cove on new year's eve

TRAIL CONDITIONS: POOR. Will require a great deal  more  snow before trails  can be groomed again.


On the rare but welcome days when the Sun shines on Crossroads at Big Creek, we hear the two-note courtship song of the male Black-capped Chickadees. Understand that it is a coincidence that this song seems to ramp up  around Valentine’s Day every year, but one can’t help but notice some parallels between human and wildlife courtship.

Probably the worst kept secret in Door County is my love of dark chocolate, so a heart-shaped box of quality chocolate (or a romantic dinner out) certainly would make my Valentine’s Day special. Ritual feeding? Works for me. And it works for female birds. Edible gifts are part of many avian courtship rituals, though male birds do not present their offerings in heart-shaped boxes.

Each species has its own rituals. One of my favorites, because I’ve observed it, is that of the male harrier (formerly called marsh hawk). The male flies fifteen or twenty feet above his intended mate and drops a dead mouse on her. She deftly grabs it in her talons. Love at first rodent!

A male gull has the less than charming ritual of regurgitating at the webbed feet of a female. If the female finds the male attractive, she gobbles up his courtship gift. That’s bonding!

If you feed cardinals, you may notice that the males, usually brash bullies of the feeding station, start to tenderly stuff food into the mouths of their intended mates, in much the way they would feed their nestlings. Come to think about it,  this time of year, female cardinals start behaving  like baby birds, quivering and begging with mouths gaping… even though they are fully capable of feeding themselves. This too is a courtship ritual, not unlike dating human couples who sometimes babble in baby talk or feed each other.

It’s not just love birds. Other creatures engage in courtship feeding. Male cockroaches have special glands on their backs. Their mates are treated to droplets of liquid protein. Many male spiders present prospective mates with nourishing balls of silk.

Some male spiders (reluctantly) give themselves as Valentine gifts. A Black Widow Spider, for example, earns her single status by devouring her hapless suitor immediately after mating (unless he moves fast enough to escape her clutches.)

Scientists believe that after receiving an edible gift, a female bird  is more receptive to the advances of a male. Moreover, a male bird which brings edible gifts would probably be a better provider for a future family. Finally, edible gifts seem to function as nutritional supplements. A mother bird needs the extra calories to reproduce and to have the energy to care for the young.

Providing sustenance, then, increases the pair bond.

We find the same thing with our Crossroads donors. Many people love Crossroads, but when they begin giving money to sustain us, they feel a stronger bond. We certainly would welcome Valentine donations this year.

And for those who want to “give of themselves”—perhaps not as completely as a male Black Widow– we encourage potential volunteers to attend the February meeting of Friends of Crossroads on Monday, February 13 at 6:30 to learn about upcoming projects and volunteer opportunities.

Another way to truly bond with Crossroads is to become a member of the Crossroads Board of Directors. The Nomination Committee currently is reviewing candidates for two board positions. If you have skills which you feel would benefit Crossroads and would be willing “give of yourself”, please indicate your interest  at Contact Us on the Crossroads at Big Creek website or e-mail:  info@crossroadsatbigcreek.org  Please leave your name and a phone number or e-mail address. A member of the committee will contact you within the next two or three weeks.

This year,  we heard a pair of  Great Horned Owls hooting  courtship duets  before Valentine’s Day. Maybe the warm January set them off early, but clearly mating season is getting under way, and for the owls, it’s not just the preliminaries. Some owls mate in  February.

Great Horned Owls also  lay their eggs very early, around the first week of March. But maybe, just maybe, we will have the snow we missed in January and ideal skiing conditions in March. It can happen. And owls nest out in the open, perhaps in an abandoned stick nest of a hawk or raven.

If a mother owl is incubating her eggs, a little snow will not deter her. Researchers often have observed mother owls calmly sitting, blanketed with snow. Admittedly, birds have down “coats”, but it must be uncomfortable.

Actually, in a bitter cold snap, eggs can freeze, so why in the world would these birds breed before spring? The behavior must have survival value or it would not survive.

And there is a reason. A good reason. Food. Scientists have demonstrated conclusively that the hatching of baby birds is synchronized with the greatest availability of their preferred food. That’s why most birds in our region nest in May and June. Their eggs hatch just as the days are longest and insects are most plentiful.

But because owls hunt after dark, the shorter days and longer nights of early spring are an advantage. Great horned Owls eat just about any kind of meat: fish, reptiles, birds of all sizes, but they prefer rodents.

Around Crossroads, their favorite foods are  mice and voles, mouse-like creatures who survive the winter by creating tunnels and runways under the snow (and chewing on our ornamentals.)

In most years, the snow is melting at just the time the owlets hatch. And when snow melts, those mazes of vole tunnels collapse. The rodent cover is blown. For owls, our meadows, fields and lawns become veritable banquet tables.

The Master Gardener Lecture  “The Unseen World of Insect Communications” has been rescheduled for Tuesday, January 28 at 7:00. UW-Ext. Agriculture Agent Annie Deutsch will explain that insects learn about the world around them in ways far different from the way humans see their surroundings. I have personal experience with this. About a decade ago, I found myself overwhelmingly alluring to all of the males in the area…..all of the male gypsy moths, that is.

As Annie will explain, many insects communicate using  pheromones, chemicals that are excreted in order to communicate with others of the same species. All sorts of messages can be conveyed by pheromones. Bees can send warnings to others of their hive using alarm pheromones. Ants leave a trail of pheromones, not unlike the way  Hansel and Gretel dropped bread crumbs, in order  to find their way home. And then, we have the ever popular sex pheromones which are given off by insects (and other creatures, including, perhaps,  humans) to attract members of the opposite gender.

During the very hot summer in question, I was working with middle school students to determine the density of gypsy moths and (the kids liked this part) to keep as many males as possible out of the breeding population (a hopeless goal.) We assembled triangular tent traps to hang in trees. At the bottom of each tent was a very sticky piece of cardboard….it work much like flypaper to immobilize any insect that would fly into the open sides of the trap.

The traps were bated with a commercial lure made of the concentrated pheromones—special time- release formula!—of female gypsy moths.

I mentioned it was a hot summer, so we stored the lure in the refrigerator right next my pitcher of sun tea. Because of the heat, I drank in copious amounts of  the sun tea and also perspired quite a bit.  You see where this is going. In that refrigerator, the tea must have absorbed a significant amount quantity of the concentrated gypsy moth pheromone.  After drinking the tea, I apparently excreted the attractant chemicals. Consequently, I was broadcasting a potent message that I was a female gypsy moth in the height of breeding condition.

Hundreds small brownish male moths from who knows how far away, drawn by my seductive scent, hovered around me in frustration from dawn till I went indoors, and then, they beat themselves against the screens all night, trying to get into to me. You know that Peanuts cartoon character Pig Pen, who was always was surrounded with a cloud of dust. That’s what I looked like for about a week, except my cloud was drab male moths

In her program, Annie will describe pheromones and a number of other fascinating adaptations of insects and explain how to encourage beneficial insects while discouraging those that harm garden, orchard, and agricultural pests. The program will be free and open to the public.







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