Thursday, January 26, 2023

Two Shades of Nuthatch

Bang bang bang. Rattle. Bang bang bang.

On some mornings, my alarm clock wears a little down jacket, wields a piercing peak, and makes a lot of noise.

That’s the downside of having a bird feeder suction cupped to my bedroom window. The upside, of course, is that I often wake up to the cuteness that is a red-breasted nuthatch.

Like clockwork, a few minutes after sunrise (whether I can see it through the thick, gray clouds or not) small birds start landing with small thuds on my feeder. Soon, the runway becomes as busy as an airport with little wings coming and going. Chickadees gurgle at each other aggressively, and nuthatches add their yank-yank calls and adorable little squeaks to the mix.

Chickadees are my favorite, of course, but the red-breasted nuthatches are a close second. Their size is endearing, I think. Red-breasted nuthatches are almost an inch shorter than chickadees and weigh a gram less. That may not seem like much, but since chickadees measure just 5.25 inches long and weigh only 11 grams, the result feels tiny.

I admire the red-breasted nuthatch’s color scheme, too. The slate gray of their back always looks fashionable, while the rusty orange on their belly feels warm and lovely. Add in the sharp black-and-white stripes on their head, and I give a smitten sigh.

My parents, too, appreciate these little guys. Their well-stocked feeders in northeast Iowa have plenty of cardinals, tufted titmice, and bluebirds all winter, but they almost never see red-breasted nuthatches. They do have plenty of white-breasted nuthatches, another bird who lands with a larger thud on my feeder.

White-breasted nuthatches weigh more than twice their little cousins. More handsome than cute, their black head grading into a gray back and mostly white belly is quite natty.

White-breasted (left) and Red-breasted nuthatch (right). Photos by Larry Stone.

Beyond size and color, these two cousins have some interesting similarities and differences. They both eat mostly insects in the summer, and feed insects to their chicks as well. Both find those bugs by clinging to tree bark with their super strong feet and long claws, and moving headfirst down the trunk. Their short tail stays out of the way.

This behavior is thought to give nuthatches a different perspective than the woodpeckers and brown creepers who they often feed near. Those birds, who don’t have feet adapted to climbing down, are stuck moving up a tree by using their stiff tails to brace against the trunk. They see food hidden on the underside of bark flakes, while nuthatches see lunch from the top down and extricate it with long, pointy, upturned bills.

Both shades of nuthatch switch to seeds in the winter when insects (thankfully!) decline. Red-breasted nuthatches eat conifer seeds and prefer conifer forests, while white-breasted nuthatches are more often found in deciduous woods and focus on eating the seeds and nuts found there.

Red-breasted nuthatches have another reason to live in the pines. When a pair is readying their nest cavity, they coat the entrance hole with conifer resin—sometimes even using a piece of bark as a tool to help keep their beak clean. Scientists think that this deters predators and competitors, while the homeowners just dive right through without touching the resin.

In a similar bid to deter predators, white-breasted nuthatches smear their nest entrance with bits of fur, plants, crushed insects, and mud. These materials may work by masking their scent.

So, with habitat preferences ingrained, the range of each nuthatch species overlaps and separates in concert with coniferous and deciduous forests. Red-breasted nuthatches nest across Canada, the northern U.S., and down through the Rocky and Appalachian Mountains. White-breasted nuthatches are common yard birds in both summer and winter throughout most of the United States.

Red-breasted nuthatch range.

White-breasted nuthatch range.

Since these birds are widespread and common, even increasing in recent decades, it’s difficult to detect one of their other habits—about every two years the northernmost individuals head south for the winter and hang out with the nuthatches already in residence there. Their movement is probably necessitated by low seed years in their breeding habitat. This is reported to be one such “irruptive” year. I feel like maybe I’ve noticed more nuthatches at my feeder this winter, but maybe I’m just filling it more consistently?

Whatever the reason, I’m enjoying the abundance of cute alarm clocks at my window

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at and at your local independent bookstore, too.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is now open with our exciting Growing Up WILD exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

Thursday, January 19, 2023

Scatology in the Classroom and on the Trail

“Ewww!!!” exclaimed the second graders as I pulled a large rubber replica of bear scat out of the tub. Scat, of course, is the scientific word for animal poop, and we were about to become scatologists.

This rubber replica of bear scat helps teach second graders valuable outdoor skills.
Photo by Emily Stone.

During my fall MuseumMobile visit to their classroom, we’d talked about the different adaptations that herbivores, omnivores, and carnivores need to survive. We examined beaver and deer skulls to see the flat, grinding teeth that herbivores need in order to eat plants. Next, the jagged, pointy back teeth and long, sharp canines on the wolf skull created quite a stir. Students had no problem imagining how those intimidating teeth help the large carnivore survive. Then we omnivores ran our tongues over our own canines and molars, and connected our mixed diet with that of a bear.

Last week, during the winter MuseumMobile visit, I wanted to carry that theme a little farther, a little deeper, to its natural end. Hence the replica bear scat. “Take a look at the Animal Scat Identification Chart in front of you,” I instructed. The chart is divided into three columns, one each for herbivore scat, carnivore scat, and omnivore scat.

I had the kids look for shared characteristics among the herbivore scats. The words small and roundish seemed to summarize their ideas.

The carnivore scats were all long and thin, with tapered ends. I explained that those tapers are usually shaped by hairs from the prey animals.

The omnivore scat was somewhere in the middle. The cylinders were much longer than herbivore scat, but had blunt ends instead of the hairy points.

“So who do you think made this scat?” I asked, while holding the handful of rubber bear scat aloft. Several hands shot into the air. Omnivore. That was an easy one. Next, I pulled out a replica of scraggly fox scat, and a pile of rubber deer scat. No problem. Most kids were confident that they could categorize any scat they might find in the woods. Most kids were delightfully grossed out by the thought. Now it was time for the next step.

“Why would it be helpful to be able to identify scat you find in the woods?” I asked. A boy, vigorously waving his hand in the air, blurted out “so you can know if there are dangerous animals around!”

I paused for a second, since I’m generally not worried about anything I might encounter in the Northwoods, and I like to remind people how few wildlife-human encounters end up with anyone getting hurt. Then I remembered my Alaskan adventure in 2018.

Hiking by myself on a trail on the edge of an Anchorage neighborhood, large piles of grass-filled brown bear scat put me on high alert. I made sure to keep up a constant chatter of “Hey Bear!” and confirmed that my bear spray was easily accessible. When a moose—and then a brown bear in pursuit of the moose—burst forth from the alder brush I was ready. Luckily, they were only interested in each other, but I was glad that the scat had given me warning.

After telling the kids the story of my bear encounter, I called for another reason that identifying scat in the woods is helpful.

“So you can know what animals are in the woods, even if they aren’t dangerous,” came the next reply. I do love that animals leave calling cards along trails and shorelines. It’s often difficult to see the actual animal, but scat is a sure sign that someone has been here.

Recently, on a hike just north of Phoenix, I found a flat rock arrayed with several small scats—each with a twisted tail to indicate that the depositor was a predator. Looking more closely at the variation in color from damp dark to dusty pale, I could see that there were at least four ages of scat in the pile. Clearly this animal was marking territory here on a regular basis.

From fresh dark to old gray, the multiple ages of gray fox scat on this rock can give a scatologist clues about otherwise invisible critters who share the trail. Photo by Emily Stone.

Two local naturalists I’d encountered on the trail guessed gray fox as the scat’s owner—the same species of gray fox who lives in Wisconsin! Even though I’d never spot this crepuscular critter, it was neat to know that a familiar neighbor was out there among the saguaro cacti.

As odd as it may seem, being able to identify animal scat significantly enhances my time outdoors. By observing scat, I get to be a detective, a scientist, and a more informed neighbor. Once the kids stop exclaiming about how gross it is, I hope they become all of those things, too.

Author’s Note: Portions of this article were originally published in 2016.

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at and at your local independent bookstore, too.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is now open with our exciting Growing Up WILD exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Foraging Fervor by guest writer Mary Swanson

[Mary Swanson participated in both the 2021 and 2022 Natural Connections Writing Workshops. Mary has graciously fine-tuned an essay that she drafted during the most recent class. Warning: this essay might make you hungry! –Emily Stone]

Mary Swanson loves spending time in the woods foraging for a connection to nature. 
Photo by Kim Heinz.

I enjoyed making weed soup as a child. Here’s the recipe: fill a plastic pail with water, add cut grass, dandelion leaves, a generous handful of weed seeds, mix well, and show Mom. Since then, I’ve taken classes, accumulated books, and joined walks with experts on edible wild plants. I’ve progressed to wild plum and apple chutney, capered milkweed buds, and maple-glazed black walnuts.

Throughout my life I’ve dreamed about a more natural lifestyle, growing and gathering my food. Can foraging really contribute to my food self-sufficiency? I don’t think so. The types of food I gather don’t have enough calories—I still need potatoes, bread, and pasta. For me, foraged food is more the topping than the ice cream, the sprinkles rather than the donut. Instead of the main course, foraged edibles provide special ingredients, side dishes, and wild-crafted seasonings.

In our consumer culture, there is something really compelling about things that are free for the gathering. But foraged food is not really free; you pay with your time and effort much more so than grocery store food. There is time spent learning, scouting, collecting, and processing. Especially processing, which makes so much tasty wild food too time-consuming to be practical.

I’ve spent hours at a time picking tiny elderberries off their clusters, slicing wild plums in half to extract the pits with my thumbnail, and whacking black walnut shells with a hammer to prize out the nuts. The result is a small amount of precious flavor along with the feeling of accomplishment and time spent in harmony with deep instincts. But I also feel a little odd, perhaps a bit eccentric about my extremely inefficient food projects. And at the end of the day, I’ll probably throw a frozen pizza in the oven for dinner.

(But you must try my black walnut pesto: combine ¼ cup black walnut pieces with a large handful of basil from the garden, puree with 2-3 Tsp olive oil, mix with fresh mushroom ravioli, top with parmesan cheese, and serve.)

Most of my working life has been spent at a desk in front of a computer screen dealing with toxic chemicals in the environment. The last few years, which coincide with ramping up my foraging activities, I’ve lived in a third-floor apartment overlooking a growing subdivision. All of this leaves me with a deep hunger for something more than food. The process of seeking out and gathering edible treats from nature helps to satisfy it; the wild additions to a regular meal help connect me to the natural world.

Foraging also takes me on an edible tour of the year. It started last winter when I snowshoed to the white pine on the edge of my property and brought in a small branch of needles for tea. (To make pine-needle tea: boil a few bundles of needles in a pan of water for 10 to 15 minutes, then strain. Adding a small handful of dried rosehips helps balance the piney aromatics).

Last March I made a few pints of rustic maple syrup boiled outside over an open fire. It has a sweet smoky taste that reminds me of a cozy campfire whenever I pour some on my pancakes.

I love the inflection point of spring, before the trees leaf out, when so many growing things reappear. Greens abound, including wild asparagus, nettles, and milkweed shoots. That’s when I look for ramps in the deep forest and ostrich fern fiddleheads just the right size for pickling.

Foraging connects writer Mary Swanson to the seasons, like this ostrich fern fiddlehead ready to be gathered in early May. Photo by Emily Stone.

Summer brings milkweed buds, lambsquarters, mulberries, blackcaps, and the rest of the summer berries—black, blue, rasp, thimble, elder and goose. Last July, picking blueberries on the Moquah Barrens felt wild and timeless: a wide-open vista, sitting or kneeling at a good patch of blueberries and then crawling a few feet to the next and then the next. Those tiny wild berries were so much tastier than cultivated blueberries—well worth the time it took to pick enough for one glorious pie.

As summer turns to fall there are hickory nuts, black walnuts, and applesauce sweetened with wild plum puree and maple syrup. In October, I baked butternut squash with apple and black walnut stuffing—delicious!

As I look back on my foraging experiences over this past year, I see how far I’ve come from weed soup! I also realize that feeling embarrassed about the impracticality of this fervent pastime is only in the context of a consumer economy. As part of nature’s economy, I feel reconnected and grateful, and looking for ways to share the abundance.

Remember: be safe, be respectful, forage sustainably.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is now open with our exciting Growing Up WILD exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

Thursday, January 5, 2023

Wings on the Ground

Bright orange wings lay like confetti among the dry brown fir needles and volcanic soil of the monarch butterfly sanctuaries we visited last month in Michoacán, Mexico.

Dead butterflies litter the trail in El Rosario Sanctuary. 

I’d read that many of the millions of butterflies who overwinter in the high-altitude forests of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt don’t survive, but the sight of the grounded wings really drove that home.

Winter storms are a well-publicized source of mortality for monarchs in the preserves. Rain or snow, wind, and freezing temperatures combine to blow through the tenuous protections that oyamel fir forests provide. One particularly terrible storm in 2002 killed an estimated 200-272 million butterflies—75% of the population. Paradoxically, the deaths allowed researchers to count butterflies thoroughly, and get a more accurate calculation of their population numbers. While the previous best estimate was that butterflies congregate in a density of 10 million per hectare, scientists revised that upward to 50 million butterflies per hectare.

In comparison to those densities, and that death rate, the scattering of delicate wings we carefully stepped around, or lifted gently for close examination, or held up to watch the sunlight play across their colors, was insignificant.

In fact, the condition of each fallen butterfly gave us a little window into the ecology of the forest. While butterflies find refuge from weather in these forests, not everyone here reveres them as a protected treasure. Several other forest residents see them as a fatty feast that arrives on schedule every November.

During the Museum group’s visit to El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Preserve, our guide Daniel  Behn called me over to an educational display he’d laid out on a stump. Each of the three butterflies had been eaten by a different predator, and their bodies bore tell-tale clues.

Monarchs face three main predators in their winter habitat. The male monarch at the top of this photo (the black dot on his hind wing indicates sex) was eaten messily by a black-eared mouse. The butterfly on the right, a female, had her abdomen bitten cleanly off by a black-headed grosbeak. A black-backed oriole slit open the abdomen on the female on the lower left. Photo by Emily Stone.

The male butterfly at the top of the display was mangled and chewed. This mess indicated a black-eared mouse as the murderer. Several types of mice will include monarchs in their diet in small numbers, but only Peromyscus melanotis migrates seasonally into the monarch preserves and may consume 40 butterflies in a single night. Female mice seem especially voracious, and this may fuel their winter reproduction.

Black-eared mouse. By Juan Cruzado Cortés -, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Butterflies who are too cold to crawl up vegetation to get off the ground are at highest risk of mouse predation. Over the course of the winter, mice consume an estimated 4 - 5.7% of the colony.

A female butterfly with her abdomen completely missing was the victim of a black-headed grosbeak, explained Daniel. These birds seem to have a very high tolerance for cardiac glycosides. Those milkweed toxins are ingested by monarch caterpillars and conserved through metamorphosis into butterfly adulthood. The chemicals make most birds puke, but not grosbeaks!

One of the participants on the Museum’s trip to Mexico holds a female monarch butterfly whose abdomen was eaten by a black-headed grosbeak. Photo by Emily Stone.

Black-headed grosbeak. 
By Alan Vernon - Male Black headed grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus)Uploaded by Snowmanradio, CC BY 2.0,

In contrast to the neat bite of the grosbeak, the abdomen of the butterfly on the left had been sliced open to reveal pale goo. Black-backed orioles, with their delicately pointed beaks, slit open the monarchs’ abdomens and eat only the most fat-rich innards while avoiding the toxin-filled husk. They feed more heavily on cold days when the butterflies are easier to catch.

Black-backed oriole. By Gonzalo Zepeda Martínez -, CC BY-SA 4.0, 

Each of these predators—the mice, the grosbeaks, and the orioles—have something in common with the monarchs themselves: they can ingest milkweed toxins and survive. In fact, various beetles, aphids and butterflies who eat milkweed, and the parasitoid wasps, nematodes, grosbeaks, and mice who eat the herbivores, have all converged on parallel genetic changes to the sodium–potassium pump inside their cells. These adaptations make them insensitive to cardiac glycosides, and allow them to store the toxins to poison their predators.

Using these adaptations, black-headed grosbeaks and black-backed orioles kill somewhere between 4,550 to 34,300 overwintering butterflies per day, which adds up to two million butterflies per winter. That’s about 9% of the monarchs in the Mexican preserves. Big, dense fir forests protect butterflies from this predation as well as from the weather. In logged areas, where butterfly clusters on branches are more exposed, birds munch on up to 15% of the population.

While it’s tempting to mourn the butterflies and villainize the hungry birds, ecological thinking doesn’t really allow for picking sides in a food web. Black and orange are the team colors all around, anyway. What I do hope for is enough trees to shield the butterflies, enough butterflies to feed the birds, and enough winged confetti still up in the sky to celebrate a healthy forest.

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at and at your local independent bookstore, too.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is now open with our exciting Growing Up WILD exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.