SCORES & OUTDOORS: A ferret could save your life some day, seriously

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

In a published report by Matthew R. Bailey, president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research, up to 41.3 million Americans contracted the flu this season, according to the latest estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 500,000 people have been hospitalized because of the virus. Thousands of people have already died of the disease.

But an end to flu seasons altogether may not be far off. Several research teams are working on the first “universal vaccine,” capable of fighting multiple strains of the virus. Such a treatment could effectively wipe out the disease.

These researchers’ chief obstacle isn’t science but politics. Some radical activists are pushing lawmakers to ban the use of animals in medical research — like studies for a universal flu vaccine. Curbing animal research will consign countless people to preventable suffering and death.

Flu season tends to elicit little more than a shrug from most people. But it’s surprisingly deadly. Each year, the influenza virus kills as many as 650,000 people worldwide. Last flu season, more than 900,000 Americans were hospitalized and 80,000 died — the most in 40 years.

The death toll would be far worse if not for medical advances made possible by animal research. Tamiflu, the first oral antiviral of its kind, was developed thanks to research in mice, dogs, rats, and ferrets. Scientists created the flu vaccine via research in chickens.

The vaccines and treatments currently on the market don’t provide total protection against influenza. There are many different strains of the virus, so it’s tough to predict which strains will be most prevalent in any given year.

That’s problematic, because vaccines are manufactured months before flu season starts. If those vaccines don’t match the virus strain that’s circulating in a given year, people can fall ill despite having received their shots.

Patients desperately need new and better treatment options. And thankfully, research in animals is yielding insights that could lead to universal flu vaccines.

Consider the work of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania. They are developing a universal vaccine. When they inoculated mice, rabbits, and ferrets with the experimental therapy, the animals’ antibody responses lasted for over 30 weeks — long enough to be effective throughout flu season. The team intends to advance to human trials in the next two years.

And then there’s the research in llamas. Just a few months ago, a paper published in the journal Science posited that a nasal spray containing antibodies from llamas could be the key to universal flu prevention.

Despite the promise of this research, many activists remain committed to ending animal trials.

They believe that computer models and cell cultures are complete alternatives to animal research. But even the most powerful computers are insufficient to simulate all the chemical and biological processes at work in a living organism fighting a pathogen like the flu. Cell cultures can’t capture all the other action going on inside a living body — some of which may have an unforeseen impact on its effort to fight an invader like the influenza virus.

Ferret models have yielded especially informative insights for researchers, since two of the most common flu strains in humans also naturally infect these animals.

Within a decade, scientists could feasibly wipe out the all-too-common influenza virus, which kills hundreds of thousands of people each year – as long as activists don’t deprive them of the essential research.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Who is the NFL’s all-time leading rusher?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: In case you hadn’t noticed, tick season has already arrived in central Maine

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

It’s the time of year when you start to hear horror stories about deer ticks. I have already heard more than I really want to this early.

People have told me about letting their dogs out, only to come back covered in ticks. My granddaughter’s husband told me he went to cut up some downed trees, and came home to pick 10 ticks off himself. Neighbors at camp are all bundled up as they do outdoor clean up. Long-sleeved shirts, sweatshirts, pants tucked into socks. Not exactly what I would call a fashion show, especially when they are wearing striped socks.

The deer tick’s actual name is black-legged tick, Ixodes scapularus.

It is all too well known that the deer tick can transmit the painful Lyme disease, but can also pass on anaplasmosis, babesiosis, deer tick virus encephalitis, and a relapsing fever illness caused by a different spirochete spiral-shaped bacteria.

Deer ticks first appeared in Maine in the southern counties in the 1980s. They advanced along the coast and then found their way inland. It can now be encountered in northern Maine. They are prominent in mixed forests and along the woodland edges of fields and suburban landscapes. They are present nationally throughout northeast and in north-central states. They are present in the south, but because they feed primarily on non-infectious hosts there, Lyme disease is far less common.

A mated adult female deer tick, after having obtained a blood meal from a white-tailed deer, dog, cat or other large mammal in the fall or early spring, can lay as many as 3,000 eggs in late May and early June. Uninfected larvae emerge in mid-summer and soon seek a blood meal, primarily from mice, other small mammals and certain songbirds. Many of the animals they feed on, particularly mice and chipmunks, will have been previously infected with Lyme, and other tick-borne diseases; it is from these “reservoir hosts” that deer ticks become infected.

After over-wintering, larvae molt to nymphs which seek a second blood meal in the spring, passing on the infections they acquired as larvae to the next year’s crop of small mammal/avian hosts.

Nymphs may also feed on humans, dogs and horses, and other hosts. Their tiny size and painless bites may allow them to remain undetected through the approximately 36 hours it takes for the infection to be transmitted from a feeding tick. Once they’ve had their fill of blood, deer tick nymphs drop to the leaf litter, and in early fall molt to adult males and females.

Most human Lyme disease results from the bite of undiscovered nymphs in the summer. In Maine, nymphs peak in late June and July, which is when approximately 65 percent of the human cases of Lyme disease are reported. Dogs and other domestic animals are more frequently infected in the fall and spring by adult ticks which escape detection.

The life cycle of a deer tick generally lasts two years. During this time, they go through four life stages: eggs, six-legged larva, eight-legged nymph, and adult. Once they hatch, they must have a blood meal at every stage to survived.

Ticks can’t fly or jump, instead they wait for a host, resting on the tips of grasses and shrubs in a position known as “questing.” While questing, ticks hold onto leaves and grass by their lower legs. They hold their upper pair of legs outstretched waiting to climb onto a passing host. When a host brushes the spot where a tick is waiting, it quickly climbs aboard. It then finds a suitable place to bite its host.

Depending on the tick species and its life stage, preparing to feed can take from 10 minutes to two hours. When the tick finds a feeding spot, it grasps the skin and cuts into the surface. The tick then inserts its feeding tube. Many species also secrete a cement-like substance that keeps them firmly attached. Some have barbs which help keep the tick in place. Ticks also secrete a small amount of saliva with anesthetic properties so the animal or person can’t feel that the tick has attached itself. If the tick is in a sheltered spot, usually around the hairline, it can go undetected.

If the host animal has certain blood-borne infections, such as the Lyme disease agent, the tick may ingest the pathogen and become infected, then in turn, later feeds on a human, that human can become infected.

Following the feeding, the tick drops off and prepares for the next life stage. At its next feeding, it can then transmit the infection to the new host. Once infected, a tick can transmit infection throughout its life.

Removing the tick quickly, within 24 hours, can greatly reduce your chances of getting Lyme disease. It takes time for the tick to transmit the infection, so the longer the tick is attached, the more chances a human is of contracting Lyme disease.

Over the years, I have been fortunate to have dealt with only four deer ticks, especially where I spend so much time outdoors. For the first one I went to the emergency room to have it removed. The other three were quickly dispatched upon discovering them. If you spend a lot of time outdoors, it is wise to do a complete check once you move indoors. It’s never too early to pull off a deer tick once it is found.

Information for this column was acquired from the Maine Medical Center Research Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Which boxer inflicted Muhammad Ali’s first defeat in professional boxing?

Answer can be found here.

FLYING SQUIRREL: A couple of weeks ago I wrote about flying squirrels in Maine. Their existence was confirmed by Kimberly Chase Hutchinson who shared this photo with the comment, “Yup, had one in my Christmas tree this past Christmas.”

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Porcupines seem to be everywhere this spring

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

While on my way to work this week, I saw no less than five dead porcupines on the side of the road. The thought then came into my mind: Porcupines, nuisance or ecological necessity?

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

Simply put, porcupines are rodents. That puts them in the same class, and are actually related, with raccoons, rats and beavers. They are indigenous to the Americas, Southern Asia, Europe and Africa. They are the third largest of the rodents, behind the capybara and beaver.

They can grow in size to be 25 – 36 inches long with an 8 to 10-inch tail, and weigh from 12 – 35 pounds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Native American quill art

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

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

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

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

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

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

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

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Yes, there are flying squirrels in Maine

flying squirrel

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

Did you know flying squirrels exist in Maine? Well, be it known that Maine is home to the northern flying squirrel.

The northern flying squirrel, Glaucomys sabrinus, is one of two species of the animal, the only flying squirrels found in North America. The northern flying squirrel is found in coniferous and mixed forests across the top of North America, from Alaska to Nova Scotia, south to North Carolina and west to California. The flying squirrel was placed on the protection list on June 6, 2011, by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

If you want to see a flying squirrel, you will have to be an early riser, because the flying squirrel, unlike its cousins, is nocturnal. All other North American squirrels are active during the day.

Arboreal rodents, they have thick light brown or cinnamon fur on their upper body. A furry membrane extends between the front and rear legs, and allows the animal to glide through the air. It’s grayish on the flanks and whitish underneath. They have large eyes and a flat tail. They can also be identified by their long whiskers, which are common to nocturnal mammals.

A flying squirrel doesn’t actually fly, but glides downward, using the wide flaps of skin along its sides to help slow its descent. To become airborne, this mammal leaps and spreads its legs, uses its tail as a rudder and moves its legs. Immediately after it lands, it will scurry to the far side of the tree just in case an owl is in pursuit. They can glide distances of 20 to 30 feet.

Northern Spotted Owl

Northern flying squirrels are an important prey species for the Spotted Owl. Other predators include large birds, especially the Great Horned Owl, hawks, the American Marten, the Canadian Lynx and Red Fox.

The major food sources for the squirrels are mushrooms of various species, although they also eat lichens, nuts, tree sap, insects, carrion, bird eggs and nestlings, and buds and flowers. The squirrels are able to locate truffles, although they also seem to use cues such as the presence of coarse woody debris, indicating a decaying log, and spatial memory of locations where truffles were found in the past.

They are also known to cache food for when food supplies are lower. These caches can be in cavities of trees, as well as in the squirrels’ nest. Lichens and seeds are commonly cached.

The northern flying squirrel nests in holes in trees, and will also build outside nests called dreys. They sometimes use cavities created by woodpeckers.

Except when rearing young, the squirrels shift from nest to nest frequently. They often share nests. Although there usually are 2-5 individuals in a nest, it was once observed that over 50 individuals were occupying one nest.

The sharing of nests is important in maintaining body temperature in the winter, as flying squirrels do not hibernate. In the winter, they tend to live in conifer areas of mixed woods, while in summer they are found in conifers and deciduous areas. This behavior is associated with the belief that the canopy cover is important in protecting the squirrels from predation and colder temperatures. In all but the worst severe weather conditions, the squirrels are active year round.

Squirrels, in general, get no respect. They are a nuisance around bird feeders and can raise havoc in a garden, not to mention them digging through your pumpkins in search of the seeds. But, did you know that January 21 is Squirrel Appreciation Day? Founded by Christy Hargrove, a wildlife rehabilitator, from Asheville, North Carolina, in 2001, that day is set aside annually to give us all the opportunity to enjoy and appreciate the tree-climbing, nut-gathering neighborhood squirrels. That includes flying squirrels, too.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

What player made the first 3-point basket in the NBA?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: It’s the time of year to start watching out for the groundhogs on our roadways

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

Groundhog day was a little over two months ago. However, this is the time of year when they usually start to make their appearance, emerging from their dens following a long winter of hibernation. Until last Monday – when winter reared its ugly head, once more – it looked as if we would be seeing these little rodents soon. They may have rethought their intentions, and gone back to sleep.

Groundhogs, Marmota monax, also known as woodchucks, are a rodent, belonging to the group of large ground squirrels known as marmots. It was first scientifically described by Carl Linnaeus in 1758.

The groundhog is also referred to as a chuck, woodshock, groundpig, whistlepig, whistler, thickwood badger, Canada maramot, monx, moonack, weenusk, red monk, and, among French Canadians in eastern Canada, siffleux, which translates to whistler.

They are a lowland creature, found through much of the eastern United States across Canada and into Alaska. Adults are 16 – 20 inches long, including a six-inch tail, and weigh between 5 – 12 pounds. Extremely large individuals can weigh as much as 15 pounds.

The name woodchuck is unrelated to wood or chucking. It stems from the Native American Algonquian or possibly Narragansett word for the animal, wuchak. The similarities in the name led to the popular tongue-twister: “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? A woodchuck would chuck all the wood he could if a woodchuck could chuck wood.”

Groundhogs prefer open country and the edges of woodlands, and is rarely far from a burrow entrance. It is typically found in low-elevation forests, small woodlots, fields, pastures and hedgerows. It constructs dens in well-drained soil, and most have summer and winter dens.

In the wild, groundhogs can live up to six years, although three years is the average. In captivity, they can live up to 14 years. Humans, dogs, coyotes and foxes are about the only predators that can kill adult groundhogs, with the red fox being the major predator. Young may be taken by owls and hawks.

According to studies, despite their heavy body weight, they are accomplished swimmers and will occasionally climb trees to escape a predator. They prefer to retreat to their den when threatened, and will defend themselves with their incisors and front claws. They are territorial among their species and will skirmish to establish dominance.

When alarmed, they will use a high-pitched whistle to warn the rest of the colony, hence the nickname whistlepig. They will also squeal when fighting, seriously injured, or caught by a predator. They will also produce a low bark and a sound produced by grinding their teeth.

They are excellent burrowers, using the burrow to sleep, rear their young, and hibernate. An excavated den can remove about six cubic feet of soil, on average, or almost five bushels per den. They are relatively large and include a sleeping berth and an excrement chamber.

The burrow can be a threat to agricultural and residential development by damaging farm machinery and even undermining building foundations. However, in a June 7, 2009, issue of the Humane Society of the United States, How to Humanely Chuck a Woodchuck Out of Your Yard, John Griffin, director of Human Wildlife Services wrote, “you would have to have a lot of woodchucks working over a lot of years to create tunnel systems that would pose any risk to structures.”

The burrow is used for safety, retreat in bad weather, hibernating, sleeping, love nest, and nursery.

Groundhogs are one of the few species that enter into true hibernation. In most areas they hibernate from October to March or April. They drop their body temperature, the heart rate falls to 4 – 10 beats per minute and breathing falls to one breath every six minutes. Researching the hibernation patterns of groundhogs may lead to benefits for humans, including lowering the heart rate in complicated surgical procedures.

Groundhogs are already used in medical research on hepatitis B-induced cancer. Humans can’t receive hepatitis from woodchucks but the virus and its effects on the liver make the woodchuck the best available animal for the study of viral hepatitis in humans. The only other animal model for hepatitis B virus studies is the chimpanzee, which is an endangered species.

Always thought to be a nuisance species, groundhog dens often provide homes for skunks, red foxes and cottontail rabbits. The fox and skunk feed upon field mice, grasshoppers, beetles and other creatures that destroy farm crops. In aiding these animals, groundhogs indirectly help the farmers.

Well, I had a groundhog living near my garden a few years ago, and he unceremoniously cleaned out all my string beans. Well, I unceremoniously captured him in a Hav-a-Hart trap, and relocated him to the wild, and wished him the best of luck.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Before Mookie Betts, who was the last Boston Red Sox player to win the American League batting title?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS – Pétanque: the most interesting game of which no one ever heard

Pétanque is played with steel balls, called boules – which is French for balls.

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

On March 28, while attending the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce Business to Business Showcase, held at Colby College, in Waterville, I met a gentlemen named Raymond Fecteau. He began telling me about this game that he has organized locally, and for which he helped secure funding in Augusta, to build courts.

The game is called Pétanque, a sport that falls in the category of boules sports, which include bocce and lawn bowling. A popular sport in Europe, it is not widely played in the United States. According to the Federation of Pétanque USA, approximately 30,000 people play nationwide.

Where bocce and lawn bowling are usually played with wooden balls, pétanque is played with steel balls, called boules – which is French for balls.

The current form of the game originated in 1907 in La Ciotat, France. The French name, pétanque, borrowed into English, comes from petanca in the Provencal dialect of the Occitan language, meaning “feet fixed” or “feet planted.”

The history of pétanque can be traced back to the ancient Greeks who played a game using stones, and was brought to France by the Romans.

Pétanque is a social, low impact game that is all inclusieve and can be played by literally everyone from grandparents to adolescent to the handicapped. If you can hold a ball in your hand and move your arm in a pendulum motion, you can play.

Games can be played head to head or in team competitions. The object of the game is to get as close to the cochonnet (jack) as you can, hitting your opponent’s ball or the jack in the process, if necessary. Every shot is fair play as long as the boule is thrown from the circle.

The games are normally played on hard dirt or gravel.

Before the mid-1800s, European boules games were played with solid wooden balls, usually made from boxwood root, a very hard wood. Following World War I, cannonball manufacturing technology was adapted to allow the manufacture of hollow, all-metal boules. The first all-metal boule, la Boule Intégrale, was introduced in the mid-1920s. Shortly thereafter, a process was developed for manufacturing steel boules by stamping two steel blanks into hemispheres and then welding the two together to create a boule. With this technological advance, hollow, all-metal balls rapidly became the norm.

To begin, a coin is tossed and the winner (Team A) begins play. They select the court, draw the circle and the captain of the team will step into the circle and tosses the jack. The jack must be tossed no less than 20 feet and no more than 32 feet. All subsequent play is done from inside the circle and the player must stay in the circle until their thrown ball touches the ground.

A player from team A then tosses their first boule. Next, a player from team B attempts to place their boule closer to the jack. The boule nearest the jack is said to be holding the point. The team holding the point does not play until their opponents take the point position. Once a team has used up their boules the opposing team then plays their remaining boules.

Points are then counted allowing one point for each boule closer to the jack than the opponent’s closest boule. After the points are counted the “end” is over.

The winning team then begins a new end by drawing a circle around the jack where the last end finished. The game ends when one team has reached 13 points.

The Pétanque courts in Augusta are located at Mill Park, where the city allowed the courts to be built. Fecteau raised $50,000 in order to construct the courts and accompanying structures. It is also set up to play day or night. Playing times are generally on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

For more information about the game, or how you can join the fun, you may contact Fecteau at 622-3389, or

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Name the only NFL team to have scored three touchdowns in less than a minute.

Answer on page 11.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Gronk, and the evolution of the tight end position in the NFL

Rob Gronkowski (left), Russ Francis (center), Mike Ditka (right).

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

An era has ended in New England. Heck, it has ended throughout the United States. Rob Gronkowski, the happy-go-lucky, larger-than-life, bruising tight end for the New England Patriots has announced his retirement following nine seasons in the National Football League. Patriots fans lament his decision, while the rest of the league breathes a collective sigh of relief now that they don’t have to deal with the constant downfield threat.

I met Gronk once, right after his rookie season. A massive human being with a jovial personality, his hand enveloped mine and almost crushed every bone during a vigorous and aggressive handshake. I lost that one. I have met many professional sports athletes, but the encounter with Gronk is one that comes to the forefront of memories.

Chosen in the second round of the 2010 draft, the 42nd player picked overall, Gronk went on to a stellar career. The 6-foot 6-inch, 268-pound tight end amassed 521 career receptions, 7,861 receiving yards and 79 receiving touchdowns as a player. Along with that, he played on three Super Bowl-winning Patriots teams, was chosen to five Pro Bowls, four-time All Pro, and NFL comeback player of the year in 2014. He is a shoe-in for the NFL Hall of Fame.

With the many accomplishments and accolades, Gronkowski is regarded by many sports analysts, writers and peers as not only one of the the finest players in the league, but the greatest tight end to ever play the game.

But, the position of tight end was revolutionized a long time ago by another Patriots player.

Russ Francis, a 6-foot, 6-inch, 242-pound tight end with the Patriots, changed the position’s importance back in the 1970s.

Drafted out of the University of Oregon in 1975, in the first round, the 16th overall pick, he went on to become the premiere tight end of his era. He played seven seasons with the Patriots and six seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, where he was a member of the Super Bowl XIX champions in 1984.

During the 1976 season, in the Patriots 30-27 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, the defending Super Bowl champions, Francis caught a 38-yard touchdown pass from Steve Grogan on a fourth and one. In that game, Francis had a career-best 139 receiving yards, prompting sportscaster Howard Cosell to proclaim him as the “All-World Tight End.”

Francis was a Pro Bowl selection for three consecutive seasons from 1977-79.

However, many years prior to Russ Francis coming onto the scene, there was another man who made a mark as a tight end in the NFL.

Mike Ditka arrived in the National Football League in 1961 out of the University of Pittsburgh. The 6-foot, 3-inch, 228-pound Ditka was nicknamed “Iron Mike,” perhaps because he was born and raised in a steel town in Pennsylvania. But Ditka had a nasty side to him that shook the league. He was the fifth pick overall in the 1961 college draft, by the Chicago Bears. He had the distinction of having been picked in the first round of both the NFL, and the American Football League, rival leagues at the time.

In his inaugural season in the NFL, he had 58 receptions, introducing a new dimension to a tight end position which had previously been dedicated to blocking. He was selected rookie of the year. He went on to play for the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1988, becoming the first tight end to do so. Ditka totaled 4,503 yards (ranking him first in Bears history), 316 receptions and 34 touchdowns.

When his playing days were over, he became an assistant coach with the Cowboys in 1972, where he was a member of the Super Bowl winning team, in 1977. From there he went on to coach the Chicago Bears, where he won a Super Bowl in 1986, becoming one of only two men to win a Super Bowl as a player, assistant coach and head coach. Mike Flores is the other. Ditka, Flores, Gary Kubiak and Doug Pederson are also the only people in modern NFL history to win a championship as head coach of a team for which he once played.

There are other tight ends around the NFL that are mentioned when discussions arise about the tight end position. But, in my opinion, these are the three that stand out as having the largest impact on the position from how it was once utilized, to the importance it now represents in the modern offensive schemes in the league. Gronk is, without a doubt, a member of an elite trio responsible for that.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Where did Rob Gronkowski play his college football?

Answer can be found here.

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.


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.