Thursday, February 26, 2015

Sweet Everlasting Rabbit Tobacco


Sweet Everlasting, true to its name, stands strong despite what the winter threw at it along my driveway.

     Sweet Everlasting (Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium, formerly Gnaphalium obtusifoilum) is one of those plants that seems to go unnoticed except for winter, yet has a litany of names associated with it. Indeed, few plants have as many common names as this annual plant of old fields and meadows. Many have to do with its persistent nature, its uses, or pleasant smell, but others seem so random.

Sweet White Balsam growing in an old field.

     Among the variety of names associated with it are the following: Sweet Everlasting, Ladies Tobacco, Poverty Weed, Owl's Crown, Catsfoot, Fussy-Gussy, Old Field Posey, Life-of-Man, Life Everlasting, Chafe Weed, None-So-Pretty, Horse Weed, Sweet Cudweed, Fragrant Everlasting, Indian Posey, Cherokee Tobacco, Sweet White Balsam, Field Balsam, and Rabbit Tobacco.
     Rabbit Tobacco is my favorite, probably because that is the name I learned it as, learning to smell it to confirm its identity. It has indeed been used as a tobacco substitute, especially by the poor or kids who couldn't purchase real cigarettes. But it has also been smoked medicinally, perhaps ironically, for all sorts of breathing disorders as well.
      Its smell is one of its most distinctive features. To some it smells like tobacco, to others like vanilla, and yet others like maple syrup. Few though find the odor to be unpleasant or unmemorable. The fragrance is also extremely long lasting, well into the winter or even the following spring, especially if moistened. During colonial times it was brought into homes to help perfume them.

The flowers of Fragrant Everlasting are unremarkable, always seeming to me that they need to open just a bit more. 

     The plant can be 2-3 feet tall, standing throughout the winter. The leaves tend to be woolly underneath and the flowers are bud-like with yellowish centers, seeming half closed. It can grow in poor soil conditions, taking full sun and dry conditions. I actually encourage its growth out of the cinder blocks that line my driveway. The seeds need light in order to germinate, perhaps aided in this by falling from the still-standing plant stems very late in the season. I usually tap the seed heads of this annual onto the dirt-filled cinder blocks to make sure I always have a few for the following year.
     It has been used by people for a variety of different reasons. Its use for smoking and perfuming homes has been mentioned already. Famous ethnobotanist Daniel Moerman listed numerous ways that Native American Indian tribes used these plants. The Alabama used it as a sedative to treat nerves or sleeplessness, sometimes using it as a face-wash to treat insomnia. The Cherokee thought it could treat twitching, muscle cramps, rheumatism, pains, colds, coughs, asthma, and various diseases, often employing it in sweat baths. The Rappahannocks had similar beliefs, thinking it could treat chills, fevers, and smoking it for asthma.
     The Cheyenne burned the leaves to purify gifts to the spirits, while their warriors chewed it to protect themselves prior to battles. The Creek thought it could be used to combat vomiting, against mumps, to prevent people from running away, as an inhalant for colds, as a sleep aid, to flavor medicines, and even to ban ghosts and other bad spirits. The Choctaw treated colds and lung issues with it. The Montagnais thought it could deal with coughing and tuberculosis, as did the Chippewa, Yuchi, Meskwaki, and Potawatami. The Menominee inhaled it for headaches and to treat fainting, also believing that fumigating a home with it would deal with ghosts.

I enjoy a warm cupful of Rabbit Tobacco tea, both inhaling the vapors and drinking it, hoping it will help with a persistent cough I was dealing with.

     As you can see, this plant with so many names has an equal number of uses. As far as for me, I rarely use it for more than pulling a leaf or bruising the plant for a quick whiff as I walk past it along my driveway, and keeping a few stems in my office. I love the smell of it, as well as its persistence throughout the winter. Sweet Everlasting indeed.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Southern Flying Squirrels

A Southern Flying Squirrel in its typical head-down escape position.

     The Southern Flying Squirrel is the only locally occurring type of the 2 species of flying squirrels found in North America. It is also the smallest tree squirrel in the USA and the most predatory. These nocturnal acrobats are very elusive and seldom seen, even though they are very common (more numerous than Gray Squirrels in the right habitat). Their scientific name, Glaucomys volans, breaks down to the "flying gray mouse."

Southern Flying Squirrel cuttings. Note the singular smooth-edged opening per nut.

     Sometimes the easiest way to determine their presence is by the way they leave nuts behind with a single, circular opening cut in them. Other animals leave "cuttings" with multiple jagged holes (many voles and mice for instance) or with the husk completely destroyed (other squirrels). These are often good signs that they live in the area.
     Flying squirrels do not actually "fly" but rather glide using their skin flaps (called a patagium) and flattened tails as airfoils (they do not actually steer with their tails, despite this being widely quoted). They are among the most accomplished gliders in the world, capable of glides up to 100 yards (though preferring much shorter distances). I've seen them maneuver deftly around trees and even completely change directions to land at the base of the same tree they took off from. Catchcing them in flight, no matter how brief, is indeed a memorable experience. Flying squirrels typically quickly flip to the opposite side of the trunk immediately upon landing, using the tree as a shield in case they are pursued by an owl (a tactic I've been lucky enough to see work on several occasions). They also usually hang head-down on the darkest side of trees so they can easily simply release and be in the best position to glide to safety. As a general rule, for every two feet high they get, they can get close to one foot in gliding distance.

Flying Squirrel raiding a bird feeder.

     Although Southern Flying Squirrels prefer to eat insects during the warmer months, they will also feed on other small animals, eggs, carrion, fruits, fungi, seeds, and nuts. They are the most predatory of all our squirrels. These charismatic rodents are more solitary during warmer seasons and may make leaf nests (dreys) if no better hiding places are available, though they prefer tree cavities. They change their behavior in winter however, becoming social and relying principally on seeds and nuts in the absence of their regular fare. Flying Squirrels are readily attracted to feeders and bait stations during winter as well. Placing nuts, suet, and/or peanut butter out a 1/2 hour after dusk on an elevated spot and checking them nightly often results in making them regular and easily observed visitors. They are most active for about an hour after it gets dark and are quite habitual in their use of these bait stations
     I have had great results in conducting evening programs observing these charismatic creatures feeding and gliding. I actually started the programs at the nature center I used to work at and have conducted regional and national trainings on conducting these types of programs at other centers as well. Long Branch Nature Center became well known for its flying squirrels, being featured in numerous newspaper articles and even on Animal Planet. "Fairy Diddles" (a nickname for them) get quite accustomed to people, lights, and even groups very easily, being almost fearless of humans.

A Flying Squirrel reaches out for some peanut butter, not even waiting for it to be applied to the feeder.

     In fact, the first time I discovered the flying squirrels at the nature center, I was moving the bird feeders inside during the evening when one popped around the tree to look at me. A bit surprised, I decided to put some peanut butter out and see if I could get a better look at it. Imagine my surprise when it scurried around the trunk and started eating the peanut butter right off the knife I was using! It didn't even wait for me to finish spreading the peanut butter on the tree. This wild squirrel simply did not see me as a danger and was fearless in getting the food, trusting in its speed and reflexes.

A Flying Squirrel peeks out from a roosting box. Note the metal barrier along the entrance edge to help prevent gray squirrels from chewing their way in, though you can see the chew marks on the metal flashing and box itself.

     Roosting boxes for them are easy to construct, the most important feature being having an opening 1 1/4" or 1 1/2" in diameter and preferably bordered with metal to keep gray squirrels (who do not like flying squirrels) from chewing their way in. Flying squirrels often pack together in den trees or roosting boxes for warmth (up to several dozen if space permits). Being so small, warmth is a critical factor and by roosting in groups, they can conserve 30% more energy. Since the males are more feisty (and since food is more available and they do not need each other for warmth) in spring and summer, attracting flying squirrels to feeders is really something best done in the coldest months of winter.

Flying squirrels are very social during winter, vocalizing and feeding or sleeping in groups.

     Breeding females get very solitary and secretive outside of winter as well, having 1-2 litters a year of 2-7 young with a 40 day gestation period. Winter roosting boxes or shelters are rarely used for nesting, the females seeking secret locations instead, since flying squirrels are not beyond eating each other's young. A third of all squirrels do not make it past their first year, with owls, outdoor cats, large snakes, foxes, and raccoons being primary predators. They otherwise can live 3-6 years in the wild, up to 15 in captivity.
     Although not legal to keep as pets locally, Flying Squirrels were quite popular in the past. Captain John Smith during his explorations was acquainted to "Assapanicks" as the Native American Indians referred to them in the Virginia Algonquian dialect. King James I requested one as early as 1609, "The King is eager to have one of the Virginia Squirrels that are said to fly." Even Teddy Roosevelt had flying squirrels during his presidency. Having taken care of un-releasable rehabilitation squirrels at the nature center, I can say they are interesting indeed. However, their nocturnal nature means that they are awake and very active when you want to be asleep.
      For a short video on them, check out this video from my YouTube Channel:  
                                  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d0VlytjtueU

     After seeing them perform their acrobatic glides and how readily they come to entertain at feeding stations, it easy to see the attraction. Flying squirrels have a special place in my soul. If you try to observe them at night, perhaps provide some roosting boxes, and feed them in winter, I bet you will feel the same way about them also. Luckily I get a chance to conduct a flying squirrel program each year at Long Branch Nature Center. Call them if you'd like to see if there are still any places left (703-228-6535). It's fun for the whole family (and for me). As long as it's not too windy (it's hard to glide safely in heavy winds) or extremely cold (<14 degrees F), they're fairly reliable at arriving for their dinner time. Let's hope for good "flying" weather that weekend!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Outdoor Cats: Killer Kitties

An inconsiderate neighbor's cat scared away from my certified backyard habitat...

     Outdoor cats, whether they're pets, feral, or part of a TNR (Trap/Neuter/Release/Return) program, are for the most part harmful to wildlife (and bad for the cats and possibly humans as well). Numerous studies have shown that outdoor cats kill billions of birds, small mammals, and other critters. In fact, the Department of Interior's State of the Birds 2014 Report states that free roaming cats are the number one source of direct, human-caused mortality of birds. While the exact number of animals killed is debatable, that cats are hugely detrimental to wildlife is not. I am unaware of any scientific study that even suggests that outdoor cats actually benefits native wildlife in any way. On the contrary, such groups as the Smithsonian Institution, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the American Ornithologists' Union, the American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians, the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians, the American Society of Mammalogists, and so many others have reached the same conclusion: that outdoor cats have serious negative effects on wildlife populations such as birds.
     Domestic cats are not native to this continent and are one of the animals most responsible for extinctions throughout the world. This is particularly true on islands, including isolated patches of habitat that function as islands for the creatures living there (which is what most of our suburban parks are). Even animals that escape the cats' clutches normally do not survive, as cat saliva contains numerous bacteria and viruses that then often infect the cat-bite victim.
     Even well-fed cats instinctively hunt for prey, meaning that those in TNR programs or those let out by pet owners continue to kill small animals, whether they wear bells, are declawed, or are well-fed. In fact, by feeding cats what you end up with are subsidized predators that compete unfairly with native predators who starve if they do not capture enough prey. More over, those native predators have even less food because of the cat competition (which are also usually present at predator density levels unknown in nature).
     Living outdoors is also not good for the cats either. Feral cats usually live 2-5 years while indoor cats often live over 17 years. Free-roaming cats are exposed to predation, cold, heat, accidents and illness. Such diseases as rabies, distemper, feline leukemia, roundworms, bartonellosis, typhus, and toxoplasmosis can not only establish themselves in cats, but then can spread to wildlife and perhaps even humans. Indeed, cats are the main host or reservoirs for some of these such as toxoplasmosis, and cats are the primary route of infection of this to other creatures such as deer and bobcats.
     It is for these reasons and many more that numerous environmental organizations are against outdoor cats, including the National Audubon Society, the Wildlife Society, the National Wildlife Federation, the American Bird Conservancy, and even PETA.
     I often hear that it is not the animals fault, but rather humans who are responsible for the present situations, and yes that is true. But it also only man that can try and fix these problems, even if they involve tough decisions and actions. It is our responsibility to do so rather than allow things to get worse or condone our mistakes.
     I do not know even one professional naturalist or natural resources manager that believes that outdoor cats are something that benefit wildlife, indeed just the opposite. Just because cats are charismatic does not mean that we should value their lives over that of native wildlife or give them special treatment. We do not allow dogs or other pets to run wild, form colonies, or defecate and trespass onto neighbors yards. So why do we treat cats differently, and at the expense of other deserving wildlife? We should not tolerate any non-native predator affecting our native wildlife, let alone subsidize them by feeding or forming colonies for them. Cats do not belong in nature and should be removed rather than encouraged. There's nothing wrong with cats, as long as they're indoor pets. So we need to make sure that people keep their cats neutered and safe indoors; safe for the cats and for wildlife.