Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Going a gooding

Dec. 21 is the feast of St. Thomas, the apostle and patron saint of builders and architects. In many parts of Old England, however, it was also the day of St. Thomas’s Dole.

Doleing Day or Mumping Day was when the poor of a community – particularly the old women – would visit the well-to-do in search of handouts. This form of pre-Christmas begging or “mumping” was called “going a gooding.”

Doleing Day was a time of good cheer, and many of the poor were invited into homes for not only gifts of money or grain, but also a sip or two of John Barleycorn. In return, they gave their hosts sprigs of evergreens to use as seasonal decorations.

In the spirit of gooding and giving, perhaps Doleing Day would be a good time for us to sit down with our checkbook and pen a few gifts to agencies near and far that could use our help. So many of our thoughts are with family and friends that we may overlook the needy in our midst and in the world.

This Friday, Dec. 21, do good and dole.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The wily weasel

Weasels get a lot of bad press. Perhaps it’s their sly habits, or the way they seem to slither along the ground, but weasels have become symbols of sneakiness and subterfuge. You’re a “weasel” if you mislead people, shirk a duty, or squeal on someone.

Yet weasels are pretty smart, so smart in fact that some experts can’t catch them – even on film.

For months, the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection has been trying to capture Long- and Short-tailed Weasels for study, and hasn’t been able to trap a single one. Connecticut biologists also set up ink-padded tracking tubes, to record their footprints on paper, but have gotten only mouse prints. They’ve even set up cameras to nail them on film – nada.

Wildlife conservationists are going through all this trouble because a lot is unknown about these cousins of the skunk. Weasels are so secretive, experts aren’t even sure of their range in Connecticut, and must rely on roadkill and chance sightings to estimate their territories and numbers.

Perhaps the wildlife experts need to learn some weaselly wiliness.

If only they could catch one to learn from.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The nose knows

The next time your cat rubs its head against your leg, it may be more communication than affection. Kitty is probably marking you with its scent.

Cats rub against people and places to deposit saliva and secretions from three glands on the head. These deposits send a message to other cats: You are part of their territory. It may be like posting a “no trespassing” sign.

In the wild, creatures from lowly mice to lumbering bears and fleet-footed deer mark the trees and ground with semiochemicals. “Semio” is from Greek, meaning a “sign,” and mammalian signs are read with considerable interest. They often define territories, but their particular mixture of 50 or more compounds may even identify an individual animal, as a name or Social Security number identifies us.

In the case of deer, the meaning of scents can be quite complex, advertising a buck’s status in the herd, triggering the reproductive cycle in females and perhaps even stemming the sexual drive in bucks of lower status.

Most mammals have much better olfaction than humans – dogs and their wild kin have up to a million times more scent receptors than we do.

So remember when you take Fido for a walk: Those leaves and twigs he spends so much time sniffing could be his version of reading the local newspaper.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Queen of the forests

When our grandparents were children, the Queen of the Eastern Forests still reigned. The spreading chestnut, under which Longfellow's village smithy stood, rose more than 125 feet with a trunk 10 feet in diameter.

The American Chestnut was one of our most valued trees. Whole houses could be built from its fine, hard wood. Its fruit was a relished food – who hasn’t heard “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” and wondered what real chestnuts must have tasted like?

But around 1904, at a Japanese exhibit in New York, an Asiatic tree fungus escaped and during the next two decades wiped out the mighty chestnut from Maine to Mississippi.

Well, almost. The chestnut blight attacks only the above-ground parts of tree. Thousands of old chestnut roots still survive in the woods, sending up young trees that may rise 20 feet before being attacked and killed by the fungus. The trees are usually too young to produce nuts from which wholly new trees can grow. Thus, these ancient roots are hanging on for dear life, seemingly hoping for a miracle.

And a miracle may be at hand. Scientists are “backcross breeding” the American Chestnut with the Chinese Chestnut, which means they keep taking hybrids of the two and adding more American Chestnut genes by repeated crossbreeding to find the most blight-resistant strains. They hope to get a nearly pure American Chestnut that can withstand the blight and repopulate the eastern forests.

While there's little hope for the village smithy, “backcrossing” may one day return the spreading chestnut to its noble size and full numbers.

Monday, November 26, 2007


We have a little Thanksgiving tradition that might leave many people aghast: We feed vultures.

The day after Thanksgiving about a dozen years ago, we decided that instead of throwing the picked-over turkey carcass into the garbage, we’d recycle it by placing it in the back yard for crows, raccoons, skunks, and even foxes to snack on. It turned out that nature’s waste disposal team showed up first.

For many winters, Turkey Vultures had been roosting a quarter mile from our house. Our back yard is their back yard, so to speak. So when we offered that “dead meat,” the sensitive Turkey Vulture noses soon picked up the scent. Vultures landed in nearby trees to eye the potential meal. Once they determined the scene was safe, they dropped to the ground and chowed down.

Each year since, we’ve placed our turkey carcass in the back yard and every time, vultures have showed up to feast. One year, more than 50 were on the ground or in the trees at one time.

About five years ago, Black Vultures appeared.

Black Vultures are common in the southern United States, but until recently, were rare in the Northeast. They have been extending their territory northward, probably as the winters get milder.

The Black Vulture is smaller in appearance, with a wingspan of just under five feet, while the Turkey Vulture has a five and a half foot wingspan. Despite this, the Black Vulture is actually heavier – weighing up to 4.4 pounds while the Turkey Vulture weighs four pounds. Those differences can be seen in flight patterns. The bulkier and shorter-winged Black Vulture needs to flap its wings frequently to stay aloft while the Turkey Vulture can spend long periods, simply gliding.

The heads are also different. The Turkey Vulture has a red, fleshy head while the Black Vulture’s head is gray. That is not always easy to see, especially at a distance.

Turkey Vultures use a keen sense of smell – very unusual in a bird – to detect carrion from long distances. Black Vultures must rely on eyesight. That’s why, quite often, Black Vultures will arrive after Turkey Vultures – or crows – have already discovered food. Being the more aggressive, Black Vultures quickly chase off the Turkey Vultures, or crows, and take over the meal.

This year, Turkey Vultures were first to spot our gift, but were so timid, most would not land. Soon, Black Vultures saw their cousins sitting in the trees, watching the carcass – what we call “vulching.” Much less afraid, the blacks zoomed down and began eating.

Despite competing for food, Turkey and Black Vultures often roost together, usually in tall evergreens. The birds at the top of the pecking order perch on the highest branches, while lesser birds are in branches below. Some authorities believe the top-most benefit from the heat rising from the bodies of the ones below. Those below often suffer the indignity of being pooped upon by the birds above. That’s why you will see vultures – and sometimes crows – with white spots all over their backs (as in the accompanying photo of Black Vultures in our back yard).

Incidentally, until recently, vultures – including their close relative, the California Condor – were grouped with the raptors, such as eagles, hawks and kites. Recent DNA studies revealed that vultures are more closely allied with storks, flamingos, spoonbills, and ibises.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The winds of autumn

March may come in like a lion, but there's at least a tiger roaring late each autumn.

The winds that wash away winter and bring us spring have their fall counterparts. They have equal force, but get less good press. The lack of song and poetry about this season of the year probably stems from our displeasure with the icy blasts that fold up the last hardy flowers, kill most things green and send birds scurrying southward. Only skiers could like this season, and then only because they know what's coming soon.

An optimist might say autumn’s winds are part of nature's way of cleaning house, of sweeping away the old and preparing for the new, the groundwork for a distant new season of growth.

But if that sounds like a lot of hooey, look at it another way: This cold, blowy, barren season is great for making us appreciate the spring and summer all the more.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Gliding through the night

The night holds many mysteries, not the least of which are its creatures. Most people live a lifetime without ever seeing a common neighbor, the flying squirrel, yet they are all about us.

Both the Northern and Southern Flying Squirrels are mini versions of their daytime cousins – about half the size of a Gray Squirrel. Big-eyed because they are nocturnal, they make use of a flap of furry skin to glide – not fly – a hundred feet or more. They eat the usual squirrel foods, like nuts, seeds, insects and eggs, though the Northern is said to have a fondness for truffles and other tasty fungi.

Flying squirrels were once much better known and appreciated, not as aeronautical wizards but as companions. As far back as colonial times, people caught them as babies and raised them as pets. One of John Singleton Copley’s most famous paintings, “Boy with A Squirrel,” shows Copley’s half brother seated at a desk with a pet flying squirrel alongside him.

All is not perfect in this man-rodent relationship, however, and flying squirrels will sometimes infest attics. A dozen or more might decide to spend the winter huddled together in the comfort of your home.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Troubled waters

Not all invasive plants are found in woods and wetlands. Aliens also harm lakes, ponds and streams. Witness water thyme, which a UConn professor called “one of the world's worst weeds” and the director of the Invasive Plant Atlas of New England described as “a thug.”

Imported from Africa as an aquarium plant, Hydrilla verticillata clogs lakes and streams, pushes out native species of plants, fish and birds, and can even halt boat traffic. Across the nation hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent battling water thyme, using everything from herbicides to a Hydrilla leaf-mining fly from Pakistan.

While one group of scientists looks at how to kill Hydrilla, another eyes it from a different angle. Researchers have found water thyme is rich source of proteins, calcium, potassium, lipids, carotenoids, RNA, DNA, magnesium, iron, vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, B12, phosphorus, manganese, zinc, copper, cobalt, 17 amino acids, and essential enzymes. Some claim it's an effective muscle builder and energy enhancer. University studies indicate it may be an appetite suppressant.

And that's just for humans. The University of Florida has found that water thyme increases the yield of milk in dairy cattle and the egg-laying capacity of hens.

So maybe there's another answer to controlling this latest invasive thug: Let’s all eat it.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Don't be sweet

The bees are really bad this year,” someone said the other day.

He was wrong on two counts. Bees are rarely bad. Nearly all of the 3,300 species of bees in North America provide a service without which we would be very uncomfortable. They pollinate flowers, which produce most of the fruits and many of the vegetables we eat.

Of course, he was not speaking of bees, but of wasps, the yellowjackets, which are so common at this time of year. Because it's yellow and looks something like a bee, it is a “bee” to many people. It's a bad rap for the bees.

Yellowjackets become so pesky in late summer and autumn because workers are seeking sweets for the new crop of queens, the only ones who will overwinter. Unlike most bees that limit their foraging to flowers, yellowjackets are drawn to anything sweet: the perfume you're wearing, the soap you used, the food you're eating.

If you are annoyed by yellowjackets and especially if you're sensitive to their sting, shun perfumes, hairsprays or scented laundry products; use unscented soaps; don't drink sodas or eat fruit outdoors; and stay away from fallen apples and other sugary fruits. In other words, don't be sweet.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The oothecas of autumn

In the autumn, if you snoop around a goldenrod grove, you’re apt to come across the ootheca of the Praying Mantis. You might want to bring it home and put it in the freezer.

Mantises love goldenrod. When it’s blooming, they perch near the flowers and prey upon the wealth of visiting insects, enjoying their last meals before the cold kills them. “Mantis” means “prophet,” and as they sit motionless with forelegs folded, they seem to be in a religious trance.

Before departing this world, the female will often use the goldenrod’s stiff stalks to attach one or more oothecas, the cases that hold the eggs until they hatch the next spring and provide a new season of mantises.

Why bring egg cases home? Praying Mantises are among our most beneficial insects, consuming many pest species. Serious gardeners buy egg cases, containing up to 300 eggs each, to hatch in their gardens and greenhouses. The mantis is so much admired that Connecticut has declared it the “state insect.”

So for some natural pest control next season as well as some insectival entertainment, put some oothecas in the freezer. Take them out next spring, put them in the garden to hatch, and watch the prophets pray for prey.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Thorny thoughts

Thorns have gotten a bad rap. Jesus Christ was tortured with them, issues with them are troubled, and they're generally synonymous with problems and pain.

But thorns, in fact, often help package wonderful things.

Thorns are a kind of spine that plants use to protect themselves from the mouths of grazing mammals. Both thistles and nettles, among prickliest of plants, are tasty and nutritious foods. Be they wild or cultivated, roses are among our most beautiful-looking and beautifully scented flowers, as well as among the best defended.

Creatures of all sizes must be wary of the raspberry, whose arms are so prickly even birds fear to tread – all the better for us humans who, with long arms and careful hands, can pluck the sweet berries for late summer treats.

Finally, consider Androcles: Without that thorn to pull from the lion’s foot, he would have been cat food.

So think of thorns not as threats, but as invitations to something special beyond.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Nut birds

The season of nuts is upon us, and squirrels are once again being admired for being so industrious. Don't they gather up and bury all those acorns and other nuts? Aren't they responsible for planting forests full of oaks, hickories and beeches?

Not necessarily. Biologist M.R. Chettleburgh has found that during the single month of October, 30 to 40 jays can gather and plant more than 20,000 acorns alone. The jays are caching them for future use, but often forget their whereabouts, allowing the nuts to sprout.

On average, jays carry these acorns a quarter mile from the tree that bore them, but often they fly them a half to three-quarters of a mile away. No lazy, old squirrel is going to haul an acorn a half-mile.

Clearly, jays are the real planters and spreaders of our woodlands. In Siberia, in fact, they are protected by the state because of their forest-expanding abilities.

And maybe that's why Blue Jays are so noisy at this time of year, screeching and squawking seemingly from dawn to dusk: They're whining about all the credit the squirrels get for being hard-working.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Beeches and bears

For most of us, “beech nut” means a baby food. However, if you’re old enough, you probably remember Beech-Nut Chewing Gum. And if you’re really old enough, Beech-Nut Coffee, Beech-Nut Macaroni, and – with a name in which the words seem to clash, Beech-Nut Peanut Butter.

For a bear, however, a real beech nut is like candy.

At this time of year, Black Bears will climb 60 or more feet to the top of an American Beech to search for its offering of food. The bear will break off nut-laden branches from the tree’s crown and stuff in them in the crotches of limbs while it picks off and eats the nuts. Old New Englanders called the resulting tangles of nutless, broken branches “bear nests.”

Why go through all this trouble when berries and other foods abound down below? The beech nut is said to be the calorically richest nut in North America, containing at least 50% fat and 20% protein. For a bear about to hunker down for a long winter’s nap, that’s an ideal food – well worth the climb and the work that includes breaking off branches up to two and a half inches in diameter.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The season for sneezin'

As millions of tons of sneeze-provoking pollen is spewed the air this season, innocent bystanders invariably get the blame.

Goldenrod is often cited as the cause of hay fever simply because it's so brilliant at a time when its humble but potent cousin, ragweed, is also blooming. As a result, misguided allergy sufferers destroy countless goldenrods, one of the great seasonal sources of color and scent as well as nectar for bees.

Airborne pollen causes hay fever. Most flowers with airborne pollen – ragweed, plantain, grasses, many trees – are green and unnoticed, hidden among their own leaves. They're green because they don't need to be “different” to catch the eye of passing bees and other flying pollinators – they use air, not insects, to effect pollination. Goldenrod has bee-borne pollen, too heavy to float in the air and up the nose. Its yellow helps attract bees to haul its pollen around.

Thus, despite all the colorful TV and magazine ads for allergy medications, few if any brightly colored flowers will ever tickle your nose or tighten your chest. Wheezers and sneezers should join everyone else and enjoy Mother Nature's late summer explosion of yellow.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Somniloquent singers?

Long after its season of nighttime wooing has passed, the Eastern Gray Treefrog occasionally erupts in daytime song, but no one seems to know just why.

These arboreal acrobats that can climb glass windows as well as trees can also deftly snag an insect in mid-air as it passes by a branch. They feed mostly at night and sleep by day.

However, in late August, their brief, bird-like trills can occasionally be heard at almost any time of the day, especially if there’s been a shower. You might hear a call from one tree, then a response from another, and depending on how froggy your neighborhood is, two or three other treefrogs nearby may join in the exchange.

In the spring, their calls are part of the expected nighttime chorus of courting critters, but by this time of year, all that love-making is long past. So why sing when they’re supposed to be asleep? Perhaps they suffer from somniloquy and are just sleep-talking as they dream of happy, youthful encounters those long months ago.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Acorn Rain

On an early morning walk in late August, you are bound to hear the click-clacking of the oak trees. High in their branches gray squirrels are picking and dropping acorns that fall through the leaves and twigs like so many giant raindrops.

Squirrels learned long ago that, rather than pick and carry each acorn or hickory nut to the ground to bury, it’s a lot easier to drop a bunch at a time, then climb down to collect and cache them.

But they have to be quick about it sometimes.

One day a few years ago, we came across one of the drawbacks of the squirrels’ efficient operation. Under a bountiful oak raining with acorns from a half dozen squirrels stood a herd of a five deer, eating these gifts from above as quickly as they landed.

Even in nature, no system is perfect – unless you’re a deer that likes good service.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Up on the Roof

Some wildlife has taken kindly to suburbia, delighting in man’s manipulation of the landscape. Deer and the Canada Geese like our environment so well, they’ve overpopulated into pests.

Others are more subtle at adapting. The Killdeer, a common plover that looks as if it belongs on a beach where most of its cousins live, is doing well, population surveys report. This might seem odd since Killdeer nest on the open ground, and in the suburbs, about the only open grounds are lawns and parking lots.

Killdeer will in fact nest on grassy islands in the middle of shopping center lots. If a shopper gets too close, mom or pop will stage the famous broken-wing act, fluttering along the ground to draw attention away from a well-camouflaged nest.

Many Killdeer have discovered much safer nesting grounds. The flat roofs of the shopping centers and office buildings that fill our business districts provide fine Killdeer homesites. The parents don’t have to worry about four-legged predators – or two-legged interlopers – and can concentrate on watching for the usual enemies from above, such as crows and hawks.

For the Killdeer, up on the roof can be down home.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Really good raspberries

It’s been another bumper year for berries, but few have been as bountiful as the raspberry. Big bunches of them have been bending canes with their weight this season, and that’s a boon to both man and beast.

The raspberry is among the most valuable food sources for scores of species of birds and small mammals. Fortunately, the thorny canes have prevented a big mammal, deer, from decimating the plants, which favor the same wood edges that deer do.

Roadside berries are free for the picking, and considering the prices that even rural farm stands are charging – $3.50 a half pint at one in northern Vermont on Sunday, it’s a sweet treat that’s well worth the effort as well as a few scratches.

What’s more, they are good for us – really good. Raspberries are rich in antioxidants that promote healthy hearts. They have lots of vitamins A, B1, 2 and 3, and C, plus calcium, iron, and potassium. And because each berry is a cluster of tiny berries or “drupelets,” the raspberry has lots of skin, which is full of fiber – up to one-fifth of the berry’s weight – making it among the most fiber-filled fruits in North America.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Dog Day Update

The Dog Days are well underway and the news so far is pretty good.

A hand-me-down from ancient times, the Dog Days extend from July 3 through Aug. 11. The Greeks and Romans knew that Sirius, the Dog Star, rose simultaneously with the sun during this period. They believed that since it was such a strong star, Sirius added to the sun’s heat, making the Dog Days the hottest time of the year.

English countrymen said that if it rained on the first Dog Day, the rain would continue for 40 days. Those who’ve inspected their lawns lately know well that, after a wet spring, the sun has been doing a lot of shining these dog days – except maybe for last Monday.

But that’s good, say the English, who also believed:

Dog days bright and clear

indicate a happy year.

But when accompanied by rain,

for better times our hope’s in vain.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Alien threats

Illegal immigrants are much in the news lately, but immigrants of a different sort are sneaking across our borders and causing havoc.

The Emerald Ash Borer, a beetle from Asia discovered here in 2002, has killed countless ash trees – more than 20 million in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana alone. It has cost towns, property owners, nurseries, and forest products industries – even baseball bat makers – tens of millions of dollars. It’s just one of a passel of insect and plant pests that have entered our country hidden in packaging or produce. Some problem plants, such as Purple Loosestrife, Japanese Knotweed and Yellow Flag Iris, were imported deliberately because of their beauty, only to become bulls in an environmental china shop.

Without natural controls, some alien plants spread wildly, pushing out native plants and in the process destroying ecologies that support many native birds, fishes, reptiles, amphibians, and insects.

What can we do? Know and destroy invasive plants. And insist that legislators support not only better surveillance of our ports of entry, but also research into combating imported pests that have already arrived.

Our leaders must understand that not all alien threats to our nation come from terrorists.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Does your furniture click?

Behold the beetle, perhaps the most successful of all life forms. One in every five species on Earth – including plants – is a kind of beetle. More than 24,000 different beetles live in North America alone.

Many are well-known. In July, for instance, we find lady bugs, fireflies, and – despite their name – June bugs. Most share a common trait: Their first pair of wings has hardened into plates that provide protection. When the beetle needs to fly, these plates, called elytra, are raised to unveil the flight wings.

Most beetles are harmless. Some are pests, however, and a few annoy in odd ways.

Take the Death-watch Beetle, which bores its way into wood, including furniture. To communicate, males and females rap their heads against the tunnel walls, producing a clicking sound. To folks generations ago, clicking furniture meant a death in the family was imminent.

Then there is the Drugstore Beetle. “Virtually nothing organic is off-limits to this insect, including leather, flour, dried beans, and cayenne pepper,” write Eric Eaton and Kenn Kaufman in the Kaufman Field Guild to Insects of North America. “It will even bore through plastic vials to get to a meal.”

Or how about the Cigarette Beetle, which loves dried vegetable matter, but is especially fond of tobacco. It favors chewing, though. “So far, it has not been observed smoking,” report Eaton and Kaufman.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

July’s power

July is the month when the sun is strongest. In our neighborhood, high temperatures average 84, five degrees warmer than in June and three higher than in August.

Because the sun shows so much power in July, Mark Anthony had the month Quintilis changed to honor his late friend, Julius Caesar, a man of great power. The change also eliminated the nasty problem of the seventh month being named five, its old position in the Roman year.

The ancient Saxons were more down to earth about naming their months. July was Hay Monath, when they mowed and harvested hay, or sometimes Maed Monath, supposedly because the meads – the meadows – were in bloom then. However, mead is also an ancient alcoholic beverage made from fermented honey.

And since it’s said that mead imbues the drinker with wisdom, courage and strength, perhaps Maed Monath is the time to sit back, sip some mead, and quietly seek these admirable qualities.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

A bird’s blessing

The American Goldfinch is a patient bird, at least when it comes to building a home and raising a family.

Each season, goldfinches are among the last of our birds to establish nests. Most others already have fledglings – you can hear them now, squeaking and whining at their parents to feed them. But goldfinches are just getting their nest work underway.

Why? The goldfinch seems to time its domestic duties to the season of the thistles, those prickly wildflowers most people hate. Early thistles are just now going to seed, producing the super-soft down that is so opposite the thorns that bedeck the plants. Goldfinches love thistle down as a material for lining their nests.

After the eggs have hatched, thistles provide their second benefit: Food. Goldfinches are mostly seed-eaters and they delay raising a family with a bunch of hungry mouths to feed – until mid-summer when the season of seeds is well underway. Probably their favorite seed is the thistle.

“Cursed is the ground because of you,” God told Adam in the Garden of Eden. “Thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you.” Clearly, a man’s curse can be a bird’s blessing.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Sound of the Veery

I heard a Veery on Sunday. That may not sound like a big deal, but it’s the first one I’ve heard locally in more than five years.

And hearing them is often all you do, for these brown thrushes are somewhat secretive and stick to woodlands where they can be hard to spot.

However, their song is one of the most distinctive and easy to recognize of any of our migrants. It’s a flutelike cascade of notes, seeming to echo as if they were sung through a long open pipe. Once you’ve heard the song, you never forget it.

Time was when the song of the Veery was a sure sign that spring had settled in. It was something to listen for. But Veeries are in what the Cornell Lab of Ornithology calls a “slow decline” throughout their range.

In winter, that range includes a large area of central and northern South America, much of it rain forest, which, as we all know by now, is being cut down. Ornithologists suspect that this “rapid habitat conversion” is reducing the Veery population.

Up north, these birds may also be suffering from the deer overpopulation. Veeries nest on or near the ground and thus prefer woods with dense understory that provides a degree of camouflage and protection. Overpopulating deer have stripped so much of the understory of our woods that Veeries may be having difficulty finding suitable nesting sites. (However, the latest statistics from the state of Connecticut indicate the state’s deer population may be in decline from a peak of 75,000 a few years ago to a current estimate of 62,000.)

Veeries have also suffered from nest parasitism by Brown-headed Cowbirds, but the latest studies on cowbirds are finding that these birds may also in decline. So it’s likely that the habitat destruction, in both winter and summer ranges, have been affecting the Veery numbers in our neighborhood.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Are deer down?

Connecticut’ deer population has been stabilizing, maybe even declining. So says the Wildlife Division of the Connecticut Department of Environmental, which in February completed its latest aerial population survey.

Officials put many qualifiers on their numbers, including the fact that the aerial survey looks at only one percent of the state’s total deer habitat. Nonetheless, from 1993 to 2003, the estimated winter deer population rose from 49,472 to 75,771. Last winter, the estimate was 62,163. If the state’s system of surveying is reasonably accurate, that would be a noteworthy decline.

We are still in the most deer dense part of the state. Fairfield County has an estimated 29.4 deer per square mile, the highest density of any of the 12 state zones. The statewide average is 17.

Wildlife officials also watch data on hunter kills, deer-vehicle collisions, and even “homeowner concerns,” and all also seem to indicate the population is at least stabilizing.

Why? The state has “adjusted deer seasons, modified bag limits, and encouraged the harvest of antlerless deer in high deer density areas,” DEP said. “Wise deer management results in healthy deer populations and productive wildlife habitat.”

In a word, the state seems to be saying, hunting.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Big Stink

There’s been a big stink at the University of Connecticut lately. No, it’s not some scandal or controversy, but the blooming of a Titan Arum – two, in fact – at a university greenhouse. Only twice since the 1930s has this species flowered in the Northeast, and UConn has two in one season.

Natives of Sumatra, Titan Arums bear huge blooms that literally reek. Both in their foul odor and reddish color, the flowers mimic carrion, all in an effort to draw flesh-eating flies to pollinate them.

However, you don’t have to go to UConn or Sumatra to see the same technique in action in our own woods. Early each spring, our wetlands are bursting with Skunk Cabbage flowers, another Arum that uses exactly the same technique – carrion color and scent – to attract flies.

Still another spring stinker is Purple Trillium, a fly-baiter that may qualify as the worst-smelling wildflower in North America. But its odor is not a defense and unlike an Arum, the trillium is not bitter-tasting. Unfortunately, hungry deer won’t turn their noses up at a bad smell, and have been eating our trilliums into oblivion.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Nest success

This is the time of year when birds are building and using nests. But as parents, birds are often unsuccessful, both at building nests and at protecting their occupants.

Bad weather and faulty construction can lead to nest failure. But most bird nests are also subject to predators. Various studies of nest predation have found that between a third and a half of nests are attacked by other birds, small mammals, and reptiles such as snakes.

Percentages of predation can vary widely. A study of Hermit Thrushes in Arizona found that predators attacked 83% of the nests. A study in the same state of Black-headed Grosbeaks found predators attacked only 23% of the nests.

Dr. Steven W. Kress reported a study that found that of 100 Song Sparrow eggs, 74 hatched successfully and 52 eventually fledged. That’s a loss of nearly 50%.

Years ago, Dr. Arthur Allen of Cornell University estimated that less than 20% of all nests succeed in producing a complete set of new, mature birds. But as Allan and Helen Cruickshank point out, that’s nature’s checks and balances. “Should all of the birds’ eggs laid in North America in a single season not only hatch but the young mature,” they said, “the continent itself would be so crowded with birds that man himself would suffer acutely.”

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Frozen out

Tulip Trees bloom in May – you can see their petals being discarded to the ground below by squirrels eating parts of the sweet, green-orange flowers. These members of the magnolia family are our tallest trees, averaging 120 feet, often reaching 150 feet, and known as tall as 190 feet.

Tulip Trees were once circumboreal – found in North America, Europe and Asia. They now live only in China and eastern North America. The European Tulip Trees were wiped out, not by man but nature, in the last ice age. On our continent, as the ice moved south, the Tulip Tree seeded its way southward ahead of the shelf. In Europe, however, the Mediterranean to the south and mountains to the east trapped the species and none survived.

Because our trees could “escape” down the north-south coastal plains, ridges and valleys, our part of the world is home to many more species than Europe has.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Alien invasion

A new invasion of alien plants is looming, but the invaders are not from the east or west, but the south.

For centuries, aliens have been arriving from Europe and Asia, imported as garden flowers, herbal flavorings or medicines, or just hitching a ride with crop seeds. They came from climates similar to ours and, finding no enemies, the likes of Garlic Mustard, Purple Loosestrife, Japanese Knotweed, and Japanese Barberry thrived to become pests.

Enter global warming. As the New England winters weaken, both plants and animals that could not survive here are moving northward. While white birches and other species are dying off because of the warmth, palms are already surviving in southern New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and kudzu, which has been called “the plant that ate the South,” has crossed the Mason-Dixon and is already in Connecticut.

How to deal with so complex a problem befuddles even the experts, but it can’t hurt for us to leave a smaller footprint on our Earth, while at the same time, stomping invasives when we spot them.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Killer cats

Few scenes are as peaceful and domestic as the family cat, curled up and purring in your lap, on a cool spring evening. But for uncountable millions of creatures, house cats are not so warm and fuzzy, and feline fangs are the last thing they see before they die.

Conservation officials say that of the 90 million pet cats in the U.S., only 35% are kept indoors. The rest are let loose to hunt, killing “hundreds of millions of birds, and more than a billion small mammals, such as rabbits, squirrels, and chipmunks each year,” says the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection.

Habitat destruction is the leading cause of declining bird populations, but right up in second place are cats, both domestic and feral.

The killer is becoming the killed, however, as house cats are now prey themselves. Increasing numbers of coyotes and now fishers – a large carnivorous marten that has been reintroduced into our woods – are catching and eating many house cats.

The answer to both deadly problems is simple: Keep kitty indoors.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Vernal Pools

In nature, little is wasted, not even puddles. At this time of year, nature’s puddles – officially known as “vernal pools” – are teeming with life.

Vernal pools form in the winter, last through the spring and dry up in summer. Found throughout our woodlands in sizes large and small, they are hotbeds of early spring activity. Frogs and salamanders crawl out of the forest’s leaf litter and make their way to the water to frolic and mate. Soon the pool is full of eggs, then tadpoles and salamander larvae.

To amphibians, the pool’s benefit is big: There are no fish to eat them or their offspring. The risk, however, is drought. The water must last long enough for the tads to reach adulthood. Clearly, the benefit outweighs the risk, for our woods still ring out each April with choruses of the popular vernal pool patron, Spring Peepers.

A bigger threat, however, is man. Too few know what vernal pools are, much less their importance, and no laws protect them. Many are threatened by development.

Dr. Seuss’s Lorax spoke for the trees. Fortunately, we have a few wise conservationists and savvy zoning commissioners who speak for the pools.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Swamp carcasses

The spring air is full of rich earthy scents, especially over our swamps. Often leading the wetland aromas is the skunk cabbage.

Many know but few admire this big, fetid fellow. Yet, it is one of our most fascinating wildflowers, finely tuned by evolution to deal with a harsh time of year. As it rises in late winter and early spring, the plant burns carbs – just like exercising humans – heating up and melting the frozen earth around it. Once up and blooming, the flower head – protected by a reddish-brown hood – can be as warm as 70 degrees when the air outside is 30.

The hood’s hue serves a second purpose: It’s the color of carrion. Flies are the first insects of the new season. Searching for the thawing carcasses of winter-killed creatures, they are drawn to the color and the smell, thinking the cabbage is a corpse. The plant’s warmth is a plus, encouraging the flies to roam about the ball of flowers, unwittingly picking up pollen to carry to the next mouth-watering skunk cabbage down the line.

The tricks may stink, but they work.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Cowslip season

April offered old-time farmers a free treat that could warm their stomachs, brighten their rooms, and even line their pockets. We call them marsh marigolds, but New Englanders knew them as cowslips.

Their yellow flowers filled wetlands, offering the first big blooms of the season and a chance to decorate winter-weary homes.

They were also popular as a spinach-like dish. William Hamilton Gibson wrote in 1880: “The eager farmer’s wife fills her basket with the succulent leaves she has been waiting for so long; for they’ll tell you in New England that ‘they ain’t noth’n’ like cowslips for a mess o’ greens.’” Being bitter like most buttercups, they had to be well-boiled first. That bitterness, incidentally, is protection from today’s voracious deer.

There was gold in those yellow flowers, too. Enterprising farmers picked bunches of cowslips to send to nearby cities where boys would sell them on street corners to people eager for spring blossoms.

The plant’s name sounds romantically agrarian, but isn’t quite. Cowslip, named for a European barnyard weed, is from the Old English, meaning “cow slop” – that is to say, cow crap.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Supply and demand

Day and night, the sky is alive with life. Migration has begun, and literally millions birds are silently streaming northward in search of nesting grounds.

Only a fraction of these travelers are seen locally, however. They pass by high overhead, often in the middle of the night. Most don’t stop and those that do may pay only brief visits or spend the time sleeping. Sometimes, though, they make forced landings. Countless Fox Sparrows were grounded by the recent nor’easter, showing up in flocks at feeders where they had never been seen before, and generating a flurry of excitement in the bird-watching world – even inspiring some newspaper stories.

All these northbound birds are heading for territory that is barren in winter, but lush with food, both insects and vegetation, in spring and summer. What’s more, the northlands offer virtually unlimited nesting sites – unlike the crowded winter grounds of the South or the tropics.

Thus, migration is nature’s efficient way of handling life’s supply and demand.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Spring ephemerals

Ah, spring, the season of new and renewed life! It’s a time when many nature lovers turn their eyes skyward to spot migrating birds as signs of the season. Others, however, head for the woods and look to the ground. They seek the “spring ephemerals,” March and April wildflowers that pop up, bloom, fruit, and disappear before most of the trees have unfurled their leaves.

Ephemerals like bloodroot, trout-lily, trillium, anemone, and spring-beauty have to deal with wintry winds, frosty nights, even snow and ice. But there are benefits to their lifestyle. The ground is wet with snow melt and the trees have not yet begun to compete for the water. Plenty of nutrients from last year’s dead leaves have leached into the soil. And there’s much light because tree leaves have yet to shade the forest floor.

Unfortunately, overpopulating deer, ravenous after a long winter, find most ephemerals irresistible. And a plant eaten soon after it sprouts cannot make and store food in its roots so it can reappear next year, and cannot produce seeds for future generations.

Thus, in many woods, ephemerals have become invisibles.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Pain relief

An amazing thing about the Pussy Willow is its color – or more specifically, the lack of it. Few shades are duller than gray, yet the flowers of the Pussy Willow are among the most beloved of any spring bloom.

Therein lies its charm. This bush wins us with form, not flash. Its catkins are catlike, all cute and furry like the tail of a kitten, and they wrap themselves along the branches like so many fuzzy caterpillars marching to the sky.

It also wins us with timing, blooming with the first thaws of March. But for those in a hurry for signs of spring, snipping off a few bloomless branches and sticking them in water will net wands of premature catkins.

The wonders of the willow were known to Hippocrates in ancient Greece and to North American Indians. However, both were interested not in the flowers, but the bark, which produced a painkiller called salicin. This, in turn, led to the discovery of salicylic acid, and to synthesizing acetylsalicylic acid – what we call aspirin.

So, it seems that Pussy Willows can relieve a lot more than just the bleakness of winter.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The hungry hawk

As the compiler of a column called BirdNotes, I regularly get reports of hungry hawks knocking off backyard birds – one once even tried to fly through a pet store window to dine on a budgie. (He was unsuccessful.)

Winter is the best hunting season for year-round hawks. The trees are free of leaves and dinner is out in the open, ready for the plucking. For the same reason, winter is the best time to witness “bird hawks” in action.

Often hawks will be seen perched near a backyard birdfeeder. People sometimes feel guilty when they watch a hawk capture a bird attracted to their feeders. Don’t. If the hawk hadn’t gotten its meal at your feeder, it would have found it in another yard or field. Your feeder just makes it a tad more convenient for nature to take its course.

After all, like it or not, it’s a bird-eat-bird world out there.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Fisher food

In recent years townspeople have reported sighting fishers, the 10- to 15-pound weasel-like martens that have been making a recovery in the region.

Their appearance is no accident. In 1988, the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection bought a bunch of live-trapped fishers from upper New England, and released them in western Connecticut. The aim was to restore an animal that had once been native to the state, but had been driven away by the agricultural deforestation and perhaps overtrapping. Today, fishers are found throughout the state and are doing so well, licensed trapping is allowed in the fall.

While fishers don’t fish – or even eat fish, they do love a tasty porcupine. That thorny fare is in rather short supply, however, so they have turned to a more abundant mammal for food: The squirrel.

In fact, in northern Vermont and New Hampshire, where the fisher was never extirpated, squirrels are much less common than they are here. The natives say it’s because the fishers keep them under control – good news for anyone who’s ever had squirrels invade their home.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Cool sweets

If you have a sweet tooth, the cold snap is a boon. At least two weeks of freezing nights are needed for our maples to produce a good flow of late-winter sap, the source of America’s oldest breakfast condiment.

The warmth of first month of winter was beginning to make the sap tappers nervous. And there are plenty of maple harvesters around: little Connecticut ranks 10th in the United States in its maple syrup production – some 11,000 gallons annually.

The American Indians were the first to recognize the treat offered by maple sap, boiled down to its syrupy or solid essences. But it is only recently that scientists have found that this sweetener is actually good for you. A single teaspoon contains nearly a quarter of your daily need of manganese and plus a good dose of zinc to boot. Both minerals are important ingredients in the body’s antioxidant defenses.

So our maples not only provide sweet treats, plus shade, oxygen, and terrific fall colors, they also contribute to our good health.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Hoop poles

Mention a “hoop pole” today and you might inspire images of basketball or tent supports. A century or two ago, however, hoop poles were a well-known and valuable commodity that many local farmers harvested from the wild to earn extra cash.

Hoop poles were long, straight rods, cut in the woods from ash, hickory, hazel, and white oak saplings or from bushes that had been specially pruned for the purpose. While they might be cut in spring or fall, farmers often processed them in midwinter, when they were less busy. Bark and shoots, for instance, had to be removed.

The poles were used around the farm for many tasks such as rollers for moving heavy loads and for temporary floors under haystacks. They were also split to make barrel hoops and basket-weaving material; the poles were hammered to flatten them, soaked in water, and then split into the hoops that held the barrel staves together.

Perhaps the oddest use for hoop poles, however, was as stiffeners in the colossal, but fashionable skirts women sometimes wore in the 19th Century.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Role of roads

From the earliest days of our communities, highways were of great importance, but for much different reasons than they are today. The role of roads has changed significantly in the past century or so.

Two hundred ago, roads were chiefly lines of communication. They connected homestead with homestead, families with town and church, and towns with towns. There were no telephones, no radio, no television, no Internet, and no local newspapers. News traveled mostly by word of mouth, and mouths traveled over roads.

In those days work kept most people at home, not away from it. The farm was their occupation and their chief source of food and clothing. Today, work is often far from home and supplies are in town or the nearby city, all reachable by highways. News, on the other hand, arrives with the flick of a switch, the opening of a mailbox, the toss of a paper carrier, or the ring of a telephone.

In many ways, a road of old was like a wire of today.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Uncomfortable cold

Temperatures have dipped into the teens, and ice is forming on ponds. Yes, we’re finally feeling cold.

What we’re feeling, though, is nothing like what folks used to feel.

The people who settled New England experienced cold as you would never want to. In January and February, frigid air was a 24/7 phenomenon inside most houses, which were inefficiently heated and poorly insulated.

Until the arrival of central heating in the late 19th Century, houses were often iceboxes in winter. It was not unusual to have the water in the house turn to ice overnight and to have snow leak through windows and stay frozen on the floor. Frostbite was a problem not only outside, but indoors, where bedroom temperatures could approach zero. And let’s not even think of what outhouses were like.

So as your nose and fingers tingle and your breath freezes in front of you when you leave your well-heated home, take a moment to remember those hardy people who came before us and who knew few comforts at this time of year.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Bunny blues

Pity the poor New England Cottontail: It’s disappearing from its namesake.

The only native rabbit in southern Connecticut, the New England Cottontail was once widespread from southeastern New York to Maine. Today, studies by Connecticut and New Hampshire biologists are finding so few that this bunny has become a candidate for the federal Endangered Species List.

Several forces are working against the New England Cottontail. The thickets it lives in are disappearing, thanks to both man-made and natural changes. Its food is being gobbled up by deer and by the alien Eastern Cottontail, the rabbit we see all the time. Introduced a century ago by hunters seeking new game, the Eastern Cottontail is more adaptable to suburbanization.

There’s also the growing number of hawks, owls, coyotes, foxes, and even fishers, for whom rabbit is fine fare.

If all that isn’t bad enough, the New England Cottontail suffers from an identity crisis. It looks so much like an Eastern Cottontail that DNA samples are often needed to confirm that it’s native, not alien.

So even if you see one close-up, it’s tough to tell the rabbit is rare.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Tie Hacking

New England farmers were famous for not wasting time, energy or resources. Even in January and February, when the ground was frozen and snow covered, they were hard at work outdoors.

Mid-winter was the time for cutting down and chopping up trees. Most wood was bound for the fireplace or the stove, but not all.

In the 19th Century many local farmers made railroad ties. Tens of millions of these eight-foot, six-inch logs were needed yearly, not only to support new tracks being laid across America but also to replace existing sleepers, whose life expectancy was only about five years. The ties were cut and sledded back to the farm where were they were hand-hewn into shape. In the spring or summer, they were carted to the depot and sold to the railroad.

Even the bark shaved off the logs was saved and sold to local tanneries, which used bark extract in processing leather.

“Tie hacking,” as it was called, provided useful income to many people, most of whom were subsistence farmers growing little more than was needed for the family. In fact, many farmers earned more from winter work than summer crops.

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