By Mariana Rivera Freeman, Field Science Specialist
In PEEC’s last blog post on coyotes, I discussed the ways we’re inadvertently attracting these opportunistic omnivores through supplemental feeding. In addition to eliminating calorie sources around your home, the best way to keep coyotes off your property is surely to build a fence. We don’t all have the means to afford new property fencing, however; in which case, more accessible exclusion methods can include erecting garden fencing to keep out rabbits (a common prey), replacing exotic tree and shrub species that attract deer (who leave their scent behind), plugging all secret holes and entries into your house to exclude mice and other small mammals, and installing motion-capture lights to startle nighttime visitors.
Mariana Rivera Freeman is the first New Mexico Naturalist in this new monthly series from the Pajarito Environmental Education Center. We hope you’ll enjoy learning about her and her work.Along with this interview, Mariana gave a talk on her experiences studying the Gunnison’s prairie dog in Valles Caldera National Preserve. If you missed it, watch it here.
Name: Mariana Rivera Freeman Location: Los Alamos, NM Occupation: Field Science Specialist at the Pajarito Environmental Education Center Favorite Place in NM: Redondo Meadow in Valles Caldera National Preserve Favorite NM Critter: Gunnison’s Prairie Dog
Mariana Rivera Freeman started loving nature when visiting family in Puerto Rico in her childhood. She spent hours outside with her sisters and cousins exploring the plants around her grandparents’ home. She remembers one plant, the morivivi, truly sparked her curiosity about the natural world. The plant’s name comes from the Spanish words morir and vivir, meaning to die and to live. When you touch the plant, it folds in on itself, and then reopens.
“Seeing a plant that moved so immediately was like magic to me,” Mariana says. “Plants can be kind of static unless there’s wind. So, it made the plant seem like it had a personality. It just really sparked my imagination.”
Now, Mariana is the Field Science Specialist and an educator at the Pajarito Environmental Education Center. Prior to that, she work at Valles Caldera National Preserve for three years studying prairie dogs.
How would you define a “naturalist”?
For me, the only requirement to be a naturalist is just an appreciation of nature. You don’t have to know what you’re looking at, but if it sparks curiosity in you, I think you’re automatically a naturalist. I think there’s a spectrum. You can be a casual naturalist, you can be an expert naturalist, but most of us fall somewhere in between.
I also think you can be a naturalist indoors or outdoors. If you have a plant indoors and you take care of it, think about it, and explore it, that’s just as important as being out in the wild.
How do you connect with nature in your life or work today?
Every morning when I take my dog out, I sit in a hammock for awhile. I have a gathered end Puerto Rican hammock that I like to sit in. It’s really nice, so I’ll just spend my mornings there, just kind of with no distractions while my dog is wandering around. It’s kind of meditative. I might read some poetry or do things like that while I’m outside.
I actually suffer from major depression. I try to be open about it because I think it’s really important for people to get out in nature when they suffer from depression. It’s really healing, so I try to deliberately go out there and sit in the hammock. It’s more recent that I’ve taken some poetry out there and tried to recite poetry. Some people will pray when they’re in nature, but I like to recite poetry.
I also like hiking and going to the Jemez as often as I can. When the nature center was open and hosting field trips, I enjoyed taking kids out in nature as a part of my job.
What word makes you feel most at home when you think about nature?
I’ve been trying more recently to embrace “the land.” We’re pretty settled now in New Mexico and I used to move around a lot. I never felt a particular connection to the land before. Home was always family to me. We were really tight knit, so everywhere we went, it was really just the family that was home.
When we settled in Los Alamos, I started to feel this desire to get to know the land more. The Jemez Mountains are really special to me now and I’ve just been trying to embrace land as home.
What are your hopes or concerns for the future for nature in New Mexico?
My biggest concern since I moved to the Southwest has always been water. Global water conflict is always something that I’ve kept an eye on. When I talk to kids about water, I always try to tell them that it’s a resource that we should share. It belongs to no one and it belongs to everyone and you have to respect both sides of that coin.
With accelerated climate change, water is gradually becoming more scarce in the Southwest and its availability is becoming less and less reliable. Wildlife have difficulty accessing water to the point where they will die if they can’t get enough water, so we have to be cognizant of that. We also have to be cognizant of how water matters to different cultures and the history of water use and of taking water. The more we know about it, the easier it is to share water.
What are your hopes for the next generation of New Mexico children?
You see a lot of vitriol out there right now and a lot of it is disagreements over science, like the science of coronavirus and the science of climate change. The great thing about kids is that there’s really a general lack of vitriol, they’re not at that point in their lives where they’re full of anger. It’s great to tap into that. Children have a way of finding truth in facts, but also finding truth in imagination, empathy, and even whimsy. I think if you can tap into those things for kids, recognize them, and really cultivate them, there’s definitely a lot more hope for society and for the planet if you can keep that alive in children.
I always say that facts are not going to save the world. Facts are important, but I think they are really kind of impotent when you present them without being empathetic toward people, especially without understanding culture and cultural differences. Childhood is a perfect time to really instill that facts and empathy go together and you can’t just depend on the truth of facts when you don’t recognize the truth of culture or the truth of traditions or the truth of empathy.
Anything you would like to add?
In wildlife, I encounter a lot of my peers in the field have difficulty communicating science because we are empathetic toward nature, but sometimes we don’t reserve that empathy toward people and I feel like as conservationists we need to do that more. Culture and tradition don’t take kindly to insult. When we call people idiots because they deny science, it’s just so counterproductive.
The way you treat nature is intrinsically linked to the way you treat people. They come together and if you reserve all of your empathy for nature without leaving some for people, then you’re doing everybody a disservice. People are part of nature, so everything we do to nature affects people, whether directly or indirectly, and vice versa.
Learn more about Mariana’s research on Gunnison’s prairie dogs on this website, which she maintained alongside her mentor, John Hoogland.
New Mexico Naturalists is a monthly series produced by the Pajarito Environmental Education Center (PEEC) to highlight the work and experiences of people throughout the state that are making meaningful connections with nature and wildlife.
Have a suggestion for a naturalist that we should feature in the future? Email email@example.com to let us know! PEEC is the non-profit organization that operates the Los Alamos Nature Center.
We’ve all heard the phrase “survival of the fittest,” which has evolved into something apart from its original meaning. But regardless of its Darwinian definition, I actually want you to forget the phrase entirely.
Instead, I want you to think of life on Earth as “survival of the sharers.” A healthy ecosystem is one in which not a single species dominates, but rather many species coexist and share resources. Humans are one of those species. So, in the spirit of “survival of the sharers,” let’s look at a couple of best practices for sharing our backyards with wildlife.
First, Keep Your Distance
It really is special when a wild animal walks through your yard or lands on your balcony, but wildlife is best admired from a respectful distance. Watch from your window, pull out your binoculars, or use a wildlife camera (especially handy at night), but do not approach wildlife.
Personally, I like the peeking-behind-a-curtain method. I’ve been witness to some surprising, even comical, behaviors while hiding my presence. My favorite was a gangly fawn attempting to spar with an antlered buck, who gently pushed the fawn away four or five patient times until the little guy dared to kick him, which you can imagine was not well-received.
Provide Some Resources
Back in March, we featured an article on certified wildlife habitats. I plan on working on one myself this spring. However, if you aren’t able to certify your space, don’t you worry — you can still provide resources for your wild friends.
If you have trees, cones and acorns, berries, flowers, shade, or water in your yard, you have a resource for wildlife, at no cost or extra effort. The same goes for downed logs, overgrown bushes, and tall grass. Gladly, you needn’t provide for every element of habitat (good news for apartment dwellers!). If you don’t have a yard but you have a bird feeder on a balcony, you’ve got extra sustenance for the birds and they will find habitat somewhere nearby. You can offer other small resources on a balcony like nectar, little fountains, potted plants, and bird or bat houses. You can share your space no matter how large or small.
Set Friendly Boundaries
Of course, all’s well that ends without animals inside the house. Wildlife has a default attitude when it comes to resources: “If no one else is using it, I can use it.” This is the ecology behind survival of the sharers, and how biodiverse life forms can thrive in one ecosystem.
But it also means that if a gopher can reach your tomatoes, those roots are hers. If a mouse can get into your walls, your house is hers (and so are your wires and insulation!). It takes a bit of extra work, but you can avoid conflict with your animal friends by simply setting some restrictions. Install wiring under and around your garden, erect fencing to protect your landscaping, fix little (or big) holes and crevices in your walls, close your garage at night, and so on. Wildlife can cause considerable damage to your property if you allow it to, even inadvertently, and misunderstandings can be hazardous for you and the animal. So keep everybody safe and happy.
With both caution and admiration, coexisting with wildlife can be as easy as it is natural. As Homo sapiens, our species has the advantage over resources on Earth, and we take up a lot of space. It’s our responsibility, then, to share what we can when we can so that the rest of the animal kingdom can satisfy their hunger, slake their thirst, and move where they need to move — even in our own backyards.
Among the many species of the rodent family Sciuridae, tree squirrels are generally known as asocial: they live alone and minimize social contact with each other. Two such solitary species found here in northern New Mexico — the Abert’s squirrel and the red squirrel — happen to be experts at social distancing, a concept we have all recently become very familiar with.
While there can be clear downfalls to living a solitary life as a prey species, the benefit of commanding a territory of resources outweighs the risks for tree squirrels. And perhaps one of the greatest benefits to living alone in the wild is avoiding disease. Many species of ground squirrels (including the Gunnison’s Prairie Dog, found in the Valles Caldera) live in colonies or other communal groups. Though this gives them safety in numbers, living in close quarters means diseases spread quickly and can devastate populations.
When a virus or bacteria strikes a population of tree squirrels, however, the minimal contact between individuals means the disease will have a harder time spreading, and epidemics are far less common for these species. Tree squirrels have been practicing social distancing for millennia!
So in celebration of these solitary but charismatic animals — who keep much farther than six feet away from each other whenever they can help it — let’s take a closer look at the ones in our backyards.
The Abert’s Squirrel (Sciurus aberti)
Among the most elusive of the tree squirrels is the Abert’s squirrel, also called the tassel-eared squirrel. This animal is so named for the prominent tufts of fur on the tips of their ears in winter, called tassels. They are camera-shy and difficult to spot.
To identify an Abert’s squirrel by sight, you want to look for a large squirrel (450-900g) with:
A dark grey dorsum (back), sometimes with a red stripe along the spine
A white or cream ventrum (belly)
A darker side stripe that is not always present or clear
A long, bushy tail that is dark above with a visible white edge, and white/cream below
Long ears with tufts of dark fur on the tips in winter
White eye rings that range from subtle to well-formed
Abert’s squirrels favor Ponderosa forests. They will make nests in branches out of twigs and needles, and will nest less commonly in tree cavities. Their diet consists mainly of Ponderosa pinecone seeds, and they will also eat inner-layer bark, flowers, and fungi in the summer. Look for tell-tale signs of bare twigs on the ground and patches of stripped bark on trees, and you’re definitely in Abert’s squirrel territory.
The Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus)
These bold, noisy animals might be hard to locate in the branches because of their small size, but they’ll certainly let you know they’re there with loud chattering, chirping, and squeaking in unmatched displays of territoriality. Red squirrels are the most northern-dwelling tree squirrel in North America, and as altitude mimics latitude, it’s no surprise this species thrives in the mountains.
To identify a red squirrel by sight, you want to look for a small squirrel (110-250g) with:
Red or reddish-brown dorsal coloring
White/cream ventral coloring
A short red tail with darker edges
A clear, black side stripe that sometimes fades in the winter
A clear, distinct white eye ring
Loud vocal displays of territoriality, sometimes accompanied by pounding feet
Red squirrels favor pine forests but are also found in mixed-coniferous forests. Though they prefer to nest in tree cavities, you might also find nests in branches made of leaves, grass, bark, twigs, and lichen. They feed primarily on the seeds of pinecones but will also eat pine sap, nuts, fungi, and occasionally small birds and eggs. They are messy eaters; if you see a massive pile of pinecone scales scattered at the base of a tree or on a mound, you’re in a red squirrel’s territory.
Though all tree squirrels will occasionally steal food from each other, the red squirrel is known as a master kleptoparasite (a fancy word for an animal who steals resources, in this case food). These (admittedly cute) little thieves will sneak into other squirrels’ caches of pinecones and pilfer from them! If you see two red squirrels chasing each other in the woods, one of them has likely just been caught stealing, and if they’re stubborn enough you may even see them running for their lives with a cone still in their mouth!