Poo-Poo Project Prevents Bird Deaths

 

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A very lucky, but unhappy, Long-eared Owl that was rescued from a vault toilet by the BLM. Once this bird has been cleaned, it should recover quickly. Many other birds are not so fortunate. Image courtesy of the Teton Raptor Center, Photo Credit BLM Lakeview District Office.

Anyone who has visited public lands in the west will be familiar with the boxy brown vault toilets stationed at trailheads and parking lots. These facilities provide welcome relief for trail-users and travelers while reducing the impact of human waste on the environment, but they have a hidden downside for birds.

The toilet’s ventilation pipe, which extends from the roof of the building like a chimney, can be a death trap for curious birds. Many species, including several types of owls, Kestrels, Flickers and bluebirds, nest in cavities. Typically, these are natural cavities, like holes in dead cottonwoods. But natural cavities are a limited and valuable resource, and cavity nesting birds will check out any hole, even man-made ones, that might make a suitable nest site.

A vault toilet ventilation pipe is one such cavity. When birds fly into the pipe, they can become trapped in the vault of the toilet with the human waste. Usually these trapped birds die due to stress and starvation. If someone happens to see them in the vault, and the facility’s manager is able to get them out, the birds can be cleaned, rehabilitated and released.

Wildlife rehabilitators at the Teton Raptor Center, located in Wilson, Wyoming, had

Laura Johnston
Laura Johnston holds a “Poo-Poo Screen” that can be installed on the top of a vault toilet ventilation pipe to prevent cavity nesting birds from entering it and becoming trapped. This screen is specially designed to allow for proper ventilation, even when covered by snow. Photo courtesy of Laura Johnston.

treated many birds rescued from toilets, and decided that prevention was the best medicine. They started the “Poo-Poo Project” in 2010 to find a practical solution to the problem. After trial and error, they designed a screen to fit over the opening of the ventilation pipe and found a company in Idaho Falls to manufacture them at a cost of about $30.00 per screen. The Poo-Poo Project now raises money to purchase screens and coordinate with local, state and federal land agencies to get them installed. As of 2017, about 5,000 “Poo-Poo Screens” have been installed in 29 states.

Grand Junction resident Laura Johnston led the Poo-Poo Project charge locally. Johnston works as a park ranger in Grand Teton National Park during the summer, which is where she first learned of the project. “I felt like for five months of my life, this concept of stewardship was front and center and then I come home and it just goes away. And I thought I need to have something that keeps this idea of stewardship going for me personally.”

When she returned to Grand Junction at the end of the summer in 2015, Johnston applied for and received a Rich Levad Research Grant from the Grand Valley Audubon Society to purchase “Poo-Poo Screens.” With this grant and donations from individuals, Johnston raised about $3,000 and purchased screens for vault toilets in the Grand Valley. She coordinated with the Bureau of Land Management, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the

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Trina Romero, Watchable Wildlife & Volunteer Coordinator for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, holds a “Poo-Poo Screen” about to be installed on a vault toilet on CPW property. Photo courtesy of Laura Johnston

Bureau of Reclamation and other agencies to get the screens installed. According to Johnston, all of these agencies were happy to install the screens on their vault toilets. “So far, we have installed 166 screens and the Grand Valley is done basically,” says Johnston.

Now Johnston hopes to get screens installed on all the public vault toilets in Colorado. She continues to volunteer her time to raise money to purchase the screens, and get them delivered and installed where needed. Thankfully, newer models of vault toilets on the market come with ventilation pipe screens. But there remain many older facilities that are yet to be screened. Thanks to the hard work of Johnston and the folks at the Teton Raptor Center, the toilets that provide much needed relief at the end of a long hike won’t lead to a very unpleasant end for local birds.

 

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An American kestrel, trapped in the vault of a toilet, finds an unpleasant perch. Photo courtesy Cameron Collins and Clay Stott/BLM

 

If you’d like to help Johnston purchase Poo-Poo Screens for facilities in Colorado, you donate to her effort via the Grand Valley Audubon Society. They accept donations for her Poo-Poo Project work on their website, audubongv.org or you can mail a check to the Grand Valley Audubon Society, P.O. Box 1211, Grand Junction, CO, 81502. Please be sure to write “for Poo-Poo Project” on the check. If you’d like to get in touch with Johnston about the Poo-Poo Project, you can contact her via the Grand Valley Audubon Society at gvas.executivecoordinator@gmail.com.

Vault toilet ventilation pipes are not the only man-made cavities that can be hazardous for birds. Virtually any vertical open pipe can trap a curious bird. Once they fly in, tight confines prevent them from opening their wings, and unlike in natural cavities, the slick surface inside pipes prevents birds from getting a foothold to climb up and out. One survey of over 800 open pipes used as mining claim stakes in Nevada found the carcasses of almost 900 birds. A single defunct irrigation pipe in California contained the bodies of 200 birds. You can prevent unnecessary bird deaths on your property by capping or covering vertical open pipes. The cap or screen need not be expensive, as long as it is not easily dislodged by wind or other disturbance.

 

(This article was originally published in the March 25, 2017 issue of the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, as Life-saving Screen)

 

 

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Poo-Poo Project Prevents Bird Deaths

Best housemate ever: The Bold Jumping Spider

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What a face! The bold jumping spider’s large eyes provide keen vision. Its striking iridescent green fangs are likely for show. Photo by Opoterser, Wikimedia.

Most people don’t welcome spiders in their home, but once they get to know the bold jumping spider, they might change their minds. Don’t grab the nearest shoe to smash it, don’t be put off by its looks. Despite having eight fuzzy legs and large iridescent green fangs, this spider is a helpful, tidy housemate.

Bold jumping spiders are pretty big– their bodies are about a quarter to a half-inch long. And though they may look fierce, they are harmless to humans. According to Penn State entomologists, your chances of being bitten by one are “slim to none.” The rare accounts of jumping spider bites suggest the bite causes a reaction similar to a mosquito bite.

But if you are an insect, these spiders are the stuff of nightmares- a lion stalking you in tall grass, poised to pounce… Unlike many spiders that spin webs, sit back and wait for insects to fly into them, bold jumping spiders are active hunters. In fact, they don’t spin webs at all, which means they won’t leave dusty cobwebs in the corners of your home.

Jumping spiders hunt during the day in open areas, such as walls and windowsills, using their keen eyes to spot their prey. Unlike other types of spiders, they have excellent eyesight and an almost 360-degree field of vision. The bold jumping spider will pounce on any insect smaller than itself, including houseflies, mosquitos, small crickets and other uninvited guests in your home.

Once prey is spotted, jumping spiders sneak up within striking distance– which for a jumping spider is pretty far. They owe their astounding jumping ability to hydraulics, not solely muscle. These spiders are able to rapidly increase the internal fluid pressure in their legs, propelling themselves 10-50 times their body length and pouncing on their insect victims. US Track and Field athlete Mike Powell, who holds the world record in the long jump, can jump less than 5 times his body length– and that’s with a running start.

Though bold jumping spiders don’t construct webs, they do make spider silk. They use a single line of silk as a tether to catch them in case they make a bad jump, kind of like a rock climber’s rope or bungee jumping cord. The female bold jumper also uses her silk to make an egg sac and small “den” where she hides with the sac and then her spiderlings when they hatch.

Jumping spiders are fun to watch– scientists who study their behavior believe they are screen-shot-2017-01-24-at-3-17-06-pmvery “intelligent” given the size of their brains. Most jumping spiders perform courtship “dances.” A couple of years ago a video of a colorful dancing spider went “viral” on the internet. The species shown in the video was the Coastal peacock spider from Australia– a species of jumping spider, just like our very own bold jumper.

Like a good guard dog, the bold jumping spider defends your home from intruders, albeit very small ones. But unlike a dog, that sheds hair and tracks in dirt, jumping spiders don’t leave a mess. So next time a jumping spider has moves into your home, consider letting it stay. While it can’t be counted on to help out with the rent or mortgage, it may still earn its keep.

This article originally appeared in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel in September 2016.

Best housemate ever: The Bold Jumping Spider

The scorpion’s softer side

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Northern Scorpion. Photo by Meredith Swett Walker

It is hard to think of a creature less likely to inspire warm, fuzzy feelings than the scorpion. They have pincers, an intimidating stinger, and are rumored to hide in shoes. Plus, they are hard to categorize and this makes humans uncomfortable. Is a scorpion an insect? Is it a crustacean like a crab? They look “crunchy”, “pinch-ey” and “stingy” all at once.

It turns out that the unlovable scorpion– which is neither insect nor crustacean– has a softer side. These creepy crawlies turn out to be caring mothers. Their venom may help scientists develop important medications. Though they cause many people to shudder, scorpions deserve a second look.

Scorpions are arachnids like spiders, and like spiders they have eight legs. The two front limbs that bear their pincer claws are technically “pedipalps,” not legs, and are not used in walking. While scorpions may look like an alien visitor from a chilling sci-fi film, they have walked the earth longer than almost any other animal. Scorpions evolved at least 430 million years ago, long before the dinosaurs. In fact, the oldest known fossil of a land dwelling animal is a scorpion found in 2013 in South Africa.  Modern scorpions are found on every continent except Antarctica.

Clearly scorpions have mastered the art of surviving on planet Earth and the secret of their success may be their low-key lifestyle. They are nocturnal and hide from daylight under rocks or in burrows, emerging at night to hunt insects. But scorpions are essentially “couch potatoes.” They have a very inactive lifestyle and a low metabolic rate which means they require very little energy or food. Unlike human couch potatoes, scorpions can go a long time without a meal. Some species have been reported to go up to a year between feedings.

Yet scorpions are not slackers in the parenting department. Female scorpions give birth to live young rather than lay eggs. The newborn scorpions are defenseless– their screen-shot-2017-01-14-at-12-23-12-pmexoskeletons do not harden until they are older so their pincers are soft and useless and their stingers are blunt. To keep them out of danger, mother scorpions carry their babies around on their backs until they are old enough to defend themselves.

Scorpions sometimes use their stingers to subdue prey that they catch with their pincers. They will also sting in self-defense, and if they feel the need to defend themselves from your incoming foot– you may be in for some pain. Most scorpion stings are no more painful than a bee sting and ultimately harmless. Only one scorpion in the U.S. has venom powerful enough to cause life-threatening illness in humans. The Arizona bark scorpion, which is found in the Sonoran Desert, has a neurotoxin in its venom that can cause extreme pain and numbness. But fatalities due to its sting are rare.

Scorpion venom may turn out to provide more benefit than harm to humans. The venom contains a number of different chemicals that have potential as drugs. Scientists are currently investigating components of scorpion venom that may be useful in treating brain tumors and malaria. Who knows what other secrets may hide in the scorpion’s stinger?

Though there are plenty of scorpions in the Grand Valley, they keep a low profile and are seldom seen. If you do encounter a scorpion, before you run away shrieking or stomp it to smithereens, take a breath and consider letting it go its merry way. These secretive creatures are less menacing than may they appear.

This article was originally published in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel in May 2016

The scorpion’s softer side

The Showgirl and the Amazon

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The eastern collared lizard (Crotaphytus collaris) ranges in length from 8-14 inches and is found in rocky canyons, pinon-juniper woodlands, and shrublands. (Photo by Brett Walker.)

The warm sunny days of early spring make me feel like a lizard.  I just want to lie on a rock, bask in the sun and thaw out my bones.  The (mostly) warm sunny weather that we have enjoyed the last couple of weeks brought out the lizards in the Grand Valley.  Many of us are familiar with the iconic collared lizard, which graces Colorado National Monument t-shirts.  It is probably one of the most spectacular lizards in North America, and a friend of mine dubbed it “the Vegas showgirl of lizards.”  With their bright yellow heads, speckled blue bodies and striking black neck bands, collared lizards are pretty razzle-dazzle.  Even their behavior is showy- they often perch on prominent sunny rocks as if posing for the paparazzi and have been known to run on their hind legs.

While the collared lizard attracts a lot of attention, the other lizards in our area often go unnoticed, or barely acknowledged as a small dark shape scurrying under a rock as we hike past. At least nine species of lizards live in the Grand Valley, and are most often seen in the red rocks of the Colorado National Monument or McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area.  And while none are quite as eye-catching as the Collared Lizard, they are worth a second look.  The most interesting, to my mind, is the plateau striped whiptail (Aspidoscelis velox).  If the collared lizard is the Vegas showgirl of lizards, the plateau striped whiptail is the Amazon.

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The plateau striped whiptail lizard (Aspidocelis velox) is distinguished from other local whiptails by the 6-7 light stripes on its back. The long bluish tail is brighter in juveniles and paler in adults. Adults range in length from 8 to almost 11 inches in length. Although plateau striped whiptails may be less skittish and thus easier to catch than other lizards, when captured, they may play dead or whip their heads around to bite their captor.
(Photo by J.N. Stuart)

In Greek mythology, the Amazons were a race of women warriors who isolated themselves from men, except for an annual visit to a neighboring tribe for the purposes of reproduction.  Any male babies that resulted were killed, abandoned or given to a neighboring tribe- only females were allowed to remain in Amazon territory.  Plateau striped whiptails take this “no boys allowed” policy to an even greater extreme- there are no male plateau striped whiptails at all.  The entire species is female and they don’t even need males to reproduce.  These lizards reproduce asexually, via parthenogenesis, a process in which an egg cell starts dividing and produces an embryo without being fertilized by a sperm.  Because there is no contribution of genetic material from a male, the offspring is genetically identical to the mother and therefore a clone.  Parthenogenesis is actually very common among the different species of whiptail lizards- the Colorado checkered whiptail, which occurs in southeast Colorado is also parthenogenic. Scientists believe that these parthenogenic whiptail species arose when two typical sexual species hybridized.

As bizarre as it may seem, parthenogenesis is not as rare as you might think.  It is actually very common in plants.   All ants, bees and wasps use parthenogenesis to produce male offspring.  It has also been known to occur occasionally in sharks, turkeys and chickens, though usually the embryos that result are usually not viable.

Some of you may remember the excitement (and some anxiety) in 1996 when scientist cloned a sheep.  The animal, which they named Dolly, even made the cover of Time magazine with the headline “Will There Ever Be Another You?”  Many people think clones were creepy and they are a major theme in science fiction novels and movies like “The Stepford Wives,” “Blade Runner” and “Gattaca.”  But for those of us here in the Grand Valley, we needn’t turn to novels or films to find clones- a casual hike up a local canyon might grant us an encounter with a clone in the flesh.  In the case of the Plateau Striped Whiptail, or “Amazon” lizard, reality is stranger than fiction or, in this case, Greek mythology.

This article was originally published, in an edited form, on Wednesday April 24 in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel.  You can read it in the Sentinel here.  

The Showgirl and the Amazon