Monthly Archives: November 2014

Can You Tell A Snood From A Wattle? Let’s Talk Turkey About Our Favorite Bird

by eNature

A Male Wild Turkey showing wattles, snood and beard  ©

A Male Wild Turkey showing wattles, snood and beard

It’s after Thanksgiving and many of us are thinking about our annual feast and the turkey that’s often at the center of it.

But how much do you know about the creature that many folks think is our REAL national bird?

Turkeys are interesting birds— they’re large, colorful and hard to miss when they’re in a demonstrative mood.  Many researchers have devoted their entire career to studying them and their complex social structure.

A Bird For All Americans

As recently as a generation ago, folks rarely encountered Wild Turkeys.  Hunting pressure had eliminated them from much of their original range.  But extensive reintroduction efforts brought the turkey back from the brink and just about every state in the continental US now has populations of wild turkeys, some in the tens of thousands.  You can see from the range map to right how widely distributed turkey’s now are.

Close-up of Turkey's snood

Close-up of Turkey’s snood

Snoods, Wattles and Beards

So what exactly is a turkey’s snood?  Male, or tom, turkeys have a number of features that experts believe are intended to attract female turkeys (hens).  These include the familiar fleshy red wattles on its neck and throat as well as a fleshy mass over their beak known as a snood.  As turkeys are polygamous and happy to mate with as many hens as they can attract, it seems reasonable to conclude that a more spectacular wattle and snood will result in more breeding success.

A tom’s plumage follows the same principles.  Bright colors and unique features rule the day.  His feathers have areas of green, copper, bronze, red, purple, and gold iridescence.  Most males also have a beard; in reality a group of specialized feathers growing from the center of his breast.  The photo to the above right clearly shows many of the tom’s irresistible (to hens at least) qualities.

Strutting Their Stuff

Males attract hens by a behavior known as “strutting”, in which they display for females by puffing out their feathers, spreading out their tails and dragging their wings.  Gobbling, drumming or booming and spitting as signs of social dominance are also techniques toms use to attract females.

Sounds a bit like highschoolers at a Friday night football game!

Range of Wild Turkey

Range of Wild Turkey

Overcoming Adversity

Wildlife managers estimate that the entire population of Wild Turkeys in the United States was as low as 30,000 in the early 20th century. By the 1930s,they were almost totally extirpated from Canada and found only in remote pockets within the US.  Populations have rebounded spectacularly since programs across the country were put in place to protect and encourage the breeding of surviving wild populations.  The rebound has reached the point where hunting has been legalized in the lower 48 states and current estimates place the entire Wild Turkey population at over 7 million.

Wild Turkey or Bald Eagle?

It’s not your bartender taking your order, but rather an interesting bit of American history. In the early days of the republic, Benjamin Franklin strongly objected to the choice of the Bald Eagle as our national symbol, preferring the Wild Turkey.

Franklin thought the Bald Eagle’s habit of stealing prey caught by other birds, particularly ospreys, an inappropriate quality and wrote, “For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America”.

We tend to agree with Ben— the turkey, a uniquely North American bird, is an American original and worthy of our respect.

Male Turkey strutting and displaying

Male Turkey strutting and displaying

Kansas Riverkeeper job announcement

Are you looking for an exciting career in the outdoors?  Friends of the Kaw is hiring a qualified, highly motivated individual to fill the position of the Kansas RIVERKEEPER. The position requires a love of the outdoors; an ability to educate the public on water quality issues; and strong organizational skills. The Kansas RIVERKEEPER is primarily responsible for developing and implementing programs that remove pollution from the waters of the KansasRiver basin, block new sources of pollution, and provide education on water quality issues and best practices. Please follow this link for the full job announcement. Please submit resumes by Monday, December 15, 2014.

The current Kansas Riverkeeper, Laura Calwell, will be on the job until the appropriate candidate is hired and trained.

Western Kansas streams endangered because of low aquifer levels

By Karen Dillon

Lawrence Journal-World

Western Kansas has lost many of its major perennial streams because farmers have pumped extreme amounts of water from the Ogallala Aquifer, water experts were told November 25th.

Jim Butler, geohydrology section chief with the Kansas Geological Survey, spoke at the Big 12 Universities Water Workshop at KansasUniversity about the dire situation with the Ogallala Aquifer.

Butler put up a slide with a newly released map showing that more than 60 percent of the aquifer, the state’s major water supply for irrigation, has been depleted. Some in the audience gasped as they saw big swaths of red on the map, signaling depletion.

“This pumping has obviously had an impact on the western third of Kansas,” Butler said. “It’s also caused collateral damage on our ecosystem health — especially our perennial streams.”

The aquifer lies beneath eight states including Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas, and is one of the largest groundwater resources in the world. But it’s in trouble because farmers have been over-pumping water to grow crops in semi-arid climates.

About 25 percent of the water used in the United States is from the aquifer, Butler said. About 95 percent of groundwater pumped in Kansas is used to irrigate crops.

Butler said many western Kansas streams used to be fed by the aquifer because its water table was higher than the streams. But the aquifer’s water table has dropped below the stream beds, three feet or more, and no longer can supply water to the streams, creating dry beds almost year around.

Using photographs of the Arkansas River, which used to be a major Kansas river near Larned, Butler was able to effectively demonstrate the problem.

One photo showed what the stream looks like today — dry and rocky.

“This is a very dispiriting sight,” Butler said. “It’s a tremendous loss to our ecosystem. The decreased well yields are not the only impacts.”

Butler said Kansas has three rivers classified as navigable, including the Arkansas River.

“Obviously to navigate this, you’ll use the ATV mode,” he said, pointing to the photo.

Since 1945, Kansas has been warning farmers that they were depleting the Ogallala, but the heavy irrigation continued despite several studies and task force reports. Gov. Sam Brownback has appointed another task force. The state hopes its recommendations will persuade farmers to reduce water use.

Butler said that simple solutions can work. For example, if farmers in northwest Kansas had pumped 22 percent less water over the past several years by using different techniques such as no-till to grow crops, water levels would have remained stable in the short term.

“If we cut back we can buy some time in the system in western Kansas to find solutions,” Butler said. “It’s all about buying time.”

Kansas High Plains Aquifer — Saturated Thickness, Percent Change

Kansas High Plains Aquifer — Saturated Thickness, Percent Change

Thank the birds and the bees for your holiday table

By Cynthia Palmer

American Bird Conservancy

A beekeeper grabs dead bees during a demonstration against the use of bee-killing pesticides in front of the ministry in Sofia, Bulgaria, on April 22, 2013. Beekeepers gathered to protest and to call for a moratorium on the use of neonicotinoid pesticides, which are hazardous to bees. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)

A beekeeper grabs dead bees during a demonstration against the use of bee-killing pesticides
in front of the ministry in Sofia, Bulgaria, on April 22, 2013. Beekeepers gathered to protest
and to call for a moratorium on the use of neonicotinoid pesticides, which are hazardous to bees.
(Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)

Rooted in gratitude for a good harvest, Thanksgiving is a day of togetherness and feasting for many Americans. It is a time to wipe the dust off Grandma’s delicious recipe cards or to head to the Deli Fresh grocery aisles for savory string beans and pumpkin pie. For many, Thanksgiving is the purest and most important holiday of all, unblemished by the commercialism that threatens to tarnish Christmas and other celebrations.

Behind the scenes, however, the cornucopia of foods for which we give thanks is now under siege, in part due to a new and insidious class of insecticides called neonicotinoids, or “neonics.” First introduced in the U.S. in 1994, the neonics quickly became the most widely used insecticides on Earth, applied to two-thirds of the world’s croplands. Virtually all the corn in this country is grown from neonic-coated seeds, as are many grains, fruits, and vegetables.

Unfortunately, these neonic insecticides are killing bees, butterflies, birds, and quite possibly bats and other wildlife. As such, they are a direct threat to our Thanksgiving meal, wiping out the tiny buzzing “field hands” that pollinate hundreds of crops—roughly one-third of the foods we eat. Pollinators play an essential role in our Thanksgiving celebrations—from the squash, sweet potatoes, broccoli, and other vegetables to the nuts, pumpkin desserts, apple pies, and cranberry sauce.

Even minute amounts of neonics are enough to kill the bees. The neonic coating on a single corn seed can kill over 80,000 bees. Bees that don’t succumb immediately face other effects: reduced memory and navigation, immune problems, developmental shortcomings, and diminished foraging ability. These impairments are as good as death to the parent colony.

Concerned about the impacts on bees, in 2013 American Bird Conservancy reviewed 200 studies, including 2,800 pages of industry research obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. Our assessment concludes that the neonics are lethal to birds as well. A single corn kernel coated with a neonic can kill a songbird. And as little as 1/10th of a coated seed per day during the egg-laying season can impair reproduction.

The ABC report also looks at aquatic insects, which are critical to avian aerial insectivores such as swifts, swallows, and nighthawks whose populations are now in decline. We conclude that the levels of these chemicals in our waterways are already high enough to kill the aquatic invertebrate life on which so many birds depend.

These findings are buttressed by the strikingly high levels of neonics found in a new review of surface water data from nine countries, and also by a recent study by Dutch researchers, published in the journal Nature, which noted that the higher the concentration of the pesticide in the surface water, the greater the decline in bird populations. A 2014 meta-analysis by the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides evaluates 800 peer-reviewed studies and confirms this spiral of unintended consequences.

Seed Tech Revolution

Neonics are part of a revolution in seed technology that has transformed American agriculture in recent years. Giant agribusiness companies including Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta control the commercial biotech market for seeds. They coat the seeds in neonics and embed them with genetically engineered (GE) traits such as immunity to Roundup herbicide, enabling farmers to use large amounts of weed-killers without harming their crops.

The companies maintain strict licensing agreements controlling the use of their coated, GE-impregnated seeds. For many crops such as corn and canola, it can be near impossible to find untreated seeds on the market. Attempts to clean and re-use seeds from prior years are landing farmers in court facing battalions of industry lawyers.

In encrusting our seeds in systemic insecticides, the chemical and seed conglomerates are transforming the way agriculture is done in this country. Neonic seed treatments are a pre-emptive strike; we are blanketing our lands with chemicals even when there is no pest to be found within 100 miles. This is a damaging reversal from integrated pest management, the approach to agriculture that says you monitor for pests, do all you can to prevent pest outbreaks, and apply conventional chemicals only as a last resort.

What is really quite extraordinary is that—despite the enormous scale on which they are used—there is scant evidence that neonics are actually increasing agricultural productivity. The EPA released its own analysis of soybean production on Oct. 16, concluding that “there is no increase in soybean yield using most neonicotinoid seed treatments when compared to using no pest control at all.”

The EPA review confirms what we have been telling the agency all year: that despite the enormous scale on which they are used, neonic seed coatings are not increasing agricultural yields. Scientific studies on corn, canola, and other crops show similar results, as documented by a recent Center for Food Safety assessment of independent peer-reviewed efficacy studies. The farmers pay for the costly treated seeds; the beekeepers bring home dead hives; and the birds, butterflies, and other wildlife die. The only benefit is to the handful of multinational biotech conglomerates, which accrue enormous profits.

Equally absurd is that, even though neonics are applied to hundreds of millions of acres in the U.S.—up to 95 percent of those lands via coated seeds—the EPA fails to require any registration of neonic seed treatments, or any enforcement in cases of misuse. EPA misinterprets its 1988 “treated article exemption,” 40 CFR § 152.25(a), to overlook the fundamental definition of a “treated article”: the pesticidal effects must not extend in significant ways beyond the article itself.

In the case of coated seeds, typically only 5 or 10 percent of the active ingredient is absorbed by the plant. The rest either blows away as dust during mechanized planting—killing the bees directly—or washes into the soil and ultimately the groundwater. EPA’s failure to require stringent testing and approval protocols for neonic seed coatings is a significant loophole, while its failure to track use and impacts helps perpetuate the myth that these chemicals can be used safely.

Birds don’t take a holiday and nor do bees. Their protection demands that we do away with policies that allow excessive use of ineffective and dangerous pesticides. Closer to home, as we prepare for our celebrations, let’s help save our pollinators by choosing carefully what we put in our shopping baskets and on our plates. We can help grow the market for sustainable, healthy, pesticide-free agriculture and help shrink the market for chemical intensive, neonic-contaminated products.

And as we give thanks for the bounty on our tables this Thanksgiving, let’s remember the birds and bees that made it all possible.

Cynthia Palmer is the director of pesticides science and regulation for the American Bird Conservancy in Washington, D.C.

Enter the BirdSpotter Photo Contest

Your backyard bird images could win great prizes!

Gary Mueller of Missouri submitted this photo of a Lego feeder that was the Judge's Choice during the first week of the contest.

Gary Mueller of Missouri submitted this photo of a Lego feeder that was the Judge’s Choice during the first week of the contest.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s BirdSpotter photo contest is underway! The contest is sponsored by Vanguard and offers weekly prizes for the photos that receive the most votes on the contest website. Special “Judge’s Choice” photos are also recognized.

BirdSpotter is being run through the Project FeederWatch citizen-science project at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada. FeederWatch participants keep track of their feeder birds from November through April and report what they see online. This information helps scientists learn more about the changes in bird distribution and population numbers in North America over time.

Each Wednesday from now through February 11, 2015, a new BirdSpotter photo theme will be posted, such as “birdbaths” or “chickadees only.” You can upload one entry per week and then vote for your favorite photo. The winners will be announced on Monday morning. Each weekly winner receives a prize pack from Vanguard that includes binoculars, plus gifts from the Cornell Lab.

Voting for the top three photos from among all the weekly winners begins February 18. The grand prize winner receives Vanguard binoculars, scope, tripod, and backpack as well as more prizes from the Cornell Lab including a Charlie Harper print.

See full contest rules and the list of prizes on the contest website. You don’t have to be a Project FeederWatch participant to enter—but if you do sign up for the project you’ll be joining tens of thousands of other FeederWatchers who report their feeder visitors to help scientists learn more about our favorite backyard birds. Visit

Greater Prairie-chicken season opens Nov. 15

Annual prairie-chicken season opens with changes for 2014

The regular prairie-chicken season opens on the third Saturday in November, which is Nov. 15, 2014. However, this year, hunters will see a significant change in where prairie-chickens may be hunted. Kansas is home to two species of prairie-chickens. The Greater Prairie-chicken is common in the Flint Hills of east-central Kansas and the Smoky Hills of northcentral and northwest Kansas. The southwest region of the state is home to the Lesser Prairie-chicken, which was listed as a threatened species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last March. Three years of severe drought resulted in poor habitat and declining numbers of Lesser Prairie-chickens.

As a result of the listing, the Kansas Wildlife, Parks and Tourism Commission established two prairie-chicken units. The Southwest Prairie-chicken Unit, where lessers are found, is closed to all prairie-chicken hunting. The Greater Prairie-chicken Unit, which includes northwest, northcentral and eastern portions of Kansas, is open to Greater Prairie-chicken hunting. A map may be seen at or in the 2014 Kansas Hunting and Furharvesting Regulations Summary.

The Greater Prairie-chicken hunting season is open Nov. 15, 2014-Jan. 31, 2015. The daily bag limit is two and the possession limit is four times the daily bag limit. During the regular prairie-chicken season, hunters commonly pass shoot birds early in the morning and late in the afternoon as they fly from grasslands to feed fields. The challenge is finding the right field and getting into a position where birds may fly within shotgun range. Perhaps the biggest challenge is hitting the birds that are always flying “faster than they look.”

Greater Prairie-chicken numbers are highest in the Smoky Hills region of northcentral Kansas, and numbers should be improved compared to last year in the Flint Hills. In addition to a hunting license, prairie-chicken hunters must purchase a prairie-chicken hunting permit, which is available online and wherever licenses are sold for $2.50. The permit allows biologists to survey hunters and gain more accurate harvest information for management purposes.

New Jersey bill could allow a “commercial” deer season

By Daniel Xu

The OutdoorHub

Do you think you have a great recipe for venison jerky? If you live in New Jersey, a bill may soon allow you to sell it as well.

Is allowing commercial deer hunting a good idea? Some lawmakers in New Jersey are trying to overturn the state’s ban on hunters selling deer meat, and they are getting support from some ecologists. According to the Asbury Park Press, a bill was introduced into the General Assembly earlier this year that would do just that, and is currently waiting for a hearing in the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

To say that the bill is controversial would be an understatement. Some ecologists believe that allowing individuals to sell harvested venison will get more people into the woods to help control the rising deer population. Others, however, believe that the return of commercial hunting will only recreate the far-ranging consequences caused by overhunting in the early 1900s.

“Anybody who lives in MonmouthCounty and is driving around is able to see a deer population that has exploded,” Assemblywoman Caroline Casagrande (R-Monmouth), who is sponsoring the bill, told the Asbury Park Press. “I’m concerned about the high number of Lyme cases and I’m also very concerned about the car accidents, half of which occur between October and December.”

The exploding deer population in the East Coast is not only a road and health hazard, ecologists are warning that the deer are degrading forests as well, which could lead to mass starvation for the animals. Supporters of a commercial deer season also point to the fact that almost all of the venison that Americans enjoy in restaurants or local grocery stores come from captive deer farms. In fact, The Wall Street Journal reported last year that about 85 percent of all commercially-sold venison in the United States actually comes from New Zealand. Casagrande and her supporters say that it makes little sense to import deer meat into New Jersey when the state is currently grappling with an overpopulation of whitetail deer.

Not everyone agrees, however, and in a rare occurrence, sportsmen’s groups and animal right organizations have found themselves on the same side of the issue—if for different reasons. Many hunters say that revisiting the same strategies that led to the overhunting of deer in the East Coast is a very bad idea. All 50 states have placed restrictions on the sale of deer meat, with laws stretching back to the early twentieth century. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection explicitly states that it is “illegal to sell deer meat, deer antlers or any part of a deer except deer hides, tails and the lower portion of the legs,” in the state.

To combat the rising deer population, hunters and wildlife biologists instead advocate for increased awareness of the problem, and promoting hunting as a valuable activity in the state. Animal rights activists oppose the bill for much the same reasons, but offer an alternative solution. Instead of hunting the deer either way, they instead call for non-lethal population control methods such as sterilization.

The bill, AB A3039, is still waiting to be heard by the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee before it can move forward. If passed, hunters will be able to apply for a commercial hunting license which not only allows the sale of deer meat, but also meat from small game such as beavers, raccoons, and otters.

What do you think? Should you be able to sell meat from the deer your harvest, or could that open the door to a host of problems for hunters and wildlife? Let us know your comments.

Second Cover Crop Survey Confirms Yield Boost

On Tuesday, November 18, USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program released the results of the 2013-2014 Cover Crop Survey, which assesses the benefits, challenges, yield impacts, and scale of adoption of cover crops. The North Central Region of the SARE program worked with the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) to survey more than 1,924 farmers across the country (44 states in all), many of whom have grown cover crops. The results of the survey confirm that farmers are seeing multiple benefits from cover crops, including increased yields of corn and soybeans following the cover crop.

Of the 1,924 farmers who responded to the survey, 630 provided data comparing corn yields from fields that did have cover crops to corn yields from fields that did not have cover crops. Similarly, 583 farmers provided data comparing soybean yields from fields that did and did not have cover crops. When a cover crop was planted before corn, corn yields increased by an average of five bushels per acre, or 3.1 percent. Farmers who planted a cover crop before planting soybeans saw an average soybean yield increase of 4.3 percent.

These yield increases, while significant, are lower than the yield increases found in last year’s Cover Crop Survey (9.6 percent for corn, and 11.6 percent for soy). According to Rob Meyers, Regional Director of Extension Programs for SARE, “much of the difference in yield impact between the two years of surveys may be attributed to the drought in 2012, which highlights the moisture-management benefits of cover crops.”

Key Findings

According to SARE, key findings of the survey include:

♦ Of 1,427 cover crop users who identified the three cover crop benefits they desired most, 74 percent chose increased soil organic matter, 51 percent cited reducing soil erosion and 35 percent said they hoped cover crops would reduce soil compaction. Controlling weeds appealed to 28 percent, while providing a nitrogen source was chosen by 23 percent and nitrogen scavenging by 17 percent. Increases in yield in the following cash crop came in close behind with 16 percent.

♦ The most popular cover crop species were winter cereal grains—including winter wheat, cereal rye and triticale—used by 73 percent of the 1,600 farmers who answered this question. Legumes, which could include clover, winter pea, vetch and others, were used by 55 percent, while an equal percentage planted brassicas such as oilseed radish, mustards, rapeseed, turnips and related plants. Annual grasses (which could include annual ryegrass, sorghum, sudangrass, oats and similar plants) were planted by 53 percent of the respondents, and multi-species mixes were used by 34 percent of the growers.

♦ Nearly half, or 48 percent, of 1,691 farmers reported using a herbicide to terminate their last cover crop. Tillage was the choice for 21 percent of the respondents. Selecting cover crops that winter kill was the top strategy for 20 percent, and mowing was employed by 10 percent. Only one percent reported using a roller-crimper, and 6% replied “Other.”

♦ In the 2013-2014 survey, the mean difference in yield for corn among farmers with 0 to 3 years of experience in cover crops was an increase of 2.04 bushels per acre, while farmers with 4 or more years of experience in cover crops reported a mean increase of 6.76 bushels per acre.  A similar pattern was evident in soybeans. Farmers with 0 to 3 years of cover crop experience reported a mean increase of 1.09 bushels per acre, while growers with 4 or more years of experience in cover crops saw a mean increase of 2.84 bushels.

♦ Median seed costs, with data “tails” removed, were $25 per acre. As with the seeding/establishment costs, regional data breakdowns of seed costs showed a wide range by geography, from a median seed cost of $25 per acre in the Midwest to a median of $40 per acre in the West.

♦ 88 percent of respondents who answered a question about barriers to adoption said that cover crop adoption is always limited or somewhat limited by the cost of cover crops; 81 percent said that cover crop adoption is always limited or somewhat limited by a perception that they are tough to terminate; and 72 percent said that adoption is always limited or somewhat limited by a perception that cover crops reduce yields in the following cash crops. Other barriers include a lack of access to planting equipment and lack of information about the practice.

♦ The top three challenges identified by cover crop users were time and labor required, establishing the crops, and seed cost. Time and labor was also the leading barrier to cover crop adoption among non-users.

♦ Of 419 respondents who answered a question about whether they managed their farm to provide forage for honeybees, 70 percent said they either planted bee-attractive plants to provide forage or managed their cover crops to provide forage for pollinators.

♦ In the three years preceding the survey year of 2013, cover crop acreage had increased by an average of about 30 percent per year among surveyed cover crop users. When farmers were asked to project their 2014 acreage, they forecast adding about 10 percent more acres of cover crops.

The increasing popularity of cover crops points to the great work that SARE has been doing for many years to assess, demonstrate, and publicize the benefits of cover cropping. We look forward to working with USDA and partner organizations to build upon the survey’s findings and promote the widespread adoption of cover crops.