Tiny Neighbors

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Sitting on your patio on a sunny afternoon, you may have seen a tiny red dot, small as a pencil point, crawl around at lightning speed, surprising for its size. These are the clover mites, tiny and fascinating creatures, ubiquitous in suburban living.

Many people find these teeny creatures alarming because of their bright red color, which they attribute to blood-sucking. In fact, the red is the mite’s body pigment. Clover mites are not blood feeders and will not harm people or pets. They are not fire ants. As their name implies, they feed on grasses and clovers. Because of their tiny size, they may slip in as visitors inside your house. Be aware that crushing them will create unwanted red stains. They cannot reproduce indoors and if left alone will dehydrate after a few days.

These tiny arachnids have an incredible reproductive power–parthenogenesis. The eggs can hatch without fertilization and hence their entire population is female! Each adult lays about 70 eggs, and the offspring are genetically identical to their mother. One wonders how the creatures survive over the long term with so little genetic diversity.

Clover mites do not like extreme hot or cold temperatures. During summer they enter a dormant torpor called aestivation. The winter is spent in their eggs, in some protected area. Spring and fall is when the mites run rampant. But life is short and sweet for the clover mite. They only have about two weeks to suck on sweet plant juices before their time is up.

Next time you see these little wonders, refrain from smashing them, and instead admire their bright color, speed, and survival abilities.

The Other Geranium

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The annual geranium is a nursery favorite, but you can find the perennial geraniums in your nursery as well.

If you’ve walked along a wooded trail in the last week or so, chances are you saw some delicate  lavender flowers swaying on a long stem poking through the brush. This is the perennial wild geranium.

The five petals range in color from deep purple in the beginning to pale pink as the blossom fades. A prominent network of veins in the petals direct pollinators to the nectar in the blossom’s center. The stems and buds are covered in peach fuzz hairs.

You are probably familiar with the annual geraniums peppering our local nurseries in festival shades of fuchsia, red and white. The wild geranium is also widely available at nurseries.

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The telltale identification for the wild geranium is its unusual snowflake-shaped leaves.

It grows from a rhizome that spreads slowly to make loose colonies and makes a terrific ground cover. Unlike its annual cousin, the wild geranium is a valuable food source for wildlife. A wide variety of bees come for the geranium’s pollen and nectar. Flies and butterflies are attracted to the flowers.  Beetles, bugs and caterpillars feed on the leaves. Chipmunks eat the seeds and deer forage on the foliage. Used by the Egyptians for promoting beautiful and radiant skin, geranium oil is still a popular natural remedy for acne, sore throats, anxiety, depression and insomnia. That’s a lot of fodder for a 2’ plant!

The geranium’s Greek name, geranós, means crane and refers to the shape of the fruit before it releases its seed. The fruit contains five spring-loaded sections forming a long pointy projectile which resembles a crane’s bill. When ripe, the projectile draws back and then catapults the seeds away, much like a baseball player would release a ball.

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The geranium fruit resembles a crane’s bill.

The wild geranium is in prolific bloom this week along the Leatherstocking trail and throughout our woodlands. Please send along your pictures and impressions of any you find. Enjoy!

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Back from the Brink

Two large rounded lumps ambled onto the edge of my yard. I squinted to make out what they were.

“Turkeys!” my daughter squealed, as three, and then five more joined the first two. Like miniature dinosaurs with all the time in the world, they meandered, pecking here and there, and scratched at the ground. I grabbed some sunflower seeds, my daughter,  and my camera, and walked into their midst. Clearly used to being the big kids on the block, these birds showed no concern over having a human in their crowd.

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Perhaps it was this trust that nearly led to their extinction by the early twentieth century. Turkeys are native to the U.S. and were Benjamin Franklin’s choice to be our national bird. They were so plentiful in the days of colonial history that, like the carrier pigeon, people thought they could never run out. Their carefree and slow movement, coupled with their meatiness made them a favorite food source.  

Throughout the 19th century turkeys were hunted relentlessly year-round. No seasonal restrictions or limits existed on how many could be taken. Together with the loss of their woodland habitat as forests were cleared for human habitation, turkeys hovered on the brink of extinction by the early 20th century. From a pre-colonial population estimated at ten million, by 1910-1920, there were only about 200,000 remaining.

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This tom is strutting his stuff to impress the ladies. He blows up his iridescent feathers, fans his orange barred tail, and lifts his head high to show off the bright blues and reds on his head and neck. I’m impressed!

So what saved the turkey from following the route of the carrier pigeon to the annals of extinction?

Serendipity and human effort. The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl forced many farmers to abandon their farms and move to urban areas in search of work. As they retreated, the lands they left reverted to native habitat. Yet, there were so few turkeys left that they could not repopulate these growing woodlands. At least 16 states had completely lost their native turkey population. (Source: “Americans Once Almost Ate Wild Turkeys Into Extinction,” The Dodo, November 25, 2014) Efforts to catch and release turkeys, or to incubate eggs in the 1940s were a failure. What finally turned things around for the wild turkeys was the invention of the net cannon, which made capturing them much easier.

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Net cannons like this enable conservationists to capture a large number of birds at once.

Large numbers of turkeys could be easily captured with these nets and transported as a herd to states with low or no turkey populations. Their recovery is one of American conservation’s greatest success stories. The organization behind this success is the National Wild Turkey Federation, a nonprofit representing hunters, and dedicated to protecting habitat for that purpose. A half century after their near-extinction, there are now over 7 million wild turkeys roaming America. It is remarkable how much can be done to save endangered species when there is a will to do it.

Unlike vultures, turkeys don’t eat carrion. The absence of feathers on their head is related to courting. When turkeys are trying to attract a mate, the exposed skin flushes with blood and its bright blues and reds advertise their interest.
Unlike vultures, turkeys don’t eat carrion. The absence of feathers on their head is related to courting. When turkeys are trying to attract a mate, the exposed skin flushes with blood and its bright blues and reds advertise their interest.
When disturbed, turkeys are more likely to run than to fly. They can run up to 25 m.p.h. Maybe that’s why Mamaroneck calls its race the Turkey Trot! At night turkeys fly up to roost in trees, and if you are lucky you can spot an entire crop of turkeys in one tree.
When disturbed, turkeys are more likely to run than to fly. They can run up to 25 m.p.h. Maybe that’s why Mamaroneck calls its race the Turkey Trot! At night turkeys fly up to roost in trees, and if you are lucky you can spot an entire crop of turkeys in one tree.