Wednesday, May 27, 2020

You’re not going far from home – and neither are the animals you spy out your window

By Julian Avery, Assistant Research Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Pennsylvania State University
May 11, 2020

Watching the wildlife outside your window can boost your mental well-being, and it’s something lots of people have been doing a lot more of lately.

Maybe you’ve been wondering if you’re seeing one persistent gray squirrel or a rotating cast of furry characters. Maybe you’ve been thinking about which birds are passing through for the season and which are townies who stick around all year.

As a wildlife ecologist, I’ve learned to pay attention to patterns that show me what the animals outside my window are up to, and I usually know which individuals are my regulars. Whether you’re spying on animals in a city, town or rural area, with a little background knowledge, you too can keep tabs on the private lives of your neighborhood critters.

Seasonal shifts change the players
For many species, winter is a time when individuals compete less with one another and gather in large groups. For example, eastern cottontail rabbits congregate around areas with plenty of food and places to escape to. Birds form large mixed-species flocks, which helps them better find food and avoid being hunted. They even form temporary allegiances as they forage together, following specific individuals who help determine where the flock goes.

Seasonal migration means the abundance of particular species in one location can change over the
 course of the year.
As the season changes to spring, migratory species start arriving. A steady parade of individuals moves through the neighborhood. As animals transition to their breeding season, plumage and appearances may change as they work to attract mates. For many species, defense of a piece of land becomes an overriding concern.

During the summer months, adult animal numbers stabilize, and the drive to establish a territory means you’re likely to have the same individuals active outside your windows for the majority of summer.

This white-throated sparrow is molting into breeding plumage
before heading on to summer grounds. Julian Avery
Splitting up the neighborhood
A territory is a chunk of habitat. Its size will vary depending on the amount of food and breeding resources it holds. A territory with few trees, for example, may need to be bigger to hold enough forage for the animal that owns the turf.

Territory sizes for different species can range from the size of a large kitchen table (common lizards like green anoles and skinks) to an area greater than 120 football fields (a raptor such as the Cooper’s hawk). The cool thing is that animal home ranges are governed by their own needs and often do not follow the lines of human fences and alleyways.

I like to think of animal territories as quilts that drape over your neighborhood. For some species, like anoles, the squares in that quilt will have many small and intricate pieces, and you could fit many quilt pieces within each individual human property boundary. Some of those pieces will even overlap other patches.

A territory map for anoles shows how these lizards each have their own home
 turf that can overlap with neighbors. Habitat in this case included individual
trees  and a fallen log toward the bottom of the map which offered basking
 and display space. Jordan Bush
Small songbirds will have quilt patches that span several human properties, though they may use specific parts more than others. Larger species will have quilt patches that cover entire neighborhoods with one territory.

Frequently spotted
If you’ve become familiar with the animals in your neighborhood, chances are you’ll see some of the same individuals again year after year. Eastern cottontails are likely to live up to three years in the wild, and they stay in thesame general territory throughout their lives. Even the young have a tendency to stay close to their birthplace.

Researchers have recaptured gray squirrels year after year in their original territories. On average, these critters survive about six years and can live longer than20. Birds also have long lives and will often stay in the same territory year after year. However, when eggs don’t hatch or young die in the nest, some birds may choose a new territory the following year. This means there can be high turnover in your local bird network if the local habitat is unpredictable or full ofurban predators.

Birds that don’t migrate and stay in residence year-round, like chickadees, often have a tendency to stay in the same area, which means you’ll be seeing the same individual birds outside your window across seasons.

Some species will have territories that don’t overlap much at all. For others, the overlapcan be extensive. This means that generally during the breeding season, you could be watching many gray squirrels visiting outside your window. There may also be a couple of male cottontails, but probably a single female because they tend to not overlap with other females.
Maybe you’ll spy the same pair of cardinals along with a reliable pair of chickadees. If you’re watching closely like I was the other day, you may get lucky and catch another male cardinal from the territory next door trying to flirt with your female, at least until her mate realizes what’s about to happen. That is a clue to the invisible lines birds have drawn between their own domains.

When it comes to smaller animals, like lizards and insects, all bets are off for how many unique individuals are present outside your window. But you can expect more of everything as the number of native plants increases.

Tips for watching
If you’re interested in trying to keep track of particular wildlife friends through the window, try to watch for identifying marks.

In my research, I attach colored bands to bird legs or mark the scales of turtles and snakes so we
Natural markings like a torn ear can help you keep track of
individuals. Julian Avery
can figure out how many exist in an area. Many animals have enough individual variation that you can keep track of them using their natural unique marks and scars. Squirrels can have torn ears or injured tails, lizards can have unique scars or healed injuries, and birds can have subtle differences in color or pattern.

Also try paying attention to the maximum number you see at any one point. Where do they go after eating or basking? You may get lucky and spy a nest or resting place. See if you can spot other individuals coming from different directions and territories.

At my house, we had a nest of rabbit kits born under our deck. I thought there was only one surviving newborn because we never saw more than one offspring. Two weeks later, there were three babies foraging simultaneously in the yard, and it became clear that they’d previously been taking turns coming out of hiding.

Maybe you’ll notice animal families expanding. Julian Avery
If you start watching closely, I think you’ll find so much drama happening in your neighborhood that you may get hooked on the action.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. It has been reprinted here with permission from the author and The Conversation

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Dispelling Myths About Pennsylvania’s Forests

Written by Sandford Smith, Teaching Professor of Forest Resources and Extension Specialist, Pen State University and Dave Jackson, Forestry Educator, Penn State Extension

BELLEFONTE, PA – This article will try to dispel some of the more common myths and misperceptions about forests and forestry in Pennsylvania. Let us begin by defining what a “forest” is. A forest is an area of land characterized by extensive tree cover and other associated resources such as meadows, streams, and wildlife. We often use other names to describe forested land including woods, woodland, and woodlot. In fact, Pennsylvania means “Penn’s Woods” after Quaker William Penn and “Sylvania” meaning woodland.

Next, let us define “forestry.” Forestry is a profession that applies a science to the practice of creating, managing, using, and conserving forests for human benefit in a sustainable manner to meet our desired goals, needs, and values. Foresters are professionals that engage the science and practice of forestry. It requires a formal education to be a “professional” forester. Foresters use forestry to manage forests!
With those essential definitions in mind let us dispel some of the more common myths and misperceptions about Penn’s Woods.

Most of the forest land in Pennsylvania is owned by the government. Pennsylvania's dominant land use is forest, covering nearly 16.5 million acres, or 59%, of the state. Private non-industrial landowners own 70% of the forestland in the state, the government only 22%. Nearly 12 million acres are held by private owners, estimated to be over 740,000 if we include those with 1 acre or more of woodland.
Our trees are used to make lumber for building homes. As is often the case, there’s usually some truth in everything people misunderstand. It’s true that Pennsylvania’s hardwood lumber is sought after for “making homes,” but it’s not used in constructing the building itself, as many believe. Rather, it is used for the moldings, flooring, cabinets, and fine furniture people put in their homes. Softwood lumber (pine and spruce) is what gets used to construct the building, and this is often from the southern and western states or Canada.
Timber harvesting destroys forests. This is not an uncommon statement. Even the best managed timber harvest can look quite dramatic right after the trees have been cut. The good news is that forests are “renewable” – that means they can grow back in a person’s lifetime. If proper safeguards are taken before, during and after the harvest (such as assuring there is deer protection for the seedlings or that invasive plants are not competing for light and space) a new forest of seedlings will quickly begin growing on the site. Virtually all the forests you see growing in Pennsylvania today are the result of “natural” regeneration – the growth of a new forest from seedlings and sprouts. No planting was involved. Pennsylvania’s hardwood trees grow back naturally.
Cutting timber destroys wildlife homes and places where they get food. While some animal habitats are affected through timber harvesting and some will have to shift their location to meet their needs. New wildlife species will move in to the newly created “early successional habitat” or “young forest” that has been created. Many wildlife species use or need young forests. More than 60 kinds of wildlife, including mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects, need young forests to survive. Early successional habitat is needed and lacking across much of Pennsylvania. Over the last 50 years wildlife species that depend on young forest habitats have steadily declined in numbers.
Select cutting is the “best” way to harvest our forests. Though this sounds like a gentler approach to harvesting, select cuts often result in what is known as “high grading,” removing only the largest, fastest growing, and highest value trees. High grading can have long-term detrimental impacts by removing important seed sources, shifting species composition, reducing quality, removing desirable species, and reducing future income potential. All timber harvesting must be done in a sustainable fashion. That is, in a way that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Unfortunately, select cutting seldom meets this criteria.
All clearcutting is bad and should never be practiced. Clearcutting is often viewed as total forest clearing and something that is permanent. However, in Pennsylvania clearcutting is a management practice used to regenerate, or regrow, a new forest of sun loving trees including aspen, black cherry, yellow poplar, and most pines. Most older forests you see in Pennsylvania today are the result of clearcutting in the past. In some places clearcutting is used to clear lands and convert them into other uses such as agriculture or urban developments. Clearcutting in these instances is not a forest management practice; it is more appropriately called “deforestation.”

A Hands-off approach to forest management is best. Let “mother nature” take its course. Unfortunately, “Mother Nature” does not exist and the natural ecology of our forests has been so greatly altered by human activity and other disturbances that an active approach is often much better.  Most of our forests have been cut-over several times, burned, impacted by deer over-browsing, overrun by invasive plants, and infested by non-native insects and diseases. Leaving them alone will often make these problems only get worse. There are many wise management practices that can help bring a forest into a healthy, more natural, and productive state. Forest conservation needs effective “hands-on” management.

I hope this article has been useful to clear up some common myths and misperceptions about Pennsylvania’s forests and forestry. For additional information about forestry visit the Penn State Extension web site at: