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Haunting Wildlife all around us
aycock with owl horizontal
Wildlife educator Jean Aycock is shown with Archimedes, a 3-year-old eastern screech owl from the Kansas Wetlands Education Center. - photo by Susan Thacker/Great Bend Tribune

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Creepy and spooky, if not altogether ooky, some animals at Cheyenne Bottoms are so well camouflaged you might think they’re ghosts.
That was the premise educator Jean Aycock from the Kansas Wetlands Education Center used when she put together her latest nature talk, “Haunting Wildlife.” She presented the program twice during Halloween week at free Stop ‘N Learn sessions hosted by the Great Bend Recreation Commission.
A squirrel can be persuaded to “wear” a Halloween costume, Aycock said, showing a slide of one that appears to have a jack-o’-lantern on its head. Actually, the squirrel is trying to carry off a small pumpkin in the backyard of professional photographer Max Ellis. To stage a similar photo at home, cut a hole in the bottom of a small jack-o’-lantern and put some tempting treats around and inside the pumpkin – then wait with a camera until an obliging squirrel comes along and interacts with the props.
In nature, some animals create costumes out of leaves, shells or whatever is at hand to hide themselves. However, “most animals have a built-in camouflage,” Aycock said. She showed several photos of owls that seemed to blend right in with the bark of trees.
Aycock brought a live eastern screech owl from the KWEC for her program last Friday at the Great Bend Senior Center. She also brought a baby common snapping turtle, a speckled king snake and a walking stick – an insect that looks like a stick. All of the animals were native to this area except the walking stick; Aycock said Kansas does have species of the insect but they are hard to raise in captivity. The species at the KWEC is actually from Vietnam.
There were also videos of animals “disappearing” with their camouflage. Some, like owls, blend into the background of their environment. This evolutionary technic is called crypsis. Some animals, including owls, use mimicry to hide. An owl can position its body in the hollow of a tree to take on the appearance of a broken branch.
The strategies of evolution to hide animals from predators and prey have sometimes been adopted by the military, Aycock said. Aircraft are painted with a darker color on top and a lighter color underneath, helping them blend in whether viewed from above or below. Many fish have a similar camouflage.
Disruptive patterns work better than solids to make it difficult to distinguish a creature from its environment. The pattern and coloration on snakes such as the massasauga rattlesnake is common to this area and is even referred to as the “prairie pattern,” Aycock said.
Hidden animals can be found throughout Cheyenne Bottoms, or even in our own backyards. Aycock said the colorful 13-line ground squirrels at Veterans Memorial Park may not appear to be masters of disguise with their snazzy stripes and spots. But they can virtually disappear into the Argonne Forest. “They are hard to see unless they move.”