Archives > January 2018

Alberta Wildlife Recoveries: Grizzly Bear

What are grizzly bears?

The grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis) is a subspecies of brown bear found across North America. Varying in colour from blonde to almost black, Grizzly Bears usually have light brown fur accentuated by white-tipped or blondish fur on the back and rear, giving it the “grizzled” appearance they are partly named for (Wright 1909). Males of the species weigh between 130-180 kg depending on region and habitat, while females are usually around two thirds the weight of the male (AEP profile).

Grizzly bears are characterised by broad, “dished” faces and long snouts; rounded ears; and long white streaked claws whose prints show a “five to eight-centimeter gap ahead of the toe prints” (AEP profile).

Where are grizzly gears found?

Brown bears in general have the largest distribution of bear species worldwide, found in Asia, Europe and North America (Storer & Tevis 1996). The grizzly subspecies in particular was found from Alaska to Mexico but has dwindled in distribution in recent years. In Alberta, their current range includes areas in or near the Rocky Mountains, and in boreal areas of central and north-western Alberta (AEP profile).

Grizzly bears generally require large areas of land, due to a combination of social and ecological requirements, and tend to stick to the prairie and parkland (AEP profile).

In order to have full access to their primary food sources, grizzly bears require a wide range of seasonal habitats, from dry subalpine grasslands in spring to wet areas such as gullies, meadows and fens in summer. Grizzly gears hibernate through the winter, using dens dug into areas supported by large amounts of tree roots and shrubs, along with accumulated snow to provide insulation (AEP profile).

What is being done to protect the grizzly bear?

Grizzly bears are designated as “threatened” under Alberta’s Wildlife Act, due to its small breeding population size, and expected decline due to human activities (AEP profile).

The new Alberta Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan was drafted in 2016 and includes steps to aid the recovery of the existing populations such as strategies for “restoring habitat connectivity across highway corridors” (AGBRP 2007).

Wildlife corridors are stretches of natural habitat that connected two or more previously unconnected areas (after human development has separated the natural area) that allow for population distribution and gene flow (Bond, M. 2003).

The AGBRP (2016) also outlines a continuation and refinement of strategies to “reduce human-caused grizzly mortality; reduce human-grizzly conflict by managing food attractants; and to maintain access to secure habitats”.

What more needs to be done, and how can we help?

One of the larger threats to grizzly bear populations is human-caused mortality, with the four highest sources listed as poaching, accidental collisions with highway vehicles or trains, self-defence kills and hunters misidentifying grizzly bears as black bears.

Increasing public awareness of grizzly inhabited areas and what to do if you encounter one is likely the most influential way of reducing human caused mortality of grizzlies. Being careful of food attractants is also important, as bears that wander into built-up human areas put themselves and humans at risk. Bears that find food sources in human areas will usually become habituated and seek out further food sources in the same area, leading to necessary relocation or unfortunately destruction of the Bear if no other options are available (Wildsmart).

There are plans such as the Wildsmart program that removes both natural and unnatural food attractants from human settlement areas in order to provide safer areas for bears to find food.

By Jonathan Poll, AIWC Volunteer

References

http://aep.alberta.ca/fish-wildlife/wild-species/mammals/bears/grizzly-bear.aspx

Alberta Environment and Parks (2016). Alberta Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan,. Alberta Species at Risk Recovery Plan No. 38. Edmonton, AB. 85pp.

Storer, T.I. & Tevis, L.P. (1996). California Grizzly. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. p. 335

http://www.wildsmart.ca/programs/attractant_management.htm

Wright, William Henry (1909). The Grizzly Bear: The Narrative of a Hunter-Naturalist, Historical, Scientific and Adventurous.

Photo Credit: Alberta Environment and Parks

Bird Calls, Songs and Mimicry

Imagine growing up in isolation. Not learning language from your parents or any other people. How well do you think you would be able to communicate with other people? Probably not very well, right? What about birds: are their vocalizations learned, or are they inherited? Development of “language” in birds is fairly complex. When raised in captivity without their natural parents to learn their proper vocalizations from, many bird species sing very simple fragments of their whole songs, suggesting that language in most birds is partly innate, or known, and partly learned from their parents (Boswell 2012). We also know that most adolescent songbirds require a “tutor” to learn their songs from (Vallentin et al 2016). There are some species of birds within the Suboscine family, however, that have an innate ability to know their species’ song (John 2017).

You may have noticed that song birds produce melodic “songs”, while they also produce shorter “calls”. Songs tend to be longer and more complex vocalizations that are mostly produced by males during the breeding season in North America (Catchpole and Slater 2003). In the tropics and some areas in Europe, females also tend to sing and singing is not restricted to the breeding season (Catchpole and Slater 2003). Calls are shorter and simpler vocalizations that are produced by both male and female birds throughout the year (Catchpole and Slater 2003). Calls tend to be related to actions of the bird, such as flying, sensing danger, or threatening other birds, for example.

A recent study found that some songbirds are able to adapt their songs when they are surrounded by heavy traffic noises. They are able to sing at a different frequency than the noise of traffic. This may appear to be beneficial in their ability to still call out to a potential mate, however, their song sounds less natural, and a female may not respond as strongly (Gentry 2017). Songs that were altered to overcome traffic noises were often shorter in length and males producing shorter songs may have less success defending territory and therefore, a lower chance of successfully finding a mate (John 2017).

Other than songs and calls, some birds practice “mimicry”. Corvids (crows, magpies, bluejays, Steller’s Jay, to name a few) are examples of Canadian birds that mimic noises they hear in their environments. The sounds included in a bird’s vocalizations depends on the noises in its surrounding environment, meaning that birds of the same species may not mimic the same sound if they are not exposed to it (Mayntz 2017). The lyrebirds is an example of a bird that can nearly identically mimic sounds such as chainsaws, car alarms – you name it! However, these birds are exotic and do not live within in Canada. If we know that the purpose of calls are for actions of the birds making them, and songs are to attract mates, what is the purpose of mimicry? Mimicry can be used to impress a mate, to protect the nest or food source by producing the noise of a predator or threat calls of other birds, to defend a territory, for social acceptance within a group of other birds, or they could be accidentally learned in cases such as car alarms or non-natural mechanical sounds (Mayntz 2017).

It’s still winter in Canada, so the next time you’re out for a walk, pay attention to the calls the birds are making, since they are likely not preparing for mating season just yet. You’re likely to see chickadees and nuthatches in the treed areas around Calgary at this time of year. Ask yourself the following question to try and analyze the vocalizations the birds are making: Are both males and females making the same noises? Do they make calls when larger or predatory birds are nearby? Do they make calls when they have found a food source? Do they make calls to chase away other birds in their vicinity?

When the spring time comes and you find yourself out birding, or on a walk, pay closer attention to the birds that you see and the songs they are making. What are the birds doing? Is the bird a male, and is he only singing in one location, possibly his territory? Does another male bird, possibly a competitor, respond with the same song? Are any females gathering nearby? Does he stop singing when a female joins him?

Also, pay closer attention to crows and magpies. They tend to get a bad rap and people often view them in a bad light or ignore them altogether. They really are fascinating birds though, and can often be heard mimicking their surroundings, such as making the noise of a water drop. Have you heard them mimic anything else in their surrounding environment?

At AIWC, we strive to help any injured or orphaned wildlife in our care. If you would like to help us be able to care for any call-makers, song-makers, or mimickers, please visit our donation page here. Every bit helps ensure their return to the wild, where they can keep vocalizing!

Author’s note: I am by no means an expert ornithologist, nor am I an expert in bird vocalizations. I find the topic very interesting and wanted to share the information that I’ve found on the topic.

By Tayler Lafreniere, AIWC Volunteer

References:

Boswell, J. 2012. How birds learn their songs. Available at: https://www.bl.uk/the-language-of-birds/articles/how-birds-learn-their-songs. Accessed January 15, 2018.

Catchpole, C.K., and P.J.B. Slater. 2003. Bird Song: Biological Themes and Variations. Cambridge University Press. Second Edition.

Gentry, K. E., McKenna, M.F., and Luther D.A. 2017. Evidence of suboscine song plasticity in response to traffic noise fluctuations and temporary road closures. Bioacoustics.

John, J. 2017. Birds change song to be heard above traffic noise. The Wildlife Society. Available at: http://wildlife.org/birds-change-song-to-be-heard-above-traffic-noise/. Accessed January 15, 2018.

Vallentin, D., Kosche, G., Lipkind, D., and Long, M.A. 2016. Inhibition protects acquired song segments during vocal learning in zebra finches. Science; 351:6270; Pp. 267 – 271.

Winter Prep and Survival Hacks Used by Alberta’s Wildlife

With winter now in full swing in Alberta, sightings of wildlife this time of year may be rarer than usual. But what do animals do during the winter? Do they all either hibernate or fly south for the entire season? If you’ve ever found yourself asking these questions, fear not: AIWC has tracked down the information on what certain animals do to prepare for and tough out the coldest season of the year.

For the birds

While a bird’s feathers provide essential insulation during the winter months, its high metabolism prohibits it from hibernating during cold months. Depending on the availability of local food and shelter resources, some species may be able to thrive in a given location, while others may have to flying south for the winter in order to survive the season.

Among the list of species who migrate to warmer climes during the winter are the snowy owl, the piping plover, the red-winged blackbird, and the snow goose. The blue jay, the evening grosbeak, and the great horned owl are just a few of the species that round out the list of birds that stick around during the winter thanks to evolutionary advantages that help them thrive on even the coldest of days.

Sleeping with the fishes

Fish are ectothermic animals, which means that they do not produce their own body heat and instead rely on their environment to regulate their body temperatures. In the winter, this means that a fish’s body temperature matches that of the surrounding water that may even be frozen on top.

During colder months when lakes and streams may seem frozen solid, fish will remain in a prolonged state of minimal activity and dormancy, which slows their metabolism and reduces their need to eat during a time when food is normally scarce.

Seeking warmth for the warm-blooded

Because mammals are warm-blooded – or endothermic – they need to sustain their metabolisms in order to maintain a body temperature that’s conducive to winter survival. One winter survival tactic of certain mammals is hibernation, wherein an animal’s body temperature drops and its metabolism, heart rate, and breathing slows to preserve energy throughout colder months. Only a few mammals have sufficient fat stored up to make hibernation a viable option for weathering winter, but animals such as chipmunks, woodchucks, brown bats, and black bears are some of the few who turn winter into a lovely, long nap.

For the mammals that can’t hibernate, winter survival options branch off in two ways: to migrate a short distance to more sheltered areas, or to stay put and adapt to their surroundings. Certain species of caribou typically migrate from the tundra to dense forests, while some bats migrate to more protected areas such as buildings or caves.

Meanwhile, for mammals that stay put for the season, evolution is on their side with various life-saving attributes that can range from seasonally-grown thicker fur or comparably larger feet that help them tread on snow efficiently. Seasonal changes to animals’ diets also provide nourishment where it normally wouldn’t be found. For example, the red fox has adapted to eat small mammals during the winter’s absence of berries and insects, while animals like beavers and grey squirrels plan ahead and store food for winter consumption.

By Giselle Wedemire, AIWC Volunteer

Sources:

Hinterland Who’s Who www.hww.ca, January 1, 2017: http://www.hww.ca/en/issues-and-topics/wildlife-in-winter.html

Alberta Wildlife Recoveries: Burrowing Owl

What are Burrowing Owls?

Burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia) are a small species of owl distributed across select regions of North and South America (Alberta Burrowing Owl Recovery Plan 2012-2017). Approximately 9 inches long, they are differentiated from more typical owl species in that they are most active during the day, and get their name from the burrows that they nest in.

Burrowing owls do not make these burrows themselves, but instead rely on prairie animals such as prairie dogs to create the burrows, which the owls will use once they have been abandoned by their previous occupants (Recovery Plan 2012-2017).

Burrowing owls have also developed longer legs than other owl species, and these are useful in sprinting to catch prey, primarily large insects and small rodents (AEP profile).

The burrowing owl in Alberta has been classified as “at risk” by the current General Status of Alberta Wild Species report.

Where are Burrowing Owls found?

While the majority of the range of the burrowing owl in North America is based in the United States, around 4% of the wild population is found in Western Canada, as the subspecies Athene cunicularia hypugaea (Recovery Plan 2012-2017), and is listed as “endangered” at the National level.

Generally, Canadian burrowing owls are found in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, where its breeding range has been steadily shrinking. They can also be found in limited populations in Manitoba and British Columbia, where the terrain is appropriate.

Because burrowing owls are migratory, the Alberta population generally spends the winter season in the southern United States and Mexico. This is important in terms of conserving the Alberta population, as changes in mortality factors and habitat outside of Alberta can contribute to a decline in numbers (Environment Canada 2010).

What is being done to protect the Burrowing Owl?

In Alberta, burrowing owl populations have shown a steep decline due to changes in habitat, wintering factors outside of Alberta, and human disturbance (Recovery Plan 2012-2017).

In 2006, the burrowing owl in Alberta was designated as “endangered”, up from the previous “threatened” status, based on the reduced distribution in the province, along with a small overall population size across both Canada and the United States (Recovery Plan 2012-2017). This designation makes it illegal to harvest or traffic the burrowing owl, or to disturb the nesting sites or burrows, under the Alberta Wildlife Act.

The long-term goal of the Alberta Burrowing Owl Recovery Plan for 2012 to 2017 is to “increase the population of Burrowing Owl in Alberta to viable, naturally self-sustaining levels, well-distributed along its range”. To achieve this, the plan has three short-term goals: To increase the burrowing owl population in Alberta to 400-600 pairs by 2017; to stabilize distribution of the current range of burrowing owl, eventually restoring them to natural levels, and to maintain, increase and enhance habitats for burrowing owls in Alberta (Recovery Plan 2012-2017).

What more needs to be done, and how can we help?

Economic expansion and the transformation of natural prairie land in Alberta is likely the biggest factor in the reduction of the burrowing owl population. In addition, it has been found that pesticides (used for invertebrates and small mammals) are indirectly affecting burrowing owl populations that feed on these small animals (Recovery Plan 2012-2017).

As always, public knowledge and landowner stewardship play an important role in the conservation of the species that reside in Alberta, while stabilization of agricultural grazing resources land stewardship may provide further habitat restoration and recreational use for the general public as well.

If you want to get involved in the burrowing owl conservation efforts, spreading knowledge (such as by newspaper articles and blog posts) is a good way to start. Getting in touch with city councils to attend planning agendas and the Burrowing Owl Conservation Network are also ways to help. Activities such as Canada’s Christmas Bird Count (http://www.birdscanada.org/volunteer/cbc/) relies on volunteer input to collect wildlife surveys, and are always looking for more people to help.

By Jonathan Poll, AIWC Volunteer

References

Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development. 2012. Alberta Burrowing Owl Recovery Plan 2012-2017. Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, Alberta Recovery Plan No. 21, Edmonton, AB. 27pp.

http://aep.alberta.ca/fish-wildlife/wild-species/birds/owls/burrowing-owl.aspx

Canadian Endangered Species Conservation Council. 2016. Wild Species 2015: The General Status of Species in Canada. National General Status Working Group: 128pp.

Environment Canada. 2010. Recovery Strategy for the Burrowing Owl in Canada. Species At Risk Act Recovery Strategy Series. Environment Canada, Ottawa. Viii + 33pp.

http://www.birdscanada.org/volunteer/cbc/

Photo Credit: Alberta Environment and Parks