August 4, 2011 |

Wild Things

It is high summer now. Many young birds have fledged and are bulking up for the trip south. Berries and fruits are appearing on the plants. Fish runs are in full swing.

Edible berries, fruits and seeds are the plants’ way of using animals to propagate themselves. Squirrels eat spruce seeds and then poop little packets of the fertilized seed kernels. This is the spruce’s way of getting itself propagated in a shady forest. It is the same with blueberries, apples or any fruit that passes through the digestive system of an animal. It is a win-win situation. The animal gets food from the flesh of the fruit and the plant gets composted seed starter.

On an ecosystem level, some of the same principles apply. The forest offers shaded and protected streams for young fish to grow. Young salmon are able to grow in these cool streams full of insects and other invertebrates, with protected pools and hiding places provided by plants and fallen trees. The salmon smolt go out to sea, feed, grow, and return to these perfect nursery streams to spawn and die. Predators like eagles, bears and humans capture the adult spawners and haul them out of the water to eat. Some of the scraps go back in the stream to feed the aquatic creatures, which in turn feed the young salmon. 

At the height of the season, bears are pigging out on salmon. The technical term is hyperphagia, but it still means pigging out. They will catch a salmon, drag it into the forest and eat the brains and eggs, leaving the rest of the fish. Then mink, otter, gulls, and other animals will feed on the leftovers. The smear that is left is fish fertilizer for the plants. In addition, like the fruit eaters, the scat of these fish eaters carries fertilizer into the forest. Research has shown that marine source nitrogen is found in the trees near salmon streams, and these trees grow larger and faster than trees not on salmon streams.

Does it seem like there are large numbers of birds all of a sudden? There are. Young birds have grown their adult flight feathers and flown the nest. You can see these fledglings still asking mom and dad for food at feeders, in trees, or elsewhere. They lean forward, flutter their wings, open their mouths and call, "Mom, Dad, feed me!" When they are in the nest, they look like big mouths, sometimes colored brightly red. When they fledge, their mouths are still over-large for a while. You can identify juveniles by their large gape and, for some species like crows and ravens, red mouths.

Young eagles take longer to grow to fledging size, yet their growth rate is phenomenal. When they hatch, they weigh about three ounces. By the time they fledge in late August, they are larger than their parents and weigh about 190 ounces, or 12 pounds. 

They are big enough now to be seen in their nests. Soon they will start practicing for flight. They will flap their wings and lift themselves up off the nest a bit. They will practice until the day they fly the nest. This event is exquisitely timed to happen when there are lots of spawned-out salmon on beaches and banks of rivers, so while they are learning to fly and hunt, there is plenty of readily accessible food.

In fact, our salmon runs favor the eagles all along the west coast of North America.  When salmon runs in other streams have finished, eagles from all over the west coast come up here for the late salmon run on the Chilkat River.

This is the time of abundance. It is the time when plants and animals, including humans, gather resources, reproduce, grow and prepare for winter.  Humans can reproduce any time of year, but for most plants and animals, summer is the time.

If you have questions or observations, please call Pam Randles at the Takshanuk Watershed Council, 766-3542.