” include Canada Geese, Red-winged Blackbirds, European Starlings, Rock Pigeons, American Crows, Double-crested Cormorants (huh?) and Mute Swans. Most of these birds gather together in huge flocks – sometimes consisting of hundreds of thousands of individuals – in the winter and during migration, and are considered pests as a result of the noise and the mess they leave behind. Snowy Owls, on the other hand, usually appear in singly or in small groups, and spend most of their time sitting still, whether on a sign, a rooftop, a treetop or the ground. They blend in so well with the winter landscape that most of the time you wouldn’t even notice if one was around.
This is turning out to be another irruption year, with hundreds of these beautiful white owls flying south in search of a safe, food-rich place to spend the winter. Snowy Owls depend on birds and small mammals to survive, in particular rabbits, hares, squirrels, weasels, mice and voles. As a result, Snowy Owls prefer large, open treeless places in which to hunt. With so many owls moving south again this winter, it is clear that there isn’t enough food up north for all of them. They are going to find it difficult enough to survive as it is without being placed on the Port Authority’s “kill list”, which even wildlife experts don’t understand as the owls “are not part of a large population and they are easy to catch and relocate, unlike seagulls.”
Logan Airport in Massachusetts does exactly that – instead of killing these majestic northern visitors, they capture and relocate them to a safer place. Not only that, but Logan Airport even attaches transmitters to the healthiest birds, helping to contribute to our scientific knowledge about these birds’ movements in irruption years. So if Logan Airport has been able to develop a much more humane and enlightened response to this issue, why can’t the New York Port Authority take a page out of their book instead of condemning the owls to death? The answer: one owl got sucked into an airplane turbine, and someone overreacted.
Many people are sickened and concerned by the way the Port Authority is handling this situation. A petition is taking off on Change.org, asking the Governor to stop shooting the owls and to rethink their approach to Snowy Owls and other birds that visit Metro-Area airports. I urge you to sign and share it with as many of your Facebook friends as you can.
If you have a twitter account, please send a tweet to @NYGovCuomo asking him to follow the lead set by Boston and #saveoursnowyowlsNYC.
If you live in New York State, you may also wish to mail, email, or telephone Governor Cuomo and share your concerns.
When it comes to protecting our wildlife, every voice matters.
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UPDATE: WOW! As I was writing this the Port Authority announced that it is working with the state Department of Environmental Conservation in order to relocate snowy owls and to “strike a balance in humanely controlling bird populations at and around the agency’s airports”. What an awesome job by everyone who voiced their concerns!