Archive for May, 2023

Survival by the Numbers

“I just saw a big snapping turtle pull another baby mallard underwater on the pond in my backyard!” 

These were the first desperate words I heard after answering the phone at the nature center I worked at for many years. 

Without pausing for a breath the distraught caller went on, “Oh what can I do?! There were originally 9 ducklings in the bunch and it seems that every few days another one disappears. And now another one is killed! Only three remaining!”

I paused before responding. I knew she was looking for sympathy and a solution to put a halt to the murders, but I was going to try a different route.

“As hard as that is to watch,” I told her, “you are lucky to witness a predator catch its prey. And did you say there are three left?”

She exhaled a sad, drawn out “Yes.”

“Wow,” I exclaimed, “that’s terrific!” There was silence on the other end but I could almost hear the puzzled look of horror.

I continued, “Let’s assume the three remaining continue to mature and live for a year. One will replace its mother and one will replace its father and that means there is one extra, a fifty percent increase in the family population.” I was on a roll. “That’s fantastic! To experience a fifty percent growth rate is very rare.”

I gave her room to respond. And after a moment I heard a softer toned, “Really?”

“Absolutely. Most baby animals are born to be food. Like it or not the future of predators depends on the death of their prey.”

Another pause before she responded, “So if I heard you correctly, if the remaining three ducklings survive that will be unusual and considered a success for the population of mallards?”


“Well thanks for your information. But I still don’t like to watch baby ducks die.”

It is a common survival strategy for a particular species to have large numbers of offspring. Generally the greater number of eggs or young indicate their vulnerability to high losses through predation, bad weather, food shortages and so on.

A wild female monarch butterfly will lay 100 to 300 eggs in her life with a survival rate of 2-10% living to maturity. For the sake of example, let’s say the monarch that is flitting around laying her eggs here and there on the milkweed leaves lays a total of 100 eggs. (Incidentally, everyone should have a milkweed patch.) That means we can expect anywhere from 2 to 10 mature butterflies will survive to maturity from her output of 100 eggs.

Consider a bluegill sunfish. In the Upper Midwest a mature female might lay 6,000 – 18,000 eggs in one or more nests. Sometimes none of those eggs survive but usually enough reach breeding age. This allows more human kid-predators a chance to learn the joys of watching the jiggle of a bobber and catching fish. 

Humans, those irascible critters that continue to foul their own nests by denigrating the very natural systems that assure their survival, do not bear large litters. However, like other animals that bear one to three young, such as deer, bear, whales, eagles and albatrosses, the chances of their young reaching maturity is much higher. With few young to care for, more attention and resources can be offered for their survival. 

Last week, while hunting wild turkeys, I stepped quietly into the woods to begin calling. I paused and in that moment of stillness, a hen turkey exploded only a few feet from me.

My stopping had flushed her off her nest. In her haste she had kicked one of the eggs out of the nest so I leaned down and tucked it among the others. I counted 15 eggs. I have never seen a turkey nest with this many eggs; though they average a dozen eggs per clutch.

Now some of you might gasp because I touched the egg. As youngsters many of us learned “Never touch a birds egg or it might abandon the nest.” While that is good advice, it has nothing to do with your scent on the egg.  Birds are not going to abandon if you touch the egg, but some birds, such as loons might abandon their nest just because the nesting site has been disturbed. 

Quietly, I left the nest site. In a few minutes I heard an out-of-sight hen giving an alarm call. I suspect this was the mother of the eggs that I had just left. 

And like a snapping turtle, I moved with stealth looking for the father of some of those eggs.

Repeat: Take a Kid Backpacking

As we rounded a bend on the sagebrush-flanked trail, a small gossamer waterfall, lit by the morning sun, tumbled off the plateau high above us. Granddaughter Eleanor, aged five, noted, “That’s a fairy waterfall.”

Last year we backpacked to the ocean and set up camp in the midst of giant, grayed logs that had been tossed by tumultuous seas far back on the broad beach. Not only had we camped in the midst of a giant sculpture but it had become a wonderful playground for a four-year-old.

So this year, her father, Ben, suggested we head away from the ocean and steer up over the pass through snow country and descend into eastern Washington and backpack within an easy raven flight of the deep Columbia River gorge. The area is specifically known as the Ancient Lakes Basin. 

In this part of Washington, sage brush is common and the region is arid, almost desertlike. The area lies just east of the foothills to the Cascade Mountains. There is a strong rain shadow effect here as the precipitation falls in the mountains to the west. Consequently the area has one of the lowest precipitation rates in the Columbia River Valley.  So finding a basin of natural lakes seems odd. 

Our destination was a cluster of ancient lakes. These incongruous lakes owe their formation to a the melting of glaciers roughly 17,000 years ago.  The plateau is a horseshoe around the lakes. Small seasonal streams and a creek spill into the basin.

Eleanor a year older, is stronger, slightly taller and into fairies. However, some things don’t change. She carried the same cute daypack with its primary payload a couple of favorite stuffed toys. Her father and grandparents, Nana and Opa (me), carried conventional backpacks stowed with food, tents, sleeping bags, pads and a small amount of extra clothing and rain gear.

This year we would double the hiking mileage to our destination: 2.3 miles. It’s important when taking short-legged humans on hikes, first and foremost it has to be fun. 

Out of sight above us, the plateau is covered with orchards and vineyards. Due to the use of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, it is not safe to drink the water from the lakes.

Eleanor was particularly intrigued with the dark gray rocks perforated with scores of tiny holes. I excitedly told her she had “discovered” clues of volcanoes.

Our hiking pace was determined by Eleanor and stops were frequent. She often paused to consider tiny discoveries. A beetle, a wind blown flower petal or a wisp of a feather. 

“There were volcanoes here?” she asked with a wrinkled frown.

I told her the tiny holes, called vesicles, were made when the lava cooled and puffs of gases escaped. I also pointed to the tall cliffs nearby and told her all those sharp edged columns were made from magma that had cooled down forming a hard rock called basalt. 

Her fidgeting told me I was giving too much information. But she did ask about taking the pockmarked rock home. Her dad suggested we pick it up on our return trip to the car. 

Eleanor declared we had to find ten different kinds of wild flowers. I believe the final tally was a dozen. . . not bad for early spring in a desert. We inspected beaver cuttings at the edge of the small lake and found a sun-bleached deer jaw which prompted a host of more questions.

We made camp near a cliff and a sloping run of scree, atop a bare ridge that split two of the small lakes. It was a lovely overlook. We wondered if the pair of marmots we saw up in the rocky scree chose this site for the view.

After the tents were set up it was time for hide and seek amongst the tumble of boulders and rocks. Eleanor’s insistence that the seekers only count to thirty made it difficult to get very far from the starting point. Eleanor did not like being hidden too long as she would let out little chirps and squeals to guide us to her hiding spot. 

Time for supper and once again, by popular demand we dined on macaroni and cheese. I lost count of the declared “yums” emitted over the course of the meal.

Not long after eating and getting camp dishes cleaned up we were chased to the tents by a sudden squall that hurried down the cliffs from the plateau. The wind suddenly took a more serious note when we found ourselves holding up the tents from the inside to keep them from flattening. 

From the dad and daughter tent, a query shouted into the wind about getting up, dropping the tents and shuffling camp a hundred yards to find protection behind a cabin-sized boulder. I yelled back, “Let’s wait a few minutes. I think this blast will push through.”

Five minutes later, the tent only rippled in the following calm. Nana and I could hear Ben reading bedtime stories to a cocooned daughter. Distant coyotes shrilled their howls and yips. Tucked in my own bag, I couldn’t help but smile.

The following morning broke clear and chilly. Eleanor asked for a cup of hot cocoa. Her dad’s face betrayed a fleeting look of horror. “Oh Eleanor, I forgot your cocoa.” 

“No problem,” I declared, “she can have some of mine.” I always carry a stash to augment my morning coffee. 

Eleanor snuggled in next to her dad. Life was good.

We broke camp, donned our packs and headed home with visions of an impending ice cream cone. But first, as we neared the end of our hike, we picked up a chunk of rock, riddled with holes. A souvenir to sit amongst the likes of little fairies.