What is Habitat?

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Habitat for Humanity International is a nonprofit, ecumenical Christian housing ministry. HFHI seeks to eliminate poverty housing and homelessness from the world, and to make decent shelter a matter of conscience and action.

When it comes to the outdoors, wildlife and habitat, I think I am a pretty intense guy. I take great effort to try to stay knowledgeable about the issues that affect my wildlife passions, and use this information to inform others and allow them to become more knowledgeable as well. I can do that in this column and at a wide variety of functions I attend across the state and across the nation.

One of things that has happened to me in the past 10 years is that I am developing into a more well-rounded outdoor person. In my early years, if it did not involve hunting, it was something I was not very interested in. The same was true for fishing. This is not bad, and we still need passionate hunters and fisherman. There is still nothing better than pheasant hunting.

As I get older, I am getting more curious about other aspects of the outdoors. Honey bees are one example and, in my efforts to propagate my wildflowers, I have learned a new appreciation for specific habitats and what it takes to include all aspects of the ecosystem in my habitat efforts. Bees are part of the natural landscape and they need to be propagated in order to maintain the natural balance of things. I am doing what I can in this regard.

As I was reading the tag on a hummingbird feeder the other day, I again became curious. Curiosity leads me to gather information, and I decided I was going to be a little smarter about the smallest bird that inhabits Minnesota.

Here is what I have learned about hummingbirds:

– They are the smallest birds in the state, averaging between 3 to 5 inches in length. The bee hummingbird is only 5 centimeters long. They can hover in flight by flapping their wings about 20 times per second, and is the only bird that can fly backwards.

– They feed on the nectar of different flowers and prefer only those that have sugar contents higher than 10 percent. I did not know that nectar is a poor source of nutrients, so hummingbirds supplement their diet by eating insects and spiders. Who would have thought?

– They only spend about 10 percent of the day feeding, and the balance is spent resting and digesting the food they have consumed. They can eat 12 times their body weight in nectar every day. Resting is required because the effort used to fly uses so much energy that too much of it would be too depleting to the bird.

– Hummingbirds are actually flower pollinators and because of the way their vision works, they prefer flowers that are red or orange and therefore give them most of their attention. These same flowers are not pollinated much by bees, so the hummingbird has less competition for the available nectar in these flowers. Nature is full of wonders.

– Hummingbirds can live up to 10 years, which is a long time considering their heart beats at 1,200 beats per minute. The average life expectancy is three to five years. They make a small nest and lay two eggs. Incubation is 14 to 23 days, depending on the species.

– You can attract hummingbirds to your back yard by putting up a feeder. Granular sugar mixed with water at a 4:1 ratio is recommended. Other sugars are not recommended, as they contain starches and other things that can actually kill hummingbirds. Red food coloring is often added as an attractant, but there are studies that tend toward this as a bad idea.

Some conclusions include that food coloring can affect mortality (eggs not hatching) and should be avoided. One thing you can and should do is boil your sugar water before you put it in the feeder to reduce the likelihood of bacteria and yeasts getting started and causing the birds problems.

I now have a hummingbird feed in my backyard. My roster of black labs running around in the back yard might make attracting these little miracles of nature quite a bit more difficult. Only time will tell.

What I do know is that if you don’t hang your suet block bird food high enough in the tree, a back lab will eat that too. The guilty party has not been identified.

The outdoors is a much bigger place and has far more diversity than you can ever see from a distance. Just spending time in the outdoor world — and getting more informed about habitat in general — is a very satisfying effort. Spend some time in your favorite outdoor habitats and, when the opportunity presents itself, really slow down and look at what you have been missing. There is a habitat inside a habitat inside yet another habitat.

Maybe the reason I have taken to a broader vision of habitat is that, as I get older, I walk slower and spend more time just looking and listening. Whatever the reason is and no matter how hard that I might try, I will never learn and see all that is encompassed in the arena call wildlife habitat but I will never give up

TYPES OF HABITAT

Both the physical environment and the living community of plants, animals and other organisms determine an ecosystem. Each ecosystem has a characteristic physical environment, including its climate and altitude, which produces a dominant type of vegetation.

Forests

forest

Forests are fascinating ecosystems. How can you recognize a forest? The defining feature of a forest is its dense growth of trees. But why do forests grow where they do? Generally speaking, two key variables dictate the geographical distribution of Earth’s different habitat types: precipitation and temperature. Forests grow where there is enough water available to fulfill trees’ needs. The extent of forest growth also depends on temperature ranges, soil nutrients, adequate growing season and altitude.

All of the forests in the continental United States are temperate forests (located between the boreal and sub-tropical zone). Eastern temperate forests tend to have cold winters and wet, hot summers. Deciduous trees (those that lose their leaves in the fall) like oak and maple thrive in these conditions. In fact, most eastern forests are defined by the mix of oak, maple, birch and other trees that grow there. These trees create a canopy that shades the forest floor and provides a variety of habitats for many creatures, such as gray squirrels, white-footed mice, white-tailed deer, blue jays and much more.

Generally speaking, deciduous trees dominate the forests of the Eastern United States, while coniferous trees (those that keep their leaves year-round) predominate in western forests. What kind of wildlife would you expect to live in the forests Western United States

Grasslands

grassland

Grasslands are characterized as areas where grasses are the predominant vegetation and the subsoil is dry with seasonal moisture in the upper soil layers. Their evolution was shaped by periodic fires and the presence of grazing animals. These conditions resulted in the establishment of vast areas of grassland on all of the continents except Antarctica. Today, a quarter of the earth’s land surface remains covered by this rapidly vanishing ecosystem.

All grasslands share several common traits. In general, the term grassland refers to land which:

  • is dominated by grasses;

  • occurs on flat or rolling terrain;

  • has similar soils (alkaline, lots of organic matter, very fertile, and fine-grained);

  • has soil that is almost completely covered by vegetation;

  • commonly has fires and high winds (which lead to high evaporation rates and the spread of fires);

  • is characterized by periods of rain followed by periods of drought.

Deserts

As different from one another as deserts of the world are, desert habitat they all share one characteristic: they are very dry. Scientists define deserts as areas that get less than 10 inches of rainfall a year and have a very high rate of evaporation. If the annual evaporation rate of an area is higher than the annual amount of rainfall, the area is considered a desert. Evaporation rates are high because deserts tend to have very little cloud cover and strong winds.

Another characteristic of deserts is sporadic rainfall. If the limited rainfall in deserts fell a little at a time throughout the year, many deserts probably would not look much like deserts. Instead, they’d have a lot more vegetation. Rain doesn’t fall evenly throughout the year in a desert, though. It usually comes in big bursts. In some deserts, none at all may fall for more than a year. And then a huge thunderstorm may dump over 5 inches all at once!

Deserts have some of the most variable temperatures of any places on earth. Because the desert skies are nearly cloudless, the temperatures during the day may sizzle. But without cloud cover to hold in the heat, it radiates into the atmosphere very quickly once the sun goes down. In some deserts, the temperature may drop as much as 77 degrees Fahrenheit in 12 hours.

Wetlands

wetland habitat

As the name implies, wetlands are areas where water is present at least part of the year, generally for at least a portion of the plant-growing season. In addition, wetland soils differ considerably from nearby or surrounding uplands. Hydric soils, found in wetlands, are wet, low in oxygen, and often black with muck. Finally, wetlands support plants — called hydrophytes — that are adapted to living in wet, oxygen-poor soils. Together, these water, soil and vegetation characteristics make up a broad definition for wetlands.

Though all wetlands contain water at least periodically, the volume of water and the amount of time a wetland is “wet” varies greatly. They also vary in size, from wading-pool sized vernal pools to thousands of acres along coastlines or rivers.

Wetlands are found all over North America, along coastlines, far inland, in rural areas, and even in the middle of well-populated urban areas. There are generally five kinds of areas where we find wetlands:

1) rivers;
2) near coasts and inland lakes;
3) in depressions where land is low compared to surrounding landscapes;
4) areas where groundwater seeps out of the ground, and;
5) in broad, flat areas that receive significant rainfall (such as the Everglades)

Arctic Tundra

tundra

The arctic tundra is circumpolar, meaning that it is an ecosystem surrounding the polar region, above roughly 60 degrees north latitude. The Arctic circle occurs at 66 degrees north latitude.

In the tundra, short days for much of the year and a harsh cold climate result in a brief growing season of 50-60 days. By contrast, the growing season in temperate forests is about six months long and in tropical forests lasts the entire year.

Strong winter winds challenge the stability of any plants that grow more than an inch or two above ground surface. Below a thin layer of soil that thaws every summer is ground that remains frozen year-round, called permafrost. The permafrost may be very deep, reaching more than 1000 feet thick in some locations. Although the tundra receives less than ten inches of precipitation each year (which is why it is sometimes referred to as an arctic desert), there can be plenty of standing water when the upper layer of soil thaws each summer.

Due to its high latitude and the tilt of the earth, the arctic experiences light and temperature extremes throughout the calendar year. The plants and animals of the tundra must be adapted to face these challenges, including not only extremes of day length and temperatures, but also harsh winter winds, long periods of below-freezing temperatures, and permanently frozen ground.

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