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April is Spring

by Bruce Auchly - Region 4

Thursday, March 28, 2019

‘Tis spring, the time when a young male’s fancy turns to, well, not football.

Humans are such an odd lot. Animals – under water, on the ground or in air – simply are driven by the survival of their species.

We fret about home loans, school choice or health insurance. Wild creatures do not.

Of course, those critters don’t rush to the hospital when sick, play music when sad or have barbeques on the Fourth of July.

Animal behavior is largely driven by daylight length. And right now, we are gaining daylight by leaps and bounds, at least a minute a day and often several minutes daily.

Life rushes by like a southbound freight for most animal species: Hurry up and mate, raise young, prepare for next winter.

The month of April at our latitude can start with temperatures more like winter but end with bull elk growing a new set of antlers, rainbow trout depositing eggs in the gravel of rivers and streams, and reports of grizzlies out of their dens on the Rocky Mountain Front.

The mammoth headgear on a mature bull elk can weigh as much as 40 pounds and take a long time to grow, about five months. That means within a week or two of dropping the old antlers in March those two bumps (pedicles) on top of a bull elk’s head will start to bulge, then grow into antlers

Wild rainbow trout breed in the spring, often peaking from mid-April to mid-May, in rivers and streams with gravel bottoms. Those requirements are important for a couple of reasons.

First, the flowing water in a river or stream provides oxygen, which keeps the eggs alive.

Second, gravel helps protect eggs from predators. And a silt bottom could smother and kill the eggs.

When it’s time to spawn based on daylight length and warming water temperature (at least in the mid-40’s), a female rainbow will clear a slight depression, called a redd, in gravel with her tail, then deposit 2,000 to 3,000 eggs.

As she releases her eggs, a male rainbow will move alongside her and release his milt over the eggs, fertilizing them.

And that’s it. The pair swim away and let nature take its course. In a month or two the eggs will hatch. Pretty simple, really.

It’s unclear what causes a bear to emerge from its winter den, especially when the den lies under several feet of snow.

Warming temperatures, increasing day length, snow melting around a den entrance, and the smells of spring probably all play a role. Eventually bears will move from their high elevation dens to lower, warmer habitats, looking for early green plants.

In a lush, wet spring, plants like angelica and cow parsnip dominate nature’s menu and life is good.

But if the prairie is too dry and there’s not much to eat conflicts between bears and humans may happen. So far this year, it would appear that a dry spring may be the least of our worries.

This spring should be a good one for fish, frogs and boat salesmen.

In the meantime, enjoy April as it unfolds and soak it all in because all too soon, we will be complaining about the heat of summer.