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Gregory Dennis: To-do lists, human and otherwise

On a walk this past weekend, I found this to-do list on the side of the trail where someone had accidentally dropped it:
•  Taxes
•  Silicone bathroom
•  Order locks
•  Look into vacations
•  Respond to Pam dinner invite. We bring salad.
•  Ski
•  Fidelity retirement
•  Research Roth versus traditional IRA
Aside from providing a look into someone else’s private life, the list reminded me that we all have a lot of things to do. We humans are very busy. Especially as winter unfolds into spring.
Out there in the natural world it’s even busier — as I’ve been reminded by reading Mary Holland’s wonderful book, “Naturally Curious.” This enchanting field guide describes itself as a “month-by-month journey through the fields, words and marshes of New England.”
Think about peepers for a moment. Seeking mates, male peepers make their way this time of year to the nearest suitable water. There they begin their high-pitched calls, which echo through our nights every spring.
The average male peeper repeats his mating call 4,500 times at night.
Despite that cacophony, female peepers apparently have no problem distinguishing the calls of one male from another. Astonishingly enough, scientists think male peepers may not even hear each other’s calls.
While a male peeper’s to-do list might start with “scream out for a mate 4,500 times a night,” the springtime lists of other animals are quite different.
A fisher cat, for example, might now have at the top of its list “kill a porcupine as it comes out of its den.”
Holland reports that fishers kill porcupines by tearing at their faces until they are weakened, then rolling them over on their belly and devouring them. Her book includes a photo of fisher scat filled with the pads of a porcupine’s feet.
Also on a fisher’s shopping list: rabbits, squirrels, mice, voles, blue jays and ruffled grouse. (Though fishers are often blamed for killing house cats, Holland says it’s usually some other culprit that has made a meal of Fluffy.)
Spotted salamanders’ to-do lists in March and April are all about “Big Night.”
No, not the movie “Big Night.” It’s the herpetologists’ term for the night when these shiny, black creatures with yellow spots trek to the nearest pool in order to breed. It’s one reason why in April you will sometimes see road signs that say “Warning: Salamander Crossing.”
They’re not just looking for any pool though. These salamanders need to find a vernal pool — one that will eventually dry up. They provide a fish-free environment so all the eggs won’t get eaten.
This is of course also mating season for many other animals.
The male leopard frog, for example, has a mating call that’s likened to the sound of a human snore. On the list of the average female leopard frog: lay 6,000 eggs.
As anyone waking up at dawn this time of year can testify, the birds are also getting busy.
That includes killdeer, which need to find an open place to lay their eggs.
Though they are technically shorebirds, killdeer also like gravel country roads, judging by what’s going on in my neighborhood right now. Every time I drive in and out, one of the adults goes screaming off in complaint that I’ve once again disturbed the neighborhood.
At the top of the list for most birds is “find an appropriate place to nest.”
That’s tougher for Eastern bluebirds. Back when non-native house sparrows and European starlings were introduced to North America, they took over most of the nesting sites favored by bluebirds. So these brightly colored creatures often rely on birdhouses placed by humans.
A bluebird’s list also has to be pretty specific. Something like: “Find a birdhouse with an entrance of 1.5 inches — large enough that we can all get in and out, but small enough to keep out those big pesky starlings.”
For beavers, it’s time to repair their mounds, often by building them up with sticks that they have debarked when eating them. These mounds mark beavers’ territory and can be over three feet high.
Another item on the beaver list: scent the mounds with urine. That’s a message to transient beavers — many of them two years old and searching for their own ponds — to move along.
River otters are also in the business of using urine to scent their territories, called “rolls.”
But taking care of the kids is at the top of their list right now.
Young otters are born blind and without teeth. Soon enough, they’ll be out on Otter Creek foraging with their mom, who gestated them 10 months before they were born.
For male deer, the to-do list includes “grow antlers.”
The velvety skin covering a buck’s antlers is packed with blood vessels carrying nutrients to the bone. Antlers, it seems, grow at the rate of half an inch a day and are the fastest-growing mammal bones.
Those antlers will come in handy as bucks fight for mating rights in late fall.
But in the prime of springtime mating season, it’s the vole that gets the prize in New England.
Voles have multiple predators. That provides extra urgency to female voles, who can produce up to 17 litters in one year — if they live that long.
It’s a busy springtime world out there. So if you’re feeling overwhelmed with a long to-do list — well, you’ve got a lot of company.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email: gregdennisvt@yahoo.com. Twitter: @greeengregdennis.

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