by Charly Mann
Raccoons are incredibly smart animals that have amazing problem-solving abilities. Extensive testing has shown them to be the second most intelligent mammal in North America – right behind humans. They are also close relatives to the Chinese Red Panda, which looks very much like a red raccoon.
Charly Mann with two of his raccoon friends
I have been closely observing a group of ten raccoons for two years. They have personalities as different from each other as humans. Some are very friendly and some are difficult, but you will not know until you spend enough time with them that they trust you. The majority of the ones I have known are quite mild-mannered and sociable.
In 1978 I took in an orphaned baby raccoon for a year who loved riding in cars and going on walks on a trail near where I lived. During those hikes I kept her on a dog leash for her own protection from dogs we would encounter. I also had an indoor pool which she loved to swim in. She also quickly learned to use a litter box and usually slept next to me on my bed at night. Baby raccoons are called kits because they purr like a kitten, which this one did whenever she would sit on my shoulder or lay next to me. She was always quite affectionate though she could be mischievous, and often opened the refrigerator to help herself to some food.
Raccoons have a vocabulary of up to twenty sounds and each of those is varied into different pitches that make their conversations seem almost like songs. Two of “my” current raccoons seem to understand almost everything I say. They have exceptional hearing and can hear sounds too faint or high-pitched for humans to hear. They love music and their tastes seem to be more sophisticated than most people I know. They prefer listening to classical music over rock or country, and especially like the music of Bach and Beethoven. A particular favorite piece is reported to be Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Raccoons also have a keen sense of smell and will not eat old or decayed food.
Raccoons are very smart. In one study a number of adult raccoons were put into a room in which complex locks were put on the doors of cages that contained dishes of food. In the majority of cases they were able to open 11 of the 13 locks in less than ten attempts, and had no trouble repeating the action even when the locks were turned upside down. The scientists concluded from the study that raccoons through abstract thinking had figured out the locking mechanisms. Four other studies spanning a period of 40 years demonstrated raccoons could remember solutions to problems they had not solved for more than three years.
Psychologists also say that, unlike most intelligent animals who use trial and error to solve problems, raccoons have the ability to use reason and observation to solve problems. An amusing example of this is of a pet raccoon who when he disliked certain TV shows would turn the channel knob to a program he liked. He had learned this simply by watching how the humans he lived with did it.
Mother raccoon with her 4 kits out of their den
Raccoons are great escape artists and can get out of about anywhere (this is well demonstrated in the great Disney film Rascal about a pet raccoon). They have the dexterity to remove nuts and bolts, as well as open latches and turn on water faucets when they want water.
To many people raccoons are a nuisance and a pest, but they do not understand why they are sharing our neighborhoods and foraging through our trash and gardens. The reason they live in our midst is that most of their natural habitat which is wilderness has been destroyed or polluted. They no longer have the large forests they once lived in because we humans have taken it away and they are now forced to share our surroundings.
Raccoon’s intelligence may equal humans within 10,000 years. Their mental ability is rising faster than any other creature on the planet, and as they rapidly adapt to living in urban landscapes they are passing along new skills to successive generations. Our modern cities and towns are full of food rewards and rife with challenges of finding shelter and staying alive. These are the types of puzzles raccoons excel at solving and in turn raise their brainpower. They are also becoming more adept at watching humans from a distance to see how they do things and adapting some of the techniques they observe. In just a hundred years they have gone from a forest animal that primarily lived by lakes and rivers to one than can live almost anywhere, eat almost anything, and open any lock or zipper. I think if they had opposable thumbs like us, they might have accomplished even more in this time.
Kathryn Mann with fearless 10-week old raccoon
By the time Henry David Thoreau moved to the woods around Walden Pond on July 5, 1845 the wilderness was almost gone, and deer, moose, cougar, and bear had long since been exterminated in the region. Like Thoreau, I believe all creatures are better off alive, and I hope this article will encourage more people to respect and protect raccoons.
Raccoon Dangers: Raccoon attacks on people and family pets are very rare but they do happen and one should think of raccoons as wild animals. These attacks are so rare that we have never found any official statistics on how often they occur, although it does get a lot of press attention when it happens. On the other hand, 4.7 million Americans (2 in every 100 people) are bitten by dogs every year and 15 are killed. 8,000 people in the United States are bitten by poisonous snakes each year and about 5 people die from snakebites. Finally, 40 Americans die each year from bee stings.Click to Add a Comment
article and photos by Charly Mann
I have become enamored with observing perhaps the most beautiful and least studied bird in the world – the Painted Bunting. As its population declines and it remains especially elusive because it spends most of its time high in densely leaved trees, thickets, hedgerows, or submerged in thick ground cover, I have been focused on getting close to, and discovering, as much as I can about their lives in their natural habitat in Oklahoma.
© Charly Mann
Male Painted Bunting moments after landing in open area before flattening himself in first step of mating ritual
The most amazing thing I have witnessed with these unique birds is their mating ritual. It is almost as astounding as the courtship dance of the Birds of paradise which are found in the rainforests of Indonesia and New Guinea, yet is much more rare to be seen in its entirety. In fact I found dozens of videos of the extravagant dance of various species of birds of paradise on the Internet, but I could find none of the Painted Bunting. Luckily I have witnessed and photographed the elaborate and colorful mating ceremony of the Painted Bunting which I will describe and share photos of in this article.
© Charly Mann
Female Painted Bunting arriving after hearing male's mating sounds
The first step in the union is the return of the brightly colored male Painted Buntings from their wintering grounds along the east coast of Mexico and Panama to Oklahoma in mid to late April. They usually come back to the same area they lived in the year before. Each male claims an area of about three acres which he bravely defends against other males.
© Charly Mann
Painted Bunting couple beginning their mating dance
The majority of female Painted Buntings return to their nesting grounds in Oklahoma in mid-May. When they arrive the males are anxious to begin courting their potential mates. In some areas there are two or more females for each male, but in others where there are no females a male will invade another male's territory looking for a partner. This usually results in fierce battles between the defender and the invader male Painted Bunting.
The mating ceremony begins when a male flies down from the forest canopy onto a clear flat area of at least ten feet by ten feet. He then almost disappears into the ground as he flattens himself by compressing his torso and spreading out his wings and tail. As he does this he begins making a pulsating sound that inspires a female bunting to come out into the open and land within five feet of him.
At this time the male raises himself slightly off the ground and points his head directly at the sky and begins proudly crouching toward the female without ever looking directly at her. This performance so enraptures the female that she raises both her head and rump at a 45-degree angle signaling to the male that his theatrics are beginning to turn her on.
© Charly Mann
Male Painted Bunting gracefully moves with his head up high during first movement of mating routine
Next the female hurriedly rushes toward her approaching partner until she abruptly stops right before colliding. The male's head is still at a 90-degree angle, while the female's head is positioned directly over the male's neck. This has all been beautifully choreographed and now the love dance gets more serious.
© Charly Mann
The male and female end the first phase of their mating dance with this pose
The male now comes up from his crouch and brings his head down and turned to the right like a tango dancer. He then gracefully dances more than a foot away from the female. At the same time the female moves forward by a few steps and lifts her rear even higher.
© Charly Mann
© Charly Mann
The second part of the mating dance has the male and female rhythmically moving apart and together again
Abruptly now the male becomes fully upright raising his tail and extending his feathers into a red, green, and blue fan that almost immediately starts flapping rapidly as he moves toward the backside of the female. At the same time the female's cloaca swells and protrudes outside her body. The male then rhythmically bobs and weaves closer with his feathers vibrating until he raised himself about two inches in the air and mounts himself on the female for about twenty seconds of joyous copulation. After witnessing this event I knew I had seen something remarkable that I would probably never see again.
© Charly Mann
The female stops and displays her sex organ as her last step in the mating dance
© Charly Mann
The final act of the mating dance
In the last six years there has been a large decline in painted buntings population. One key factor for this has been the rise of wind turbine farms that can decimate migrating bird populations. Another key factor is that the beautiful males are being captured by the thousands in Mexico every year and shipped to Europe where they are sold as pets. The painted bunting is perhaps too beautiful to survive much longer in the wild.
© Charly Mann
A happy male soon after mating
All photos and this article are copyrighted by Charly Mann 2013 and may not be used without permission.Click to Add a Comment
Photos and article by Kathryn Mann
I have been enjoying the outdoors of Oklahoma for many years and have found that many birds return to the same area every year. There is a Mississippi Kite that loves to perch on the same branch of the same tree every Spring and Summer. As we have become more familiar with one another he actually lets me come within 20 feet without feeling threatened or disturbed. This is a good thing because these birds are very protective and will often swoop down and attack people they feel are potential threats. They are a very quiet bird and rarely make a sound except when frightened.
Mississippi Kite perching on his favorite spot in northeast Oklahoma
Even though Mississippi Kites often live in colonies, I have only once seen another Kite within even a quarter mile of this one's roost. In the wild Misssippi Kites often live 10 years.
Mississippi Kite staring at me as I come very close to his lookout
The Mississippi Kite is a raptor like a hawk or falcon. Their wingspan is three feet long and they are typically a foot and half long at maturity. They have dark red eyes with a light grey head that appears to be white in bright sun. The rest of their body is battleship grey and their wing feathers are black.
This Mississippi Kite has just spotted a meal and is about to take to the air
Despite their size Mississippi Kites rarely weigh more than 12 ounces which makes their bodies especially buoyant as they glide through the air capturing insects. It is not unusual for them to stay aloft looking for prey for several hours at a time. Besides insects they sometimes eat rodents, lizards, frogs, snakes, and even fish that reside in shallow water. Farmers like these birds because they especially love eating grasshoppers and cicadas, both of which they capture in the air.
Mississippi Kites have one of the longest migrations of any bird. They spend the Fall and Winter in South America as far down as Argentina and then return in late April or May to the central part of the United States, usually no further north than where I live in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. That is a distance of about 5,500 miles in each direction.Click to Add a Comment
by Charly Mann
The average red-tailed hawk lives twenty years in the wild. Its eyesight is eight times more powerful than a human’s. Like the song Oklahoma says these birds do "make lazy circles in the sky." They soar very high, and use their great vision to spot rodents, rabbits and snakes below.
They usually weigh between 3 and 5 pounds. Females are nearly 1/3 larger than males. Their wingspan is 56 inches. They can carry almost half their body weight in flight. It is not unusual, for example, for one to lift a duck out of a pond.
Red-tailed hawks are great at reducing rat populations. Almost 90% of their diet is small rodents.
These birds are classified as raptors. This means they are part of the family of birds that eat meat, and use their feet, instead of their beak, to capture prey. Red-tailed hawks, like all raptors, have a sharp, hooked beak, and powerful feet with curved, sharp talons. Their talons are their main weapon for capturing and killing animals.
The Red-tailed hawk is very intelligent and is one of the easier raptors to tame. Throughout the United States and much of the world hawking or falconry is a popular sport in which trained hawks capture game. Red-tailed hawks actually train their falconers as much as their falconers train them.
The female (hen) Red-tailed Hawk is the most desirable in falconry because of its larger size, which allows it to take medium sized animals including ducks and pheasant. They are a very relaxed and friendly bird in captivity, and love to go hunting. They need to be played with (trained) or taken hunting every couple of weeks or they will revert to their wild state. They can fairly effortlessly be returned to the wild before breeding season.
photos by Kathryn MannClick to Add a Comment
Article and photos by Kathryn Mann
Shakespeare's Hamlet says the question is, "to be or not to be", but the answer for most of us about the European Starling is "not to be." This is a bird that we can actually blame Shakespeare for. It was American Shakespeare fanatic Eugene Scheiffelin, who had the terrible idea of introducing the European Starling to the United States because it was mentioned in Shakespeare's play Henry IV. Scheiffliein had 16 pairs of European Starlings released in New York City's Central Park in 1890, and their offspring have now increased to over 160 million and spread to every state except for Hawaii.
The European Starling - a beautiful bird that we wish would go back to where it came from
European Starlings are about 9 1/2 inches in length. They are a short-tailed black bird with greenish and purple iridescence. They have a long pointed bill and cream-tipped feathers that look like they were painted by Gustav Klimt.
European Starling enjoying an Oklahoma afternoon
European Starlings are disliked for many reasons. They often take over the nesting area of many native birds including Eastern Bluebirds, woodpeckers, and Purple Martins. Fruit growers hate them because they consume large amounts of grapes, peaches, blueberries, strawberries, figs, apples, and cherries. Corn farmers want to get rid of them because they eat ripening corn on the stalk. They also destroy large amounts of wheat.
The elegantly attired European Starling
Some European Starlings have lived as long as 20 years.
European Starlings often mimic the songs of other Oklahoma birds including the Killdeer and the Eastern Meadowlark.Click to Add a Comment
Article and photos by Charly Mann
Blue Grosbeaks usually live in thickets near fenced-in pasture land. Unless you are very close they can easily be mistaken for the more common Indigo Bunting. However the Grosbeak is at least 20% larger and has brown wing bars.
Blue Grosbeak in northeast Oklahoma five miles south of Kansas
There is something especially wonderful about seeing a bird that is blue. There are many songs, stories, and poems that feature a blue bird, and it is usually the Eastern Bluebird that we think is being mentioned, yet that bird is less than 40% blue. To me the real blue birds are the male Indigo Bunting and the male Blue Grosbeak.
Blue Grosbeak enjoying a beautiful Oklahoma morning
It takes three years for male Blue Grosbeaks to become essentially blue all over. At maturity most of the body of these birds is a rich blue color. Their tail and wings are black as well as a small mask around their eyes. They have two brown wing bars and a silver bill. Female Blue Grosbeaks are primarily brown with some blue coloring in the rear.
Blue Grosbeak view of black tail and wings
Blue Grosbeaks usually place their nest on the ground concealed by surrounding grass.
Like Indigo and Painting Buntings, the Blue Grosbeak is a member of the finch family.
Blue Grosbeak's diet consists of grasshoppers, beetles, cicadas and seeds of wild grasses. I often see them foraging for food in fields in northeast Oklahoma.
Male Blue Grosbeak showing his brown wing bars
Young Blue Grosbeaks of both sexes are primarily brown. As the male ages it develops blue areas on its body.
I took over two dozen pictures of this bird. Only its face was blue. I am fairly certain it is a juvenile male Blue Grosbeak or a UFO.
Blue Grosbeaks spend late Spring and most of the Summer in the lower half of the United States including Oklahoma, but spend the majority of the year in southern Mexico and Central America.
Blue Grosbeaks often live as long as six years.Click to Add a Comment