First, thanks to everyone who has cast their BowVote. The official tally as of today is an amazing 375 votes! Voting will continue until noon eastern time on June 30, so there’s still time if you haven’t voted. To pass the time between now and our unveiling of the winning bow, I thought I’d set you up with a short natural history lesson.
To be legitimate players in nature’s cycle of life and death, requires us to know something about natural history and ecology. A coyote doesn’t know that the Latin name of the eastern cottontail is Sylvilagus floridanus, but it damn sure knows that rabbits emerge from their brushy hiding places at dusk because it has learned its prey’s ecology. To interpret the natural world through the hunter’s lens, we first must be able to identify its many participants. Further, as hunter-conservationists, we can’t advocate for protection of wild places if we can’t identify, understand, and appreciate their occupants. The late Jay Massey once described hunting as a journey of discovery that …deals not just with the process of hunting, but with what we discover as a result of having hunted. It would be hard to overstate the importance of Jay’s sentiment.
In a recent appearance on The Push Podcast, I was asked how I was preparing for my upcoming moose hunt in Newfoundland. The question was specific to shooting practice and hunting gear, and I answered in that vein. What I failed to mention, however, is how I prepare to discover a new place, especially its natural history. I suspect that many of you are also using the summer months to prepare for fall hunts in faraway places or in your own home state, so I thought I’d devote this post to building a foundation for becoming a “hunting naturalist.” Knowing trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and other plants is imperative for understanding habitat and predicting game movement patterns. It's also handy if you are looking for bow or arrow wood, or wild edibles. Much of what you’ll find below is excerpted from my book, A Traditional Bowhunter’s Path: Lessons and Adventures at Full Draw.
When talking with other hunters I usually sense a similar, deep appreciation and wonderment for the natural world. When I point out something like the melodic “old-Sam-Peabody-Peabody-Peabody” of a singing white-throated sparrow, they often say: “Hey that’s cool. I’ve heard that for years but didn’t know what it was.” I believe most hunters want to increase their knowledge of natural history, but they don’t know where to begin. To lay the foundation for understanding relationships within and among groups of species, let’s start with a little refresher on taxonomy.
King Phillip’s Dinner
When using field guides we often find that an organism’s scientific name follows its common name, such as White-tailed Deer (Odocoileous virgininanus). I suspect these difficult to pronounce words are often ignored, but it’s sometimes important to pay attention to this extra mouthful of syllables. As you probably remember from school, the planet’s organisms are arranged into a hierarchy. The science of this organizational system is called taxonomy. “King Phillip Came Over For Good Spaghetti” is a saying to help remember Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species. For our purposes the details of taxonomy are unimportant, but it’s beneficial to have a basic understanding of this nested-system. The coyote, for example, is in the Kingdom Animalia, Phylum Chordata, Class Mammalia, Order Carnivora, Family Canidae, Genus Canis, and Species latrans. When written, the scientific name for coyote is shortened to just the genus and species (Canis latrans). Knowing how scientific names are derived and used is important in understanding the relationships among species.
The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) and gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), for example, are in the same Family (Canidae) but entirely different Genera, indicating that their taxonomic relationship to each other is more distant than their similar appearance might suggest. This becomes evident when examining the skulls of these two animals. The daintier, cat-like gray fox has low “U” shaped temporal ridges that don’t support robust muscle attachment, whereas the red fox has a strong “V” shaped temporal ridge for supporting more powerful muscles (Figure 1.).
Taxonomy is also important in overcoming confusing regional differences in common names. For example, if you read about whiskey jacks, camp robbers, moose-birds, Canada jays, and gray jays, you might think they were five different species. But, by including the scientific name (Perisoreus canadensis), along with these regionally accepted common names, the species being referred to becomes unambiguous. There is only one Perisoreus canadensis. Taxonomy also can help to identify common traits within a taxonomic group. For example, all plants in the mint family (Lamiaceae) have four-sided stalks, making it easy to narrow an unknown herbaceous plant down to the Family level simply by rolling the stem between your thumb and forefinger.
It would be impossible for me to cover even a small percentage of North America’s plants and animals on an individual basis. A huge part of successful identification is narrowing down the possible choices. In this post I’ll focus on techniques that will help you sort out woody plants into manageable numbers of choices.
MAD-CAP-HORSE stands for Maple, Ash, Dogwood, Caprifoliaceae, and Horse- chestnut. These are the groups of woody plants with opposite branching patterns. The two primary branching patterns of deciduous woody plants are opposite and alternate. Opposite branching simply means that leaves, stems, and sometimes branches arise from their base immediately across from each other. The same way your arms originate from your torso. Alternate branching means that pairs of stems are offset from each other. To envision this, imagine that one arm sprouted from your shoulder and the other from your waist. Knowing this, you can immediately lump an unknown tree or shrub into one of two categories—alternate or opposite. MAD-CAP-HORSE works during “leaf-on” or “leaf-off.” If leaves aren’t present simply look for the scars where they were once attached to the stem. If the pattern is opposite, it belongs to one of the MAD-CAP-HORSE groups, greatly narrowing the list of possibilities.
There are many familiar species of maple (Acer), ash (Fraxinus), dogwood (Cornus), and horse-chestnut (Aesculus) occurring throughout North America. The name that is likely foreign to you is Caprifoliaceae. Caprifoliaceae is a large Family of plants, including dozens of species with a mostly shrubby growth form. Some common Caprifoliaceae plants include Viburnums, such as arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum), known for its straight stems that were used by eastern Native American tribes to make arrow shafts; honeysuckles (Lonicera), elderberries (Sambucus), and privets (Ligustrum).
If your unknown tree/shrub has an alternate branching pattern, then you have to look outside of the MAD-CAP-HORSE group. Some common trees with alternate branching patterns are oaks (Quercus), hickories (Carya), walnuts (Juglans), beeches (Fagus), cherries (Prunus), elms (Ulmus), and aspens (Populus). MAD-CAP-HORSE will often get you half the way there with very little effort, but what is the next step in making a full identification?
Bark and Form
After branching pattern, bark and growth form are the next best diagnostic characteristic because they are ever-present, unlike leaves, and are easy to see from ground level. In eastern deciduous forest, I can identify nearly every tree species from a long distance simply by looking at the bark and growth form. How is this possible? It’s no different than your ability to recognize specific neighbors from many blocks away. In your mind you don’t go through a checklist of your neighbor John’s features—brown hair, 5’10,” beer belly. Instead, your mind automatically calculates these things from many past encounters with John and returns an identity. World War II British aircraft spotters coined the phrase G.I.S.S.—General Impression of Size and Shape. They used G.I.S.S. to instantly identify friendly versus enemy aircraft from miles away. Waiting to see what was painted on the plane’s side meant certain death. Once you’ve learned the bark and growth form of individual tree species, G.I.S.S works spectacularly well. For closely related species, closer inspection is often necessary. For instance, northern red oak (Quercus rubra) and black oak (Quercus velutina) have very similar bark, but black oak has horizontal fissures making it look a bit like alligator hide. Scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea) and black oak have similar growth forms, but scarlet tends to carry its dead branches while black drops them.
Buds and Leaves
Leaves can be very helpful, but it’s best not to rely on them because they’re only present during the growing season. Nonetheless it’s important to learn basic leaf shapes and growth patterns, such as simple, compound, and whorled. Leaf veins can be important too. Almost all dogwoods have veins that form the line of an arc from the stem to the tip and sugar maple (Acer saccharum) leaves have five veins while Norway maple (Acer platanoides) has seven. Buds are especially important when identifying young trees that haven’t developed their adult bark and growth forms. Take red maple (Acer rubrum) and sugar maple, for instance. Winter saplings of these species can look remarkably similar, but a closer look reveals very different buds. Sugar maple has brownish colored buds with alternating light and dark bands, while red maple buds are small and red in color. Some buds are so distinct that they are diagnostic by themselves. Yellow poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) buds are shaped like a duck’s bill, shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) buds look like a candle flame, bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis) buds are covered in bright yellow fuzz, and black walnut (Juglans nigra) buds look like a thumb and three fingers brought together in an Italian display of culinary perfection!
Field Guides and Websites
The information I’ve presented is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to identifying woody plants. The same would be true if I had chosen birds, mammals, or fungi. There are tricks and short cuts to identifying any taxonomic group, but in the end it takes some honest effort to get proficient. A collection of good field guides (see below for some of my favorites) and plenty of time in the field are usually what is needed. There are two types of field guides: schematic and photographic. Schematic guides, with their drawings, are able to capture the individual variation that all organisms display, on the other hand, photographic guides seem to be more intuitive. For most taxonomic groups, especially plants and birds, I suggest buying and using schematic and photographic guides in concert with each other. Also, don’t forget web-based resources and identification apps for smartphones. There are many good websites for learning about everything from butterflies to bats. I find these sites most useful once I’ve already made an identification or have narrowed things down to handful of possibilities. I can’t recommend any one web site over the other. I simply do a “Google” search on the species of interest and go from there. “Wikipedia” is often the first site returned by “Google” and is a good place to start.
Keep the Traditional Spirit Alive!
I’m Ron Rohrbaugh, a professional conservation biologist, author, and long-time traditional bowhunter. For the next year, I’ll be hunting exclusively with vintage archery gear in what I’m calling The Classic Year. We’ll explore natural history and travel, geography and culture, and of course archery and hunting. The adventures and stories will be steeped in conservation, both past and present.
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