Champion Crab Races Day on Feb. 17th

by Elizabeth Trickey

OK, a little different coming from a Canadian Wildlife Rescue site, but hey, there’s not much in special animal events going on this week!  And this article takes an unusual, very sharp turn, partway through.  So stay with me, read on, and see where this takes you. 

Basically, this special celebration of crabs involves racing the tiny crustaceans from the centre of a 6-foot diameter ring.  These hermit crabs supposedly go through a training program first, with the fastest crabs being used in the race.  The winning crab is the first one to make it to the outside of the ring.  This spiny little critter is actually given a trophy – the Morgan Trophy.  I wonder what the clawed creature does with it?

Christmas Island Bridge by Kirsty Faulkner

In researching about crabs, I came across a fascinating article on the crabs of Christmas Island.  It is there where the largest animal migration on Earth takes place and has been described as one of the 10 natural wonders of our world.  Now that’s an even more amazing race! 

Millions of red crabs live in the jungle of Christmas Island, which is a tiny isle in the Indian Ocean.  Every year, at the start of the rainy season, the crabs travel from their burrows in the jungle to the ocean where they mate and lay their eggs.  National park staff, concerned about crabs being run over as they cross across roads to get to the ocean, has had metal bridges built over the roads to ensure their safety.   

That reminded me of the animal crossings over highways that I have seen in North America.  When I first saw one in Coloradowas feeling all warm and fuzzy, thinking that governments cared about the safety of the animals.  However, I was told they were actually for the safety of human drivers.  But still, it is a win-win situation for all. 

Now let’s be clear about what animal crossings are, and aren’t.  They are bridges over, or tunnels under, major roadways that provide wildlife with a way to cross the roads safely.  They are not the little signs along highways that say “deer/moose crossing”.  Those signs are to warn car drivers of possible danger, not to tell deer or moose that it is a good place for them to cross!  Surprisingly, there are many people who have sent letters to the government saying they should move the signs to areas where it would be safer for the animals to cross!  Oh my…. 

Research done in Alberta has demonstrated that animal crossings are very effective in keeping both large animals and vehicle drivers, safe.  Beginning in the 1980s, 24 corridors of 22 underpasses and 2 overpasses, were built in Banff along the Trans Canada Highway.  Fencing was put up along the rest of the open highway to keep the animals from traversing the road and to funnel wildlife toward the road crossings.  It was found that over a 25 year period, the crossings were accessed 84 000 times by large animals such as bear, wolf, deer, mountain lion, and moose.  Interestingly, these animals required time to adjust to the crossings – as the years went by, more and more animals began using the crossings.   

The overhead wildlife crossing on Highway 69, near Killarney, features a natural looking landscape so animals will use it. Photo courtesy of the Ministry of Transportation

One study found that having animal corridors reduced highway deaths of ungulates (that’s hooved animals) by 80%.  Unfortunately, bears did not have a similar outcome.  Their highway deaths remained consistent with the amount of traffic.  It was found that additional safety measures were needed, such as a different type of fencing, in order to protect the bears and to get them to use the crossings. 

In order to protect motorists, Ontario built its first large animal crossing in 2010, between Sudbury and Killarney, an area that experienced a high number of car accidents due to collisions with wildlife.  Exclusion fencing was also installed along the highway to encourage the animals to use the crossings.  For animals that were trapped on the roadside of the fencing, many one-way gates were installed to allow them to get into the protected area, away from the road.  Soon after that, a tunnel was built at a much cheaper cost.  Follow-up data showed that the fencing was very successful in keeping wildlife from the roadway.  It was also found that large animals seemed to prefer the overpass to the underpass. 

Deer leaving underpass
Wasi Wildlife underpass on highway 11

As previously mentioned, these corridors were built for the safety of humans.  What is great, though, is that as an added bonus, they also protected the larger animals.  And it gives me great pleasure to report that in recent years, Ontario has been building “ecopassages” which are tunnels under roadwayfor the safe crossings of smaller animals.  This protects animals such as snakes, turtles, rabbitsskunks, muskrats, frogs, beavers, squirrels, and raccoons from becoming roadkill; it has nothing to do with the safety of humans.  Now I’m back to feeling those warm and fuzzies

Eco-Kare International, an Ontario company, was set up about 10 years ago to provide solutions for developing cost-effective, man-made structures that maintain healthy ecosystems.  This company helps in the planning and design of roads that include eco-passages, and then monitors them, using camera equipment to note which animals are using the tunnels, as well as the frequency of use. 

Below are some examples of animals using the tunnels, photos courtesy of the Toronto Zoo, Adopt-a-Pond program with the last photo of the Blanding’s Turtle courtesy of Eco-Kare International (funding from the Ontario Ministry of Transportation). 

Parks Canada on the Bruce Peninsula has been instrumental in building deflection fencing and tunnels for our smaller animals.  Many of our smaller wildlife are experiencing a serious decline in their numbers due to traffic fatalities.  Snapping turtles and Massasauga rattlesnakes are both considered endangered, so these eco-passages will help improve their numbers.  Photos below courtesy of Bruce Peninsula National Park. 

This past year, closer to home, the city of Brampton, in conjunction with the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, has been busy building 3 eco-passages for wildlife.  Their concern was the amount of animal road deaths alongside the wetland areas in Brampton where wildlife, such as turtles, migrate to each year in order to mate and lay eggs.  As well as building the tunnels, they have installed 1500 metres of fencing along the roads to funnel wildlife towards the underground passages.  Three cheers for the city of Brampton!! 

                        Building the Brampton ecopassages 

As more roads are built through wildlife habitats, the animals that live in these environments still need to use that full area for their homes, to find food, and for their offspring.  This means that they need to regularly cross these newly built roads within their existing habitat, which poses a danger to them.  Ecopassages allow wildlife the connectivity to all areas of their habitat without the danger that roads possess.  As well, with global warming, more species are travelling northward where the weather is cooler.  Again, wildlife must cross across roads in order to migrate to more northern environments. 

I know I haven’t provided readers with much information about crabs, and I’m sorry for that.  They are truly interesting animals.  They share their special day of February 17th with another special day.  That is “Random Acts of Kindness Day” which makes talking about animal crossings even more relevant.  We are being kind, not to mention smart, to provide our precious wildlife with the means to survive in our developed world.  Their survival is ultimately our survival.

 

Note From the Editor: Featured in the news lately is that the Ford government plans to go ahead and build the 413 Mega Highway and the Holland Marsh Highway (Bradford Bypass). You might recall that environmental assessments and lobbyists showed that these highways would be very harmful to the environment and in February of 2018, it was  decided not to proceed. Now, just three years later, the issue is at the forefront again.

It is up to us, as the public, to make sure that we are aware of all the pros and cons to these highways, however, it is quite apparent that the environmental impact could be quite significant. Highway 413 would be 50 km long and would pave over 2,000 acres of Class 1 and Class 2 farmland – among Ontario’s most productive farmland as well as harm sensitive ecosystems and the wildlife that lives there.

Certainly, if construction of the highways does move forward, we can only hope that many eco passages will be built to accomodate wildlife.

Here is a report from August of 2020 which our readers may find of interest;

New Report – Is Building Highway 413 the Best Option for Moving People and Goods?

At the very least, proper due diligence should be exercised.

https://act.environmentaldefence.ca/page/66231/action/1?locale=en-US

 

 

Let’s Celebrate Groundhog Day!!

by Elizabeth Trickey

It just wouldn’t be February if we didn’t celebrate Groundhog Day this month!  Keep your ears open on February 2nd to hear if Wiarton Willie sees his shadow!  Will we have 6 more weeks of winter?  Locals say that Wiarton Willie is accurate about his weather predictions 90% of the time.  Climatologist David Phillips begs to differ, saying Willie is only right 37% of the time, which isn’t too bad considering meteorologists, with their 4 year university science degrees, are only accurate 50% of the time in predicting long range forecasts!

There are many names for a groundhog – thickwood badger, ground pig, land beaver, whistle pig, and Canada marmot to name a few.  One of the more familiar names they go by is “woodchuck”.  However, these animals have nothing to do with wood and they certainly don’t chuck it.  The name actually comes from the native word “wuchak” meaning “digger”.  And diggers, they are!

These chubby little rodents are only found in North America.  They are diurnal, which means they come out of their burrows during the day to feed, usually in the early morning.  During the winter months, groundhogs hibernate for 3-4 months.  Their heartbeats go from 80 beats per minute down to 5 beats during hibernation.

A male groundhog goes a-courting in the early spring.  He will search out the burrows of hibernating females in order to find mates.  Yes, that’s plural.  A male usually has 2 families within his hunting range.  He maintains his own burrow, as do his mates.  After babies are born, the male will regularly visit with the families until the offspring are ready to strike out on their own.

Featured photograph and this photo provided by Procyon volunteer and wildlife photographer Jennifer Howard

Mother groundhogs have one litter a year of 2-6 babies, which are born without hair and unable to see.  By a month old, their eyes are open, they have grown some hair, and they have begun to eat solid foods.  By 2 months, they are venturing outside of the burrow.  The offspring stay with their mother for about 3 months before leaving home, although sometimes the female young will stay with their mother for longer, up to a full year.  They each dig their own burrow in which to live since mature groundhogs do not live together.  They tend to be territorial and aggressive amongst their own species, though they do look out for the others in their vicinity.  Groundhogs are solitary animals and tend to live 3-6 years in the wild.

Adult groundhogs are 1-1½ feet long with very short legs, and they weigh about 13 lbs.  Quite the chonk!  They run quite slowly, only about 8mph, more like a slow waddle.  Groundhogs have coarse, greyish-brown fur, small ears, and a bushy tail.  They have 22 teeth with the 4 front ones growing constantly.  They are part of the squirrel family, so if you can imagine a giant squirrel – that’s a groundhog!

Groundhogs have very sharp, curved claws used for digging burrows.  These burrows are usually quite extensive being up to 6 feet deep and 20 feet wide, with several levels and many rooms including a bathroom!  For safety, there are also many entrances/exits and even a peephole to assess danger.  In building a burrow, up to 700 lbs of soil can be excavated.

Like rabbits, groundhogs like to build their burrows at the edge of woodland areas.  Their preference is to have one burrow in an open area in the summer for better access to food, and a forested burrow through the winter while they hibernate.  Sort of like having a city home for work and a cottage in the hinterland to relax!  Groundhogs keep their homes clean by changing out their nesting materials on a regular basis.

Photo by Jennifer Howard

When not hibernating, groundhogs eat.  They are herbivores with a diet of plants, grasses, tree bark, and fruit.  Oh yes, and everything in your vegetable garden!  After consuming about a pound of food at one time, groundhogs like to bask in the sun as the food digests.  Sounds like me after a good meal!  But they also have to be on guard for predators.

Groundhogs have lots of predators, all of which are faster than they are.  These include the coyote, badger, red fox, bobcat, cougar, eagle and owl.  A groundhog will keep a watch out by standing on its hind legs, and if it senses danger, it will raise the alarm, letting out a whistling sound to warn others (hence the name “whistle-pig”).  Because the groundhog doesn’t move at a quick enough pace to outrun its predators, it needs quick access to a burrow entrance so it can safely get away at a moment’s notice.  It is also capable of climbing trees and swimming in order to get away from predators.

Over the years, human activity has increased food access for groundhogs, so this species has thrived.  That’s a good thing because there several ways that groundhogs benefit our communities.  Due to their amazing digging skills, they help to aerate soil, which increases the ability of other plants and trees to grow.  Their digging has also unearthed valuable artifacts that have revealed important archaeology sites in North America.

Other benefits are that these chunky little critters act as a food source for many predators, including humans living in more rural areas who use them for food and fur; they are used in medical research; and their abandoned burrows play host to other species such as skunks, raccoons, snakes, and red fox which eat mice, grasshoppers and other insects that are a bane to farmers.  Oh, and did I mention their meteorological skills?

I lea

The Woodchuck Song first appeared in the musical Runaway in 1904. The song was made even more famous in Groundhog Day! Here is Bill Murray!

ve you with the following question:

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck

If a woodchuck could chuck wood?

Well, I already mentioned that woodchucks don’t chuck wood.  But, according to a Cornell University wildlife biologist, if a woodchuck could chuck wood, it would probably be about 700 lbs, which is the same amount of soil a woodchuck unearths when making its burrow.

            Woodchucks neither would nor should chuck wood

            Good luck to the woodchuck who is misunderstood

Now say that 10 times fast!