Mar 30, 2008

Our Stinking Polecats

Many people fear skunks.  The mere thought of getting hit with their malodorous spray is more than most can handle.  Imagine…smelling like a skunk for weeks on end.  By golly, will it ever wash off?


In reality, it’s hard to even get a skunk to spray its musky concoction.  These timid creatures would much rather run and hide than face confrontation.  Spraying is done only as a desperate last resort. 


Skunks will give multiple warning signals before releasing their powerful cologne.

The first signal a skunk will give is a handstand with its tail erect.  Next it will hiss or growl and stomp its feet very loudly.  If you’re still not intimidated, it will scratch the ground and shuffle backwards.  The “bluff” follows, with the skunk charging only to stop 5 to 6 feet away from any intruder and then stomp and scratch again.


You’re running out of options though.  When you see a skunk twist its body into a U-shape so its anus is pointed right at you, it’s time to get out of Dodge, and fast.  That’s when a skunk releases its musky perfume that no amount of tomato juice will neutralize.  But, you can’t say you weren’t warned.


Getting sprayed by a skunk isn’t just a stink-fest.  At close range the yellow, oily, acidic musk causes severe burning of the eyes and even nausea.  Recovery is quick, as nasal passages quickly become desensitized to the odor.   Who knows, you may even learn to like “eau de skunk.” 


Striped Skunks, aka stinking polecats, are members of the weasel family and found only in North America.  In late February and early March they start emerging from their dens to mate.  By mid-May, 4 to 6 young are born in underground dens, each with its own unique set of stripes.  When the young are about 7 weeks old the female takes them out to search for food, an extraordinary sight as the young follow mom about.  At about two months the young are weaned, though they remain with their mother until autumn and may even join her in the winter den.


Mostly nocturnal, skunks can be found in a variety of habitats, including farmlands, grasslands, and forests.  They have adapted well to humans and are relatively common in our neighborhoods.  These beneficial animals are true omnivores, eating a wide variety of foods including insects, worms, grubs, rodents, young rabbits, bird eggs and a smorgasbord of plants.  With more than half of their diet consisting of insects and rodents, skunks are as important to us as the Terminix man (and a lot cheaper). 


Skunks have few natural enemies, as most predators are repulsed by the odor of their musk.  Birds of prey, with their keen eyesight and poor sense of smell, will frequently dine on skunks.  In fact, skunks are the principal prey of Great Horned Owls.  Unfortunately, many skunks also meet their fate at the expense of that ultimate predator, the automobile.  Skunks in the wild are short-lived and usually don’t make it past 2 or 3 years.


So what to do in the unlikely event that a skunk sprays you or your pet?  Tomato juice won’t do anything, except make a mess.  Skunk experts recommend a recipe of one quart of 3% hydrogen peroxide, a half-cup of baking soda, and a tablespoon of liquid dish soap.  This mixture changes the chemistry of skunk spray, rendering it odorless.   It’s a lot easier though to just leave skunks alone.  As long as you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you; and these amazing creatures can continue on with their inestimable pest-control measures.


Contact Gayle at her website for nest boxes at or


Lizards Rule

If there is one thing we don’t have enough of in Northern Kentucky… it’s lizards.  To see lizards it to love them, they are totally cool.  But lizards are a hard find in our neighborhoods and woodlands.  Surprisingly though, Northern Kentucky is home to four lizard species, 3 native and one interloper.  The Eastern Fence Lizard, Broad-headed Skink and Five-lined Skink are our native species.  The European Wall Lizard is a non-native species introduced to the Cincinnati area almost 60 years ago.


All of the lizards that make Northern Kentucky home have some similar characteristics.   They are reptiles with dry, scaly skin and, like teenage bathing beauties, enjoy basking in the sun.  They lay eggs and young are on their own just as soon as they hatch.  They are insectivores, though lizards also make a good meal for a variety of wildlife including snakes, birds, raccoons and cats.  Often time predators are rewarded with only a writhing tail.  When a predator grabs a lizard by the tail, it breaks off and continues to wiggle after being disconnected, distracting the predator while the lizard escapes.  The lizard then regenerates a new tail, though not quite as long and attractive as the original.


Our largest lizard is the Broad-headed Skink.  Broad-headed Skinks are named for their wide jaws, giving the head a triangular appearance.  They average 9 to 10-inches from head to tail and can get as large as 13-inches.  Adults are a muted greenish color with the males having red heads that get even redder during mating season.  Females are normally larger than males.  “Broad-headed Skinks are a woodland species,” said Dr. John Ferner, Professor of Biology at Thomas More College and Adjunct Curator of Herpetology at the Cincinnati Museum Center.  “They like large dead trees and logs with loose bark for them to hide under.  They are our most arboreal lizards, often found high in trees.”  Broad-headed skinks have been seen on the nature trails at Highland Cemetery, though the best place to see them locally is Dinsmore Woods or Middle Creek Park in Boone County.


Another skink likely found in Northern Kentucky is the Five-lined Skink.  “These guys are more associated with wetlands, they’re swamp lovers,” said Dr. Ferner.  “You’ll find pockets of Five-lined Skinks with Kirtland Snakes, most likely under a rock or log.  They are very shy and move quickly.  Locally you’re likely to find them in riparian woodlands, along streams with sandy habitat.”   With a total body length of 5 to 8-inches, Five-lined Skinks look almost identical to immature Broad-headed Skinks. Both are black or brown with five light stripes and a striking blue tail.  The bright blue tail in juveniles of both species is an anti-predator device.  Predators are attracted to the blue tail which breaks off easily, allowing the skink to escape.  “When they reach 7 to 8-inches, you can pretty well assume it’s a Five-lined and not an immature Broad-headed,” added Dr. Ferner. 


Dr. Ferner’s favorite local lizard is the Eastern Fence Lizard.  They are “the cutest lizard” and very rare in Northern Kentucky, as this is the most northern extent of their range.  Severe winters are very hard on them.  Being members of the Iguanidae family, they are our very own iguanas, reaching about 6 to 7-inches in length as adults.  “Fence Lizards do well in dry conditions and are found on stumps, logs, wood fences and cedar glades,” said Dr. Ferner.  “Males are colorful with blue lateral patches on the abdomen and chin.  They are very territorial and will do push-ups with their front legs and bob their heads.  This makes them visible to advertise territory to other males and to attract females.”  Fence Lizards also have a different feeding strategy from skinks, which hunt insects down.  “Fence Lizards sit and wait for food to come to them,” Dr. Ferner said.  “They’ll sit on a rock or log near a flowering shrub, tree or herb which attracts insects and wait. When an insect lands, they nab it.”  Fence Lizards are seldom found far from trees.  When pursued they stay on the opposite side of the tree from the predator, in the same fashion as a squirrel.


The most easily seen lizards in Northern Kentucky are European Wall Lizards.  A member of the Lazarus family originally brought them to Cincinnati’s Columbia-Tusculum area from Northern Italy (near Milan) in the early 1950’s.  Wall lizards made their way across the mighty Ohio from Cincinnati in the early 1990’s, with a little help from their human friends.    They have since thrived and spread throughout areas of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.  Populations exist in Ft. Thomas, Ft. Mitchell, Park Hills and West Covington.  “They are an invasive species and do best in areas with human modification,” said Dr. Ferner.  “They are very adaptive, with a high reproductive potential, and easily disperse along railroad beds and rock walls.”  European Wall Lizards top out at about 9 to 10-inches.  They often move off of rock walls into grassy areas to hunt, where the hunter often turns out to be the hunted.  “We’ve found that wall lizards lose lots of tails to feral cats,” said Dr. Ferner.


Our Indian summer affords the perfect opportunity to go in search of lizards before winter settles in.  “Lizards in our area are dormant in the winter,” said Dr. Ferner.  “They need to have retreats that provide protection from freezing temperatures with some moisture.  Crevices, burrows and rich loam under big logs may serve this purpose.  In spite of this behavior, if temperatures remain warm we sometimes see wall lizards and skinks out on sunny days well into November.”


 Sounds like a darn good excuse to get out there and do some exploring.



Contact Gayle at her website for nest boxes at or at


Pigeon Heroes

No bird has been credited with saving as many human lives as has the pigeon (Columba livia), or rock dove.  With their homing ability, speed and altitude, they were often used as military messengers.


G.I. JOE was one such pigeon.  On October 18, 1943, the British 56th Brigade was scheduled to attack the Italian city of Colvi Vecchia.  The U.S. Air Support Command was to bomb the city to soften the entrance for the British Brigade.  The Germans retreated however, leaving only a small rear guard.  As a result, the British troops entered the city with little resistance and occupied it ahead of schedule.  All attempts to cancel the bombings of the city had failed.  In a last ditch effort, G.I. JOE was released with the important message to cancel the bombing.  He flew 20 miles back to the U.S. Air Support Command base in 20 minutes and arrived just as the planes were warming up to take off.  Had he arrived a few minutes later, it would have been a tragic story.  General Mark Clark, commanding the U.S. Fifth Army, estimated that G.I. JOE saved the lives of at least 1,000 of our British allies. 


CAESAR was another hero pigeon of World War II.  He is credited with 44 combat missions in North Africa.  In addition, he completed a 300-mile flight crossing the Mediterranean to deliver an important message to American troops in Tunisia.  He is among the top six pigeon heroes, having more than 40 wartime missions to his credit.


None may have had the “heart” though as did CHER AMI.  He was awarded the French “Croix de Guerre with Palm” for heroic service, delivering 12 important messages in Verdun during World War I.  On his final mission during battle in October 1918, he delivered a message to U.S. Headquarters despite having been shot multiple times.  His eye and part of his cranium were blown away and his breast was ripped open.  The crucial message, found in a silver canister dangling from only a few ligaments left of his severed leg, saved 200 U.S. soldiers of the 77th Infantry Division’s “Lost Battalion.”  Amazingly, CHER AMI lived almost another year before finally succumbing to his war wounds.


A pigeon delivered the results of the first Olympics in 776 B.C.  A pigeon also delivered the news of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo more than 2,500 years later.  They have been used as critical communicators in war by every major historical superpower from ancient Egypt to the United States.  They achieved a 98% success rate in missions flown in WWII.  During the mid-1800’s the Reuters News Agency operated a live telex service using pigeons.  They have been worshipped as fertility goddesses and used as symbols of peace.  Pigeons have been domesticated a good 10,000 years; since about the time we domesticated our best friend, the dog.


Pigeons have the athletic prowess of a racehorse.  They’re built for speed and endurance.  Their hollow bones contain reservoirs of oxygen and their large breast muscles account for one-third their body mass.  Weighing a mere pound, flight speeds can exceed 60 mph.  In flight, pigeons beat their wings up to ten times per second, while maintaining a heart rate of 600 beats per minute for up to 16 hours without rest.  They can seemingly function indefinitely without sleep.


Originally from southern Asia, western and southern Europe, and North Africa, pigeons now live on every continent except Antarctica.  Their natural habitat is coastal cliffs.  Pigeons were introduced to North America in 1606 at Port Royal, Acadia (now Nova Scotia).  Pigeons are cautious, though inherently unafraid of humans.  They flourish in our cities, with large buildings mimicking the cliffs and ledges of their original rocky coastline habitats.


Many famous people have been pigeon fanciers.  Some notable famous pigeon personalities are Roy Rogers, Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando, Yul Bryner, Walt Disney, Michael Landon, Mike Tyson, Jimmy Smits, Pablo Picasso, and Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II.  Picasso loved pigeons so much he named his daughter “Paloma,” which means pigeon in Spanish.


So how did these “thoroughbreds of the sky” come to be so hated and reviled?  Only 50 years ago, the pigeons in London’s Trafalgar Square were considered a tourist attraction with vendors selling packets of seeds for visitors to feed the birds.  Pest control companies though, saw big bucks in pigeon eradication.  After decades of bad press, the public’s perception of the pigeon has gone from reverence for its unique history to disgust and disdain.


Pigeons are an adaptable species that thrives in close proximity to humans.  They have very strong homing instincts and do not migrate as other bird species often do.  Though often seen as dirty, they are only dirty because humans are dirty.  They readily congregate and eat food trash discarded by people in city streets and parks.  When they overpopulate, the most effective way to decrease their numbers is to discourage feeding.  Cities around the world have found that not feeding their local birds results in a safe population decrease in only a few years.


Scientists predict that as many as 1,200 bird species may become extinct in the next 50 years due to climate change.  It is a safe bet that the adaptable pigeon will not be one of them.




Contact Gayle at her website for nest boxes at or at


Bluebirds of Happiness

Local naturalist Linda Altevers of Erlanger is no stranger to the great outdoors.  An avid birdwatcher and wildflower enthusiast, she can frequently be found exploring the grounds at Marydale; hiking the nature trails at Doe Run, Highland Cemetery, or a variety of Boone County parks; or taking day trips to Red River Gorge or Clifty Falls.  She has hiked all four corners of the U.S. and points in between, from Maine to Alaska, from Florida to southern California.  “People who don’t have a passion for the natural world are really missing out,” said Linda.


It hasn’t been all play either.  Linda has installed hiking trails, cleared away brush, hung nest boxes, conducted outdoor educational programs, monitored trails, and participated in bird counts.  When asked if she’d be willing to monitor the bluebird nest boxes at Highland Cemetery, Linda replied “yes” without a moment’s hesitation.


Northern Kentucky’s neighborhoods as a rule are not suitable bluebird habitat.  Cemeteries though provide the wide-open space that bluebird’s desire.  Highland Cemetery, with its 150 acres of gravesites, is perfect habitat for nesting bluebirds; and the cemetery’s 150 acres of woodlands provides food and shelter for bluebirds during winter months.


Bluebirds have been nesting at Highland since the first bluebird boxes were installed 17 years ago.  “I’ve been monitoring the bluebird boxes for the past 10 years now,” said Linda.  “It has been a battle to compete with the house sparrows, but with diligent monitoring I have somewhat eradicated the competition.  Each year we get not just bluebirds, but also house wrens, tree swallows, chickadees and tufted titmice.”


It’s easy to understand one’s attraction to bluebirds.  “They are extraordinarily beautiful birds,” said Linda.  “Especially the male, with his rusty chest and brilliant blue coloring.”  The female too is attractive, though her coloring is more muted.  Members of the thrush family, our Eastern bluebirds have two western cousins, the Mountain and Western bluebird species.  Most will agree though that our Eastern bluebird is the prettiest of the three species.  As birds go, bluebirds are “eye-candy,” a feast for the visual senses.


Mostly insectivores, bluebirds sit on low perches scouting prey.  With their excellent eyesight they can locate food items more than 100 feet away.  They sit low on perches (or tombstones), wait for bugs to wander by, and will suddenly swoop down on an unsuspecting insect.  During winter when insects become scarce, bluebirds feed on berries and fruit. 


Bluebirds will readily use nest boxes.  In fact, nest boxes have become critical for their survival.  Over the years land has been cleared for development, and trees with natural nest cavities have been cut down for firewood.  Wooden fence posts that previously provided nesting cavities have now been replaced with metal posts.  With the supply of natural nesting cavities greatly reduced, the single most important thing landowners can do to help increase populations of bluebirds is to hang nest boxes.  It’s not unusual for nest boxes to be used by bluebirds almost immediately after hanging.  Bluebirds will also roost together in nest boxes during winter months.


Our bluebirds are now beginning their nesting season.  They’ll lay 4 to 5 light blue eggs (occasionally white) in a cup-shaped nest made of woven grass or pine needles.  Incubation lasts approximately 2 weeks. The nestlings will remain in the nest 18 to 21 more days before fledging.  They normally have two broods per season. 


Bluebirds do not have it easy.  As cavity nesters, they must constantly compete with aggressive non-native species for suitable nest sites.  English house sparrows and European starlings are their biggest competition.  House sparrows are especially brutal, as they will frequently kill bluebirds, destroy their eggs, or drive them from their nests.  Predators, as black rat snakes and raccoons, will frequently raid nest boxes and eat eggs, nestlings and adults.


Severe winters too can take a toll and this past winter was especially tough.  By February bluebirds have lost much of their fat reserves and food is scarce.  Unfortunately that’s when our worst weather of the season hit this past year.  Bluebird landlords across the area were reporting significant losses when checking their boxes in March.  Monitors in Kenton and Boone County parks found dead bluebirds in several boxes, Bill Remke found as many as 7 dead per box on his Petersburg farm, and Linda found dead bluebirds in several cemetery boxes.  “It was devastating,” said Linda.  “I haven’t seen a bluebird yet this season at the cemetery.  I’m afraid we lost all of our resident bluebirds.”


Linda won’t give up though.  She’ll continue to monitor the bluebird nest boxes as other “good” birds are using the boxes as well.  Chickadees, nuthatches, wrens, tree swallows and titmice can be equally rewarding.  Hopefully though, bluebirds will find their way to the cemetery and again nest this season.  “What a great feeling when you check your nest box and see the success of the nesting bluebirds,” said Linda.





If you would like to know more about bluebirds, check out the North American Bluebird Society’s website at  If you would like free plans to make a bluebird nest box, contact Gayle at or at


Our Cane-tuck-ee

Have you ever wondered how the state of Kentucky got its name, and what it means? 


Kentucky’s origin has been variously spelled Cane-tuck-ee, Cantucky, Kain-tuck-ee and Kentuckee before its modern spelling was accepted.  The name Kentucky originally referred to the Kentucky River, where from came the name of the region.  Its etymology is from Native American languages (kenhata’ke, kehta’keh) with several possible meanings from “meadow lands” to “river of blood” or “cane lands.” 


“Cane lands” would have been an apt description of Kentucky when the early settlers arrived. Though now seldom seen, native “river cane” was a defining species in the landscape.  While traveling the state, Simon Kenton frequently referred to Kentucky’s huge stands of river cane, or canebrakes, and the outstanding hunting they afforded.  Early naturalist William Bartram reported seeing river cane as far as he could see.  Individual canebrakes were hundreds of acres, stretching uninterrupted for miles.  Now cane is seldom seen and very sparsely scattered along creeks, rivers, and fringes of fields.  It occupies no more than 2% of its original range.


River cane (Arundinaria gigantea) is our native bamboo.  Belonging to the grass family, this bamboo grows to gigantic heights, up to 30-feet tall in very fertile soils.  In fact, early Kentucky settlers coveted ground where cane grew for farmland.  Farmers knew that a stand of 10-foot cane grew in good soil; 30-foot cane grew in the very best soil. 


Cane grows the same as other grasses.  It spreads via underground stems, or rhizomes.  As rhizomes spread through the ground, they sends up shoots that produce individual reeds, as many as 65,000 reeds per acre, resulting in impenetrable canebrakes. 


River cane is extremely hardy.  It grows well in high and low elevations, and in extreme heat and sub-zero temperatures.  Most frequently found along rivers and streams, it can withstand long periods under water during floods.  Surprising though, it can also survive long periods of drought.


To see a particular canebrake bloom is literally a once in a lifetime event. Individual canebrakes will exist for about 50 years before blooming.  Botanists don’t know what triggers cane to bloom, but when the time is right it blooms in grand fashion, producing an astonishing number of seeds.  Mysteriously, after blooming a canebrake then suddenly dies.  The canebrake quickly reestablishes itself though with the many seeds it has produced, not to bloom again for another 50 years.  


Unfortunately, the loss of our native river cane has also led to the extinction of several wildlife species.   The Bachman’s warbler depended on large canebrakes for nesting and is now extinct.  The Carolina parakeet, the only native parrot of eastern North America, was also closely tied to cane and it too is gone from our world.  Extinct since 1904, the beautiful and colorful Carolina parakeet was common in Northern Kentucky, especially around Big Bone Lick where it was attracted to the area’s natural salt deposits and river cane.


Native Americans were also very dependent upon cane. Southeastern tribes used river cane for a variety of weaponry.  Because it is strong and light, the best arrow shafts were made of river cane.  Atlatl darts, an ancient spear-like weapon, were also made of cane because of its strength and flexibility.  Blowguns from cane are still effective for hunting small game, as rabbits and squirrels.  Cane was a component in knives, arrows, fish spears, minnow traps and torches. 


Cane was also used for Native American household goods.  Flutes and pipe stems were made from cane; in fact river cane flutes are still common today.  Reeds were an essential building material for posts, roofing, rudimental furniture and mats.  The ancient art of basket making, dating back some 6,000 years, is one of the hardest indigenous skills to learn.  Even now the tightly woven river cane basket is one of the most valued Native American artifacts, sometimes demanding prices of several thousand dollars. 


The evergreen canebrakes attracted a wide variety of game for Native Americans to hunt.  Deer, bears and rabbits used canebrakes as food and cover. The Indians themselves ate cane, finding the young shoots tender and nutritious.  River cane may well have been the single most important resource for southeastern tribes. 


River cane, though now uncommon, is easy to propagate.  It’s just a matter of letting it spread, though it is not invasive like non-native bamboos.  Native cane can be purchased at many nurseries specializing in native plants and is an attractive addition to any landscape.


River cane belongs here.  It is very much a part of our Cane-tuck-ee heritage. 



Contact Gayle at her website for nest boxes at or



Big Bone Lick State Park: The Birthplace of American Vertebrate Paleontology

It’s almost impossible to talk about the Ice Age without including Big Bone Lick in Boone County.  Large Ice Age animals frequented the Lick, which had vegetation and salty soil around the springs that the animals used to supplement their diet.  The land was soft and marshy and some of the animals may have become mired in the bogs and died.  Mammoths and mastodons, as well as ancestors of the sloth, bison and horse frequented Big Bone Lick. 


The first European to discover the many bones of Ice Age animals at Big Bone Lick was French Canadian commander Baron de Longueil in 1739 while on a military expedition against the Chickasaw Indians in Louisiana.  On route the Baron and his troops camped near a swampy area close to the Ohio River.  It is hard now to even imagine what these men saw.  Lying about everywhere were huge bones and teeth, some even sticking out of the ground.  The teeth were over 6-inches long and weighed 4½-pounds each.  Some of the bones were a full 3-feet long.  Baron de Longueil had his men gather these curiosities and carried them south to Louisiana.  By 1740 the Baron had taken his treasures back to France.  These bones and teeth were the first vertebrate fossils to be received in Europe from North America.  The very best scientists in France, including world-famous scientist Georges Cuvier, the founder of vertebrate paleontology, studied the bones extensively. 


From that point on explorers made mention of and collected bones from Big Bone Lick.  In 1776 explorer Colonel George Croghan sent some bones to Benjamin Franklin, who was then in LondonFranklin’s response, “I return you many thanks for the box of elephants’ tusks and grinders.  They are extremely curious on many accounts; no living elephants having been seen in any part of America by any of the Europeans settled there, or remembered in any tradition of the Indians.” 


A survey party in 1773 reported using huge rib bones of the mammoth and mastodon for tent poles.  Vertebrae were used as stools or seats.  The first map of Kentucky, prepared by John Filson in 1784, made mention, “Big Bone Lick.  Large bones are found there.”  In 1804 Dr. William Goforth of Cincinnati made a large collection of bones at Big Bone Lick.  Unfortunately, the bulk of Goforth’s collection of bones, 5 tons, went to Great Britain.


President Thomas Jefferson though was probably the most instrumental American in the development of the science of vertebrate paleontology.  In 1807 Jefferson sent an expedition led by William Clark (of Lewis and Clark) to Big Bone Lick to collect bones, this being the first organized vertebra paleontology expedition in the U.S.  Clark acquired three huge boxes of more than 300 bones for the president, which were studied by Jefferson and famed anatomist Dr. Caspar Wistar.  Jefferson had a special room in the White House to display the Big Bone Lick collection.  Eventually the collection was divided between the Museum of Natural History in Paris, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, and to Jefferson’s Monticello where much of the collection was ground into fertilizer, though some of the Big Bone collection still remains there.

Big Bone Lick State Park was created to memorialize the Lick and its fossil-treasure.  The newly renovated museum has an interesting collection of Ice Age bones and Indian relics.  The Diorama Interpretive Trail has a life-like display of Ice Age animals in their natural setting.  A couple of the salt/sulphur springs still flow today.  Big Bone Lick is both a national and local treasure, as it is recognized as the key to understanding the lives of many Ice Age animals and should be on everyone’s list of  “places to visit.”  The park is open daily.  Museum hours are 9 to 4, Monday through Friday.  Visit at or call 859-384-3522.


“Friends of Big Bone” is a group of concerned citizens who are dedicated to education, research and preservation at Big Bone Lick.  They offer programs in partnership with the Boone County Library, Big Bone Lick State Park, and the Boone County Historic Preservation Review Board.  Programs can be tailored to the needs of individual groups or school classes.  Membership is a mere $10.00.  Contact them at



Special thanks to Todd Young of Big Bone Lick State Park for his help with this article.


Our Ice Age Animals

Imagine the Greater Cincinnati area about 20,000 years ago.  The temperatures were much cooler.  Summer temperatures averaged around 41-degrees Fahrenheit and winters hovered around 10-degrees, with an annual average temperature of

26-degrees (compared to today’s average of 56-degrees).  We did not have the deciduous forests of today with our many oak, maple, walnut, hickory and beech trees.  Instead our forests were coniferous, dominated by spruce and balsam.  Grasses were common creating an almost park-like setting, with many lakes, bogs, marshes and canebrakes.  Cool breezes would blow off of the retreating ice sheet; an ice sheet that was up to a half-mile thick in central Ohio.


“The Ice Age, or Pleistocene Epoch, lasted 2 million years,” said paleontologist Dr. Glenn Storrs, Assistant Vice President for Natural History and Science at the Cincinnati Museum Center.  “There were four pulses of glaciation.  The last one, the Wisconsinan glacier, began to recede about 20,000 years ago.”  Glaciers have designed our landscape.  “We are a city of valleys not hills,” said Dr. Storrs.  “Our rivers and their flow, our fertile valleys and clean water are a direct result of glaciation.” 


The mega fauna (large animals) during the Ice Age were extraordinary.  Elephants, true elephants called mammoths, roamed our valleys along with their relatives the mastodons.  “Greater Cincinnati was home to the Wooly Mammoth, the Columbian Mammoth and the Mastodon,” said Dr. Storrs.  “To my knowledge we are the only place in the country that has documented an over-lapping range of these three species.”  Mammoths and mastodons were about 9 to 10 feet tall and weighed up to 3 tons.  They were herbivores though they did not compete with one another for food, as fossil remains show mammoths as grazers and mastodons as browsers.  “The mastodon was a much more common animal here than the mammoth,” said Dr. Storrs.  “Like modern elephants, both were likely social.” 


Saber-tooth Cats may well have been hunting our mammoths, mastodons and other prey.  “They were probably here,” said Dr. Storrs.  “Fossil remains of the Saber-tooth Cat have not been found in Kentucky or Ohio, but they have been found in Indiana and Pennsylvania.”  These fierce predators were about 5 feet long and had two huge canine teeth, or sabers, that were probably used to cut or slice open bellies of prey. 


Another predator, the Dire Wolf, would have been roaming about.  They were about the same size as modern wolves, with a heavier build.  These social predators would form packs and hunt species like caribou, elk and deer.


The largest predator found in the tri-state during the Ice Age was the Giant Short-faced Bear.  “It was a very large, long limbed fast moving bear,” said Dr. Storrs.  “It was much larger than today’s bears, standing 6-feet tall at the shoulders and was primarily a meat eater.” 


Ancient Bison were very common in our area 20,000 years ago.  “Ancient Bison were about 30% larger than modern bison,” said Dr. Storrs.  Interestingly, scientists have concluded that Ancient Bison actually evolved into today’s modern bison.  By the end of the Ice Age food supply was changing with climate.  Ancient Bison naturally evolved into modern bison, as modern bison are smaller and require less food.


Another fascinating Ice Age animal was the ground sloth, with both the Jefferson’s and Harlan’s Ground Sloth occurring here.  Jefferson’s Ground Sloth was the largest at 8-feet tall.  Ground sloths were huge, bulky, slow moving herbivores with peg-like teeth.  “It is believed that black locust and honey locust trees developed an evolutionary defense against ground sloths and mastodons with thorns that grow on the trunk of these trees,” said Dr. Storrs.


Giant Beaver lived in the many lakes, bogs and marshes formed by the melting ice.  “Giant Beaver were three times larger than modern Canadian Beaver,” said Dr. Storrs.  “They did not build dams like Canadian Beaver. They ate rushes, cattails and cane.”  Giant Beaver lived more like muskrats than today’s Canadian Beaver.  Their teeth were notched at the ends and were probably used to clip cattails and grasses, whereas modern beaver have teeth that are flat at the ends and work like chisels in cutting wood.


Other now extinct large animals found in our area included the Woodland Musk Ox, Complex-toothed Horse, and the giant Elk-Moose, which had the head of a deer and the body of a moose.  Flat-headed Peccaries were very common, forming large family groups, or herds, in open woodland areas.  Birds, including Giant Condors with 12-foot wingspans, would have been flying the skies as well.  “Many of these species were first described to science from fossils found at Big Bone Lick, Boone County,” said Dr. Storrs.


So what happened to these amazing animals, why did they go extinct?  As the climate warmed we gradually moved from a coniferous forest to a deciduous forest, changing plant life.  Many animals simply lost the types of plants they ate.  Some of the animals followed the plants north, but those plants had a shorter growing season allowing the animals less time to feed themselves and their young.  Our area also became more hospitable to humans, who in turn hunted these large animals contributing to their demise.  “Extinction took place over a period of several hundred to several thousand years,” said Dr. Storrs.  “At about the time these animals went extinct humans came to the area.  Humans were here by at least 11,000 years ago.  By 9,000 to 10,000 years ago all of the mega fauna was extinct or moved to the north.” 


Many animals survived though and continue to live amongst us.  Our turtles, salamanders, woodchucks, muskrats, raccoons, opossum, flying squirrels, fox squirrels, bald eagles, golden eagles, black vultures and pileated woodpeckers are all survivors from the Ice Age, to name a few.  Some animals survived only to become extinct as Europeans settled the New World.  The Passenger Pigeon and Carolina Parakeet were both Ice Age relics.  Sadly our forebears hunted both to extinction, with the lone survivors of both species dying in the early 1900’s at our Cincinnati Zoo. 


What does this say about today’s climate change, is it just a natural phenomenon?  “The earth is a dynamic and changing place with large amounts of time involved and people need to be appreciative of this,” said Dr. Storrs.  “Current climate change is happening at a much faster rate than during the Ice Age.”  Case in point, researchers at Stanford University predict that if global warming is not checked, 30 percent of all land bird species could become extinct before the end of this century.  Most alarming is that nearly four-fifths of the species that face extinction are not even listed as threatened or endangered today. 


The Ice Age continues in the tri-state area.  The Cincinnati Ice Age exhibit at the Cincinnati Museum Center is a must-see for those who live in and visit the area.  “Our Museum Center’s Glacier exhibit is the best place to see a reconstruction of this area and animals during the Ice Age,” said Dr. Storrs.  “We have the best glacier exhibit in the world.” 



Contact Gayle at her website for nest boxes at or at


Mountains Out of Molehills

Dr. Thomas Barnes thinks many people make “mountains out of molehills”…literally.  Dr. Barnes, University of Kentucky extension professor of forestry and wildlife specialist, finds moles fascinating.  “They are a perceived pest,” said Dr. Barnes.  “However moles have their place in the environment and they are beneficial.” 


The Eastern or Common Mole inhabits much of the Eastern United States.  Though many think they are rodents, they actually belong to the Order Insectivora (Insectivores) and are more closely related to shrews.  As the name suggests, they subsist primarily on insects.


Folks can go an entire lifetime without ever seeing a mole.  Rarely seen, their entire lives are spent below the surface.  They are well adapted for life underground.  They have little use for vision so they have only rudimentary eyes covered with a layer of skin and can probably only distinguish light.  Since external ears would interfere with life in soil, they have none; though they do hear and feel vibrations.  The tail is short and almost hairless and is used as a lever.  Their fur (moleskin) is plush and very soft to touch.  The fur will lay flat when stroked from either direction, offering no resistance as the mole moves forward and backward through its tunnels.  The hairless, cone-shaped muzzle is used for probing the soil for food. The nose is large when compared with the rest of the body.  Moles have a very keen sense of smell, allowing them to easily locate insect larvae.  Their sharp, conical teeth allow them to pierce shells of larvae.  Moles can easily breathe in oxygen-poor underground environments because they contain twice as much blood and hemoglobin as other mammals of similar size.  


A most distinguishing feature of the mole is its paddle-like front feet.  The feet are as broad as they are long, slightly webbed with large claws, and are disproportionately large when compared with other features.   They give moles a comical look.  They act like super-efficient shovels though, allowing moles to literally “swim” through the soil like Olympians. 


The Eastern Mole’s habitat includes woodlands, fields, meadows, and pastures in moist, well-drained soil.  They use two types of underground burrows; shallow surface runs are used for hunting insects, and a deep burrow is for protection and rearing of young.  Surface burrows are noted by the ridge of soil pushed to the surface as the mole “swims” through.  These burrows can be used repeatedly as highway systems.  As moles move through their surface tunnels they hunt primarily larval insects and earthworms.  Tunnels can be excavated at an amazing rate of 18 feet per hour.  Existing tunnels are traversed at a rate of about 80 feet per minute. 


Moles have voracious appetites and can eat close to their body weight daily.  A single mole will consume approximately 50 pounds of worms and insects annually.  With a lifespan of up to 3 years, a mole can consume up to 150 pounds of insects in a lifetime.


How are moles beneficial?  Moles are soil engineers.  “Moles aerate and loosen the soil,” explained Dr. Barnes.  “As they move through the soil, they break it up into small particles.  They also rid the soil of insect larvae.”  Moles can have a profound impact on their prey.  An Ohio State University Fact Sheet states “moles may control some insect outbreaks.”  Larval June beetles, often eaten by moles, feed on the roots of grasses and can completely destroy the sod in an area if not kept in check.   Furthermore, mole tunnels provide shelter, navigation routes, and hunting opportunities for other species of mammals.


The next time you’re inclined to assassinate the mole in your yard, think twice.  You may be killing your friend and propagating your enemy. 


Of Hawks and Owls

They are both spectacular birds.  About the size of a blue jay or robin, one fills a niche by day that the other fills by night.  Kestrels and screech owls are easy observed birds that just about anyone can enjoy watching.


American Kestrels (Falco sparverius) are our smallest falcon and found across the continent.  Swift and erratic flyers, falcons are sleek raptors with pointed wings and narrow tails.  Birds of open country, kestrels are often seen hovering along the interstate and roadsides.  Frequently called sparrow hawks, they will sometimes eat sparrow-sized birds, though more frequently crickets, grasshoppers, snakes and mice.  It is easy to spy kestrels sitting on power lines and can be distinguished from other birds by their tail pumping.


Like many other bird species, male kestrels are more striking in appearance than the drabber female.  The handsome males are rufous above with blue-gray wings and a black and white-tipped rufous tail.  Females lack the striking gray wings.  Both sexes have the black and white moustachial stripes typical of falcons.  Like other birds of prey, females are larger than males. Nicknamed the killy hawk, kestrels emit a call of killy, killy, killy.  These sharp calls are signs of aggression and are heard when intruders are encountered.


Whereas kestrels are diurnal (active during the daytime), screech owls are nocturnal.  Screech owls do not screech; their call is more like a whinny.  Ironically, their larger cousins, barn owls, do screech.  Go figure.


Eastern Screech Owls (Otus asio) are the only small owl in the Eastern U.S. with ear tufts.  These beautiful owls come in two color phases, red and grey.  Both color phases are seen in Northern Kentucky, though the grey phase is most common.  Screech owls are found in wooded areas with mature trees.  They frequent woodlots, orchards, cemeteries and parks.  They are also frequently found in many of Northern Kentucky’s older subdivisions, though often overlooked because they are active only at night. 


As soon as the lights go out screech owls begin their hunting rounds.  They glide over open areas looking for mice, insects, snakes, toads and small birds.  They will snatch a bird at its roost site as it sleeps at night.  Sometimes though, the hunter can become the hunted.  The much larger great horned owl will frequently dine on screech owls. 


One way to detect owls is by finding their pellets.  Owls swallow their prey whole and several hours later regurgitate the inedible fur, feathers and bones as a compact pellet. 

Pellets litter the ground below favorite roost sites providing clues to roost locations and diet. 



Kestrels and screech owls are secondary cavity nesters, nesting in holes excavated by other birds or in naturally occurring cavities and fissures.  These birds suffer from a lack of suitable nest sites because of our propensity to take down the dead, hollowed trees they would normally use for nesting.  Both birds will readily use nest boxes though.  Northern Kentucky’s neighborhoods are more attractive to screech owls, whereas rural areas are favored haunts of kestrels.  Screech owls can frequently be seen peering from favorite nest/roost boxes year round.


Now is the perfect time to hang a nest box, as both species of birds are actively seeking nest sites.  Nesting begins in April.  Kestrels and screech owls both lay 4 to 5 eggs with incubation lasting a little less than a month.  Males of both species feed the female as she is on the nest and help feed the young after the eggs hatch.  A month after hatching, the young are ready for their first flight.


Kestrels and screech owls are fantastic birds and easily observed.  A nest box takes no more than an hour to build and, if properly constructed, will last a good 10 years.  Once you attract these birds, you realize your good return on investment.  They are a joy to watch.



If you would like plans for a kestrel/screech owl nest box sent to you, contact or

Are Fairy Diddles in your backyard?

Janet Scanlon of Ft. Wright was checking her nest boxes recently when she noticed a wren house had chew marks around the entry hole.  Wren houses, with a 1 1/8th-inch entry, are too small for most other species to inhabit; but one mammal will chew around the entry hole to make it larger…the fairy diddle.  Janet, a local wildlife rehabber who has helped rehabilitate fairy diddles, was pleasantly surprised to find signs of fairy diddles in her suburban backyard wildlife refuge.  Now that Janet suspects having them in her backyard, she plans on erecting nest boxes for fairy diddles.


What’s a fairy diddle?  The scientific name for fairy diddles is Glaucomys volans, though most folks know of them as Southern flying squirrels.  Many are surprised to hear that Northern Kentucky is home to flying squirrels, and are even more surprised to hear they’re in our neighborhoods.  Flying squirrels are strictly nocturnal and seldom seen, though they will frequent bird feeders and can be seen after dark if light shines on feeders.


It’s hard not to love flying squirrels.  About half the size of gray squirrels, they are true acrobats.  They usually hang out in small groups and can be seen gliding from tree to tree like trapeze artists, often making sharp acrobatic turns in the air before landing.  They move so quickly that it’s easy to mistake them for a bird that’s been rustled from its roost, a bat, or falling leaf.  Their high-pitched “tseet” call can be heard in the treetops on quiet nights, often mistaken as insect or bird noises.


Flying squirrels don’t actually fly and would be more appropriately named gliding squirrels.  A loose fold of skin runs from wrist to ankle and forms a wing-like surface that allows them to glide from tree to tree, with the flat tail serving as a rudder to guide flights.  Most flights average 30 to 40 feet, but some may be as long as 300 feet.  They land lightly on all fours and scurry to the opposite side of a tree trunk, thwarting any predators that may follow.


Flying squirrels are arboreal.  Their livelihoods are totally dependent upon good tree cover.  Trees are their highways, food source, den and nesting sites.  They prefer older-growth deciduous forests and are especially fond of acorns and hickory nuts.  They also eat seeds, berries, fungi, lichens, insects, mice, nestlings and eggs.  They’ve been known to slice into the bark of a sugar maple and drink the sap that flows.  They store great quantities of nuts for winter use; estimates are as high as 15,000 nuts in a single season.


Woodpecker holes are favored nest sites of flying squirrels.  They may also build summer nests of leaves, twigs and bark similar to that of gray or fox squirrels.  They are easily attracted to nest boxes.  In winter several individuals may den together for added warmth.  It’s not uncommon for 20 or more flying squirrels to occupy one den site during cold winter months.


Flying squirrels have two breeding seasons per year, in January-February and again in June-July.  From 2 to 7 pups are born after a 40-day gestation period.  Most pups will not survive their first year.  Flying squirrels can live up to 10 years, with an average lifespan of 4 to 6 years.


They are also constantly alert to predators.  They are fast, agile and never seem to sit still. Their large eyes afford them exceptional nighttime vision.  The most successful predators of flying squirrels are owls, hawks, weasels and snakes.  Free-roaming cats, especially those left to roam after dark, are probably their most serious predators.


Flying squirrels are adaptable animals that can live near human populations.  If one is attracted to your feeder, approach slowly and you may get a close-up look. Because they are predominately active at night, they are not often seen; however they are very sociable and can outnumber the more familiar gray squirrel in some areas. 


Whereas American woodcocks are often called timber doodles, flying squirrels are frequently called fairy diddles.  The name seemingly fits.


Janet is arranging her feeders, aiming her spotlight, and preparing to hang her fairy diddle nest boxes.  Janet anxiously awaits the arrival of her fairy diddles.  Why?  Because they’re magical.




Contact Gayle at her website for nest boxes at or at

Lend a Box Turtle a Helping Hand

Box turtles (Terrapene carolina) are in big trouble.  Habitats are so broken up by housing developments and roadways that they are squashed at an alarming rate.  These slow moving creatures are no match for that large, heavy-bodied, fast moving and efficient predator…the automobile.  Additionally, with turtles collected for the U.S. and foreign pet trade, you can see why an animal that moves at only a snails pace is at a precipitous crossroad.


Box turtles are our only terrestrial turtle.  They have a domed shell that is hinged at the bottom, allowing them to close their shell tightly to escape predators.  They are a species that has remained relatively unchanged for more than 200 million years.  With a lifespan that can exceed 120 years in the wild, they are the longest-lived vertebrates in North America.  Their long lives are spent in a home range that is about the size of a football field.  They eat snails, insects, berries, mushrooms, worms, roots, fish, slugs and flowers.  Curiously, they do not eat green leaves.  Box turtles are diurnal, being most active in the morning and after rainfall. 


Mating season begins in the spring and continues throughout the summer to October.  A female may lay fertile eggs for up to four years after one successful mating.  Nests are dug in sandy, loamy soil with the female laying 3 to 5 eggs.  Incubation normally lasts three months but varies with soil temperature and moisture.  Weather and predators destroy almost all of their eggs.  When eggs do hatch, babies have a slim chance of survival as predators take almost all of the young.  A young female who survives to reproductive maturity at around age 15, can lay a few hundred eggs in her long lifetime.  From that lifetime of egg production, only a handful of hatchlings will survive to adulthood to replace aged parents and sustain local populations.


Box turtles have strong homing instincts or “site fidelity,” meaning they will live their long lives in a small parcel of woods near where they were hatched.  For this reason it is never a good idea to relocate box turtles, as a displaced turtle can spend years fruitlessly searching for its lost home.   When box turtles are encountered crossing a road, in danger of being crushed by that huge predator the automobile, give a turtle a break and take it off to the side of the road in the direction it was headed.  Never turn a turtle around and place it back where it came from, as it will just turn around again and head back in the direction it was originally headed.  They know where they want to go.


The pet trade is also decimating turtle populations.  According to the Humane Society, nearly 2 million American households have at least one pet turtle.  At least 6 million American turtles are exported annually, most to Europe and Asia.  Of those, more than 26,000 wild-caught box turtles are exported with thousands more sold in the U.S.  Collectors take the large sexually mature adults, leaving wild populations depleted of breeders.  Huge numbers of turtles die in transport.  Those that do survive long enough to be purchased usually do not live long because many buyers do not know how to provide for them with proper diet and habitat.


A walk through the woods, stumbling onto a box turtle, and taking it home as a pet seems innocent enough.  However, it is against state law to buy or catch turtles as pets.  It is easy to see why.  In one study 33 marked turtles began disappearing immediately after the public was invited into a 2,471-acre reservoir watershed.  Eight years later only 14 of the turtles remained.  Two years after that they were all gone.  Illegal collecting threatens the species very existence.


Box turtles are vulnerable.  This ancient species is way too cool and interesting for us to allow it to disappear from our woodlands.  You can help…

  • If you see a turtle in the wild, leave it be.  Stop, look, and help it off the trail so it is not seen and captured by someone less responsible.
  • If you see a turtle trying to cross a road, stop and help.  Many thousands of turtles are killed each year on our roadways.  Always take it to the side of the road it was heading.
  • Do not buy turtles as pets.  Purchasing wild animals only promotes the illegal trade of native and non-native wildlife species.
  • If you find an injured turtle, take it to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.
  • If you absolutely must have a turtle, contact a local rehabilitator and see about adopting one that cannot be re-released into the wild.  Locally, contact



Contact Gayle at her website for nest boxes at or



Red-tails in Ft. Wright

John Coffey of Ft. Wright enjoys observing wildlife.  His and his neighbors Morris Road wooded backyards form a unique wildlife corridor.  “I’ve seen it all here,” said John.  “I’ve seen red fox, raccoons, opossum, squirrels, turkey, groundhogs and owls.  A herd of deer runs through here all the time.  I once saw coyotes chasing a deer through the woods.”  The stream in his backyard is home to salamanders and frogs.  He has even come across a pair of black rat snakes mating.


As John was drinking coffee a few Sunday’s ago, he noticed a pair of red-tailed hawks out the back window.  “They were putting on a big time show,” said John.  “I saw one hawk land on the ground and then the other.  I wondered what the heck the two were feeding on.  They kept flying up and back down and I couldn’t figure out what they were doing.  Then one landed on an evergreen and I saw it pull a twig and figured out they were building a nest.”  John watched the red-tails for three to four hours as both the male and female worked on building their nest in the woods behind his house.


Red-tail hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) are North America’s most common and widespread hawks.  Settlement patterns have served the red-tail well, with their numbers actually increasing over the past century.  The clearing of trees in the east has provided hunting areas, and planting trees in the west have provided nest sites.  Red-tail hawks are a common sight along roadsides where they perch on utility poles, fencerows and trees to hunt small prey. 


Red-tail hawks belong to the Buteo family of hawks; large soaring hawks with broad wings and broad tails.  Red-tails weigh between 2 and 4 pounds with a wingspan of four feet.  As with most raptors, the female is nearly one-third larger than the male.  They also have excellent eyesight, 8 times more powerful than a human’s.  They can live up to 20-plus years in the wild.


Red-tails are carnivores with 85 to 90% of their diet composed of small rodents.  “Red-tail hawks should be protected for the same reasons we should be conserving populations of other small rodent predators,” said Dr. Samuel Mazzer, Professor Emeritus, Kent State University Department of Biological Sciences.  “That reason is to be found in the ‘balance of nature.’  Predators are important as nature’s primary natural defense against excessive numbers of ground squirrels, rats, mice and other small rodents.  Depressed predator populations are typically reflected by increases, often explosive increases, in their prey populations.  And, in the case of small mammals, large population increases are typically associated with outbreaks of disease. 


John’s hawks will soon finish construction of their nest, which is at least 50-feet high in the fork of a large tree.  By May the female will be incubating her eggs (usually two, but sometimes up to five).  Incubation takes approximately one month and is maintained almost entirely by the female.  The male feeds the female as she’s on the nest.  When hatched, the down-covered chicks will keep both parents busy hunting food.  The young fledge at about 45 days. 


If John’s red-tails breed successfully this year, chances are he’ll be able to watch them again next year.  Red-tail hawks mate for life and usually remain loyal to a successful nest site.  If an old nest is weather damaged, layers of new nesting material are added. Red-tails typically do not begin breeding until their third year.


Red-tail hawks are adaptable birds and will frequently nest in suburban areas with wooded surroundings.  They are not usually city-dwellers…at least not until Pale Male came along.


Pale Male is probably the most famous red-tail hawk of all time.  He is the subject of at least two books, a PBS documentary and numerous radio segments.  He’s been featured in magazines and newspapers all over the world.  He even has his own website,  He resides at one of the swankiest addresses in New York City.


Pale Male (named because of his light coloration) has lived at a penthouse nest on Fifth Avenue since 1993 where he and his mates have fledged 23 chicks.  Until Pale Male showed up, it is believed that red-tailed hawks had never before nested in modern-day Manhattan.  The hawks took up residence on metal pigeon spikes, which proved to be the perfect foundation for a large hawk’s nest. 


Unfortunately though, the birds were served an eviction notice in December of 2004.  Real estate mogul Richard Cohen (husband of TV personality Paula Zahn) had the nest torn down.  What ensued was pandemonium.  Nature lovers, public officials, grassroots activists, the media, New York City Audubon, and even actress Mary Tyler Moore protested Pale Male and his most recent mate Lola’s eviction.  Audubon collected more than 10,000 signatures urging Cohen to put back the nest, and Cohen himself received 5,000 letters in support of keeping the nest.  Protesters braved the cold and organized a vigil outside the building.  The hawks’ predicament was noted in NYC papers and as far away as India and Saudi Arabia


Pale Male had won the hearts of New Yorkers and the world.  The pressure was too much for Cohen.  Exactly three weeks after the pigeon spikes were removed they were again restored for the birds.  Pale Male and Lola have again taken up residence in their high-end loft.  John Flicker, president of National Audubon, summed it up well, “Pale Male is a symbol of hope and a reminder that we can make room for a piece of the wild, if only on a window ledge.” 



Contact Gayle at her website for nest boxes at or at