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Baby birds and beating the heat with Pam Perry

 A young house finch begs for food. The young bird is fanning its wings and its parent is perched on the twig next to it.
Gary Payne via KAXE-KBXE Season Watch FB Page
A young house finch begs for food.

Last week, retired non-game wildlife biologist Pam Perry joined the KAXE Morning Show to talk all things nature! She and phenologist John Latimer discuss “baby season” in the north woods. Questions like how critters handle mid-summer heat, and why garter snakes have been seen hanging out during their solitary season are addressed.

Baby birds

Being a parent to baby birds is often exhausting (and occasionally frustrating) work! The fledglings, who are used to food delivered directly into their mouth by their parents, have a hard time figuring out how to identify and ingest food independently. The parents often spend what looks like a frustrating week teaching the babies to eat the food that is right in front of their baby bird faces.

This isn’t just true of the birds at backyard feeders: Pam heard of a family of four fledgling green herons that had to be convinced to leave the nest, then painstakingly persuaded to try pursuing prey on independently. (This might be a relatable struggle for more than a few human parents!)

Luckily, hunger and independence are great motivators, and the baby birds figure it out eventually. As they learn to eat, they also learn an abundance of other skills: avoiding predators, how to fly and perch properly, and where to find food, water and shelter.

Water can be hard to find in some habitats. Birds need water both to drink and to bathe, so that their plumage stays clean, parasite-free, and functional. For birds that live near lakes and rivers, this is easy in the summer!

While watching bird families interact, it can be hard to tell the difference between the adults and the babies. Pam’s tip is to watch which birds are the leaders and which are the followers. Parents will choose the direction, and the babies follow. Other signs, such as their plumage and behavior, can also give clues.

Too toasty for frogs and toads

Last week, John found a recently-metamorphosed gray tree frog that “could have sat on a quarter and had plenty of extra space around it”. Frogs that small are this year’s crop: they just recently transformed from tadpoles into adults!

Gray tree frogs are able to change their color from green to gray in order to camouflage themselves. Green is great for hiding on tree leaves: it pays to be gray if you’re hiding on tree bark. However, they don’t always have great control of the hue: the one John spotted was a lime green, which stuck out on a background of dark green grass.

A gray tree frog clings to a brick wall. Note the enlarged tips of the toes: these are a giveaway clue that the frog is arboreal. The frog is mottled grey in color with a bright yellow coloration on the inside of the hind legs.
Sarah Mitchell
Northern Community Radio KAXE/KBXE
A gray tree frog clings to a brick wall. Note the enlarged tips of the toes: these are a giveaway clue that the frog is arboreal.

To tell the difference between a frog and a toad, take a look at their toes. Tree frogs, as their name suggests, like to climb on vertical surfaces like trees and buildings: they have sticky ‘pads’ at the end of their toes. Aquatic frogs have webbed feet that lack the sticky pads. Toads have less-webbed, very stubby toes and are most often found in areas with soft soil.

To beat the heat and conserve water, the toads burrow down to where the soil is cooler. Tree frogs will find small, shaded crevices in fence posts, trees, or buildings to wait out the heat of the day. Aquatic frogs can regulate their temperature more easily, choosing a sunny bank or cool water as needed throughout the day.

Birds thermoregulate (control their temperature) by changing their activity levels. On hot days, they are more active in mornings and evenings, and seek out cool, shaded spots to wait out the heat of mid-day. (John too is a thermoregulator!)

John and Pam also discuss their fears about climate change altering Minnesota’s (relatively) cool summers. John has a sister who lives in Texas, and Pam has a nephew in Arizona. The heat in those states has been absolutely unbearable, and John and Pam both express their concerns about climate change altering Minnesota’s much more tolerable summer climate.

Pollinator populations

Due to the dry weather, the hummingbirds at John’s house in Grand Rapids and Pam’s house near the Brainerd Lakes region have been draining nectar with incredible speed.

Monarch butterflies have also been active and abundant, flitting about and feeding on milkweed plants.

This is a welcome change from the July 4th butterfly count of 2022, when butterfly expert John Weber searched 2182 milkweed plants and found a paltry 16 eggs. While John hasn’t seen the results of this year’s count, he suspects the numbers are vastly improved!

Decline of Native Pollinators

A surprising set of snakes

John typically sees garter snakes as solitary, except in fall and spring when they enter and emerge from their hibernacula. However, he and his network of wildlife enthusiasts have reported seeing two snakes together a few times over the past two weeks, a phenomenon he doesn’t have a great explanation for.

A garter snake swims through tiny aquatic duckweed plants. It is a black snake with prominent yellow stripes running down the sides and back.
Photo by iNaturalist user loarie
A garter snake swims through tiny aquatic duckweed plants.

Pam is also stumped. Together, they discuss and dismiss couple options. They probably weren’t a mating pair, as it isn’t mating season- the adult females would have just given birth. An adult/juvenile combination is also unlikely, as juveniles garter snakes tend to make their own way in the world immediately after birth.

Pam checked with Carol Hall, a Herpetologist with the MN DNR Biological Survey. She said, "Spring and fall are peak times for snakes to breed (including garter snakes) partly because they are congregated at overwintering sites." She wrote, "I suppose it is possible that they were mating but it seems rather unlikely given that adult females are giving birth soon and mating is probably the last thing on their mind!" The question remained about this story: were the snakes actually touching or just nearby each other?

Check out Carol's work at Snakes and Lizards of Minnesota.

(Quick snake biology lesson: Garter snakes are viviparous, meaning they do not make eggs and give birth to live young. Oviporous snakes create eggs, which are laid externally and incubate outside the mother. Oviviparous snakes create eggs but incubate them inside the mother instead of externally. When developed, the eggs either hatch inside the mother or immediately upon release.)

John and his siblings once found a newly-born brood of baby garter snakes just the size of nightcrawlers. As excited kids will do, they picked them up, stuffed them in their pockets, and brought them home: however, they quickly forgot about them and the snakes went forgotten until Momma Latimer was doing laundry.

As she reached in the pockets to check for loose change, bubblegum, and other detritus she was surprised to find a bunch of baby snakes! Luckily, she handled this with equanimity and just told the kids, “You can’t keep these in the house.”

This year’s sociable serpent sightings remain mysteries, but my best guess is that there was just good habitat in those locations.

I’ve seen multiple garter snakes in a small area in early and mid-morning as they bask to get their bodies warmed up for a busy day. These ideal basking spots can be hard to come by, and multiple snakes of a variety of species may convene to soak up the sun.

Funding for this project was provided by the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund as recommended by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR).

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Charlie Mitchell (she/they) joined the KAXE team in February of 2022. Charlie creates the Season Watch Newsletter, writes segment summaries for the website, and coordinates our Engaging Minnesotans with Phenology project. With a background in wildlife biology, she enjoys learning a little bit about everything, whether it's plants, mushrooms, aquatic invertebrates, or the short-tailed shrew (did you know they can echolocate?).