SCORES & OUTDOORS: Bigger, bolder, more aggressive coyotes destined for Maine

Eastern coyote (Photo: Anne Fraser)

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

A friend of The Town Line sent an email to me last week asking about what appears to be an increase in the number of sightings of coyotes in the China/Vassalboro vicinity. She noted a reported deer kill on China Lake and one that had been hit by a car on Lakeview Drive, in China.

If you like old western cowboy films, you always have a scene where the trail hands, or the outlaws planning their next bank heist, are camping out at night, while listening to the coyotes barking nearby. Or, as I have experienced, been out in the wilderness on a fishing trip, and hearing the coyotes off in the distance, while we sit around an evening campfire.

We have visited with coyotes before, but it may be time to take another look at the distribution of this predator.

First of all, let me say there are an estimated 15,000 coyotes in the state of Maine, according to Wally Jakubas, the leader in mammal studies for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. There have been sightings of coyotes in both urban and rural areas, in all parts of the state.

In the urban areas they tend to hunt smaller game, such as rabbits, mice, woodchucks, beavers, squirrels and birds. But coyotes are also scavengers and will seek out garbage, garden crops, livestock and poultry. Even pet food left outside.

The Eastern coyote has long been recognized by state biologists as a coyote-wolf hybrid, first documented in Maine in the early 1900s. But, what sets the Maine coyotes apart from the others is that they are destined to become a bigger, bolder, more aggressive wolf-like animal and in time will pose a much greater risk to our deer population.

Roland Kays, a leading researcher of coyote DNA at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, has said the Eastern coyote found in Maine is becoming more like a wolf, as natural selection favors the dominant wolf genes that make it a bigger, more effective predator than its western counterpart.

Kay says the Eastern coyote has about eight percent wolf DNA, and that percentage will increase over time. Although inevitable, the process will take some time, and that it could be another century before the coyote will look much different than it does today.

Genetic evidence suggests it happened when the wolf population in the Great Lakes region was at its lowest point when they were heavily hunted and killed. So, basically, some wolf female came into heat and couldn’t find a wolf, so they did the next best thing: breed with a coyote.

The skull, therefore, is bigger and wider, which allows them more room in their jaw muscles. With that, they can take down much larger prey.

The Eastern coyote has colonized rapidly in the last 50 years. In the 1960s, there were approximately 500 of the animals in Maine, as compared to an estimated 15,000 today.

Even though it is believed an adult Eastern coyote still can’t kill the largest white-tailed deer, there is a consensus among hunters that this is not true. Registered Maine Guide Paul Laney, who hunts coyotes in Washington County, claims he has seen a coyote take down a buck.

They like to hunt deer in the winter when snow depths restrict the movement of the deer herd. The state, in the meantime, has instituted an aggressive campaign to protect the deer population, estimated to be at 200,000 since the 1980s, from coyotes. That includes a year-round coyote hunt with no bag limit. However, according to many who hunt coyotes, they are the most challenging animals to outwit. Despite that, the effort to protect the deer herd is working. Maine Guides believe the deer population would be in grave danger if the coyotes were left unchecked in the forest.

In a town in eastern Maine, they hold an annual coyote hunting contest. The results are undeniable. In the winter of 2009-10, there were 84 coyotes tagged by hunters in the contest and 55 deer tagged the following fall. By the winter of 2014-15, 136 coyotes were tagged, and 141 deer tagged the following fall. By thinning out the coyotes, the deer herd increased in population.

It is important to protect the deer herd as it contributes largely to the Maine economy. In 2013, more than 84 percent of all who hunt pursued the white-tailed deer. According to a survey commissioned by the state of Maine, the hunting that year provided a total economic contribution to the state’s coffers of $101 million.

All animals have a place in our ecology, but it is also important for man to sometimes intervene in the balance.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

In 2010, what Red Sox rookie became the only player in AL history to hit a grand slam home run on the first pitch of his first major league at bat of his career.

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Pussy willows have sprouted; spring is imminent

Pussy willows, photographed by Joan Chaffee, of Clinton, on March 9.

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

This week, we’re going to move away from the animal world and take a look at some fauna.

Joan Chaffee, of Clinton, recently sent some photos of pussy willows she snapped while snowshoeing. She wrote, “I was snowshoeing this past Saturday, March 9, in our back field and came across these pussy willows. A sure sign of Spring!”

At the tail end of winter, fuzzy nubs start to appear along the branches of pussy willows. So, what exactly, are these little nubs?

They are actually flowers just before they fully bloom, and not seeds or fruits like they are perceived. The soft coating of hairs acts as insulation to protect these early bloomers from cold temperatures. The species most commonly called pussy willows in the northeast, Salix discolor, is a small, shrubby species of willow that can be found dotting wetlands and most woods throughout much of North America.

Their blooms, also known for their delightfulness, usually signal the last throes of winter.

The petal-less male flowers are covered with pollen-bearing stamens. Catkins, as they are called, usually don’t rely on pollinators to spread their pollen. Instead, they simply release it into the wind, where it may or may not land on the female flower parts. In order to hit their targets, the catkins must produce a tremendous amount of pollen.

Pussy willows are dioecious, meaning there are both male plants and female plants. Only the male plants will produce the fuzzy flowers. Some home gardeners become disappointed once they learn they have a female tree. The flowers are equally pleasing, but look more like greenish hairy caterpillars.

Most cut pussy willow stems are in a sort of time warp – dried at their peak fuzziness, and never allowed to fully flower. But if you keep fresh-cut pussy willows hydrated, you can see the whole flowering cycle and even the leafing-out process. It is important to get healthy-looking bunches (look for flexible, greenish stems that don’t feel brittle or look shriveled), and place in a vase near a window, changing the water daily. You can add a little flower food if you have some. Watch for new flower buds to cast off the shiny brown bud scales that surround the flower. When the flowers mature, you will see many yellow stamens emerge to cover each catkin. Wait even longer, and you may also see pale green, strappy leaves unfurl from the leaf buds. At this point, your willow stems will be in full spring growth and will need to be planted in soil outdoors to root. They may or may not take.

In films, pussy willows are featured in a key part of the film Serial Mom, as one character, Beverly Sutphin, begins leaving clues to her identity for her neighbor Dottie Hinkle.

In literature, Pussy Willow, a children’s book by Maraget Wise Brown (1951), tells the story of a gray “pussycat not much bigger than a pussy willow,” who names himself Pussy Willow after the catkins he finds around him in spring. When the catkins disappear with the passing of the season, he goes in search of them, asking each different kind of animal he encounters where he might find them. The animals all answer from their own perspective. “Up in the air,” says the butterfly; “under a leaf,” says the squirrel. Pussy Willow finally finds them a year later when spring comes around again.

Pussy willows get their name for their resemblance to tiny cats’ paws, and they feel so much like fur that young children often wonder if they are animals instead of plants.

So, with the sighting of pussy willows on March 9, it is a sure sign that spring is imminent. Let’s hope so.

ERMINE UPDATE

A friend of The Town Line recently told me of an incident she encountered in her own home. One day she opened the cupboard doors under her sink in the kitchen, and noticed these beady little eyes staring back at her. Startled at first, she stood motionless while the little critter stared back at her, neither moving for a moment. Finally, the little white ermine scurried off, probably from where it came.

As reported in this column in the February 14, 2019, issue, ermines, a/k/a weasels, have been finding their way into homes this winter. The first reports came from southern Maine. This recent sighting happened in China.

It seems to be a universal happening.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

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

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Why you should salute the next pigeon you see

Rock Dove or Rock Pigeon

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

One of the educational things that I do for myself every day is read the comics in the daily newspaper. It kind of sets the tone for the rest of the day for me.

One that caught my eye once was a certain theme that Doonesberry was presenting. It seemed this certain person declared himself a “birder” and was on a quest to find a certain warbler to add to the list of birds he had witnessed.

That got me thinking. Claiming myself to be an amateur birder, I wondered how many birds I have seen in my life time. So, I set out to make a list.

Once I got to about 73, and was still half way through the book, I decided I was wasting too much time on this. So, the thought came to me that maybe I should single out one that was intriguing to me.

These particular birds are mostly envisioned as pests, vagrants, scavengers and dirty inhabitants of parking lots, churches, parks, and just about everywhere else you can go in the world, leaving behind messes and clear indications of their presence, if you know what I mean. What is more intriguing than the common Rock Dove.

More commonly known as pigeons, rock doves vie with the domestic chicken for status as the world’s most familiar birds. They are not indigenous to the western hemisphere. They were introduced into North America from Europe long ago and are conspicuous in cities and villages throughout much of the world.

There are few visible differences between males and females, and the species is generally monogamous.

Feral pigeons have become established in cities around the world. The species is so abundant, that an estimated population of 17 to 28 million feral and wild birds exist in Europe alone.

With only its flying abilities to protect it from predators, rock doves are a favorite, almost around the world, for a wide range of raptors. I remember several years ago when I kept seeing pigeon body parts strewn all over my yard. One day, when I just happened to be looking out the window, I noticed a large flock of pigeons cleaning up on the ground under my bird feeders. Like a lightning strike, I saw a broad winged hawk dive head first into the pile, and came out with his next meal. To protect the pigeons, I temporarily suspended the feeders until the hawk found a new place for his hunting grounds. That poor pigeon didn’t stand a chance.

Pigeons, though, get a bad rap. They have been falsely associated with the spread of human diseases. Contact with pigeon droppings poses a minor risk of contracting diseases. Pigeons are not a major concern in the spread of West Nile virus. Though they can contract it, they do not appear to be able to transmit it.

Pigeons, in fact, have been associated with humans for several thousand years. Believed to have been the first domesticated birds, they were raised for meat as far back as the time of the ancient Egyptians.

Because of their powers of flight and their remarkable homing ability, pigeons have played important roles in history. A domestic pigeon taken from its home loft and released many miles away will almost invariably return. And if a message is tied to the bird’s leg, the result is a kind of air mail – a fact that humans learned to exploit many centuries ago. When Julius Caesar marched against Gaul, the news of his victories were carried back to Rome by a network of carrier pigeons. Other pigeons carried messages for Alexander the Great and for Hannibal. In modern times opposing armies in both World War I and World War II made use of thousands of carrier pigeons, also known as war pigeons. Curiously, many pigeons have received bravery awards and medals for their services in saving hundreds of human lives. A total of 32 pigeons received medallions or medals for their gallant and brave actions during World War II. And today, pigeons are still bred for their homing ability.

The next time I see a disgusting-looking pigeon on the ground, I may stand at attention, salute, and thank it for the many contributions its collective ancestors may have made for the human race.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Which Boston Red Sox Hall of Famer once said, “All I want out of life is when I walk down the street people say, ‘There goes the greatest hitter that ever lived?’”

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Climate change driving migrating birds farther north

Clockwise from top left: Boreal chickadee, Black-capped chickadee, Purple finch, and Pygmy nuthatch

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

A 40-year study conducted by the Audubon Society has found that more than half of 305 bird species in North America are spending the winter about 35 miles farther north than they did 40 years ago. Some of these birds include chickadees, robins and owls.

Bird ranges can expand for many reasons, among them urban sprawl, deforestation and the backyard feeders.

The study suggests that the reason so many birds over such a broad area are wintering in more northern locations is climate change.

The study of migration habits from 1966 through 2005 found that about a quarter of the species have moved farther south. But the number moving northward (177 species) is double that amount.

Of all the birds, the purple finch was the biggest mover. Its wintering grounds are now more along the latitude of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, instead of Springfield, Missouri.

Over the four decades covered by the study, the average January temperature in the United States rose by about five degrees. That warming was most pronounced in northern states, which have already recorded an influx of more southern species and could see some northern species move into Canada.

The study also provides support for what many bird watchers across the country have long thought – that many birds are responding to climate change by moving farther north.

Previous studies of breeding birds in Great Britain and the eastern U.S. have noticed similar trends. But the Audubon study covers a broader area and includes many more species.

Examples of these are the purple finch and the boreal chickadee. They are spending their summers in the forests of Canada and fly south into the U.S. for the winter. Climate change could be playing a role in why they are not flying as far south as they used to. This is reflected in the fact that these species of birds are no longer as common as they once were in states like Maine and Vermont.

The Audubon Society likes to conduct their bird counts in mid-December. At that time of year, temperature is the primary driver for where birds go and whether they live or die.To survive the cold, birds need to eat enough during the day to have the energy needed to shiver through the cold nights.

With the milder winters that the northeast has been experiencing in that four-decade span, it is possible that birds don’t need to expend as much energy shivering, and can get by eating less food in the day.

However, researchers cannot explain why some certain species are moving. It’s speculated that changes in temperature affect different birds in different ways.

Researchers don’t know for a fact that it is warming. But when they keep finding the same thing over and over, they reason that it is not just a figment of the imagination.

Over the past 40 years, the Christmas Bird Count has documented shifts to the north or inland for the majority and for nearly every kind of North American bird species. Audubon’s analysis confirms the evidence from bird enthusiasts who have frequently reported changing populations.

Given the strong evidence that global warming is indeed a key factor in documented bird movements, shifts like these will continue for familiar species — for better or worse — as long as the climate continues to change. Though these movements clearly point to significant ecological disruption underway, their short and long term impacts will vary for specific species and even groups.

Among all landbirds in the study, 64 percent showed significant northward movement, including more than 70 percent of all woodland birds and 70 percent of those that frequent feeders.

Among the birds that depend on feeders, such as Boreal Chickadee and Pygmy Nuthatch, have moved hundreds of miles since 1966. Already adapted to human surroundings, they are unusually well-suited to a shifting climate. Most will fare well in the short term, as long as food is provided to them. However, northern-wintering birds are highly vulnerable to the sudden onset of cold and stormy conditions. They are also likely to further disrupt ecosystem balance by forcing out less adaptable species.

Woodland birds that do not visit bird feeders, such as Spruce Grouse and Barred Owl, also showed long-distance northward movements. Their continued survival in northern winters will depend on healthy forest habitat, which is already at risk due to both the drying effects of global warming and over-development by humans.

Grassland birds are among the few groups that did not move north over the past 40 years, but are the most vulnerable. Only 10 of 26 (38 percent) grassland species moved north significantly, while nine moved south. Many probably could not move into northern areas despite increasingly moderate temperatures, because conversion to human uses such as crops, pastures, and hayfields, has greatly reduced availability of grassland habitat. These species are facing an uncertain future.

These little creatures of Mother Nature are wonderful to watch, track and photograph, as they go about their daily routines. In the process, they are trying to tell us something. We need to take note.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

The NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies formerly played in what Canadian city?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Maine’s tiny northern shrimp facing tough times ahead

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

Where have all the shrimp gone? If you enjoy the sweet taste of Maine’s northern shrimp, the news is not good. Depending on to whom you talk.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission closed the shrimp season in 2014, and it has not reopened since. On November 16, 2018, the commission voted to cancel the fishing seasons for Maine through 2021. Commissioners from New Hampshire and Massachusetts agreed. The commissioners pointed to concerns that continued fishing could drive the species into extinction.

In 2010, Maine fishermen landed more than 12 million pounds of the small shrimp, but besides a shortened 2013 season, shrimping has been completely shut down.

And the news has not gotten any better since then. Summer surveys conducted has indicated that shrimp in the Gulf of Maine have been at record lows for the past six years. Scientists have concluded that survival of younger shrimp to add to the population has been low to extremely poor for seven consecutive years. They also fear that the prospects of recovery are not promising.

Although they continue to get to the bottom of what is causing this shortage, biologists believe the warming waters in the Gulf of Maine are taking a toll on the shrimp, who are extremely sensitive to water temperature.

The Gulf of Maine is at the southern end of the shrimps’ region, and a recent survey by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute has determined that the gulf is warming at a faster rate than 99 percent of the world’s oceans.

The environment in the Gulf of Maine is in flux, with temperature rising over the past decade, and is predicted to continue to do so.

But some people disagree with the study’s results. Some fishermen have labeled the commission’s study as “just a bunch of scribbling.” Fishermen attending a meeting in Portland didn’t dispute the shortage of shrimp, but they questioned whether the study was thorough enough. Some spoke that the shrimp are there, you just have to know where to find them and have the right equipment to do the job.

One fisherman from Port Clyde told how he and five other fishermen had caught 1.2 million pounds of shrimp a few years ago, while another fisherman, who had not done shrimping before, and lacking in experience, gave up after catching only 200 pounds.

However, the following year, three fishermen selected to catch shrimp for research stopped the process due to not finding any shrimp.

Some officials fear that the low stock may never recover. The survival of young shrimp to add to the population has been extremely poor. They feel that the only thing that could help the shrimp numbers to increase is for the gulf to experience several very cold years. That would allow the shrimp to lay eggs and create a new generation of shrimp. A scenario not likely to happen.

The winter shrimping season has been really important to fishermen. Losing it creates a very serious economical impact. The fisheries have been a great part of their heritage that won’t be around for at least another three years, with a potential to last even longer.

Patrick Keliher, of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, questioned when the right time would be to resume shrimp fishing. He was skeptical that the stock that has been so impacted by environmental factors, no matter what is done, might not be able to be restored. He is in favor of allowing a small fishery to go forward while they continue to monitor the stock. Commissioners from New Hampshire and Massachusetts did not agree.

So, for the foreseeable future, the tiny, sweet Maine northern shrimp will not be available come March, the traditional time of year when the shrimp used to be sold in abundance. I remember buying the diminutive crustacean for myself and my father-in-law from roadside vendors selling the shrimp from the back of their trucks. They were plentiful – and relatively inexpensive – back then.

Bearing all of this in mind, it is a sobering reality that climate change is really having an economical impact on coastal fishing communities.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Which of the following Boston Red Sox players did not spend his whole career with the Red Sox: Dwight Evans, Rico Petrocelli, Jason Varitek?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Weasels (ermines) are finding their way into people’s homes

The different coats of the winter and summer ermine.

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

In recent weeks, there have been numerous reports of incidences where weasels have found their way into homes. There were reports in Harpswell, Cumberland and Bangor.

The woman in Bangor said she noticed what she thought was a rat or an escaped ferret in her ceiling. It had been running around in the ceiling, so she removed one of the ceiling panels. When it poked its head out, she called the landlord and both determined it was someone’s escaped pet ferret. However, it was later determined to be a weasel, or ermine as they are also known.

Weasels are naturally very curious and do wander from time to time into people’s houses, perhaps in search of mice. Their small size allows them to get into nooks and crannies.

There was one instance when the homeowner captured the ermine in a humane trap, and before she even had it for a minute, the ermine escaped.

Ermines are common throughout Maine and hunt both night and day, but people don’t often see this small animal because it’s well camouflaged, moves fast and tends to keep out of sight.

Weasels are usually brown, gray or black with white or yellowish markings. All weasels become all white in the winter. The winter fur of the least weasel glows a bright lavender color when exposed to ultraviolet light.

Ermines are especially difficult to spot in the winter season, when their coat turns from brown to white, an adaptation that allows it to hide in the snow. The only thing that remains pigmented on an ermine is the tip of its tail, which is jet black.

As nocturnal animals, weasels sleep during the day and are active at night. Most of a weasel’s time awake consists of hunting, storing excess food and eating. Their bodies don’t store fat, so they need a constant supply of food to provide enough energy. In fact, the least weasel eats 40 – 60 percent of its body weight every day, according to the Nature Conservancy.

The most common weasel is the short-tailed weasel. It can be found in North America, Europe and Asia, in regions as far north as the Arctic. Their homes include marshes, scrubs, hedgerows, alpine meadows, riparian woodlands and riverbank habitats, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).

The genus includes least weasels, polecats, stoats, ferrets and minks. These animals are small, active predators with long and slender bodies and short legs.

According to Dr. Alessio Mortelliti, assistant professor in the University of Maine Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Conservation Biology, “It’s pretty much anywhere in the world, plus it’s an invasive species in some places.”

Ermines are especially ferocious and bold. It is not uncommon for this predator to attack and kill prey that exceeds them in size and weight. For example, ermines, that weigh between 1.6 to 3.7 ounces, have been known to attack gray squirrels, which are much heavier, typically weighing between 12 and 24 ounces. Ermines are very aggressive, “they can go for prey that is bigger than them,” said Mortelliti. Ermines will attack young rabbits and hares, but they prefer smaller prey such as mice and voles. In fact, one of the ermine’s key adaptations is their ability to manipulate its flexible body into small tunnels that are created by smaller animals.

They are also bullies. Although they can dig their own burrows quite quickly, they sometimes take over another animal’s burrows and make them their own.

In Greek culture, a weasel near one’s house is a sign of bad luck, even evil, especially if there is a girl about to be married, since the animal was thought to be an unhappy bride who was transformed into a weasel, and consequently delights in destroying wedding dresses. However, in neighboring Macedonia, weasels are generally seen as an omen of good fortune.

In North America, Native Americans, in the region of North Carolina, deemed the weasel to be a bad sign: crossing its path meant a “speedy death.” According to Daniel Dafoe, meeting a weasel is a bad omen.

In the English language, being called a weasel is considered an insult, being regarded as sneaky, conniving or untrustworthy.

How do these animals find their way into homes? Usually through some openings in the foundation, broken windows or sometimes through openings in the roof like attic vents or chimneys.

How do you rid yourself of one? Use fresh meat, if possible. Position your bait strategically, so that the weasel must bring its entire body into the trap and step on the trigger plate to get to it. Make sure the bait is far enough from the trap walls that an animal cannot reach inside and steal it without entering. Weasels are known to bite, so wear heavy gloves whenever handling the trapped animal and refrain from sticking your fingers inside the trap.

Again, weasels are cute, but do not approach one unless it is safely in a Havahart trap, be careful handling it, and take it deep into the woods, where it belongs.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Who is the only NFL player to be named MVP of the Super Bowl from the losing team.

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: The mystery of why the great black hawk found its way to Maine

The great black hawk

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

I was saddened to hear of the unfortunate outcome in the saga of the great black hawk that found its way to Maine, only to discover this place, especially December to April, is not friendly to tropical birds.

In case you haven’t heard, a great black hawk appeared in Maine in August 2018. A resident of tropical Mexico through Central America to Peru, and northern Argentina, it had been spotted in South Padre Island, in Texas, in April 2018, a little north of its normal range. Last August, this individual surfaced in Biddeford. It was determined to be the same bird based on the similarities in what is highly variable immature plumage, from photographs that were compared.

It again disappeared until reappearing in Deering Oaks Park, in Portland.

The great black hawk, Buteogallus urubitinga, is a bird of prey which also includes eagles, hawks, and vultures. They feed mainly on reptiles, other small vertebrates and large insects, mainly chasing them on foot. This particular one had adjusted its diet, and was doing all right dining on gray squirrels in the park. They are about the size of an osprey, but larger than our red-tailed hawk.

The adult bird is 22 – 25 inches long and weighs about 2-1/2 pounds. It has very broad wings, and is mainly black. The short tail is white with a broad black tip. The bill is black and the legs are yellow. The sexes are similar.

During a snowstorm on January 20, the bird was discovered laying on the ground in Deering Oaks Park. It was transported to Avian Haven, in Freedom, a reputable bird rehabilitation facility. Initially, it was feared the bird would probably lose a toe on one of its feet due to frostbite.

Diagnostic testing that included infrared thermology and doppler ultrasound indicated no blood circulation to the feet and lower legs. Additional examination revealed that both feet were discolored and showing signs of severe decomposition.

The folks at Avian Haven explored various alternatives to save the bird. They discussed the possibility of fitting the bird with prosthetics, and keeping it in a controlled setting. It was decided the bird probably would not adapt to two artificial legs that would need occasional adjustments, and that the bird probably would not do well in captivity. In the wild, they are used to perching, grasping food with its talons, or landing successfully following flight.

Despite having remained somewhat active with a good appetite, the bird was observed laying on its side, and not eating as it had. It was then decided the bird could not be saved, and was euthanized on January 31. That, it must be noted, was not an easy decision for the staff at Avian Haven, nor the professionals that were consulted during the process.

Of course, the question on everyone’s mind was why this bird had found its way to Maine. Only one other great black hawk had ever been sighted in the United States. Many species wander about. That is nature’s way to encourage species to expand their range. Animals with too small a territory are prone to extinction, especially in the event of a catastrophe like a major storm, epidemic or even an oil spill. But the great black hawk is not known to wander. Wanderers are called vagrants. It has always been said the great black hawk never, ever, leaves its tropical home. Unfortunately for it, this one did.

However, some individual birds seem to have a cerebral malfunction that causes their navigational system to go a wry. Could the unseasonable extreme warm weather we had last summer give a tropical bird the sense that the rest of the world is like the tropics?

Who knows what drew that bird to our area, only to meet with an unfortunate ending.

BOLD PREDICTION

Following the Boston Red Sox defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2018 World Series, and the New England Patriots defeating the Los Angeles Rams in the 2019 Super Bowl, I am predicting the Boston Bruins will defeat the Los Angeles Kings in the 2018-19 Stanley Cup final. While we’re at it, let’s go out on a limb and say the Boston Celtics will defeat the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA final. No, I wouldn’t bet the farm on it.

Also, do you remember what Woodrow Charles’ prediction was for the Super Bowl? “Pats by 10,” was his forecast. Final score, New England 13, Los Angeles 3.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

New England Patriots Julian Edelman was named MVP in Super Bowl LIII. Who was the last wide receiver to win that award?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: What does my weather prognosticating groundhog have to say this year?

Woodrow Charles

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

I woke up one morning last week in a sweat. I just realized it was the time of year when I go out to Center Vassalboro to visit my weather-prognosticating friend, Woodrow Charles, the woodchuck.

Legend has it that if he sees his shadow we are in for six more weeks of hard winter. If he doesn’t see it, we can prepare for an early spring – which, honestly, hasn’t happened very often.

The winter has been mild with not very much snow, but that storm last weekend will make the trucking out to his lair more of a chore than it would have been a week ago.

So, I bundle up with a warm jacket, scarf, gloves, and high boots, ready to brave the weather.

Memories rush through my mind as I begin my journey. I really never know what to expect when I head out there. Some years he is receptive and cordial, but there are others where he is ornery, sarcastic and down right rude. I guess it depends on the type of winter we have had. I can’t imagine living in a tree stump during the cold months of winter.

OK, his den is now in sight. Oh oh! No smoke from the chimney and no lights on inside. I hope he is all right. Unless, of course, he headed south like he did one year to become a groundhog cam at the Daytona 500.

I approach gingerly, looking around. No tracks in the snow. I knock. Pause.

I knock again.

“OK, keep your shirt on,” came a response from inside.

“He’s home,” I think.

The door opens. It’s dark inside and I see only a pair of eyes staring at me.

“Oh, it’s you,” says Woody. “Come on in.”

I look around. Nothing much has changed from last year, except the wood burning stove is missing, no light fixtures anywhere, and just a lonely, dingy appearance to the place.

“What’s going on?” I ask.

“Oh, you haven’t been around. I’ve gone off the grid. Simplified my life.”

“Why would you do that,” I asked. “You used to be so comfortable, and where’s your 60-inch TV?”

“It was getting expensive. Haven’t had an increase in my Social Security in a while,” was his response. “I’m relying more on my natural instincts to staying warm.”

“What about the upcoming Super Bowl,” I inquired. “You always have the boys over.”

“Oh, you remember the boys, Frank, Butch and Slim. Well, I gave my TV to Slim, and I’ll be going over there this year. It’s actually warmer there, for a change.”

“It’s going to be an exciting one. The Patriots are in it again, and the Rams will be looking for some redemption for their loss to the Pats in 2002,” I preached.

“Naw, never happen. Pats by 10,” was his prediction.

“Speaking of predictions,” I segued, “Anything about the rest of the winter?”

“To be honest with you,” Woody said apologetically, “I don’t have electricity anymore to run my equipment. I’ll have to go with the old-fashioned method. Step outside to find out whether I see my shadow or not. I’ll be right back, stay here!” he ordered.

I watched him go out the door. A couple of minutes passed. Tick tock, tick tock.

Finally, he re-entered his den.

“All I can tell you is that the coldest period will take place from early February to mid-February,” Woody stated. “The snowiest period will be mid-March and early April. April and May will be rainier than normal with below normal temperatures.”

“So, what are you trying to tell me,” I asked. “You could tell that from simply stepping outside? What’s your prediction?”

“Well, my boy, get ready for six more weeks of winter. I can’t let you off that easy. It’s been pretty easy so far. I can’t let you go through an easy winter, you’ll get soft.”

“How long are you planning to keep playing this charade?” I inquired.

“I’m not pretending, I am a bonafide weather-prognosticator. Not like that impostor in Pennsylvania,” he shot back.

“No, not the weather. I mean pretending to want to be off the grid. It’s just not you.”

“Come back next year, and you’ll see, I’m in it for the long haul,” he retorted.

I put my coat and hat back on, headed toward the door, looked back, and simply shook my head. Not another word.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

The New England Patriots and the St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams will meet for the second time in the Super Bowl. Rematches in the NFL Super Bowl have happened six times. Have two teams ever faced each other three times in the Super Bowl era?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS — Rats!: wrongfully carry a legacy as filthy little creatures

Left, Black Rat; right, Brown Rat

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

RATS! No, it’s not something you say when things don’t go your way. Instead, it describes, profoundly, what people think of this rodent that is perceived as a member of the underworld of the animal kingdom. They are scorned, feared and totally misunderstood. They are portrayed as evil and filthy little creatures that spread disease as they scamper through the sewers of major cities. Among unions, “rat” is a term for nonunion employers or breakers of union contracts.

Few animals elicit such strong and contradictory reactions as rats.

The Black Death is traditionally believed to have been caused by the micro-organism Yersinia pestis, carried by the tropical rat flea which preyed on black rats living in European cities during the epidemic outbreaks of the Middle Ages. These rats were used as transport hosts. Another disease linked to rats is the foot-and-mouth disease.

The reason I bring this up is because of something I saw last week. My wife showed a video to me on Facebook – I don’t do Facebook – showing this woman who had two pet rats she had trained to do some amazing things. That piqued my curiosity because I had heard rats are fairly intelligent.

The best known rat species are the black rat, which is considered to be one of the world’s worst invasive species, and the brown rat. Male rats are known as bucks, females are does, and infant rats are called kittens or pups. A group of rats is referred to as a “mischief.”

The woman on the video had her rats trained to bring her a tissue when she sneezed, respond to flashcard commands, and even come when called, just to name a few that I remember.

Those who keep rats as pets know them as highly intelligent and social animals who clean themselves regularly and thrive on regular interaction.

Specifically-bred rats have been kept as pets at least since the late 19th century. Pet rats are typically variants of the species brown rat, but black rats and giant pouched rats are also known to be kept. Pet rats behave differently from their wild counterparts depending on how many generations they have been kept as pets. The more generations, the more domesticated it will be. Pet rats do not pose any more of a health risk than pets such as dogs and cats. Tamed rats are generally friendly and can be taught to perform selected behaviors.

Because of evident displays of their ability to learn, rats were investigated early to see whether they exhibit general intelligence, as expressed by the definition of a g factor as observed in larger, more complex animals. Early studies around 1930 found evidence both for and against such a g factor in rats.

A 2011 controlled study found that rats are actively pro-social. They demonstrate apparent behavior to other rats in experiments, including freeing them from cages. When presented with readily available chocolate chips, test rats would first free the caged rat, and then share the food. All female rats displayed this behavior, while only 30 percent of males did not.

Rat meat has become a dietary staple in some cultures. Among others, I personally observed rats being consumed in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.

Back to the pet rat. While most people cringe at the thought of having a rat for a pet, believe it or not, domestic rats make great pets. They are not aggressive, diseased and dirty animals, but in fact are very clean, fun-loving, sensitive, very social and affectionate. They genuinely enjoy interacting with people and should be handled daily. Rats are very intelligent and can be taught simple tricks, and will often learn their names. They can be litter box trained.

Whatever you do, don’t go down to the river to select a pet rat, but rather visit your local pet shop. When choosing your rat, choose one that does not appear skittish or does not squeal when picked up. Males tend to be calmer than females. Males usually enjoy being held for longer periods of time, especially when they get older.

If you get a pet rat, it is best if they are kept indoors rather than in a shed or garage, where they would get less attention. As mentioned before, rats are extremely clean animals and will constantly groom themselves – similar to cats. If you have more than one rat, they will groom each other.

So, now that we have seen a lighter side of rats, doesn’t it make you want to run right out to get one?

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Who won the Super Bowl the last time it was held in Atlanta, Georgia?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS — Fly Away Home: a story about geese, the natural world and survival

A scene from the film Fly Away Home.

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

Let me begin this column by emphatically stating that I am not a film critic by any stretch of the imagination. I usually leave that up to Peter Cates, The Town Line’s esteemed reviewer. But I saw a film recently that truly inspired me, and because it is about geese, I think it fits the theme of this column.

The name of the movie is Fly Away Home, and for those of you who have already seen it, you’re excused from reading the rest of this column.

It was filmed in 1996, and dramatizes the actual experiences of Bill Lishman, who, in 1986, started training geese to follow his ultralight and succeeded in leading their migration in 1993.

The story line of the film begins when Amy Alden, played by Anna Paquin, survives an automobile accident in New Zealand in which her mother is killed. The girl is sent to live with her father, Thomas Alden, played by Jeff Daniels of Dumb & Dumber fame, on an Ontario, Canada, farm.

Her father is involved in a dispute with a local developer who is prepared to bulldoze some of the wilderness surrounding Alden’s farm. The crew begins to clear the land, but, for some unexplained reason, the project is put on hold. Amy goes out to the scene only to find a bunch of goose eggs left behind by their parents. Without anyone knowing, she takes the eggs to the barn where she uses a drop light to provide heat to incubate the eggs. To her surprise, they all hatched.

The local game warden appears at the house and informs everyone that because of a local ordinance, he would have to clip the wings so the birds would be rendered flightless. This upsets everyone, and Tom throws the game warden out of his house, after which the warden threatens that if the birds fly, he would have to confiscate them.

Tom begins to research the species and learns that if the birds aren’t taught to fly properly, as they have no goose parents to teach them, they would not survive during the Canadian winter, and would probably get lost and die. Once he notices the geese follow Amy wherever she goes, he decides to use ultralight aircraft to teach the birds to fly. The geese would not follow him, so he comes up with a plan to teach Amy how to fly, and the geese would probably follow her.

Amy’s uncle Dave, played by Terry Kinney, travels to North Carolina to talk to a friend who owns a bird sanctuary about the plan. The friend thinks the idea is absurd, and also informs Dave that if the birds don’t reach the sanctuary by November 1, it would be torn down by developers who plan to turn it into a housing project.

While the group is off trying to find a goose (Igor) that became lost due to injury while the Aldens were trying to teach the geese how to fly, the game warden confiscates the birds. But, through a clever plan, they reclaim the geese, and set off on their intrepid flight to North Carolina, breaking a lengthy list of laws during the journey. Some misadventures occur along the way, including an emergency landing at a highly-classified U.S. Air Force base on Lake Ontario, and Tom’s ultralight going down in a cornfield, only 30 miles from the destination, due to a faulty rudder. By now, Tom and Amy have become national news with residents cheering them on and offering places to stay during their overnight stops.

Tom convinces Amy that she must go on alone, and she completes the journey safely.

One of the most moving scenes in the film occurs when, while piloting through a cloud of mist, the office towers of Baltimore, actually shot in Toronto, suddenly materialize, and office workers see the little girl and her geese flying past their windows. While watching that, I felt a lump in my throat and goosebumps on my neck.

In the final screen credits, it is revealed that all 16 geese, including Igor, who had been injured, and rode the whole way with Amy in her ultralight, returned to the Aldens’ farm the next spring, safely, and on their own.

It is a heart-warming story as you get captivated by the dedication of the family, and the steadfastness of the geese. I highly recommend it.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

When was the last time the Kansas City Chiefs appeared in a Super Bowl?

Answer can be found here.