Meet the Amazing Sierra Newt


I join generations of gobsmacked naturalists in saying O. M. G.

Meet the Sierra newt (Taricha sierrae). I’m a dryland girl and don’t have much acquaintance with the salamander family, though I have spotted these guys over the years during different trips to the mountains. Last week, I was camping in the Southern Sierras and saw several of them around the campground and out in the forest. The area seemed oddly newt-rich. One even waddled right past our fire pit late in the night, braving our head lamps and chair legs. I could tell by the look of them that they liked moist places, but I did not know they also swam. I had never seen them on river banks, only away from the water, in campgrounds and off trails.

So imagine my surprise when, hanging out by a stream (Water! Living water! I hadn’t seen any for months) I found one of these guys coiled up and still on the bottom of the stream bed. It looked so out of place–I thought it might be dead, dropped in there by a predator, perhaps? So I poked it with a stick — a favorite primate tool–and was surprised to see Mr. or Ms. Newt jump up all affronted and wander off under water. He (I’m going to call him he) didn’t swim. He walked. He had no gills. He released no air bubbles. He just wandered around under water like it was no big thing.

Call me naive, but for me, this was shocking. Miraculous. I had no idea these guys were aquatic. It was like seeing a human friend casually take flight and flap away. I watched him for a few minutes with my mouth hanging open, and then, like a good modern citizen, dutifully recorded the moment for the social media.

Back home with the wonder of the Internet, I was able to identify Mr. Newt and find out what was going on with him and his semi-aquatic lifestyle.  This type of newt is born in the water, and at that stage it has gills. When this newt matures, it will leave the water for some kind of amphibious rumspringa in the woods. They are crazy toxic if ingested–they excrete the same neurotoxin as pufferfish– so no one eats them except garter snakes, who are acknowledged bad asses.

(The toxin won’t hurt you if you touch a Sierra newt–which is lucky since I had petted them before bothering to look this up–but don’t lick your fingers afterward. Or the newt.)

Due to this indigestibility, I suppose, Sierra newts waddle around slowly, almost imperiously, right out in the open, like they don’t have a care in the world.  None of that paranoiac lizard-style scurrying from rock to rock for them. Sometimes, though, they get stepped on or run over in busy campgrounds, because evolution did not factor in hiking boots, distracted campers and Subaru Outbacks when designing the defensive systems of the newt.

When they decide it is time to meet a special friend and lay some eggs together, the newt returns to the pool from which they hatched–or tries to, since it might be difficult with all the pools in the Sierras drying up–but my guy found his way to the stream, and perhaps was napping, waiting for his lady newt to come by.

But here’s the best part–he was breathing through his skin. The gills he had as a baby are long gone, traded for fledgling lungs when he left his birth pool. But once back in the water, he dispenses with those clumsy organs altogether and draws oxygen out of the water straight through his skin, in a process called diffusion. That’s right. This handsome orange show-off breathes in three different ways over the course of his life: by gills, by lungs and, call it what you will, by magic, because this diffusion business is obviously pure sorcery. No wonder witches keep newt parts in their spice cupboards!

How to Rodent Proof a Chicken Coop


One morning I opened the metal trash can I used to keep the chicken feed in and plunged a scoop into the feed. In that cup of feed there was some additional protein in the form of a small, freaked-out mouse. I shrieked and the mouse jumped out of my hand and dashed off. Then I peered into the bag of feed. Like the plot of a rodent horror movie, I found two other mice running around along with a dead and bloody mouse. I’ll leave it to you to fill in the mysterious details of that story. But I knew it was time to deal with the problem.

Thankfully, like Dr. Maurice Pitesky mentioned in the podcast on Wednesday, most chicken pest problems can be taken care of with simple sanitation. In my case that meant putting the food away at night and investing in rodent proof feed containers.

Every night I put the entire feeder within the trash can you can see in the picture on the right (it has a much more secure lid than the larger can I used to keep the feed in). In the morning I put the food out again for our four hens. It means that I have to get up just a few minutes earlier than I usually do but that’s not a big deal as I’m one of those tedious and boring morning persons.

Some folks use rodent proof treadle feeders. These feeders open when the hens step on a small metal platform. I was sent a treadle feeder like the one above but my skittish hens would not get anywhere near it even with the treadle kept open. I probably could have trained them to use it but I’ve found that putting the feed away at night is no big chore. I gave the treadle feeder away to some other chicken enthusiasts whose hens are less afraid of the contraption.

As to rodent-proof feed containers I’m using two Vittle Vaults, one for the feed and the other for scratch. They have a locking, rodent and water proof lid. The small trash can in the picture (that I put the whole feeder in at night) seems to be working.

For more information on controlling mice and rats see UC Davis’ Integrated Pest Management information for rats and house mice. We used to have mice in the house but the cats have taken care of that problem. As to the issue of rodents eating fruit, I’m still working on that problem.

076 Keeping Your Poultry Healthy with Dr. Maurice Pitesky


Our guest this week is Dr. Maurice Pitesky and our topic is keeping your backyard poultry flock healthy. Dr. Pitesky is an Assistant Specialist in Cooperative Extension for Poultry Health and Food Safety Epidemiology at the University of California Davis where he researches disease surveillance, food safety management, and other topics related to poultry health. He also does education and outreach to backyard and commercial poultry owners. During the podcast he mentions the UC Davis poultry resource website, a backyard poultry census that you can take part in, and the UC Davis pastured poultry farm research project. We also discuss some simple measures you can take to keep your poultry free of disease as well as how to safely cook eggs and meat.

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You cansubscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

Help UC Davis with the California Backyard Poultry Census


If you’re a California backyard chicken enthusiast the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and Cooperative Extension has a short survey they’d like you to fill out. The purpose of the survey is to get an estimate of how many backyard flocks are out there and, “bridge the communication gap between poultry experts and backyard poultry enthusiasts.” The survey is confidential and contact info will only be used for educational purposes.

Last year I was the beneficiary of some of that education when I attended a seminar co-hosted by UC Davis Veterinary Medicine. Among other things, I can thank those avian vets for ending my chicken coop mouse problem. So consider filling out the survey. It’s a good deed of citizen science and you’ll get some useful advice in return.

Picture Sundays: Famous Cat Statues


Hint to public artists–the people want a good cat statue not some plopped down abstract thingy. They’d take a dog statue or some old dude on a horse too, but that would be the subject of another blog post. Today, we celebrate two famous feline statues. Above is a statue of Trim, the first cat to circumnavigate Australia and the subject of a book by the ship’s captain Matthew Finders.

Next is a statue of Samuel Johnson’s cat Hodge sitting on top of a dictionary and pondering some oyster shells. It’s located just outside Johnson’s house in London and is inscribed, “a very fine cat indeed.”


UPDATE: Root Simple reader Peter noted a glaring feline statue omission on my part: the statue of Mrs. Chippy (who should have been named Mr. Chippy) that sits atop the grave of Harry McNeish, ship’s carpenter of Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition. McNeish carried a lifelong grudge against Shackleton for having shot Mrs. Chippy along with the expedition’s dogs. Yet another strike, in my opinion, against the Shackleton-as-model-CEO cult that got going just before the 2008 economic meltdown. By way of contrast, please ponder the lengths that the crew of the Karluk went through to save the ship’s cat Nigeraurak during a disastrous 1913 arctic expedition. Read that story here.