Regift Your Christmas Tree to Wildlife

Recycled Christmas trees piled on Onslow Beach by Marines stationed at Camp Lejeune.   Photo courtesy of Defense Vdeo and Imagery Distribution.

Recycled Christmas trees piled on Onslow Beach by Marines stationed at Camp Lejeune.
Photo courtesy of Defense Video and Imagery Distribution.

By Maymie Higgins

One of the most gratifying tasks in caring for captive animals is to provide them with environmental enrichment. Environmental enrichment is the use of items, scents and activities to stimulate natural behavior in captive wildlife. After the holiday season, this often includes the use of donated live Christmas trees that were unsold leftovers. The mere presence of a Frasier fir, with its spicy aroma, is particularly stimulating for animals with highly developed nasal mucosa such as big cats, canids and bears. Over the course of several days, zookeepers will reposition trees within enclosures and hide novel food items within their branches to create new daily experiences for as long as possible.

Captive animals are not the only recipients of the benefits of recycled live Christmas trees. All over the United States, local and state agencies are accepting donations of trees to be used for creating and supplementing aquatic habitats for fishes. Fisheries biologists use discarded Christmas trees to maintain many fish attractor sites by sinking selected trees and other suitable materials where they will provide a surface where aquatic insects live and grow. These insects attract small fish that are fed upon by larger fish.

One example in my home state of North Carolina is at the John H. Kerr Reservoir. In the 1950’s, Kerr Reservoir, also called Buggs Island Lake, was constructed primarily to provide for flood control and hydropower generation. Kerr Reservoir has 900 miles of wooded shoreline that stretch across three counties in Virginia and three counties in North Carolina. The US Army Corps of Engineers will be accepting used live Christmas trees and at the end of January will take the donated trees, bind them together and sink for fish habitat. “These trees are some of the best natural forms of underwater structure. Crappie, bass, bluegills and other fish will often use the tress to hide in and around,” according to Chris Powell, Conservation Biologist at Kerr Reservoir.

While some trees are submerged into bodies of water, others may get a second life on the beach. Collecting and placing Christmas trees in the dunes of North Carolina beach communities is a long-standing post holiday tradition that has spread to other states, including those affected by Hurricane Sandy. North Carolina scientists developed a technique of sea dune development by strategically placing Christmas trees along dunes to help the natural process of collecting sand through Aeolian action. This is the pattern of movement that results in capture of sand particles by sand fencing and or other vegetative materials such as sea oats (or Christmas trees). This helps build dunes that experience harsh wave action and escarpment during the winter ocean movements and Nor’easters. Dunes are critical for stabilizing beaches and preventing inland flooding and are important habitat for beach dwelling wildlife.

Photo courtesy of Defense Video and Imagery Distribution.

Photo courtesy of Defense Video and Imagery Distribution.

There are some areas where donated Christmas trees are used to create bird and reptile habitats. Poplar Island in the Chesapeake Bay had become three separate islands by 1990 due to erosion. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has restored the island to 1,140 acres and growing by using soil dredged from the Baltimore shipping channels. Half the acreage is now wetlands and half is uplands. Every January since 2005, residents of Easton, Maryland, have donated their old Christmas trees to become shelter and nesting habitat for black ducks, snowy egrets, red-winged blackbirds and diamondback terrapins. Biologists who are monitoring wildlife on Poplar Island report use of these donated trees by several bird and turtle species.  For more details, be sure to watch this short video clip.

Recycled Christmas trees on Poplar Island in the Chesapeake Bay.   Photo courtesy of Chesapeake Bay Program and partners.

Recycled Christmas trees on Poplar Island in the Chesapeake Bay.
Photo courtesy of Chesapeake Bay Program and partners.

Another terrific place to recycle live Christmas trees is your own backyard. The National Christmas Tree Association provides recycling options and tips, including safety tips because it is very important that all tinsel and decorations be removed so as not to jeopardize the safety of wildlife.   My favorite method of recycling Christmas trees or any other brush obtained from pruning shrubs around my lawn is to add it to the permanent brush pile on the back of my property. Over the years I have sat on my deck and watched wrens, nuthatches, titmice, bunnies and many other species use the brush pile for cover and nesting activities. You could say that recycling is the gift that gives all year long. At least, that’s the way I feel as I enjoy the free and never ending wildlife documentary that happens in my own backyard.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Champions for Cheetahs


Image courtesy of the Cheetah Conservation Fund.

Image courtesy of the Cheetah Conservation Fund.

When humans use analogies of strength and courage, they often conjure up images of large, predatory cats.  Lions are king of the jungle.  The eye of the tiger indicates a sharp and determined mind that misses no detail.  There is even a brand of athletic shoes named Puma, a less than subtle suggestion of how one might expect to perform athletically if wearing that brand.  But times are actually quite tough for big cats everywhere, paradoxically including the one with the title of fastest land mammal, the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus).

Cheetahs endure many of the same threats as other large cats: habitat loss and fragmentation, killing and capture as livestock predators and trade on the black market for body parts and the exotic pet trade.  There has been an estimated 30 percent loss in the wild cheetah population during the last 18 years, which is not difficult to believe given that 50-75 percent of cheetah cubs die within months.

There is another threat to cheetahs that is uniquely their own, known as low genetic variation. About 10,000 years ago, there were different species of cheetahs living in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America.  But something cataclysmic happened and severely reduced cheetah populations worldwide.  In order for the species to survive, related cheetahs had to breed.  Today, all cheetahs share 99 percent of the same DNA.  To give you reference, related individuals in other species usually only share approximately 80 percent of their DNA.  In theory, this low genetic variation significantly increases vulnerability to a single disease destroying the entire cheetah population because their immune systems are identical. With estimates of only 7,500 to 10,000 cheetahs in the wild, this is a valid concern.

Cheetahs have many champions, including the Cheetah Conservation Fund, an organization that combines research, education, conservation and international collaboration to prevent cheetah extinction.  CCF also sponsors International Cheetah Day, which is this Wednesday, December 4.  The Founder and Executive Director, Dr. Laurie Marker will be providing a “State of the Cheetah” address as part of the events to take place.  Dr. Marker helped develop the U.S. and international captive cheetah program over 16 years (1974-1988) while at Oregon’s Wildlife Safari in the USA. Dr. Marker also helped identify the cheetah’s lack of genetic variation while working with the National Zoo and National Cancer Institute (USA).

Since 1974, the Saint Louis Zoo has been dedicated to saving cheetahs and other species in what is now known as the Center for Conservation of Large Carnivores in Africa.  In addition to coordinating the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Cheetah Species Survival Plan (SSP), the Saint Louis Zoo has partnered with multiple African NGOs and governmental organizations to aid in working with humans who reside in wild cheetah range.  The Center supports the Global Cheetah Action Plan & Global Cheetah Forum, South Africa, through workshops that educate people living near cheetahs about its importance as a species in the ecosystem along with livestock and game management.

While Saint Louis Zoo coordinates the Cheetah SSP, the support within AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums does not end there.  According to the AZA, the AZA Felid Taxon Advisory Group and Cheetah SSP manage over 250 cheetahs in 54 AZA-accredited zoos.  Cheetahs are difficult to breed in captivity, yet the ex situ cheetah population within AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums have developed reproduction techniques that resulted in over ten litters of cubs.  It is possible that these techniques will be used to support and/or supplement the in situ cheetah population.

The AZA Conservation Endowment Fund, and one of its sub-funds, the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund, has provided over $90,000 in support of cheetah conservation projects including Cheetah Conservation Botswana for community outreach programs for predator conservation near game ranches, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium for a field workshop on cheetah censoring techniques to study their population dynamics, the Cheetah Conservation Fund to develop a Visitor Education Center in Namibia, Africa which emphasizes the values of cheetahs within the ecosystem and to expand their educational program and to evaluate conservation strategies for the long-term survival of the cheetah.  In addition, AZA funds go to Center for Reproduction of Endangered Species at the San Diego Zoo, Oregon Zoo, and Oklahoma City Zoological Park for their cooperative effort in correlating the reproductive success and management styles of ex situ cheetahs.

Cheetahs are important simply because they are.  They have their own niche in the ecosystem and have persevered in the face of incredible odds stacked against them.  That alone is sufficient reason to support cheetah conservation efforts. And we must be careful in how we protect them.  Indeed, this may be a species better left out of ecotourism as much as possible.  While it is thrilling to visit exotic locations and observe wild behaviors, ecotourism can disrupt the balance.  Cheetahs are often followed by tourists who inadvertently interfere with attempts to stalk and kill prey, as a recently popularized video demonstrates.

The cheetah story is just one of many examples of how biologists, veterinarians, keepers and aquarists at zoos and aquariums throughout the world are collaborating with governmental organizations, non-governmental organizations and even corporations to conserve and preserve the natural world.

How will you honor International Cheetah Day?

Image courtesy of Cheetah Conservation Fund.

Image courtesy of Cheetah Conservation Fund.

The American Wild Turkey


American wild turkey.  Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

American wild tom and hen turkeys. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

I have been comfortable around animals my entire life with two exceptions, each involving birds.  One of those experiences was with a tom turkey.  My husband and I were visiting Yorktown, Virginia, where the final blow to Cornwallis and the British Army happened and the Revolutionary War was won.  On the grounds is a farm where rural 1780s Virginia is recreated with typical plant and animal species, including fowl of the era: chickens, Muscovy ducks (Cairina moschata) and American wild turkeys (Melagris gallopavo). I was admiring the early spring crops when, from behind,  I heard what sounded like a pleated shade being abruptly drawn and slammed against a windowsill.  I turned and there he was, Tom Turkey in all his red-wattled, snooded, puffed-up glory and with his tail feather plumage in full, fanned out display.  “Beautiful!” I thought, and kept touring.

A few minutes later, the pleated shade was drawn again, a bit more loudly.  I looked around, thinking there must be a female turkey (hen) close by but could find none.  I did see, however, that Tom was much closer.  It occurred to me that I was the target of the display that repeated at least two dozen times over the next hour.  Finding the encounter uncomfortable, I avoided eye contact in order to prevent an attack in response to what could be perceived as aggression on my part. Adult male American wild turkeys can weigh nearly twenty-five pounds and grow as tall as four feet.  I’m only five feet, three inches tall.  They also have spurs on each leg that can reach 3.2 cm in length.  They can fly at up to 55 mph.  Remember the raptors in the original Jurassic Park movie?  I did!

Since this encounter, I have come to understand that this turkey had probably been hand-reared by humans and I was the target of misguided but completely normal turkey behavior.  Because there were many tourists there, I choose to believe I reminded him of someone who had treated him kindly.  He was inviting me into his harem.  How sweet!

Fossil evidence of turkeys in the United States and Mexico dates back more than 5 million years.  In fact, the Aztecs domesticated turkeys long before Europeans arrived.  Settlement of the New World affected wild turkeys as adversely as it did many other species.  By the 1900s, heavy market hunting, rapid deforestation and habitat destruction had decreased the U.S. population of wild turkeys to less than 30,000.  Initial conservation efforts to increase the wild population included captive breeding but captive born turkeys did not survive once released into the wild.  The next effort was much more successful as several states began trapping and relocating wild turkeys.

In my home state, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission trapped over 6,000 wild turkeys from the 1950s through 2005 and relocated them to 358 release sites.  In 1970, there were only 2,000 wild turkeys in North Carolina but that number increased to more than 150,000 by 2009.  The wild turkey is found in every state except Alaska and was even introduced into Hawaii for hunting ranches.  Indeed, sportsmen were the most instrumental in restoring turkey populations by providing funding for restocking and relocating programs and by contributing to groups that conserve habitat such as the National Wild Turkey Federation.  Audubon magazine published an article this month, written by T. Edward Nickens, with a comprehensive history of wild turkeys along with information about the latest conservation status.

In terms of environmental contributions, wild turkeys are one of the most popular game bird species and turkey hunting brings millions of dollars to the states in which they are hunted.  This revenue is often used towards habitat improvement and conservation.  They are also a food source for humans and other predators including bobcats, coyotes, raccoons, mountain lions, golden eagles and great horned owls.  Predators that will eat turkey eggs include raccoons, opossums, skunks, foxes, birds, groundhogs, bobcats and snakes.  Wild turkeys are omnivorous and can positively impact the populations of the plant seeds and nuts they consume such as acorns.  They also consume ground-dwelling insects and salamanders, along with the plant items, mostly by foraging after dawn and before dusk. Wild turkeys have no documented negative impacts to the ecosystems in which they reside.  You may watch a video of wild turkeys as featured on CBS Sunday morning here.

While the story that Benjamin Franklin wanted the Wild Turkey as the National Bird is not accurate, it is clear to see why he heralded the turkey’s attributes by comparison to the bald eagle, given his own personal experiences.  I’ll leave you with that quote and a reminder to express your gratitude for the all the champions of the wild.  Happy Thanksgiving!

“After independence, an early Congress debated the matter of a fitting symbol for its new country, settling on the bald eagle. Franklin was the United States’ ambassador to France and received a newly minted seal of office reflecting the choice. It drew sniggers because the eagle, it was said, looked more like a turkey. Franklin wrote: I am on this account, not displeas’d that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turk’y. For in Truth the Turk’y is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America…. He is, (though a little vain and silly, it is true, but not the worse emblem for that,) a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards, who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.” (From A Short History of the Turkey, by Andrew G. Gardner, Colonial Williamsburg)