Western Sword Ferns grow almost everywhere along the Pacific Coast. Indeed, they can be found from southeastern Alaska to southern California, across the U.S., and in several countries.

Western Sword Fern (royalty free Unsplash, by Danieli Cordiero)

These plants are easy to identify and have been around for a very long time. Fossil records of fern-like plants date back almost 400 million years ago. Ferns, and similar plants, were a dominant plant species until about 230 million years ago.

Identification

They are easy to identify. The dark green fronds are shaped somewhat like a sword (long and narrow) or dagger (when young). Fronds will grow up to nearly six feet long in the right environment with ample moisture.  

The fronds grow in a clump around a rhizome (a root structure) typically in soil that is acidic, well-drained, and rich in humus. Fronds will live for up to two and a half years and remain attached to the rhizome even after withering.

Fronds

Each frond includes up to 100 small, dark green leaves. On the back side of the leaf, there are rows of small balls. These small balls contain 32 to 64 spores that are part of the reproduction system.

Spores are often distributed on the wind or disturbance that sets the spore floating. A spore contains only half of the chromosomes needed to create a new fern.

Once the spores touch ground, they develop both male and female sex organs, and sperm and eggs. The sperm fertilizes the egg, completing the needed chromosomes, and a new fern develops.  

Medical

The spores have some interesting traditional medical uses. The Cowichan tribe used the sword fern to counteract a stinging nettle rash. Simply rub the spore side of the leaf against the infected area to take the pain away.

The leaves have been used to cure sore throats (the Swinomish tribe of Washington state), and chewed during childbirth (Lummi tribe of Washington).

Food

Several other Native American/First Nations people would roast, peel, and eat the rhizomes in time of food shortages.

Predators

Deer and rabbits will eat sword ferns, along with other rodents. The Washington Dept. of Wildlife has a handy table that provides a list of plants that are eaten by Mule, and Black- and White-tailed deer (https://wdfw.wa.gov/sites/default/files/2019-03/living-with-deer-tables-1-2_0.pdf).

The new, succulent growth is easily damaged and difficult to detect. Deer damage can be more ragged looking. Rodent and rabbit damage appears to be more clipped. Elk and human damage may show up as crushed fronds or rhizomes.

Knowing what kind of animal is doing the damage will make it easier to develop deterrents. Not all critters will eat the plant but can crush it when walking through a clump or tear at the rhizome when trying to remove a leaf.

Growing it

Western Sword Ferns are easy to transplant and grow in your garden. They can provide wonderful texture, stabilize soil, protect soil moisture, and even grow in full sun with enough water.

They can be transplanted/divided in the early winter and spring very easily. The location and exposure will dictate techniques to use. In general:

  • Add compost to the hole to give the plant a good start.
  • Transplanting during hot and dry weather is not recommended, however it is possible if the fronds are dry and the plant has access to moisture. More shade, less protection needed.
  • Make sure that the rhizomes peak out or are close to the soil surface or are just lightly covered (with compost) for sun protection.
  • Keep the soil moist for the next year to develop the roots and help make the plant fairly drought resistant.   
  • Finally, if you purchase a Western Sword Fern make sure that it is a “Polystichum munitum” and not an imposter. Some imposters can become or are invasive plants.  

REFERENCES:
–Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, Sword Ferns (as noted above).
–Wikipedium, western sword fern (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polystichum_munitum)
–US Dept of Agriculture,  Conservation Plant Data (https://plants.usda.gov/growth_habits_def.html)
–SF Gate, Interesting Facts About the Western Sword Fern (https://homeguides.sfgate.com/interesting-western-sword-fern-70704.html)
— Sword Fern Plant Care: How To Grow Sword Ferns (https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/ornamental/foliage/sword-fern/sword-fern-care.htm)

‘Small Axe’

The tufted puffin is a familiar bird on the Russian and U.S. Pacific coasts. In Russia it is known as ‘toporok’ meaning “small axe.”

Mature, breeding adult Tufted Puffin
(royalty free Unsplash)

Not only is this a nod to the shape of the bill but also to one of the main breeding sites, Kamen Toporkov (“Tufted Puffin Rock”) which is an islet offshore Bering Island.

Local Finds

We don’t have to go to Russia to see them as they are also found in our backyards (so to speak). This recognizable seabird nests on Oregon headland such as Cape Mears, Cape Lookout, Cape Foulweather, Yaquina Head, and further north at Three Arch Rocks.

Recognizing

The large triangular red-orange bill is definitely unique and is most visible on breeding adults during the summer reproductive season. The birds also develop a distinct white face with long cream-colored facial plumes and red feet.

The colorful breeding plumage and bill plates molt-off in the winter as the bird moves offshore to feed. The bird appears predominantly black similar to immature or non-breeding puffins. The body length is approximately 15-inches.

Nesting

Puffins, murres, and auklets are oceanic birds that live predominantly in the water. They only come to land to nest. Puffins gather on in dense breeding colonies often on treeless islands far out in the ocean.

They prefer offshore treeless islands and steep cliffs offer protection from mammal predators and may choose islands that are not in sight of land.

The ideal nesting site would be close to food, have relatively soft soil and grass to dig and build nesting burrows, and have a high enough elevation and steep drop offs that help the bird take flight.  

Puffin in burrow (royalty free from Unsplash)

Breeding Range and Habitat

The Puffin breeding range extends from British Columbia throughout the southeastern Alaska, Aleutian Islands, Kuri Island, and Japan. Puffins will also breed on Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula which has some of the worlds largest brown and rainbow trout.  

Nesting can occur as far south as the northern Channel Islands, off southern California (sightings have not occurred since 1997.

Flight and Forage

The wings are relatively short (a span of about 25-inches) and adapted for diving and swimming. These birds cannot gliding but can fly long and fast using strong breast muscles and a strenuous wing-beat cadence.

Wings are used to ‘fly’ through the water, tail spread to steer, streamlined body with feet back make the puffin a formable underwater hunter. The puffin often forages by surface diving and rapid swimming through schools of small fish and marine invertebrates.

The large axe-like bill can catch large quantities of food at one time. The bills also facilitate transporting food back to chicks.

Diet

Diet will vary greatly by age, location, and availability. Colony nestlings are more dependent on invertebrates. Adult birds also depend on invertebrates such a squid and krill. Puffins also feed, to some extent, on ocean floor species.   

Predators

Tufted puffin avian predators include Snowy owl, Bald eagles, and Peregrine falcons; gulls and ravens will scavenge eggs. Artic foxes prefer puffins over other birds.

A mass puffin die-off, attributed to climate change, occurred on St. Paul Island, Alaska between October 2016 and January 2017.

In the past, the Aleut and Ainu people hunted the Tufted Puffin for food and feathers. They used the skins to make parkas, and the feathers in ornamental work. Harvesting of tufted puffins is illegal or discouraged today.

Mature breeding adult, showing white belly feathers (royalty free from Unsplash)

REFERENCES:
–Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, Murres, Auklets and Puffins (https://myodfw.com/wildlife-viewing/species/murres-auklets-and-puffins)
–All About Birds, Puffins (https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Tufted_Puffin/id)
–Wikipedia, Tufted Puffins (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tufted_puffin)
–Audubon Field Guide (https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/tufted-puffin)

Make like a raccoon

Raccoon, courtesy of ODFW.

Wash your hands. Wear your mask.
Be a bit mischievous and very curious.
Try to avoid being a nuisance and trickster, and
Culture a woeful “I really am cute” look.

You may have had one of these critters in your back deck, looking for treats. We had a family of five. Cute, but not cute enough to feed.

Raccoons can be large with a length up to 28-inches and weigh nearly 60 lbs. The most distinctive features are the ringed tail, facial mask, and front paws.

A dense underfur protects the raccoon against cold weather. The hind legs are longer than the front, giving the animal a high rump walking gait.

Habitat

Raccoons look for permanent water resources and large trees and can live almost anywhere in Oregon where those two elements are found. Some of your neighbors may claim that there are more Raccoons in the neighborhood than human residents.

They will often den in a hollowed-out tree. But they will also den in storage buildings, basements, attics, chimneys, and more.

Needless to say, they have adapted well to human settlements and are known for creating a fair amount of damage. Around 1,500 raccoons were imported as pets each year in Japan after the wild success of “Rascal the Raccoon” in 1977. It is estimated that these ‘pets’ caused over 30 million yen of agricultural damage on Hokkaido alone.

Raccoon in bird feeder (royalty free Unsplash)

Foraging

Raccoons have extremely dexterous front paws and long fingers that help them unscrew jars, uncork bottles, open door latches and knobs, and even complex locks.

These furry mammals forage night—it makes it easier to get into a garbage can unseen. They will also raid bird feeders, eat seemingly abandoned pet food, downed fruit and veggies, and more.

Aquatic foods are, however, their favorite. They prefer to eat invertebrates, but will eat plants, vertebrates, and stale dog food any day.

When foraging in streams, they will pick up a potential food item, examine it, and rub off unwanted parts in the water. It looks like they are washing their food (they are not).

But they are cute

Raccoons are generally not pets. With good reason. They can and frequently will create a great deal of problems if one starts feeding or housing them.

They are moody, carry a grudge, and remember details. Their emotional outbursts can lead to aggressive behavior towards pets and human owners (even if they were not involved). Their mischievous behavior often results in extensive property damage.  

Raccoon under dog bowl sleeping (royalty free Unsplash)

Pet or Pest?

It is legal in some states to keep a raccoon as a pet. This practice is not recommended by most for a number of reasons. Human-created foods, such as canned pet food, can be very harmful to a raccoon (obesity and gout), and cow’s milk will harm the kits.

As adults, raccoons can show aggressive behavior when their mobility is impaired, when they feel threatened, or when they are moody. They are unpredictable and resist learning commands used with more common pets.

There are exceptions however. US President Calvin Coolidge had a pet raccoon named ‘Rebecca.’ Rebecca had been sent to the White House from Mississippi for their 1926 Thanksgiving dinner. Instead she became the “White House Raccoon” that was known to unscrew lightbulbs, open cabinets, unpot houseplants, and walk outside on a leash.

Rabies

There are other reasons to not keep raccoons as pets. Raccoons make up nearly 30 percent of all rabies cases in the United States and can carry zoonic parasites and infectious diseases that can spread to humans and pets.

Did I mention that they bite?

These guys are smart and their bites seem to be targeted to cause the greatest pain over the longest time. One scuffle with our pet dog resulted in over 40 bites to her front leg and paw joints. Brutal and never forgotten by the dog or my pocket book.  

REFERENCES:
–Oregon Dept of Fish and Wildlife, Common raccoon (https://myodfw.com/wildlife-viewing/species/common-raccoon) and Living With Raccoons  (https://www.dfw.state.or.us/wildlife/living_with/raccoon.asp)
–Critter Control, Why raccoons are considered pets and not pets.com Racoons (https://www.crittercontrol.com/wildlife/raccoons/why-raccoons-are-considered-pests-and-not-pets-c
–Wikipedia, Raccoons (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raccoon) and Rebecca (raccoon) (…wiki/Rebecca_(raccoon)).