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Playmates and pool pals … nature writes no script

Northwoods Notebook

A juvenile male common goldeneye flaps after grooming on a pool of open water where Six Mile Lake feeds into Six Mile Creek. The goldeneye, a diving duck, was keeping company earlier this week with an adult mallard drake, a dabbling duck. (Betsy Bloom/Daily News photo)

Does life in the wild allow enough time for play?

When trying to eat and not be eaten, kill and not be killed, activities like play would seem a luxury.

Yet play has a role. Play in mammals tends to mimic the more serious skills they’ll need as adults. Young predators stalk, pounce and wrestle, practicing hunting. Prey will chase each other, learning how to flee and dodge when pursued.

But sometimes play in the wild emerges in unexpected forms, for no apparent gain in skills or status other than just having a good time.

A woman in northeast Pennsylvania, Becky Rowe, posted on YouTube a video she shot from her hunting stand Nov. 28 of a red fox chasing a fisher, a large member of the weasel family that does occur in the Upper Peninsula and northern Wisconsin.

A fisher, right, and red fox engage in a chase game in a YouTube video image from northeast Pennsylvania. The encounter was captured by Becky Rowe from her hunting stand Nov. 28.

The link to the video is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bwDeneavCjY. It lasts long enough to show both animals seem to deliberately prolong the chase. The fisher repeatedly scrambles up trees only to turn and creep down, teasingly, just out of reach of the waiting fox before launching to the ground to run again. The fox adjusts its pace so it stays with the fisher but never makes a serious lunge or grab.

What to make of this particular encounter? Fox and fisher testing each other? Some kind of challenge?

Probably just “play for play sake,” said Kay Holekamp, a university distinguished professor with the Department of Integrated Biology at Michigan State University. She’s on sabbatical from MSU while writing a book on spotted hyenas, a species she’s studied since the mid-1980s, but was willing to talk about what this video showed in terms of carnivore behavior.

The red fox appears to be a juvenile and the fisher could be as well, Holekamp said. They might not be long past their days tussling with littermates. Both look in good shape, so could perhaps indulge some time toward play rather than hunting.

“Young carnivores play a lot of chase games,” Holekamp said. “It looked like the serious nature of adulthood hasn’t set in … (adults) don’t waste energy.”

Two duck species quite different in habits — a mallard drake, front, and juvenile male common goldeneye — share a bit of water on Six Mile Creek in northern Dickinson County. (Betsy Bloom/Daily News photo)

So while different species, the fox and fisher may have recognized each other’s signals enough to drop their wariness and have some fun.

“And I actually do think they were having fun,” Holekamp said.

Neither would look at the other as natural prey, and they don’t compete enough for what they eat that one might deliberately try to take out the other, as wolves sometimes do with coyotes or coyotes with fox.

Still, such interspecies play beyond domestic animals is rare, especially among predators, Holekamp said. The weasel family to which the fisher belongs has ramped-up metabolisms that take a lot of daily calories to fuel. Both carnivores probably don’t have much free time for such pursuits.

But play does deliver some rewards, even if it doesn’t fill the belly, Holekamp said. “It stimulates pleasure centers; it feels good,” she said.

*****

Another odd couple spent several days this week on the patches of open water where Six Mile Lake feeds into Six Mile Creek. At first, I thought it was a mallard drake and a female common goldeneye, but a more experienced birder identified it as a juvenile male goldeneye hatched this past summer. It has yet to develop the distinctive black and white body and dark green head with prominent white spot just behind the bill that marks an adult male.

The male mallard has been around for several weeks, but the goldeneye is relatively new to the spot. It’s an interesting mix because the mallard for the most part is a dabbling duck — think butt tipping up — that favors vegetation though willing to snap up whatever presents itself, while the goldeneye is a mostly protein-loving — shelled invertebrates, insects, etc. — diving duck that doesn’t go for greenery.

Though quite different in habits, they seemed comfortable together. But being the only ducks still around — goldeneyes, in particular, seem to favor cold water conditions and can be regularly seen on the Menominee River — I suppose they can’t be too choosy in company, given how little open water remains.

In another month some of the other waterfowl that like the lake even while still mostly ice-covered, such as trumpeter swans and common mergansers, should start showing up.

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