All posts by newconaturalist

As a native of Virginia, I'm a transplant to the Rocky Mountain State. I am a former Virginia Master Naturalist with dual degrees in English and Environmental Science and am a certified Master Birder through Audubon Society of Greater Denver. I'm keenly interested in the environment and fostering appreciation and respect for our natural world. I look forward to learning more about my new home and sharing what I know.

Not a Baby, Not Yet an Adult

‘Tis the time of year when the northern hemisphere is inundated with new “teenagers” for lack of a better term. Not a baby, but not yet an adult, the most obvious of these are the hordes of juvenile birds who, although they’ve left the nest, are still largely dependent upon their parents. Perhaps you’ve seen them fluttering their wings, big fleshy-gaped mouths open and squawking in your backyard, the local park, or while out hiking.

Juvenile House Wren. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Do you remember being a teenager? For me, it was all pimples, awkwardness, and angst. So much angst. It was like a 24-7 John Hughes marathon without the catchy soundtrack and zany hi jinks. If I were to relive any age, it would not be a double-digit number beginning with 1.

I’m sure some people would love to go back to being a teenager, though. That’s completely understandable if you didn’t have to buy groceries, hold down a job, or pay taxes. But would you ever choose to be a teenager forever? That’s less John Hughes and more Peter Pan and some animals actually do live out their lives never becoming full-adults, a phenomenon called pedomorphosis, or alternately, neoteny.

Western tiger salamander larva. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Pedomorphosis (from the Latin pedo for child and morphosis for the process of forming) means that juvenile characteristics are retained into adulthood. The best known example is probably the axolotl, a large, Mexican salamander. In Colorado, we have a close relative of the axolotl that also sometimes exhibits this ability, the Western tiger salamander (Ambystoma mavortium).

Barred Tiger Salamander
Barred Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma mavortium mavortium) from Weld County, Colorado, USA. Photo by Andrew DuBois. https://flic.kr/p/NLjL2o

In the typical life cycle of an amphibian like the Western tiger salamander, the salamander would develop from a gilled aquatic larva to a land-dwelling, sexually-mature adult. However, if conditions on land aren’t favorable–if for instance, conditions are too dry– the salamander may stay in its gilled larval form for decades until conditions change. If conditions don’t change, it may even stay a “teenager” forever, becoming able to reproduce despite not technically being an adult.

While I wouldn’t want to stay a teenager, the Western tiger salamander makes it work and is another example of the ingenuity of nature.

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Citizen Science

Hey all, do you have cool pictures of birds eating arthropods (any invertebrate creature with a hard exoskeleton such as an insect, arachnid, or crustacean)? If so, consider submitting it to http://www.whatdobirdseat.com/!

Doug Tallamy, professor at the University of Delaware, author, and proponent of planting natives, is crowd-sourcing photos of birds eating arthropods in order to identify the species birds eat. The fact is, we don’t know much about what specific species of insects, arachnids, or crustaceans birds prefer to eat and feed their young. The end-goal of finding out is protecting and restoring bird habitat. As he states on the website:

We can’t manage habitats for breeding birds without knowing what breeding birds eat while reproducing*.

So consider submitting your photos to the website!

Egg-secution

Well, it’s another year without a successful Northern Flicker brood so I’ve turned off the nest cam stream. I’m not sure what went wrong. As I posted, the Northern Flicker pair laid their first egg on June 13th. A mid-June nest attempt is late, but from what I’ve read, flickers will nest anytime between March and June.

At first, things seemed to be going well. The female flicker did skip a day laying after the first egg, which can happen when there’s bad weather (usually if it’s cold and/or rainy/snowy, which wasn’t the case here), but then she reliably laid another 3 eggs over the next 3 mornings. Below is a video of her laying the second egg. The interesting thing with this female is that it was so obvious when she was laying her eggs. With the successful pair from 2016, I could only tell an egg had been laid when she got up off of them.

Then, the same day the female laid her 4th egg, the male ended up crushing 3 of the 4 eggs. I don’t know if he did it on purpose or if he was just clumsy. He certainly seemed not to be taking too much care jumping into the box! But he was also very vigilant about keeping the eggs moving rather than sitting in one spot, which keeps them viable. After the eggs were destroyed, I saw him eat bits of the remaining shells. Birds sometimes eat their eggs if they have a vitamin deficiency. Is this a clue to what happened?

After the big mishap, the female laid a new second egg, but later that same day either she or the male destroyed that egg and the remaining egg. Here’s video of one of the flickers removing the final egg after the female leaves the box.

I have a couple of hypotheses about why the birds destroyed/removed the eggs, but nothing solid. Perhaps it was too late and too hot in the season for the eggs to be viable, which the birds recognized. Or maybe one or both of the birds were sick or too inexperienced to be fit parents. Whatever the reason, there are no new flicker babies this year.