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Bill Marchel: Cryptic Critters

Weasels, owls, grouse, deer and many other animals blend into nature to avoid predators.

Long-tailed Weasel 01263-00101BD.JPG
Weasels are vicious little predators that turn white during winter to aid in stalking prey, which consists of mainly mice and voles. A weasel wearing its winter coat is often called an ermine. Contributed / Bill Marchel

Cryptic (krip’tik) adj. Having hidden or vague qualities. Ghostlike. Secret. Concealment.

The critters that inhabit our fields, forests and wetlands have evolved various methods which help them to avoid being eaten by other critters. Some rely on fleetness of foot or wing to escape. Others depend on camouflage, and use their remarkable cryptic coloration to avoid detection by predators. Or, in the case of predators, camouflage allows them to stalk and kill prey more effectively.

Related: Bill Marchel: The view from up here: Memories from the deer stand go beyond deer

Females of most bird species are dull in color to help them hide from predators during nesting and while raising their young. I’m sure you have noticed how visible a rooster pheasant can be with its colorful plumage. Yet a hen dressed in her drab feathers of brown, black and cinnamon is nearly invisible even in scant cover.

Male birds are usually dressed in gaudy plumage, an adaptation that helps them attract the opposite sex.

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But not all male birds are brightly plumed.

The king of the uplands, the ruffed grouse, is a game bird popular with hunters. Both male and female ruffed grouse wear drab-colored feathers. They blend extremely well with their forest habitat and are seldom seen until they move, perfectly hidden by plumes dappled with hues of brown, rust, tan, and black. Ditto for woodcock.

Ruffed Grouse 00515-09402BD.JPG
This ruffed grouse is remarkably well-camouflaged in its frosty surroundings, even though barely a twig blocks the view. The grouse exhibits an excellent example of “countershading” an adaptation where the its plumage is lighter on its underside to compensate for increased shadow. Contributed / Bill Marchel

Some mammals, like the snowshoe hare, shed their brown summer coat. As winter approaches the brown fur is replaced with a thick fleece of white. Their new apparel affords them near-perfect camouflage against their frosty surroundings.

Even animals as large as deer can hide amazingly well. Did you know that the hide of a white-tailed deer, measured with a light meter, reflects exactly the same amount of light as the average scene in nature? To a photographer, that means a deer’s fleece measures the same as an 18% gray card. No wonder they can be difficult to spot.

White-tailed Deer 00275-20208BD.JPG
Count them. One, two, three, four, white-tailed deer. If it were not for the four little faces, the animals would be almost invisible because their brown bodies blend so well. Contributed / Bill Marchel
© BillMARCHEL.com

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We all know that most species of owls hunt at night, but where do they go during the day? Some species hide in hollow trees but others, like the great gray owl, often spend the daytime snuggled up to a tree trunk for a midday snooze. An owls’ spotted and barred plumage closely resembles the bark of the tree against which they are napping.

Study the images on this page and marvel at nature’s camouflage.

Next time you venture into the fields, forests or wetlands, see if you can spot some of these remarkably cryptic critters.

Great Gray Owl 00830-05012BD.JPG
The tree has eyes. Great gray owls often spend daylight hours snuggled up to the trunk a tree where their amazing disguise helps them avoid detection. Contributed / Bill Marchel
Photo by Bill Marchel

BILL MARCHEL is a wildlife and outdoors photographer and writer whose work appears in many regional and national publications as well as the Brainerd Dispatch. He may be reached at bill@billmarchel.com. You also can visit his website at BillMARCHEL.com.

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