Wildlife in the Arboretum

Summer Wildlife Visitors

Summer brings many interesting wildlife visitors to our gardens, but not all of them are always welcome, unless you’re a wildlife biologist, like me. Here’s two good reasons for not putting food for your dog or cat outside:

Young Skunk

[Photo: This young skunk was looking for food and fell down into a deep window well and was stranded for a day until the owner realized where the smell was originating! The young animal was captured in a live trap, covered with a towel to prevent spraying, and then safely released in an appropriate habitat.]

Young Raccoon

[Photo: This young raccoon on a patio doorstep also shows why you shouldn’t leave food for cats and dogs outside, particularly during mid summer when young animals are dispersing and trying to find food on their own.]

Cherry Thieves: Don't Just Blame the Robins


It’s that time in summer when people with fruit trees, particularly those with cherry trees, begin to think about protecting them from marauding birds. There is no doubt that American Robins, Cedar Waxwings, and other fruit-loving birds can sometimes get more than their fair share of cherries if the trees aren’t covered with bird netting. However, don’t be too quick to blame these beautiful cherry thieves alone. Others may be involved.

I recently came home to look out my kitchen window at the little cherry tree by our fence only to see a Black-billed Magpie grabbing one ripe cherry right after another. Magpies are omnivorous, meaning they eat a wide variety of animal and plant food, including insects, carrion, eggs and young of other nesting birds, but also to a much lesser extent, seeds, nuts, and fruits.

Magpie on Fence

Many people in Pullman don’t like magpies because of their loud calls, particularly early in the morning and especially in summer when the newly fledged young are following parents around and begging them loudly or food. However, except for when they wake me up, I find them quite interesting because of their social behavior and high intelligence.

Magpies are well known for stashing or hiding food so that they may recover it for later use when they are hungry, generally in a few days. So if you throw out some scraps of bread or other food to watch them feed in your yard, you may see some well-fed birds carry food off for a little ways and stuff it under grass or leaves.

But anyway, don’t always blame the robins or waxwings for your disappearing cherries. They certainly take their share. But in Pullman, there are plenty of crafty fruit thieves at work. However, bird netting is cheap, easy to drape over smaller trees, and is effective in preventing birds from getting all of your fruit.

Endangered Frogs at WSU

Leopard Frog

Northern Leopard Frogs (Rana pipiens)

Much like global climate change, the rapidly increasing number of endangered species in the world is an unfortunate consequence of burgeoning human populations and intensive modification or loss of critical habitats. Scientists are increasingly worried about declining amphibian populations, including those in Washington State.

The northern leopard frog is one such species and it has been declared state-endangered in Washington. Although the northern leopard frog has a large distributional range in North America, populations in the western United States have been declining or disappearing at a rapid rate.

The specific reasons for these declining populations are unknown and a number of interacting factors suggest that there could be more than one single cause. Climate change, increased UV radiation, pesticide contamination, wetland loss, introduced predators such as bullfrogs (Lithobates catesbianus; formerly Rana catesbeiana) or sport fish, and emerging diseases, such as chytrid fungus (see: chytridiomycosis fact sheet), are all among the potential contributors to amphibian declines in different regions.

In Washington, leopard frogs originally occurred in wetland systems along the Columbia River and its major tributaries (see: N. Leopard Frog Status Report). However, now they appear to be locally extinct everywhere in the state, except for populations in wetlands bordering Moses Lake in central Washington.

Several years ago, one of my graduate students, Scott Leach, began a project with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to try and determine what environmental factors in different wetlands around Moses Lake were associated with successful or unsuccessful leopard frog populations. We also began what we hoped would become a captive breeding program by raising about 30 leopard frog tadpoles.

Now another graduate student, Erim Gomez, will be working with me in the endangered species lab at WSU to try and breed the now-mature adults that are entering their second breeding season. Northern leopard frogs commonly don't breed their first year, but must grow and become large enough to build sufficient body resources to enable them to reproduce. Consequently, we're hoping that these captive-reared frogs are large enough this spring and that they will find the constructed ponds we make for them suitable for mating and laying egg masses.

Frogs in the Arboretum

What do frogs have to do with an arboretum? Plenty if its the WSU Arboretum and Botanical Gardens. One of our educational and research goals is to support a better understanding of the ecological and environmental factors that may help conserve all biological diversity - both plant and animal.

Constructed ponds and wetlands, ranging from simple patio ponds to naturalized or restored wetlands, are often one of the central features of gardens, yards, and botanical gardens around the world. The WSU Arboretum has a small constructed pond as well as a small stream and vernal (seasonal) ponds that support several amphibian species (frogs and salamanders).

Washington State University is credited with once being a historical location for northern leopard frogs, however, we suspect that this occurrence came about by laboratory or other specimens that were released into ponds on campus. Amphibian surveys completed about three years ago failed to locate any leopard frogs and the prevalence of large released goldfish and other fish in these campus wetlands makes it unlikely that any leopard frogs still exist there.

Consequently, the only leopard frogs in the area are likely those in the endangered species lab at WSU and we hope to be able to breed them in captivity so that egg masses and tadpoles can be reintroduced into suitable wetlands to study the reintroduction process, their population ecology, and help determine methods for conserving amphibians in Washington.

One of the ways that biologists survey amphibians is to listen for their mating calls in spring. If you would like to hear what a bullfrog sounds like when calling in spring, visit this site. By comparison, visit the following National Geographic site and click on the multimedia link to hear what a northern leopard frog sounds like.

Contact the Arboretum if you would like more information on amphibian conservation in the Arboretum and at Washington State University. But whatever you do, please don't release captive bullfrogs into local ponds. They can become a devastating predator on other amphibian species. And also, please don't release unwanted goldfish into ponds. Their populations increase rapidly and soon overwhelm the food resources in ponds or wetlands and greatly reduce the capacity of any wetland to support other aquatic life.

R. Sayler

Moose on the Loose!


Even though the land for the WSU Arboretum and Botanical Gardens was only established in January, 2008, the 95-acre landscape harbors enough habitat to host some surprising wildlife visitors. This winter, we were pleased to see a moose (Alces alces) spend a month or more in the area, sometimes wandering through the Experimental Forest and other tree plantings in the Arboretum.

The heavy snowfall this winter probably drove some moose down from nearby Moscow Mountain and out into what historically would have been Palouse Prairie grasslands around the farmland and city of Pullman, Washington. While our colleagues in the WSU Tukey Orchard are none too happy to see a moose browsing on their fruit trees, the tree plantings on the Arboretum site and the adjacent Steffen Center are able to withstand a little moose taste-testing without too much damage.

Either one very adventurous moose, or more likely, a number of different moose were seen around the Pullman area this winter. Once every few years, a moose decides to come down from Moscow Mountain and visit the Arboretum site. About six years ago, a cow and her calf spent part of the winter resting in tree-covered slopes in the Arboretum. Ever since then, we've wondered if the occasional young moose visiting in winter is one of her calves.

Moose Warning Sign
Warning: Now that spring has arrived, moose will head back into the woods around Moscow, Idaho. However, if you happen to see one of these large, magificant animals around Pullman or the Arboretum, please do not approach them. Moose can be aggressive and dangerous, especially if they feel threatened by your approach or if a cow has a calf to protect. So stay away, and please note, that the above, greatly enlarged photo of the moose on the edge of the Arboretum was taken with a 12X telephoto lens from the safety of a vehicle on a road.

Snipe Hunting in the Arboretum

Wilsons Snipe

The newly-established WSU Arboretum and Botanical Gardens recorded an unusual winter visitor in January, 2008. One cold winter morning, students and faculty were surprised to see a Wilson's Snipe (Gallinago delicata) probing for invertebrates in a small puddle on the snow-covered lawn of the E.H. Steffen Center, which borders the WSU Arboretum. A shorebird was the last thing people expected to see on a winter landscape completely buried under deep layers of snow.

However, a leaking water pipe formed a shallow wetland area on the lawn and created perfect conditions for a Wilson's Snipe, which probably found the pond by flying along the tiny creek that runs through the edge of the Arboretum. True to its nature, the snipe was almost impossible to see by people driving by, unless it happened to be standing next to the snow bank on the lawn.

The Wilson's Snipe of North America is closely related to the Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago) of Iceland, northern Europe, and Russia, and until relatively recently it was considered to be a subspecies of the Common Snipe.

Snipe Hunting

"This well camouflaged bird is usually shy and conceals itself close to ground vegetation and flushes only when approached closely. They fly off in a series of aerial zig-zags to confuse predators. Snipe hunters, therefore, needed to be very skilled to hunt these birds and they came to be called snipers - a term later adopted by the military." (Quote about Common Snipe. Source: Wikipedia - Wilson's Snipe; Common Snipe).

Listen to a Winnowing Snipe

Unfortunately, most people probably have not spent enough time by marshes and wetlands in spring and heard the winnowing of male snipe during the breeding season. Instead of only calling to defend territories and attract mates, male snipe fly high in the air and then make a steep dive, which forces rushing air past the outer curved tail feathers, making a "winnowing" sound.

If you want to hear a vocal call, and then the sound of a male snipe winnowing, visit our friends at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology (Wilson's Snipe) and click on the "Sound" or "Multimedia" link. This 21 second audio clip begins with the vocal call of a snipe and then half way through, you hear the sound of winnowing as a male snipe dives through the air.

Having heard winnowing snipe many times in my life, I think the sound in the clip is a little sharp and harsh compared to the actual sound you would hear in the field, probably because a sensitive parabolic microphone was used to capture the sound. But even if you hear this sound once on your computer, you'll probably be able to recognize the distinctive winnowing of snipe in the field. And, yes, snipe hunting is allowed in the WSU Arboretum - as long as it is with a camera or sound recorder!

Note: The Steffen Center is a 45-acre teaching and research laboratory for the Department of Natural Resource Sciences on the edge of the Pullman campus, and it also will be the working headquarters, field shop, greenhouse, and nursery for the adjacent WSU Arboretum during the early years of development.