Countryside: July 2023

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Bluebirds are targets for snakes, raccoons, cats, large mammals, insects, and other birds. Some of the boxes at Mint Springs Park have been moved because of too much interest from bears. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

Local Fans Identify New Threat to Bluebirds

Diane LaSauce, a longtime member of the Virginia Bluebird Society, has been busy for more than a month monitoring the bluebird box at her Free Union home. First, a hostile male bluebird killed the female’s partner, leaving her to incubate the four eggs and find food for the nestlings by herself. LaSauce has helped her out with some well-placed mealworms. Later, a check of the nest revealed that blowflies––always a threat to nestlings––had invaded the bluebird box and were growing bloated with blood from the young, vulnerable birds. “It’s been a hectic time,” LaSauce said. She cleaned them out and replaced the babies in a clean, parasite-free nest.

LaSauce had anticipated many of the threats to the birds, with several guards designed to foil raccoons, snakes, cats and squirrels. The Bluebird Society has now identified another threat to the life and health of bluebirds: the growing number of unused newspaper boxes. According to the society, if you’ve gone digital, or if your daily newspaper has switched to mail delivery, this empty box is attractive to those peddling unwanted flyers and junk mail. The space is also attractive to native cavity nesting birds, especially bluebirds. It’s not usually a problem for those receiving a physical newspaper every day, because the box is checked often.

A bluebird pair perches at Lickinghole Creek. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

For those with a box but no regular delivery, many things can happen and “most of them are not good,” the society warns. The eggs or chicks could be pushed out on to the ground, or––if too much junk is shoved into the box––the eggs or chicks can be crushed, or the parents may be blocked from getting back to the chicks to feed them. Ann Dunn is the Albemarle County coordinator for the society and checks often with the bluebird monitors throughout the county. “We’ve seen instances of that recently in the county,” she said. “With some bluebirds still nesting, and a few about to build their third nest, this could be disastrous for them.”

The Virginia Bluebird Society recommends that if you pre-stuff most of your paper box with newspaper it will prevent the bluebirds from nesting, while also potentially keeping the junk mail out. 

There’s another bluebird hazard specific to Crozet, Dunn said. “We’ve had to move some boxes out of Mint Springs Park. The bears have discovered them.”

Bluebird monitor Diane LaSauce guards her home bluebird box with both a snake and squirrel guard and a wire mesh door guard. Photo: Diane LaSauce

Meanwhile, the best thing bird-lovers can do in their own yards, if they’ve seen bluebirds trying to nest in the paper box, is to install a nest box as an alternative, ideally in early fall. There are plans and a link to a tutorial on the Virginia Bluebird Society website at virginiabluebirds.org.

LaSauce added a snake guard to the post, and a woven wire extension called a Noel guard, to her box. “Not only does the Noel guard prevent raccoons and other critters from reaching in from the top,” she said, “but it gives the fledglings a place to perch while they contemplate their first flight. It’s fun to watch them.”

New Guide Identifies Local Poisonous and Venomous Animals 

The Cleopatra Project is about the poisonous and venomous animals that slither, creep, or fly in Virginia, and are the most dangerous to humans. The authors––the same folks who published The Hemlock Project in 2020––make a distinction between those with a sting or bite that might be annoying and painful, but not a serious threat to health, and those that are most often encountered by humans, frequently landing them in poison control centers and emergency rooms. In fact, the poison control center at UVa is a contributor to this book, as it was for Hemlock. The authors point out that there are many more thousands of encounters that go unreported. The Cleopatra Team includes Virginia Master Naturalist Alfred Goossens, project managers Kathleen N. Aucoin and Bonnie Beers, and editor Margaret Clifton.

The Cleopatra Project is a Central Viriginia Guide to poisonous and venomous animals. Artwork by Trish Crowe.

Most of us are familiar with Cleopatra’s intentional interaction with the asp, a kind of Egyptian cobra, and we’ve been taught to watch for snakes in rock walls, open fields, woods and wood piles, but each year hundreds of exposures to other poisonous and venomous animals are reported to the University of Virginia Health’s Blue Ridge Poison Center in Charlottesville and other poison centers in Virginia. 

The authors urge us to consider that the purpose of poison and venom in living creatures is not primarily to injure us, but to help them capture prey and discourage or disable predators. With prior knowledge, we can figure out ways to avoid them. They note that, regardless of our aversion to the pain they might cause, poisonous and venomous animals are beneficial to mankind. One example is the honeybee: there’d be little life without it. “Without stingers,” the authors said, “it would be more dangerous for bees to forage in the daytime, and therefore more difficult for them to pollinate our flowers and food crops.” 

Beers, one of the project managers, elaborated in an email. “In general, these animals provide important ecological functions: for instance, as pollinators; as important food sources for many other animals; as contributors to eco-balance by controlling many species like insects and small mammals, which might otherwise overpopulate and cause damage to human interests by destroying crops; and as sources for medically important chemicals.”

The percentage of animal species that’s poisonous or venomous is very small, but includes many different kinds of animals in addition to those familiar to us as painful to encounter. The group includes jellyfish, primates, rodents, and amphibians as well as spiders, snakes, and scorpions. One surprise is the short-tailed northern shrew, the only venomous mammal in this country. 

One of the few venomous mammals is the northern short-tailed shrew, which delivers venom through its sharp front teeth, resulting in pain and swelling, but not requiring medical intervention.

Not only the animals, but the toxins themselves, vary widely. They’re categorized as poison or venom according to how they’re delivered: poison enters through the skin, while venom is dispensed from a specific body part designed for that purpose. Venom can include secondary compounds that help its spread by increasing the heart rate or causing inflammation.  

We know that snake venom has been used in medicine, but most of the chemical compounds in animal toxins have not been researched. The authors warn us that failing to protect these animals, or to damage their habitats, will deprive of us possible benefits. Virginia Master Naturalist Heather Dionne, who wrote the excellent introduction to Cleopatra, concluded by saying “…by understanding more about them we can dispel our fears and learn to live together safely, to ensure their survival and ours.”

Download your free copy of the Cleopatra Project here: med.virginia.edu/brpc/wp-content/uploads/sites/274/2023/02/CLEOPATRA-PROJECT.pdf.

Central Virginia Farmers Welcome Rain, Steady Cattle Prices

As of June 24, central Virginia experienced 2 to 4 inches of rain, with an estimated additional inch in the week ending June 30. A high percentage of farmers polled by the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) reported adequate moisture in their topsoil and subsoil. Less popular was the way the rain affected farm chores: NASS estimated there were only a few days where fieldwork was possible. Farmers are still planting soybeans, but most other crops are in the ground. 

Shenandoah Valley and Blue Ridge cattle farmers are still enjoying higher prices than the national average. Small and medium-sized steers and heifers are still the top earners: that’s because the lighter-weight cattle will quickly fatten up. In the most recent auction at Staunton Union Stockyard, the highest earners were steers 300 to 600 pounds (the top lot of five was $268 per hundred weight), and heifers between 400 and 500 pounds, earning $227 per hundred weight. These prices are $6 to $20 per hundred weight more than the average in Virginia and as much as $40 per hundred weight more than the national average. Union Stockyard Manager Travis Funkhouser attributes this the superior quality of our regional beef cattle. 

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