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It’s in your nature: Animal niches

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    American robin numbers increased as settlers opened up the forest and soon provided them with short grass lawns to find food easier. BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS

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    A white-breasted nuthatch has a special niche to feed headfirst down a tree to find its insect food.

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    Barn swallows have a niche of catching small flying insects as they fly just above the pasture’s grass.

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    An eastern kingbird has a niche of finding a perch, dashing off to snap up larger, slower insects and then returning to its perch.

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    Not always looked upon so keenly, scavengers fill an important niche by feeding on dead animals. Here a turkey vulture feasts on a road-killed skunk.

Published November 17. 2018 07:47AM


Every animal species has a niche (pronounced nitch). This is the specific role that an organism has in its surroundings and how it relates with the things around them.

A barn swallow’s niche is to feed during the day (diurnally), coursing back and forth across fields and pastures, capturing myriad flying insects in its mouth. A kingbird, also a flying insect eater, has a bit different niche. The kingbird eats insects a bit larger and it catches them differently.

This bird perches on a limb, darts out and snags an insect, and flies back to the perch. Both of these catch flying insects, but the niche of the kingbird allows it to catch larger insects and maybe those more harmful to trees.

My favorite example of very specific niches is comparing the nuthatches and creepers. If you have winter bird feeders, you have probably had a visitor called the white-breasted nuthatch. Its niche in nature is to alight on a tree trunk, and then walk head first down the tree looking for insects/insect eggs hidden on bark that peels upward.

Its counterpart and less often seen is the brown creeper. It flies to the bottom of the trunk, and true to its name, slowly creeps up the trunk looking for insects/insect eggs that are hidden on bark that peels upward. These two species can effectively find and remove many forest pests that literally have few places to hide. (Very specific niches!)

I am concerned about a few niches that may not be filled. Many know that our cave hibernating bats, such as the little brown bat and eastern pipistrelle, have almost been completely wiped out by a fungal malady called white-nose syndrome. A single bat in one night can eat more than 1,000 insects an hour.

Imagine the nocturnal flying insect population that can grow without these bats to control them. We caused this issue by introducing this fungus to the caves, and with this niche open, who knows the result?

Gypsy moth infestations here in Pennsylvania are a direct result of a niche left open. Gypsy moth caterpillars are rather large and hairy. When introduced here from Europe, they “waltzed” into a habitat with little to eat them. Two cuckoo species native here do eat them. (But there are not enough of those birds to do the job.) In Europe where the moth originated, natural predators filled a niche and were able to achieve a balance, and gypsy moth populations do not explode and decimate the forests there.

Who is to know what species we can allow to become extinct and how their niche elimination will affect the balance in nature in years to come. That is why it is imperative to work with, and not against, Mother Nature.

Betraying my age, some may remember a margarine commercial where the actress would state: “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” How true. I’ll leave you with this thought. Honeybee populations are threatened by pesticides and parasites. Imagine if all honeybees became extinct and how many fruits and vegetables could not be successfully pollinated. That is one niche you do not want left open.

Test Your Outdoor Knowledge: Unlike nearly all birds which call/sing in spring to attract mates, the _____ is calling now in November as pair bonding begins. A. Red-tailed hawk, B. great horned owl, C. wild turkey, D. eastern bluebird.

Last Week’s Trivia Answer: A muskrat is a plant-eating aquatic mammal.

Contact Barry Reed at





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