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WildCare January eNews. Photo by Linda Campbell

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table of contents

spacer   bird print bullet 
points mammals old and new
    bird print bullet 
points volunteer at wildcare! orientations filling fast
    bird print bullet 
points the twelve birds of winter
    bird print bullet 
points join us for the youth winter bird count on january 14
print bullet 
points meet a manzanita
    bird print bullet 
points long-tailed weasels
    bird print bullet 
points  great gift ideas for january
Fossil of an ancient creature similar to the Virginia Opossu spacer

The fossils of an ancient creature similar to a Virginia Opossum, and equipped with teeth that seem modern suggests that our furry ancestors were more diverse in the age of dinosaurs than previously thought. 

Chart of earth eras spacer
 rache spacer
Zalambdalestes. Photo by G. Ciavatti spacer

Zalambdalestes (60-70MaBP) is one of the oldest examples of a placental mammal known. It was an insectivore, like modern shrews and moles. Photo by G Ciavatti

Icaronycetris index from the Green River formation in WY spacer

Icaronycteris index fossil skeleton from early Eocene rocks in the Green River formation of Wyoming is strikingly similar to that of modern bats.

Protosciurus and a Western Gray Squirrel  

Protosciurus, left (37-32MaBP) is the oldest known member of the squirrel family. Its bones are very similar to those of living tree squirrels. Sciurus griseus, right, the Western Gray Squirrel  Photo by Lucy Burlingham

Paleocene forest. Photo from Book of Life  

This scene is from the Early Paleocene of Wyoming. On the ground is Chriacus, a raccoon-like omnivore. On the tree is Ptilodus, primitive mammals often termed the “rodents of the Mesozoic. “Higher up in the tree is Peradectes, an early opossum-like marsupial. Illustration and caption from The Book of Life: An Illustrated History of the Evolution of Life on Earth

Puijila darwini. Illustration Mark A. Klingler, Carnegie Mus  
An artist’s recreation of Puijila darwini, thought to be the earliest known fossil seal. Illustration by/courtesy of Mark A. Klingler of Carnegie Museum of Natural History  
Illustration of a Myacid  
A reconstruction of one species of myacid, small carnivores that was ancestor to modern carnivores.  

This is a modern Ringtail, a relative of the raccoon. The modern procyonids –  the coatis, ringtails, raccoons, kinkajous and olingos  – probably evolved from an ancestor that looked much like Ringtails do today.

Fossil reconstruction of Pakicetus  
Fossil reconstruction of Pakicetus, a creodont artiodactyl thought to be the ancestor or modern whales. Other creodont artiodactyl species evolved into cloven-hoofed mammals like deer and elk.  
llustration of Phenocodus  

Illustration representing Phenocodus, a typical small condylarth and ancestor of hoofed mammals.


mammals old and new

While we're often made aware of species that are about to become extinct, we may rarely think about those that have survived many changes and continue to thrive among us. Some species have been around a LONG time; others are relative newcomers to life on earth. Attempting to attach dates to species brings you into the realm of evolution, a challenging subject on many levels. Not that the process of evolution is in question – you can observe it in animals (including us) almost daily – but because it encompasses such a huge time frame with so many missing pieces. And the science of evolution continues to evolve itself-- paleontologists are always discovering new information.

The history of some of our existing wild neighbors sheds light on how life evolves and adapts, and those adaptations can be fascinating.

140 million years before the present

In mammals, three different methods of reproduction developed during the Cretaceous period, beginning about 140 million years before the present (140MaBP) The (1) monotreme mammals (egg-laying) today are represented by only a few remaining species such as the platypus and echidna. The (2) marsupial mammals (pouch development) are still a thriving group in Australia, with only a few species in the Americas, and only one in North America, the Virginia Opossum. The (3) eutherian or placental mammals (uterine development) now dominate. Although they may look very different from their ancestors of 140MaBP, most modern mammals, including people, are eutherian placental mammals.

67 million years before the present

During the Cenozoic, many of what we would recognize as modern mammals began to evolve. These creatures had developed over millennia from several ancestral groupings (scientists are still learning about and debating these groupings). These included the Chiroptera (insectivorous flying mammals), the Creodonts (early carnivores), the Condylarths (hoofed herbivores), Amblypods (blunt-footed herbivores), and Prosimians (arboreal insectivores).

virginia opossum

Evolution through so many vast eons of time has caused much of life on earth to be very different from its earliest ancestors. But the Virginia Opossum is an interesting case— it still closely resembles its genetic ancestors. In “Evolution of the Vertebrates,” Edwin H. Colbert and Michael Morales write,

”The American opossum, Didelphis, is in some respects a Cretaceous survivor in the modern world. Although this interesting marsupial shows certain significant changes from related didelphids of Cretaceous age, it nonetheless retains many of the character[istics] ... that typify the earliest and most primitive of the pouched mammals. Therefore we are fortunately able to obtain a very fair idea of a primitive mammal by studying the opossum.”

To gain insight on the ancestors of marsupial mammals, we may need look no farther than our own backyards.

shrews and moles

Zalambdalestes, a very primitive Cretaceous insectivore, is one of the oldest known placental mammals. The insectivorous mammals today are all small in size and very secretive, and many of their ancestors probably were too. They are now represented by about 370 species of mole, shrew and hedgehog. Moles and shrews are common in California, but we rarely see them. Their brains are relatively primitive, but their secrecy has probably helped them survive into the present.


The first fossil Chiroptera from the Eocene (55MaBP), Icaronycteris is not greatly different from modern bats. Many species of modern bats are insectivores, and there are no known intermediate stages between bats and other insectivorous mammals, so it is assumed they developed concurrently. The inability to link bats to any other mammalian group in itself suggests their very early origin. Some fossilized eggs of noctuid moths (from the family Noctuidae which have the ability to detect echolocation calls of bats and trigger escape responses,) have recently been discovered dating back to about 75MaBP, implying that the bats themselves arose substantially earlier, about 80 to 100 MaBP. If so, they would have shared their world with dinosaurs, watched the dinosaurs' extinction at the end of the Cretaceous and remained relatively unchanged to this day.


Just one single species of primate inhabits North America. While Homo sapiens are modern mammals, showing up only around 1MaBP, we also have roots in the Eocene and have genetic relationships to lemurs, tarsiers, monkeys and apes. While the higher primates may currently surpass all other animals in mental development, the evidence indicates that we are probably descended from insectivore ancestors. Pass the roasted crickets, please?

squirrels and rodents

Squirrels, beavers, rats and mice are now included in the suborder Sciurognathi. The earliest and most primitive of the known rodents is Paramys, a creature somewhat like a large squirrel that lived about 55MaBP in North America and Eurasia. Some paleontologists consider it ancestral to all rodents.

Squirrels themselves are little changed. Colbert and Morales write,

“The squirrels...represent a long-continued and probably little-changed line from paramyid ancestors. Most squirrels, like Sciurus, have been tree-living types and this environment has afforded them the safety and the food supply that has insured their long continuation to the present day.”

The rats and mice are currently the most successful of the rodents, outnumbering all others in numbers that equal about half of all mammal diversity. They are the staple diet of most of the world's carnivores. From an evolutionary viewpoint, rodents are, in many respects, the climax of mammalian success. It is little wonder we find ourselves so often in conflict with them.

rabbits and hares

Rabbits and hares (lagomorphs) probably shared a common ancestor with rodents, but it is likely that lagomorphs are an independent order of mammals descended from an ancient ancestry – possibly from Paleocene (67MaBP) mammals known as anagalids. A fossil of an anagalid, Eurymylus, that lived about 50MaBP, probably indicates what early rabbit ancestors were like. They were sparsely represented at that time, but by 40MaBP, they seem to have become abundant.

aquatic carnivores

The cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) diverged from their early eutherian ancestors, and returned to the oceans in the early Cenozoic (67MaBP) at about the time of the extinction event that ended the dinosaur species. They were able to evolve rapidly, and within about 20 million years, were already well adapted to life in the seas. Fossils of an animal called Pakicetus have been found in Pakistan. It is thought to be one of the earliest ancestral “whales.”

The pinnipeds (sea lions, walruses and seals) show a clearer relationship to land mammals, and are dependent upon land to give birth. Puijila darwini (24-21MaBP) is a recently-discovered transitional fossil that shows similarities to dog-bear-weasel lineages, and sheds light on how furred land mammals returned to the oceans.

land carnivores

Two orders of carnivorous mammals, the creodonts and the myacids, evolved at different times. The creodonts appeared about 67MaBP and the myacids about 30 million years later. In general, carnivores have strong jaws and sharp teeth, strength and agility, good eyesight and sense of smell. They also display a higher intelligence, because a great deal of mental alertness and coordinated action are necessary to overcome and kill another animal.

As long as the herbivores they preyed upon retained their primitive adaptations, the creodonts prevailed as the dominant meat-eaters. But they were clumsier and slower than the carnivores that appeared later. Myacids, more agile, intelligent carnivores of weasel-like form, gradually replaced them, and the creodonts were extinct by about 10MaBP. The myacids are generally considered ancestral to modern carnivores, the felids, canids, ursids (bears), mustelids (weasels, otters), mephitids (skunks) and procyonids (raccoons) which, in the mid-Cenozoic period (40-2MaBP), began to evolve into the modern species that we now know.

deer and elk

Ungulate is a broad term used to describe hoofed mammals that feed on plants. The earliest known ungulates, the condylarths lived for nearly 30 million years between 67-37MaPB) and were ancestral to modern orders of ungulate — the perissodactyls (odd-toed hoofed animals like horses, tapirs and rhinos) and the artiodactyls (even-toed hoofed animals like pigs, deer, camels and antelope).

An early fossil ungulate is Phenacodus from the late Cretaceous and early Paleocene age. It was a typical condylarth, a small herbivore. Over time, condylarth species began to evolve toward large-sized animals, possibly as an adaptation to make them less easy prey to the also-evolving carnivores.

Perhaps no evolutionary history is as well known as that of the horse, a perrisodactyl. Fossils are plentiful, and their study has benefited our understanding of evolutionary process.

Most of the hoofed mammals of the present day, like our wild ungulates, deer and elk, are artiodactyls. Modern ungulates often have a large body to accommodate a complex digestive tract that allows them to process high-fiber, low-nutrient foods. They also have large lung capacity, a strong back and hind limb muscles to power the propulsion of the legs to escape predators and for defense.

Modern artiodactyls include pigs and peccaries, hippopotamuses, camels and llamas, deer, giraffes, pronghorns, sheep, goats, musk oxen, antelopes and cattle. This great variety reminds us that they are the dominant plant-eating mammals of our modern world.

Not to worry, though. We humans are still the dominant predator.

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 Fawn photo by Trish Carney


volunteer in the wildlife hospital

You too can volunteer at WildCare and work with the amazing animals we treat in our Wildlife Hospital!

Wildlife Hospital Orientations for 2012 will be held January 28 and 29, 2012. Orientation is free. Choose one orientation to attend.  

Note: These will be the only orientations in 2012 and your only opportunity to volunteer with the animals in 2012!

Wildlife Hospital Volunteers commit to our complete series of training classes (16 hours) and then to one 4-hour shift per week from March through November.

Click to register for one of the 2012 New Volunteer Orientations!


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  Hermit Thrush. Photo by Tom Grey

Hermit Thrush

  Varied Thrush. Photo by Tom Grey

Varied Thrushes aren’t exactly rarities in the San Francisco Bay Area, part of their regular wintering grounds, but they certainly aren’t easy to find, as they tend to frequent dark shaded forest habitats. The male above can be recognized by a darker breast band than females display.

  Adult Mew Gull. Photo by Tom Grey

Adult Mew Gull on the California coast in non-breeding plumage.

  Townsend's Warbler. Photo by Tom Grey

This female was photographed in the best habitat for winter Townsend’s, along the immediate coast of central California, in this case Stinson Beach, just north of San Francisco.

  Cedar Waxwing. Photo by Tom Grey

Cedar Waxwings are elegant and attractive winter residents in the San Francisco Bay Area, roaming the gardens, parks and foothills in flocks, often in company with American Robins, in search of berries ripening on pyracantha, toyon and cotoneaster bushes. We are always glad to hear their thin piping calls around our house, which often announce that they are taking a break from the berry hunt to bathe in our back yard fountain.

  White-crowned Sparrow. Photo by Tom Grey

White-crowned Sparrows are abundant wintering birds throughout most of the San Francisco Bay Area, including my backyard. The Puget Sound (pugetensis) subspecies shown in the picture above provides most of our wintering birds; it is characterized by a yellow bill, as distinguished from orange or pink.

  Golden-crowned Sparrow. Photo by Tom Grey

Golden-crowned Sparrows winter in the SF Bay Area, and indeed in my backyard, where the picture above was taken. This bird has molted into his breeding plumage, which happens shortly before hisspring departure for the breeding grounds. In the last weeks before they leave, the males begin singing their mournfully lovely descending three-note song, usually rendered “Oh dear me,” but which the miners of the California Gold Rush heard as “No gold here.”

  Fox Sparrow. Photo by Tom Grey

Fox Sparrows come in four groups that many authorities believe should be recognized as separate species. The bird pictured above is a Sooty Fox Sparrow, the group that winters in the SF Bay Area, among other places, after nesting along the northwest Pacific Coast up through southern Alaska.

  Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Ruby-crowned Kinglets are common wintering birds in the San Francisco Bay Area; they sometimes allow close approach, but they are very small and constantly moving. The bird above shows the red crown feathers for which the species is named; these are often invisible.

  Northern Shovelers. Photo by Tom Grey
  A mating pair of Northern Shovelers, right after the winter solstice.
  American Wigeons. Photo by Tom Grey

American Wigeons in flight

  Flying Brant. Photo by Tom Grey

The “black Brant,” the nigricanssubspecies of these small geese, nest in the Arctic, migrate along the Pacific Coast, and mostly winter in Mexico after one of the longest migrations of any waterfowl. Brant are powerful flyers, and achieve wind-aided flight speeds in fall migration of up to 60 mph. The seven Brant showing white bars on the wings are first-winter birds; the two with solid dark upper part plumage are probably adults.

  Ferruginous Hawk. Photo by Tom Grey

Ferruginous are the largest North American hawks, imposing birds deserving of their species name, “regalis.” They inhabit the drier regions of the American west, where trees tend to be scarce, and they are often seen perched on the ground. They are never common, but can be found in winter in the interior valleys of the Coast Range in California. The species has two color forms (morphs), the much more common being the light morph shown above.

the twelve birds of winter

Okay, there are more than twelve birds that over-winter in Marin, but who’s counting? As it turns out, WildCare is! We are participating in the second annual Youth Winter Bird Count on January 14 with the Richardson Bay Audubon Society and the Point Reyes Bird Observatory. The Count is open to kids of all ages and is a free event, although registration is required.

This article will introduce you to some of the birds you are likely to see in the winter in Northern California. Bear in mind that the males and females of many species have different plumage, and their plumage often differs during different phases of the birds' lives, so visit Tom Grey’s website to see additional photos of these birds.

The real pros of the birding world tell us that, in addition to visual clues, they are frequently able to identify birds by their calls, squawks or whistles. We thought we would give you a head start at learning some of these birds' vocalizations too!

hermit thrush     (Click to hear sound)

Perhaps best known for its exquisite song of one clear note followed by a series of bell-like ascending and descending tones, the Hermit Thrush is an unassuming bird. Hermit Thrushes are often seen foraging for food along the ground, hopping and stopping suddenly, then remaining immobile to observe the ground and ambush the unsuspecting beetle or fly. Oddly, the birds in the eastern United States are more likely to nest closer to the ground than the western population, which is more likely to nest in trees. However, sometimes these birds are known to get creative with nest placement, their nests even being found on headstones and in mine shafts! Hermit Thrushes rarely visit bird feeders, but will occasionally visit a yard that has trees or shrubs with berries.

varied thrush     (Click to hear sound)

Similar in appearance to the American Robin, the Varied Thrush is common in the mature coniferous forests of its breeding range in the Northwest U.S., from Alaska to Washington, and ventures south to California in the winter. Varied Thrushes generally prefer the cover and protection of trees, but they may visit a backyard feeder if there are sunflower seeds. However, these birds tend to dominate the other bird species that might also want to visit the feeder. Like many birds, the Varied Thrush eats insects and other invertebrates during the summer, and switches to a berry, fruit and acorn diet during the winter. Their call is a strong whistled tone on a single pitch, usually buzzy in quality.

mew gull     (Click to hear sound)

Common along the Pacific Coast beaches during the winter, the Mew Gull is the smallest of the “white-headed” gulls in North America. They have an expansive breeding range throughout Western Canada, Alaska and Eurasia. Favoring estuaries, river mouths and coastal pools, these gulls eat a variety of marine invertebrates, worms, fish and insects. Like most other gulls, the Mew Gull is also a scavenger, and will readily pick through garbage for its next meal. Being more adaptable than other local gulls, they can either nest on the ground or if it's convenient and away from predators, they will nest in a tree. Their call is a high, sharp squeak.

townsend’s warbler     (Click to hear sound)

Frequent visitors to a narrow strip along the Pacific Coast from Washington to Southern California as well as in Mexico and Central America, Townsend’s Warblers are often seen in their winter grounds in mixed flocks of chickadees, kinglets and other warblers. The male has a bright yellow face and a yellow crescent under each eye which contrasts with his black cheek patches and black throat. These distinctive birds are easy to spot when they are in more open habitats, such as local parks. They will eat the sugary excretions of scale insects in Mexico, as well as some berries to supplement their winter diet. The birds that are seen in California most likely breed in the Queen Charlotte Islands and on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, leaving California in April to return to their breeding grounds. Their call is a series of buzzy notes on one pitch, followed by several on different pitch, usually rising: “Zee-zee-zee-zee-dee-du-dee.” 

cedar waxwing     (Click to hear sound)

A sleek, masked bird with unusual red waxlike "droplets" on the tips of its secondary feathers, the Cedar Waxwing is a treat to see. They are one of the few songbirds to eat mainly fruit, even feeding it to their young once they are a few days old. During the summer however, they will supplement their diets with protein-rich insects. Due to their preference for fruit and berries, Cedar Waxwings are susceptible to alcohol intoxication and even death if they eat too many old berries that have begun the fermentation process. Cedar Waxwings are one of the last birds to nest in the summer, taking advantage of the abundance of berries available early in fall. They are social birds, often creating large flocks and nesting near each other. They have two common calls— a high-pitched, trilled "bzeee" and a singing whistle.

white-crowned sparrow     (Click to hear sound)

A black and white head, pale beak and gray chest make the White-crowned Sparrow one of the easiest sparrow species to identify. Breeding in northern Canada, these birds spread throughout the United States during the winter. Some of the Alaskan White-crowned Sparrows will migrate over 2,500 miles to Southern California. Interestingly, these birds will share their territories with the Fox Sparrow, but will chase Chipping Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos away. These birds are common visitors to backyard bird feeders, however they usually spend most of their time on the ground, eating seeds dropped by the other birds. Scientists have studied their song extensively, as populations in different locations have different “dialects” that can be clearly distinguished by the trained ear. In general, their song begins with a whistling introduction, followed by a succession of jumbled whistles, and a buzz or trill near the end.

golden-crowned sparrow     (Click to hear sound)

Because of the isolated nature of their breeding grounds in northwest Canada and Alaska, the Golden-crowned Sparrow is most often seen in its wintering grounds along the Pacific Coast. In fact, in California this bird is often one of the first winter migrants to arrive, and one of the last to leave. Preferring shrubby habitats, these birds will flock to our local parks and gardens. During the winter paired males and females forage for food by scratching the ground to look for plant material. Their call is three clear whistled descending notes.

fox sparrow     (Click to hear sound)

Most familiar here as a migrant or wintering bird, the Fox Sparrow is one of the largest sparrow species. Breeding in northern and western Canada and in mountainous areas in the west, they are not regularly spotted unless they are in their winter range (except in some regions of California where they are found year-round.) Their common name of “fox” comes from their rufous red coloring, although the birds in the population seen in the western mountains and Pacific Coast are mainly gray or dark brown. They forage for food by scratching the ground looking for seeds and insects, making them more vulnerable to predators, including domestic cats (please keep your cats indoors.) Their call is a series of clear musical notes and sliding whistles.

ruby-crowned kinglet     (Click to hear sound)

One of the smallest of songbirds, the Ruby-crowned Kinglet has a wingspan of seven inches and weighs only six to eight grams. The bird's name comes from the adult male’s bright ruby red crown patch that is displayed prominently when the bird is excited. Recognized by their constant wing flicking, they are migratory birds that winter in the southern U.S. and Mexico, including California. Building a cup-like nest high up in the tree can take up to five days for the female to accomplish. One clutch of eggs can weigh as much as the bird itself does. Their song is a jumble of notes, starting with two or three high “tsees,” followed by five or six lower “tur” notes, and ending with repeated “tee-da-lett” phrases.

northern shoveler     (Click to hear sound)

Distinctive because of its elongated bill, the Northern Shoveler is found in wetlands across most of North America. This bird's bill can be up to 2 ½ inches in length, and has approximately 110 fine projections along its edges to help strain food from the water. Foraging by dabbling and sifting in the shallow water, it eats aquatic plants and animals. The male has an iridescent green head and neck, while the female has a light brown head. They winter on coastal fresh and brackish water marshes and ponds, usually avoiding salt water marshes. Their voices vary, from the male’s nasal bray in the fall to the female’s different quacks. Upon taking flight, they make a unique rattling noise, something no other dabbling duck does.

american wigeon     (Click to hear sound)

Nesting farther north than all other dabbling ducks except the Northern Pintail, the American Wigeon is nonetheless a common bird in winter. They are among the first to leave their breeding grounds in the fall to start their migration. Those that travel along the Pacific Flyaway start in Alaska and British Columbia, and settle along Puget Sound and south to California for the winter. The American Wigeon can be found in varied habitats from ponds to lakes and brackish waters, some even venturing out of the water to nearby fields to forage on wet grasses and sedges. American Wigeons can be easily distinguished by their relatively small bluish-gray bill with a black tip. Their call is a high squeaky whistle, similar to that of a dog’s squeaky toy. The female also quacks. 
brant     (Click to hear sound)

Migrating from the high Arctic tundra in the winter to both coasts, the Brant is a small goose with a light gray belly on the Atlantic coast, but a black belly here on the Pacific Coast. In their wintering grounds they are found almost exclusively along tidal marshes, eating eelgrass and other algae including sea lettuce. In recent years they have been observed moving more inland to feed on grass and clover on golf courses. Their call is a soft, throaty rolling “cr-r-r-rk”. 
ferruginous hawk     (Click to hear sound)

Named after its rust-colored (ferruginous) feathers, the Ferruginous Hawk is the largest North American hawk. It can have a wingspan of 4 ½ feet and weigh up to four pounds! During most of the year these birds are found in the midwest region of North America, coming to California only during the cold winter months. One of only three raptors to have legs that are fully feathered, these hawks mainly eat small mammals. Fun fact: before the Bison disappeared from the Great Plains, many Ferruginous Hawks nests included bison bones as their base. Their call is a scratchy “kree-a.”

Photo by Fred Silverman
Last year's event was a tremendous success! Register today for the Second Annual Youth Winter Bird Count on January 14!

youth winter bird count

Families with children of all ages are invited to join the naturalists from WildCare, Point Reyes Bird Observatory and the Richardson Bay Audubon Society on January 14, 2012 at 8:30 am at the Pickleweed Community Center in San Rafael to count birds.

Our Youth Winter Bird Count will give aspiring young birders an opportunity to work in small teams with experienced birders while participating in real citizen science. Participants must register but participation is FREE! 

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Bolinas Manzanita. Photo by Neal Kramer spacer

Bolinas Manzanita (Arctostaphylos virgata) Photo by Neal Kramer under Creative Commons license

Hairy Manzanita. Photo by Zoya Akulova spacer

The “little apples” on this Hairy Manzanita (Arctostaphylos columbiana) demonstrate how the plant got its Spanish name. Photo by Zoya Akulova under Creative Common license

A Digger Bee forages on a manzanita flower spacer

A native California Digger Bee (Anthophora edwardsii) forages on a manzanita flower. 

A Gray Fox depositing scat as captured by Camera Trap Blogge spacer

A Gray Fox depositing scat was photographed by Chris Wemmer, Camera Trap Codger. A morning examination of the deposit indicated he’d been eating manzanita berries.

Common Manzanita  
Common Manzanita (Arctostaphylos manzanita)  
Brittle Manzanita  

Burl formation on Common or Parry Manzanita (Arctostaphylos manzanita)

Manzanita centerpiece. Photo by Kristin Castenschiold  

Photo by Kristin Castenschiold of B and K Photography




meet a manzanita

With more than eleven different subspecies in Marin County alone, manzanita (Arctostaphylos ssp.) is a native plant group worth getting to know. Manzanitas are a core component of the chaparral plant community, the dominant plant community in California. You’ll be likely to see one or more on any hike or walk you choose to take, whether it is in a park, wild area or even around neighborhood gardens. Some species, like the Bolinas Manzanita, begin blooming in January, so this is a great time to learn about these plants.

Distinctive bell-shaped pink or white flower clusters in the spring make manzanitas easy to recognize. Most are characterized by crooked branches with smooth red to purple bark. For a quick review of some native Marin manzanitas, Doreen Smith has documented a number of them on the Marin Chapter California Native Plant Society website.


The genus Arctostaphylos translates to mean “bear-grape,” and bearberries (Arctostaphylos shrubs adapted to arctic climates) are related to the manzanitas. The name manzanita was given by the Spanish and means “little apple.” In the summer and fall, small berries – the “little apples” – ripen.

There are about 60 species of Arctostaphylos, and depending on where the species live, the plants may be anything from small ground-hugging shrubs to large trees. About 40 species of manzanita thrive in California, not counting the hybrids. Las Pilitas Nursery is a good source of hybrid information if you’re looking for varieties that thrive in gardens.

One species, the Franciscan Manzanita, thought to be extinct, was discovered in 2009 along Doyle Drive in San Francisco. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found it to be warranted for listing as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

wildlife and manzanitas

Manzanitas provide food, protection and nesting for many different wildlife species. Many of the manzanitas regulate their nectar to attract different insects, butterflies and hummingbirds during the day. Ground-nesting birds protect their young under the low shrubs, and many small avian species hide from predators in their dense foliage.

Many mammal species that are normally carnivorous, such as coyotes, foxes, raccoons and bears, enjoy the nutritious manzanita berries when they ripen. The berries are high in potassium, minerals, Vitamin C and carbohydrates. Manzanita berries aren’t juicy; when ripe, they are dry, a bit powdery, and astringent-sweet. Native Californians ate them too, and had preferences for specific species and plant parts. Greenleaf Manzanita was for bears, the Miwok said, not people.

native americans and manzanitas

Pomo children would suck the nectar or eat the waxy flowers of the Common Manzanita. The berries were chewed, but not swallowed, to slake thirst. The Pomo preferred the smaller berry of Brittle Leaf Manzanita (A. tomentosa). Women went out to the dry hillsides in July or August and beat the ripe berries into great carrying baskets. The berries were taken home and eaten raw, stored for the winter, or made into a variety of foods.

The dried berries were ground into a very fine meal and stored. This the Pomo would boil into mush or mold into cakes to dry in the sun or bake in an underground oven. The Central Pomo made a pinole (fine meal) that they mixed with water and drank as a beverage, or used the berries to make into manzanita cider. The Miwok preferred the Whiteleaf Manzanita (A. viscida) and the common manzanita (A. manzanita) for cider.

Many Native Americans used the green leaf manzanitas medicinally. Both the fruits and leaves are astringent. A strong decoction of the leaves (applied warm externally) was used to treat poison ivy and oak, rashes and shingles. Berries and leaves were used to relieve bronchitis, kidney ailments, dropsy and female disorders.

Manzanita wood, when dry, is dense, and burns at a high temperature for long periods. Manzanita wood was used as a light source for dances and ceremonies, and also to make tools and awl handles.

manzanitas among us

Chaparral plant communities have evolved with fire, and the plant species which thrive there have adapted to cycles of fire and regrowth. Manzanita is one of the plant species that has adapted more than one strategy for recovery.

Some species of manzanita produce tough seeds that lie dormant until a brush fire comes along to activate the seed’s growth.

Another method of fire resistance is to produce a burl – a bulbous root mass, just at or below the ground. After a fire has come through, the energy and water stored in the burl allow the plant to quickly sprout new shoots. An example of a local, burl-producing species is Eastwood Manzanita (A. glandulosa Eastw.).

Before World War II, smoking pipes were often made of Briarwood, which comes from Europe. Because of the war, the supply of Briarwood was cut off, and people started making pipes from Manzanita burls. A pipe factory in Watsonville, California used Manzanita burls to make pipes, wiping out many Brittle-leaf Manzanita plants in the process.

Sudden Oak Death affects several native California plants, including Common Manzanita. Susceptible plants can become infected through exposure to waterborne infective agents via rainfall, splash or drainage. In addition to the natural spread of the disease, it can also be transmitted by human transport of infected plants and their parts to susceptible new plants. Good horticultural practices and restrictions on the movement of infected material can minimize the risk of spreading the disease. For more information, please refer to website links for the U.S. Department Of Agriculture/Plant Protection And Quarantine, the California Department Of Food And Agriculture or the California Oak Mortality Task Force.

Manzanita wood isn’t useful for lumber, but it does make a hot-burning fuel. The crooked central stems and lower branches are used in several cottage industries, including those producing lamp stands and other decorative wood crafts, as well as in aquariums and bird perches. The elegantly-shaped branches are also recommended by designers such as Martha Stewart for the basis of table centerpieces, jewelry trees and menorahs.

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spacer Long-tailed Weasel. Photo by Marianne Hale

WildCare’s holiday card to members and friends featured Marianne Hale’s photo of a Long-tailed Weasel. The photo was a finalist in WildCare’s 2011 Living with Wildlife Photo Contest. Interestingly, many people didn't know we had weasels in Marin.


Weasel size comparison. Photo from Kansas State University


Size comparison between Short-tailed and Long-tailed Weasels. Photo from Kansas State University Department of Animal Sciences and Industry

  Weasel blood collection. Photo U of Illinois at Urbana-Champ

Blood collection from a Long-tailed Weasel by the veterinary epidemiology laboratory of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign gives a idea of the little animal’s size relative to the hands.

  Long-tailed Weasel in Canada

This is a Long-tailed Weasel in Canada that has not quite finished turning white. For more photos and a Native American story about how the Ermine became white, visit Scott’s Posterus.

  Weasel tracks in the snow. Photo by Phil Myers

Photo of weasel tracks in the snow by Phil Myers, Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan, used with permission under Creative Commons license.

  Orphaned Long-tailed Weasels. Photo by Robert Bloomberg

Two newborn Long-tailed Weasels were found at the side of a hiking trail in Marin and were brought to WildCare. We initially thought they were abandoned pet ferrets (illegal in California) but their tiny size was the clue that they were Long-tailed Weasels. Photo by Robert Bloomberg

  Orphaned Long-tailed Weasel at WildCare. Photo Robert Bloomb

The Long-tailed Weasels that were rehabilitated at WildCare were eating meat almost before their eyes were open. Photo by Robert Bloomberg

  Domestic ferrets.

These are domestic ferrets. The history of the ferret’s domestication is uncertain, but it is likely that ferrets have been domesticated for at least 2,500 years. Today they are kept as pets in some states. They weigh between two and four pounds, so while they look similar, they are much bigger members of the weasel family, closer in size to our only native ferret, the Black-footed Ferret.

long-tailed weasels

WildCare’s holiday card this season featured our native Long-tailed Weasel. We loved sharing photo contest finalist Marianne Hale’s spectacular photo of a species that doesn’t often "pose" for a picture. After we sent the card, some WildCare members told us they were not aware that this little carnivore could be found right in their own neighborhoods. 

Marin County is home to Long-tailed Weasels (Mustela frenata) and Short-tailed Weasels (Mustela erminea). Both are very small carnivores, but the Short-tailed Weasel is miniscule— the females weigh from 28-35 grams and the males 50-60 grams. To give you a point of comparison, 454 grams equal just one pound. Short-tailed Weasels are even smaller than Black Rats which range in weight from 160-200 grams.

Weasels belong to the Mustelidae family that includes over 60 different species that vary in size and behavior, such as badgers, ferrets, fishers, martens, otters, polecats, minks and wolverines. In general, all members have five-toed feet with claws, long bodies, small, rounded ears, small eyes and short legs. Their well developed anal scent glands are the one characteristic that unifies all members. These glands produce a potent, musky smell that follows the animal wherever it goes.

Interestingly, the skunk was originally placed in this family because of common characteristics and its ability to spray. More recently however, all skunk species have been moved to their own family, Mephitidae, as DNA evidence has shown them to have derived from a single common ancestor about 30 million years ago. Since then that single ancestor has evolved into some of the stinkiest animals on earth.

mirror, mirror on the wall

The Long-tailed Weasel is long and slender, with a bushy tail that is often more than half the length of its body. Its tail is brown with a black tip. From above, the weasel's body is brown, while its belly is a yellowish white. An average male is around 16 inches long and can weigh up to 500 grams (a little over a pound); with the female usually about half the size of the male. The female is called a “bitch," "doe" or "jill” and the male a “buck," "dog," "hub" or "jack.” They are also recognizable for their short legs and small heads with long whiskers and short necks. A group of Long-tailed Weasels is called a “boogle.”
As winter approaches, the weasels that live farther north, or where snow is common, become almost completely white, just their eyes, nose and tail tips remaining black. The animals are then known as ermine. This camouflage, which takes 30 days to complete, helps them hide in the winter landscape from predators such as owls, foxes and hawks. Once spring returns, so does their brown coloring.

wherefore art thou, long-tailed weasel?

One of the most wide-ranging members of the Mustelidae family, the Long-tailed Weasel can be found from southern Canada, throughout most of the United States, and in many of the central and northern regions of South America except desert areas. Some authors have reported finding weasels only in places with abundant water, even though small rodents, suitable as food, were more abundant in surrounding habitat. The absence of water to drink is thought to be a limiting factor. Weasels are commonly found along roadsides and around farm buildings. Because of their mainly nocturnal nature, sightings of this elusive creature are not common, but they are definitely out there. Scientists have discovered that many Long-tailed Weasels will become somewhat diurnal to hunt their favorite food, the vole.

Constructed in the abandoned burrows of other mammals, rotting logs or under tree roots, the weasels' nests are made with grass and leaves and lined with animal fur. Despite their ground-loving behavior, these animals are also able to climb trees and swim. In fact, they are actually quite strong swimmers, often seen crossing strong streams with ease.

If you want to know if you have a Long-tailed Weasel nearby, there are two things you can do. First, listen for their range of vocalizations. They are able to produce a variety of sounds from a trill to a purr and even a screech or a squeal. An easier, and more definitive way, is to look for their tracks. Long-tailed Weasels have a unique track— their back feet always hit the ground right where their front feet were. Their track looks like two in one.

love is in the air

Summer is breeding season for Long-Tailed Weasels, and they only have one litter a year. To entice members of the opposite sex, they drag their bottoms on the ground to release a musky scent from the scent glands under their tails. Mating generally takes place while the female is still nursing a litter, or just after she has weaned the kits. The reason for this is that the gestation period is on average 280 days long! After the eggs are fertilized, they develop for eight days and then enter a period of dormancy. This adaptation, called delayed implantation, allows the weasel to wait until the optimal time to raise a litter, when food is abundant and weather is mild.

After the fertilized eggs attach to the female's uterine wall, the rest of the development takes place for about a month. Babies are usually born in April or May. The average litter size is six, but there can be anywhere from four to eight young. Born altricial, the young are blind, unfurred and weigh an average of three grams each. For about a month the young are completely dependent on their mother’s milk. Once their eyes open at around 35 days, the young will be fully furred and weaning begins. During the weaning process, the male may help to procure food for the young.

By the time they are two months old, the size difference between the males and females is evident. Their mother begins to take the young weasels hunting, but continues to feed them. When they are around 3-4 months old, the young disperse from their mothers and become independent. At this time, the females have actually already reached sexual maturity, and can mate during their first summer, while the males must wait a full year until they are ready to breed.

my, what big teeth you have

The word carnivore doesn’t even begin to describe weasels. These little critters are hunting machines. While their favorite food is voles, they will also prey on other small mammals and rodents such as mice, chipmunks, shrews, rabbits, gophers and rats. They hunt in a zig-zag pattern, running from burrow to burrow, using their long slender body to enter a burrow and hunt down its inhabitant. On occasion, they will attack animals larger than themselves. They will rush-attack the animal at great speed, grabbing onto the base of the skull, and crushing the skull with the help of their canine teeth.

These fierce little animals will even rush a full-grown human if they feel threatened. Mary Pounder, WildCare Education Specialist, shared her story of raising and eventually releasing two Long-tailed Weasels. Upon release, one of the weasels dashed out of the carrier, then quickly turned around and charged Mary. Her only escape from a nasty bite was to hop onto a nearby tree stump. We suppose that was the weasel’s way of saying “thank you.”    

Many members of the Mustelidae family, including the Long-tailed Weasel, are noted for their tendency to have eyes that are bigger than their stomachs, so to speak. There are stories of weasels coming into a chicken yard and killing not just one, but all of the chickens, much more than they can eat! A biologist has documented that a single mink killed and brought back to its den 13 muskrats in a single day. Scientists believe the root of this behavior comes from their instinct that tells them to procure food when available and to store the excess for later. While this behavior is commonly seen in many herbivorous species, like squirrels with their caches, it is not as well documented in carnivorous species. 

Long-tailed Weasels are helpful animals to have around. They eat large quantities of rodents that might otherwise damage, eat or become a problem for people (rats and mice) or crops (voles). Now that you know they live nearby, keep an eye out for signs of weasels, but make sure to keep your distance. You wouldn’t want to end up stuck on a tree stump like Mary! 

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great gift ideas for january

Women's Hooded Long-sleeve WildCare Logo T-shirt 

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