Your love life isn't the only thing mistletoe is good for; there are many animals that need it, and a possible surprise health benefit, too!
What exactly is Mistletoe?
Mistletoe is a seriously fascinating plant. There are over 1,300 species worldwide, 30 of which occur in North America and 20 or more that are endangered across the globe. To get a bit technical, mistletoe is an aerial flowering evergreen perennial, which means you will see it growing in trees rather than on the ground and throughout all four seasons. It's considered a hemiparasitic plant, because although it feeds off of the water and nutrients provided by a host tree or shrub, many species produce their own food through photosynthesis, making them only partially parasitic.
How does it parasitize trees and shrubs?
When a sticky mistletoe seed is either transported by an animal or deposited by a bird onto a limb, it waits for a good rain then gets busy producing a rootlike structure called a haustorium that penetrates the surface of its host. This structure is how it depletes or at least decreases the water and nutrients the host tree or shrub needs.
How can you spot mistletoe?
You can find at least one species in almost every state or province in North America. The best time to see it is in winter because, as mentioned, it is an evergreen and when leaves are absent, you can find these large masses more easily. You're looking for a large round ball of greenery attached to trees (see photo below). If you find these, then you are possibly in the presence of mistletoe! Mistletoe berries may be white as well as pink or red, so you aren't only looking for the all-too-familiar white ones. But remember, no matter what the color, don't snack on them, they may not be toxic to wildlife but are known to be quite toxic to humans.
Who benefits most from mistletoe?
Mistletoe isn't just for kissing (although that's a pretty fun way to use it!), it's a necessity for many mammals, birds, bees, butterflies and other insects as well. Mistletoe is the larval host plant (meaning eggs are laid on the leaves which feed the growing caterpillar) for at least one species of butterfly, the great purple hairstreak. Not only is this the food source for its caterpillars, but the toxicity from leaves passes on to the caterpillar and ultimately the adult and provides some protection from predators. Many other species of insects including one species of twig beetle, several thrips and mites also depend solely on mistletoe for their survival.
Mammals such as cattle, deer, elk, squirrels, chipmunks and porcupines rely on mistletoe leaves or berries, particularly when food sources are scarce in the fall and winter. Many of the smaller mammals also use the witches' broom for nesting and cover.
Numerous bird species benefit greatly from mistletoe because while the plant and its host are both alive, they feed on the sticky berries (this is also how the plant spreads) and use the large mass of vegetation, known as witches' brooms, for nesting sites and cover. To this point, researchers discovered that over 40 percent of spotted owl nests were associated with witches' brooms. Other birds known to use mistletoe for nesting include Cooper's hawks, chickadees, pygmy nuthatches, mourning doves and house wrens. Once the host tree dies, and the mistletoe along with it, many cavity nesting birds and small mammals move in, so the dead host tree creates high quality nesting habitat, which is a huge plus. According to the National Wildlife Federation, forests that have mistletoe may produce three times as many cavity nesting birds as forests lacking mistletoe.
What about people? Is there a benefit for humans other than exchanging kisses?
There certainly seems to be, and possibly an important one. According to Johns Hopkins and the National Cancer Institute, mistletoe is being tested in trials for use in numerous types of cancer treatment. According to Johns Hopkins, mistletoe injections are currently among the most widely used complementary cancer treatments in Europe. That's pretty amazing. One day we could be taking injections of mistletoe in lieu of chemotherapy. See? It is a very interesting plant and clearly not your average holiday greenery!
Happy holidays to everyone, now go kiss someone (with their consent, of course) under this epically cool aerial, hemiparasitic, potentially life-saving, evergreen perennial!
Bats protect us from mosquito-borne diseases, save farmers billions of dollars in pesticides AND give us tequila. What's not to like?
All Photos by: Merlin Tuttle of Merlin Tuttle Bat Conservation
October is the month we celebrate one of our most amazing yet misunderstood animals of the sky, bats. Bats should be celebrated every month of the year for the amazing benefits they selflessly afford us humans - no, seriously. Plus they're just nonthreatening and awesome to have around. Look at these guys, half of them look like your dog and the other half look like Yoda. What's scary here?
Obviously October is bat appreciation month because it's the month people tend think of bats as well as dress up like Dracula (if they have little to no imagination) and give bats an underserved bad name. Hopefully with a little education we can change that.
Maybe asking the obvious questions about why people fear or loathe bats is a good place to start. Let's look at the science and history and stop believing fear mongers who have no basis for believing or spreading misinformation about bats.
1) Do you fear bats because of rabies?
This is an easy one to address because it's a truly unfounded and unsubstantiated fear. Do you remember when your aunt got rabies? No? How about the lady down the street in your neighborhood? No? Your childhood best friend? Do you know anyone who has had rabies, better yet, do you know anyone who knows anyone who has had rabies? No, you don't, because it's so rare in North America that very few people can claim to know a single victim of rabies. Many of us know at least someone connected to 9/11, but almost no one knows a single person who has had or knows anyone who has had rabies. To drive this point home here is an excerpt from the CDC:
"Human rabies cases in the United States are rare, with only 1 to 3 cases reported annually. Twenty-three cases of human rabies have been reported in the United States in the past decade (2008-2017). Eight of these were contracted outside of the U.S. and its territories.
The number of human rabies deaths in the United States attributed to rabies has been steadily declining since the 1970’s thanks to animal control and vaccination programs, successful outreach programs, and the availability of modern rabies biologics. Dog rabies vaccination programs have halted the natural spread of rabies among domestic dogs, which are no longer considered a rabies reservoir in the United States. Nonetheless, each year around 60 to 70 dogs and more than 250 cats are reported rabid. Nearly all these animals were unvaccinated and became infected from rabid wildlife (such as bats, raccoons, and skunks)."
Merlin Tuttle, an ecologist and lifelong bat expert says the only thing you need to know when you are in the vicinity of a bat, particularly a down one, is don't touch it. That doesn't sound very difficult for most people. There's no risk if you've steered clear. Bats do fly occasionally during the day, but that doesn't mean they are rabid. If they are grounded during the day, use extra caution and contact animal control.
2) Do bats freak you out because they fly over your head at night?
Relax and sit back because they are just working the night shift so you can sleep better and stay healthy. They're keeping those nasty mosquito populations down so you don't get sick with Zika, Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE), dengue, chikungunya or yellow fever. They work at night because that's when the insects are out, so yes, they're flying overhead, but they aren't interested in you in the least, just eating the things that make you sick. As if this isn't enough, they are also keeping your food somewhat free of pesticides since farmers rely on bats to eat crop pests. This saves farmers between 3 and 57 billion dollars per year on pesticides because bats do the work for them for free. Thank you, bats.
3) Have you had a bat in your attic and now you can't sleep at night?
Bats don't want to move into your house to freak you out, they're just looking for a place to snooze. If you've had one in your attic or other crawl space, it's likely a young bat trying to figure things out. First, open a window (if you have one) and wait for them to find it and fly out. Once they've gone to forage in the evening, plug the hole (they can get into most holes greater than 1/2"), if that doesn't work, or you don't have a window to open, it is recommended you use a shoebox, a sturdy piece of cardboard and thick leather gloves. Think of how you would remove a spider from your house, similar technique. Bats aren't destructive, they won't rip the siding off your house or chew through wood to get into your attic, they'll move right along if there's no longer an entrance. Problem solved. Just make sure you remove them humanely and safely, because remember, bats are good.
4) Do you think the only good bat is a deceased one?
Well that's seriously too bad, especially if you eat bananas and mangos and drink tequila (probably not at the same time). Bats are not only exterminators of the sky but many are also responsible for exclusively or partially pollinating vital food crops as well as spreading seeds to new areas. The relationship between bats and agave plants is so strong that bat numbers fluctuate with the success of the agave plant. So when bats aren't around to pollinate those agave plants, and tequila is no longer around for those margaritas, we'll all wish we had shown a bit more respect for our friendly neighborhood bats.
Ways You Can Help Bats:
1) Keep dead or dying trees on your property if they don't pose any danger. These are roosting places for bats.
2) Put up bat houses on your property.
3) Stop using pesticides to kill insects, let bats do it for you. You will also be helping bees and butterflies!
4) Keep streams and water sources clean for bats and other wildlife to drink safely
5) Get involved! Find out if there are bat monitoring activities in your state. Some offer summer roost counting while others offer acoustic bat monitoring.
6) Never disturb bats, especially during hibernation. Steer clear of caves and roosts where bats hibernate so you don't stress them out causing them to use up their fat reserves before the winter is over.
7) Safely and humanely remove them from your home should they find a way in. Do as mentioned above and plug that hole so they don't keep revisiting.
So, are you still afraid of one of nature's most useful, harmless, not to mention adorable, animals? Hopefully you'll support bat conservation and pass on good information to others and stopping the cycle of bad bat rumors from continuing to spread.
How many times did Mom tell you to leave things better than you found them? It sounds easy enough, however, actually putting this into practice is a bit more challenging, especially when it comes to single use plastic and our abnormal dependence on it. Our planet doesn't need, nor can it support all of that unnecessary solid waste. Believe it or not, minor lifestyle changes and better choices made today - right now, in fact - WILL impact the planet tremendously and we will be leaving it in better shape than we found it.
Yes, let's DO talk about plastic straws!
If you've been out of the environmental news loop the past year or so, you may not have heard about the movement across North America to stop our excessive use of plastic straws. Most recently, Elizebeth Warren mentioned in a democratic debate that the conversation should not be about single use plastic straws (or lightbulbs or cheeseburgers), but about the amount of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere by fossil fuel companies and others contributing to climate change. Sure, this is a monster issue, but it is also an apples and oranges conversation. Solid waste and air quality issues are, and should remain, separate.
So back to single use plastics and what every one of us can do to help with this crisis. Reducing the total volume of all plastic entering our waterways, clogging our landfills and ending up in our oceans is huge, and focusing on something as easy as straws to remove from the waste stream is perfect. Although straws may not be the biggest plastic issue we face, it has breathed life back into the single use conversation (recall the numerous plastic bag bans and reusable water bottle movement) and people are really thinking about it again. While many have attacked this campaign stating that it doesn't make a huge difference in overall plastic waste that ends up in landfills or the ocean (it does, actually), or that it is a distraction welcomed by the fossil fuel industry, this movement goes beyond any of those opinions and even beyond the endangered sea turtles that need straws removed from their nostrils, and the beach clean-ups that include volunteers picking up trash by the tons, much of it in the form of straws, from of our favorite summer basking or fishing spots. What is truly amazing and different about the straw movement, is the unbelievable attention (and subsequent action) this issue has garnered from the masses. Now people are refusing straws at restaurants, restaurants are replacing plastic straws with paper ones or offering metal or glass straws and so on. States like California (always leading the charge) are only allowing straws to be given to patrons who request them. How would you like to be "that guy"? No thank you! Los Angeles is considering going a step further and banning straws altogether. This is newsworthy and is being covered regularly. SO, do you still think those little plastic tubes you get in every fast food cup or in your complimentary water at a restaurant, or in your coffee to just stir your cream and sugar one time don't make a difference? A simple change in our behavior has sparked a movement, and it is a movement; it's a "thing" and it's amazing. By now many of us have significantly reduced (or eliminated altogether) our use of plastic bags and water bottles, then along comes plastic straws. Just think, those tiny, seemingly inconsequential straws may be a springboard to even more conscientious plastic waste reduction because it is again making us consider the uselessness of single use plastic.
Wildlife photography is a healthy hobby (or career) and is a great way to educate and excite people about the natural world from a safe distance, especially if they never intend to experience a day in the field themselves. The goal is always conservation, and how else do we expect non nature people to want to conserve it if they know nothing about it? That's where wildlife photographers come in. Providing breathtaking images of African and Asian mammals, birds from Costa Rica, or Marine Iguanas from the Galapagos Islands give people an experience they may never have in their lifetime. However, many images we see on people's social media sites were obtained by compromising the very thing we want to encourage people to protect, the animals.
Naturalists and protecters of wildlife (and native plants), have a responsibility to put the well being of the animals and plants we photograph before our desire to get "the money shot." National Geographic published a wonderful article on the subject, and it's truly on point if you've ever witnessed questionable photography ethics. Comment below if you have a story. A few of ours include: witnessing photographers flush birds from their rookeries to get stunning flight photos; watching photographers close in on stressed out snowy owls that have just arrived after an epic migration from the Arctic and are hungry and hypothermic; and knowing some who bait wildlife to get that perfect trail cam photo or video. These photographers are practicing poor ethical behavior. You won't lose Instagram followers if you practice ethical photography, you may even gain a few! According to National Geographic, you are crossing the line if you do not follow the guidelines outlined by their own photographers, which are:
1. Do no harm. This means do not alter habitat (cut branches or clear areas to get a better shot). Do not try and engage an animal to get the photo. Birds are naturally curious and will investigate YOU as well as look into your lens when they hear the shutter click, but if you notice an animal is showing signs of stress that's when you back off and remove yourself from their home. Be even more respectful during breeding and nesting season. This time is critical to animals, and being a distraction or threat can impact their ability to successfully breed.
2. Keep it wild. Feeding animals and getting them used to humans is almost always a death sentence for wild animals. This is where baiting for photos or feeding animals from your vehicle at parks applies. Yellowstone National Park even states that "a fed animal is a dead animal." Enough said. An exception to this rule is obviously bird feeders. However, it is the responsibility of a homeowner to always keep their feeders clean, and the food free from mold and mites to keep birds healthy.
3. Know the laws. Some laws have minimum distances that must be maintained from wildlife. Know the laws of the state and of the park you are visiting before going near wildlife. Using drones is almost always regulated near wildlife areas, so always check before bringing your drone along. National parks began prohibiting the use of drones by visitors in 2014. Some state parks still allow them, but the law varies from state to state.
4. Consider the captive. Avoid game farms where animals are kept in small enclosures or areas for the sole purpose of photography. Plan that trip to go see and photograph animals in their natural habitat. If you see them in the wild you know they are living their best life and not forced into a situation they had no control over. Never support zoos that have questionable practices or mistreat animals. Photographing animals for education that are being rehabilitated or are not able to be released back into the wild due to injury or nuisance issues doesn't cross that ethical line, which is a perfect segue into the last item below.
5. Caption with honesty. Be totally transparent about how your photo was made. If there is a back story, then tell it. If you took the image at a game farm, fess up. If you took the image at a zoo, tell your readers that as well. Telling your readers or Instagram followers how you took the shot and why you chose that particular place and technique will help you keep your ethics in check.
Wildlife photography ethics are tricky in some cases, but if you let your conscience be your guide and think about the time of year, watch for signs of stress that your presence may be causing and carefully consider where and how you are photographing an animal, you'll be fine and you will still get that money shot while sleeping a little better at night!
Above are images of a species of turtle, an aquatic aquarium plant, an everyday goldfish (photo courtesy of Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper) that were, and continue to be, released into the wild. These species are now considered invasive and have become serious environmental threats to the waterbodies they inhabit. Sadly, all of these careless releases and the damage they have caused could easily have been avoided.
The first is a red-eared slider. This invasive freshwater turtle now has a place on the world's top 100 worst invasive species list. Even though it is native to the Mississippi River Basin, it becomes a nuisance outside of its home range. It is now found in ponds, lakes, rivers, streams and manmade ditches in many states where it outcompetes native turtles for food, nesting habitat and basking sites. This invasion could have been avoided if pet owners had donated their unwanted sliders to someone willing to take care of them or surrendered them to the pet store where they were originally purchased. Unfortunately, red-eared slider sales surged because of a trend (which is never a good thing, think bunnies at Easter) when they became a must-have pet in the 80s and 90s due to the popular Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Franchise. The original comic book turtles were all red-eared sliders. This led to many purchases and subsequently many releases of these turtles.
The second is Brazilian elodea, a familiar plant purchased for many aquariums because it is considered a good oxygenator. In its native home of Brazil, this plant grows normally since it is obviously kept in check, however, when dumped into a lake or pond in North America, it becomes incredibly invasive. Just a single, small fragment can form a new plant and ultimately take over an entire waterbody. It can outcompete local species and form dense mats, as seen above, making it impossible for other plant species to grow and difficult for fish to find food. Brazilian elodea is spread between waterbodies mainly by boat propellers and fishing gear. Never flush plants down the toilet, as they can be released via city sewer systems, always compost them far from a waterbody.
The third is a typical goldfish from east Asia that you buy at a pet store or win at a carnival. When kept in a tank, goldfish, which are part of the carp family, will usually stay around two inches long. When released into the wild they can grow up to 15 inches since they are typically limited by their container size and quality of water they are living in. Ponds and lakes are very big containers with better water quality than a non oxygenated fishbowl. Most recently, a 14 inch goldfish was reported in the Niagara River and posted by Niagara Waterkeeper. Flushing a two inch goldfish may seem harmless, but if you live in an area with a public sewer then you run the risk of causing serious environmental damage by releasing that fish. When Gill from Finding Nemo said, "All drains lead to the ocean, kid," he wasn't too far off!
Goldfish, and other non native aquarium fish, outcompete native species, displacing them and removing vital food sources for other animals in a waterbody. They breed quickly and are very difficult to manage once established. Scientists are now estimating that there are tens of millions of goldfish in the Great Lakes.
Goldfish will be included in the next update of Lakes SOS.
Please help preserve our natural communities by surrendering your fish or turtle to a pet store and composting any unwanted aquarium plants.
On the heels of Pollinator Week, it seems appropriate to celebrate another important member of the arthropod family, arachnids. These are our eight legged friends that often find themselves flushed down, stomped on, shrieked at and generally disrespected. It's difficult to change the mind of someone afraid of spiders, those fears run deep, but they really are unfounded. If we learn more about spiders and can look past the furry body and all of those legs to appreciate their usefulness. Maybe we can even try capturing them and setting them free or even letting them live where they're happiest and well-fed (which, sorry, may be indoors), rather than exterminating them. The thought of spiders may give you the creeps, the willies or an epic shudder, but believe it or not, a spider inside is not a bad thing! For example, did you know that spiders eat many household pests like cockroaches, earwigs, flies, moths and disease carrying mosquitoes? Those are bugs that live in your house and do feed on you, your kids and your pets. While you sleep, they may be preventing you from getting diseases. Spiders also help farmers' crops by feeding on damaging insects like aphids and destructive caterpillars. So they can prevent diseases, assist farmers with crops, spin intricate, stunningly beautiful webs and are beautiful if you lean in and take a closer look. Don't forget spiders also provide a food source for birds and other insectivores. They're sounding better already, aren't they? We should be putting them on the payroll, not squashing them!
Since we humans aren't a preferred food source, they rarely attack us. Very few are deadly or even toxic to us. So when you see that itsy bitsy spider climbing up the water spout, let it climb on and live its best life while protecting you from the true nasty critters lurking in your home or garden.
Below are several very busy honey bees. What pollinators are in your garden or back yard? If you want to celebrate pollinators this week as well as protect them, always choose native flowering plants, shrubs and trees over exotic species. If a plant’s label says insect resistant, that’s a bad thing! And remember to never use pesticides of any kind in your garden or yard.
If you’re looking for an awesome read this summer, grab a copy of Douglas Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home. You’ll be visiting your local nursery and requesting natives, ASAP!