How To: “Life-Size” Eagle Nest Display

Sometimes understanding something is as simple as putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, or in this case, nest.

I spent a summer working as a Park Ranger for Gull Lake Recreation Area in Brainerd, Minnesota for the US Army Corps of Engineers. While there, I did weekly interpretive programs as any park ranger does, but I wanted to take my programs to the next level by creating something more immersive. So, I decided to build a human-size bird nest which could double as a wildlife-viewing platform/overlook for the channel between Gull Lake and the Gull River. By the time I was finished, I had developed an entirely new level of respect for the vast variety and intricacies of nests in the animal kingdom.

Here’s how I did it

I won’t go too much into detail because the pictures show the process better than I can explain anyway. I started with four 4-foot tall 4×4’s (that’s a lot of 4’s) and two 2-foot tall 4×4’s, attaching 2- foot long boards about 4 inches up.


After that, I brought the frame out to its new home, still unattached. I set it up in a semicircle shape and used spare boards to brace the frame together by drilling them into the tops of the post. That held it in place so that I could start at the bottom and work my way up. All of the wood used was either fallen vine, limbs of trees which were taken out by the summers storms, or pieces I found on the forest floor. Nothing was taken or cut down in order to make the nest.

The method was pretty simple. I wove the largest pieces through the post along the outside. I drilled some of those into the post to add some extra sturdiness to the frame. That’s really it! It was a lot of looking for the best spots to wedge in sticks, twigs, branches, and whatever other filling I could find.

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After I had the outside pretty filled out, I attached a board on the front base and filled in the empty space with class 5 and then tamped it down by hand. For the finishing touch, I spray painted the frame and added wood-burned displays.

The Finished Product

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For those of you wondering, my initial plan was to place the post into the ground to brace it that way. As it turned out, digging in that particular area was prohibited as part of some agreements due to the fact that the area used to be the site of an Ojibwa settlement, meaning I had to figure out an alternative way of building it so that it is actually above ground.

As far as stability goes, to the best of my knowledge, the nest is still there. We had some major storms come through that summer and none of them so much has moved a stick out of place. I’m no bird, but all-in-all, it turned out great.

What do you think? Have you ever seen or used a display like this? What types of interpretive programs do you think it could be used for? Let me know in the comments!


Living with Raccoons

You’ve got to hand it to them. Raccoons are some of the most resourceful and opportunistic creatures out there. They, like us, are omnivores. Meaning they’ll eat basically whatever they can get their tiny little hands on. Their size and their incredible dexterous hands make breaking-and-entering your home/garage/shed/chimney/doggy door a simple task.

To many, they are a nuisance (“a plague on all your houses!”). They get into trash and have a habit of getting into your pets food if you place it outside. Hey, you left food outside and a raccoon’s gotta eat, am I right? Here’s the thing. As humans have built up suburbs and urbanized, we have begun to encroach on the habitat of other animals. While most species don’t do too well with that change of scenery, opportunistic raccoons have found an endless source of food and shelter.

The Solution

If you feed your dog or cat outside, just be sure to bring in any excess food. All living things are programmed to look for the most calories for the least amount of effort. Your pets food on the back porch is like placing a Big Mac and a dozen donuts under a neon sign that reads “Come and get me!”. Are they getting into your trash? Invest in trash cans with locking lids. If possible, keep the bins in your garage (with the garage door closed, of course) until trash day to minimize their accessibility. What if you’re a fan of raccoons and don’t mind having them around? The same rules follow because your neighbors might not agree. Avoid feeding, touching, petting, or overall interacting with raccoons. Watching them can be really entertaining, but don’t let their peculiarity and cuteness distract you from the fact that giving them to much attention isn’t good for either of you. After all, you don’t want them to become dependent on you, or people in general.

The Ultimate Minnesota Waterfall Roadtrip

Minnesota’s glacially carved landscape is marked with countless remarkable natural features, including some of the best waterfalls in the country.

No matter the season, it is worth the trip. You can do this road trip in two ways: 1) Start south of Minneapolis at Vermillion Falls in Hastings, or 2) Start at Wolf Creek Falls at Banning State Park just south of Duluth,following the scenic Lake Superior shoreline for the remainder of the drive up to the Canadian border.

1) Vermillion Falls in Hastings, MN

2) Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis, MN

Bonus picture because it’s cool…

3) Wolf Creek Falls at Banning State Park

4) Gooseberry Falls at Gooseberry Falls State Park

5) High Falls at Tettegouche State Park

6) High Falls at George Crosby Manitou State Park

7) Cross River Falls in Schroeder, MN

9) Temperance River Falls at Temperance River State Park

10) Poplar River Falls in Lutsen, MN

11) Cascade River Falls at Cascade River State Park

12) Devil’s Kettle Judge C.R. Magney State Park

13) High Falls on the Pigeon River in Grand Portage, MN

Now what are you waiting for? Get going!

The Mystery of Zebra Stripes Solved

Listen to an extended version of the full interview in the video below:
The mystery of zebra stripes has long been a subject of debate, at least since the days of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace. Now, thanks to Dr. Tim Caro, a professor of wildlife biology at the University of California-Davis, we finally have our answer.
Caro has long been interested in the functions of coloration in mammals, which normally when you think of mammals, you think of “drab grays and browns, not the most exciting colors”, says Caro. There are a few notable exceptions, such as in this case, the zebra. Zebras are known for their bold contrasting stripes, the hypnotizing black-and-white. As far as hypotheses go, they are certainly not lacking. There are 8 or 9 major hypotheses but even those can be “broken down into almost 20 subheadings”, says Caro. For the last decade of summers in western Tanzania, Caro has been chipping away at each idea to discover the truth. He outlines all of these hypotheses in his new book, appropriately titled “Zebra Stripes”. Among the most popular ideas are camouflage, confusion of predators, or the avoidance of biting flies.
One of the most commonly touted hypotheses, and certainly the oldest, has been the idea that they serve as camouflage. Caro tested this idea by placing plywood horses, draped in either wildebeest skin or zebra skin. “We would watch these models disappear at night and reappear in the morning with the idea of seeing whether the zebras are less or more easy to see” compared to the other models. The results were “loud and clear”: the Zebras were far more visible.
Caro acknowledged a fundamental flaw in this test in that they were making these observations through human eyes. “Humans can see in three colors whereas most carnivores, like lions and hyenas, can only see in two colors”. To confirm their results, they had to look through the eye of a lion. They did this by embarking on a modeling exercise with some colleagues from the University of Calgary. “Knowing what they knew about the size of the eye, and the numbers of rods and cones, we could try to work out whether these large carnivores could see stripes and what distance.” What they found was that the stripes would only be visible at very close distances, well within range to have already heard or smelled an individual zebra. This revelation made the camouflage  idea, as Caro says, “really inconceivable”.
After 10 years of studying without a definitive explanation, you have to wonder what kind of toll that can have on a person. Caro describes it as an “interesting period of self-discovery.” He describes going out each summer “full of hope and then return to teaching in October rather depressed and having failed to make any headway.”
Previous research revealed that biting flies, including the tsetse fly, curiously avoid landing on striped surfaces for a still unknown reason. At this point, it became a matter of field confirmation. Once Caro had realized that the species of tsetse fly in the region was attracted to movement, he decided to test this by making himself the target. He had a series of suits made in the Tanzanian city of Dar es Salaam, some striped vertically, some horizontally. He then went on a series of long walks, counting the number of flies on himself at the end. “As it turned out, we didn’t get many results there” says Caro.
He needed something more ironclad, so Caro and his team developed a setup using hanging beach balls wrapped in either a wildebeest skin or a zebra skin. Lo and behold, the amount of flies trapped were significantly reduced when the ball was draped with a zebra skin.
Dr. Tim Caro wearing a zebra costume. Note: this is not the outfit he wore in the field. Credit: Maurice Weiss
All of the fieldwork aside, it was back at the UC Davis library, 100 yards away from Caro’s office, that he found the answer. As Caro explains “we capitalized on the fact that there’s variation in striping between different subspecies of zebras” which could be visualized by distribution maps. They were then able to overlay maps showing things such as woodland locations, known lion habitat, group sizes, etc. Caro was able to look at these maps “in a sort of multifactorial statistical analysis…and none of them are any good at explaining that variation except the abundance of biting flies.”
This sort of work is importance for two reasons, Caro explains, “one is that it’s important to try and carry out basic research to understand the natural world but in addition it’s important to try and encourage young people to ask finite questions about nature and to get more involved with nature.” Caro and his son have a currently untitled children’s book due out sometime this year which explores the truth about zebra stripes. He is looking forward to sharing “with people that the science is as important, if not more fascinating, than the fairy stories they are told by their parents” as children.