SCORES & OUTDOORS: Unusual sighting turns out to be common

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

It’s simply amazing what you come across in the woods of Maine. While preparing to open camp for the season, my wife and I were helping friends 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 34 years my wife and I have been there.

Aylostera vulpina, a common house cactus, native to Bolivia and Argentina.

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.

Then, another state botanist concluded 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 confortably 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 overwatering 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.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

In golf, finish the following phrase: “You drive for show, but putt for…”


SCORES & OUTDOORS: Goal of attracting cardinals finally realized

Female, left, and male cardinals.

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

My wife has been trying to attract cardinals to our feeders at home for quite some time. Last Sunday she got her wish when a pair of cardinals came in search of food. First, the female showed herself by clinging to a feeding station. A couple of minutes later, the male appeared. I had told my wife when she first saw the female that, for sure, the male was not far away. When you see one cardinal, the mate is always nearby.

It prompted a conversation about how over the last few decades, the northern cardinal, which was rarely ever seen in this part of the country, has become more abundant.

In John James Audubon’s day (1785-1851), the Northern Cardinal was considered a southern bird and was rarely seen as far north as Philadelphia. By 1895, its range reached the Great Lakes, and by 1910, the cardinal was in southern Ontario and along the southern portions of the Hudson River. Some authorities believe the cardinal’s push northward was due to more people feeding birds during the winter and their loss of habitat in its traditional southern grounds.

Today the Northern Cardinal is a year-round resident from the Dakotas, southern Ontario and Nova Scotia south to the Gulf Coast, and from southern Texas westward through Arizona and southward through Mexico as far as Guatemala and Honduras. The Northern Cardinal was introduced in Hawaii in 1929 and is now well-established there. It also occurs sparingly in southeastern California and in Bermuda as an introduced species.

Although nonmigratory, cardinals often gather in large flocks of up to 70 birds during winter months and can be found in bushy thickets in the more sheltered areas of their range.

Northern Cardinals feed by hopping around on the ground and securing food from low shrubbery and trees. Cardinals’ short, heavy, reddish beaks crack seeds with strong abductor muscles that enable them to handle larger and tougher seeds that birds with smaller bills cannot crack. The grooved upper mandible holds the sunflower seed while the sharp-edged lower mandible moves forward and crushes and husks the seed. The bird then swallows the inner nutmeat.

Most authorities believe Northern Cardinals mate for life, but during winter, the male does not allow his mate to feed with him. With the return of spring, however, he regards her in a new light. Then you see the practice of mate-feeding when the male brings shucked sunflower seeds and other choice tidbits to the female. She waits with her wings all aflutter like a baby bird begging for food, and he places the seed in her bill as tenderly as a first kiss between lovers.

Northern Cardinals will eat almost anything offered at feeding stations. Their favorite foods are black-oil sunflower seed, cracked corn, suet, suet mixes, nutmeats of all kinds, melon seeds and safflower seed. The birds’ diet consists of 30 percent insects, which makes cardinals highly valuable to farmers and gardeners. They consume some of the worst agricultural pests: codling moths, cotton cutworms, scale insects, cotton bollworms, grasshoppers, aphids, snails and slugs.

Although cardinals prefer to eat on the ground, they will come to bird tables, trays on posts and trees, window trays, and hanging feeders with perches.

Water for drinking and bathing is just as important for Northern Cardinals in winter as it is during hot months. Remember to keep the water in your birdbath fresh and unfrozen year-round. Because wet cardinals cannot fly quickly to safety, place your birdbath near cover so the birds can escape from cats and other predators. When birdbaths are not available, cardinals bathe in shallow edges of ponds and streams, in snowmelt or in a puddle after rain. Like children, cardinals enjoy bathing in the spray of lawn sprinklers.

Northern Cardinals prefer brushy woodlands, riparian thickets, garden shrubbery, residential areas and parks.

Cardinal nests are compact and well-lined with fine grass or hair, or they might be flimsy and scarcely lined. The birds often use grass, rootlets, weed stems, pliable twigs, vines and bark strips, interwoven with leaves and paper or plastic. Once, when a storm blew the nest out of a bush, a strip of plastic was found in it with the green recycle symbol printed on it. This pair of Northern Cardinals taught me that humans are not the only creatures to use recyclable materials in their homes.

The cardinals have been appearing daily, and it’s our hope they will continue through the summer months.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Name the only three MLB players to have accumulated at heast 500 home runs and 600 doubles during their career.

Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds and David Ortiz.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: A week with the dolphins

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

I will start this column by saying I know we don’t have any of these around here, but on a recent vacation to the Outer Banks, of North Carolina, I saw several of them.

A group of us rented a house on the beach in Nags Head, North Carolina, for a week of relaxation. Every morning, it became ritual to awake before sunrise, walk out to a gazebo near the beach and watch the rising sun. To our surprise, and delight, we experienced an unexpected daily show by dolphins, in the distance.

Now, let’s make this clear as we delve into the world of this intelligent creature. Dolphins are not fish, they are mammals.

A dolphin is an aquatic mammal. There are 40 extant species named as dolphins.

Though not quite as flexible as seals, some dolphins can briefly travel at speeds of 18 mph or leap about 30 ft. Dolphins use their conical teeth to capture fast-moving prey. They have well-developed hearing which is adapted for both air and water. It is so well developed that some can survive even if they are blind. Some species are well adapted for diving to great depths. They have a layer of fat, or blubber, under the skin to keep warm in the cold water.

Dolphins are widespread. Most species prefer the warm waters of the tropic zones, but some, such as the right whale dolphin, prefer colder climates. Dolphins feed largely on fish and squid, but a few, such as the orca, feed on large mammals such as seals. Male dolphins typically mate with multiple females every year, but females only mate every two to three years. Calves are typically born in the spring and summer months and females bear all the responsibility for raising them. Dolphins produce a variety of vocalizations, usually in the form of clicks and whistles.

A dolphin ear has specific adaptations to the marine environment. In humans, the middle ear works as an impedance equalizer between the outside air’s low impedance and the cochlear fluid’s high impedance. In dolphins, and other marine mammals, there is no great difference between the outer and inner environments. Instead of sound passing through the outer ear to the middle ear, dolphins receive sound through the throat, from which it passes through a low-impedance fat-filled cavity to the inner ear.

A dolphin eye is relatively small for its size, yet they do retain a good degree of eyesight. As well as this, the eyes of a dolphin are placed on the sides of its head, so their vision consists of two fields, rather than a binocular view like humans have. When dolphins surface, their lens and cornea correct the nearsightedness that results from the water’s refraction of light.

The olfactory lobes and nerve are absent in dolphins, suggesting they have no sense of smell.

Dolphins are not thought to have a good sense of taste, as their taste buds are atrophied or missing altogether. Some have preferences for different kinds of fish, indicating some ability to taste.

Brain size was previously considered a major indicator of the intelligence of an animal. Since most of the brain is used for maintaining bodily functions, greater ratios of brain to body mass may increase the amount of brain mass available for more complex cognitive tasks.

Self-awareness is seen, by some, to be a sign of highly developed, abstract thinking. Self-awareness, though not well-defined scientifically, is believed to be the precursor to more advanced processes like meta-cognitive reasoning (thinking about thinking) that are typical of humans. Research in this field has suggested that dolphins possess self-awareness. The most widely used test for self-awareness in animals is the mirror test in which a mirror is introduced to an animal, and the animal is then marked with a temporary dye. If the animal then goes to the mirror in order to view the mark, it has exhibited strong evidence of self-awareness.

Dolphins are highly social animals, often living in pods of up to a dozen individuals, though pod sizes and structures vary greatly between species and locations. What we saw everyday was a pod of about a dozen dolphins.

Dolphins communicate using a variety of clicks, whistle-like sounds and other vocalizations. Dolphins also use nonverbal communication by means of touch and posturing.

Dolphins also display culture, something long believed to be unique to humans (and possibly other primate species). In May 2005, a discovery in Australia found Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins teaching their young to use tools.

Dolphins engage in acts of aggression towards each other. The older a male dolphin is, the more likely his body is to be covered with bite scars. Male dolphins can get into disputes over companions and females. Acts of aggression can become so intense that targeted dolphins sometimes go into exile after losing a fight.

Reports of cooperative human-dolphin fishing date back to the ancient Roman author and natural philosopher Pliny the Elder. Dolphins drive fish towards fishermen waiting along the shore and signal the men to cast their nets. The dolphins’ reward is the fish that escape the nets.

Dolphins have few marine enemies. Some species or specific populations have none, making them apex predators. For most of the smaller species of dolphins, only a few of the larger sharks, such as the bull shark, dusky shark, tiger shark and great white shark, are a potential risk, especially for calves. Some dolphin species are at risk of extinction, especially some river dolphin species such as the Amazon river dolphin, and the Ganges and Yangtze river dolphin, which are critically or seriously endangered. A 2006 survey found no individuals of the Yangtze river dolphin. The species now appears to be functionally extinct.

Pesticides, heavy metals, plastics, and other industrial and agricultural pollutants that do not disintegrate rapidly in the environment concentrate in predators such as dolphins. Injuries or deaths due to collisions with boats, especially their propellers, are also common.

In Greek myths, dolphins were seen invariably as helpers of mankind. Dolphins also seem to have been important to the Minoans, judging by artistic evidence from the ruined palace at Knossos. During the 2009 excavations of a major Mycenaean city at Iklaina, a striking fragment of a wall-paintings came to light, depicting a ship with three human figures and dolphins. Dolphins are common in Greek mythology, and many coins from ancient Greece have been found which feature a man, a boy or a deity riding on the back of a dolphin.

Although dolphins generally interact well with humans, some attacks have occurred, most of them resulting in small injuries. Fatal attacks from other species are less common, but there is a registered occurrence off the coast of Brazil in 1994, when a man died after being attacked by a bottlenose dolphin named Tião. Tião had suffered harassment by human visitors, including attempts to stick ice cream sticks down her blowhole.

A number of militaries have employed dolphins for various purposes from finding mines to rescuing lost or trapped humans. The military use of dolphins drew scrutiny during the Vietnam War, when rumors circulated that the United States Navy was training dolphins to kill Vietnamese divers. The United States Navy denies that at any point dolphins were trained for combat. Dolphins are still being trained by the United States Navy for other tasks as part of the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program. The Russian military is believed to have closed its marine mammal program in the early 1990s. In 2000 the press reported that dolphins trained to kill by the Soviet Navy had been sold to Iran.

In some parts of the world, such as Taiji, Japan and the Faroe Islands, dolphins are traditionally considered as food, and are killed in harpoon or drive hunts. Dolphin meat is consumed in a small number of countries worldwide, which include Japan and Peru (where it is referred to as chancho marino, or “sea pork”). While Japan may be the best-known and most controversial example, only a very small minority of the population has ever sampled it.

Dolphin meat is dense and such a dark shade of red as to appear black. There have been human health concerns associated with the consumption of dolphin meat in Japan after tests showed that dolphin meat contained high levels of mercury.

That’s what dolphins are all about in a nutshell. There is much more science and data gathered regarding those sea mammals.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers have met 109 times in the playoffs, which team has won the most games?

The Celtics are 62-47 against Philadelphia in the playoffs. However, they are 15-43 when playing in Boston.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Brook trout the best tasting fish

brook trout

Roland D. Halleeby 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.

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.

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.

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.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

How many Super Bowls have the Denver Broncos won?


SCORES & OUTDOORS: The excitement of the first robin sighting of the season

American robin

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

What is more inspiring than seeing that first robin of the spring?

The American robin, Turdus migratorius, is a member of the thrush family. It is named after the European robin because of its reddish-orange breast, though the two species are not closely related, with the European robin belonging to the flycatcher family.

A migrator, the robins winter south of Canada from Florida to central Mexico and along the Pacific Coast. It is the state bird of Connecticut, Michigan and Wisconsin.

The American robin is active mostly during the day and assembles in large flocks at night. Its diet consists of invertebrates such as beetle grubs and caterpillars, fruits and berries. It is one of the earliest bird species to lay eggs, beginning to breed shortly after returning from its winter range. Its nest consists of long coarse grass, twigs, paper, and feathers, and is smeared with mud and often cushioned with grass or other soft materials. The robin is among the first birds to sing at dawn.

Predators include hawks, cats and larger snakes, but when feeding in flocks, it is able to be vigilant and watch other birds for reactions to predators. Brown-headed cowbirds lay eggs in robin nests, but robins usually reject the cowbird eggs.

Both sexes of the robins look alike, except the female tends to be duller than the male. However, some birds cannot be safely sexed on plumage alone. The juvenile is paler in color than the adult male and has dark spots on its breast, and whitish wing coverts. First-year birds are not easily distinguishable from adults, but they tend to be duller, and a small percentage retains a few junvenile wing coverts or other feathers.

The American robin has an extensive range, estimated at upwards of 6 million square miles, with a population of about 320 million individuals. It is listed as “least concern” on the endangered list. At one point, the bird was killed for its meat, but is now protected throughout its range in the United States by the Migratory Bird Act.

The American robin is a known carrier of West Nile virus. While crows and jays are often the first noticed deaths in an area with West Nile virus, 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 jays die quickly from the virus, the American robin survives the virus longer, hence spreading it to more mosquitoes, which then transmit the virus to humans and other species.

The American robin is frequently seen running across lawns, picking up earthworms by sight, and its running and stopping behavior is a distinguishing characteristic. It hunts visually, not by hearing.

The robin also has a place in human culture. the Tlingit people of Northwestern North America held it to be a culture hero created by Raven to please the people with its song. One of the Houses of the Raven Tribe from the Nisga’a Nation holds the robin as a House Crest.

The robin is considered a symbol of spring. A well-known example is a poem by Emily Dickinson, I Dreaded That First Robin So. Among other 19th century poems about the first robin of spring is The First Robin, by Dr. William H. Drummond, which, according to the author’s wife, is based on a Québec superstition that whoever sees the first robin of spring will have good luck.

Although the comic book superhero Robin was inspired by an N. C. Wyeth illustration of Robin Hood, a later version had his mother nicknaming him Robin because he was born on the first day of spring. His red shirt suggests the bird’s red breast.

But, unlike Emily Dickinson’s poem, I don’t dread that first robin, I embrace it.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

When Dale Earnhardt was killed on the final lap of NASCAR’s 2001 Daytona 500, who was crossing the finish line as the winner?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Rest of groundhogs ready to make an appearance

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.

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 itself with its 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.

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:

Which Red Sox player made an infamous error in the 1986 World Series?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: First sighting of the common house fly

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

Another sign of spring is upon us.

While out checking and emptying my maple sap buckets last Monday, I saw a common house fly on the side of the bucket. The first one of the season. A sure sign of spring, but also the beginning of their irritation.

The housefly is the most common fly species found in houses. The female housefly usually mates only once and stores the sperm for later use. She lays batches of about 100 eggs on decaying organic matter such as food waste, carrion, or feces. These soon hatch into legless white larvae, known as maggots. Adult flies normally live for two to four weeks, but can hibernate during the winter. The adults feed on a variety of liquid or semi-liquid substances, as well as solid materials which have been softened by their saliva. They can carry pathogens on their bodies and in their feces, contaminate food, and contribute to the transfer of food-borne illnesses, while, in numbers, they can be physically annoying. For these reasons, they are considered pests.

The housefly is probably the insect with the widest distribution in the world; it is largely associated with humans and has accompanied them around the globe. It is present in the Arctic, as well as in the tropics, where it is abundant. It is present in all populated parts of Europe, Asia, Africa, Australasia, and the Americas.

Houseflies play an important ecological role in breaking down and recycling organic matter. Adults are mainly carnivorous; their primary food is animal matter, carrion, and feces, but they also consume milk, sugary substances, and rotting fruit and vegetables. Solid foods are softened with saliva before being sucked up. They can be opportunistic blood feeders.

Adult houseflies are diurnal (active during the day) and rest at night. If inside a building after dark, they tend to congregate on ceilings, beams, and overhead wires, while out of doors, they crawl into foliage or long grass, or rest in shrubs and trees or on wires. In cooler climates, some houseflies hibernate in winter, choosing to do so in cracks and crevices, gaps in woodwork, and the folds of curtains. They arouse in the spring when the weather warms up, and search out a place to lay their eggs.

Houseflies have many predators, including birds, reptiles, amphibians, various insects, and spiders.

Houseflies are a nuisance, disturbing people while at leisure and at work, but they are disliked principally because of their habits of contaminating foodstuffs. They alternate between breeding and feeding in dirty places while feeding on human foods, during which process they soften the food with saliva and deposit their feces, creating a health hazard. However, housefly larvae are as nutritious as fish meal, and could be used to convert waste to insect-based animal feed for farmed fish and livestock.

During the Second World War, the Japanese worked on entomological warfare techniques. Japanese Yagi bombs developed at Pingfan consisted of two compartments, one with houseflies and another with a bacterial slurry that coated the houseflies prior to release. Vibrio cholerae, which causes cholera, was the bacterium of choice, and was used in China in Baoshan in 1942, and in northern Shandong in 1943. Baoshan had been used by the Allies and bombing produced epidemics that killed 60,000 people in the initial stages. The Shandong attack killed 210,000; the occupying Japanese troops had been vaccinated in advance.

In literature, The Impertinent Insect is a group of five fables, sometimes ascribed to Aesop, concerning an insect, in one version a fly, which puffs itself up to seem important. In the Biblical fourth plague of Egypt, flies represent death and decay, while the Philistine god Beelzebub’s name may mean “lord of the flies”. In Greek mythology, Myiagros was a god who chased away flies during the sacrifices to Zeus and Athena; Zeus sent a fly to bite Pegasus, causing Bellerophon to fall back to Earth when he attempted to ride the winged steed to Mount Olympus. In the traditional Navajo religion, Big Fly is an important spirit being.

William Blake’s 1794 poem The Fly, part of his collection Songs of Experience, deals with the insect’s mortality, subject to uncontrollable circumstances, just like humans. Emily Dickinson’s 1855 poem I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died speaks of flies in the context of death. In William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies, the fly is, however, a symbol of the children involved.

Ogden Nash’s humorous two-line 1942 poem God in His wisdom made the fly/And then forgot to tell us why, indicates the debate about the value of biodiversity, given that even those considered by humans as pests have their place in the world’s ecosystems.

So, I guess the fly has its good and bad, mostly bad. I know one thing, when one enters the house, or camp, they can be annoying as all outdoors.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Who was the first player in MLB history to win the Most Valuable Player, Silver Slugger, Gold Glove, batting title, and World Series in the same season?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Raccoon dogs make headlines; what are they?

Common raccoon dog

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

Over the past weekend, I read a news release about materials collected at a Chinese market near where the first human cases of Covid-19 were identified showing raccoon dog DNA comingled with the virus, suggesting the pandemic may have originated from animals, not a lab. The World Health Organization director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus criticized China for not sharing the genetic information earlier. It appears samples collected from a stall known to be involved in the wildlife trade also contained raccoon dog genes, indicating the animals may have been infected by the virus.

In China, raccoon dogs are often bred for their fur and sold for meat in animal markets. So, that brings the question, what is a raccoon dog?

The common raccoon dog, also called the Chinese or Asian raccoon dog to distinguish it from the Japanese raccoon dog, is a small, heavy-set, fox-like canid native to East Asia. Named for its raccoon-like face markings, it is most closely related to foxes.

Common raccoon dogs feed on many animals and plant matter, and are unusual among canids (dogs and foxes) for climbing trees and for hibernating in cold winters. They are widespread in their native range, and are invasive in Europe where they were introduced for the fur trade. The similar Japanese raccoon dog, native to Japan, is the only other living member of the genus. Other names for the common raccoon dog include mangut (its Evenki name), and neoguri (its Korean name).

The common raccoon dog is named for the resemblance of its masked face to that of the North American common raccoon. The closest relatives of the common raccoon dogs are the true foxes, not the raccoon, and not closely related.

Due to the fur trade, the common raccoon dog has been widely introduced in Europe, where it has been treated as a potentially hazardous invasive species. In Europe, since 2019, the common raccoon dog has been included on the list of Invasive Alien Species of Union concern. This implies that this species cannot be imported, bred, transported, commercialized, or intentionally released into the environment in the whole of the European Union.

Common raccoon dogs are omnivores that feed on insects, rodents, amphibians, birds, fish, reptiles, mollusks, crabs, sea urchins, human garbage, carrion, eggs, and insectivores, as well as fruits, nuts, and berries. Among the rodents targeted by common raccoon dogs, voles seem to predominate in swampy areas, but are replaced with gerbils in flatland areas.

Common raccoon dogs eat beached fish and fish trapped in small water bodies. They rarely catch fish during the spawning season, but eat many during the spring thaw. In their southern range, they eat young tortoises and their eggs. Insectivorous mammals hunted by common raccoon dogs include shrews, hedgehogs, and, on rare occasions, moles and desmans. In the Ussuri territory, large moles are their primary source of food. Plant food is highly variable, and includes bulbs, rhizomes, oats, millets, maize, nuts, fruits, berries, grapes, melons, watermelons, pumpkins, and tomatoes.

Common raccoon dogs adapt their diets to the season; in late autumn and winter they feed mostly on rodents, carrion, and feces, while fruit, insects, and amphibians predominate in spring. In summer they eat fewer rodents, and mainly target nesting birds, fruits, grains, and vegetables.

After all this, it sounds like the common raccoon dog is a canine garbage disposal.

Wolves are the main predators of common raccoon dogs, killing large numbers of them in spring and summer, though attacks have been reported in autumn, too.

Both foxes and European badgers compete with common raccoon dogs for food, and have been known to kill them if common raccoon dogs enter their burrows. Common raccoon dogs are the only canids known to hibernate.

Like foxes, they do not bark, uttering instead a growl, followed by a long-drawn, melancholy whine.

The common raccoon dog is now abundant throughout Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and has been reported as far away as Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, Belarus, Poland, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Moldova.

In June 2021, a study commissioned by the United Kingdom’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs identified the common raccoon dog as one of 20 invasive species likely to spread to the British Isles.

From what I have been able to find, it looks like the common raccoon dog is not a welcomed species. In its defense, evidence has also been gathered that indicates the raccoon dogs cages may have been stored in that same stall with those of bats, and that the bats are the source, and the raccoon dogs may have become an unsuspecting carrier of the virus.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Who was the last Boston Celtics player to be named the NBA Most Valuable Player?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Spring is in the air; so is skunk odor

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

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

There it is! That familiar odor in the wind that reminds you of a warm, summer night. It is unmistakable, and sometimes can be a sort of positive sign of spring. That odor was definitely in the air at our house this past weekend. Essence of skunk.

Striped skunks, Mephitis mephitis, had been classified to be in the same family with ferrets, weasels, otters and badgers. However, recent generic evidence suggests the skunks are not as closely related as first thought, and therefore are now classified in their own family.

Skunks are placid, retiring and non-aggressive. You can actually talk to a skunk, and it will avoid you. They try very hard not to get in harm’s way. I have had instances where I have spoken, softly, to skunks that have approached me, and “talked” them into taking another route. Although they have excellent senses of smell and hearing, they have poor vision. They cannot see with any clarity all objects more than 10 feet away, which also makes them vulnerable to death by road traffic.

Actually, one summer, we had a family of five skunks living under our deck at camp, and, believe it or not, we didn’t even know they were there until one morning, around 5 a.m., just as the sun was beginning to rise, I saw one adult crawl under the deck, followed by the three kits, and then the second adult. Other than that, no odor, nor any other sign of their presence.

Skunks are omnivorous, eating both plants and animal material, and changing their diet as the seasons change. They eat insects and larvae, earthworms, small rodents, lizards, salamanders, frogs, snakes, birds, moles and eggs. They also commonly eat berries, roots, leaves, grasses, fungi and nuts.

In settled areas, skunks also seek human garbage. Less often, skunks may be found acting as scavengers, eating birds and rodent carcasses left by cats. Skunks will even find their way into garages and cellars where pet foods are stored.

Skunks are one of the primary predators of the honeybee, relying on their thick fur to protect them from stings. The skunk scratches at the front of the beehive and eats the guard bees that come out to investigate. Mother skunks are known to teach this method to their young.

Skunks are not true hibernators in the winter, but do den up for extended periods of time. That is why, this time of year, you will see, or smell, the occasional appearance of skunks. They come out to forage while the temperatures are warmer. However, they remain generally inactive and feed rarely, going through a dormant stage. They often overwinter in a huddle of multiple females, up to as many as 12, while males often den alone. The same winter den is often used repeatedly.

When born, skunk kits are blind, deaf, and covered in a soft layer of fur. About three weeks after birth, their eyes open. The kits are weaned about two months after birth, but generally stay with their mother until they are ready to mate, about one year of age.

The mother is very protective of her kits and will often spray at the first sign of danger. The male plays no part in raising the young and may even kill them.

Most predatory animals of the Americas, such as wolves, foxes and badgers, seldom attack skunks, presumably out of fear of being sprayed. The exception is the great horned-owl, the skunk’s only serious predator, which, like most birds, has a poor to nonexistent sense of smell.

The skunk, still, gets no respect. The word skunk is a corruption of an Abenaki name for them, segongw or segonku, which means “one who squirts,” in the Algonquian language. Even in slang French, mostly Canadian-French, the term for skunk relates to its odiferous characteristic, known as “une bete puante” (animal that stinks). The real French word for skunk is “moufette”.

It is commonly known that skunks make excellent pets. However, make sure of one thing before you proceed. Is the keeping of a pet skunk legal in your state? As for Maine, it has been illegal to keep a skunk since 2002. Only if you acquire a Class B or C license from the USDA can you keep a skunk in Maine, and must be for educational purposes only. Keeping of skunks is legal in only eight states, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Long an enemy of most humans, when all is taken into consideration, skunks aren’t really all that bad.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Who holds the American League record for most home runs in a season?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: The porcupines standing in the natural world

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

Porcupines. Nuisance, or ecological necessity?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Name the five NFL teams to win only one Super Bowl.

Answer can be found here.