Jack Ballard

Throwback Thursday: Baby Bison


Wednesday, May 29th, 2013

Throwback Thursday: Baby Bison by Jack Ballard

American Bison

American Bison by Jim Peaco

For North American hoofed mammals, the month spanning a couple of weeks on either side of Memorial Day is the height of the birthing season. Most elk calves, deer fawns, and bighorn sheep lambs are born during this time. Moose and pronghorn also birth their young after spring is well underway. However, there is one hoofed mammal of the American West that births its babies sooner. American Bison (bison bison) may begin calving as early as April, sometimes dropping their young to an earth that is still covered in snow.

While some young ungulates such as pronghorn and mountain goats appear much like miniature adults, baby bison look quite different than their parents. Their coat is reddish brown or golden, much lighter than the dark brown and nearly black hair found on adult bison. Baby bison lack the curving horns found on adults of both sexes, although a close inspection of a newborn bison’s head by an expert can reveal the tiny buds from which its horns will grow.

Healthy, adult bison are essentially immune from predation. However, wolves and grizzly bears will readily attempt to catch newborn bison. If a bison herd stands its ground against a potential predation attempt by wolves, the young are normally safe. If the herd panics and young bison are separated from the adults, they are much more easily taken by wolves.

Impressive and powerful, it’s not likely that anyone would describe an adult bison as “cute.” But for the first couple months of life, their babies certainly fit the definition, perhaps an odd descriptor for little ones that may one day weigh a ton.

Making Hay – Pikas


Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

Making Hay – Pikas by Jack Ballard

American Pika

American Pika by Jack Ballard

All across eastern Montana and southward to Texas, ranchers are dealing with a hay shortage. Severe drought and wildfires have left pasture with little for cattle to eat, requiring some ranchers to use supplemental feed at a time when cattle would normally be grazing on open range. Here in Montana, hay prices have nearly doubled in two months, with prices expected to increase even further as winter approaches. But without hay, cattle are unable to survive the winter in the harsh climates of the Rocky Mountains and northern plains.

But it’s not only cattle that survive the winter on hay. Up in the alpine zone of the Rockies, a curious little creature called the Pika also eats hay. Throughout the summer, pikas cut grass with their teeth, then cache it into larders beneath the extensive boulder fields in which they like to live. Sharp-eared hikers can often catch sight of a pika by listening for their high-pitched barks that they emit when alarmed.

However, pikas aren’t the only animals that “store” food. Beavers sink branches of trees into the water around their lodges which are eaten during the winter. In my neck of the woods, American Red Squirrels (pine squirrels) cache pine nuts in large heaps that the feed upon during the snowy season. Some birds, such as Red-breasted and White-breasted Nuthatches secret nuts and seeds in cracks and crevices in tree trunks that are consumed when food is scarce.

Like farmers who put up hay and grain to feed cattle in the winter, some species of animals store their own food for consumption during the cold months of the year. Let’s hope their harvest is more bountiful than that of my state’s two-legged farmers.

Deer Browsing versus Grazing: What’s the Difference?


Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

Deer Browsing versus Grazing: What’s the Difference?


White-tailed Deer

White-tailed Deer © Dominic Ballard

There’s plenty of green grass on my lawn and still lots of greenery in the irrigated hayfields at the edge of town. Nonetheless, deer are invading my neighborhood, chewing up flowers, nibbling new growth from roses and other ornamental shrubs, and gobbling leaves from nearly any variety of deciduous trees they can get their incisors around. All across the Rocky Mountain States, this is about the time that mule deer, white-tailed deer, elk, pronghorn and even moose sneak in to grab their snacks at the expense of suburban landscaping.

While all these species might find a meal in a yard at the edge of town, their preferences in forage are quite different. Biologists often categorize ungulates on a continuum between browsers and grazers. Browsers consume their plant matter in the form of leaves, bark and twigs from a variety of trees and shrubs. Moose are browsers, although they do eat some aquatic plants as well. Grazers are grass-eaters. Bison are a prime example of a grazing animal. Other ungulates may browse and graze. In North America, elk are the most versatile of our native ungulates, capable or either grazing or browsing. Mule and whitetail deer tend primarily toward browsing, but will also graze on succulent, broad-leafed plants, especially in the spring and early summer.

To a large extent, an ungulate’s range and habitat is tied to its eating habits. The eclectic elk can forage in a wide range of habitats, from grassy prairies to boreal forests. Bison are most naturally animals of the grasslands, but they can survive in mountainous areas, so long as there’s sufficient grass to graze. The selective eating habits of moose limit their distribution to areas that have abundant trees to browse. As they don’t graze, you’ll never spot a moose at home on the prairie.

Deer and the occasional moose frequent my neighborhood. Based on their eating habits, I don’t need to worry too much about my lawn. But if I don’t protect the shrubs, these browsers will prune them to smithereens.

A Tailless White-tailed Deer


Wednesday, September 12th, 2012

A Tailless White-tailed Deer by Jack Ballard

White-tailed Deer

White-tailed Deer © Jack Ballard

Near the edge of town during mid-summer, just at twilight, I spied two whitetail bucks feeding in a meadow. Intrigued by their large, fuzzy antlers, I pulled over at the side of the road to give my son in the back seat a better look. On closer examination, we noticed something very strange about one of the deer. He had no tail.

Yesterday morning, while puttering about trying take photos of a jackrabbit, I noticed a buck deer bounding pell-mell in my direction. It was a sight I’ve seen a thousand times, but something didn’t seem right. Viewing the photos on my computer later in the day, I recognized the tailless whitetail. It was the same buck, absent the trademark white flag normally carried upright on the rump of a deer when running.

Initially amused, I soon found myself zooming in on the image of the unfortunate creature to examine its missing appendage. Within the tail of a white-tailed deer is a series of thin bones, much smaller but similar to those in the spine. This buck wasn’t simply missing the hair on its tail. Its tail was completely gone, severed from its body precisely at the base as if it had been surgically removed by a mentally unstable veterinarian.

And so I pose some obvious questions. Has anyone else seen a deer without a tail? Does anyone know how a whitetail might lose its tail? Maybe all those kids trying to pin the tail on the poor donkey could help out this buck. Perhaps not, as I think they’d have a hard time catching him.

Chokecherry Cheers


Wednesday, August 29th, 2012

Chokecherry Cheers by Jack Ballard

Common Chokecherry tree

Common Chokecherry © Jack Ballard

As summer slides away toward autumn here in Montana, farmers are busy baling hay and harvesting wheat. Integral to that process is an accurate assessment of when these crops are ripe. Bale too soon and hay might spoil in the stack. Harvest too late and you may sacrifice both bushels and quality in your grain field.

Crops of other types are ripening as well. A recent hike took me past several stands of chokecherry bushes. The berries have transitioned over the past few weeks from green to bright red. Are they ripe? Not yet, at least not for humans. I’ve seen a few robins sampling them, but red chokecherries are very astringent. In a few weeks there color will deepen to dark purple or develop even blackish hues. That’s when they’re best for people.

If you pick chokecherries, though, you’ll have plenty of competition. Robins, catbirds, jays, sparrows and pretty much any fruit-consuming bird will take to chokecherries like a hungry youth to a stack of pancakes.

Which brings up my next observation. As a kid on the ranch, I was often served pancakes for breakfast. Pancake syrup, to me, was deep purple, not amber. In late August we harvested bushels of chokecherries from a row of bushes in a long shelterbelt. Mom rendered their juice into tasty jelly and heavenly syrup. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, Native Americans in this area secured chokecherries as their number one fruit crop for the year, pounding the fruit to pulverize the large pit, then drying the mass into a highly nutritional, portable food source.

Bears love them, too. One summer a black bear lived in a narrow canyon near the ranch that was flush with chokecherries. Early September found its scat completely loaded with chokecherry hulls.

They grow just about anywhere, nourishing humans and wildlife alike. Three cheers for chokecherries.

Starting School


Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012

Starting School – Birds by Jack Ballard

Black-capped Chickadee birds

Black-capped Chickadee, juvenile © Jack Ballard

School came into session in my neighborhood last week. My children are still happily adrift from their studies on summer vacation. It’s the feathered kids that have started school. We’re lucky to have a bumper crop of newly fledged birds hanging about in the aspen trees and shrubs in the backyard.

The first to show were a couple of fuzzy little Pine Siskins. They mainly perched on the aspen branches, tweeting out their entreaties to their mother for food. When the first took off on its stubby wings, its flight was erratic. It winged a haphazard loop away from the tree, then performed a bumpy landing on its return, first catching the perch in the belly before grasping it in its claws. By the end of the day, though, the two youngsters were flying much more precisely. It seems that the flying lessons were successful.

Now there are a trio of young American Robins, four baby Mountain Bluebirds, three little chickadees and a couple of clutches of chipping sparrows following their parents about, learning the ropes of being a bird. The juvenile robins hop around on the lawn, searching for earthworms, just like their parents, although they seem doubly enthusiastic about begging a worm from mom or pop. After congregating together in a group for a few days, the young bluebirds have confidently dispersed, each discovering a favorite perch upon which to scan the ground below for bugs.

Oh, and I mustn’t forget the House Sparrows. There is a wretched new lot of these pesky non-natives as well. They’re learning to behave just like their parents, soiling the deck furniture with their waste and bullying smaller birds like the siskins from my backyard feeder.

Welcome to school.

Leading Lizard


Wednesday, August 15th, 2012

Leaping Lizard by Jack Ballard

Desert Collared Lizard

Desert Collared Lizard © Jack Ballard

I nearly miss sighting the creature, though my footsteps on an arid path take me within an arm’s length of its motionless body. A large lizard basks contentedly on a rock. While I’m sweating with exertion and in response to the intense summer sun, this fellow looks downright comfortable.

Stopping to observe my reptilian trail-mate, my eyes are immediately drawn to an unusual band of color circling its neck just above its shoulders. The band consists of two stripes of black, sandwiching a lighter streak of white.

I move closer to take a photo. The lizard’s unblinking eye betrays no hint of my presence. The utter stillness of its body seems relaxed, even confident. I slide in a few more inches to compose a more interesting portrait. Suddenly the reptile cocks its head a bit higher and opens its mouth, clearly an indication of displeasure. Although I know it’s not going to attack me, its actions are intimidating.

As it turns out, I’m not the only one a bit unnerved by a handsome Desert Collared Lizard. The leading lizard in many areas, collared lizards often prey on their own kind, running down smaller lizards and gobbling them with their large mouths and strong jaws. Collared lizards have large hind feet, which allow them to run upright, similar to a human.

After a somewhat startling experience with this bold lizard, I turn my own two legs up the trail.

A Colossal Cottonwood


Thursday, August 9th, 2012

A Colossal Cottonwood by Jack Ballard

Narrowleaf Cottonwood tree

Narrowleaf Cottonwood © Jack Ballard

Joliet, Montana, is one of those little towns that survives, God knows why. Its economic core is a riddle. Its main street is drab. The most prominent landmark on Highway 212, the thoroughfare that connects it with the outside world, is a gas station. But it has a school and a post office and is within commuting distance of Billings, the largest city in the state. In Montana, those features alone can nurture a town.

As it turns out, Joliet houses a record-breaking tree. Recently, the American Forests National Big Tree competition granted championship status to a narrowleaf cottonwood tree in Joliet, a stone’s throw from Highway 212. Narrowleaf Cottonwoods are actually members of the willow family. This one sports a circumference of over 14 feet and is nearly 80 feet tall.

Situated not far from the bottomlands of Rock Creek, the colossal cottonwood’s relatives don’t fare so well on Rock Creek or the nearby Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River. Invasive species such as Russian olives and European buckthorns have dramatically reduced both narrowleaf and black cottonwoods in these drainages.

Narrowleaf Cottonwood trees

Narrowleaf Cottonwood © Jack Ballard

Narrowleaf cottonwoods are often considered a nuisance tree in municipalities. They’re nourished by a shallow, spreading root system that sometimes clogs sewer lines and storm drains. However, in native environments their extensive root system helps stabilize stream banks and reduces soil erosion. These cottonwoods provide summer housing for numerous species of nesting birds. They’re commonly downed by beavers who prize their nutritious bark and soft wood that is easily gnawed into lengths to create lodges. Deer and moose browse their tender shoots in the depths of winter. Grouse dine on their buds and catkins in the spring.

I love all species of cottonwoods. They’re excellent places to observe birds. The smell of damp cottonwood leaves reminds me of fishing.

If you find your wheels humming on route from Billings to Red Lodge, it’s now worth stopping in Joliet, if only to view their champion cottonwood.

Flaming Forests, Burning Questions


Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

Flaming Forests, Burning Questions – Forest Fires by Jack Ballard

Forest fires in the Rocky Mountains are once again in the news. The fire season started early this year, thanks to excessively dry conditions over much of the region. To put things in perspective, Billings, Montana, had the driest June on record. At this writing, this community in the south-central portion of the state had received but one-half its normal precipitation for the year to date. How much is that? Normal years would see a little over 8 inches, this year’s count has been slightly over 4 inches.

Not surprisingly, a large fire has broken out in the hills north of town. Covered in ponderosa pines and prickled with junipers, the Bull Mountains are an idyllic spot for a home in years of abundant moisture. But in dry seasons, the dense stands of pines, many inhabited by tightly packed young trees, are inevitable infernos.

Fireweed Wildflowers / Forest Fires

Fireweed © Jack Ballard

The situation in the Bull Mountains is duplicated over millions of acres in the West. Over a century of fire suppression has left many of our forest with unhealthy numbers of trees. Unbroken landscapes of countless evergreens are pretty to the eye, perhaps, but often tend toward monocultures, ecosystems dominated by one species of flora, or at best, a few species.

Then they burn. In most cases, an inordinate amount of fire-fighting resources is directed toward protecting homes and other human structures. Which raises a question: To what extent should we be building in such fire-prone environments in the first places? Another issue of economics also arises. Where we’ve already erected dwellings in areas of high fire risk, does it make more sense to invest a few million dollars in tree thinning and fuel reduction instead of spending tens of millions of dollars fighting fires? When conditions are ideal for controlled burns, should people take up nature’s mantle and burn a few hundred acres here and there in hopes of discouraging subsequent fires that may clear thousands?

Last evening I fished a small creek in a drainage seared by a massive fire a few years ago. There are a few campgrounds in the area. An acquaintance recently told me she wouldn’t camp there because it’s ugly.

Forest Fires

Fireweed and Burn © Jack Ballard

I caught Brook Trout in the stream and encountered numerous cloven hoof prints of Moose and Mule Deer. Fireweed and other forbs are abundant beneath towering blackened trunks of dead evergreens. Aspen shoots are sprouting on the hillsides. There’s more to eat here than in the pre-fire days for the likes of Downy Woodpeckers, Black Bears and Elk.

I don’t profess to have the answers to the big social questions regarding wildfires. But I do know one thing. The idea that all forest fires are ugly depends on who is looking.

Bat for Breakfast?


Thursday, July 26th, 2012

Bat For Breakfast? by Jack Ballard

 On a recent camping trip, I sat idly in a morning stupor, sucking the first sips of coffee from a plastic cup, waiting for a caffeine lift to start the day. The first bashful rays of daylight caressed a canyon wall above the camp. As I contemplated my own breakfast, a tiny bat flitted about overhead, apparently attempting to nab a few more bugs before retiring to a roost to pass the day. He was a straggler. The several dozen of his kind that danced in the night sky the previous evening had already punched out from their nightshift of bug patrol.

Suddenly, two dark thunderbolts descended from the sky overhead. Shrill shrieks of deadly intent accompanied their bolt from the blue. In less than an eye-blink, my consciousness slammed from half-asleep to wide-awake.

A pair of Peregrine Falcons had targeted the errant bat. The dive of the first falcon clipped its prey, sending the bat into a momentary tumble. As it regained its equilibrium the second bird dropped in, the speed of its stoop astonishing. It too narrowly missed its prey, pulling up into a perfect loop to take a second swipe at the bat.

The chaotic scene lasted but seconds, two feathered assassins shrieking and swooping, one intended victim desperately attempting to elude their talons. The bat disappeared behind a breach in the canyon wall, the peregrines lifted to perch on a stony precipice above.

Bats and Birds

Peregrine Falcon © Jack Ballard

It was an experience I will never forget. The hunting dive (stoop) of a peregrine may reach speeds of 200 mph. I’m not sure what a bat’s capacity for learning encompasses, but I’m guessing there’s one that will no longer linger in search of breakfast.