Story and photographs By Joan Herrmann
Whereiwander… Over the years I have learned many interesting facts about the eating habits of animals, birds, insects, and spiders. The how and what they eat in addition to their interesting digestive processes can be fascinating. For example, common loons (Gavia immer), one of the most admired birds of the Adirondacks, has some interesting eating behaviors. Loons are voracious consumers of fish. It has been estimated that two adults with two chicks are capable of devouring about one thousand pounds of fish within the three months that they breed and reside on an Adirondack Lake. They also ingest great quantities of snails, crayfish, leeches, and aquatic larvae. A loon’s body has seven to twelve air sacs which are used for more than breathing. The loons have the ability to change the air within each of the sacs to adjust for buoyancy. Their bodies are perfect for both swimming and diving. Loons are able to disappear below the water’s surface without making a ripple and are capable of diving to depths of two hundred feet. Loons can catch and swallow prey while underwater. They do not have teeth, but the roof of their mouth and tongue has backward-pointing projections that keep the slippery fish from escaping.
Another interesting bird, one of my favorites, is the pied-billed grebe. The pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podicep) is a tiny, foot long, stocky, short-billed water bird. They migrate north early, arriving even before all the ice has melted, to breed and are very territorial. Their unusual practice of plucking and eating their own feathers has a very useful purpose. The gizzard, of these tiny waterfowl, cannot adequately crush the bones of the fish, which are their main food source. Feather balls in their stomach provide padding from the sharp bones and assist slow digestion. The bones dissolve before passing into the intestines. Hundreds of their own feathers have been found in the stomachs of the adults, and feathers are fed to the newly hatched pied-billed grebes.
Beavers have an excellent sense of smell and can identify their favorite food trees by smell alone. The beaver’s top and bottom incisors are orange in color, large and prominent. Their teeth, like all rodents, continue to grow but are worn down by chewing wood and grinding them against each other. A loose upper lip closes behind its four front teeth for underwater gnawing and keeps water and debris from entering its mouth. Beavers are strict vegetarians eating leaves and twigs of shrubs and trees in spring and summer. Favorite trees include aspen, alder, birch, maple, and willow. They also eat grasses, ferns, mushrooms, aquatic plants and are fond of apples. In our area, their kits are born between April and July. They generally give birth to two; which are born fully furred, with open eyes and weigh about a pound each. The kits can enter the water within a day, but it will take about a month for their oil glands to function making their fur waterproof. Beaver kits, like most mammals, will nurse for a few weeks. Once weaned the kits will be fed leaves for a few weeks until they are old enough to begin eating bark.
Some years when food supplies become scarce or populations of raptors become exceedingly high; a large percentage may leave their area in search of a more reliable food source. Arctic hawks and owls including snowy, great gray, short-eared, long-eared and boreal may irrupt into our area. Irruption is different from migration which occurs yearly. Most owls are nocturnal and some are also crepuscular (hunting at dusk and dawn). Owls can see as well as we do in daylight, but a hundred times better in dim light. Their hearing is astonishing as they are able to hear a rodent’s movements under a foot or more of snow. They are able to triangulate the rodent’s position, fly to the spot, reach into the snow with their feet and grasp it with their talons. After returning to its hunting spot the owl will transfer the rodent to its mouth and swallow it headfirst. The owl will digest the prey for six to ten hours depending on the species. It will regurgitate the undigested parts of bones, teeth, and nails that are wrapped in a hairy pellet. All of the sharp parts are within this hairy pellet keeping the owl from injury when it coughs up the pellet.
Other raptors are capable of the same digestive activities. Fish, small mammals, and waterfowl are some of the prey brought to eaglets, while in the nest, by both adults. Eagles eat flesh and bones at all ages specifically for the calcium. High acidity within an eagle’s stomach allows them to even eat roadkill and carrion without the risk of bacterial contamination. Adult eagles can consume one half to three fourth of a pound of food in one day. However when rearing its young an adult can eat a pound of fish in as little as four minutes, and then perhaps not eat anything for several days. Like owls, eagles digest food in their crop and eliminate the undigested body parts as a pellet.
A dragonfly’s eyes take up most of its head, but the mouth is also an interesting structure. It is composed of an upper lip called the labrum and a three-lobed lower lip called the labium. The labium looks more like a chin. Dragonflies are carnivorous and eat other insects. The captured prey is held between the labrum and the labium while the jaws work side to side to consume the food. A dragonfly’s six hairy legs are instrumental in capturing the prey. As the dragonfly stalks the intended prey the hairy legs act as a net helping to snare the insect. The dragonfly will eat its meal using a favorite perching site. They are fussy eaters and will quickly remove the wings and legs of its prey and only eat the choice parts the head, thorax, and abdomen.
True hibernators like bears and woodchuck bulk up with fatty foods and then live off their own stored body fat for many months. The animal, bird or insect may be a carnivore, herbivore or an omnivore; all have evolved interesting eating and or digestive habits.
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, 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 Jmphoto8442@gmail.com