November 3, 2016
Earlier this month, I received an e-mail from a friend of mine asking if I wanted to adopt “a tame squirrel.” I paused and re-read her sentence, and then saw a photo of an extremely cute baby squirrel.
Through several e-mail exchanges I learned that my friend’s coworker saw the baby squirrel in a park near her home, and was surprised at how unafraid it was of people (it came right up to her and let her touch it). Worried that this squirrel was a lost or abandoned pet, she picked up the squirrel, placed it in a box, and took it to her office. Everyone in her office was amazed that the squirrel was not afraid of people, and that it would let them touch it. That’s when I received the e-mail about the squirrel.
My first thought was, “Oh no! Why was that squirrel picked up?” I did some chastising since I told them that the baby squirrel may not have been lost or abandoned, and that since it was a baby that could explain why it wasn’t afraid of people. I knew that the person who picked up the squirrel thought she was helping, but taking an animal away from its home is not recommended. My friend asked if they should release the squirrel at a nearby golf course, and I quickly said, “No!”
Animals in a successful habitat know where food and water can be found, they know where they can take shelter to avoid predators and the weather, and have enough space to avoid high rates of competition. If this squirrel was placed in that golf course it would not have been familiar with its surroundings, would not know where food, water, or shelter could be found, and it is not likely that the squirrels living in that golf course would have accepted it. Also, if animals are successful in establishing themselves in new areas, they can have a negative effect on the animals already there (example 1, example 2, example 3).
I spoke with Leslie Gordon, who is one of the Managers in NHMLA’s Live Animal Program, and she had some great insight about "helping" wild animals:
It is not just unwise, it is illegal to keep a wild animal without a permit. Squirrels especially make terrible pets. Even those dedicated to raising them (with permits) note they are flighty, inconsistent, difficult, and …well…”squirrelly”.
Fear is a healthy thing for animals- friendliness is not. Wild squirrels (or any animal) can carry a plethora of zoonoses (diseases or parasites that can spread to humans). Squirrels, in particular, can also carry the plague. So when you see one that seems “unafraid”, that doesn’t necessarily mean it wants to be pals- It may be very ill.
A lack of fear can also mean it has been habituated to humans by feeding. If you have ever heard the term “a fed (blank) is a dead (blank)” that is what it refers to. Squirrels become habituated to humans and unafraid of them. When this happens they become food aggressive and begin to chase any human they find. It begins a loop of aggression (squirrels especially seem to find it satisfying when we run away screaming) that ends up with a squirrel being trapped by the City due to complaints and killed, or worse a kid getting bit. This is why rehabbers go to great lengths to avoid the animal seeing them or associating them with food, so it can be released again and keep its fear of humans. Don’t feed squirrels (or any wild animal)!
If you see an animal who is unafraid it is not wrong to leave it alone, especially if it seems otherwise safe, and simply report it to City animal control. They do bring animals to rehabbers when they can. If it seems in danger of being killed or injured, and you feel you can keep yourself safe from disease or bites, it is okay to bring it to a rehabber or shelter yourself.
I encouraged my friend and her coworker to call a wildlife rehabilitation center, and they found one in Malibu that specializes in squirrel rescues, Coast & Canyon Wildlife Rehabilitation. The rehabilitation center was able to accept the squirrel, and through the care of their trained wildlife rehabilitators they believe it will be able to be reintroduced successfully into the wild.
If you see a wild animal that you think needs help, it is recommended that you contact a wildlife rehabilitation center and/or animal control, rather than to try and help the animal on your own. Below is a list of places you may contact.
California Wildlife Center
City of Los Angeles Animals Services – Wildlife
Coast and Canyon Wildlife Rehabilitation
County of Los Angeles Animal Control – Wildlife
International Bird Research & Rescue Center
Pasadena Humane Society & SPCA – Wildlife
South Bay Wildlife Rehab
Squirrelmender Wildlife Rehab
Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center
February 4, 2016
“Raise your hand if you think it is a Bushtit.”
“There are four by this feeder and five at that one, so that’s nine altogether.”
“I think it’s sparrow-sized or smaller”
“Are you sure that isn’t a fake bird?”
These are questions and statements made during the Nature Navigator program on Saturday, January 23. Jeff Chapman, Manager of Interpretation and Training, and Richard Smart, Coordinator of Citizen Science, were leading a group of kids, ages 10-12 years old, on a bird walk through the NHMLA Nature Gardens. The bird walk was a training to help the kids gain more experience looking for birds, identifying them, and reporting their observations. By honing these skills, we hope to get our Nature Navigators to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count.
The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) was first held in 1998, and was created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society. The GBBC is credited as being “the first online citizen-science project to collect data on wild birds and to display results in near real-time.” The goal of the GBBC is to gain a better understanding of bird populations throughout North America. By getting more people to participate in the GBBC, scientists have access to more data, which can add to their knowledge of bird populations at local, state, and national levels. Here at NHMLA, we see all of L.A. as our backyard. The GBBC allows us to contribute wherever we are birding, be it your actual backyard, a local park, the L.A. River,or L.A. City Hall.
GBBC PARTICIPATION IS EASY
Step 1: Count birds anywhere you like. GBBC recommends you spend at least 15 minutes counting. Keep track of the numbers and species of birds you see and how long you watched.
Step 2: Make your best estimate of how many birds you saw of each species.
Step 3: Enter your list(s) online at BirdCount.org.
For our Nature Navigators, counting birds and entering those counted online was simple. The most difficult aspect is identifying what birds they were looking at – a major obstacle for most people when asked to participate in a citizen science bird project. While there are many different field guides that people may use to help with bird identification, there is also mobile phone app designed to to help people of all ages with their bird IDs. It's called, Merlin!
Merlin Bird ID is a FREE app, for Android and iOS mobile devices, that people can use to help them make bird IDs. First you answer five questions:
Then Merlin brings up a list of birds that you could be looking at (the list includes photos, names, and brief descriptions of the birds, and some birds have their calls uploaded to the app). The app was made by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and it earned its name since its accuracy is so high that people swear that it works like magic.
We worked with the Nature Navigators to practice using Merlin, and they were happy to have a tool that was simple to use, and that gave them information about the birds they were seeing. Quite often, when we take people outside, we want them to “unplug” when connecting to nature, but it was neat to see these kids using mobile technology to help them connect to nature. The app helped the kids become more involved in the bird walk since they weren’t relying on Jeff or Richard to make all of the bird IDs for them. Instead, they could find the answer themselves.
This year’s GBBC is being held Feb 12-15, 2016. Our Nature Navigators are motivated to help scientists by counting birds in their neighborhoods during this time frame. We hope that many of you will join them and participate in your own neighborhood. View the bird list that our Nature Navigators created on Jan 23. It contains 13 different types of birds. How many types of birds do you think you’ll see when you participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count?
Cornell Lab of Ornithology: http://gbbc.birdcount.org/about/
GBBC Toolkit, Instructions PDF: http://gbbc.birdcount.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/2016Updates_English_DownloadableInstructions.pdf
December 1, 2015
"What is that?” That was the question I asked my supervisor, Lila Higgins, back in the fall of 2012 when she brought in a strange looking object attached to a stick. “This is an ootheca, an egg case” she replied.
Ootheca seen on a Lion's Tail plant (Leonotis leonurus) Nov 3, 2015 in the Nature Gardens at NHMLA. Photo credit: Richard Smart
The ootheca was attached to a stick that Lila had brought inside to our office. Lila saw the stick lying on the ground in our Nature Gardens. Originally, she was going to place the stick into a nearby garden bed, but as she looked closer she noticed the ootheca. She recognized the shape of the ootheca to be that of a mantid egg case. Lila decided she would help the mantid babies by bringing them indoors, so they could develop without interference from predators or people.
I was very curious on how long it would take for the mantids to hatch out, and I wondered just how many and how large the young mantids would be when they emerged.
Days of checking the ootheca, turned into weeks, which turned into months. Then finally, in March of 2013, I heard Lila happily exclaim, “The ootheca hatched!” I ran over and was fascinated to see miniature mantids on her desk. They looked like the much larger mantids I was used to seeing, but teeny tiny. They were unbelievably cute. Lila even wrote her own blog post about it.
Baby mantid seen March 29, 2013. Photo credit: Lila Higgins
That experience made quite an impression on me, and it came to mind recently when I saw an ootheca attached to a Lion’s Tail plant in the Nature Gardens at NHMLA. My colleague, Richard Hayden, also recently posted an ootheca to Instagram, and that got me thinking that others were likely seeing these in L.A. and perhaps they didn’t know what they were.
Backside of an ootheca seen on a Catalina Perfume plant (Ribes viburnifolium) November 18, 2015 in the Nature Gardens at NHMLA. Photo credit: Richard Hayden
An ootheca can blend in very well with the plant they are attached to, so many people may not see them. Or people may think they are a sign of a sick or injured plant, and may remove the branches they are attached to, not realizing they were removing baby mantids from their gardens. Mantids are considered to be a beneficial insect since they will eat many garden pests such as grasshoppers, caterpillars, and aphids – you want mantids in your yard. The egg case actually starts as a frothy mass, but hardens to form a tough capsule that protects the growing young inside. Depending upon the mantid species, there can be anywhere from dozens to hundreds of mantids inside the ootheca, so by picking up sticks with an ootheca attached to them can help out a lot of mantids.
Ootheca on wire fence, Nov 23, 2013 in the Nature Gardens at NHMLA. Photo credit: Lila Higgins
Are you seeing oothecae in your part of L.A.? If so, I encourage you to let them be. The egg case will protect them from rain and temperature changes. If you see an ootheca attached to a broken stick laying on the ground then kindly place the stick in an area where they are less likely to be damaged by people. You can also take photo of the egg cases, and tag us using #NatureinLA so we can add your #ootheca photos to our L.A. Nature Map!
September 10, 2015
Downtown Los Angeles (DTLA) is cast as one of the most iconic concrete jungles, with skyscrapers, cars, and miles of concrete. Many think of this as a place bereft of nature. But, over the last number of years pocket parks have been built, landscapes have been changed (think City Hall), and street-side planters have been added (though the habitat value of the plants in the Broadway bump-outs is questionable at best). Nature has always been here, and will continue to be so. But the often cited examples of urban nature, rats, pigeons, and ants, aren’t the only ones calling DTLA home.
At our recent BioBlitz L.A. event at City Hall we worked to document the wildlife in downtown. With a dedicated crew of 9 citizen scientists, we managed to document 28 species in 1 ½ hours. From orb weaver spiders and argentine ants, to flower flies and fox squirrels.
At that event I met Michael. Michael is one of our repeat citizen scientists. This year he participated in our ButterflySCAN project and I’ve often seen his posts on our L.A. Nature Map. As you can imagine, I was pretty excited that he was going to join us.
Michael had walked over to the event from his nearby apartment where he lives on the fourth floor. We got to talking and he told me about the wildlife he sees every day from his living room windows. Michael has two window gardens with 2, 24-inch wooden planter boxes outside of each window. Each planter box contains different types of flowers. Michael knew his garden would attract the bees, butterflies, and other pollinators he’d seen flying around DTLA.
Shortly after putting in his window garden, Michael looked out of his window and began thinking about installing a bird feeder.
“I was trying to decide if I wanted to put up a feeder with seeds in it, or a hummingbird feeder. I was pretty much resigned to putting up the seed feeder because I hadn't seen any hummingbirds in the area of downtown where I live. I hesitated though, because seed feeders can get pretty messy. Suddenly, just as I was about to make my decision, a hummingbird flew up from below my window, stopped about 3 feet from me and stayed for about 10 or 15 seconds while looking straight at me, as if to say, "Of course there are hummingbirds here!’”
Inspired by this nature sighting, Michael purchased and installed one hummingbird feeder. Hummingbirds found the feeder (and his garden), and overtime Michael increased his feeders to four. At times there have been over a dozen hummingbirds visiting at once. As Michael put it, “I’m visited all day long by the beautiful flying citizens of downtown Los Angeles.”
Michael has documented two species of hummingbirds using his feeders: Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna) and Allen's Hummingbird (Selasphorus sasin). Michael thinks that he may have seen a Rufous Hummingbird, but he couldn’t verify it since it didn’t stay long.
When Michael shared that he had four hummingbird feeders installed, I was a bit surprised since that seemed like a lot. I asked him what the largest number of hummingbirds he has ever seen feeding at one time.
“One cloudy spring afternoon earlier this year, at dusk, there were 26 hummingbirds feeding or perched in my south-facing garden, and another 10 or 11 were doing the same outside my west-facing window. I was so awed by so many hummingbirds in my garden at the same time that I just stood there and stared, counting. I don't think I even got any photos of that special afternoon!”
Can you imagine seeing 36 hummingbirds outside a window in DTLA? I wonder if people walking on the sidewalk below had any idea there was a charm (yes, that’s what a group of hummingbirds is called) of hummingbirds flittering around above their heads.
For those of you who have or had hummingbird feeders, you know that it can be a lot of work to maintain them. It is recommended that feeders are cleaned and changed every 5 days to prevent bacterial growth. Michael works hard to follow that protocol.
“Now, with so many birds feeding here… I end up cleaning and refilling them about every two or three days because the birds have eaten all of the nectar already! Sometimes it's a lot of work keeping up with my little, energy-hungry neighbors.”
Clearly this must be a labor of love for Michael. He doesn’t have to work so hard to maintain a healthy habitat for these DTLA hummingbirds. So why does he do it?
“They make me happy. I love to listen to them all day long while I'm working in my home office, and love to watch them dance through the skies here. In fact, as I'm typing this, I'm sitting 3 feet from a hummingbird outside my west-facing window.”
Michael’s story resonates with me, because it shows that if wildlife friendly habitats are built then wildlife will come. The window gardens that Michael installed are visited by bees and butterflies, and his feeders help provide food for hummingbirds. I want to thank Michael for beautifying DTLA with his gardens, for providing habitat for wildlife, and for inspiring me to do more to help nature in L.A. I live in an apartment in Hollywood, and surely I can create a mini-garden of my own. I wonder what animals will visit me and my garden.
Check out Michael’s Flickr page to view more of his stunning photos.
Michael posted some of his hummingbird photos, and other wildlife photos, to NHMLA’s L.A. Nature Map.
June 17, 2015
During Bug Fair, I found a ladybug in the Museum’s Nature Gardens, that didn’t look familiar. It didn’t have any spots, but it somehow looked different than all the other no-spotted ladybugs I’d seen before. I took its photo, posted it to our Nature Gardens Survey on iNaturalist, and then totally forgot about it.
Nine-spotted ladybug, photo taken by Harsi Parker
It wasn’t until a few weeks later, while I was preparing for a behind-the-scenes tour in entomology that something made me come back to that photograph. I was planning to talk about a big discovery made by a citizen scientist back in 2009—the time Harsi Parker discovered a rare nine-spotted ladybug in L.A.
Harsi Parker standing in Webb Canyon circa 2009
Today Harsi lives in Washington State, but back in 2009, Harsi lived in Claremont, right on the edge of L.A. and San Bernardino counties. On a summer day in 2009, Harsi went for a walk in Claremont’s Webb Canyon. As she passed a stand of mustard plants, she noticed an insect out of the corner of her eye. She looked closer and realized it was a ladybug—one she had never seen before. Not having her camera on her, and worrying she’d never find the ladybug again if she ran home to get it, Harsi picked the sprig of invasive mustard (she wouldn’t have done this if it was a native flower). She slowly and carefully walked the sprig with its precious cargo all the way back to her house. Once she was home Harsi immediately took photos of the ladybug, and began searching through her field guides to try and identify it. When she turned to the page with the nine-spotted ladybug, Coccinella novemnotata, Harsi got really excited—these are very rare ladybugs.
Nine-spotted ladybugs are native to North America, but their population numbers declined tremendously in the 1970s and 80s. Numbers declined so low that many scientists thought they were locally extinct in many parts of the U.S.
Knowing that nine-spotted ladybugs are rare, Harsi realized she had to share her find with the scientific community. She posted her photo to Cornell’s Lost Ladybug Project and promptly got confirmation that her ladybug was indeed a rare nine-spotted specimen. This was only the second time this lost ladybug had been reported to the project for the entire state of California!
While doing my research about Harsi’s story, I got a chance to really study her nine-spotted ladybug photographs. As I looked at them closely I realized they reminded me of the ladybug I had found in the Nature Gardens during Bug Fair.
My photo on the left; Harsi Parker's photo on the right
I put our photos side by side, and noticed that they both had a black line running down their back, they both had the same black-and-white pattern on the pronotum (the shield-like covering above a ladybug’s head), and they had the same white line between their eyes. Just like Harsi, I got really excited, “Did I just discover a ‘lost ladybug’ here in the Nature Gardens?”
Turns out my ladybug was a lost ladybug too! Within 24 hours, staff from Cornell responded to my picture and told me I had found the fourth nine-spotted ladybug in California. I couldn’t believe it! The odds of me finding a nine-spotted ladybug are small, but finding one while researching another nine-spotted finding was just too incredible.
I emailed Harsi to let her know what was taking place and she was thrilled. I told Harsi that our photos are forever linked, because if I hadn’t been researching her story then I wouldn’t have realized what I had seen. This goes to show that the power of citizen science is not only helping scientists collect valuable data points, but it is also connecting people through science and helping them to make big discoveries about the world we live in.
Photos from the Lost Ladybug tour during the First Fridays program on June 5.
Feeling inspired? We encourage all of you to look for ladybugs this summer. Take their photos and send them to us at email@example.com. You may not find a nine-spotted ladybug, but you will be contributing to our understanding of nature in L.A.
Written by Richard Smart
May 27, 2015
Have you recently seen lizards in L.A. that appear to be biting each other, or maybe they are trying to eat each other?
If you have, you are not alone. Citizen scientist, Diana Beardsley, saw these two in her lizard-filled backyard and sent us this picture. It became the latest data point in our Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California project (RASCals) which helps us understand the state of urban lizard populations. It also helped us realize a pattern!
Diana was not the only one to send us a picture of one lizard biting another. Many of the people who sent us these pictures were not sure exactly what they were witnessing–were they fighting, trying to eat each other, or doing something else entirely?
Turns out it was something else.
What looks like a fight between two lizards, is actually a form of lizard courtship, a lizard love bite if you will. Museum herpetologist, Dr. Greg Pauly says, "male alligator lizards bite the female behind the head during mating, which holds her in place until she is ready." Lizards have been observed in this position for a long time—sometimes over an hour, and oftentimes moving through open spaces which makes them easily visible. Some people speculate that the mating hold is a show of strength by the male, to prove how worthy of a mate he is. However, as Greg points out, there's no data to support this claim but he concedes that it could prove to be true.
All of this might sound a little harsh to some people, but this mating behavior has not been known to harm the female. If you see lizards engaged in this behavior, please do not try to separate them or move them, as this could harm the lizards. This is their normal behavior, and an integral part of their mating ritual.
When Greg saw Diana's photo he wasn't surprised, "it's mating season and this is a typical mating hold exhibited by alligator lizards." Southern alligator lizards (Elgaria multicarinata) are the most widespread lizards in urban L.A., but they can be secretive and fast, which sometimes make them hard to photograph. However, during the breeding season finding two lizards out in the open—one biting another—leads to lots of curious people taking photos. All told, we received seven photos of lizards mating in March and April, which is about 10% of all RASCals submissions during the time period.
Here are some more pictures of alligator lizards in the mating hold:
On March 19, Louise Whitaker saw these Alligator lizards and sent the photo in to our firstname.lastname@example.org e-mail.
On March 27, Ron Matumoto submitted this picture to the RASCals project on iNaturalist:
Finally, on April 22, Jean Brandt sent in this photo.
These images provide photographic evidence that lizards in these areas are healthy enough to support breeding populations. If the photos come from urban and suburban areas, then Greg and other scientists can study them to understand why lizard populations are able to survive despite the proliferation of human development.
Greg says, "As we grow RASCals, we should get dozens of these mating entries. Once we have them, I think I will be able to write a paper about breeding behavior of these lizards entirely based on citizen science observations. It will be awesome."
So if you see lizards entangled in a love bite (or doing anything at all, Greg's really not that picky) please take a photo and send them to email@example.com. Your photos will help us better understand lizards in L.A.
Co-authored by Richard Smart and Lila Higgins
September 20, 2013
Ever found a large green spider in your garden? Chances are, if you're in the Los Angeles area, the spider you've found is a Green Lynx Spider, Peucetia viridans.
Here's one that NHMLA staffer, Richard Smart, found in our Nature Gardens on Wednesday:
Photo taken by NHMLA's own Spider-Woman, Cat Urban.
This was perfect timing, as we desperately needed one for display in our Spider Pavilion, which opens to members today and to everyone on Sunday. As many of you know, this exhibit is a place to get up close and personal with spiders in a safe and garden-like setting.
To prime visitors for the experience of walking amongst hundreds of free, web-spinning spiders (that's right, the Spider Pavilion is an immersive experience), we display about 13 spiders in enclosures in an exhibit area. This helps most people acclimate, though many arachnophobes swear this doesn't make a lick of difference. For those who are brave, they can peruse the various spiders we have collected and reared, and learn a bit about their natural history.
So why did we pick this spider to display? Firstly, she's GREEN! There aren't many creatures here in Los Angeles, that can camouflage this well in our gardens. Secondly, she is a voracious and cat-like predator, hence the name. If you're lucky, you might get to see her being fed a cricket when you visit! Finally, although this spider looks fat, she is not. She is actually toting an almost fully developed egg case in her abdomen, which contains hundred of developing spiderlings! There really aren't many things cooler than coming to work and finding that a spider you've collected has laid an egg sac!
So why don't you come on down and visit her and all her other spidery friends?