Nature and Gardening at the Edge

Halloween Bones

Domestic cat skull

Halloween seems like a good time to talk about bones. Have you ever found bones on the ground on your farm or acreage? Almost all bones on the surface are going to be animal bones and not human bones or dinosaur bones. While found bones are usually not a subject for crime investigation or archeology, they can tell a story. Scattered and perhaps broken bones can mean that an animal met a violent death or that at least a scavenger found the carcass and ate on it. However ligaments that hold bones together to make a skeleton usually deteriorate long before the bones themselves so bones may be scattered over time by other forces. Some predators, particularly those that create dens for young, will often take prey to their den to feed their young. Entrances to animal dens may be littered with bones. If you see a den with bones on the outside, think about the time of year and the possibility of meeting the den occupant who may be on the defense of hidden young before investigating such bones.

Identifying found bones can be interesting. Some such as snakes or turtles are readily identifiable by their unique shapes. Turtle shells will in time lose the outer plates, "tortoise shell", and be simply a bony shell. Four-legged creature bone identification may be trickier. Look for feet and the skull for the best clues. Do the feet have hooves or claws? What kind of teeth does the skull have? The picture below shows what is likely a cat skull. Look at the teeth and compare them to tabby’s teeth. Of course ears have their shape due to cartilage, so no ears will be visible. The eye sockets will appear to be much larger than the visible eyes of the living animal. Some skeletons may be from young animals so will appear much smaller than what we expect for the species.

Occasionally horned or antlered animal bones may be found. While these are easy to identify, the manner of death may be the most interesting aspect. Although I have never found deer or elk skulls with the antlers entwined in a struggle to the death, these fights do occur and the remains are occasionally found. Hunters sometimes bone out deer or elk and leave an essentially intact skeleton behind. Bones from hunting occasionally will show marks from cutting.

Bird bones are hollow so bird skeletons are more obvious. Look for the beak and the feet for clues. If the foot bones are present, are they for walking or perching? The overall size is a good clue and of course skeletons may be from younger, smaller birds as well.

Sometimes the location of a skeleton is a good clue. In the case of bird skeletons, the location may be the habitat where the bird nested. Thus a skeleton on a lakeshore may well be from waterfowl.

Although the sight of bones may seem strange, consider the story that they tell and learn more about the wildlife in your area.

Partial snake skeleton 

Tales in the snow

Snow fell on Christmas Eve giving us a white Christmas.
White Christmas is not common here but always possible. Some drive to the
mountains to enjoy the snow when it doesn’t fall on the plains. A running joke
is that celebrating Christmas on Halloween ensures a white “Christmas” as it
seems to snow more often on Halloween than on Christmas.

 This years’ snow fall was only an inch or two but continuing
cold weather kept it on the ground for days. It is always interesting to me to
see what wildlife is about after a snowfall. Deeper snowfalls may keep animals
in for a day or even two but soon they are out foraging for food.

Bare patches in the snow with lots of rabbit, deer or other
animal tracks show that where they have dug down to eat. Larger animals such as
deer may eat tree bark while heavy snow cover is on. If you see a cluster of
their tracks in your orchard, check the trees.

Of course animals are about all during the year but their
trails and eating habits are often nearly invisible to us without snow cover.
On the dry lands, antelope may follow a trail that is all but invisible but
that is consistent. By walking their range after a snow, you can easily see
their trails.

Occasionally animals seem to play in the snow much as humans
do but their tracks usually show the daily activities. Clusters of tracks point
to grazing or eating. Deep widely spaced tracks usually indicate running either
after food or to escape being caught. More leisurely deposited tracks will show
the trails to and from water, food or cover. Look carefully and you may also
find spots where animals have bedded down in the snow.  Deeper holes made by rabbits can sometimes be
found in deeper snow banks.  Amazingly
the rabbits appear to use these for days during heavy snow. During warmer hours
they may sit on the snow bank enjoying the sun ready to pop in if a predator
appears or the temperature drops.

I found a lovely bird print in the snow that didn’t really
tell a clear story. The size of the bird does not seem to indicate a bird of
prey. Perhaps it the bird simply flew down from the overhanging tree and spread
its wings to make the landing.

Today the Christmas snowfall is well tracked up in the lawn
area and ample rabbit droppings are deposited. The story is less interesting
than after the first fall. Subsequent snowfalls on old snow may make tracking
more challenging. Frequently the snow will crust during sunny days. If it
crusts with many tracks making it rough, new snow and new tracks will be more
difficult to trace. Likewise granular snow and very dry drifted snow may Snow on the plains
capture many tracks.

The snow tales are obscured now and sadly the moisture
content was not a big help to plant life or animals. Perhaps we can hope for
another snow with or without a holiday.

Alien species

Minnie Hatz headshot There are many plants and animals in any area that are
non-native. These typically range from desirable introduced species such as
pheasant to those labeled invasive and noxious. It is easy to see how the
desirable species get transplanted. In my area there is a large local goose
population that was started by one person who thought it would be nice to have
a local population.  Where we once had a
migratory population, we now have geese that nest here and spend their entire
lives locally.  

Strangely enough, species that are later labeled invasive,
noxious and so on, are sometimes introduced with similar good intentions.
English sparrows and starlings were brought to this country by someone who
thought it would be nice to have all of the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s
works living in America.

Other species that become pests are accidently introduced.
Many of the weeds that are now classified as noxious apparently were introduced
in imported hay, bedding and feed as seeds. A current concern is the spread of
various aquatic plants and invertebrates such as snails that are moved from
waterway to waterway on boats, trailers and other equipment. Obviously weed
seeds, snail eggs and tiny organisms are difficult to control and easily spread
in other activities.

According to the USDA, an invasive species is a non-native
or alien species whose introduction causes or is likely to cause economic or
environmental harm or harm to human health. 
They note that the vigor of invasive plant species combined with a lack
of natural enemies can lead to outbreak populations.

You have probably heard in the news about some of the
species listed as invasive on the USDA web site: Africanized honeybees,
Mediterranean fruit fly, soybean cyst nematode, Burmese python. Once a species
is considered invasive, it is usually opposed with regulations.  Before a species reaches the level requiring
regulation, we can all do our part. Do not release or allow the escape of
animals, particularly exotic pets. When dealing with natural materials that could
contain unwanted seeds, eggs or tiny organisms, be sure that you are working
through legitimate business channels. Even buying plants at nurseries, for
example, may not ensure that you don’t receive some unwanted seeds or organisms
in the soil. More casual sources, such as buying an exotic potted plant at a
flea market, will certainly not ensure unwanted pests.

Nursery catalogues sometimes contain notes that particular
plants cannot be shipped to specific states. These guidelines are sometimes in
places to prevent the sale of nursery stock into areas where it can become

I purchased water hyacinth for a decorative pond. By the end
of summer, I was raking it off the pond and allowing it to dry out and die off.
After a winter of freezing weather, I no longer had water hyacinth. In a warm
climate, I can imagine it taking over every square inch of water surface and
living from year to year.  Water hyacinth
may overgrow in our zone 10 but in other areas they can likely can overwinter
and become invasive.

Small animals on the back roads

Last week, I blogged about the challenges of driving where
you may encounter big game. Alas, small animals also use the backroads and can
become victims as well. Squirrels and rabbits seem to be the most common
animals encountered on roads. Like deer, they often appear indecisive and can
be difficult to avoid.


Our local resident geese population can also be obstacles.
Their slow sedate march across the road sometimes causes them to become the
victims. Geese and also ducks with young will not fly and if they start across
a roadway are totally at the mercy of drivers. Most drivers will try to avoid
wildlife but even animal lovers can sometimes cause deaths simply because the
animals don’t behave as expected or other traffic make car animal collisions
unavoidable. Considering the size of a grown goose, drivers would do well to
avoid collision with them. Imagine what one would do to a windshield?


Turtles and snakes are certainly at the mercy of drivers.
Few turtles are seen on the roads in this arid area but of course they move so
slowly that they are on the road a long time once they start a journey across
it. Snakes apparently enjoy the retained heat in the roadway and will sometimes
lie on the road for warmth. Sadly, many people will run over any snake with the
justification that they thought it to be a rattler. Most dead snakes that I
have seen on the road dead are bull snakes, a harmless and useful snake that
somewhat resembles rattlesnakes. Although many motorists can’t be bothered to
identify a snake before they run over it, I see a lot of people on back roads
stop to look at dead snakes apparently to verify the species.


Like the larger species, small mammals and snakes are often
active at night and can hit when they are suddenly in the headlights. Birds are
more likely to be hit in the daytime.


Although larger animals such as deer may survive a collision
at low speed, smaller animals are nearly always killed outright. Of course
collisions should be avoided at all times but considering the possible impact
on young animals, collisions in the spring can be particularly tragic. A female
mammal killed in the spring will usually mean young that die of neglect.
Likewise female birds that are killed usually mean that the young are at
serious risk. In some birds species, the male also tends the young but ‘single
parenting’ in animal species can mean that the young are left alone for long
periods while the surviving parent forages, and the predators often move in.


Animal vehicle collisions can not all be avoided sadly. If
you enjoy wildlife, a routine drive can be an opportunity to see nature.
Looking for wildlife can mean looking out for them on the roadway. Be
especially alert in areas where you may have seen wildlife in the past and at
the times of day when animals are most active. Often an animal on the roadway
at night is visible by variations in dark and light patterns. Slow down if you
see animals near or on the roadway. Not only may you save the animals life, you
may avoid some expensive damage to your vehicle!

Back Roads, Where the Deer and the Antelope Roam

Fortunately members of the deer family now roam about everywhere in the United States. One of the down sides to the deer population is that the deer are sometimes hit on the back roads and highways.  I can speak from experience that even a small
deer can cause significant auto damage and sadly most deer that are hit die.

In my area, mule deer, white tailed deer and antelope are all residents. Traveling to the mountains means the white tail deer and
antelope are not present but even larger elk or moose can be encountered. How can we enjoy the wildlife and not have these encounters?

One of the best strategies is to keep wildlife in mind and be particularly watchful in wooded areas, near streams and where deer crossing signs are posted. Of course the deer could care less about the signage but such signs are often posted where many car and animal collisions and near collisions have occurred.  Mornings and evenings are prime times for collisions because the animals are active and the vision is less clear.

Besides considering the surroundings there are some strategies to use for avoiding collision with wildlife. Many people describe
collisions with deer as, “the deer jumped in front of me”. Recently when driving at night, I saw a doe and two half grown fawns. True to their character, they took a long time to decide which side of the road and then which side of the fence they wanted to escape to. I slowed down and let them make their decision without pressure. Usually a group of deer will stay together but it is hard to predict what their plan is. The expression, “like a deer in the headlights” may have some validity. Some deer seem to panic whether because of the lights or the motion.

Many times antelope are more wary than deer. Certainly they are less likely to use cover and are as likely to be encountered along a wide open stretch of highway as anywhere. Like deer, they will usually stay in a group. Unlike deer, they rarely seem to be about during the night, although it is not unknown. The dangers with antelope on a road are due to their habit of crawling under fences as opposed to leaping over them. A fence that would appear to be an easy leap for them to make, may seem like an obstacle and they
will stop and mill around or crawl under it. Another habit that is dangerous is their tendency to determine their course and stick with it. While it sounds easier to avoid collision than when dealing with the flighty deer, antelope may determine that their path is across the road and even the presence of traffic doesn’t always deter them. If you see them on the road or even running toward the road, stop. Their definition of right away only applies to them! Elk and moose on the highway are definitely something to be aware of when driving in the mountains. These are very large animals and their long legs may put the bulk of their weight at windshield height with a potential for disastrous accident.  

A small herd of mule deer consider crossing a road at sundown

O Christmas tree

I am actually ahead of schedule for holidays this year, having celebrated Thanksgiving early. I am thinking ahead to Christmas and a
Christmas tree and other traditions. A live tree in the house, or even some green garlands or a centerpiece give a wonderful scent. Somehow the scent of evergreens is so reminiscent of the forest that nature lovers find it irresistible. Of course all evergreens, even those cut from the forest fresh, are dead and sooner or later shed needles.

An appealing alternative seems to be the live tree that can be planted later. If you have space to add a tree, this seems ideal. Reading
the care of live trees in the winter, adds some real challenges to the ideal solution. Trees should only be kept inside for about a week and then stored in an unheated garage, barn or other building. Also root balls add significant weight. In my house, the tree and root ball would have to be taken up or downstairs to living space or perhaps displayed in the unheated garage. While living trees seem to be an ideal solution, there are challenges.

Of course, artificial trees are available for the practical, those allergic to greenery and those constricted by time. Many designs have
came and gone over the years and the “realistic” ones have improved though it is doubtful that anyone would mistake one for a real tree. Of course any scent has to be somehow added.

Another solution is to have a potted tree in the house year-round. Norfolk pines or similar trees that do not grow to large size can
be used this way. During the remainder of the year, the small tree is a part of the indoor plantscape and never planted out-of-door.

The after Christmas season always involves taking down the tree, which for a living balled tree or a cut tree involves some extra work. Cut trees from my house and sometimes relative’s homes go into a brush pile for wildlife habitat. The work of dragging the tree there is only complicated if there is deep snow. Keeping the tree there is more of the challenge. January winds have often brought the trees back to the house or other places where they are not wanted. Apparently the brush pile is good for wildlife and the tree is kept from the landfill. Of course this is not a solution for everyone and many trees go to landfills. Another solution offered in some communities is to donate trees to landscape operations so they can be chipped for mulch. Trees should never be burnt in a home fireplace. The dying needles and still present sap create sudden intense heat that can cause a home fire.

While it is tempting to keep a live balled tree indoors for an extended time after the holidays, nurseries caution against this as the tree
will respond to the warmth and begin to grow. For best success in planting, the advice from nurseries is to remove the tree after a maximum of a week and hold it in a cool place until the normal spring planting time. If you can be sure that the tree will be undecorated and removed promptly, can be cared for appropriately and planted in the spring, this is a good solution.  

Cut trees 

What grew here, what can grow here

Several years ago, the National Wildlife Federation printed an article that intrigued me. The article started with the idea of what would happen over time if you quit tending your lawn. Of course your neighbors might be aggravated and things would look shabby. In the long run, your lawn or garden would return to nature. Of course, nature looks different in different areas of the country. In some areas, trees sprout and eventually turn into woodland. In other areas, trees die out and grass returns. The article scenario was for the east coast so only mowing was eliminated from the plan. Living on the plains, I would suggest that watering would also be eliminated from the plan as most lawns and gardens would be quite different living only on natural precipitation.

These scenarios are interesting and useful as well. Certainly we all like to improve upon nature, whether growing food, trees or sod but the improvement can take a lot of effort.

To see nature in your area, look about at land that is not cultivated or tended. It might look like some of the prairies in my area or it could grow taller grasses, or trees. Nature moves in stages and initially, weeds and other species that are sometimes described as growing in “disturbed” areas will invade. Rural roadsides are often like this. With frequent grading or mowing, only the first wave of the natural vegetation can become established. It can take twenty years or more for an area to return to nature.

Another area that can become very natural is near a creek or river where the land is either too wet or too rough for agriculture. In many parts of the country, these areas area are also rich in wildlife and used for hunting, bird watching and other wildlife activities.

A lesson that we can take away from studying these natural areas is the possibilities of what your land will support. I have seen numerous abandoned farmsteads on the plains and inevitably they are marked with dead or dying trees. Once trees are not regularly watered, they eventually become stressed by the cycles of precipitation and most die out in time. To have a tree shaded lawn here, I must either water trees regularly or select very drought resistant species that can more likely withstand the dry cycles.

Some in this area advocate xeriscaping, planning for very low water usage. One part of this plan is using Buffalo grass for lawn coverage. While, I water a lawn, I can see some befits to this tough, low growing grass. It never becomes tall or needs mowed. While it is more of a grey green, it is tough and endures with very little water. 

Natural areas can also provide an inspiration. Rock gardens were initially planned as a bit of alpine landscape where plants from mountains could be grown and displayed. I am afraid my rock garden doesn’t look a lot like an alpine area, but certainly both the inspiration and plants are available to create such a spot here on the plains.

Native grasslands showing taller growth where moisture is available 

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