SCORES & OUTDOORS: Carnage on our highways; do the night critters have a chance?

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

OK, let’s shift gears this week and talk about our roads. No, not the ruts, potholes and whoopsy dos, nor the bevy of political signs that sprout along the roadway. I’m talking about the carnage on our highways.

Over the last week, I have seen, laying dead, either on the shoulder or squished in the travel lanes, skunks, porcupines, an occasional opossum, and a plethora of gray squirrels.

Is there an abundance of wildlife out there, are they widening their range in search of food, or is the change in their habitat forcing them to seek shelter elsewhere?

It is an interesting thought.

Of the many animals I’ve seen as road kill, gray squirrels are by far in the majority.

It might be because they are scatter hoarders. They hoard foods in numerous caches for later recovery. Some caches are temporary, especially those made near the site of a sudden abundance of food which can be retrieved within hours or days for reburial in a more secure site. Others are more permanent and are not retrieved until months later. Each squirrel is estimated to make several thousand caches each season. This would include a large range of territory for them to cover in order to have all these caches.

Skunks and porcupines are nocturnal creatures that generally only make appearance following night fall.

Although skunks have excellent senses of smell and hearing, they have poor vision, being unable to see objects more than about 10 feet away, making them vulnerable to death by road traffic. They already have a short lifespan, up to seven years, but most will live only up to a year.

Porcupines, which are mostly nocturnal, will forage during the day. They are slow-moving mammals that once exposed to the dangers of crossing a strip of asphalt, become susceptible to road collisions with autos.

Both the skunks and porcupines are dark in color, making them difficult to see in the dark, especially with some of today’s new cars. Older cars, with the standard types of headlights, illuminate the sides of the road at a longer distance, while the newer LED projection-type headlamps light up the roads in a more direct, straight-forward path, leaving the shoulders and aprons to the road a little darker.

All in all, for these denizens of the woods, when they venture out at night, they are no match for a 3,000-pound hunk of steel barreling down at them at 55 mph.

CHALLENGE

Now, here is a challenge for readers.

In the 20-plus years that I have been writing this column, I have come across a lot of creatures of nature that I have not been able to identify. Through the help of my contacts at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and doing countless hours of research, I have been able to bring to you many descriptions of these critters. But, in that time, I have come across two that even experts have not been able to help me. One was in 2013, and the other was just last weekend.

So, I am presenting to you, amateur entomologists and wannabes, these two for your perusal. Does anyone out there in The Town Line nation, know what these are? (Send us an email at townline@fairpoint.net or via our Contact page.)

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

This Red Sox pitcher became a verbal punching bag when he said, “What can I say? I just tip my hat and call the Yankees my daddy.”

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Requiem for a squirrel: the decision that determined his fate

Squirrels often have to make snap decisions.

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

There I was last Thursday, driving down the Cross Hill Road, in Vassalboro, minding my own business, listening to my Johnny Cash CD; just cruising on a beautiful, pleasant late spring afternoon, heading for camp.

That’s when it happened. A gray squirrel came darting out from the side of the road. He made a mad dash for the center line, stopping just short, undecided on what he wanted to do. He turned, looked my way. We made momentary eye contact.

Gray squirrels are a treat to watch. During their activities, they can be quite comical. They are acrobatic, agile, and extremely clever. Have you ever seen one stretching from a tree to a bird feeder? It almost defies the laws of gravity.

But they are actually scatter hoarders. It accumulates food in numerous small caches for later recovery. Some caches are temporary, especially those made near the site of a sudden abundance of food which can be retrieved within hours or days for re-burial in a more secure site. Others are more permanent and are not retrieved until months later. It has been estimated that each squirrel makes several thousand caches each season. The squirrels have very accurate memory for the locations of these caches, and use distant and nearby landmarks to retrieve them. Smell is used once the squirrel is within a few feet of the cache.

Squirrels are relentless workers, constantly getting their winter food supply in storage.

I have seen squirrels assume some strange postures in attempts to get into bird feeders, but my favorite one happened several years ago while my wife and I were visiting relatives in South Harpswell. They had a basketball-shape and size bird feeder hanging from an old oak tree. The ball had small feeding stations inserted from the outside, which would make it very difficult for squirrels to get into. I was sitting at the breakfast table watching as the squirrel climbed up the tree, went out on the limb, and jumped on the ball. Well, the ball being made of clear plastic was quite slippery, and the squirrel fell off. Undeterred, he went back up the tree, and proceeded out on the limb once more, jumped on the ball and immediately fell to the ground.

He would do this about three more times. It was at that point, even while I was wondering what his next approach might be, that I saw what you could describe as unimagineable, even unbelievable. He went back up the tree, ran out on the branch, and began to fool with the knot that hung the feeder. Now, from my vantage point, I couldn’t tell whether he was chewing at the rope, or attempting to untie it. Whatever he did worked, because in a matter of a minute or two, the ball came crashing to the ground, splitting wide open. The squirrel then went down the trunk, casually hopped over to the feeder, and commenced to helping himself to the seed that had spilled out onto the ground.

Did you know squirrels are one of very few mammals that can descend a tree head first? Although squirrels will fight among themselves for food, they also have been known to mob attack potential predators such as domestic cats.

They are also great communicators. In more noisy sites such as urban areas, they communicate with their tails and body movements. In the woods and more quiet environs, they will communicate by vocalizing. They can make a sound similar to the squeak of a mouse, a low pitched noise, a chatter and a raspy call.

Many times squirrels will “scold” me after I chase them from our feeders. They make it perfectly clear they are not happy.

They are kind of cute to watch, and pretty much mind their own business, unlike the more destructive red squirrel. So we live in some type of harmony. I respect their space if they respect mine.

Well, unfortunately for that squirrel last Thursday, once he turned and looked in my direction, he made a fatal mistake. He tried to return to the shoulder of the road. Had he elected to continue to the other side, he would have been fine. I felt badly, especially since I was listening to “Folsom Prison Blues.”

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Which MLB pitcher originally drafted by the Red Sox and traded to Baltimore before ever playing a game with Boston, returned for both the Red Sox titles in 2004 & 2007?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: If they arrive in May, why are they called June bugs?

Green June beetle (left), June bug (right)

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

Well, the first June bug of the year made its appearance at camp on Thursday, May 31, at 10:30 p.m. We were, after all, still in May.

Generally, June bugs, Phyllophaga, do make their appearance in mid- to late-May. So why are they called June bugs? It all depends on what you want to call them. They are also known as May beetles and June beetles. But, the name is derived from the fact that adult June bugs emerge from the soil at the end of spring or the beginning of summer.

Females bury their eggs just below the soil surface in the fall, they pupate and emerge in the spring. They hatch within three to four weeks and feed on grass and plant roots from several months to as long as three years. In spring, these grubs, as they are called, grow into pupae. Within three weeks, these mature into adult June bugs.

Grubs, when full grown, live in the soil and feed on plant roots, especially those of grasses and cereals, and are occasional pests in pastures, nurseries, gardens and golf courses. An obvious indication of infestation is the presence of birds, especially crows, peeling back the grass to get to the grubs. A way to test for the presence of these beetles is drenching an area of lawn with water, that will cause larvae to emerge at the surface.

The grubs have been known to attack vegetables and other garden plants, such as lettuce, raspberries, strawberries, potatoes and young ornamental trees. Maintaining a healthy lawn is a good step in deterring the grubs from establishing themselves.

June bugs are harmless. They do not bite, sting or spread disease. However, I did see one of my friends move faster than I have ever seen her move before, while sitting around a camp fire last weekend, when one landed on her. To be honest, it’s the natural reaction by most people, including yours truly.

Again, they are harmless, but because they are attracted to light they can make an evening sitting on your porch or deck a little unpleasant. Even if there is no light outdoors, they can be attracted to lights inside your home. I know at camp, when we’re spending time indoors after dark, they come ‘knocking’ on our windows. The sound of June bugs buzzing and bumping against window screens in early summer is a very common occurrence over many parts of the U.S. Adult June bugs are extremely clumsy, especially in the air.

Scientists are still undecided on the precise explanation for this behavior. Several thoughts have been advanced, but no single theory has come about that can account for why so many different nocturnal insect species gravitate to sources of light. June bugs usually are a half-inch to an inch and a quarter in length. They can fly and you will find them swarming around street lights at night.

The Pyrgotidae fly. (Picture courtesy of Johan Heyns)

Now, let’s do some “did you know.”

  • Exposure to light for longer intervals will kill June bugs. That is why you will find them dead in the morning under porch lights and windows.
  • Don’t leave a window open during May-June period. They will enter your house and die, leaving you with a mess to clean up. If they do enter, remember, they don’t bite and are harmless, just annoying.
  • There are over 200 different species of June bugs in the United States.
  • A natural enemy of the June bug is the pyrgota fly larva, which feeds on the beetles, eventually killing them.
  • The June bug larvae, called white grubs, are considered excellent fish bait, and are staples in the diets of native people in South America, Australia, and Asia.
  • Have a pet lizard or toad? The beetles make excellent, tasty food for them.

There is another popular June beetle that’s active during the day. It is the Green June Beetle, and are found in our region of the Northeast, extending from Maine to Georgia and as far west as Kansas. These are not very good for the garden either. The head, legs and under-body are shiny green, while its wings are dull metallic green, with slight gold contrast to its sides.

So day and night, during early summer, these beetles can be destructive to vegetation, and just plain annoying to humans.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

In what year did the Houston Texans join the National Football League?

Answer can be found here.

 

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Despite 50-year decline in numbers, there seems to be a lot more blue jays

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

While taking a break from my chores at camp over the weekend, I tried to figure out what my column was going to be about this week. Thoughts were coming hard until I noticed all around me were blue jays galore.

Other than knowing they are scavengers, noisy and the mascot of a professional baseball team in Toronto, I had to learn more about them.

The very recognizeable blue jay.

Blue jays, Cyanocitta cristata, are found in all kinds of forests but especially near oak trees. They are mostly found on the edges of forests as opposed to deep forest. They are common in both urban and suburban areas, especially where bird feeders are found.

Blue jays prefer tray feeders or hopper feeders on a post rather than a hanging feeder. We have found at camp that many of the jays we see are feeding on the ground under the hanging feeders. They prefer peanuts, sunflower seeds, and suet.

They also glean insects and take nuts and seeds in trees, shrubs and on the ground. Blue jays sometimes raid nests for eggs and nestlings, and sometimes pick up dead of dying adult birds. Stomach contents over the year are about 22 percent insect. Acorns, nuts, fruits, and grains made up almost the entire remainder. They hold food items in their feet while pecking them open. They also store food in caches to eat later.

Blue jays build their nests in the crotch or thick outer branches of a deciduous or coniferous tree, usually 10 – 25 feet above the ground. Male and female both gather materials and build the nest, but on average, the male does more gathering and female more building. Twigs used in outer part of the nest are usually taken from live trees, and the birds often struggle to break them off. The birds may fly great distances to obtain rootlets from recently dug ditches, fresh graves in cemeteries, and newly-fallen trees. Blue jays may abandon their nests after detecting a predators nearby.

The highly-recognizeable bird is known for its intelligence and complex social systems, and have tight family bonds. They often mate for life, remaining with their social mate throughout the year. Only the female incubates the eggs. The male provides all her food during incubation.

For the first 8 – 12 days after the nestlings hatch, the female broods them and the male provides food for his mate and nestlings. Females will share food gathering after that time. There is apparently a lot of individual variation in how quickly the young become independent. Blue jays communicate with each other by sound and by “body language,” using their crests. The lower the crest, the lower their level of aggression, and when they become more aggressive, the crest is high. When the blue jay squawks, the crest is virtually always held up.

Blue jays have a wide variety of vocalization, with an immense “vocabulary.” They are also excellent mimics. They have been known to mimic red-tailed hawks among other species of birds.

Some people don’t like blue jays because of their aggressive ways, but there are birds that are much more aggressive, like woodpeckers, grackles, mourning doves, mockingbirds and cardinals, throwing in gray squirrels in the mix. These species will actually keep blue jays away from feeders. So, to compensate for that, blue jays will imitate hawks when approaching a feeder to ward off the other, more aggressive birds, causing them to scatter. However, they usually return once they realize its a blue jay, and not a hawk.

Blue jay populations decreased by about 28 percent between 1966 and 2015, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Also, Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of about 13 million birds, with 87 percent of them present in the U.S., and 13 percent in Canada. The bird is not listed on the 2016 State of North America’s Birds Watch List. They are not endangered.

The most frequent cause of death associated with humans come from attacks by dogs and cats.

There may have been a sizable decrease in their population over the last 50 years, but we’ve seen an increase in their presence at camp, and at home.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Which baseball team won the first World Series championship in 1903?

Answers can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: You’ve heard it before, and you’re about to hear it again

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

There is nothing like beating a subject to death. But, in this case, it’s worth every word.

You have to be living in a cave not to know that deer ticks are at an all time high. They are everywhere. Friends and family have told me stories about their encounters with the insect, and they all have one thing in common. They have all had multiple numbers on them at one time.

Also, as you know, deer ticks are hazardous to your health, primarily because they are the carriers of the dreaded Lyme Disease. In the last decade alone, the population of ticks of all kinds has ballooned in the United States. The number of ticks that carry Lyme disease has been on the rise in the mid-Atlantic states, and has skyrocketed throughout the Northeast. It has gained a reputation as a serious health problem in many areas. They can cause a life time of misery.

Only adult female ticks and nymphs can transmit infections through their bite. Male ticks attach, but they don’t feed or become engorged. Adult females have red and brown bodies and are larger than males. Nymphs are actively feeding between early April and early August.

Although not all deer ticks are infected with Lyme disease, you never really know. Only ticks that have fed on infected mammals are infected. About half of deer ticks are infected (usually white-footed mice can be other culprits).

Deer ticks live two to three years, and in that time usually enjoy three blood meals. In the spring and summer of its second year, a nymph will take its second meal. They insert their mouth parts into the skin much like a corkscrew, which ensures them a nice tight grasp. They often take up to five days to complete their meal.

This fact is key to reducing panic when discovering a tick. An infected tick must be attached to its host for at least 24 hours, and up to 48 hours to transmit the disease. It’s the very reason for checking your body right away after any possible exposure to a tick-infested environment.

Deer ticks crawl. They usually grab onto people or animals that brush up against plants near ground level, and then they crawl upwards to find a quiet place for their blood meal. Although many sources will state that ticks don’t land on you from an overhanging tree branch, many people have insisted it has happened to them.

Deer tick, left, and dog tick

Ticks live in wooded, brushy areas that provide food and cover for mice, deer and other mammals. The ideal tick environment is humid. Your exposure will be greatest along trails in the woods and fringe areas between woods and the border, where they will wait patiently on the tips of vegetation for an unsuspecting host to walk by.

Life is too short to avoid the outdoors during our short spring, summer and fall. In Maine, that is about half the year. There is no need to be brave, just be smart: cover your body; wear repellant; check yourself for ticks, if you find a tick, remove it immediately; shower soon after being outdoors; throw clothing in the dryer, that will kill any ticks present; and finally, if you are concerned, don’t hesitate to contact your doctor.

The best way to remove a tick is to use fine-point tweezers and grab the tick as close to the skin surface as possible. Pull backwards gently but firmly, using an even, steady pressure. Do your best not to jerk or twist. Don’t squeeze, crush or puncture the tick’s body, the fluids inside may contain infection-causing organisms. After removing the tick, wash the skin and your hands thoroughly with hot soap and water. If any mouth part of the tick remain in the skin, leave them alone. They will be expelled on their own. It could take weeks. Trying to remove them will only cause you unnecessary pain.

For the deer tick, Ixodes scapularis, deer are the preferred host of the deer tick, but they can also be found on small rodents. After the female is engorged, the tick drops off and overwinters in the leaf litter of the forest floor. The following spring, she will lay several hundred to a few thousand eggs in clusters. They are very hardy creatures. They will be active even after a moderate to severe frost, as daytime temperatures can warm them enough to keep them actively searching for a host. In the spring, they are one of the first invertebrates to become active.

It may be monotonous to keep hearing about the health hazards of being infected by a deer tick, but it’s one that needs to be repeated.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

The 1927 New York Yankees batting order, including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, was known by what nickname?

Answer found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Move to camp arrives to a welcoming committee

 

ruby-throated hummingbird

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

On Friday, May 11, my wife and I officially moved to camp for the summer. It’s always great to leave the city and live in the serenity by the lake for about five months.

And, on Sunday, we were greeted by my wife’s favorite bird, the ruby-throated hummingbird. It was nice to see the little critters back with us.

As usual, the rule of thumb for their return from the south is around the middle of May.

The ruby-throated hummingbird, Archilochus comumbris, the only hummingbird species found in Maine, winters between southern Mexico and northern Panama. During their migration south in the fall, usually mid-September, older male and female birds are better prepared for long-distance flight than first-year birds by having higher body weights and larger fuel loads.

Adults of the species are not social, other than courtship, which lasts a few minutes, they lead solitary lives. They do not migrate in flocks, so individual birds may spend the winter anywhere in this range where the habitat is to their liking. They probably go to the same place every winter.

While we’re talking about their migration, let’s put a myth to bed. The myth states that hummingbirds hitch a ride on the backs of geese as they migrate south. The legend is entertaining, but false. Hummingbirds and Canada geese migrate at different times and to different locations. It is also a fact that not all hummingbirds migrate south for the winter.

Following the mating, the male departs and the female provides all parental care.

When it’s time to return north to their breeding grounds during the spring migration, portions of the population fly from the Yucatan Peninsula, in Mexico, across the Gulf of Mexico, first arriving in Florida and Louisiana. That in itself is an amazing feat. How can such a small creature travel the 500 miles nonstop over water? It would seem the caloric energy would far exceed the hummingbird’s body weight of 0.11 ounces. Research has discovered the tiny birds can double their fat mass in preparation for their gulf crossing, then expend the entire calorie reserve from fat during the 20-hour crossing when food and water are unavailable.

During the courtship displays, they make ticking sounds with their wings, and shuttle side-to-side in flight. I once witnessed a male hummingbird during courtship by flying, rather rapidly, in a U-shaped pattern, beginning at the top of the inverted arch, flying downward, circling back up to the same height as it began, and back again, several times. It was pretty impressive to watch.

Hummingbirds have one of the highest metabolic rates of any animal. During flight, their oxygen consumption per gram of muscle tissue is approximately 10 times higher than that seen in elite human athletes.

They feed frequently during the day. When temperatures drop, especially on cold nights, they may conserve energy by entering hypothermic torpor (the process of lowering their body temperature to conserve energy).

During their hovering at feeders, the hummingbird’s wings beat up to 80 times per second. They are also the only bird that can fly backwards. Once, while my wife was sitting on the deck near a potted geranium plant, a hummingbird came to feed. It got so close she could actually feel the cold breeze coming off the bird’s fluttering wings.

Hummingbirds almost never stop. Although I have seen them sit on a perch at the feeders, they spend nearly all of their time in the air. Their legs are so small and weak, they typically can’t walk at all. But in the air, they are masters. They can, however, shuffle to move along a branch, and can scratch its head and neck with its feet.

Speaking of feeding, when is a good time to put out the feeders in the spring? In the northeastern United States, they should be ready by the end of March. Don’t wait until you see your first hummingbird, that may be well after the first ones arrive.

As unlikely as it seems, hummingbirds have predators. A variety of animals prey on hummingbirds given the opportunity. Due to their small size, they are vulnerable. However, only very swift predators can capture them, and a free-flying hummingbird is too nimble for most predators. Chief predators include sharp-shinned hawks, praying mantises, green frogs and bull frogs. Praying mantises especially have been seen to ambush adult hummingbirds at feeders on more than one occasion. Blue jays are common visitors at nests, as well as bats, squirrels and chipmunks.

The oldest known ruby-throated hummingbird to be banded was a little over nine years old. Almost all hummingbirds over seven years old are females, with males rarely surviving past five years of age. The reason probably being that males may lose weight during the breeding season due to the high energy demand of defending a territory. Also, the high demands of the migration can take its toll.

The “hummers” are back, and that definitely means summer is not far away.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

“Game, set, match,” is an expression used to indicate a competitor has won the game in which sport?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Interesting weekend of various animals’ activities

spotted salamander

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

It was an interesting weekend for me regarding unusual animal activities. The first one was actually, unknowingly, transporting a field mouse from our camp to our house. She had hidden herself in some clothes that were taken home to be laundered, jumped out of the bag and ran under the refrigerator. She is still at large, but left behind five recently-born babies. The hunt continues.

What we didn’t realize, at the time, was that the mouse had made its nest in the bag of clothes that was left in camp over the winter. Lesson learned. Won’t do that again.

The second, while preparing Sunday dinner, I actually witnessed a squirrel fall out of a tree. Never seen that before. It fell onto a wood pile, and lay motionless for a couple of minutes. I thought it was dead, but apparently was only stunned. It eventually regained its wits, shook off the dizziness, and proceeded along its way. A little bizarre to say the least. Have you ever seen a squirrel fall from a tree?

The most interesting one, though, happened at camp on Sunday. Our neighbor, while raking winter remnants of leaves and twigs, discovered a weird-looking lizard. She brought it to me, and we inspected it. It lay quietly in her hand as she slowly and gently petted it. We tried to discern what it was. She found it among some rocks that had been concealed with leaves.

It was about seven inches long, and black with bright yellow spots. It resembled a salamander – you know the little red ones we see running around under wet rocks or boards. Only, compared to those salamanders, this one look­ed like Godzilla.

Well, research revealed it to be a spotted salamander, a mole salamander that is common in the eastern United States and Canada.

For about 95 percent of the year, these shy creatures bury themselves under logs, leaves and rocks, or in burrows and tunnels made by other animals. They remain dormant during the day, emerging at night to feast on insects and other invertebrates. They spend most of their time underground. They rarely come above ground, except after a rain or for foraging and breeding. During the winter, they hibernate underground, and are not seen again until breeding season in early March to May.

Vernal pools are very important to the spotted salamander. They may visit them only for a few days each year, but they are crucial in the amphibian’s life cycle.

spotted salamander egg masses

Although common, vernal pools are not well understood. It’s easy to pass by one of those and not even know it’s there. Vernal pools are a temporary, isolated pool of water. They typically fill in between the winter and spring and dry up by late summer. It is impossible for fish to survive in them, making the vernal pool ideal for the amphibians’ reproduction. Eggs and larvae of the amphibian are a very tasty treat for hungry fish.

Usually between mid-March and the end of April they migrate en masse to their local vernal pool. Once there, they participate in a nuptial dance so vigorous that the water around them may appear to boil. That is when mating occurs. A few days later, females will lay upwards of 100 eggs. The adults then depart to their forest hideouts, leaving the young to fend for themselves.

Within the northeastern United States, several states have already listed the spotted salamander as a species of special concern. This is mostly because many vernal pools, especially in urban areas, are being destroyed by development. This puts the spotted salamander in peril.

The spotted salamander is approximately 6 – 10 inches long. They are stout, with a wide snout. The main color is black with two uneven rows of yellow spots running from the top of the head to the tip of the tail. The spots closest to the top of the head are more orange, and change to more yellow by the end of the tail.

The diet of the adult spotted salamander includes crickets, worms, insects, spiders, slugs, centipedes, and millipedes.

The little guy my neighbor disturbed seemed to be a little groggy. Maybe it’s because he was roused from his day time siesta. She put it back where she found it, hopefully, no worse for the wear.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

In 2009, the Red Sox recorded a MLB first when they had four Japanese-born players on their roster. How many can you name?

Answer can be found here.

 

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Porcupines among us; are they a nuisance or necessary?

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

Porcupines. Nuisance, or ecological necessity?

It all depends with whom you talk. I know some people who are overrun by the animals to the point where they are raiding the gardens, and having to deal with their dogs being injured by porcupine quills due mostly to their own curiosity. While others find a use for them.

Simply put, porcupines are rodents. That puts them in the same class, and are actually related, with raccoons, rats and beavers. They are indigenous to the Americas, Southern Asia, Europe and Africa. They are the third largest of the rodents, behind the capybara and beaver. They can grow in size to be 25 – 36 inches long with an 8 to 10-inch tail, and weigh from 12 – 35 pounds.

The common porcupine, Erethizon dorsatum, is an herbivore, so look out gardens. It eats leaves, herbs, twigs and green plants. They may eat bark in the winter, evidence of which I have seen in many places. The North American porcupine often climbs trees to find food. Like the raccoon, they are mostly nocturnal, but will sometimes forage for food in the day.

Because of the scarcity of predators, porcupines are plentiful and are not endangered.

The name porcupine comes from Middle French porc espin (spined pig). A regional American name for the animal is quill pig.

The porcupines’ quills, or spines, take on various forms, depending on the species, but all are modified hairs coated with thick plates of keratin, and they are embedded in the skin.

Quills are released by contact with them, or they may drop out when the porcupine shakes its body. The porcupine does not throw quills, but the flailing muscular tail and powerful body may help impel quills deeply into attackers. The quills’ barbed ends expand with moisture and continue to work deeper into flesh. Porcupine quills have mildly antibiotic properties and thus are not infectious. Quills, however, may cause death in animals if they puncture a vital organ or if a muzzle full of quills leads to starvation.

Once embedded, the hollow quills swell, burn and work their way into the flesh every time a victim’s muscles contract, digging a millimeter deeper each hour. Eventually, they emerge through the skin again, some distance from the entry point though sometimes they spear right through the body.

I have had first hand knowledge of how painful a porcupine quill can be. Many years ago, my children had chores to do after they got home from school. One of them was to make sure they picked up after themselves following their after-school snack. Upon returning home from work, I found a folded paper towel on the counter. I grabbed it to crush it into a ball to throw away when this sharp pain shot through my hand. When I unwrapped the towel, I found a porcupine quill inside, but now imbedded in my hand. It turned out my daughter had brought it home from school to show it to me. She obtained the quill from a “show and tell” session at school.

Because they have few effective predators, porcupines are relatively long-lived. The average life span of the porcupine is 7 – 8 years, however, they have lived up to 15 years in the wild, and 18 years in captivity. A predator needs to learn only once to leave a porcupine alone. Bobcats, great-horned owls, mountain lions, coyotes and wolves, when extremely hungry and unable to catch anything else, may give it a try anyway. The fisher, however, is a skilled porcupine killer. It uses its speed and agility to snake around a porcupine’s rear guard defense and viciously bite its face until it dies.

porcupine quill bracelet

At one time, however, especially when game was scarce, the porcupine was hunted for its meat and considered a delicacy. A practice that continues in Kenya today. Because they are slow, and can remain in the same tree for days at a time, they are about the only animal that can be killed simply with a large rock. Native people of the North Woods also wove elaborate dyed quillwork decorations into clothing, moccasins, belts, mats, necklaces, bracelets and bags. Because the work was so time-consuming and highly valued, quill embroderies were used as a medium of exchange before the coming of Europeans.

When not in trees or feeding, porcupines prefer the protection of a den, which can be found in rock crevices, caves, hollow logs, abandoned mines and even under houses and barns.

Porcupines are highly attracted to salt. They may chew on any tool handle that has salt left from human sweat. They have even been known to chew on outhouse toilet seats. Road rock salt is very tempting to them, and puddles of water from the snow-melt in the spring are especially luring and could account for their high road-kill mortality rate. They have even been seen gnawing on automobile tires that have been exposed to rock salt.

In Maine, porcupines join a short list of other animals that are open to hunting all year, including coyotes, woodchucks and red squirrels.

So, are porcupines a nuisance, or do they have a role in the grand scheme of things, ecologically?

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Who is the only player in New York Yankees history to achieve over 3,000 hits in his career?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Brown-tail moth, immigrant from Europe, invasive to Maine coast

 

brown-tail moth

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

A couple of weeks ago, during a discussion with associates, the subject of the brown-tail moth came up. I figured it was just another of the mundane moths we see during the summer. However, that was not the case. This particular moth, Euproctis chrysorrhoea, is one that we probably could do without.

This moth, once native only to Europe, was accidentally brought to Massachusetts in 1897 on nursery stock, and soon spread to the rest of New England, Today, it is found only on Cape Cod and along the coast of Maine, where it is considered an invasive species.

The brown-tail moth is armed with defensive barbed hairs throughout its life span but especially during the caterpillar stage. These hairs break off, and for many people exposed, are susceptible to skin rashes, headaches, and even difficulty breathing. This caterpillar also has a huge host range of plants on which they feed.

The brown-tail moth caterpillar has tiny poisonous hairs that cause rashes similar to poison ivy on sensitive individuals. Rashes may develop when people come in direct contact with the caterpillar or indirectly from airborne hairs. The hairs become airborne by either being dislodged from living or dead caterpillars, or they come from cast skins when the caterpillar molts. Respiratory distress from inhaling the hairs can be serious.

Caterpillars are active from April to late June. Hairs remain toxic throughout the summer but get washed into the soil and are less of problem over time.

Brown-tail caterpillar

The moths, which are attracted to light and fly at night, and active in July and August, have a wingspan of about 1.5 inches. The wings and midsection are solid white on both the male and female. The abdomen has brown on it, and the brown coloration extends along most of the upper surface of the abdomen in the male, whereas the top of the abdomen is white on the female, but the tuft of brown hairs are much larger.

The factors underlying brown-tail moth population dynamics are little understood and have been only thoroughly investigated by few researchers.

According to the Coastal Pharmacy & Wellness staff, the brown-tail moth has been getting plenty of attention over the past few years. This is because the numbers have spiked to levels that haven’t been seen in quite some time. Last year was a banner year and this year’s population is predicted to be even higher.

Throughout much of its life cycle, the moth sheds its toxic hairs. Eggs are laid in August-September, when a female can lay up to 400 eggs. They build their winter nest in the fall and remain there from September to June. In June and July, the larvae spin cocoons in which to pupate. The cocoons are full of toxic hairs. The moth emerges in July and August, mate and lay eggs to begin a new cycle. During this period, more hairs are shed to cover the egg mass.

The brown-tail moth’s excessive desire to eat, and its habit of feeding on many different kinds of foods, together with its tendency to reach outbreak densities, makes this species a major pest of hardwood forests and may also attack fruit and ornamental trees.

According to the Coastal Pharmacy and Wellness staff, moth spray or lotion, to combat the rash, are available by prescription from your doctor. There is no antidote for the toxins, so treatment is focused on relieving symptoms and eliminating further exposure. “Since many reactions occur over weekends, seeing a doctor may not be immediately possible. In these cases, you may find relief by soaking in a warm bath and applying calamine lotion or antihistamine cream.”

Pursuant to Maine Statute Title 22§1444 the Chief Operating Officer of the Maine Center for Disease Control can declare an infestation of brown-tail moths as a public health nuisance. The declaration may be made on the COO’s initiative or upon petition by municipal officers.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

With his win in game five of the 2013 World Series, Jon Lester of the Boston Red Sox became only the second Red Sox left-handed pitcher to win three World Series games. Who was the first?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Pink flamingos, yes; but pink pigeons?

pink pigeon

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

I came across something quite interesting last week while watching the Animal Planet network. It was a story about Pink Pigeons. Now, you have your general, run-of-the-mill rock doves, or common pigeons, that we all know all too well, marking up our landscape and just making a plain nuisance of themselves in parks, parking lots, and at backyard feeders. But these guys, the pink pigeons, were a little different.

Pink pigeons, not classified as a true pigeon, are endemic to Mauritius, an island nation in the Indian Ocean about 1,200 miles off the southeast coast of the African continent.

The pink pigeon was on the brink of extinction in 1991 when only 10 individual birds remained, but its numbers have increased recently due to the efforts of the Durrell Wildlife Conservations Trust since 1977. While the population, estimated at 450 birds in 2011, is still of concern, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) downlisted the species from critically endangered to endangered in 2000. A healthy captive population is also kept as “backup.”

Reclassified with recent DNA tests, the pink pigeon is more closely related to the Madagascar turtle dove, and has been suggested that it takes its place with a genus mostly contained as turtle doves.

An adult pink pigeon is about 14 – 15 inches in length from its beak to tail. They have pale pinkish-gray plumage on their head, shoulders and underside, along with pink feet. The beak is a drak pink color with a white tip.They have dark brown wings, and a broad, rust-colored tail. Their eyes are dark brown surrounded by an eye-ring of red skin.

A related subspecies, the Reunion pink pigeon, that resided on the neighboring Reunion Island, became extinct around 1700. As of 2016, there are five locations where wild populations of the pink pigeon can be found. Four of these locations belong to Black River Gorges National Park and the fifth to the Isle aux Aigrettes.

The species is not migratory.

They prefer upland evergreen forests, although they can also be found in coastal forests as long as the vegetation is native and not dominated by introduced species such as Chinese Guava or the privet. Destruction of such primal forests has been a major cause for its decline in numbers.

There are more males than females in the population due to a greater life expectancy of the male – about five years more. One reason for the difference is that producing eggs is extremely taxing on the female. Female birds are nearly constantly producing eggs – similar to the domesticated chickens. This can end up totaling to a large metabolic tax on the female’s survival.

Habitat degradation, introduced predators and wildlife disease are the major ongoing threats to the pink pigeon’s survival. Only two percent of the native forest remains on Mauritius. Common predators include the crab-eating macaque, the small Asian mongoose, rats and feral cats. Invasive plants such as the Chinese guava and privet dominate native forest plants, preventing their growth.

Feeding stations that provide supplementary feed may accelerate the spread of disease between individuals, since they congregatge at greater than normal numbers at stations. An ongoing concern faced by the pink pigeons, as by many other endangered species that exist in small remnant populations, is inbreeding depression.

Several foundations and organizations have contributed to conservation efforts. In addition to direct conservation efforts such as captive breeding, genetic research, and supplementary feeding efforts, more general research on the species may aid in the formation of more applicable conservation actions.

It’s an interesting species of bird that exists in only a small area of the world, far away from central Maine. But it’s still interesting to learn about this wildlife that I had not heard of a week ago.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Which MLB pitcher owns the distinction of having won the most games, and having lost the most games during his career?

Answer can be found here.