from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA

January 18, 2004

Most mornings in dawn's twilight, before the sun's rays begin shooting in from the east, several Eastern Gray Squirrels, SCIURUS CAROLINENSIS, work among the slender branches at the top of oak trees in the woods. Sometimes there's five or more. Acorns cluster at the outer branches, so when a squirrel goes there, the branches yield. A squirrel's acorn-nabbing foray usually begins with a brief pause on the stable part of a branch, then there's a hurried rush to a branch- tip acorn, and then a rush back. Sometimes a squirrel misjudges a branch's strength and momentarily finds himself dangling, or worse.

If you ever see such a group of foraging squirrels, notice how each individual runs along a branch for a second or two, then freezes, then runs some more, then freezes. When several squirrels in a tree all move in this stop-motion manner, it's a funny thing to see. My guess is that they pause because it's easier for them to spot approaching hawks and owls. Seeing how all squirrels stick to such a disciplined program of stops and goes, we have a hint as to how serious the predator threat is for them.

By the time sunlight hits the treetops, the squirrels are gone. I suppose that's because the bright light makes them more vulnerable to their predators. They don't always return to their dens for the rest of the day, for often in the middle of the day I hear the "Aaarghhhh!" call that's often made by aggravated female squirrels when they're being chased by several males. These chases can go on for hours. I have a true-to-life online story, "Mistletoe: One Year in the Life of a Gray Squirrel," describing one such chase, at

A Web site in Michigan says that up there breeding occurs in December-February and May-June. That site also says that most females begin their reproductive life at 1.25 years but can bear young as early as 5.5 months. Females may produce two litters a year for more than 8 years. Usually 2-4 young make up a litter, though litters of up to 8 are possible. When you do the math, that's an impressive reproductive rate. The Web site with this and other info is at$narrative.html


In this area Gray Foxes, UROCYON CINEREOARGENTUES, mate from December into March, so maybe the mating urge was behind my seeing one last Sunday. I was walking down the Pond Trail when a Gray Fox up ahead stepped from a Loblolly-sapling thicket, looked up the road before crossing it, and instantly withdrew back into the thicket when he saw me. Our eyes met for less than a second, but that was enough to leave a solid impression in me.

The fox's coat was so thick and shiny that in the morning sunlight it looked absolutely luxuriant. It was so thick and glossy that if it were on a pet dog you'd want to sink your hands into it just for the pleasure of it. With such a splendid coat, this fox must have been doing well, getting his share of mice, rats, rabbits, opossums, armadillos, insects, squirrels, birds and roadkill.

I'll bet I've been hearing this fox an hour or two before dawn on recent mornings. I'm awakened by a sound not quite a bark or a yelp, but rather like the voice of a hoarse teenage boy calling "airrr, airrr, airrr, airrr... " Is this my fox calling for a mate, or expressing his pleasure at having found one?

I've seen both Red and Gray Foxes around here. Red Foxes generally prefer sparsely settled, rolling farm areas with wooded tracts, marshes and streams, while Gray Foxes prefer more rugged landscapes, especially those with brushy areas and swamps. Grays are usually more aggressive than Reds, so where their ranges overlap the Grays typically dominant. Studies show that on the average a fox travels about five miles in search of food on a winter night.

I've known for a long time that female foxes are called vixens, but only this week did I read that male foxes can be called "dog foxes."

The Pennsylvania Game Commission has a fox page at


Thursday while renewing the pinestraw mulch around my azaleas I discovered two perfect little jawbones in the old mulch. Judging from their sizes, only 1¼-inch long (33 mm), I figured they belonged to a woodrat, of which there are plenty around here. However, when I "keyed them out," they proved to be chipmunk jaws.

The identification was made possible by a 40-page, plastic-comb-bound pamphlet entitled "A Key-Guide to Mammal Skulls and Lower Jaws." You can review this publication and others along the same line by clicking their titles on my mammal-books page at

Fortunately the pamphlet is illustrated, because to identify the jawbones I needed to check the features of such bone parts as the ramus, coronoid process, condyle and angle, and I'd never heard of those things. It turns out that a chipmunk's "tip of coronoid process lies about 4-5 mm in front of angle," and that the "lower edge of ramus, just in front of angle, curves or turns inward." I scanned the jawbone and you can confirm these details yourself by viewing the labeled image at the bottom of my mammal page, at


Two Newsletters ago I told you about our Leopard Frogs croaking, and last week I mentioned the Upland Chorus Frogs thumbing their combs, so this week I'm reporting Spring Peepers, HYLA CRUCIFER, calling as lustily as anyone. The Leopard Frogs are mostly at the larger Field Pond, but in the small pond next to the barn chorus frogs and peepers are present in approximately equal numbers and volume. Spring Peepers are easy to identify visually because individuals are tiny, brown frogs only about an inch long (2.5 cm) and each one wears across its back a distinct, slender-armed X. The "peeps" they make also are distinctive. If your computer can deal with MP3 files, you can hear them sounding a little like baby chicks at feeding time, at


The other day Sharon and Hillary on Mississippi's Gulf Coast reminded me that from February 13-16 the Great Backyard Bird Count of 2004 will take place. I've marked my calendar and will certainly participate, which means that I'll count my local birds and send my list via the Internet to "birdcount headquarters." You can read all about this nationwide event and prepare to participate yourself by going to

At the above address special links help identify certain birds, particularly various woodpeckers, chickadees, sparrows and "red finches." Other links provide identification help for absolute beginners. Don't forget my own "How to Watch Birds" at

Last year some 50,000 checklists were sent in from all across North America, accounting for more than four million birds among 512 species. One benefit of the study was to highlight a drastic decline of crows in Illinois and Ohio, where West Nile Disease has a strong presence. You can read more results from last year's count at

Teachers in Mississippi should note that as part of the event the Audubon Society and others have put together a "Great Backyard Bird Count - Mississippi Classroom Activity Kit." Materials in the kit are meant to help K-12 teachers introduce students of all ages to wildlife in their backyards. To obtain a copy of the kit, contact Audubon Mississippi's Central State Office in Vicksburg at 601-661-6189, or Dr. Mark W. LaSalle at Mississippi State University Coastal Research & Extension Center in Biloxi at 228-388-4710.


Nowadays around noon or in the early afternoon when it's warmed up, if you look closely at mossy spots such as those along creek banks, down among the moss's mosaics of dark green hues, you just might spot something about the size of a pinhead and as bright red as any lipstick. Shaped like a tick full of blood, but with its body broadest at the shoulder area, not the hips, the little critter will be wandering among the mosses, hardly ever stopping for a rest. Around here, about one in three moss-mats has one. They are velvet mites, genus TROMBIDIUM. You can see one of several thousand species going by the name of "velvet mite" (the Trombidiidae) at

Velvet mites, with their eight legs, are not insects, but rather more closely related to spiders and ticks. They are very closely related to chiggers, or redbugs. The adults of chiggers and velvet mites are about the same size, and neither adult chiggers nor adult velvet mites bother humans, since they are predators on insects and inset eggs. Among the chiggers, it's only the microscopic larvae that bite us, making us itch. The very tiny larvae of velvet mites are parasites on insects.

If you look at a velvet mite with a 10X handlens, getting a good side view well lit from behind, you can barely see that below the mite's ticklike head some very slender, sharp fangs arise. They are carried pointed backwards and held almost horizontally.

Velvet mites don't necessarily live easy existences simply rambling about looking for insect eggs. The adults cannibalize each other and are occasionally parasitized by larvae of other velvet mites. One species, the Red Velvet Mite, has long been used for the treatment of male infertility in traditional Eastern medicine. In the West, "chemical prospectors" grind them up, looking for interesting chemicals.


I've just added a "current weather" box at the bottom of my menu page for archived editions of this newsletter. That page is located at

If occasionally you'd like to see what the current temperature, humidity and wind direction and velocity are at Natchez you might want to bookmark the above link. Keep in mind that during the coldest hours it may be 5-8° colder here 12 miles east of Natchez, and during the summer it may be several degrees warmer here than there. I'm amazed at these differences and guess that they are caused by the Mississippi River's moderating influences.


This is just the time of year when a coldframe shows its stuff. On cold or chilly days, even when sunlight filters through an overcast sky, I love opening up my coldframe's lid and feeling the warm, moist, earthy- smelling air gush from it. Outside the coldframe, weeds and garden plants, if they're alive at all, are stunted, dark and frost-nipped. Plants inside, including tomato seedlings that have made it through two 23° mornings, grow with easy abandon. They're translucently succulent with that pale greenness you only see in the spring when all notions of frost are long past. You can view my coldframe, with Little Bluestem rising in the background, and with a blue tarp behind it for covering the structure on those nights when the temperatures drop really low, at That picture was taken by neighbor Karen Wise.

One reason coldframes are so appealing to me is that they are counterintuitive, yet they work. "Counterintuitive," in the sense that it just doesn't seem reasonable that any one object in the cold would accumulate heat any more than any other, such as a tree or a rock. Of course, intellectually we know that coldframes function because of the greenhouse effect. The hotter something is, the shorter the wavelength of the energy it radiates. Sunlight energy disposed in relatively short wavelengths penetrates the coldframe's plastic cover, then sunlight-warmed things inside the coldframe re-radiate heat energy, but now that energy is configured in longer wavelengths which, for their own reasons, can't pass through the plastic cover. So heat accumulates inside the structure.

Coldframes don't have to be fancy. Once I simply dug up a spot of ground, sowed some lettuce, covered the spot with a dead Sweetgum sapling bearing plenty of leafless branches, covered the sapling with a clear plastic sheet, and finally sealed the sheet's edges by dumping dirt on them. That effort provided me with salads several weeks in advance of when it otherwise would have been possible.

Something in my personality causes me to glow with satisfaction when I am in the presence of a worthy accomplishment brought about by thought and insight. A monkey can eat when hungry, sleep when tired, chortle when happy, and do what all the other monkeys around are doing. However, surviving and excelling because you've thought something out and carried it through, even though what you're doing seems counterintuitive, lies at the heart of what I think a human has that other animals don't.

The University of Missouri provides a fine page called "Building and Using Hotbeds and Coldframes" at