wildlife

Adult wood duck pair

From boom to bust and back again

Young wood ducks have a tough start in life. Hatched in a tree cavity 50 feet or more from the ground, they have less than a day to rest and dry their downy feathers after fighting their way out of the eggshell before their mother decides it’s time to leave the nest.

When the hen is sure that all her offspring have gathered, she leads them quickly to the nearest stream, pond, swamp, or marsh. Though the ducklings are now safer than they were on land, they’re not yet totally out of danger. From below, a snapping turtle or largemouth bass would like nothing better than to make a meal of an unsuspecting duckling. From above, a great blue heron or other avian predator could easily take one as well.

Bird

Taking refuge

A full-figured pig named Baby lounges, unruffled, in a puddle of mud at Sunrise Sanctuary in Marysville. A lone duck waddles past, oblivious to the prodigious porker to its left.

“Our babies are all unique and special souls that are loving, thoughtful, and funny individuals,” says Sandy Horvath, the animals’ primary caretaker. “They’re not just numbers. They are special beings deserving of our love and respect.”

All around Ohio, animal sanctuaries provide respite and relief for misfit animals, whether they’ve been abused or neglected or simply moved on to greener pastures after their working days ended.

Wild boars

Wild hogs

Lon Swihart cares for 120 hogs on a bucolic farm in rural Preble County. Hog farming is part of the landscape and cultural fabric here in towns like Eaton and West Alexandria.

Today, many of the pork producers are larger, corporate-owned operations where the pigs are kept indoors and escape is impossible, so many of the fences have disappeared. Swihart’s farm has a 4-foot-high cement wall and double fencing. But, it turns out, the best fences are made from love and happiness.

“My hogs don’t want to go anywhere — they are happy here,” Swihart says. He can count the times on one hand over the decades that a hog has gotten loose, and each time it has come back. His hogs prefer life on the farm over a life on the lam.

Gray fox

Red fox, gray fox, and wily coyote

When wild animals face a change in their environment, they have three options: adapt, migrate, or die. When those animals happen to be three top-tier predators attempting to occupy the same habitat, things can get dicey.

According to Katie Dennison, furbearer biologist for the Ohio Division of Wildlife, an annual survey indicates “a long-term declining trend in red fox and gray fox sightings since the survey began in 1990, which is indicative of a decline in both fox populations in Ohio. However, the trend does appear to have leveled off during the past five to seven years.” Dennison adds that the survey relies on deer-bowhunter observations, so “is biased toward describing fox population trends in rural areas.” 

John Ruthven

20th century Audubon

At the corner of Vine and West 8th in downtown Cincinnati, a giant mural covers the entire side of a six-story building. It depicts a colorful, swirling flock of birds: passenger pigeons, now extinct. The last passenger pigeon, Martha, died at the Cincinnati Zoo on Sept.

If it has to do with birds in or around Cincinnati, Ruthven probably was part of it. 

Born in 1924, Ruthven knew he wanted to be a professional artist from an early age, preferably a wildlife artist. Like so many young men of that era, however, his dream was deferred by World War II; John enlisted in the U.S. Navy after he graduated from high school in 1943. 

Saw-whet owl

Give a hoot

Nocturnal, secretive, and steeped in folklore, owls are cryptic wild critters that give up the details of their lives only grudgingly. Blake Mathys, a member of Marysville-based Union Rural Electric Cooperative, hopes to shine a little light on the subject this winter.

“My main reason for developing the project is that, for a number of reasons, owl sightings often don’t get reported, even by citizen-scientists and serious birders,” Mathys says. “I want to provide a secure outlet to get a better idea of the true numbers of owls in our state during the winter months.”

Screech oil

Birds of a feather

A professor of biology and ecology at Ashland University, Merrill Tawse has been running the same wild-bird survey route annually for more than 40 years. It’s not for his work, though; it’s purely for pleasure.  

Before 1900, rural people engaged in a holiday tradition known as the Christmas “side hunt.” Sides (teams) were chosen, and team members fanned out through the countryside with their rifles and shotguns. Whichever team amassed the most feathered or furred quarry by the end of the day won the contest.  

Bobcat in carrier

On the prowl

Bobcats were supposedly extirpated from Ohio by 1850, but that may not actually have been the case — especially in the extreme eastern part of the state, particularly Belmont County.

Bobcats were taken off the state-endangered list in 2014. At the time of delisting, the population in Ohio was about 1,000 individuals, and since that time, the bobcat population has continued to increase in both size and distribution. 

Mt. Denali National Park

Learning to "see"

One of America’s leading naturalists of the 19th century was the prolific Louis Agassiz (1807–1873), who, while teaching at Harvard, taught his students the skill of in-depth observation of natural objects. He did it by what his students termed “the incident of the fish.”

The same approach can be used to learn outdoor photography. Not that you have to stare at the same photo subject for hours on end, but developing the ability to “see” the details of photos before you attempt to take them is a crucial skill — yet one that anyone can learn.

One of Ohio’s best outdoor photographers is Art Weber, founding director of the Nature Photography Center for Metroparks Toledo. He says there’s a difference between looking at the natural world as an artist and as a photographer.  

People viewing Lake Erie from Stone Lab

Stone Lab: Lake Erie’s little giant

Gibraltar Island is just 6.5 acres, yet sports a castle, a fleet of boats, and a small-but-mighty lab. Though tiny, it has a huge footprint in Lake Erie conservation — and in the hearts of thousands of yearly visitors.

“I first attended as a high school student with my ichthyology class on a field trip in the 1970s,” says John Hageman. “After college, a job opened up, and they were willing to hire me up at the lake.” Hageman eventually spent 25 years there as lab manager.