cactusflower

Move a bird nest?

The Question: I have a mallard hen laying eggs (11 so far) in a flower pot on the end of my dock and I’m loving it. The problem is we are getting a new dock in a few weeks. If I move the pot 20-25 yards away to the neighbor’s dock will Mama duck be able to find the new spot? Mama isn’t here during the days so she’s still laying but has to be done soon. Would it be better to do when she is incubating so she goes with the eggs at the same time??

Submitted by: Lizanne, Nebraska, USA

The Question: I took down a hanging plant to water it and there was a nest with 3 eggs in it. I accidentally dropped it when I went to rehang it and the eggs broke. I moved the plant to my porch floor so Mama could find it. Will she lay more eggs?

Submitted by: Betsy, Illinois, USA

(click on photos and graphics to expand)

Legal Warning: People and bird nests often collide. And caring people often wonder whether or not to move a nest that seems to be in danger. The first thing I have to say is that the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act makes it illegal to tamper or move the nest of a bird while it has eggs or chicks. Both mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) and American robins (Turdus migratorius) are covered by the act, which is both U.S. law and an international treaty. This site by a group of lawyers who offer to defend people charged with violating the act lists two cases where prosecutions occured. In both cases, the problems were with commercial firms disrupting nests in a fairly blatant way. One case involved cutting down a tree that held the nests of egrets and black-crowned night herons, and the other involved bridge repairs that disrupted nesting falcons. I doubt the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has any interest in prosecuting homeowners for moving nests of common birds such as mallards and robins, but if you are unsure, you should contact Fish and Wildlife to see whether you need a permit to move a nest. Not all birds are covered by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.  Non-native birds such as starlings and house sparrows are not covered, for example.

On to my suggestions …

A Lesson from Pet Birds: When I used to raise pet finches and parakeets in large flight cages, I discovered that if I moved a nest several feet all at once, parent birds were often confused. It seems that at least some birds have a memory of where they nested. Even if the moved nest was clearly visible on the other side of the cage, they often ignored it. However, I found that if I moved a nest a few inches at a time, parents had no trouble recognizing it, and would follow it around the cage. If I moved a nest in small steps, I could pretty much move it wherever I wanted to, and the parents would continue to recognize the nest as their own.

mallard-nest

mallard nest

Lizanne’s mallards: Mallard incubation takes about a month, and Lizanne’s dock construction was due to begin before that. The good news is that once mallard chicks hatch, they swim off to find food and don’t need the nest. I feared that if Lizanne moved the nest all at once to her neighbor’s dock, the mallard hen probably wouldn’t find it, so I suggested she move it a few feet at a time. And the nest should be moved while the hen was not sitting on it. Near the end of the egg-laying period, the hen would begin sitting on the eggs for most of the day, so it would be hard to move her. I also suggested building a floating platform and anchor it near where the original dock is, and letting the nest stay as close to its original location as possible.

robin-nest

robin nest

Betsy’s robins: I was sorry to hear of Betsy’s robin nest accident. I know she felt terrible about it. I suggested moving the flower pot a bit at a time, because the robin might not recognize the location of the nest on the floor. However, I wonder if the robin will abandon the nest no matter Betsy does. With all her eggs gone, the female robin’s instincts would tell her that a predator had found her nest. Although birds often renest if the first clutch of eggs/chicks is eaten, they may build the new nest in a new location. This makes sense, given that a predator has found the nest and would simply raid it again. A mother robin presumably wouldn’t recognize Betsy’s care and concern and its instincts would tell it that the nest was not in a safe location. Better to start over somewhere else.

Cite this article as: Pelletier, TC. (June 14, 2015). Move a bird nest? Retrieved from http://askanaturalist.com/move-a-bird-nest/ on July 6, 2015.

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What is this small jelly blob on a beach in Maine?

The Question: I saw a couple of clear jelly blobs at the beach and am trying to figure out what they are. They look just like the pictures of beached sea gooseberries, round with faint inner stripes and the diameter is about the size of a half-dollar. No tentacles, though. And from what I’ve read, gooseberries are only found on the west coast. These were found at the beach in Ogunquit, Maine. They don’t match the description or images of the Moon Jelly in your other post, either (moon jellies). Any ideas??

Submitted by: Sara, Maine, USA

(click on photos and graphics to expand)

sea gooseberry
The Short Answer: Sea gooseberries are found all over the world. What might be confusing you is that one species, Pleurobrachia bachei, has a Wikipedia entry that comes up high in “sea gooseberry” searches. As the article states, P. bachei is, in fact, only found in the Pacific. But other closely related species are definitely found in Maine. As for the tentacles, they often get broken off, or disintegrate when gooseberries are washed up on the beach.
sea gooseberry
More Information: Sea gooseberries are small gelatinous marine creatures that seem similar to jellyfish (phylum Cnideria). Sea gooseberries are members of the phylum Ctenophora, the “comb jellies.” Despite the similar appearance, comb jellies and jellyfish are in different phyla – a major taxonomic and evolutionary distinction – which suggests that sea gooseberries and jellyfish are not closely related. Like many jellyfish, however, comb jellies capture microorganisms floating in sea water. Though there aren’t many Ctenophores in the world, with only a couple hundred species, some can reach high local densities and when they do, many end up washed up on beaches.

Here’s a very cool video showing swimming sea gooseberries at the Vancouver Aquarium:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fOJJxnNL4SY

gooseberryWhy are they called sea gooseberries: This photo shows that sea gooseberries bear a resemblance to the gooseberry, (Ribes uva-crispa), a small fruit found in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

Photo Credits: Gooseberry: “Stachelbeeren”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stachelbeeren.jpg#/media/File:Stachelbeeren.jpg

Cite this article as: Pelletier, TC. (June 12, 2015). What is this small jelly blob on a beach in Maine? Retrieved from http://askanaturalist.com/sea-gooseberries/ on July 6, 2015.

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What is this burr sticking to my shirt?

small green burrs

garden burrs

The Question: I’m trying to identify the burr/seed in this photo. I think it’s from a weed I’ve been pulling from my flower garden. I pulled off about 100 from my shirt. They grip like iron!

Submitted by: Jane, southwestern Connecticut, USA

(click on photos and graphics to expand)

small yellow flower

wood avens

The Short Answer: This appears to be the fruit of a wildflower in the genus Geum, possibly Geum urbanum, also known as the wood aven. The avens are in the rose family and are related to cinquefoils and strawberries. Many Geum species have burrs that readily catch in the fur of animals or the clothing of people.

More Information: Because “adult” plants don’t generally move, they have evolved ways to move their pollen, seeds and spores. Botanists generally classify methods of moving seeds as dispersal by wind (anemochory), dispersal by water (hydrochory), and dispersal by animals (zoochory). Dispersal by animals is further divided into internal seed transportation (endozoochory), which is what happens when animals swallow fruit and seeds, and external seed transportation (epizoochory), when plant burrs use hooks, barbs, or spines to stick to the outsides of their animal transportation.

The trick for a plant that wants to use a human gardener or other animal to transport its seeds is that its seeds need to hang on long enough to go somewhere, but not so long that they never get dropped onto soil so they can grow. The other problem is that the plant has very little control over where the seed lands. But there are possibilities for how a plant could evolve some control over the location where its seeds get sowed. If you imagine, for example, a plant that puts its burrs in a location where mice are likely to pick them up, that could result in a different pattern of sowing than that of another plant whose burrs are located where deer are likely to pick them up.

You could also imagine that different kinds of burrs might hang on more or less tightly, which would have an impact on how far a seed travels from the parental location before it is likely to fall off.  The optimum for each plant species will probably be different.  If, for example, a plant requires a very specific soil type, it might be best if seeds don’t travel very far from parents because that is likely to result in them being dropped in a soil type different from that where the parent is thriving.  On the other hand, a plant that can grow in almost any soil might spread more effectively if its seeds travel a longer way from the parent, as long as it doesn’t disperse so far that it finds itself alone, without a nearby mate for pollination.  Species that can self-pollinate might be able to disperse even further, since a single plant can colonize a new location.

small yellow flower and stem

common avens

One scientist who studies this phenomenon is Dr. Mason W. Kulbaba, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Calgary. Dr. Kulbaba’s larger area of study is about the evolution of flowers, but as part of that interest, he published a study on the properties of eight species of plants that carry burrs, including common avens (Geum aleppicum). Dr. Kulbaba and his co-authors tested the burrs and their ability to stick to the fur of five different animals (bear, raccoon, deer, mouse, bison) and one set of cotton pants. One of the things he was looking for was whether it seemed like burrs were specialized to specific types of animals. In this study, the only strong association he found was that common avens burrs stuck to mouse fur much better than to any other animal in the study. This is a very limited survey of animals, and limited evidence, but it would be interesting if the burrs of avens are adapted specifically to stick to the fur of rodents.

Interestingly, Dr. Kulbaba found that the stickiest burrs were those of two invasive species, common burdock (Arctium minus) and bluebur (Lappula echinata). They were also the two that stuck to pants the best. No wonder they’ve been able to hitch a ride around the world. And if those avens burrs in Jane’s Connecticut garden seemed to “grip like iron,” she should be thankful her garden isn’t full of burdock and bluebur!

Sources:

Kulbaba, M W, Tardif, J C, & Staniforth, R J. (2009). Morphological and ecological relationships between burrs and furs. The American Midland Naturalist, 161(2), 380-391.

Photo of Geum urbanum by Badlydrawnboy22 – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Geum_urbanum.jpg#/media/File:Geum_urbanum.jpg

Cite this article as: Pelletier, TC. (March 25, 2015). What is this burr sticking to my shirt? Retrieved from http://askanaturalist.com/what-is-this-burr-sticking-to-my-shirt/ on July 6, 2015.

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Review of Tracks & Sign of Insects

coverIt has been a while since I posted answers to questions, and I apologize for that. I’m hoping to get back into the swing of things over the next couple of weeks. And I thought I’d start with a quick review of a unique book, Tracks & Signs of Insects and Other Invertebrates, a Guide to North American Species by Charley Eiseman and Noah Charney. The book is comprised of 523 pages of photographs and descriptions of eggs, droppings, burrows, and more, on land, in water, and suspended in air. There are many guidebooks for North American insects, many books that will help you identify tracks and signs of mammals, and a fair number that will help you with birds, reptiles and amphibians. But for North America, at least, I don’t believe there is anything else like this book to help you identify the tracks and signs left all around us by insects and other invertebrates.

The book is organized by type of sign, with chapters such as Eggs, Cocoons, and Galls, and also by places to find signs, with chapters such as Signs on Twigs, Stems and Stemlike Structures and another that shows Signs on Rocks and Shells. As I leafed through the pages, I found myself making note to watch more carefully for various patterns and markings the next time I’m out in the woods, or even just out in the backyard. If you’re interested in the insects, spiders, worms and other tiny creatures that really run things on planet earth, you will find this book useful and fascinating.

One warning: if you’re easily creeped out, skip the chapter on parasitism. It’s fascinating and it shows a wide range of signs you can find that show how invertebrates parasitize each other – and how everyone gets parasitized by fungi – but on a tiny scale, it’s also pretty gruesome.

The book was published in 2010 by Stackpole Books. It won the 2010 National Outdoor Book Award and is for sale on Amazon and other book sites, or you can buy it directly from authors Eiseman and Charney’s Northern Naturalist website at http://www.northernnaturalists.com/invert_tracks.html. If you want to get a somewhat manic taste of the kinds of things this book covers, take a look at the videos on the Northern Naturalists homepage: http://www.northernnaturalists.com/.

Eiseman, C., Charney, N. (2010). Tracks & Signs of Insects and Other Invertebrates, a Guide to North American Species. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books.

Cite this article as: Pelletier, TC. (March 20, 2015). Review of Tracks & Sign of Insects Retrieved from http://askanaturalist.com/review-of-tracks-sign-of-insects/ on July 6, 2015.

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Ducky questions

mallard drake flying

mallard drake flying

Because they are such common and charismatic birds now found nearly worldwide, and many people enjoy seeing them and adopting them, at least in spirit, I frequently get questions about mallards (Anas platyrhynchos). What follows is a small collection of mallard questions and answers.

(click on photos and graphics to expand)
mallard duckling

mallard duckling

1. Can this mallard hen feed her young? There is a group of mallards in my back yard/pond. There is a female with a broken bill. It appears that she has a mate, but I worry. If she has eggs will she be able to feed her young?

Submitted by: Anne, Virginia, USA

Anne, I’m sorry to hear about the female mallard.  The good news is that mallard ducklings are able to feed themselves within 24 hours of hatching.  The only thing the mother duck does is lead them to places where they can find food. So my concern would be whether the mother can feed herself.  Does she seem to be doing that?

Anne’s response: “Yes, she can feed herself, the tip of her tongue sticks out to one side but otherwise she seems to be doing well.  I put cracked corn out every morning and I make sure that she has a little extra, which seems to be working, considering she looks like she has gotten a little bigger and is holding her own against the other ducks.”

Most wildlife managers strongly discourage the feeding of wild ducks, but it’s hard to argue with your compassionate impulse for this injured hen. I hope she continues to do well. And if she does nest in the spring, her ducklings should be fine.

mallard hen

mallard hen

2. How many females per male? What is the best ratio to keep mallards if you are wanting them to lay eggs for babies? In other words, how many females per male would you put together?

Submitted by: Steve, USA

Steve, thanks for your question.  Unfortunately, I’m not a duck expert, and I’ve never raised ducks.  My site is really interested in the behavior of wild ducks.  I would think that one male could probably take care of a lot of females, but you might want to check sites like this one: http://www.duckhobby.com/

mallard hen with turtles

mallard hen

3. How to protect a nest? Hi, I live on a lake and feed mallard ducks daily. Love ’em! There are three that return every day to be fed. I named them Peter, Paul and Mary. Mary built her current nest in the cover of several large plants directly under my front window. The only reason I knew she was there was because my dog “showed” me one day. I was devastated to come out of my home this morning and find several eggs broken and scattered all over my sidewalk and driveway. I was terrified that something happened to Mary too. Once I found her to be okay, my concern grew because my fear was that there was an animal that got to the nest. Sadly, the broken eggs revealed feathers and then my protective instinct kicked in. I know, and understand that this is how nature works, but I so want to protect Mary and what’s left of her nest. If it was another animal who got to the nest, now they know where they can find her again. Isn’t there something that can be done? According to your article, she leaves the nest once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Can I cover her and the nest at night so she is protected? What can I do?

Submitted by: Cookie, USA

Cookie, I’m sorry to hear about the trauma there.  Even when a predatory situation is perfectly natural, it can still be hard to witness, or to see the aftermath.  I try to remind myself that predators have babies to feed, too. But I wouldn’t blame you at all for trying to protect your friend Mary.  First, I have to ask, are you sure there are any eggs or ducklings left to save? I don’t know about mallards specifically, but female birds that are brooding will often continue to sit on the nest for a few days even after all the eggs have been stolen or destroyed.  Probably, the hormones that control the behavior take a little bit of time to subside.  So it’s possible that even if she’s still sitting, it’s too late to do anything to help.

The second thing I have to ask is, are you sure the predator wasn’t your own dog?  Dogs do like eggs, after all.  And as you said, your dog knew where the nest was.  Obviously, if there is any possibility that your dog is the predator, the simple answer is to keep your dog away from the nest.  But assuming it was not your dog, I don’t know that there’s much you could do.  Most of the typical duck nest predators – such as raccoons, coyotes, foxes – would be pretty hard to keep out in any way that didn’t imprison the hen.  If you tried to put a fence around the nest, it would have to be pretty high to keep a fox out, and raccoons can climb over almost anything.  I guess you could try a heavy covered wooden box, but that might just stress the hen to an extreme.

I’m afraid I don’t have a good solution.  The only good news I can offer is that nest predation is a common occurrence and when a nest has been destroyed, mallard hens usually start over, typically within a week. Hopefully, Mary will try again and she’ll have better luck.

mallard tipped up

mallard feeding

4. Are mallard drakes the worst creatures in the world? I was at a lake and was upset to see a female duck surrounded by 7-9 male ducks pecking her and nearly drowning her. She was so tired and was shaking in shock. My family told me not to be silly, it was just nature. But I am worried that she didn’t survive. Why do the males make such horrible attacks?

Submitted by: Karen, UK

Karen, I sympathize with your distress. It is pretty traumatic to watch, to be sure.  I wrote about why this happens in ducks at http://askanaturalist.com/why-are-these-mallard-males-beating-up-this-female/.  I’m not really sure I have much to add to that explanation.

However, it is important to remember that some of what we see is “unnatural” behavior that occurs in parks that have an overabundance of mallards. And I read an article recently about a study of the “divorce rate” in birds.  This is the rate at which mated pairs separate and pair up with new mates.  http://wuky.org/post/introducing-divorce-rate-birds-and-guess-which-bird-never-ever-divorces. Here’s a quote from that article: “Ducks do better than humans. Human marriages (American ones) fail at a rate of roughly 40 percent … Mallard marriages are 91 percent successful.”

So oddly enough, mallard matings in the wild are more stable than those of people.  Not sure how much consolation that is, but that’s all I’ve got.

mallard pair

mallard pair

5. Are mallard drakes the most loyal widowers in the world? A mallard drake has remained by his dead mate for the last five days. Initially I thought I would bury her when he left … perhaps I should just do it? She is beside my pond and attracting flies.

Submitted by: Sarah, UK

Sarah, awww, that’s sad … and a different side of the “horrible rapist mallard drake” picture.  I don’t really know how long the drake will stay there.  But probably not much longer, and the sooner the female is gone, the sooner he’ll move on.  I think burying it would be a nice thing to do.

Sources:

Black, J.M., 1996, Partnership in Birds, the Study of Monogamy, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Drilling, N., Titman, R., and McKinney, F., The Birds of North America Online, CORNELL LAB OF ORNITHOLOGY and the AMERICAN ORNITHOLOGISTS’ UNION,http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/658/articles/breeding

Cite this article as: Pelletier, TC. (December 23, 2014). Ducky questions Retrieved from http://askanaturalist.com/ducky-questions/ on July 6, 2015.

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