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From Missouri Conservationist: December 2016

What Is It?

Our photographers have been busy exploring the intricacies of outdoor Missouri. See if you can guess this month’s natural wonder.

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  • Address: PO Box 180, Jefferson City, MO 65102-0180
  • Phone: 573-522-4115, ext. 3848
  • Email: AskMDC@mdc.mo.gov

Q. I enjoy feeding the squirrels in my yard. How do squirrels remember where they hide their nuts?

A. Scientific study has shown gray squirrels retrieve significantly more nuts from their own cache sites than from cache sites used by other squirrels, leading researchers to believe squirrels remember the locations of the nuts they buried.

In addition to memory, scientists also believe squirrels rely on their keen sense of smell to locate long-buried caches of nuts. Stored nuts have no particular ownership, and members of a squirrel community share each other’s efforts. Nuts are more easily detected in moist soil than in dry soil, and unburied nuts are preferred as long as they are available.

Many buried nuts are not recovered, particularly in years of abundance, and a large percentage of them sprout and eventually become trees.

Q. If Missouri has a very cold winter, will it have an impact on the emerald ash borer population?

A. For the emerald ash borer (EAB) and many other insects, the cold probably will have little effect. Like many insects adapted to temperate climates, emerald ash borers produce a type of antifreeze that helps them adapt to very cold weather. EAB larvae overwinter under ash tree bark, another adaptive strategy. Temperatures would need to remain below minus 20 for an extended period for significant mortality to occur, and Missouri rarely experiences such cold snaps.

A warm spell in late winter, followed by severe cold, could have a greater impact on insect survival rates. Extended warm spells have been known to cause insects to lose their cold hardiness.

Q. I saw what I thought was a bald eagle — the whitehead and tail feathers were prominent — flying with four turkey vultures. Why would an eagle soar with vultures? Or was it another type of raptor?

A. It’s not surprising to hear of an eagle soaring with turkey vultures, since both species use thermals — columns of rising hot air — to gain lift and reduce the need to expend energy with vigorous wing-flapping. In addition, these two species happen to eat many of the same things. Bald eagles do eat fish, but a large component of their diet also is carrion, the decaying flesh of dead animals. Compared to fishing, scavenging for carrion requires a lower expenditure of energy.

Some birds “flock up” to find food together, especially in winter, since many pairs of eyes are more efficient than one set working alone. However, this group probably was not working together, said Wildlife Programs Supervisor Sarah Kendrick. It’s more likely the eagle happened to join the group riding a thermal, possibly to see if it could take carrion the vultures might find.

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Agent Notes

Activities for Those Long Winter Days

December is often a time when we relax and spend quality time with family and friends. Our time is usually spent indoors, but there are also many outdoor activities that can be very rewarding. One of my favorites is rabbit hunting.

Some of my fondest childhood memories involved rabbit hunting on my grandparents’ property. After dinner, my uncle would usually take a few of us rabbit hunting. We would walk from brush pile to brush pile attempting to jump a rabbit from its winter hideout. Some days we would get lucky and harvest a few rabbits, while other days would just be about spending time outdoors with family on what could otherwise seem like a long, dreary winter day. I always enjoyed the time walking around my grandparents’ property, and it didn’t seem to matter if we jumped a rabbit or not.

I was very fortunate as a young boy to have property to enjoy with my family and friends. You, too, can enjoy the outdoors with the abundant opportunities the Missouri Department of Conservation provides to the public through our many conservation areas. To fi nd a conservation area near you, visit mdc.mo.gov/atlas.

Justin Emery is the conservation agent for Wright County. If you would like to contact the agent for your county, phone your regional conservation office.

What Is It?

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River Otter

Lontra canadensis
River otters live in streams, rivers, and lakes. With streamlined bodies, webbed feet, and long, tapered tails, they are well suited to life in the water. They are graceful, powerful swimmers and can remain submerged for three to four minutes. Their ears and nose close when they go underwater, and their dense, oily fur and heavy layers of body fat keep them insulated. Otters are dark brown with pale brown or gray bellies, while their muzzle and throat are silvery. Males and females look alike, although males are larger. Otters are relatively long-lived, mostly nocturnal, and active all year. Social and generally living in family groups, female otters whelp two to five young in February or March. The young are weaned at 4 months, but stay with their parents until the following spring. On land, otters’ burrows may be under large tree roots, beneath rocky ledges, under fallen trees, or below thickets, and are usually former homes of muskrats, beavers, or woodchucks. —photograph by Noppadol Paothong

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld
Art Director - Cliff White
Associate Editor - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Heather Feeler
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Staff Writer - Joe Jerek
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Les Fortenberry
Designer - Marci Porter
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Circulation - Laura Scheuler