Friday, October 31, 2014

Lingering in Happiness

We turned our faces toward the bluebird sky, closed eyelids against the brilliant sun, and soaked up its mid-afternoon warmth. Although the day was not especially warm, the whisper of a breeze let us keep every ray of the sun and every bit of heat we’d generated on a little walk. Knowing that we won’t get many more days like this before snow flies and temperatures plummet, my parents and I basked like turtles on that fallen log–lingering in happiness.

Recently I had another encounter with happiness: not only from being in a group of wonderful people, but also discussing how to measure happiness across an entire nation. Jack and Mary Wichita, local Museum members, spoke about a trip to Bhutan, and the “Land of the Thunder Dragon’s” Gross National Happiness Index.

As a small country of 750,000 people in Southern Asian, Bhutan seems fairly unremarkable. But in the 1970s, His Majesty the Fourth King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, coined the term “Gross National Happiness.” He started governing on the concept that “…sustainable development should take a holistic approach towards notions of progress and give equal importance to non-economic aspects of wellbeing.”

As globalization, economic development, and television threaten their traditional way of life, the Bhutanese are making decisions with more than just money and “things” in mind. The values that contribute to happiness – actually measured in “sufficiency” – are presented as nine domains: psychological wellbeing, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards. If you were “sufficient” in all of those domains, wouldn’t you be happy?

Jack and Mary highlighted some of the practical applications of these values that relate to the environment. The constitution of Bhutan says all citizens have a duty to prevent pollution. Organic is farming mandated by law, and chemical fertilizers and pesticides are banned. The country is 70% forested, and their policy dictates that it not fall below 60%. The export of lumber is prohibited.

Bhutan wishes to stay carbon neutral (plentiful electricity comes from hydroelectric dams), so citizens must apply to get one of the limited number of permits to own an automobile. As a result, traffic is light, smog doesn’t build up, and people stay healthy by walking.

Historically, walking has been the main of transportation in Bhutan, so access to health care is measured by walking time. Their goal is for each person to live within an hour walk to a clinic. Do you even have that level of convenience?

Bhutanese also promote health through value placed on getting sufficient sleep, which falls under the “time use” domain. (I’d love to have more cultural support for getting enough sleep…but how can I sleep with ideas like these dancing around in my head?)

What if our country--or even our hometown--governed based on these values? I’m already surrounded by people who strive to drive less, walk more, garden organically, and conserve resources. We’ve all experienced the ability of exercise, sleep, and time in nature to increase happiness. How can we promote these values even more?

Many studies have shown how nature can increase our happiness, and I’ve written about them here before. A common soil bacteria – Mycobacterium vaccae – has been shown to increase serotonin (the “happy” hormone) levels in mice. Even the nature within our bodies –bacteria in our guts – regulates serotonin levels. Vitamin D, synthesized with help from the sun, can help prevent depression. “Forest bathing” is a recognized relaxation and stress management activity in Japan.

As these ideas swirled in my head, I kept landing on the title of one of my favorite Mary Oliver poems: “Lingering in Happiness.” Lovely and short, I once had it memorized for easy access. It begins: “After rain, after many days without rain…” and then describes the dampness trickling down through the forest, permeating the soil, feeding the “roots of the oaks”, until even the stones “feel themselves being touched.”

Like raindrops that touch every bit of life in the forest, like the sunshine that soaked through our eyelids as we sat on the fallen log, like the conservation values that permeate life in Bhutan, I believe our happiness is inseparable from our relationship with the earth. Perhaps we should go outside--right now!--and find a forest where we, too, can linger in happiness.

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! The current exhibit, “Nature’s Superheroes—Adventures with Adaptations,” opens in May 2014 and will remain open until March 2015.

Find us on the web at to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot,

Friday, October 24, 2014

Blue Jays

Crinkly brown oak leaves danced across the path. My bike tires swished satisfyingly through drifts of leaves on the ground. Up ahead, a small flock of blue jays swooped across the road one at a time, perfectly complementing the brilliant blue sky. After landing safely in the brush, they cried a harsh “Jay! Jay! Jay!” in alarm at my approach.

Cheerful feeder friend, or wily villain? These big, noisy, gregarious songbirds have quite a varied reputation. But historic accounts of their villainy—like John James Audubon’s painting of three blue jays sucking another birds’ eggs, and his accompanying quote: “Who could imagine that selfishness, duplicity, and malice should form the moral accompaniments of so much physical perfection!"—are now known to be overblown.

While blue jays may occasionally raid the nests of other birds for eggs and nestlings, one study examined the stomachs of 530 blue jays and found traces of eggs and nestlings in only 6.  That’s 1.1%. It seems that other species fared quite a bit better than those 530 blue jays.

Even when blue jays eat such non-endearing foods as sunflower seeds and cracked corn, they can get a bad reputation for bullying and gluttony at the bird feeder. By imitating the scream of a red-tailed hawk or red-shouldered hawk as it approaches a food source, a blue jay can scare off other birds and hog the food. For a while. It seems that the other birds figure it out pretty quickly and return to feed.

In some cases, though, the blue jays’ raptor imitations and alarm calls may indicate that a predator is nearby--very kindly warning all the species in the area about shared danger. Plus, having a big, brightly-colored bird with a moveable crest at the feeder was super exciting when teaching my toddler nephews about birds. They learned pretty quickly to identify “downy, gol-fin, jun-co,” and several others while I held them up to see the birdfeeder. But no other bird elicited the childish excitement of “bu-jay!”

I didn’t confuse the toddlers by telling them that blue jays don’t truly have blue feathers. If you hold a feather from a blue jay, bluebird, or indigo bunting in front of a light, it looks brown. This is caused by melanin, a pigment that also makes feathers stronger and more resistant to wear. The blue is really structural color.

The tiny barbs on blue jays’ feathers are actually made of three layers. Light passes easily through a transparent outer layer into box cells. As the feather was growing, thread-like keratin molecules in the box cells separated from liquid. When the cells died, the liquid was replaced by air and the box cells remained filled with a structure of keratin cells and air pockets. This structure causes the red and yellow wavelengths of incoming light to interfere and cancel each other out.

Blue wavelengths are amplified and reflected back to your eye. Small differences in the keratin patterns result in different shades of blue. In some parrots, yellow pigment overlies the blue-ing structures and creates green.

A layer of dark cells filled with the pigment melanin underlies the box cells. These dark cells enhance the blues we see, and also create the striking black patterns on jays’ faces that may help them recognize each other. What’s even more amazing is that the precise nanostructures that allow for blue birds have evolved independently in many unrelated species. Also, this is the same basic science of red and yellow-light absorption and blue-light scattering that explains why the sky looks blue.

So perhaps I shouldn’t poo-poo the colorful, common blue jay. They are said to have complex social systems, mate for life, and use tools in captivity. Their mysteries are not all solved, either. The flock that crossed in front of me may actually be migrating. But only about 20% of blue jays migrate, and the ones that do may not migrate every year. Birdwatchers at Hawk Ridge in Duluth, MN, count blue jays along with migrating raptors. On September 16th, 2013, they counted 5,627 blue jays, bringing the season total of southbound birds to about 25,000. And yet, many stay behind as our feeder friends all winter long.

The movements of blue jays may even be responsible for the oak leaves dancing on the wind and rustling on the road. Ten thousand years ago, a barren Wisconsin had just emerged from under a mile of ice. From pollen samples in the soil, we know that nut-bearing trees like oaks moved back north much faster than trees with wind-blown seeds. Blue jays, who can carry 5 acorns at a time, airlifted the seeds north, cached them under the leaf litter, and essentially planted us a new forest.

With climate change once more altering our landscape, perhaps blue jays will again help move oaks and hickories north to fill in where other less heat and drought tolerant trees may die out. Cheerful feeder friend, or wily villain? Maybe neither one does justice to the beautiful, tree planting blue jay.

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! The current exhibit, “Nature’s Superheroes—Adventures with Adaptations,” opens in May 2014 and will remain open until March 2015.

Find us on the web at to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot,

Friday, October 17, 2014

How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World

“Brace for impact,” advised a gray-bearded man wearing wire-rimmed glasses. Shaggy, dark brown curls tumbled out from beneath his tawny, felted hat, and the hundreds of mycologists in the audience could feel his excitement. “And can someone turn out the lights?” he continued as the slide on the screen revealed the phrase “Biodiversity is Biosecurity” against a luminous blue background.

Paul Stamets is a visionary, award-winning mycologist (person who studies mushrooms), author of “Mycelium Running – How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World,” and founder of Fungi Perfecti, a company that grows and sells mushroom products for “Home and Garden, Field and Forest, People and Planet.” He believes that mushrooms, and the network of root-like fungal mycelium that produces them, can heal the planet (including humans.)

Images of networks flashed on the screen as Paul reflected on the similarities between systems of brain neurons, galaxies, dark matter, the internet, and fungal hyphae. What do they all have in common? Redundancy in their information pathways. If one route is broken, several alternatives can carry the data. “I calculated that every footstep I take impacts more than 300 miles of mycelium,” he shared. All that mycelium in a small place means many opportunities for connection and re-connection. Humans would do well to imitate the resiliency of those networks, Paul suggests.

Fungi, Paul argues, are both the internet and the immune system of the Earth. Mycorrhizal fungi, who form partnerships with the roots of most plants, extend their root-like hyphae throughout the forest floor. As I described with black trumpet and hedgehog mushrooms a few weeks ago, the fungus grows a layer of hyphae around the tree’s tiny roots, and even in between the cells of the roots. Then, the fungi stretches it network of hyphae out into the soil, and aids the tree in acquiring water and nutrients, especially nitrogen. Mushrooms, as they decompose, also cycle quite a bit of phosphorus in a forest ecosystem.

The mycelia not only benefit their main tree partner by extending the food- and water-gathering power of the roots, they also break down dead stuff – and even break down rocks – to make nutrients available to the tree. Chemical compounds that the fungi exude can ward off harmful fungi and bacteria, and help the forest maintain a suite of microorganisms essential for health and growth.

When a plant is attacked by pests, it often begins producing chemical defenses that make it less palatable to the insect. Other plants connected through the fungal “internet” get the message and can preempt an insect attack. In controlled experiments, plants not connected by fungal hyphae don’t have the same ability to communicate danger to each other.

In exchange for these services, the tree “pays” the fungi in photosynthates – the sugars that only green plants can produce through photosynthesis. Amazingly, the fungal network can also facilitate the sharing of sugars between trees of completely different species. When scientists shaded a Douglas fir tree, the fungi brought it sugars from a nearby birch. This is just one way that mushrooms can support the health of a forest.

The mycorrhizal fungi that partner with plant roots occupy a pretty unique niche in the forest. They often grow with just one or two types of trees. Many are choice edible and medicinal mushrooms (like my hedgehogs and black trumpets), but they are almost impossible to cultivate because of their specificity.

Saprophytic mushrooms, on the other hand, decompose organic material, and are absolutely critical to renewal in the forest. They turn dead stuff into healthy soil with plenty of nutrients for new life. Some saprobes can even decompose things like petroleum and fecal bacteria. They can act as living filters for pollution. And many edible species can be grown fairly easily in your basement or backyard.

Most of the audience already knows this. As members of the North American Mycological Association (NAMA) attending the Annual Foray, they’ve been seeking choice edibles and comparing notes on cultivating mushrooms all weekend, in addition to collectively picking and identifying over 364 species from the surrounding area.

Paul’s talk was not new to them, since he is a regular at their gatherings. I, in contrast, had only heard vaguely of his ideas, and had let his book drift to bottom of my reading list. His excitement for the subject sparked mine. Happily, I get to think about mushrooms and mycologists for the next few years, since I’m helping to organize the 2017 NAMA Annual Foray in Cable, WI! By then, we’ll know even more about how mushrooms can help save the world. Hope to see you there!

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! The current exhibit, “Nature’s Superheroes—Adventures with Adaptations,” opens in May 2014 and will remain open until March 2015.

Find us on the web at to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot,

Friday, October 10, 2014

Bat in the Daylight

It was the type of morning when gray clouds replace the entire sky, and the smoky gold of maple leaves seem to replace the sun. After a day of heavy rain, a damp calm had settled into the woods. Nothing moved except the occasional crumpled leaf finally letting go. As I admired the scene from a second floor window, bigger movements caught my eye.

The erratic fluttering of a small, brown creature was confusing at first. Then it flew straight toward my window, only swerving away at the very last instant. In that moment I saw its big ears, tiny head, furry body, and brown-skinned wings clearly – bat! All summer I’d barely seen a bat—not due to their rarity, but to our differing schedules. Now I’d seen bats in the dark, bats at dawn, and this bat in the day, all in the space of a week.

In some cases, animals being active at the “wrong” time of day can be a sign of trouble. One of the symptoms of white-nose syndrome is that bats venture outside during the winter to replenish their stores of food and water, used up by frequent grooming to battle the fungus. Those bats should be reported to the DNR. Some people also worry that bats outside during the day are a sign that they have rabies. That’s possible, but rare. Bats get knocked down pretty quickly by rabies, have trouble flying, and generally go somewhere dark and quiet to die. Plus, only 6% of sick bats even carry the disease.

This bat was flying quite acrobatically, without any sign of poor health. In a series of swoops, dips, darts and quick turns, it seemed to be outlining the route of a new thriller rollercoaster—one that I would NOT like to ride. Around and around the clearing it swooped, catching insects I couldn’t see.

Hunger must be its motivation, I concluded. With lows in the 40s for several nights in a row, and heavy rains off and on, many night-flying insects have been grounded. Plus, the energy needed just to keep this little mammal’s body temperature high enough would have offset any nocturnal calories it could catch. In a canyon in Italy, a type of bat called the soprano pipistrelle has switched to daytime hunting almost exclusively for these reasons. They’ve found an area under the forest canopy with more daytime insects, and without predators.

This little guy must have decided that the risk was worth it, as he (or she) needs to bulk up quickly for migration and hibernation. Bats may also switch to diurnal hunting in early spring, when they are hungry from the long winter, and it is too cold at night for them and the insects to fly.

While the muted sunlight allowed me to see the bat, I could not even begin to imagine how it was seeing the world. Bats are not blind, and can see about as well as humans, especially in low light. Bats use their eyes to navigate around large objects and across the landscape. Of course, their most accurate way of “seeing” the world is through their amazing powers of echolocation.

Insect-eating bats shout out short bursts of sound, timed to their wing beats to save energy. (Fruit bats and others don’t use echolocation to the same degree, but they don’t live here.) Short silences between the sounds allow the bats to hear the echo of information coming back. Their brains—more advanced than the most powerful supercomputer—use the sounds to create highly accurate pictures of flying insects. Although the sounds have to be as loud as a jet plane in order to echo sufficiently off small, soft insects, they are too high-pitched for us to hear. Bats use tiny muscles to plug their ears while they shout, so they don’t deafen themselves.

Those high frequencies give bats a very precise picture of their prey: the size, whether the insects are hard or soft-bodied, their speed and direction of travel, and much more. But the sounds don’t travel more than a few feet. That’s why bats may swoop near you at night, but always veer away at the last second. (They might also be nabbing that pesky mosquito buzzing your ear.) Bats can “see” objects as thin as human hairs, so they can certainly see you, too. Lower frequency sounds would allow for a greater range, but at the expense of accuracy. Plus, if bats shouted in a frequency we could hear, the night would be a whole lot noisier!

Bats don’t just shout; they have several types of vocalizations. In the evening, just before emerging to hunt, bats “chatter” inside their communal roosts. Some of the chatter is low enough that we can hear it, but much is still above our audible range. Male bats of some species sing to attract females or ward off other males. Bats “honk” at each other in mid-air to avoid collisions, and pups call to their mothers.

Echolocation calls come in a few forms, too. There is a “search phase call,” which is composed of slower sounds used to find prey. A “tracking phase” ensues during the chase. Finally, as the bat closes in on an insect, it speeds up the sounds into a “feeding buzz” that can relay almost continuous information about the prey’s location and direction.

I first discovered those sounds while putting together the Museum’s “Nature’s Superheroes” exhibit. USFS biologist Brian Heeringa sent me several recordings of bat echolocation calls, transformed so that they were partially inside the human range of hearing. Catchy rhythms worthy of a late night dance party spilled out of the computer. Our exhibit committee listened eagerly to the tracks several times over, eventually choosing the liveliest calls for the exhibit’s “bat song wall.” You can come in and hear them, too!

Within an hour, the diurnal bat had disappeared. I hope he found somewhere safe to sleep. In his place, a flock of yellow-rumped warblers invaded the yard. They darted about with the same swooping flights. Unlike the bat, though, they perched briefly in between snacks. What were they all eating?

Stepping outside, I soon had the answer. Little specks of fuzz were drifting around -- woolly alder aphids on the move. (Read about them on the NC blog.) A mosquito buzzed my neck. (Come back, little bat!) Even on a gloomy fall day, the air is filled with life.

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! The current exhibit, “Nature’s Superheroes—Adventures with Adaptations,” opens in May 2014 and will remain open until March 2015.

Find us on the web at to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot,

Friday, October 3, 2014

Bats in the growing darkness

Darkness encroaches on either side of my days. The growing shadows reveal new wonders and old friends, as does the lengthening daylight of spring.

When dusk falls before bedtime, I can step outside to watch stars sparkle across a moonless sky and northern lights dance above a silver lake. The dark collects everyone from their outdoor adventures, and gathers them inside for the evening. It feels right to eat dinner at six o’clock instead of eight-thirty.

When my alarm beeps before sunrise, dawn accompanies my morning yoga. It is harder to get out of bed in the dark, but gray light soon eases the entry into wakefulness, and flaming pink skies reward even the not-so-early bird. On weekends, the sluggish sun finally allows me to sleep in.

One morning last week, while watching that gray light turn lavender and pink, I caught a glimpse of movement through gaps in the silhouetted trees. Dark shapes that I’m usually too sleepy to see fluttered back and forth across the chilly dawn. Bats!

I wasn’t able to identify the species of bats zipping through the yard, but no matter which of Wisconsin’s seven bat species they are, fall is a challenging and potentially dangerous time. With amazing powers of echolocation, they are certainly comfortable in the increasing darkness, but not the increasing cold.

Little brown bats, a type of cave bat, are widespread and common in the Northwoods. They spend their summers hunting insects near water, and roosting in warm spaces like wood piles, trees, and your attic. Bats enter a period of torpor each day, where their metabolic rate and body temperature drop. Roosting in a warm environment allows them to keep their body temperature at a high level even while saving precious energy.

Through the winter, little brown bats also need their environment to provide a stable temperature. Lower temperatures that stay above freezing are ideal conditions that allow bats to slow down their metabolism and conserve energy. Winter periods of torpor last longer, but bats will still wake up in order to groom themselves, and sometimes to get a drink.

This time of year, little brown bats, big brown bats, northern long-eared bats, and eastern pipistrelles are all heading for the caves and old mines that serve as their hibernacula. According to Brian Heeringa, biologist with the US Forest Service in Washburn, our bats have already begun to move (toward the UP of Michigan and SW Wisconsin), and the ones I saw may be migrating through from even farther away.

While the caves that provide bats with shelter are integral to their survival, those same caves may now house the biggest threat to their existence. White-nose syndrome (WNS), a devastating disease caused by a soil fungus, is causing unprecedented mortality in cave bats across the eastern United States.

The fungus affects bats’ skin. Wings are especially vulnerable. Noses become whitened, too. Being cleanly creatures, infected bats wake up more often to groom themselves, thereby depleting their energy stores and becoming dehydrated. Up to 95% of bats in infected caves die over the winter.

WNS was discovered in southwestern Wisconsin just last spring, and only infected 2% of the bats in one cave. There are no confirmed sites in Minnesota…yet. Its spread is inevitable, though, and it is causing the most precipitous decline of North American wildlife in recorded history. This winter, the WI DNR will continue to monitor all the known hibernacula in Wisconsin for WNS. In mid to late winter, biologists will be swabbing noses, taking soil samples, and simply looking for signs of the fungus. You can check the spread maps at for up-to-date information.

What I find fascinating—and hopeful—is that in Europe, where the fungus originated, bats are not extinct. Their populations have adapted to being less dense, with larger individuals. Lower densities probably slow the fungus’s spread, while the larger bats’ greater energy stores seem to allow them to wake up more often and groom away the fungus. Perhaps our bats will adapt in the same ways.

Presently, only bats that hibernate in caves are infected by WNS. Wisconsin also has three species of tree bats that migrate south for the winter and have not been affected by WNS. Hoary bats, silver-haired bats, and eastern red bats fly hundreds of miles south to the balmy weather in Mexico, Florida, or even Illinois. These bats face a different hazard, however—wind turbines.

Being curious mammals, bats seem to be attracted to wind turbines. During migration, many bats may travel through wind farms.  Getting too close either results in death by impact or in death by barotrauma. Barotrauma takes place when bats enter the area of low pressure just behind the spinning blades. The pressure differential causes the bats’ lungs to fill with fluid. Power companies can help by turning off the blades during the bats’ most active periods, which usually coincide with low wind speeds anyway.

Bats are amazing creatures, with many fascinating adaptations. I would much rather write about those adaptations than about the potentially devastating threats bats face. But if the bats are to survive these challenges and be there amaze and fascinate us in the future, they need our help and support now. We can all help protect their summer habitat and food sources, so that bats can survive this growing darkness and time of change to fly again in spring.

Visit your state’s DNR website,, or the Museum’s current exhibit “Nature’s Superheroes,” for information about how you can help!

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! The current exhibit, “Nature’s Superheroes—Adventures with Adaptations,” opens in May 2014 and will remain open until March 2015.

Find us on the web at to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot,