Story and Photographs By Joan Herrmann

Whereiwander… today it is again closer to home as the temperatures remain in the single digits. We still have plenty of snow to snowshoe or cross-country ski around the meadow and into the woods. A blue sky and sunshine entice me to come out and to discover what’s happening on this last day of February. Today is a perfect day for observing the birds and other critters that go about their daily living. Through the kitchen windows this morning I watched several deer in the yard grooming one another. They can groom most of themselves without help, but it is a shared experience to tidy up each other in the hard-to-reach body parts. Today’s column focus is on wildlife’s sensational senses. One of the deer’s first and extremely important, of its five senses, is its sense of taste. After a few days of nursing its mother’s milk, the newborn fawn will begin eating solid foods. It has a unique way of knowing what is good to eat because the doe will lick the plants which the fawn can eat. If a plant doesn’t have its mother’s taste then it should not be eaten. This procedure is followed until the fawn begins to recognize the “good plants” by their own smell and taste.

The sense of smell is extremely important to most wild animals and it may even mean life or death for most of them. Not all animals have the same senses that we do; while some animals have extremely perfected senses. Wild canines like foxes, coyotes, and wolves have a highly evolved sense of smell. Scent marking is their means of communication and scents can identify individuals, territorial boundaries, and also mating status. Smell and taste are additionally important to insects. Many of you probably remember how important these two senses are to the Monarch Butterfly; and also that every species of butterflies has a host plant. The host plant is the plant or in some cases plants that each species of butterflies lay their egg or eggs on. The host plant will provide food for the larvae when it emerges from its egg or eggs. The host plant for the Monarch butterfly is either Common Milkweed or members of the Milkweed family. The milkweed species all contain the needed nutrients and also the toxic alkaloid known as a cardiac glycoside. The cardiac glycoside doesn’t harm the monarch caterpillar, but it does make it toxic to most predators. Before the female monarch butterfly lays her egg (only one egg per plant) she will taste the plant with her tarsi (claws) on her feet. The tarsi (tarsus singular) each contain chemoreceptors of both the sense of smell and taste.

The sense of sight or vision is another sense which can either mean life or death to wild animals, especially in winter. I find that the eyes of critters great and small are extremely fascinating. Some eyes change their color, some eyes have unusual pupils and many are used for more than just observing or scrutinizing. For example, a birds’ eye color may indicate its age, sexual maturity, or even whether it is a male or female. A frogs’ eye can help it swallow its food. Researchers x-rayed a leopard frog swallowing a cricket. The frog closed its eyes and the eyes retract toward its esophagus. Some frogs will open and close their eyes repeatedly to assist them when swallowing large prey.

Juvenile Bald Eagles are fully grown by the time they leave their nest or fledge, however they do not resemble the adults in coloring. The juveniles have brown feathers with white mottling or streaking and their beaks and their eyes are brown. When the juveniles reach the age of five they will be fully mature, and their bodies will be feathered a dark brown with whiteheads and whitetails. Their brown eyes are now yellow and so are their beaks.

Many other species of birds also experience a change of eye color which is related to their age. The Northern Harrier eyes change from brown to yellow, the Sharp-shinned Hawk eyes change from bright yellow to red, and the Red-tailed Hawk eyes change from yellow to a reddish-brown. The American Crow has eyes that alter from blue or bluish-gray to brown. In addition to these raptors, many other birds such as loons, grebes, ducks, gulls, woodpeckers, and vireos all may have eye color alterations.

Avian eye colors range from dark brown to yellow, red, orange, green, and blue. The Wood Duck male has a stunning red eye, ringed with red and the female has a dark brown eye ringed with deep yellow. European starling male and female are almost identical in coloring, but the female has a yellow ring around the edge of her iris. Most owls in the northeast have yellow eyes except for the Barred Owl which has brown eyes. The term “eagle eye” accurately portrays many birds, especially all raptors. Raptors must be able to see prey at a great distance. They see prey at two to three times the distance that a human can because of much larger eyes. For example, the human eye weighs less than one percent of the heads’ weight, whereas an Eastern Screech Owls eye weighs about one-fourth of an ounce, which is about five percent of its entire body weight. The astonishing performance of a raptor’s eye lies more in the number of rods and cones in its eye. Bird’s eyes function like a telescope. The structure of the eye has a fairly flattened lens which is further from the retina which provides a long focal length and produces a larger image. Researchers have learned that most birds, that are active during the day, have excellent color vision, which makes complete sense when we notice their colorful plumage.

Another interesting fact regarding eyes is that predators have eyes in the front of their faces as we do. Animals that may become prey have eyes on either side of their faces. Of all land-dwelling animals, the horse has the largest eyes. Horses have an excellent range of “binocular” and “monocular” vision and can see in every direction except for what is directly in front of them, between their eyes, and a rider on their back is also in their “blind spot”. Utilizing the monocular and binocular sight capabilities they have about three hundred-degree vision. This allows them to see a predator, sneaking up from behind them.

As a Professional Nature Photographer, Naturalist, and Outdoor Educator, Joan Herrmann has been teaching and doing programs for Schools, Garden Clubs, Libraries, and Nature Centers, for about 38 years. After moving from the Rochester area in 1995 she began her Photography business, Essence of Nature, and also became a co-owner of The Artworks in Old Forge, New York. As a docent at Munson, Williams, Proctor Arts Institute, in Utica, New York she has been educating children and adults, for nineteen years.

In 2007 she began working with the Black River Outdoor Educational Program (BROEP) and in 2013 and 2014 did a week-long summer program at BROEP in conjunction with Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC). Using her love of both nature and photography she created a Flora/Fauna outdoor educational program teaching students (ages 6 to 14) the joys of nature and creative photography skills.

Joan’s love of nature has been a lifelong study of Birds, Wildflowers, Mosses, Ferns, Trees, Amphibians, Reptiles, Grasses, Insects, Spiders, Tracks, Scat, and Galls. She has assisted in the cataloging of all trails used by the hiking Coaches and photographed and identified seasonal Flora.

Since October 2016 she has been writing a bimonthly nature column with Adirondack Express Newspaper. In October of 2019, she began a bi-monthly column with My Little Falls Newspaper. You may reach her at