Environmental Almanac

Why not make wildlife a topic of conversation?

A pika, a small cold-climate mammal, looks up from a perch on a rock

A pika, a small cold-climate mammal, seen in the Rocky Mountains Rob Kanter

‘Tis the season to find yourself standing awkwardly among people you may not see often, balancing food and drink in your hands, maintaining a smile and racking your brain for agreeable things to talk about.

I learned from my spouse, who’s an artist when it comes to making conversation, that what you really want in such a situation is not a good story to tell, but a good question to ask.

And that’s my gift, such as it is, to you, dear reader: questions to prompt conversation at a holiday party.

My favorite question for drawing people out is, “What kind of wildlife did you see this year?” Replies to this question can take a conversation all kinds of places if the folks you’re with have done any traveling. That’s because even people who pay no special attention to the natural world at home often take note of the more exotic animals they see when they’re away. And people who travel especially for the purpose of experiencing nature in far-flung places are typically even more gung ho to tell you what they saw.

(Did I tell you about my family’s camping trip in the Rockies this summer? Which animals do you want to hear about? We saw a pair of moose, a group bighorn rams, elk, mule deer and a whole bunch of different smaller mammals, from chipmunks in our campsite to pikas, which live only above tree line.)

You may also try to get people going on wildlife they’ve seen locally by asking about the birds they’ve had at their feeders. Sometimes when people have spotted an interesting bird but haven’t been able to identify it on their own, they can provide enough clues for a group to figure out what it was.

Of course, people also enjoy kvetching about squirrels and other animals that cause trouble. UI Extension maintains a very nice Website called “Living with Wildlife in Illinois” that’s full of tips for dealing with such critters. But it can be more entertaining to hear people describe the anti-varmint strategies they come up with on their own.

What do you do when the squirrels defeat your squirrel-proof bird feeder?

Talking about animals can also enable you to find out what’s unusual in the neighborhood. My next-door neighbor recently told me about seeing a red fox on our block one morning. I knew foxes lived on the golf course at the Champaign Country Club, but we live near Central High School. So how cool is that? At this time of year it’s not unusual for people to see deer and coyotes around the outskirts of town, too.

You can further expand the terrain for a conversation about wildlife by asking people about memorable encounters they had with animals when they were growing up. (I remember very little from the year I turned ten, but am happy to tell about the day that summer my brother and I found a bobcat in the woods near our home in suburban Cincinnati.) Hunters and anglers tend to head down this path with great enthusiasm, so it might be worthwhile contemplating in advance how to bring this conversation back to terms suited to a mixed group.

If you’ve got a wildlife story or photo to share, or you would like to keep up with the ones I come across, you’re welcome to join me at the newly launched Environmental Almanac page on facebook at www.facebook.com/environmentalalmanac. Among other things, you can see photos of all the animals we saw in the Rockies this year.