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Thursday, April 4, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ron C. Judd / Times staff columnist

Wildlife is awakening . . . if the state says so

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Here in Washington, the state that is always green, except for those nine months of the year every winter, we're fortunate to be blessed with an abundance of wild creatures, large and small.

We refer here not to all of those people standing in line in front of you at the Department of Licensing, but to Washington wildlife — everything from shrews to gray whales to Courtney Love.

Every year about this time, many of them — not unlike U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt after an election — begin pushing the moss out of their holes and re-emerging back into the world. And every year, we try to keep you up to date on the latest cutting-edge wildlife management (a 1998 honorable mention for Oxymoron of the Year) issues. And we try to do it in plain English that anyone from Darrington could understand, rather than fancy scientific prattle you get from state officials.

As a nod to spring, we bring you Rogue Wild Animals in the News, Part 27:

• After a lengthy and exhaustive census, the State Department of Fish, Wildlife and Can You Believe We Really Get Paid to Do This has determined that the number of sharp-tailed grouse in Washington declined by 92 percent from 1954 to 1998. For those of you keeping score at home, that left us with only 858 birds in 1998, when the study was completed. The current range of the birds, which live mostly in Eastern Washington, is about 3 percent of its "historic" range.

Top sharp-tailed grouse experts believe this might have something to do with the fact that the dim-witted human has expanded its own historic range by about 97 percent in the same time span.

• Other state scientists, employing state-of-the-art bird-locating scanners, have concluded that ferruginous hawks (no relation to Lou Ferrigno, the Incredible Hulk) that breed in Washington state fly east to the Rocky Mountains or Northern Plains in the fall, and winter in central or Southern California.

The migration is believed to be due either to the need to follow roving bands of hapless ground squirrels and pocket gophers, or the need to evade roving bands of Wildlife Biologists waving large, hand-held antennae.

• A biological scientist from the University of Montana recently concluded, after many, many, many long days in the field, combing through sagebrush in "shrubsteppe" terrain in Eastern Washington, that some brown-headed cowbirds are, without even asking, using nests built by various types of sparrows. (Note to readers: We could not possibly, even at our creative peak, make this up.) The findings came as a great shock to many other brown-headed cowbird scientists, who immediately peppered the Montana researcher with all sorts of probing technical questions, including: "Does your wife know where you've been spending your summers?"

• According to the State Department of Fish, Wildlife and Creepy Insects, you can tell the difference between a butterfly and a moth in one of two ways:

Butterflies have thickened tips on the ends of their antennae, and generally fly during daylight hours. Moths, like most state legislators, have thread-like or feathery antennae and fly at night — usually into the side of your Coleman lantern, where they enter eternity while providing a noble little poof of brilliant light for people drinking schnapps around the campfire.

• Speaking of moths: Amazingly, they have survived on Earth for as long as 400 million years, meaning they have been flitting around here making annoying nuisances of themselves longer than just about anyone except Dale Chihuly.

• Several facts you can whip out at happy hour to settle bets on how to tell a toad from a frog: 1) Toads hop, frogs jump. (If you don't know the difference between hop and jump, proceed directly to the comics page.) 2) Toads have shorter hind legs than most frogs. 3) Toads, like Gov. Gary Locke, do not have teeth; frogs do. And since you asked: Both toads and frogs, like teenagers, prefer to get in the swampy fields, ditches, shallow ponds or other watery areas to engage in courtship behavior.

• A flock of up to 1,000 snow buntings was recently sighted near Waterville, coming as a great surprise to the majority of the world's population, which doesn't know Waterville exists, and wouldn't know a snow bunting from an infield fly.

• By popular request, more opossum fact and fiction, courtesy of the Burke Museum:

Fiction: Opossums hang upside down by their tails when sleeping. Most adult opossums actually are too fat to do this.

Fiction: Opossums copulate through the nose of the female (!!). Burke officials say this nasty rumor probably got started by idiots who — for reasons known only to them and their gods — examined the forked, um, organs of male opossums and concluded that the only corresponding forked part of a female opossum was her nose. Actually, she has one other important forked part, says the museum, and we quote: "Opossum might be unusual, but they're not THAT unusual."

We could go on with this fascinating opossum stuff, but we'd hate to risk our Good Housekeeping seal of approval. Besides, you already know enough that you'll be looking at that opossum in the back yard tonight from a whole new perspective.

Happy hunting. Next week: cooking tips.

Ron C. Judd's outdoors columns appear in Sunday's sports section and Thursday's Northwest Weekend section. Phone: 206-464-8280; e-mail rjudd@seattletimes.com.

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