SCORES & OUTDOORS: Australia’s unique wildlife threatened by spreading wildfires; koalas take big hit

A koala foraging.

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

The bush fires in Australia have been in the news lately, and the affects of those blazes on the wildlife there have been devastating.

The blazes, which have been burning across Australia for months, have razed homes and wiped out entire towns. Across Australia, nearly 18 million acres of land have been burned – much of it bushland, forests and national parks, home to the country’s unique wildlife.

Nearly half a billion animals have been impacted by the fires in New South Wales (NSW) alone, with millions potentially dead, according to ecologists at the University of Sydney. That figure includes birds, reptiles, and mammals. The total number of animals affected nationwide could be as high as a billion, according to Christopher Dickman, the University of Sydney ecologist who led the report.

Fires are nothing new in Australia, but they have been growing more intense and becoming more destructive in recent years, a problem that has been exacerbated by climate change. And animals have been the most affected.

Some animals, like koalas and kangaroos, are primarily killed directly by the fires – for instance, by being incinerated in flames or choking on smoke. Nearly a third of all koalas in NSW have died and about a third of their habitat has been destroyed, federal environment minister Sussan Ley said in December.

Nearly a third of all koalas in NSW have died and about a third of their habitat has been destroyed, federal environment minister Sussan Ley said in December.

Photos from the ground show koalas with singed fur, raw patches of burned flesh, and blistered paws. Even if they are rescued and treated, sometimes their injuries are simply too extensive to survive.

Let’s take a look at the koala.

The word koala comes from the Dharug “gula,” meaning no water. It was at one time thought, since the animals were not observed to come down from trees often, that they were able to survive without drinking. The leaves of the eucalyptus tree have a high water content, so the koala does not need to drink often. But the notion that they do not need to drink water at all was shown to be a myth. Because of the koala’s supposed resemblance to a bear, it was often misnamed the koala bear, particularly by early settlers. It still is to this day, with many identifying the animal as a “koala bear.”

The koala is a stocky animal with a large head and non-existent tail. It has a body length of 24–33 inches and weighs 9–33 lbs., making it among the largest arboreal marsupials. Koalas from Victoria are twice as heavy as those from Queensland. The species is sexually dimorphic (the occurrence of two types of individuals in the same species, distinct in coloring and size), with males 50 percent larger than females. Males are further distinguished from females by their more curved noses and the presence of chest glands, which are visible as hairless patches.

A koala resting.

The koala has one of the smallest brains in proportion to body weight of any mammal, only 0.68 oz. Because of its small brain, the koala has a limited ability to perform complex, unfamiliar behaviors. For example, when presented with plucked leaves on a flat surface, the animal cannot adapt to the change in its normal feeding routine and will not eat the leaves. The koala’s olfactory senses are normal, and it is known to sniff the oils of individual branchlets to assess their edibility. Its round ears provide it with good hearing. A koala’s vision is not well developed, and its relatively small eyes are unusual among marsupials in that the pupils have vertical slits.

The koala has several adaptations for its eucalypt diet, which is of low nutritional value, of high toxicity, and high in dietary fiber. Koalas may also store food in their cheek pouches before it is ready to be chewed.

Koalas are herbivorous, and while most of their diet consists of eucalypt leaves, they can be found in other kinds of trees. They tend to choose species that have a high protein content and low proportions of fiber.

Koalas may live from 13 to 18 years in the wild. While female koalas usually live this long, males may die sooner because of their more hazardous lives. Koalas usually survive falls from trees and immediately climb back up, but injuries and deaths from falls do occur, particularly in inexperienced young and fighting males. At around six years of age, the koala’s chewing teeth begin to wear down and their chewing efficiency decreases. Eventually, the cusps disappear completely and the animal will die of starvation.

Koalas have few predators, dingos and large pythons may prey on them; birds of prey (such as powerful owls and wedge-tailed eagles) are threats to young. Koalas are generally not subject to external parasites, other than ticks in coastal areas.

The animals are vulnerable to bushfires due to their slow movements and the flammability of eucalyptus trees. The koala instinctively seeks refuge in the higher branches, where it is vulnerable to intense heat and flames. Bushfires also fragment the animal’s habitat, which restricts their movement and leads to population decline and loss of genetic diversity. Dehydration and overheating can also prove fatal. Consequently, the koala is vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Models of climate change in Australia predict warmer and drier climates, suggesting that the koala’s range will shrink in the east and south to more mesic habitats.

According to Australian health minister Sussan Ley, the 2019-20 Australian bushfire season, and especially fires in NSW, resulted in the death of up to 8,400 koalas (30 percent of the local population) on New South Wales’s mid-north coast.

The first written reference of the koala was recorded by John Price, servant of John Hunter, the Governor of New South Wales. Price encountered the “cullawine” on January 26, 1798, during an expedition to the Blue Mountains, although his account was not published until nearly a century later in Historical Records of Australia. In 1802, French-born explorer Francis Louis Barrallier encountered the animal when his two Aboriginal guides were returning from a hunt,

Koalas were hunted for food by Aboriginals. According to the customs of some tribes, it was considered taboo to skin the animal, while other tribes thought the animal’s head had a special status, and saved them for burial.

The koala was heavily hunted by European settlers in the early 20th century, largely for its thick, soft fur. More than two million pelts are estimated to have left Australia by 1924. Pelts were in demand for use in rugs, coat linings, muffs, and as trimming on women’s garments. Extensive cullings occurred in Queensland in 1915, 1917, and again in 1919, when over one million koalas were killed with guns, poisons, and nooses. The public outcry over these cullings was probably the first wide-scale environmental issue that rallied Australians.

Australia has the highest rate of species loss of any area in the world, and researchers fear that rate could increase as the fire disaster continues.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Of the four remaining teams in the NFL playoffs, only Tennessee has never won a Super Bowl. They appeared in Super Bowl XXXIV in January 2000. To which team did they lose?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Just because raccoons are out during day, doesn’t mean they’re rabid; heed caution

Left photo, a rabid raccoon, and right, a raccoon foraging through human trash. (internet photos)

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

On our way home to Waterville from Augusta last Sunday, my wife and I observed a raccoon walking along the roadside in Winslow. My first thought: “A raccoon out during the day is not normal, and could mean it is rabid.”

While it is true that a rabid raccoon will exhibit a variety of unusual behaviors, activity during daytime is most definitely not a guaranteed indicator of rabies. You see, although raccoons are primarily noctural, they do often get some stuff done during the day. It’s not that unusual for a raccoon to be active in the middle of the day. We just don’t see it often. They often go off in search of food or drink, especially a nursing female raccoon who has babies to take care of, and who have extra nutritional requirements.

Raccoons, along with foxes, skunks and bats are considered a primary carrier of the rabies virus in the United States. While any warm-blooded animal can carry rabies, these are the ones that are called “rabies vector species.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only one human has ever died from the raccoon strain of rabies. That is because a rabid raccoon is usually dead within 1-3 days of becoming infected, and even if you’re bitten by a rabid raccoon, effective post-exposure treatment is available and recommended.

How can you tell if a raccoon has rabies? Rabid raccoons are very sick, mostly they are lethargic. Their walk may be erratic, or their legs paralyzed. They may be walking in circles or falling over, discharging from the eyes or mouth, or lurching in an unnatural fashion. In short, they just plain look sick. If you see a raccoon outside when it’s light out, and it looks agile, alert, is running or foraging in a smooth and coordinated manner, then you can be almost certain that it doesn’t have rabies. This doesn’t mean you should approach it and offer it a lick of your ice cream cone, but you most likely have nothing to worry about.

But the best advice is that should you see a raccoon, no matter what time of day, leave it alone. Never try to feed it or approach it. A raccoon out during the day may be foraging for food. For example, especially in urban locations, if you always put your trash out at 1 p.m. in the afternoon, raccoons will learn that. So, if you see one that is lingering in your yard, seems overly friendly, is acting unstable, etc., leave it alone, and contact your police or animal control officer.

  • A couple of myths about raccoons is that if a raccoon is seen during the daylight hours, it is rabid. Well, we’ve already discussed that, and the answer is “no.”
  • Raccoons hibernate during the winter: No, they go through a period of decreased activity in the winter.
  • All raccoons are carriers of rabies: No, the majority of them do not have rabies but those that do, will die within days of being infected.
  • Raccoons eat cats: No, they don’t – usually. Raccoons are quite capable of killing cats but normally don’t attack cats unless they are threatened or rabid.
  • Raccoons always wash their food: No, it is more akin to their “feeling” their food.
  • Raccoons make good pets: No, raccoons do not make good pets. Even though it is legal to keep wild animals in Maine including raccoons – with a permit – it’s not advisable to have a raccoon as a pet. Over time, as it grows older, it could become too wild to handle.

Raccoons in general can be a nuisance, but caution should always be used around them. I once had one living under my garage. I set a Hav-a-Hart trap baited with cat food, and captured it within an hour and a half. But the tricky part was moving it to another location in the country. Frightened, it because very aggressive while in the cage, and I had to use a stick, with gloves on, in order to load it in the back of my truck. Its claws are as sharp as razors and could have done some major damage to my hands when I tried to grab the handle. The release was successful, and the raccoon hurriedly waddled away. I don’t recommend this to just anyone.

A very safe rule of thumb, quite simply, is if you see a raccoon, leave it alone, or contact a professional if you suspect that it is rabid.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Of the eight remaining teams in the NFL playoffs, Minnesota, San Francisco, Tennessee, Baltimore, Houston, Kansas City, Seattle and Green Bay, which team was the most recent Super Bowl winner?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS – Opossum in my space: now it’s become personal

The Virginia opossum

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

It has now become personal.

Over the past 25 years, or so, I have written two columns on the opossum. Mainly because one had been sighted in Winslow, and I have seen a few dead alongside of the highway as a result of collisions with automobiles.

My first encounter with an opossum was in 1967 while living on Long Island, in New York. There was a stockade fence between the property where I was living and the neighbor, and I found it laying, “playing ‘possum,” along the fence.

I never really gave them much thought.

Until last week, when my neighbor from across the street informed me that on two occasions, in the evening. she had seen two, what seemed to be juvenile, opossum coming in and out of the small depression on the front walkway under the steps. A quick investigation revealed nothing.

Since then, I have not seen footprints in the snow, nor have my surveillance cameras picked up any activity, although the cameras are not pointed toward the ground. It is, however, worth my scrutiny.

The opossum, Didelphis virginiana, is a marsupial endemic to the Americas. The largest order of marsupials in the Western Hemisphere, it comprises 103 or more species in 19 genera. Opossums originated in South America and entered North America in the Great American Interchange following the connection of the two continents. Their unspecialized biology, flexible diet, and reproductive habits make them successful colonizers and survivors in diverse locations and conditions.

In the United States and Canada, the only species found is the Virginia opossum, and it is generally referred to as a ‘possum.

The word “opossum” is borrowed from the Powhatan language and was first recorded between 1607 and 1611 by John Smith (as opassom) and William Strachey (as aposoum). Both men encountered the language at the British settlement of Jamestown, Virginia, which Smith helped to found and where Strachey later served as its first secretary. Strachey’s notes describe the opossum as a “beast in bigness of a pig and in taste alike,” while Smith recorded it “hath an head like a swine … tail like a rat … of the bigness of a cat.” The Powhatan word ultimately derives from a Proto-Algonquian word meaning “white dog or dog-like beast.”

Opossums are usually solitary and nomadic, staying in one area as long as food and water are easily available. Some families will group together in ready-made burrows or even under houses. Though they will temporarily occupy abandoned burrows, they do not dig or put much effort into building their own. As nocturnal animals, they favor dark, secure areas. These areas may be below ground or above.

An opossum “playing ‘possum.”

When threatened or harmed, they will “play possum,” mimicking the appearance and smell of a sick or dead animal. This physiological response is involuntary (like fainting), rather than a conscious act. In the case of baby opossums, however, the brain does not always react this way at the appropriate moment, and therefore they often fail to “play dead” when threatened.

When an opossum is “playing possum,” the animal’s lips are drawn back, the teeth are bared, saliva foams around the mouth, the eyes close or half-close, and a foul-smelling fluid is secreted from the anal glands. The stiff, curled body can be poked at, turned over, and even carried away without reaction. The animal will typically regain consciousness after a period of a few minutes to four hours, a process that begins with slight twitching of the ears.

Some species of opossums have prehensile tails, although dangling by the tail is more common among juveniles. An opossum may also use its tail as a brace and a fifth limb when climbing. The tail is occasionally used as a grip to carry bunches of leaves or bedding materials to the nest. A mother will sometimes carry her young upon her back, where they will cling tightly even when she is climbing or running.

Threatened opossums (especially males) will growl deeply, raising their pitch as the threat becomes more urgent. Males make a clicking “smack” noise out of the side of their mouths as they wander in search of a mate, and females will sometimes repeat the sound in return. When separated or distressed, baby opossums will make a sneezing noise to signal their mother. The mother in return makes the clicking sound and waits for the baby to find her. If threatened, the baby will open its mouth and quietly hiss until the threat is gone.

Opossums eat dead animals, insects, rodents and birds. They also feed on eggs, frogs, plants, fruits and grain. One source notes their need for high amounts of calcium. Thus possums eat the skeletal remains of rodents and roadkill animals. Opossums also eat dog food, cat food and human food waste. Opossums are also notable for their ability to clean themselves of ticks, which they then eat. Some estimates suggest they can eliminate up to 5,000 ticks in a season.

With this in mind, if I do have opossum living under my steps, it would be nice if I could capture them and relocate them at camp where they would be very useful in controlling the tick population. They’d also probably put on some weight.

The Virginia opossum lives in regions as far north as Canada and as far south as Central America. The Virginia opossum can often be found in wooded areas, though its habitat may vary widely. Opossums have been moving north in recent years.

The Virginia opossum was once widely hunted and consumed in the United States. Opossum farms have been operated in the United States in the past. Sweet potatoes were eaten together with the possum in America’s southern area. South Carolina cuisine includes opossum, and President Jimmy Carter hunted opossums in addition to other small game. Raccoon, opossum, partridges, prairie hen, and frogs were among the fare Mark Twain recorded as part of American cuisine.

Opossum oil (possum grease) is high in essential fatty acids and has been used as a chest rub and a carrier for arthritis remedies given as topical salves.

Opossum pelts have long been part of the fur trade.

So, I will be watching closely to see if I, indeed, have opossum living with me. With winter settling in, it’s not possible for me to move those stairs at this time.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

How many times has MLB pitcher Nolan Ryan’s jersey number been retired?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Would you really want a hippopotamus for Christmas?

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

Roland has taken an early vacation. This is reprinted from the December 24, 2015, issue.

When 10-year-old Gayla Peevey sang her 1953 Christmas song, I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas, did she really know what she was wishing for?

When the song was released nationally, it shot to the top of the charts and the Oklahoma City zoo acquired a baby hippo named Matilda. Legend has it the song was recorded as a fundraiser to bring the zoo a hippo. But, in a 2007 radio interview in Detroit, Peevey clarified that the song was not originally recorded as a fundraiser. Instead, a local promoter picked up on the popularity of the song and Peevey’s local roots, and launched a campaign to present her with an actual hippopotamus on Christmas.

The campaign succeeded, and she was presented with an actual hippopotamus, which she donated to the city zoo. It lived for nearly 50 years.

That brings us to the point. Had she decided to keep it, it wouldn’t have exactly been a house pet.

She would have had to put in a gigantic pool because the hippos spend most of their day wallowing in the water to keep their body temperature down and to keep their skin from drying out. With the exception of eating, most of hippopotamuses’ lives occur in the water.

Which brings us to another problem. Hippos leave the water at dusk and travel inland, sometimes up to five miles to graze on short grass, their main source of food. That probably wouldn’t have gone over too well with the neighbors and their lawns. Hippos can consume upwards of 150 pounds of grass each night.

The hippopotamus would probably have had problems living in an urban setting. They are among the largest living mammals, only elephants, rhinoceroses and some whales are heavier. They are also one of the most aggressive creatures in the world, and is often regarded as one of the most dangerous animals in Africa. So, you’d probably want to have it on a leash.

But, that probably wouldn’t do any good. An adult male can weigh between 3,300 and 4,000 pounds, with older males reaching 7,100 to 9,900 pounds, and would have no problems breaking a tether. Although a female hippo stops growing at around 25 years of age, the males appear to continue to grow throughout their lives.

And, if it got loose, don’t try to outrun it. Despite their bulk, hippopotamuses can run faster than a human on land. Estimates have put their running speed from 18 to 25 miles per hour. The upside? It can only maintain that speed for a few hundred yards. (Actually, that’s all it would need to run you down).

Peevey’s local public works department may have frowned on her having a hippo. Because of their size and their habit of taking the same paths to feed, hippos can have a significant impact on the land they walk across, both by keeping the land clear of vegetation and depressing the ground. But worse, over prolonged periods, hippos could divert the paths of streams and storm run off.

You’d also have to modify your will and make arrangements for its care. Their lifespan is typically 40 to 50 years, and could possibly outlive you. While some have been known to live longer. Bertie the Hippo, who resides at the Denver Zoo, is currently the oldest living hippo in captivity at age 58 years. Donna the Hippo, had been the oldest living hippo in captivity, but died on Aug. 3, 2012, at the Mesker Park Zoo in Evansville, Indiana. The oldest recorded lifespan was Tanga, who lived in Munich, Germany, and died in 1995 at the age of 61. But there are conflicting reports on Donna. Some say she was 61 years old, while others claim she was 62, which would have made her the longest living hippo in captivity in history. Until recently, Blackie, who resided at the Cleveland Zoo, was the longest living, at age 59, but died on January 13, 2014.

So, if you really want a hippopotamus for Christmas, you’d better do your homework.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Tom Brady has won six Super Bowls, (2001, 2003, 2004, 2014, 2016, 2018), name the two NFL quarterbacks to have won four.

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: The great squirrel apocalypse: where have they all gone?

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

Over the last several months, I have received many inquiries about what appears to be a shortage of gray squirrels in central Maine. Time and time again I have received emails asking what has happened.

Some reported not seeing any squirrels following a year – 2018 – when there was an over abundance. However, this year, you couldn’t prove it by me, based on literally being overrun by squirrels at our home in Waterville.

Let me try to explain.

In the fall of 2018, millions of squirrels met their demise on New England roadways. One year later, we look back at the why and the how.

In 2018, it was practically all we were hearing about in northern New England.

It was the Great Squirrel Apocalypse of 2018 — and, pardon the pun, it was nuts.

My personal experience that year was pretty much the same as elsewhere in Maine. It was the fall of 2018, September to be exact, and my wife and I drove from our camp in Vassalboro to the YMCA State Camp, in Winthrop, for the rehearsal of our granddaughter’s wedding. On the way, we counted 45 dead squirrels. Why so many road killed squirrels laying on the side or middle of the road?

Although a specific alignment of natural events led to this carnage, if you take a step back you’ll see it’s only part of a much larger story of boom and bust that continues to play out today.

What led to the great squirrel apocalypse?

Lots of different trees in the forest produce food (known as mast) for squirrels. Hard mast — such as acorns, hickory nuts, beechnuts, and walnuts — is the most important because it can keep for a long time. Squirrels and chipmunks are incredibly efficient at “squirreling away” caches of nuts in times of abundance to prepare for more meager seasons ahead.

The populations of these animals closely follow the abundance of hard mast. If trees produced roughly the same amount of nuts every year, the population of squirrels and chipmunks would rise to a level that could consume just about all of it, meaning there would be little left to actually produce new trees.

Every few years, all trees in a given species will produce an excess of flowers and pollen, and, if the conditions are right, they go on to produce an overwhelming amount of seeds and nuts — so many that the animals can’t even come close to eating all of it, and the mast can go on to germinate.

Acorns, beechnuts, and maple helicopters were all scarce in 2018. In 2016 and 2017, many species of trees in New England had rare back-to-back mast years. Because of that, squirrels and many other forest animals successfully raised multiple, large litters of offspring. Populations skyrocketed.

But 2018 was different.

Maple seeds never appeared in spring, beechnuts never appeared in summer, and acorns never appeared in fall. There were some hickory nuts, but not enough.

Panic set in.

All those hungry squirrels began ranging farther and farther in search of food. And if food was scarce on one side of the road, foraging on the other side is the obvious next step.

But when faced with an oncoming vehicle, squirrels tend to be terribly indecisive. Some may make it most of the way across before panicking and retreating, and while many are lucky enough to survive a car passing over them, many more do not.

I’m curious to know how many accidents were caused last year by well-intentioned drivers trying to dodge squirrels.

The failure of nearly every tree to produce mast in 2018 continues to have an impact. Hard mast feeds smaller animals, like squirrels and chipmunks, which in turn feed larger animals. Many of the latter populations were affected, although not all these animals saw their numbers decline.

The roadsides covered in carcasses were a feast for scavengers, which meant the great squirrel apocalypse was a boon to crows, ravens and turkey vultures. The abundance of ravens in particular seems most notable to me, as they’ve audibly changed my local landscape. We witnessed a marked increase in the number of crows at camp this past summer, accompanied by the ever-annoying call of the bird.

Birds of prey are another story, however. The high squirrel and chipmunk populations of the past few years led to a rise in their numbers. Barred owls – which, again, we saw and heard in greater numbers this past year – were everywhere this spring.

Larger animals with more diverse diets typically see longer lags before any changes in their population. The adults usually don’t starve when one key species declines, but the success in breeding and raising their young declines, which can slowly bring down the population.

Which brings us to today, and some good news.

All the major tree species in the New England forests had mast years in 2019. Maple helicopters were so heavy this past spring that the trees looked red instead of green well into spring. Acorns were falling heavily this past fall, and beech are ripening in their spiked husks.

The cycle continues, and nature will find balance.

Boom-and-bust population cycles are common in the natural world, and the crash of one species will often have ripple effects throughout the ecosystem.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

What was the New York Jets original nickname when they entered the American Football League in 1960? Where did the Tennessee Titans originate when they entered the AFL in 1960?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Cardinals brighten the landscape wherever they reside

Male, left, and female cardinal

Symbolize family life and good family relation

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

It seems this time of year people see more northern cardinals than any other time of the year. I know my wife and I see them year round at our home, visiting our feeders on a regular basis.

In picture postcards and greeting cards, you usually see them in a winter setting, especially around Christmas time. I have two such photos hanging on the walls of my TV room at home.

Northern Cardinals do not migrate, so they brighten the landscape wherever they reside. As a result of not migrating, they will live their entire lives within a mile or two of where they were born.

Few birds are so well loved as the Northern Cardinal. Even the female stands out with its red accents on brown. Also, unlike other bird species, the male and female cardinals both sing. Since the cardinal doesn’t appear to need much sleep, you may hear them singing in the morning well before sunrise.

Actually, besides gracing us with the beauty of its red feathers, those plumes serve a very important service to the cardinals. They keep the cardinal warm during the winter, helping the birds to survive the coldest of seasons. Seeing them in winter may help you to regain some of your personal strength, considering what that little bird is enduring during the winter. Cardinals symbolize family life and good family relations.

Some of our readers have reported that cardinals will come to the feeders at their windows, and peck against the glass. Well, males can be aggressive when defending their territory, and they frequently attack other males who intrude. This tendency sometimes leads cardinals to fly into glass windows, when they charge an “intruder” that is really their own reflection.

During the mating season, which begins in March, the males are so hot-blooded, that although they breed near birds of other species, they will never allow one of their own kind to set up housekeeping in their territory. A male cardinal can be seen frequently following another from bush to bush, emitting a note of anger, and diving aggressively towards the trespasser.

You can tell what its emotional state is by looking at its crest. If the bird is calm, the crest will lay flat, and if it is excited, the crest will lift tall and peaked.

Once he is successful in driving out the intruder, he will perch himself in his favorite tree and pour out an unmistakeable song of victory and exultation.

Cardinals are good parents. The male cardinal shares in the duties of parenthood with his mate, feeding and caring for the mother during and after incubation. He will protect his family until they are able to safely leave the nest. Young cardinals frequently follow their parents on the ground for several days after leaving the nest, and will remain until they are able to fend for themselves. During this period of caring for its mate, the male will feed the female seeds, and to the common observer, they appear to be kissing.

An interesting note about the male is that during this period, he has has the ability to change his colors to a duller shade of brown and will look more like the female. This is a camouflage to help fulfill his duties as a dedicated parent.

Cardinals will usually be parents to 3 – 4 eggs. The incubation period is 12-13 days, and the young will leave the nest about 9 – 11 days after hatching. The cardinal’s expected life span is up to 15 years.

The cardinal is a seed eater with a strong bill. He also likes fruits, small berries and insects. Towards autumn they frequently go to the tops of tall trees in search of grapes and berries. Cardinals tend to be as fond of pulpy fruits as they are of the seeds of corn and grasses. They also eat a variety of weed seeds and insects that can be harmful to humans.

The northern cardinal is abundant and widespread. It has expanded its range over the last century and the current numbers remain stable. The bird actually benefits from the growth of cities, with so many bird feeders, that they have been thriving and increasing in population since the 18th century.

It is the official bird of seven states, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia.

The cardinal got its name when colonists arrived in North America, because the male’s red crest reminded them of a Catholic cardinal’s biretta (headgear).

Is a cardinal hanging around your house? Don’t worry. According to folklore, a cardinal is a representative of a loved one who has passed. When you see one, it means they are visiting you. They usually show up when you most need them or miss them. They also make an appearance during times of celebration, as well as despair, to let you know they will always be with you.

Erecting bird feeders is the only way to get them to stay around. It is illegal to own a cardinal as a pet or to kill one. They are government-protected wild bird species and protected pursuant to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

So, observe them, love them, but leave them to their own world. Should you come across an injured cardinal, it is best to contact an avian rehabilitator in your area.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Which NFL team has relocated three times from its original city?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Tale of the turkeys, and the tough times they’ve been through

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is an upland ground bird native to North America. Although native to North America, the turkey probably got its name from the domesticated variety being imported to Britain in ships coming from the Levant via Spain. The British at the time therefore associated the wild turkey with the country Turkey and the name prevails.

Wild turkeys prefer hardwood and mixed conifer-hardwood forests with scattered openings such as pastures, fields, orchards and seasonal marshes. They seemingly can adapt to virtually any dense native plant community as long as coverage and openings are widely available.

Despite their weight, wild turkeys, unlike their domesticated counterparts, are agile, fast fliers. In ideal habitat of open woodland or wooded grasslands, they may fly beneath the canopy top and find perches. They usually fly close to the ground for no more than a quarter mile.

Wild turkeys have very good eyesight, but their vision is poor at night. They will not see a predator until it is too late. At twilight most turkeys will head for the trees and roost well off the ground; it is safer to sleep here in numbers than to risk being victim to predators who hunt by night. Because wild turkeys don’t migrate, in snowier parts of the species’s habitat like the Northeast, it is very important for this bird to learn to select large conifer trees where they can fly onto the branches and shelter from blizzards.

Wild turkeys are omnivorous, foraging on the ground or climbing shrubs and small trees to feed. They prefer eating acorns, nuts and other hard mast of various trees, including hazel, chestnut, hickory, and pinyon pine as well as various seeds, berries such as juniper and bearberry, roots and insects. Turkeys also occasionally consume amphibians and small reptiles such as lizards and small snakes.

Turkey populations can reach large numbers in small areas because of their ability to forage for different types of food. Early morning and late afternoon are the desired times for eating.

Males are polygamous, mating with as many hens as they can. Male wild turkeys display for females by puffing out their feathers, spreading out their tails and dragging their wings. This behavior is most commonly referred to as strutting.

Predators of eggs and nestlings include raccoons, striped skunks, groundhogs, and other rodents. Avian predators of poults include raptors such as bald eagles, barred owl, and Harris’s hawks, and even the smallish Cooper’s hawk and broad-winged hawk.

Predators of both adults and poults include coyotes, gray wolves, bobcats, cougars, Canadian lynx, golden eagles and possibly American black bears.

Occasionally, if cornered, adult turkeys may try to fight off predators, and large male toms can be especially aggressive in self-defense. When fighting off predators, turkeys may kick with their legs, using the spurs on their back of the legs as a weapon, bite with their beak and ram with their relatively large bodies and may be able to deter predators up to the size of mid-sized mammals. Occasionally, turkeys may behave aggressively towards humans, especially in areas where natural habitats are scarce. They also have been seen to chase off humans as well. However, attacks can usually be deterred and minor injuries can be avoided by giving turkeys a respectful amount of space and keeping outdoor spaces clean and undisturbed. Male toms occasionally will attack parked cars and reflective surfaces thinking they see another turkey and must defend their territory. Usually a car engine and moving the car is enough to scare it off.

At the beginning of the 20th century the range and numbers of wild turkeys had plummeted due to hunting and loss of habitat. When Europeans arrived in the New World, they were found from Canada to Mexico in the millions. Europeans and their successors knew nothing about the life cycle of the bird and ecology, itself, as a science would come too late, not even in its infancy, until the end of the 19th century whereas heavy hunting began in the 17th century. Deforestation destroyed trees turkeys need to roost in.

Game managers estimate that the entire population of wild turkeys in the United States was as low as 30,000 by the late 1930s. By the 1940s, it was almost totally extirpated from Canada and had become localized in pockets in the United States. In the northeast they were restricted to the Appalachians, only as far north as central Pennsylvania. Early attempts used hand reared birds, a practice that failed miserably as the birds were unable to survive.

Wild turkeys were once native to Maine but were extirpated in the early 1800s from over-hunting and the clearing of forests along the coast. But in 1978, wild turkey were successfully reintroduced in Maine by state biologists – and the birds have thrived since.

But not everybody is so enthusiastic about the state’s success in reintroducing wild turkeys, which began back in the 1970s in York County. In fact, plenty of Mainers think we have far too many turkeys on the landscape and blame the birds for a variety of ills.

In some parts of the state, there are a lot of turkeys. And though the state deals with few calls about nuisance turkeys, there are places where efforts to limit the number of birds might make sense.

However, these big birds get a bum rap and are blamed for a variety of problems. If you see a flock of turkeys in a blueberry field at noontime, you might blame the birds for eating all the berries. But there are deer, bear, moose, foxes and other critters in that blueberry field at night, doing damage.

“Do we have too many turkeys?”

It all depends on whether the birds are eating your crops, or foiling your attempts to hunt them.

Benjamin Franklin

Had it been up to Benjamin Franklin, the turkey we carve for Thanksgiving dinner might have been our national bird. After the bald eagle won the honor instead, Franklin wrote to his daughter that the turkey was “more respectable” than the eagle, which he thought was “of bad moral character,” calling them lazy, opportunistic predators.

Franklin expressed admiration for the feisty way barnyard turkeys defended their territory, a trait he liked in Americans, too. It’s not clear, however, whether Franklin knew much about wild turkeys, which ran and hid from intruders instead of defending their turf. Indeed, some Apache Indians thought turkeys were so cowardly that they wouldn’t eat them or wear their feathers for fear of contracting the spirit of cowardice.

So Franklin probably wasn’t thinking about the wild turkey when he considered possible symbols of American courage. But the domestic or barnyard turkey he admired did have its origins in America’s wild turkey population.

Aztec Indian tribes had long domesticated wild turkeys for food. Early Spanish explorers discovered these domesticated turkeys and took a few of them back to Europe, where the birds were bred into yet another variety of domestic turkey.

Those European turkeys came to North America with English colonists and were used for food. They are the birds Franklin seems to have preferred over the native bald eagle for our national symbol.

So, even though the bald eagle is the official bird of the United States, much to the chagrin of Benjamin Franklin, it must be pointed out that on Thanksgiving day, the wild turkey is the national “bird of the day,” even though most of us actually consume domesticated turkeys.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

The Buffalo Bills appeared in four consecutive Super Bowls from 1990-1993. Has there ever been a team to appear in three in a row?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: The unfair resources of today’s “great game hunter”

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

When I was having my usual morning coffee and Danish at a local coffee shop last week following Sunday Mass, I happened to look up at a wide-screen television mounted on the wall to notice an outdoor show. It was your typical show, sponsored by outfitters, outdoor equipment companies and the opinions of various “expert” hunters.

The reason the show caught my attention was the way they were going about hunting. I remember the days when I was an avid hunter (my wife says I have since “lost the thrill of the hunt”), we used to have our favorite spots, get out early in the morning on a full stomach, brave the weather conditions and have great expectations for the outcome at the end of the hunt. It was the hunter vs the hunted. A classic exercise in who could out think, out maneuver or outwit the other. It was wild game hunting at its best. You needed to possess the skills to pursue your prey in its own environment, both parties equipped with all the instincts Mother Nature provided.

I can remember a couple of those adventures when the animal actually out-smarted me – something my wife says is easy to do (her opinion). I once followed a deer through the snow for many hundreds of yards, never catching sight of him, but I could hear him snorting up ahead of me, and hearing his antlers rattling against tree limbs. I followed him until we crossed our original tracks, and he actually passed through two conifers without disturbing a snowflake on the boughs. That was when I knew I was outwitted.

And that’s not to mention, probably, how many times I may have walked right past a deer and not noticed it was even there. They don’t have the nickname “swamp ghost” for nothing. They have this uncanny ability to disappear once they hit the tree line. Have you ever noticed while driving, when you may see a deer either in the road or on the shoulder, and it turns into the woods. As you pass by, try to locate it. They do seem to disappear.

On one day in particular, after having worked the night shift, I headed into the woods at sun up. I found a nice tree and sat down on the ground facing east, and soaked in the warmth of the sun. I fell asleep. I don’t know for how long, but my hunting partner eventually came along and told me a herd of deer could have walked right past me and I wouldn’t have noticed. Those are the stories you don’t forget.

Oh, by the way, I went home without a deer that day.

But that was then.

Today, it just isn’t fair. Here, on this show, they had hunters gathering on game farms, splashed with deer urine scent like it was Aqua Velva, equipped with global positioning equipment, calling the deer with artificial devices. Once the deer was lured, they employed a computerized gauge to calculate the distance to the target, refer to another hand-held instrument to measure the direction and velocity of the wind before finally sighting in the prey. Mounted on top of their high powered rifle was a scope capable of seeing a gnat’s tonsils at 200 yards.

The deer didn’t stand a chance. The only thing the hunters didn’t have were laser guided ammunition or “smart” bullets. After they dispatched the animal, they would break into a wild celebration. What’s with that?

If, after the use of all that sophisticated equipment, you didn’t come home with a deer that was essentially caged, you should be embarrassed to the point of taking up bowling. The whole episode was like shooting fish in a barrel.

So, I’ve decided that a money-making venture would be to make available to deer: human motion sensors, rear view mirrors, bullet proof vests, space-aged unpenetrable deflector shields a-la Star Trek, and laser guided bullet defense systems. After all, it’s only fair.

Remember the old saying, “We believe in the right to arm bears?” Well, the same could be said about deer.

HAS ANYONE NOTICED?

As of this writing, the Boston Bruins, Boston Celtics and New England Patriots are all in first place in their respective league divisions. Let’s keep track and see how long it lasts.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Name the seven NFL teams with the initials of their cities on the side of their helmets.

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Squirrels in the compost pile

Noisy, plentiful acorns; obscure beech nuts

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

While preparing breakfast last Saturday, I glanced out the kitchen window towards my recently cleaned up garden plot. As I looked around I noticed some movement, and commented to my wife: “I think I have a title for a new country song, ‘There’s a squirrel in the compost pile.’”

I’m not sure how that translates to pickup trucks, bass boats and lost loves, but I’m sure it has a place in there somewhere.

Anyway, that prompted me to ask myself what could be in the compost that would interest a squirrel. After all, it has nothing more than plant stems, vines from squashes and various roots and stalks. There were a few tiny, fledgling fruits from these items that didn’t have a chance to mature, but that would be it.

Then my mind rewound to the recently closed down camp, and the food sources out there. Nearby there is a large oak tree and a mature, but fairly young beech tree. Most of you have probably heard acorns when they fall from the trees, and land on something substantive. They sound like gunfire, exploding bombs or branches falling. They make quite a loud noise. The presence of Beech nuts, on the other hand, are hardly even noticeable.

Wildlife that consume acorns as an important part of their diets includes birds, such as jays, pigeons, some ducks and several species of woodpeckers. Small mammals include mice, squirrels and several other rodents – ahh, squirrels. Large mammals include pigs, bears, and deer. Acorns are in high demand.

Acorns are attractive to animals because they are large and efficiently consumed or cached. They are rich in nutrients and contain large amounts of protein, carbohydrates and fats, as well as calcium, phosphorus and potassium, and the vitamin niacin.

Acorns are too heavy for wind dispersal, so the spreading of the seed is dependent on animals like the squirrels who cache the nuts for future use. Squirrels scatter-hoard the acorns in a variety of locations in which it is possible for them to germinate and thrive. On occasion, the odd acorn may be lost, or the squirrel may die before consuming all the acorns it has stored. A small number of acorns may germinate and survive, producing the next generation of oak trees.

As far as humans go, acorns have frequently been used as a coffee substitute. The Confederates in the American Civil War and the Germans during World War II, which were cut off from coffee supplies by Union and Allied blockades, respectively, are particularly notable past instances of this use of acorns.

As far as the beech nuts go, again going back to camp and the beech tree near our site, there doesn’t seem to be much activity by squirrels in the area of the tree. Of course, the beech nut seems to defy gravity. It is a small nut with soft-spined husks. Although it is high in tannin content, they are bitter. The nut can be extracted by peeling back the husk, but your fingers may hurt dealing with the spines. Maybe that is why they are not that attractive to squirrels.

Nowhere in all my research did I find any reference to wildlife that feast on the beech nut.

Beech trees are better known for other things than producing a source of food. The Beech bark is extremely thin and scars easily. Carvings, such as lovers’ initials, remain because the beech tree is unable to heal itself.

On a different note, slats of Beech wood are washed in a caustic soda to leach out any flavor and is used in the bottom of fermentation tanks for Budweiser beer. This allows a surface for the yeast to settle, so that it doesn’t pile up too deep. Beech is also used to smoke Westphalian ham, various sausages and some cheeses.

The American beech tree occurs only in the eastern United States and southeastern Canada. It is believed that it was found coast to coast prior to the Ice Age. Now they can only be found east of the Great Plains. You will rarely find the beech tree in developed areas unless it is a left over of a forest that was cut for land development.

The beech tree is also temperamental. Some trees never produce nuts while others only spawn edible nuts in certain years.

So what was that squirrel – I could not discern whether it was Martha or Stewart, my two resident rodents – looking for that day? Probably just window shopping.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

With the World Series going past October in recent years, who was the first MLB player to hit a home run in November?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Moose hunting returned following a long absence

A bull moose.

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

The Maine moose hunting season is underway. It has not always been that way.

The moose hunting season was reintroduced in 1980 on an experimental basis, when 700 permits were issued to residents. At that time, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife estimated the moose population to be in the vicinity of 20,000 – 25,000 animals. In 2007, a wildlife ecologist estimated the moose population for New England and New York to be in the range of 50,000 animals.

A campaign was began in 1983 by a group of moose lovers to place the moose hunting question on a referendum ballot. The initiative failed. The legislature subsequently gave the DIF&W the authority to establish the number of moose permits handed out each year, while maintaining control of the moose lottery.

In 2002, for the first time in 21 years, state wildlife biologists recommended reducing the number of permits, for fear that the moose population may have been on the decline. There had been a high level of calf mortality with the culprit possibly being the tiny blood-sucking ticks that have become so numerous in recent years. Ticks killed more than half of the moose calves in northern New Hampshire during a peak year. It was feared the same was happening in Maine.

After expanding for most of the 20th century, the moose population of North America has been in steep decline since the 1990s. Populations expanded greatly with improved habitat and protection, but for unknown reasons, the moose population is declining.

In northeastern North America, the moose’s history is very well documented: moose meat was often a staple in the diet of Native Americans going back centuries, with a tribe that occupied present day coastal Rhode Island giving the animal its name. The Native Americans often used moose hides for leather and its meat as an ingredient in a type of dried jerky used as a source of sustenance in winter or on long journeys. Eastern tribes also valued moose leather as a source for moccasins and other items.

The moose vanished in much of the eastern U.S. for as long as 150 years, due to colonial era over-hunting and destruction of habitat.

European rock drawings and cave paintings reveal that moose have been hunted since the Stone Age.

Moose are not usually aggressive towards humans, but can be provoked or frightened to behave with aggression. In terms of raw numbers, they attack more people than bears and wolves combined, but usually with only minor consequences.

When harassed or startled by people or in the presence of a dog, moose may charge. Also, as with bears or any wild animal, moose that have become used to being fed by people, may act aggressively when food is denied.

A bull moose, disturbed by the photographer, lowers its head and raises its hackles. Like any wild animal, moose are unpredictable. They are most likely to attack if annoyed or harassed, or if approached too closely. A moose that has been harassed may vent its anger on anyone in the vicinity, and they often do not make distinctions between their tormentors and innocent passers-by.

Moose also tend to venture out onto highways at night. In northern Maine, especially, moose-vehicle collisions are common. The problem with that is the center of mass of a moose is above the hood of most passenger cars. In a collision, the impact crushed the front roof beams and individuals in the front seats. Collisions of this type are frequently fatal; seat belts and airbags offer little protection. In collisions with higher vehicles, such as trucks, most of the deformation is to the front of the vehicle and the passenger compartment is largely spared.

Moose lack upper front teeth, but have eight sharp incisors on the lower jaw. They also have a tough tongue, lips and gums, which aid in eating woody vegetation. A moose’s upper lip is very sensitive, to help distinguish between fresh shoots and harder twigs. A moose’s diet often depends on its location, but they seem to prefer the new growths from deciduous trees with a high sugar content, such as white birch.

Moose also eat aquatic plants, including lilies and pondweed. (We could sure use a few of them on Webber Pond). Moose are excellent swimmers and are known to wade into water to eat aquatic plants. This trait serves a second purpose in cooling down the moose on summer days and ridding itself of black flies. Moose are thus attracted to marshes and river banks during warmer months as both provide suitable vegetation to eat and as a way to wet themselves down. Moose avoid areas with little or no snow as this increases the risk of predation by wolves and avoid areas with deep snow, as this impairs mobility.

So, moose are a vital commodity to Maine, and we must do what is necessary to preserve them, and continue to harvest them responsibly.

Can anyone answer this question? If you have a legal moose hunting permit, you are on your way to the hunt, and you collide with a moose and kill it – and you survive – does that count as your moose, or can you continue to the hunting zone and claim a second moose?

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

When was the last time the New England Patriots lost three games in a row?

Answer can be found here.