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Our furry friends cherish lazy raking

Clean is mean when it comes to wildlife.

Critter lovers have learned to restrain themselves during fall as they keep pace with the neighbors out raking lawns, flowerbeds and gardens.

Yes, this is a good time to make sure debris is removed from bird boxes so they’re ready to house spring nesters as well as birds that might need temporary winter shelter.

But in the yard and garden, wildlife will appreciate less-than-zealous tidiness.

A slightly rumpled yard has more nutrition for critters than an immaculately groomed easy-maintenance yard of bluegrass, bark and gravel.

Achieving the rumpled-yard look came naturally to my daughters, who were no threat through their teenage years to the decaying biomass scattered in our yard during fall cleanup.

I’m not sure I got my money’s worth from those days of forced labor, considering the tons of leaves, pine needles and tree branches remaining in the yard when they’d call it quits.

But the critters were happy.

Here’s some food for thought from Washington Fish and Wildlife Department staff biologist:

• Leave some “dead heads” on flowering plants to provide food for seed-eating birds and other animals.

• If you must rake leaves off grass lawns, pile at least some of them under some shrubs, bushes or other nooks and crannies to provide homes for those insects birds love to eat. Meantime, leaves make great mulch for many plants.

• Leave dead or dying trees in the yard when possible. Unless it’s a hazard, a decaying tree can look stately in some settings while providing a smorgasbord for critters that feast on the insects in the rotting wood or make winter roosts or dens in its cavities.

When we had some dangerous ponderosa pines removed from our yard years ago, we had the loggers leave several 15-foot-tall “stumps.”

I bored a few holes in them to speed the process and sure enough, nuthatches were excavating nest holes this year.

• Give yourself and your mower a rest for at least a portion of your lawn if possible to leave critters patches and corridors of taller grass for hiding, foraging and safer travel.

• Save a little of that dead thicket for winter cover and security from predators. We’d have a lot more pheasants in farm country if so much brush hadn’t been burned and plowed under. Same goes for our yards. Woody cover is vital to some critters for four-season survival.

• Make plans to plant some cover, such as native currants or wild rose.

• Be artsy with a few piles of brush or rocks to give critters more options for nests and dens

Wildlife experts describe good wildlife yards as being a little “fuzzy.”

If this doesn’t come naturally to your sense of fall cleanup, try hiring a teenager to do the work.

Fishy fungus: Weather conditions have made 2010 one of the region’s best mushrooming years, with bountiful harvests reported from forays this fall.

But the weather also has groomed a less desirable fungus.

Anglers fishing the Missouri River near Craig, Mont., in recent weeks have reported seeing numerous large brown trout and some rainbows dead or dying.

A Spokane angler counted 11 browns swimming listlessly in one eddy. All of the trout were covered in fungus as though they were spent salmon.

But salmon are genetically programmed to die after spawning; trout are not.

Grant Grisak, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks fisheries biologist who was just off the river from annual fall trout surveys, had the explanation.

Fall-spawning brown trout remove the protective slime layer from their bodies as they dig their nest in the stream gravels. This makes them susceptible to disease and vulnerable to a fish fungus called saprolegnia.

“It’s pretty common to see this in rainbows in spring and browns in the fall,” he said.

“But this year it’s been more pronounced because of the unseasonably warm fall weather and water temperatures, especially below the Missouri’s reservoirs. The conditions have been unusually ripe for the fungus to persist.”

Even some rainbows, which spawn in spring, were suffering from the fungus, possibly because of handling by anglers – and fish researchers.

Normally, most of the large spawner trout survive the fungus and recover to prowl the Missouri’s waters for another year.

But with water temperatures 4-6 degrees warmer than normal into November, some of the fish succumbed.

It’s a learning moment for anglers.

“It’s always good to minimize fish handling,” Grisak said. “That slime layer is important to their health, especially when waters are warm.”

Contact Rich Landers at 459-5508 or e-mail