Sunday, September 6, 2015

From My Nature Journal: Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

People often ask me if there are no more animals in the woods, as they so rarely see any. It got me to thinking…

I’ve read somewhere that the typical eastern United States ‘Hundred Mile Wood’ (by definition a ten-mile by ten-mile forest section, or a hundred square miles) contains on average 300,000 non-human mammals, believe it or not. Of that number, though, fully 220,000 are mice or smaller. Hmmm, that would be mice, bats, moles, voles, lemmings and shrews. That’s it. Twenty-two of every thirty mammals in the woods are in the mouse category, a full 73%.

Allow me a moment’s divergence. From this statistic it seems the place should at least be crawling with these furry little rascals. However, in spite of their ubiquitousness, they’re not often seen -- for reasons practical and reasons statistical. Practically, if they’re not hidden in their tree cavities or burrows, many of them are nocturnal anyway. So unless I am out at night with a flashlight, and then looking in the right place, I will not normally see them. But if I look at it statistically, a little math will keep me from having to watch where I step, as even this is not a high population in a hundred mile wood. In a place that big, that would be one mouse-type critter for every 12,672 square feet, on average, or one mouse-or-smaller creature in an area roughly 113 feet by 113 feet. So, if my average forest saunter is a thirty-inch stride, anywhere I stand in the woods I am, on average, a full twenty-three paces from a small rodent of some kind! Unless it’s up! Isn’t math fun? And their various nooks and crannies determine I’ll rarely encounter them anyway.

But to return to the original question, we’ve covered so far only 220,000 of the 300,000 mammals in the typical hundred mile forest (or 300,001 if I count myself). “Surely the rest are man eaters, more highly visible and impressive,” you may say. Well, no, not exactly. As if the above statistic is not curious enough, another 65,000 of that original figure are between the size of mice and squirrels. All we’re doing is climbing the rodent chain a bit, and we haven’t even gotten to rabbits: we’re talking chipmunks, gophers and squirrels. These diminutive downy denizens constitute another full 22% of the mammals in our faire glen, and most of them are out of my sight a long way up in the trees. So that means that 285 of every 300 mammals here (95%) are squirrels and smaller! I can begin to see why it’s not particularly common to see animals in the woods at all, unless I am (1) incredibly lucky, or (2) I am there a lot, or (3) I am patient and intentional, or (4) all three of these, likely the latter.

So, only 5% of the mammals here are larger than a squirrel, many of which appreciate the fact that there are so many delicious little morsels to choose from on the a la carte menu. This would include rodents further up the depth chart like weasels, mink, hares, rabbits, skunks, possums, muskrats, coons, porcupines, woodchucks, otter and beaver (all common, but again, not frequently seen). It will include some of the less common large rodents like badgers, martens and fishers, and maybe a wolverine (but likely not). It will include the medium to large land mammals: red and gray fox, bobcat, lynx, coyotes, deer, black bear, elk and moose. And finally, at the top of the food chain, there may be wolves (in the north) and cougars (referred to in the west as mountain lion or puma, in the south as panther or painter), though both of these are quite rare and infrequently seen. (I’ve seen wolves but not cougars.) But 15,000 of these larger mammals in our woods? How come we don’t see them all the time? Because that, too, may seem like a lot, but the math again gives perspective, like this.

There are about twenty deer per square mile (the most common large mammal), a little better on average than one per quarter-mile-square. That’s actually a pretty large area to watch, 1300 feet forward and to the side, with a lot of cover between you and them and a diffused sight line they’re trying to maintain. They hide their cautious selves so well we likely will not even see the most numerous large mammal out there. So remember, they’re trying after all not to be seen by you! By numeric contrast, there may be one cougar (if that) in the whole hundred square miles. And I’d not want to come across it anyway, thank you, at least not on the trail (though I’d be grateful if I did). Here’s a true truth, however: whatever the large mammal, deer or cougar, they do see you! Maybe by eyes, ears or nose, but they know you’re there, and they’re trying their best to keep their distance.
All this goes to show why any serious woods-watcher would do well to consider every single sighting a blessing from God, even if it’s a mouse!

And God saw everything that he had made, and,
behold, it was very good. (Genesis 1:31)

~~RGM, from an earlier journal entry, 
Adapted for my blog September 4 2015

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