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What critters will eat

Posted: June 10, 2011 - 9:25am

If you think red squirrels eat nothing but spruce cones and sunflower seeds, you’d probably be surprised to see a squirrel coming out of a swallow nest box with a baby bird in its jaws. I was. Since then, I’ve learned that squirrels eat bird eggs, as well as nestlings.

We think we know the critters around us, but they often surprise us. After more than 30 years in Alaska, I found out that red squirrels are a major predator of newborn snowshoe hares. A more recent revelation was that red squirrels eat spruce bark beetles.

The snowshoe hare population in my part of Sterling seems to be peaking now, and hares are nibbling at whatever sprouts from what passes for my yard. Last year, when my dandelions were at their most beautiful, I was amazed to see hares eating both the flowers and the leaves of fully grown plants. Watching from my kitchen window, I saw several 8-inch-long dandelion leaves disappear down one hungry hare.

I’m convinced that hares, when hungry enough, will eat anything. What convinced me was a trapper who told me he had trapped and skinned a wolf, and that hares had fed on its carcass. Come to think of it, hares eating wolf doesn’t seem any more bizarre than mallard ducklings eating scraps off fish carcasses, which I’ve seen along the Kenai River.
Gray jays, sometimes called camp robbers, are known to eat a varied diet. While camped near the Kenai River, I saw one of these bold birds fly away with a half of a tuna sandwich.

While on a bear-viewing trip at Katmai National Park, I was surprised to see brown bears eating sedges, those grass-like plants with the triangular stems that grow in wet places. At a distance, the bears would’ve passed for a herd of buffalo, heads down, feeding on a grassy plain. On the same trip, I saw brown bears on the beach at low tide, digging and eating razor clams.

A Kenai resident who lives near Diamond M Ranch says hereford cattle that escape from the ranch seem to prefer the horseradish leaves at his house, but also have eaten his monkshood and foxglove plants, both of which are poisonous. The poison from monkshood was once used in Europe to kill mad dogs and wolves. It’s other name is “wolfsbane.”

The strangest story I ever heard about what critters will eat came from Ninilchik. In 1987, Ninilchik resident Kathleen McCann hauled in a halibut that was too big to weigh on any available scale. Basing its weight upon its length of 94.75 inches, a Department of Fish and Game biologist estimated that the fish weighed 466 pounds. The contents of its stomach included an unopened package of wieners.

Les Palmer lives in Sterling.

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