SCORES & OUTDOORS: What is Aylostera Vulpina?


by Roland D. Hallee

It’s simply amazing what you come across in the woods of Maine. Last weekend, while preparing to open camp for the season, my wife and I were helping some friends next door do some raking and leaf pickup, when the wife showed me something that she had raked up. It looked kind of odd. OK, something else I had never seen in the 29 years my wife and I have been there.

It was round, like an orb, a little smaller than a tennis ball. Brown in color, with black bristles all over the exterior. At one end was a hole with what appeared to be dried mud inside.

That evening, I perused through the myriad of books I own and found nothing that really resembled it. The closest I came was that of a milkweed stock, but still didn’t look the same. So, I turned to my contact at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, in Augusta. His initial thought was a gall, but he would confer with his botanist colleagues.

Basically, a gall is a kind of swelling growth on the external tissues of plants or animals. They are abnormal outgrowths of plant tissues, similar to benign tumors or warts on animals. They are caused by various parasites, from fungi and bacteria, to insects and mites. They are highly organized structures and because of this the cause of the gall can often be determined without the actual agent being identified. In human pathology, a gall is a raised sore on the skin, usually caused by chafing or rubbing.

In the end, what we had found was not a gall.

Several emails later, my contact replied following some consultations with the botanists, and were wondering if it might be a Chestnut gall. This would only be possible if we had a mature Chestnut tree on the premises. There are none that we are aware.

What we found, left, and what we think it is.

Then, another state botanist, Don Cameron, concluded that there are no trees in Maine with galls that have multiple spines from the same attachment point and therefore he speculated that it was most likely a cactus house plant that was thrown away in the yard some time ago.

He concluded the orb was possibly that of the Aylostera vulpina plant, a cactus that is native to Bolivia and Argentina, but very popular as house potted plants. In the wilds of South America, they grow at altitudes of 3,400 – 3,900 feet. I was not able to find a common name for them.

The plant is easy to grow and recommended for beginners. They prefer a gritty, porous soil mix with a pH slightly on the acidic side. Full sun to light shade. The root system is rot prone so watering should be monitored closely.

It’s recommended to let the pot dry out before adding water. It is winter hardy and will sustain temperatures below freezing. They require a winter rest period.

This species of cactus will occupy a small flower pot comfortably and remain a manageable sized house plant. The flower is bright red with scarlet petal tips and white stigma.

They are subject to mealy-bug attacks and to fungus and rot brought on by over-watering and high humidity.

It appears that in cultivation they grow larger and cluster more vigorously than in the wild.

The site where the pod was found has had a high turnover rate in the past 6 – 10 years so could very conceivably have been a potted house plant. The area had not been raked in quite some time.

I guess, for the time anyway, we have solved another “mystery” at camp.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: The return of the phoebe


by Roland D. Hallee

Several years ago – there seems to be disagreement when it was – we had an Eastern phoebe build a nest under the awning, on a cross beam that abuts our camp. We watched as the female incubated the eggs, and my wife had the opportunity to witness the last of the chicks leave the nest.

Well, I think it’s about to happen again, and to quote the late, great Yogi Berra, “it’s déja vu all over again!” We noticed an Eastern phoebe hanging around last Sunday when we went to camp to assess the winter damage and begin the clean up. She seemed to be scoping out the area for a potential site for a nest.

In the past, the female arrived and began building the nest sometime after May 1. When we moved out to camp for the summer on May 9, the nest was about half complete. Even with the increase in traffic, the bird continued on its mission of finishing the task it had begun, despite the fact that the nest was about two feet from the door to the camp, in the exact location the other bird had chosen a few years back.

eastern phoebe

There were four eggs in the nest. We determined this by taking a mirror, placing it on a stick and looking inside the nest. The female, at that point, would leave the nest every time the door opened. They were all phoebe eggs. The Eastern phoebe is occasionally host to the nest-parasitic brown-headed cowbird.

As the incubation period approached its end, she was a little more reluctant to leave the nest unattended. She was more tolerant of our presence and did not leave the nest after sunset, regardless of the commotion that was going on around her.

Returning north at the beginning of spring, sometimes before the snow has left, these early arrivals are unmistakable. They pump their tails up and down, as only phoebes can. They have remarkably large heads, and the straight-up feathers on their heads are far too short to make a respectable crest.

In inhabited areas, the phoebes like to build their nests under bridges, porches, eaves and sheds. They will practically move in on favored homeowners – which I suppose is what we became – who may then be lucky enough to watch the construction of their moss and mud nests, the hatching of the eggs, the feeding of the young, and finally the fledgling of the brood as they take their first awkward flights, all things that we have been fortunate enough to observe.

Phoebes will frequently return to the same nest sites year after year, which we have discovered.

Although only the female incubates the eggs, both parents share in the feeding of the young. They generally will raise two broods a year, sometimes three. In our case, the last experience with them was only one brood, because we deduced that because of the many times she leaves the nest in our presence, it may take longer than the customary 14-17 days to incubate.

The young will leave the nest approximately two weeks after hatching.

The nest is an open cup with a mud base (makes a mess on the windows) and lined with moss and fine grass stems and hair.

Although the book on the phoebes indicate they are loners, and that even during egg laying the female will chase away the male, the pair that we have stay close. While the female is in the nest, the male is never too far away. We witnessed the male attack a Baltimore Oriole that had landed on the edge of the roof, eight feet away from the nest.

When we go back to camp this weekend, we will try to find if the phoebe has found a place to nest. The beam that once was home for these birds is no longer there. I’ll keep an eye on the outbuildings.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: A fish story to top them all


by Roland D. Hallee

I have been an avid fisherman for the better part of the past five decades. I have fished for many different species, under various weather conditions with some unusual experiences. But I have never had one fall out of the sky…until this week.
Now, I know recreational marijuana use is legal in Maine, but I swear on my mother’s grave I don’t touch the stuff.

When I arrived home from work last Wednesday, there it was, on the walkway from my driveway to the side door, a yellow perch, completely intact, with rigor mortis very well established. Since my hands were full, I figured I’d go back out to take care of it later.

Once in the house, I forgot about the fish until the next morning when I left the house to head to work. It was still there. I kicked it over to the side so no one would accidentally step on it, and proceeded to work. I returned that afternoon, and it was still there. I went in the house, dumped my briefcase and laptop, and headed out to take care of the situation.

The fish had disappeared, just as quickly as it had appeared. Strange to say the least.

Since I live about 400 yards from the Kennebec River, where there is a large population of sea gulls, crows, and a nesting pair of bald eagles, I figured one of them may have inadvertently dropped it during a mid-flight skirmish with another bird over the fish. I have witnessed such encounters in the past. Why it stayed there for two days before being reclaimed, or discovered by another bird, or even ground animal, is a mystery.

With that in mind, I have received the first fishing report of the season from Mark Latti, of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife for our region.

The report, dated April 21, states the Belgrade Lakes are still ice bound except for some places where open water exists. I would think, though, that by now, they are probably free of ice. Anglers are catching up to 19-inch rainbow trout in Long Pond.
In our area, the best spot right now for landlocked salmon and brown trout is at Lake St. George, in Liberty, according to IF&W biologist Jason Seiders.

Alford Lake, in Hope, is another place to visit this time of year. Reports from there indicate brown trout in the eight pound range, according to trapnetting that was conducted last fall. Seiders thinks there may be some even bigger ones this spring. Also, humpback white perch, ranging up to two pounds, have been caught.

With the spring runoff, many area streams are overflowing their banks, making fishing a little difficult right now. Messalonskee and Belgrade streams have not yet been stocked, but should be in the near future.

A little further north, below the Wyman Dam, reports are showing excellent early season fishing of salmon and rainbow. IFW staff “conducted creel surveys there and interviewed one group that caught 20 salmon, and released all but one,” according to Seiders.

Also, taking into consideration the past history, the alewives should begin to run at the dam on Webber Pond during the first week or two of May.

Open water fishing is well underway – I saw a couple of bass fisherman on China Lake this week – so it’s time to get the gear out, prepare the boat, and head out on the great Maine lakes and streams, but keep an eye out above.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Eulogy for a little friend


by Roland D. Hallee

I always knew this day would come eventually. I always had it in the back of my mind that it wouldn’t be any time soon. It has taken me three weeks, but I have finally come to grips with it.

This is a story about a pet.

His name is Dudley. He is a Holland Lop rabbit. Born on May 16, 2007, he came to us on July 7, 2007. How he got his name is kind of a cute story. You see, he was supposed to be my wife’s, although you would never know it by the way I spoiled him.

From left, Dudley, two weeks after we acquired him, on July 24, 2007; full grown adult in 2014; eating Cheerios from a miniature champagne glass. Photos by Roland D. Hallee

Dudley was born in a litter of 12 rabbits, as the runt. We have photos of him at a very young age, keeping to himself in the back of the cage. A place he would not stay for very long. Anyway, my wife has always loved the film Arthur, starring diminutive Dudley Moore, who stood only 5 feet 3 inches tall. My wife also had a love for the actor. So, she decided to name the rabbit Arthur. That’s when I stepped in and suggested Dudley, since that was the man’s name who played the character Arthur in the film. So Dudley it was!

Once we got him home, he would never again spend any time locked up in a cage. He had the run of the house. We purchased a collapsible dog kennel as his “getaway” space, and quickly litter box trained him.

In the early years he would run, jump, twist, and literally do acrobatic stunts, to our delight and entertainment. We had many a good belly laugh watching him go through his antics. He spent his time between camp in the summer, and home during the winter. Everyone who knew Dudley loved him. He was extremely social, and enjoyed being around my wife and I. He very often would give us love “kisses.” There were times when we thought he was almost human. The stories about him abounded with our friends and family. My favorite is when I would alert people of his presence behind the outside door. I would tell them, “Watch out for the rabbit, and don’t let him out no matter what he tells you.” Dudley became a legend in his own time.

My kids, I think, actually became jealous of him.

Once, when he was between 12 and 15 weeks old, we were given his sister to care for who had been a little dehydrated. My wife made sure the sister had plenty of water, and gave it an occasional spray water bath, all the time keeping it in a dark, cool area. But, in our opinion, it was Dudley who nursed her back to health. He spent his time huddled next to her and constantly licked her coat in an attempt to soothe her. Remarkable, was all we could think at the time. She was later able to return to her caretakers.

Of course, as the years passed, he began to slow down, like the rest of us. During his prime, he weighed 5.4 pounds, actually a little overweight for a lop.

It is the opinion of my wife and I that Holland Lops are the best rabbits in the world. Dudley was not a dwarf rabbit, but rather known as mini lops. He had a wonderful temperament, curious as all outdoors, and was easily trained. One of the remarkable characteristics of his, was that he did not fear the vacuum cleaner. You would think a small animal would not know what to make of a modern human contraption that makes a lot of noise, and run and hide. He would actually come right up to it (remember what I said about his curiosity). He was not fearful of other animals, particularly small dogs. Again, his curiosity would lead him to investigate what this other animal was that was invading his space. All-in-all, nothing really bothered Dudley. He was about as layed back as an animal could be.

And a story about Dudley would not be complete if we didn’t mention his love affair with Cheerios. The rabbit was addicted. He would do anything for them as a treat. At times, when I felt he had too many or he wasn’t being a “good boy,” I would ignore him. He would actually stretch as far as he could, and nip me in my inner thigh while I sat in my chair. It goes without saying he would get my attention. He would even get Cheerios from relatives and friends at Christmas.

I could go on about the experiences we had with this adorable pet, but space doesn’t allow it. All I can say is that I would have another one (but the pain of losing him was tremendous), and recommend them as a pet for adults. They don’t particularly like to be picked up and held, although in time, Dudley learned to accept it.

The average life expectancy of a mini lop is seven years. Dudley passed suddenly, in my arms, on March 31, 2017, 45 days shy of his 10th birthday. As far as we know, he was the last survivor of his litter.

Goodbye, little friend, may you rest in peace.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Brook trout fishing is on the horizon


by Roland D. Hallee

The weather has warmed, the snow is melting and the streams are bustling with activity as the spring runoff is in full swing.

A party of six anglers landed these 22 brook trout on a trip to Nesowadnehunk Lake several years ago. Contributed photo

On a recent trip to Vermont, my wife and I saw many streams along the route swelling their banks and looking primed for brook trout fishing.

I have been on many a brook trout fishing trip, mostly to Nesowadnehunk Lake in northern Maine where the lake is exclusively brook trout – fly fishing only.

The meat of the brook trout, in my humble opinion, is the best tasting and sweetest of all the fish species, including salmon, probably because they are of the same family of Salmonidae. We have consumed many a brook trout by simply cooking them straight over a wood fired, outside fireplace, with no seasoning whatsoever.

The Eastern Brook Trout, Salvelinus fontinalis, varies in size depending on water temperature, productivity and food sources. Brook trout sizes will range from 7-1/2 to 17-1/2 inches in different lakes and streams. The stream brook trout is slower growing and usually much smaller than their lake relatives.

The brook trout is also known in other parts of its range as speckled trout, squaretail, mud trout and brook charr.

KI Jo-Mary Multiple Use Management Forest is a 175,000-acre, privately-owned, commercial forest located between Millinocket, Greenville and Brownville. Included within its boundaries are over 30 miles of the Appalachian Trail, the Gulf of Hagas Reserve, the Hermitage, the east and west branches of the Pleasant River, White Brook, more than 50 lakes and ponds and over 100 miles of brooks, streams, and rivers.

The brook trout has a dark green to brown color, with a distinctive marbled pattern of lighter shades across the flanks and back, and extending at least to the dorsal fin, and often to the tail. A distinctive sprinkling of red dots, surrounded by blue halos, occurs along the flanks. The belly and lower fins are reddish in color, the latter with white leading edges. Often the underparts, especially in the males, becomes very red or orange when the fish are spawning.

The brook trout’s range is varied but are increasingly becoming confined to higher elevations. Their southern range has been drastically reduced, with fish being restricted to higher-elevation, remote streams due to habitat loss and introductions of brown and rainbow trout.

They prefer clear water of high purity and a narrow pH range caused by environmental effects such as acid rain. Warm summer temperatures and low water flow rates are stressful on the brook trout populations, especially larger fish.

Brook trout have a diverse diet that includes larval, pupal, and adult forms of aquatic insects, and adult forms of terrestrial insects. The brook trout we catch at “The Hunk,” as the lake is known locally, had large amounts of crayfish in their stomachs.

Kassie Brunette, of Belgrade, displays a brook trout she caught last summer while fishing in the Jo-Mary Multiple Use Manage­ment Forest, in northern Maine.

Until the introduction of brown and rainbow trout, the brook trout attracted the most attention among anglers, especially fly-fishermen, from colonial times through the first 100 years of U.S. history. Following the decline in brook trout populations in the mid-19th century, anglers flocked to the Adirondacks in upstate New York and the Rangeley Lakes region in Maine to pursue the brook trout.

The world record brook trout was caught by Dr. W. J. Cook on the Nipigon River, in Ontario, in July 1915, at 31 inches. The weight couldn’t be confirmed because the badly decomposed fish weighed only 14.5 pounds after having been in the bush without refrigeration for 21 days.

Brook trout in North America became extirpated from many waterways due to land development, forest clear-cutting, and industrialization. Streams and creeks became polluted, dammed, or silted. The brown trout, not native to North America, has replaced the brook trout in many of its native waters.

Let’s just hope the many clean, pure waterways we still have in Maine remain that way to sustain the fate of the brook trout in a positive way. In some lakes where brook trout is supreme, we anglers always fear the possibility of other species being introduced illegally. We must remain vigilant.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Eastern cottontail numbers affect lynx population


by Roland D. Hallee

Walking through the woods following a snowfall can show evidence of many wildlife tracks. One that I saw recently was that of the Eastern Cottontail rabbit.

The Eastern Cottontail, Salvilagus floridanus, is actually a New World cottontail rabbit, a member of the family Leporidae. It is one of the most common rabbit species in North America.

Here in Maine, its numbers has a profound affect on the Canada lynx population. The survival rate of the lynx is dependent on a healthy cottontail population.

The Eastern Cottontail is chunky red-brown or gray-brown in appearance with large hind feet, long ears and a short fluffy white tail. Its underside fur is white. There is a rusty patch on the tail.

Eastern cottontail

Its appearance differs from that of a hare in that it has a brownish-gray coloring around the head and neck. The body is lighter color with a white underside on the tail. It has large brown eyes to see and large ears to listen for danger. In the winter, its coloring is more gray than brown. The kittens develop the same coloring after a few weeks, but they also have a white blaze that goes down their forehead. This marking eventually disappears. The average adult weighs between 2-4 pounds. However, the female tends to be heavier.

They can be found in the eastern and southwestern United States, southern Canada, eastern Mexico all the way down to South America. Originally, it was not found in New England, but it has been introduced here and now competes for habitat with the native New England cottontail.

The rabbits are active at night, and do not hibernate in winter. Predators include hawks, owls, coyotes, wolves and the aforementioned lynx. On farms and in gardens, they are considered pests and are often trapped or shot to protect plants.

Mating occurs from February to September. Males will mate with more than one female. Females have 2 to 4 large litters of up to nine young in a year. After the female has given birth to her offspring, she can mate again immediately thereafter. The kittens are weaned after three weeks and leave the nest after seven weeks. The kittens then reach mating age after three months.

The Eastern cottontail is a very territorial animal. When running, it can jump from 15 feet, which can aid in avoiding predators. When chased, it runs in a zigzag pattern so the animal chasing it will lose its scent, making the rabbit harder to follow. They can run up to 18 miles per hour. The cottontail prefers an area where it can hide quickly but be out in the open. Forests, swamps, thickets, bushes or open areas where it can dig a burrow are optimal habitation sites for this species.

I had one appear in my backyard a few years ago and seemed to have settled in very well. It apparently found a buffet of clover that grows wild around my garden area. It stayed around for about a week. Unfortunately, although it seemed content where it was, the constant attempt of neighborhood kids to capture it led it to run off in a desperate escape attempt on several occasions. I found it dead one Sunday morning, apparently the victim of a road kill collision with a car.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Redpoll comes calling to feeders


by Roland D. Hallee

Like I do every Saturday morning during the winter, I stand at my kitchen window, while I’m waiting for the Keurig to brew my first cup of coffee, and watch the bird feeders. The usual cast of characters come and go. However, last Saturday, I caught a glimpse of what looked like a redpoll.

I’ve seen them at the feeders before, but it’s been a while. That, in itself, is not unusual because redpolls are Arctic birds and are members of a group known as northern finches. They are denizens of the taiga and tundra, but will move south every couple of years in what is called irruptions. Irruptions occur when these birds, who normally reside in high latitudes, move south in large numbers. It is generally agreed these irruptions are triggered by shortages of food in their normal ranges.

In North America, irruptions among seed eaters include Pine Siskin, Purple Finch, Pine Grosbeak, Evening Grosbeak, White-winged Crossbill and Redpolls. The Red-breasted Nuthatch will also come south during invasion years.

male redpoll

male redpoll

Redpolls, Carduelis flammea, are about 5 – 5-1/2 inches long with a wingspan of around 8-1/2 inches. They have a red cap, black chin, reddish wash on the breast, pink rump, somewhat forked tail, whitish under parts and overall brownish stripes. What is unusual about these birds is that they are relatively tame and show little or no fear for humans. It is believed that is because they live so far north away from human habitations. They can be confused with the house finch to the casual observer. I know I was when I first saw one.

Your next question would be, how do these little birds survive the winters of the tundra? Around the Arctic regions, winters last up to six months and temperatures plunge well below freezing. Research has shown that redpolls are able to survive temperatures down to -89 degrees F.

They have built-in heating systems. One of the most important anatomical adaptations is what is called their esophageal diverticulum, a partially bi-lobed pocket situated in the neck. They use the pocket to store seeds, especially before nightfall or before a storm. The extra seeds allow them to feed while sheltering from the cold. They also do like other species, by fluffing their feathers to trap layers of air to insulate their body to greatly reduce heat loss.

Redpolls will sometimes burrow into the snow to escape the cold weather. Under the snow, temperatures will remain at about -24° F even when air temperatures drop to -49° F.

Redpolls are attracted to backyard feeders, especially thistle seeds. In fact, the genus name Carduelis comes from the Latin Carduus, which means Thistle. Well-stocked feeders that attract finches will most likely attract Redpolls. One of our feeders is a fully stuffed sock of thistle seeds. Although I have not seen another redpoll to this date, I’m sure that is what attracted that one.

But, with redpolls, where there is one, there are many more. Outside the breeding season, they can form large flocks, which sometimes includes mixing with other finches. We have an unusually large number of American goldfinch at our feeders, so I’m wondering if the redpolls have intermingled.

Their main habitat consists of thickets and birches. In winter, they prefer semi-open country, including woodland edges and brushy or weedy fields. During the breeding season, they hang out in clearings of birch or spruce forest, thickets of willow, alder, or dwarf birch, bush areas on the tundra.

They are widespread and abundant, and are not listed as a bird of concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Between 1955 and 2000, 342,158 Common Redpolls were banded. Of these, 698 were encountered at locations away from where they were banded. Studies show redpolls live up to eight years in the wild.

If you have thistle in your feeders, be on the lookout for them.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Skunks are not pests that everyone thinks

Roland D. HalleeSCORES

by Roland D. Hallee

“You got yer dead skunk in the middle of the road, dead skunk in the middle of the road; You got yer dead skunk in the middle of the road, stinkin’ to high heaven.”

Those lyrics to the song by Loudon Wainwright III tend to speak the truth this time of the year. With the warmer weather during the day, skunks are finding their way out of the winter dens.

Skunk preparing to dig up an in-ground bee hive.

A dead skunk by the side of the road in North Vassalboro last Sunday is witness to that rite of spring.

Skunks are placid, retiring and non-aggressive by nature. They try very hard not to get in harm’s way. I’ve had several encounters with skunks and have been able to “talk my way” out of trouble. Some people call me the “skunk whisperer.” Speaking to them in a soft, calm, yet firm voice will convince them that you, also, mean no harm.

“Crossin’ the highway late last night
He shoulda looked left, and he shoulda looked right;
He didn’t see the station wagon car,
The skunk got squashed and there you are.”

Skunks eat mostly insects, many of which are pests to humans. Therefore, they are very beneficial to have around. They also eat some plant material, including wild fruits, apples and corn. In winter and spring, they may eat mice and the eggs of ground-nesting birds. In the summer, they find inground bee hives to be a delicacy.

Above, the aftermath. Note the honeycomb to the left.

Breeding usually occurs in late winter or early spring and gestation averages about 60-75 days, so babies are usually born in May or June. Second litters and late births do occur. After mating, a female can store the male’s sperm and delay initiating pregnancy for some weeks. Litters range from three to as many as 10 young who remain in the nest for about two months, after which they begin to follow their mom as she forages.

Skunks are able to dig their own burrows but will also use abandoned dens of other animals, hollow logs, wood or rock piles, under buildings, stone walls, hay or brush piles and trees or stumps. We had a family of five once reside under our deck at camp. Had I not observed them going under there at dawn one day, I would never have known they were there.

“Take a whiff on me, that ain’t no rose,
Roll up yer window and hold your nose.
You don’t have to look and you don’t have to see,
‘Cause you can feel it in your olfactory.”

The skunk’s main defense is a complex chemical substance that includes sulfuric acid that can be fired from either one or two independently targetable anal glands. Because of this ability, skunks will stand and face a threat rather than run away. This works well with people and animals but is usely against cars. As a result, many skunks die on roadways. They just can’t seem to win that battle.

Skunks generally will give you ample warning before unloading its odoriferous defense system. Each year, many skunks are killed because someone is afraid of getting sprayed. Those who are familiar with skunks know that it takes a lot to get sprayed. Hopefully, through education, people will come to recognize and understand the role these mild animals play and the benefits of tolerating their presence.

Skunks can carry rabies, but it is important to remember that not every skunk is rabid. Only if an adult skunk seen in the daytime is showing abnormal behaviors such as paralysis, unprovoked aggression, moving in circles, or self-mutilation should you call your animal control officer or police department.

“Yeah, you got your dead cat and you got yer dead dog,
On a moonlight night you got yer dead toad frog;
Got yer dead rabbit and yer dead raccoon,
The blood and guts, they’re gonna make you swoon.”

They can be frightening when you encounter one, especially in the middle of the night, but these critters are kind of nice to have around at times. I remember one time when I came out of the house in early morning to fetch my newspaper, and found a large hole dug in the side lawn. At first I was upset at the sight. Closer inspection showed that a skunk had dug up a hornets nest that I did not know even existed. It could have brought some painful consequences the next time I mowed my lawn. I still thank that skunk to this day.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Are robins truly sign of spring?


Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

According to the calendar, spring is about 10 days away, as of this writing. Many people, as of late, have been telling me about robin sightings – a sure sign of spring. But… is that a fact or a myth? Let’s explore.

The American robin, Turdus migratorius, is a migratory songbird, belonging to the thrush family. It is widely distributed throughout North America, wintering from southern Canada to central Mexico.

The American robin is the second most populous bird in North America, behind only the red-winged blackbird, and just ahead of the European starling, in their numbers. With an estimated population of 320 million individuals, the bird is not threatened with population decline. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) evaluates the robin as least concern. At one point, the bird was killed for its meat, but it is now protected throughout its range in the United States by the Migratory Bird Act. So, look but don’t touch.

Its natural predators include hawks, cats, and snakes, but when feeding in flocks, it can be vigilant and watch other birds for reactions to predators. Brown cowbirds have been known to use robin nests to lay their eggs, but are generally rejected.

The robins’ diet consists of 40 percent small insects, to 60 percent wild and cultivated fruits and berries. Their ability to switch to berries allows them to winter much further north than most other thrushes. They love fermented berries, and don’t be surprised to see them fall over from intoxication should they consume large amounts of these berries. However, they are still attracted to the good old-fashioned earthworm.

The male and female resemble each other, with the female having the tendency for the red breast to be a bit duller in color.

Now that we have learned a little about the bird, what about that robin-and-spring correlation.

Robins breed throughout most of North America, from Alaska and Canada southward to northern Florida and Mexico. This is where the controversy begins. Although not backed by any scientific evidence, I have spoken with people who say they have robins in their backyards all winter long. Well, that is quite possible. Although robins prefer to migrate south of Canada to Florida, the Gulf Coast to central Mexico, they will occasionally overwinter in the northern part of the United States and southern Canada. Most going south will depart by the end of August, returning in February and March.

But, as much as we like to see these fellas toward the end of winter, and the anticipation of warmer weather, they can also be a hazard to humans. They are a known carrier of the West Nile virus. While crows and blue jays are often the first noticed death in an area, the American robin is suspected to be a key host, and holds a larger responsibility for the transmission of the virus to humans. This is because, while crows and blue jays die quickly from the virus, American robins survive the virus longer, thus spreading it to more mosquitoes, who then transmit the virus to humans and other species.

The robin also has a place in Native American mythology. The story goes how the robin got its red breast by fanning the dying flames of a campfire to save a Native American man and a boy. Also, the superhero Robin was so named by his mother because he was born on the first day of spring, with his red shirt suggesting the bird’s red breast.

The robin probably became a symbol of spring from a well-known poem by Emily Dickinson, titled I Dreaded That First Robin So.” Also, based on a Québec supersitition, by the wife of Dr. William H. Drummond, that whoever sees the first robin of spring will have good luck.

But the primary reason the robin is associated with spring is based on the fact that robins tend to follow the 37° F isotherm – a type of equal temperature at a given date or time on a geographic map – north in spring, but also south in fall. The sooner the temperatures warm, the sooner they begin their journey north.

Hopefully, that clears up the picture a little bit. Right?

SCORES & OUTDOORS: How do birds stay warm in cold weather?


by Roland D. Hallee

Last week we took a look at how white-tailed deer keep warm during those cold winter days and nights. As you remember, that was perpetrated by my watching birds at my wife’s feeders during the blizzard of February 12-13. So, let’s talk about how those little feathered friends keep warm during those times.

First of all, I was astonished as I watched the birds come in and out of the feeders during the height of the storm that dumped upwards of 24-28 inches of snow in central Maine, with winds gusting to 25-30 miles per hour.

Birds are warm-blooded animals that have a much higher temperature than humans, usually in the range of 105 degrees, as compared to our 98.6 degrees. Body temperatures can vary during daylight hours but it can challenge the birds during the night to maintain such a high body heat.

Smaller birds run more of a risk of body heat loss since they have a proportionately larger surface area on their bodies to lose heat but a smaller core volume to generate it.

Birds have different ways to maintain body heat during cold weather. Their feathers provide remarkable insulation, and many species will actually grow extra feathers as part of a late fall molt to give them thicker protection in the winter. Oil also coats their feathers to provide, not only insulation, but waterproofing.

Their legs and feet are covered with scales to minimize heat loss. By constricting blood flow to their extremities, they can also reduce body heat loss even further.

Then, there is the old standby: adding body fat reserves to serve as insulation and extra energy for generating body heat. They will gorge themselves in the fall when food sources are abundant.

Another way to produce insulation from the cold is to fluff their feathers. That enables air pockets to be created, keeping them toasty warm. Also, it is not unusual to see birds standing on one leg or crouched to cover both legs with their feathers to shield them from the cold. They also tuck their beaks into their shoulder feathers for protection, and to breathe air warmed from their body heat.

On sunny days, they will perch with their backs to the sun to maximize the exposure area of their body.They raise their wings to allow the skin and feathers to absorb as much of the sun’s heat as possible, even spreading or drooping their wings while sunning.

If you see a bird shivering, don’t worry. They do this to raise their metabolic rate and generate more body heat as a short term solution in extreme cold.

Many small birds will gather in large flocks at night and crowd together in an attempt to share their collective body heat. Even individually, they will roost in places that may contain residual heat from the day’s sunlight.

But, there is something called torpor that birds will use to conserve energy during the cold nights. Torpor is a state of reduced metabolism when the body temperature is lowered, therefore requiring fewer calories to maintain the proper heat. Birds can lower their body temperature from 22 to 50 degrees. Torpor, however, can be dangerous as reduced temperature also leads to slower reactions and greater vulnerability to predators.

Even with all of these Mother Nature-built in safeguards, mortality rate among birds can run high during extreme winters. You can help.

During winter, keep your feeders cleared of snow and filled with good food, offer liquid water, and provide shelter. You can build brush piles or protective boxes if you have no natural shelters. I think one of the reasons we have as many birds during winter as we have is because birds are attracted to coniferous trees. My wife and I have three rather large pine trees in our backyard, providing them with plenty of protection from the weather.

Mother Nature, again, provides for its creatures, large or small.