Bee-eater (family Meropidae)

I get so excited when it’s time for me to write a post about birds. I think in part it’s because I’ve always loved birds, but mostly it’s because so many of them are bright and beautiful (and yes, fun to draw). Today’s birds, the bee-eaters, are prime examples.

There are 27 species of bee-eater, which comprise the family Meropidae. Almost all species of bee-eaters are found in Africa or Asia, though the odd species lives in Europe, Australia or New Guinea. Bee-eaters live in a wide variety of habitats; they aren’t particularly picky. All they need to be happy is a nice high perch and lovely soft ground in which to dig burrows. Forests tend to be great habitats for bee-eaters, and a a few species are quite attached to their rainforest habitat.

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Bee-eaters are a very brightly coloured family of birds. Most species have some kind of green plumage, though a few are primarily red and some have no green on them at all. Bee-eater feathers can be green, red, blue, brown black, yellow… if you think of a colour, there’s probably be a species of bee-eater that has some of that colour on it. Unusually for birds, there seems to be little difference between male and female colouration. In some species the eyes of males are bright red, while they are brown-red in females (a drastic difference, I know), and the tails of males may be longer. There may be more to these birds than meets the human eye, however: male blue-tailed bee-eaters were more colourful than females when they were viewed under UV light. So sexual dimorphism may still occur in bee-eaters, it might just be in a part of the spectrum that we cannot see.

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A blue-bearded bee-eater. Image credit: Jason Thompson via Wikipedia

Bee-eaters are very social birds, with many species forming colonies during the breeding season. Two species, the red-throated bee-eater and the white-fronted bee eater, are extremely social — their social structures are thought to be more complex than any other species of bird. They live in colonies built into nests on cliffs, and are further divided into social units called clans, family units and breeding pairs. Clans are composed of several breeding pairs, helper birds (the male offspring from the previous year), and the current year’s offspring. After a morning period in which the colony sits in the sun, preen themselves, and socialize, the colony splits into clans to forage. Each clan has its own territory, and they will aggressively defined their territory against other clans.

If you guessed that that bee-eaters eat bees, then you are super smart and should get a prize! Between 20 and 96% of a bee-eater’s diet can be made up of bees and wasps. But though bee-eaters prefer to consume buzzing pollinators, they don’t exclusively prey on bees. They will also eat a variety of other insects, including beetles, flies, cicadas, termites, crickets, grasshoppers, moths, and more.

Bee-eaters will sometimes catch food on the wing, but more often sit on perches and watch for prey. Carmine bird-eaters have a special way of getting food: they ride on the backs of kori bustards and snap up any insects disturbed by the bustard while it walks around. Bee-eaters’ eyesight is pretty good; they can spot a bee flying around from 60 to 100 meters away. If a prey item is too big for a bee-eater to swallow in flight, the bird will take its meal pack to its perch and then beat it to death. Insects with stingers are more dangerous, so bee-eaters smack them to death on the branch, and then rub the body of the insect to discharge its venom sac.

Courtship in bee-eaters is not very exciting; most species simply call a bit and fluff their feathers up. The white-throated bee-eater does actually have a more prolonged courtship; two birds will fly together in a ‘butterfly display’ before perching together and calling at one another. Bee-eaters do practice courtship feeding, in which males bring their consorts food items during the breeding season. Bee-eaters are monogamous, with sedentary bird pairings lasting from year to year, and migratory birds generally finding new mates each year.

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An example of courtship feeding in blue-throated bee-eaters. Image credit: Lip Kee Yap via Wikipedia

All species of bee-eaters nest in cavities that are dug into the ground or into soft earthen cliffs. Both males and females dig the nests, and sometimes the birds start digging several holes before completing one. Digging takes a long time, sometimes as much as twenty days, and the nests are not reused from season to season (seems pretty wasteful to me). Females lay one egg a day, for a total of around five eggs. The eggs hatch in about 20 days, and stay in the nest for about a month. Both adults and chicks defecate in the nests, making them very gross by the time the young are ready to emerge. Perhaps that’s why the birds don’t reuse their nests…

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A drawing of a European bee-eater I did using coloured pencils. 

Thankfully, no species of bee-eater is currently classified as vulnerable or threatened. Despite being affected by habitat loss (especially nest destruction from trampling and river bank damage), bee-eater numbers remain strong, which is great news!

Cover image credit: Bernard Dupont via Wikipedia

Mole (family Talpidae)

Due to a long flight, lack of sleep, and an re-injured cracked rib, I could not write a post today. So we have the pleasure of having a guest post, enjoy!

This blog is full of surprising and fun facts about the common mole. For example, I thought the scientific name for moles was Molus fukkus lawnia, but in fact moles belong to the family Talidae. But there’s more.

Moles are common, everyday creatures, but they are clothed in mystery, because who has ever actually seen one? No one, other than top researchers, because they live under the ground. How cool is that?

There are no fewer than seven North American species of moles. For those attending a trivia night in the near future, they are the eastern mole (Scalopus aquaticus), hairy-tailed mole (Parascalops breweri), star-nosed mole (Condylura cristata), broad-footed mole (Scapanus latimanus), Townsend’s mole (Scapanus townsendii), coast mole (Scapanus orarius) and shrew mole (Neurotrichus gibbsii).

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An eastern mole, looking very mole-like. Image credit: Kenneth Catania via Wikipedia

Moles are not rodents, and presumably would be insulted if you said otherwise. They are in fact related to shrews and bats, and should not be confused with meadow mice (voles), shrews or gophers.

Here are some mole facts.  They have a pointed snout, tiny eyes and no visible ears.  Furry, rotund and almost always out of sight, European moles are about 14 to 20 centimeters long, including a 2 to 4 cm tail, and weigh between 70 and 130 grams. Naturally, North American moles are slightly larger – everything is bigger in North America. Males are larger than females.

Moles are built to dig, and their most distinctive characteristics relate to their adaptation to an underground existence. For example, a unique hemoglobin protein allows moles to tolerate higher levels of carbon dioxide than other mammals, and their ability to reuse oxygen inhaled above ground allows them to survive in their low-oxygen underground burrows.

But you’ve have to be a bloodologist to know that – much more evident are the enormous forefeet of the mole, which are broad and have palms wider than they are long. Moles’ toes are webbed and their wide claws are made for digging. In contrast, their hind feet are small and narrow, with smaller, sharp claws.

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A mole paw, specially designed for digging. Image credit: Didier Decouens via Wikipedia

Not surprisingly, moles are blind or nearly blind, but are compensated by having a highly developed sense of smell. “Highly developed” may not do the mole justice – moles smell in stereo, so moles can detect where a particular odor is coming from, because each nostril will register a slightly different scent. This allows them to find their prey, which consists of earthworms, grubs and all the other tasty treats under your lawn. This sounds innocuous, but moles are actually voracious predators that eat close to their weight every day. Moles come by their insatiable appetites honestly – digging constantly takes a great deal of energy and, just as birds eat constantly so they can fly, moles eat constantly so they can dig. The main difference is that moles have not inspired us to build digging machines so we can soar under the ground.

No discussion of the moles’ eating habits would be complete without mentioning that moles use their saliva, which contains a toxin, to paralyze earthworms so they can be taken back to the mole’s den to be killed and eaten (not necessarily in that order) later on. Researchers have found mole larders that have contained more than a thousand earthworms. Nature red in tooth and claw…

A graphic description of the sex life of the topic animal is required for this blog, but moles are a disappointment in this area. Moles breed once a year, with the boar searching for sows by means of emitting high-pitched squeals while they tunnel through new areas, outside their normal range. Once this goal is successfully accomplished and copulation takes place in a darkened area, gestation is a month or so and 2 to 5 pups emerge into the world.  In another month or two, the pups are old enough to leave the nest and find their own territories.

The social life of the mole is perhaps more interesting than its love life. In addition to being hardened killers at meal times, which means almost all the time, moles are the disturbed loners of the mammal world. You might picture thriving rabbit-like warrens full of moles, happily competing in digging races, but in fact moles are solitary creatures who enjoy the company of others only if they can eat them.

Each individual mole has a territory, which it may fight to the death to defend, and because of their massive appetites, it is unusual to find more than two or three moles per acre. The infestation of mole hills in your neighbour’s perfect lawn doesn’t reflect an infestation of moles – they almost certainly were all made by the same, single, mole. However, some scientists speculate that moles may not be quite as anti-social as generally believed, and that several moles may use the same tunnels which act as a type of highway.

But the common picture of vast mole civilizations based on one gigantic underground economy is false. It’s true that moles never pay any taxes, but it isn’t their underground economy that’s responsible – it’s the solitary nature of moles. There are no mole civilizations. Moles find food, eat, find more food, eat some more, and now and then mate to produce more moles, and that’s about it – except for the tunnels.

Moles create dens, which might be thought of as their home base. These are at 12 to 20 cm or more below the surface of the ground. Moles dig tunnels, known as runways, from their dens. These deeper tunnels radiate in all directions, and are more or less permanent. Shallower, temporary “feeding tunnels” reflect the moles’ quest for food – in wet weather, the ridges from these tunnels can be seen; in dry weather, they are 3 or 4 cm below the surface, as the earthworms moles love prefer moist soil.

While moles create their dens in dry spots, their preferred hunting ground is moist, damp soil with high populations of worms and other delectables. Hence the mole’s affinity for parks and lawns – they aren’t just trying to annoy us. But wet forests are just as good from the mole’s point of view.

Yet another myth about moles should be dispelled – it is not true that Darwin’s last scientific book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observations on their Habits (“Worms”) was originally to be about moles, but was changed at the last minute at the insistence of his publisher. Moles do not improve the soil in the same manner as earthworms – at most they keep the population of earthworms in check by eating them.

To sum up, moles seem to be nasty, annoying little bastards that have few redeeming qualities. Except one – they are so well adapted to their environment that once again we have to stand back and marvel at the wonder of it all. And moles are not endangered – check your lawn if you have any doubts.

Hairless Bat (Cheiromeles torquatus)

Bats are cute, furry creatures that I’ve always liked and admired. Still, in a large order of animals like the bats, there are always going to be a few that are weird and… less cute. Maybe even ugly. Today’s animal, at least to me, falls in that category. But you can judge for yourself.

Hairless bats live in Southeast Asia and Oceania; in Malaysia, Sumatra, Java, Borneo, the Philippines and Thailand. They roost mainly in caves or hollow trees. They are found in lowland areas, and roost in large colonies. In some parts of its range, the hairless bat is quite uncommon, while in others it is considered a pest.

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A hairless bat showing off its hairless body. Image source

Hairless bats have a body length of 13 – 14.5 cm, with an additional 5.6 – 7.1 cm coming from the tail. They have black skin that is thick and is all wrinkly and weird looking. These bats have pouches along both sides of their bodies, which open towards the back ends of the bats. They can tuck their wings into these pouches, which then allows the bats to crawl around on four feet without impediment.

The most obvious feature of hairless bats is their lack of fur. They aren’t completely hairless, though, as they have hair in some odd spots on their body. A patch of hair covers the bats’ throat pouches, from which a strongly scented secretion is exuded. Another strange spot for hair is the bats’ first toes on each hind foot — these are covered in bristle-like hairs, and have flat nails instead of claws. These toes are believed to be used for grooming.

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A close up of a bat’s bulldog-like head. Image source

Hairless bats are insectivorous, and usually hunt in the early evening. Because of their relatively large size, hairless bats have less to fear from predators, and so can leave their roosts earlier than other bats, getting the best choice of food. They generally hunt over streams or clearings, eating termites and other insects.

Hairless bats are also known as naked bulldog bats, because their heads look a bit like bulldogs. As I said, I don’t really find them that cute (I’m not a huge fan of bulldogs). Still, some people might find these guys adorable, you never know.

Eastern Narrow-mouthed Toad

It must be a hard thing, to name an animal. Years after you’ve named it, people who write blogs will criticize the name you chose, and changes in classification will often mean the name you picked is now wrong. Such is the case of today’s animal, the narrow-mouthed toad. For this species isn’t really a toad, and there isn’t much of an explanation as to why it’s called narrow-mouthed, other than that it has a pointy snout.

Eastern narrow-mouthed toads live in the U.S., in the southeastern part of the country. They are extremely flexible creatures, and are able to survive in an area as long as they have shelter and moisture. They are found in a wide range of habitats, including swamps, forests, streams, and under sandy moist suburban lawns.

These toads don’t get overly large, only reaching lengths of 5.3 cm. They can be a number of different colours, from brown to green to grey, with black and white spotting. Narrow-mouthed toads can change colour based on their environment and movement. Telling the difference between males and females of this species is fairly easy; male toads have darkly coloured throats, while females don’t. They lack webbing between their toes, but do a have tubercle on their back heels which is used to dig burrows.

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A sandy-looking narrow-mouthed toad. Image source: Wikipedia

Narrow-mouthed toads are insect eaters, preying on beetles, termites and ants. Ants are their primary food source, and they will sometimes sit right at the openings of anthills to gobble up any unfortunate ant that wanders into the open. The toads have some adaptations that protect them against any aggressive, stinging ants they choose to eat. They have extremely tough skin, and flaps of skin behind their eyes that fold forward to dislodge any attacking ants. The toads also can secrete a mucus that contains membrane-irritating toxins. This not only protects the narrow-mouthed toads from ants, but also helps ward off predators.

Breeding season in narrow-mouthed toads is triggered by strong rains, which usually occur between April and October in the south, and in midsummer in the northern part of their range. Males call to females with a high-pitched sheep-like sound, which I guess the females find alluring. Once a female comes to a male, the male grabs the female and mates with her. He secretes a special goo that makes him stick to the female, which helps him stay on in case other males try and remove him.

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Eastern narrow-mouthed toad eggs, floating in some water. Image source: Wikipedia

Females lay their eggs on the water’s surface, in clusters of 10-150, for a total of around 800 eggs. These hatch within three days, and metamorphose into adults in 23-67 days. They have unusual feeding habits for frog tadpoles, in that they are filter feeders, living on plankton in the water. Tadpoles are vulnerable to predators, but the older ones are toxic, making them a bit of a dangerous snack.

Though narrow-mouthed toads are not often seen, because they burrow and are nocturnal, they are actually quite common. Thanks to their ability to survive in a variety of habitats, these guys are likely to stay abundant for a long while.

Cover image source

Northern Short-Tailed Shrew (Blarina brevicauda)

Shrews are a very, very strange group of animals. I will do a post on shrews in general in the future, just because there are many odd facts about them. But today I’d like to focus on one particular shrew.  The northern short-tailed shrew has the distinction of being of being one of the few venomous mammals in the world.

There are three confirmed species of venomous shrews: the northern short-tail, the Mediterranean water shrew, and the Eurasian water shrew. I’m going to write about the short-tailed shrew, because it lives in North America, and I had no idea a venomous mammal lives so close to me. Northern short-tails range from Saskatchewan to the Atlantic coast, and down to Georgia and Nebraska in the south. They are very adaptable animals, living in a variety of habitats from woodlands to bogs to fields and gardens.

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Look at how fuzzy and soft that coat is! Image credit: Gilles Gonthier via Wikipedia

Short-tailed shrews grow to be between 7.5 cm and 10.5 cm long, with tail length between one and three centimetres. Males are slightly bigger than females, but otherwise there is little sexual dimorphism. Northern short-tailed shrews have pretty, velvety grey fur, which lightens slightly in the summer. They have short snouts (for shrews) and tiny ears that can’t be seen through the shrews’ fur.

All shrews have incredible appetites, and the northern short-tail is no exception. These little guys can eat three times their body weight each day. Though they mostly eat insects, these shrews will also eat small animals, including snakes, frogs, mice, birds, and other shrews. There are two theories as to why short-tails possess venom. The first is that the venom allows the shrews to store their prey in a comatose state, thus providing them with ready meals in harsh times. Another argument suggests that the venom allows shrews to capture larger prey than they would otherwise be able to tackle. It’s probably a bit of both.

As nocturnal and semi-fossorial (burrowing) animals, shrews have little need of a developed sense of sight. Instead, they use their whiskers and snout to feel their way around, as well as using echolocation to navigate. They are also believed to have a poor sense of smell, which makes the distinctive odour they cover themselves in all the more perplexing. One thought is that this smelly substance (which also tastes nasty) is a deterrent to any predator that might think a shrew would make a good meal.

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Most people don’t like shrews, but I think they’re pretty cute! Image credit: Gilles Gonthier via Flickr

Reproduction in northern short-tailed shrews occurs at an impressive rate. Gestation lasts just over three weeks, with the female giving birth to six to eight young per litter. She doesn’t spend much time with them, as they are weaned after only 25 days. The mother can then go on to have more litters, sometimes having three in a single year. The young mature extraordinarily quickly, reaching sexual maturity in two to three months. Those born early in the year will sometimes have a litter of their own in the same breeding season as when they were born.

As you might imagine with such an explosive reproductive rate, northern short-tailed shrews are very common and are doing quite well. Though many don’t survive until adulthood, I think they compensate for this by popping out as many babies as they can. Not a bad strategy, it seems!