Bob Henke commentary: Q+A about birds, bees and woodchucks

Bob Henke commentary: Q+A about birds, bees and woodchucks

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The buckwheat was beginning to blossom very sporadically. Buckwheat is a terribly persnickety honey source. For some reason, it stops all nectar production at the point of high sun. Then, just a bit of dry weather will make some of the plants hold off flowering. If the whole field does not blossom at once, the bees seem to decide it just is not worth the hassle and ignore it.

I needed rain.

I had a friend, a graduate student and Seneca, who had the rain dance right down. I once saw him call a thunderstorm out of clear blue sky with three steps. I cannot do that and had to resort to a more positive mechanism — I went to the car wash. As the big sprayer moved towards the center of the car, I began to lower the window. Of course, I put it back up before any water came in, but it got a great response — a solid buffet from Dr. Wifey.

It is far more gratifying with small grandchildren who shriek, make horrified faces and thrash around most satisfyingly. In my most memorable car wash trip, after the window trick, I got them to focus on the various substances being sprayed on the car. The last of these formed layers of color oozing down the windows. One layer was a particularly hideous shade of yellow and, when asked what that was, I replied, “gerbil urine.” I countered their disbelief with a great tale about how the desert environment increases the content of grabbic acid in the urine, which makes it a great drying and polishing agent.

There was derision but I pointed out that as soon as it hit water, the color disappeared, but really hooked them when I said the only problem was the smell. I turned on the defroster, sucked in some of the car wash perfume smell, and within moments they were alternately sniffing and yucking. When they told their mother about the gerbil urine, she was unable to reverse the information because they had smelled it themselves. Sometimes I hate myself.

The car wash worked, it is raining, and I am going to get to work on this month’s questions. The first has to do with the white-fronted sparrow I had in last week’s Sightings.

What makes the yellow eyebrows on that bird you had in the picture?

I am going to go with genetics and the likelihood it developed as some sort of sexual attractant during the mating process. On the other hand, it could be gerbil urine.

Loved the column on animals and vehicles. SO true about squirrels and rabbits. How about those deer whistle things you put on your bumper? They make a high pitched noise and scare animals away from the road.

They are incredibly effective at their true function, which is relieving people of their money. With the array of sounds coming from a motor vehicle, from the wind to the motor to the tires, there is no way any animal could miss hearing it coming. I fail to see how adding another annoying whistle to the mix would have any effect at all.

I am heartbroken. We had a woodchuck that was devouring our garden. I bought one of those cage traps because we did not want to hurt it, just have it live somewhere else. I checked it at 10AM, went and ran a few errands, and when I came back at 11:15 it was in the trap dead. Why would that happen? Stress from not being free? We feel terrible.

Actually, woodchucks do not react particularly strongly to being restrained, whether in a cage or foothold trap. When trapping one, you must remember the fact that woodchucks do not have a summer coat. They are furbearers and maintain their dense undercoat all year. This is because they spend most of their time underground in their burrows where the temperature hovers around 50 degrees summer and winter. We think of them as warm weather animals, out in the sun eating grass. We fail to notice that they rarely spend more than 10 minutes eating before retreating to their burrow for an equal amount of time to cool off.

More than a few minutes in the hot sun puts the groundhog in real danger from hyperthermia — overheating. If you wish to trap one, it is best to set it in the cool of early morning or late afternoon, then take a look at it every few minutes so the chuck does not remain trapped in the open for an extended period. Release must take place expediently as well but bear in mind, if you release it somewhere where it cannot get to a very cool place soon, you are condemning it just as surely as if you shot it in the first place. Being “humane” is tricky business.

Here we are in late June and the male goldfinches at our feeder have begun to fight viciously as if it was breeding season. It is so bad the females do not even come anymore. What is wrong with these guys?

Basically nothing. Goldfinches take a bit more relaxed approach to mating and raising young. They actually begin nesting somewhat after most of the other birds have fledged their first brood. You may have noticed that the males do not replace their winter drab with the bright yellow and black colors until June. The females have disappeared because they are sitting on their nests incubating. The males feed her during this time and continues to feed the young during the 10 days to fledging for she begins incubating another clutch. Daddy is surly because he winds up not only feeding the babies but feeding her as well.

Are there any good spots locally to view wildlife? We are looking for a high species count.

I guess this depends on your definition of wildlife. We like to take a short ride before going to see the sunset and typically see two dozen to 30 species. The largest species count I can remember came from a political trip to tour a large municipal landfill in a nearby county. I was over 100 in the hour and a half hour we were on the grounds. If your count includes insects, sitting almost anywhere outdoors and looking at the ground will get you a dozen species of ants. Generally, if your goal is species count, the closer to human habitations the better because our activities make a lot of habitat for a wide range of species.

I was told that you said honeybees were deaf. You are pretty dumb. They buzz all the time, that is how they talk. If they couldn’t hear what would be the point? BTW, in case you didn’t know, they also dance. How could they do that if they couldn’t hear?

It is certainly hard to argue with your logic but the fact remains, bees do not have ears or other auditory organs. The buzz is simply a mechanical result of their wings displacing air as they beat them. It is not a form of communication. They are very sensitive to vibration on the hive, detecting this much like we do through a host of tiny hairs covering their body. As far as the “dance” goes, there is no TikTok involved so there is no need to keep a rhythm.

It was nicknamed “dance” because it involves a series of carefully choreographed moves, including waggling the abdomen, to communicate distance and direction to nectar sources. Sailors using semaphores are doing the same thing as are people using sign language. You could call this dance as well if you wish, but it does not require music and the point of each is that the people communicating cannot hear each other. It must really drive you nuts that crickets hear with their elbows.

What are the very tiny grasshoppers all over my deck? They look just like the big ones but a lot smaller.

The tiny grasshoppers are ... grasshoppers. Unlike many other invertebrates, grasshoppers do not go through metamorphic changes. When they hatch, they look just as they will as adults, just smaller. They grow, shed their exoskeletons, grow more until they achieve adult size. You just have a particularly prolific hatch occurring near your house.

But do not worry. Chances are the gerbils will eat them all anyway.

Bob Henke writes a weekly outdoors column for The Post-Star.


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