We’re approaching mid-January, the time of year when the Following Deer Creek (FDC) Project first came into being (2017). Like the Earth circling around the Sun and the planetary water cycle, we’ve completed a journey.
I set out to tell the story of the Deer Creek watershed from its tectonic and cultural origins to the people and animals who live in it today. Working backward, I posted blog articles as I researched in preparation to compile the film.
In early January of 2021, the film was complete. Like the FDC blog posts, it’s a birds-eye view of the watershed that hints at depths.
I smile when I think back to the initial idea seed. Of course, there is no one story, there are more than can ever be told.
FDC and the Aerial Views film is a decent outline, but it also illustrates how much more remains for investigation and study.
River Otters are apex predators like mountain lions, coyotes, sharks, and killer whales. In healthy ecosystems, they maintain balance.
Habitat & History
Before North America’s European colonization and the fur trade (that continued until 1961), River Otters inhabited every fresh waterway on the continent.
For a species greatly impacted by human behavior, they have become a beacon of hope for nature’s resilience. With clean water and air laws, resulting in healthier environments, River Otters are repopulating on their own.
Unlike their sea-faring relatives, River Otters function both on land and in water.
They are crepuscular – active in the early morning and twilight hours – and busy year-round. While River Otters don’t migrate with seasons, they will travel up to 25 miles to search for food sources. Areas, where otters have taken up residence, are those that have all the right ingredients for the good life; plenty of cover vegetation, rock piles, logs, clean water, and an adequate supply of food.
Adults weigh between 10-30 pounds. They can remain underwater for up to 4 minutes, swim up to 7 miles per hour, and dive to 60-foot depths.
They live in social groups, most consist of a mother and her offspring. Males also live together in ‘bachelor pods.’
River Otters hunt and travel together. They share the same den, latrines and groom each other.
Nictitating membrane—a third eyelid (like Bald Eagles) covers the eyes when swimming underwater
Ears and nostrils close underwater
Thick, water-repellant layer of fur
Powerful tail for swimming
Clawed, flipper feet – able to climb trees
Known for play, River Otter behavior is similar to teenage cats. Games of chase, wrestling, and pretend fighting are common as young learn hunting skills.
Highly communicative, otter families (aka bevy, lodge, or romp) use scent and sound to convey meaning. Scent can be in the form of urine, feces, anal jelly, and musk from glands located in their back feet. Low-frequency chuckling, bird-like chirps, snorts, purring grunts, and shrill whistles are some of the sounds they make when alarmed, looking for family members, playing, or frightened.
In the wild, the North American River Otter life span is between 8 to 12 years. In captivity, they’ve been known to live up to 25 years.
Holt & Reproduction
River Otters are opportunistic home finders like Western Bluebirds. A holt or couch is also known as a den. It must have enough underground interior room for family raising, be near clean water and food sources, above flood level, and have multiple entrances and exits—some above and below water level, often near Beaver dams, in embankments, or under logs.
Mature otters can mate any time between December and April. Unlike their European counterparts, North American River Otters have the ability to delay implantation for up to eight months.
Gestation lasts about two months.
In early spring, pregnant mothers find and prepare holts. This is where they will give birth from one to six kits who will remain with her for up to a year. At birth, otter pups are toothless, fully furred and they weigh about the same as a medium-sized apple. At around a month-and-a-half old, kits open their eyes and begin playing.
At around two-months-old, thick water fur fills in and the mothers begin teaching pups to swim. To do this, she holds them by the scruff, drags them into the water, and dives with them.
Adult River Otters eat between 2 to 3 food per day. Being busy balls of energy with thick coats to maintain, they eat often and prefer protein in the form of fish. Other items river otters consume include;
Freshwater clams & mussels
Similar to raccoons, River Otters use latrines (common defecation areas). Latrines are away from living spaces and, in addition to a site for expelling body waste, they serve a function as a location to leave powerful territorial scent markings.
Field biologists search for otter latrines. Scat and anal jelly—a black mucus coating that protects the digestive tract from sharp objects—yield DNA that can be used to track otter movement as well as clues to what the animals are eating.
In the water river otters are generally safe from predation. On land, they are vulnerable to;
Also susceptible to diseases carried by parasites such as ticks, lice, and fleas
Humans & Otters
River otters were nearly wiped out in the early fur trade era on the North American continent. In recent years, habitat destruction and fragmentation, with dams, roads, and expanding housing developments, as well as water pollution have impacted River Otter populations.
When humans create monocultures such as fish hatcheries and ponds, River Otters are only too happy to take advantage of them. So-much-so that they become pests. Sadly, nuisance otters pay the price for their ‘misbehavior’ with relocation and death.
An unexpected but encouraging result of the US EPA Clean Water Act (1972) shows evidence of River Otters repopulating fresh waterways on their own. Visit the River Ecology Project Map to watch an ever-growing list of otter sightings throughout California (Zoom in on Nevada County). Or visit the project on iNaturalist.
For the writer and editor, this post signifies a conclusion to the multi-year watershed study project. River otters, like Western Bluebirds represent hope. Hope that, collectively, humanity learns to reprioritize its values. No longer can we thoughtlessly sprawl and use up resources. Space for nature and wild animals as well as keeping a clean house (air and water quality) are needed to maintain balance in every ecosystem….and they are all connected.
If anything, 2020 has held before us a harsh microbial mirror that we must spend time examing. The halt in business-as-usual created an opportunity for a significant pivot. I hope we can. And I hope we do!
Throughout history, and within many cultures, bluebirds symbolize happiness, protection, and hope. People may have first taken notice of the birds because of their unusual coloring, or for their behavior; swooping through meadows and open spaces, cheerful song, or large family units raising young each spring.
When the bluebirds start building nests this spring (2021), it will signal a time when COVID quarantines and isolation may begin lifting. For those with creative inclinations, this cheer inspiring avian may, once again, be used to celebrate hope and authentic community freedom in song, writing, painting, filling in blocks of color on a coloring sheet, or building and distributing nest boxes.
Secondary Housing Shortage
Bluebirds lack beak and skull adaptations to bore their own nesting cavities; therefore, they rely on second-hand holes of a certain circumference.
Like many animals highlighted on Following Deer Creek, human-caused environmental alterations – tree management practices and invasive species – have reduced their numbers.
“Bluebird conservation is a shining example of a totally grassroots effort that has been tremendously successful. It illustrates the power of individuals and groups to make a difference.” – Elizabeth Zimmerman Smith 2020, Woodstock, CT at Sialas.org
Nevada County Western Bluebirds are year-round residents.
During spring and summer, bluebirds mostly feed on insects. Their hunting grounds are open grasslands where they perch on branches or fence posts to watch for bugs. When they spot prey, they’ll swoop in for the catch. In addition to insect hunting spaces, bluebirds also need reliable sources of fresh water.
In the winter, they feed on berries.
Females and juveniles have muted feather colors compared to mature males. Both males and females have straight beaks and rusty-colored chest feathers. Mature males have bright blue heads, wings, and tails.
Reproduction & Family Chick Raising
Spring begins with nest building. Bluebirds choose existing cavities in which to nest.
Feb/March/April – males and females pair bond.
Females lay one egg a day for a clutch between 4 – 6 days.
After a fourteen-day incubation, with the male bringing her food and standing guard, all eggs hatch on the same day.
After hatching, both parents feed chicks for approximately two weeks.
Once the young have fledged and begin traveling from the nest box to hearby branches, the female leaves to begin building a second nest while the male finishes caring for the first brood.
Bluebirds remain in family groups. First brood siblings may help raise the second brood. Inexperienced parents with failed nests may participate in helping raise their parents’ subsequent hatchlings.
Undernourished chicks are also susceptible to parasitic infections.
House Sparrows and Starlings are aggressive cavity-nesting competitors that were imported into New York between 1853 and 1890. The first to deal with inchworms and the second to introduce Shakespeare’s play birds into Central Park.
Other Birds that Compete for Cavity Nest Sites
Detrimental Human Effects on Bluebird Populations
Introduction of competitive invasive species – House Sparrow & Starling
Tree & Forest Management practices
Herbicide & pesticide use
Wood fence post replacement with angle iron posts
Development of open spaces
The Bluebird Man – One Idaho Man’s Retiremet Conservation Legacy
Bluebird Restoration Project – Near Victoria, British Columbia
Eastern Bluebird – Brain Study – Male/Female Song Area
Making of Bluebirdman
Bluebirds in Popular Culture:
From Red Dead Redemption 2 to the Wizard of Oz, Sesame Street’s Big Bird, Niel Young, and Native American folklore the bluebird makes consistent appearances in American popular culture. It has also shown up in as well as in ancient Chinese, Japanese, Native American and European folklore, the bluebird has symbolized hope, happiness, protection and change. The symbol of a bluebird as the harbinger of happiness is found in many cultures and may date back thousands of years.
The hummingbird is one of the world’s smallest, oldest, and most adapted living bird species. Part of the Trochilidae family, hummingbirds are in the Apodiforme subfamily, which means ‘unfooted’. Because their wings move them around so well, they don’t need feet for much more than perching.
Between North and South America, over 800 plant species have evolved to rely on hummingbirds for reproduction! Basically, most trumpet flowers are shaped to fit hummingbird beaks.
European hummingbird fossils have been found that are between 40-50 million years old.
Species You’ll See in Nevada County
Anna’s hummingbirds can be full-time Nevada County residents.
Hummingbirds currently live in both North and South America, but many of them are mobile, spending spring in the north and winter where it’s warmer, between Alaska and Mexico.
Smallest living vertebrate
Fastest wing beats of any bird
Fastest metabolism of almost all animals some species hearts beat 1,000/minute
Needs to eat frequently during daylight hours
Small feet used for perching not walking
Long hover times (compared to other birds)
49 mph in flight diving speeds
Consumes more than its body weight of nectar each day
Frequent urinator – Urinates more than its body weight every day (to keep water weight down)
Excellent visual memory – enlarged hippocampus to remember visited flowers
Specialized nectar sipping tongues – channels along both sides open and close, acting like an ultra-efficient sponge
Sleep time is torpor time – 105 degree body temperature drops to around 50 degrees, heartbeat slows to 36 beats/minute (it beats over 1,000 beats per minute when active)
Torpor can also be entered if food becomes scarce
Bright feather coloring is the result of pigmentation and prism-like cells in a layer on top of the color
Nectar – in the wild, hummingbirds visit flowers for food, extracting nectar, which is 55% sucrose, 24% glucose, and 21% fructose
With such a high-speed metabolism, these tiny birds generate a lot of heat! Instead of sweating, hummingbirds evaporate moisture a and heat on featherless body structures such as around their eyes, feet, and under the wings. Their exhales also expel heat and moisture.
Hummingbirds are territorial. They’ll defend flower patches and feeders aggressively. Some studies show aggressive behavior increasing with an increased sugar content of feeder water.
Beyond vocalizations, and their unusual ability to remember songs, hummingbirds also make vibration sounds with their feathers. Some males, such as the Anna’s, make whistle /chirping noises with outermost tail feathers during courtship displays.
The Male Tail Trill;
Announces the sex and presence of a male bird
Provides audible aggressive defense of a feeding territory
Is an intrusion tactic
Enhances threat communication
Helps with mate attraction and courtship
The Rufous hummingbird is the most common species you’ll see in Nevada County. Of all the varieties, it makes the longest migration – 3,900 miles – between Mexico and Alaska. Because it spends time in harsher weather conditions, it can survive below-freezing temperatures.
While chicks have very high mortality rates, the birds that reach adulthood live between 3-5 years. However, some banded birds were observed living for up to twelve years.
For males, reproduction is about flashy color displays and elaborate dances.
Females are nest builders and egg sitters. A mother will lay two eggs at a time, incubating them between two weeks to 23 days.
In order to sit long enough to keep eggs warm, females go into torpor. Once hatched, newborns hide, hunkering down deep in the nest only reaching out when they feel the breeze from their mother’s wings.
Fledglings remain in the nest for just over two weeks.
Mother’s feed young a nutrient-dense mash of insects, pollen, and nectar.
Pesticides in the garden and on crops poison the birds directly or indirectly through the food supply
Habitat loss – reduces the native plant food supply
Feeders reduce plant pollination activities
Feeders near windows increase bird into glass collisions
Some sweeteners contain iron or bacteria that adversely affect hummingbird health
Sweeteners NOT to Use in Feeders
Any diabetic sweetener
Any packaged hummingbird mix that contains red die, artificial flavors, dietary supplements, or vitamins (native flowers provide everything they need!)
If You Do Feed Wild Hummingbirds
Use this mixture – 1 cup of white sugar to 4 cups water
Rewild Your Garden
The BEST way to attract and support hummingbirds is with native plants.
“Flowers should be chosen for their ability to produce nectar, to grow well in your particular region, and to be in bloom when the hummingbirds need them.” – Redbud Chapter California Native Plant Society
The word ‘deer’ is an irregular noun. It is used for both single and multiple animals. Deer are also crepuscular, active during twilight hours.
Of the six subspecies of mule deer living in California, Nevada County is home to two; the California mule deer (west side of Sierra Nevadas to the southern coast) and the Columbia black-tailed deer (Northern California through the Pacific Northwest). Since black-tailed deer are the species roaming through my yard, they are the main subject of this article.
History & Range
The Columbia black-tailed deer is also known by the names; Pacific buck, Columbian deer, coast black-tailed buck, and black-tailed deer. It is a subspecies of Mule deer and will cross-breed with the California mule deer and Rocky Mountain mule deer where habitats overlap.
In 1846, an Oregon Trail traveler noted black-tailed deer as far west as Wyoming. Today their range is smaller. It includes northern California, Oregon, Washington, some parts of coastal and interior BC as well as the Alaskan panhandle.
Except for breeding season (November – December), does and bucks live in separate groups.
Female groups of related individuals are led by a dominant (alpha) animal, usually the eldest mother. She chooses foraging and birthing grounds. The alpha female is usually the first to mate during mating season and she generally chooses to stay close to her mother’s territory, leaving it only if forced.
Males leave their mothers between a year-and-a-half and eighteen months old to seek bachelor groups.
New antlers (bone protrusions) are grown each spring and shed every winter.
Antlers are grown out with a ‘velvet’ covering, a living structure with blood vessels. Once it dries and antlers harden, bucks rub them against trees to remove the velvet. A buck’s age is reflected in the number of forks. Antlers are used for sparring and determining social position as well as for mate competition.
Communication methods include vocalizations, scent, and pheromones. Glands between the toes, and near the knees (hock) create trail marking and individual recognition signals while glands outside the lower legs produce alarm scents.
In California, at higher elevations, some herds of black-tailed deer migrate. Locations of forage food and snow levels determine their movements.
In Nevada County, below Nevada City, seasonal herd movements do not cover great distances.
The black-tailed deer life span is approximately 7 years (in the wild), reaching sexual maturity between 1-2 years.
Males are polygynous, they’ll mate with multiple females.
Female gestation lasts between six to seven months, with fawns born May – June.
For the first week after birth, fawns have no scent. This allows the mother to leave her babies to replenish her body weight and produce adequate amounts of milk for her young.
Caution: Mothers with fawns view humans as predators.
Like cattle, sheep, giraffe, goats, and antelope, deer are cud-chewing grazers. With teeth and mouthparts specialized for breaking down cellulose as well as a digestive compartment housing bacteria necessary to turn plant material into protein, volatile fatty acids as well as vitamins B and K, deer spend the early morning and dusk hours grazing and afternoon and evening hours, bedded down, regurgitating, and giving food a second chew.
Spring and winter diet includes;
Bark & buds
Late spring and fall diet includes;
Fruit (blackberry & apple)
Rumination – Chewing Cud
Grazer gut bacteria often match soil microbes. Eating and defecating perpetuate healthy regeneration cycles for both plants and animals.
Grazing to Heal the Earth – Grasses & Ruminants | 3:14 Chewing Cud
Deer Hunting Industry & Income Generation
In California, Deer hunting permit sales generate around $450 million dollars annually, attracting between 165 – 200K hunters.