The Weekly Wolf

I spent six years living with the wolves of Mission:Wolf.
Each Monday, this page will feature a photograph and story
of these wolves or a fellow species from the gray wolf's ecosystem.

June 27, 2011



When I first met Raven she was a clumsy, pitch black puppy with satellite ears, gangly legs and gigantic, floppy feet. It didn’t take her long to grow into her oversized body and become one of the most outgoing and goofy wolves I’ve ever known. We traveled in the wolf bus together for a year and half, meeting thousands of people and working our way into their hearts. Raven never failed to charm the crowds with her smiling face and impressive acrobatics. Even after she retired from traveling, people asked after her year after year, fondly remembering the bright-eye wolf. Back at the refuge, Raven has taken in the role of mother and mentor to numerous new pups who have come to Mission:Wolf, teaching them not to be afraid of humans. This year Raven turns nine. Her coat has gone gray and she can’t leap five feet into the air from a standstill anymore, but I still see the same happy spirit behind her eyes that was there on the day she arrived at Mission:Wolf. I’ve treasured every moment we’ve spent together and look forward to visiting with Raven again soon.

June 20, 2011



Rogue is the only animal left at the refuge who was there when I first visited Mission:Wolf twelve years ago.  In the time that I've known him, Rogue has gone from being a firey, potentially dangerous wolf-dog with such a huge chip on his shoulder that he had to live alone, to being a low-key, if still tempermental, old codger with one eye, a three-legged mate, and a soft spot for the refuge director.  But some things will never change - even though he looks like a fuzzy teddy bear and has a hitch in his step these days, I still wouldn't put it past Rogue to rip his metal water tub off the fence and bury just for fun.  At 18, the now ancient Rogue has slowed down a little, but somehow I wouldn't be surprised if he lived another ten years just to spite all predictions.

June 13, 2011



Even in his old age, Beorn was an impressive animal.  He always towered over the other wolves at the refuge, yet used his wits and charisma to maintain his alpha status, rather than brute force.  This photo was taken on the last morning I ever spent with Beorn.  He trotted up to the fence when I walked down the path, as usual, but he kept looking behind him and squeaking at his mate Nyati.  Being one of the shyest wolves at Mission:Wolf, I never expected Nyati to come up, but with Beorn's encouragement she worked up the courage to come see me.  As Beorn stood perfectly still next to the fence, Nyati reached over his back and sniffed my hand.  Once she realized that I wasn't going to leap over the fence and eat her, Nyati relaxed.  Thanks to his steady presence, I was able to spend almost half an hour sitting in the morning sunshine with Beorn and Nyati.  When the other wolves started squeaking for their morning breakfast, Beorn and Nyati howled together.  They were so close that I can still remember the deep reverberation of their howls in my chest.  Once their howling subsided, breakfast was served, and Nyati retreated back into the aspen grove, I said goodbye to Beorn.  It was a bitter-sweet moment because I was excited to get on the road and start my new job in Seattle, but I also knew that Beorn's old age would probably catch up with him before I made it back for a visit.  This picture was my last glimps of him before he disappeared into the trees.  Sadly, Beorn did pass away while I was in Seattle, but I will always be thankful that I got to spend that last peaceful morning with him.

June 6, 2011

Rufus Hummingbird 

Rufous Hummingbirds

There are over 325 species of hummingbirds in the world, making them the second most specious bird family on earth. These remarkable little birds, found only in the Americas, can hover in midair, fly backwards, and reach speeds exceeding 34 mph. They have the highest metabolism of any animals yet can live to be 10-12 years old, and can flap their wings up to 90 times a minute. It is believed hummingbirds originated in South America, but their small size and hollow, fragile bones have left the fossil record absurdly incomplete. Surprisingly, a few of these scattered fossils have recently been found in Europe and Russia. This has caused much debate about the hummingbird family and a reorganization of the species into 9 imaginatively named clades (among my favorite names: topazes, mangoes, coquettes, brilliants, mountain-gems, bees, and emeralds).

The rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) is a tiny bird, measuring only 8 cm long and weighing 3-4 grams, but has the heart of a warrior. The brightly colored males can be found viciously defending wildflowers and artificial feeders from all comers each summer across western North America. Rufous males can be recognized by their aggressive demeanor and by their markings: rusty colored face, back, rump and tail; white breast; and a red-gold iridescent throat and chin. The iridescent feathers get their brilliant coloring not from pigmentation, but from prism-like cells within the top layer of the feathers that split light into varying wavelengths that reflect with different degrees of intensity. Females are slightly larger than the males, but are more retiring than their counterparts. They generally have a green back and crown, white underparts, a white throat with a very small central spot of red iridescent feathers, rufous washed flanks, and a dark tail with a rufous base and white tips. All rufous hummingbirds tails taper to a point when folded and their wings are fairly short, not quite reaching the end of their tail when the bird is perched.

The wide-ranging rufous can be found throughout the meadows, parks, woodlands, and mountains of western North America. The vast majority of rufous hummingbirds winter in the warm, wooded areas in Mexico’s state of Guerrero. Then, when spring arrives, they fan out over the US and Canada, searching for blooming flowers and mates. The laziest of rufuous’ travel 2,000 miles to their summer homes in Arizona and California, while the more ambitious birds travel over 4,000 miles to Alaska. Rufous hummingbirds nest further north than any other species and must regularly tolerate below freezing temperatures on its breeding grounds. This startlingly cold- hardy little bird can withstand temperatures down to -4 degrees F (-20 C), providing that it can find adequate food. With the increasing number of winter-blooming gardens and artificial feeders people put up in their yards, rufous hummingbirds are starting to expand their range – either migrating to Florida or over-wintering as far north as Washington and Oregon.

No matter where I have traveled in the American west, the sunshine and busy rush of summer life has always been accompanied by the high-pitched chirps of mating hummingbirds. Females build a miniature nest (about the size of ˝ a walnut shell) in the low-lying branches of conifers and shrubs out of grass, moss and spider webbing. Meanwhile, a male will spot the industrious female and do everything in his power to catch her fancy. He climbs up to 30 meters (almost 100 feet) in the air before diving straight down over the female at incredible speed. The high speed produces a high-pitched hum that is punctuated by a loud chirp created by the male’s outer tail feathers as he pulls out of the dive. If the female is impressed enough with his display, the pair will mate and the male will fly away in search of more conquests while the female stays behind to raise their brood. She usually lays 2 eggs (the smallest of all bird eggs) and incubates them for 14-23 days before they hatch. The mother feeds her babies small arthropods and regurgitated nectar. As the babies grow through the summer, the spider web nest grows with them, stretching and expanding as needed.

The youngsters have to grow up quickly in order to make the long journey back south in the fall and to fend off the pugnacious attacks of mature rufous males. Being the feistiest of all hummingbirds in North America, rufous males will relentlessly defend feeders and flowers from birds twice their size, even while migrating. Rufous hummingbirds have been seen feeding as high up as 12,600 feet and can consume up to 12 times their body weight in nectar each day. The two sides of their bill fit tightly together and overlap to form a long straw through which their extendible, trough-like tongue can reach into the deep neck of a flower. The bill also serves as a quick way to grab flying insects from midair, to supplement the hummingbird’s diet with protein and nutrients. Hummingbirds have to visit hundreds of flowers each day to ingest enough calories to keep their metabolism going. Their heart rate can reach 1,260 beats per minute in order to support the rapid beat of their wings. In the end, no matter how much nectar they consume, every hummingbird is mere hours from starving to death, as their body is only able to store enough energy to survive the night.

If you would like to see rufous hummingbirds in your yard the best thing to do is plant flowers they prefer. Your local backyard birders association should be able to give you some good suggestions. However, if a flower garden isn’t possible, the next best way to lure these beautiful little birds to your yard is with an artificial feeder. It is best to boil and cool a solution of white table sugar and clean water (in a ratio of 1 part sugar to 4 parts water) for use in the feeders. Do not use powdered sugar or honey as these can lead to the solution spoiling or fermenting within a few hours. Brown and raw sugars contain iron, which can kill hummingbirds if ingested frequently. Instant nectars that can be bought in stores often contain preservatives and red food dye (the solution doesn’t need to be red, just part of the feeder), and no one knows how these affect hummingbirds in the long run. Be sure to clean the feeders regularly and change the solution before it looks murky (fermented sugar water turns into alcohol and is toxic to hummingbirds) and you can enjoy hours of watching these spirited little birds.