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.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: It’s time for our annual visit with Woodrow Charles

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

Well, we’ve turned the calendar and it is now February. Time for me to go visit my furry, rodent friend, Woodrow Charles, the weather prognosticating groundhog. Folklore has it that if he sees his shadow, we are in for six more weeks of winter. If he does not see it, we can expect an early spring.

With the mild winter we had seen so far, it looked like the trek to his abode would be an easy one. However, with the snow, rain and ice we have received over the past couple of weeks, that hike could be a difficult one. It was!

After an hour and a half of trudging through the snow and ice, I finally came to the residence he occupied last year, only to find large “marshmallows,” massive hay bails wrapped in white plastic. Now, where did he go?

I took out my cell phone and dialed his number:

“Hello,” came the response from the other end.

“Woody?” I asked.

“Yeah, who wants to know?” was his reply.

“This is your friend from The Town Line,” I said.

“Oh, yeah,” he responded.

“Where the heck are you?”

“If you’re at my old place, just keep going straight through the field and down the path. I’m about 100 yards down on the right.”

“I’ll be right there.”

Down the path I went and found a small tree stump with a green door. I knocked.

“Come on in,” was the answer from the other side.

“Boy, this place is a dump,” I exclaimed.

“Hey, do you know how hard it is to find good, affordable housing these days?” he snapped. “At least I was able to install a heat pump. No place for a wood burning stove.”

He whipped up some tea, and we began to chat.

“Any plans for the Super Bowl?, I inquired.

“No, it’s between Philadelphia and Kansas City, two teams I have no interest in,” he said unapologetic. “As a matter of fact, two teams I have no love for.”

“What about Frank, Butch and Slim, your buddies?”

“Oh, they wimped out and went to Florida for the winter, but they’re in the process of finding a new place down there. Got flooded out from Hurricane Ian.”

“So,” I said, “no prediction on the game this year?”

“Well,” he replied, “you know me. I’ve got to put some money down on someone.”

Following a long pause, and look of concentration on his face, he finally said, “Philadelphia by two over Kansas City.”

“That’s a bold prediction,” I answered.

“Well, like I said, I don’t really care who wins!”

So, I tried to change the subject.

“Do you think you’ll be here for a while, or try to find a more suitable place so you can put back your big screen, smart TV, Alexa, your Keurig, and heated recliner?”

“I’m still looking,” he sighed. “But, it probably won’t be until the weather breaks. I’ll make do with this until then.”

“Speaking of the weather, what do you have for our readers this year?”

“Well, I still can’t use my electronic equipment. No internet, don’t you know. But I have done some calculations on my cell phone and this is what I have–”

I interrupted, “Not going out to see whether your shadow is here or not?”

“That’s old fashioned,” he said with a grit in his voice. “That’s for that fraud, wanna be, in Pennsylvania.”

“OK, I’m sorry.”

He rubbed his chin, and proclaimed, “The winter started out mild and it will end mild. Look for an early spring!”

“That was an even bolder prediction than the Super Bowl,” was my response.

“You can take it to the bank!” he shot back.

So, I bid my farewell for this year, exited the door, and on my way home wondered, “With those two predictions, was he actually starting to lose his mind?”

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Who has won more Super Bowls, Philadelphia or Kansas City?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: An uninvited and unwelcomed guest crashes party

Brown rat (left), Black rat (right)

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

Last Saturday night, my wife and I hosted our annual after holiday party with our camping friends. Everyone invited attended, however, unfortunately one couple had to bow out due to illness.

During the evening, we had a party crasher in the form of an uninvited, unwelcomed guest. One of our guests calmly informed us that she had seen a “mouse” run across the kitchen floor. My wife and I have been living in this house for 46 years, and over that time, have encountered one mouse, which I inadvertently brought home from camp in some laundry.

My sighting revealed something different. This time, however, unbeknown to my wife and I, we seem to have an unwanted rat living in our basement, that decided to make an appearance at the height of festivities.

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

Few animals elicit such strong and contradictory reactions as rats.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rat we saw that night was brown, and looked fairly well groomed. I’m wondering if it was a neighbor’s pet that got away?

So, now that we have seen a lighter side of rats, doesn’t it make you want to run right out to get one? Not me. This guy, or gal, decided to show itself on a night when there were over a dozen adults around. But it had better not get too comfortable. Its lease has an expiration date.

Now, as one of the guests noted, what will my wife and I do to top this year’s entertainment at next year’s party?

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Of the four teams left in the NFL playoffs, which is the only one to never win a Super Bowl?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Follow the 4 Rs to knock out browntail moth

Webs can look like fist-sized clumps of leaves tied together tightly with silk or like single leaves hanging onto twigs.

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

With spring and summer several months away, now is not too early to be thinking about the browntail moth caterpillar.

Following a severe outbreak in 2021 (a summer in which I had six battles with the rash they are famous for delivering), I saw only one caterpillar all of 2022. That doesn’t mean we are scott free.

I will pass on to you a news release from the Maine Department of Agriculture and Conservation and Forestry, and the Maine Forest Service, on the four Rs to knock out the caterpillar.

Browntail Moth Awareness Month is right around the corner in Maine! February is when our community is encouraged to take advantage of the dormant season of the insect and join together to “KNOCK OUT” Browntail Moth (BTM).

Winter is the best time to clip and destroy BTM winter webs within reach or hire licensed arborists or pesticide applicators to reduce out-of-reach populations. BTM populations in Maine have been in an outbreak phase since 2015, and the pest cannot be eradicated. While long-lasting tree defoliation and branch dieback are major concerns, BTM’s microscopic, toxic hairs can cause trouble breathing and skin irritation similar to poison ivy from a few hours up to several weeks.

Follow the four Rs to reduce BTM populations on your property and protect your family and your community.

Recognize browntail moth.

Learn how to recognize if the trees where you live, work, and play have BTM. Their winter webs can look like single leaves hanging onto twigs or fist-sized clumps of leaves tied together tightly with silk. Winter webs are easiest to locate on sunny days, where the silk in the webs makes them “shine” in the sun. Knowing where the nests are in your yard or town can help inform your management decisions. Learn more by participating in the BTM Awareness Month events included below.

Remove BTM

With permission, remove webs with hand snips or an extendable pole pruner in areas within reach of the ground and away from hazards such as powerlines. Protect your eyes and skin from hairs that might be present from past caterpillar activity. After removal, destroy webs:

Burn them safely and legally or soak them in soapy water for several days, then dispose of the webs in the trash.

Recruit BTM

Winter is a great time to identify webs that may be too difficult to remove on your own. Recruit professional help to treat webs out of reach or near hazards on the property you own or manage. Licensed Professional Arborists can remove BTM webs in larger trees and shrubs in the winter. In trees where the caterpillars’ hairs cause a nuisance and where it is not practical to remove the webs, Licensed Pesticide Applicators may be able to use insecticides during the growing season to manage BTM.

Reach Out BTM

If you find BTM in your neighborhood, reach out and let your neighbors and town officials know. The more neighbors, businesses, and others that get together to respond to the problem, the better the results.

The Maine Forest Service (MFS) Forest Health and Monitoring Division coordinates within state government, local communities, and directly with citizens to respond to this issue. Comprehensive BTM information and tools compiled by MFS, Board of Pesticides Control, Maine Center for Disease Control, the University of Maine and other partners, including research, infestation tracking, FAQs, and educational resources for communities, municipalities, businesses, and healthcare providers, are available on the Maine Forest Service website.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Name the four NFL teams to never appear in a Super Bowl.

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Opossums showing up more often on our highways

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

Recently, in my travels throughout central Maine, I have seen an unusual number of opossums dead on our highways. There seems to be more and more of them present these days.

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

I never really gave them much thought. Then I first started hearing about them in our area, then I began seeing them.

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

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

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

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

When threatened or harmed, they will “play possum,” mimicking the appearance and smell of a sick or dead animal. This physiological response is involuntary (like fainting), rather than a conscious act. In the case of baby opossums, however, the brain does not always react this way at the appropriate moment, and therefore they often fail to “play dead” when threatened. When an opossum is “playing possum,” the animal’s lips are drawn back, the teeth are bared, saliva foams around the mouth, the eyes close or half-close, and a foul-smelling fluid is secreted from the anal glands. The stiff, curled body can be poked at, turned over, and even carried away without reaction. The animal will typically regain consciousness after a period of a few minutes to four hours, a process that begins with slight twitching of the ears.

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

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

With this in mind, if I do have opossum living under my steps, it would be nice if I could capture them and relocate them at camp where they would be very useful in controlling the tick population.

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

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

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

Opossum pelts have long been part of the fur trade.

So, now you can add opossum to the list of dead critters to be looking for on the side of the road.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

What NBA Hall of Famer and 16-year veteran holds the Boston Celtics franchise record for most points scored?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Was this past October the warmest on record?

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

The question has been asked: Was this past October the warmest on record?

To come to any conclusion, I did much research and came up with the same answer everywhere I went looking. October 2022 was the warmest October on record.

“October 2022 is definitely set to be by far the hottest October ever on record,” said Christine Berne, a climatologist. “It will ‘probably beat’ the last record in 2001 by 1°C. We could hardly believe it at first,” said the scientist. The temperatures recorded are very rare for the season. Her report was made prior to the beginning of November.

Also, according to CNN, as we rolled into November, scientists discovered last month was the warmest October on record globally.

The European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, which analyzes temperature data from around the planet, said October 2019 was the warmest in their data record, until this year, which goes back to 1979.

Globally, October was 0.69 degrees Celsius (1.24 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than the average of all the Octobers in the 30-year span from 1981-2010, Copernicus said in its report. Last month narrowly edged out the previous record for October, set in 2015, by only 0.01 degrees Celsius (0.018 degrees Fahrenheit).

“Temperatures were much above average in large parts of the Arctic, while much of western USA and Canada experienced much below average temperatures,” the report said.

This year has seen multiple other hottest-month records, including July, which Copernicus said was the warmest month of all on record, replacing the record set in July 2016. Every month in 2019 has ranked among the four warmest for the month in question.

According to Copernicus, 2016 through 2018 have been the three warmest calendar years on record.

Monthly temperatures over the past 12 months have averaged close to 1.2 degrees Celsius (2.16 degrees Fahrenheit) over pre-industrial levels, Copernicus said. A report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in November 2018 warned of impacts to climate and weather if warming exceeds 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) over pre-industrial levels.

This recent report came the same day more than 11,000 researchers from around the world issued a grim warning of the “untold suffering” that will be caused by climate change if humanity doesn’t change its ways.

Copernicus assesses that since the 1970s the overall average rate of warming of the world is around 0.18 degrees Celsius (0.32 degrees Fahrenheit) per decade.

CNN’s Emma Tobin, Ivana Kottasová and Isabelle Gerretsen contributed to this report.

The frightening part to all of this is that the warmest seven years have all been since 2015 (do the math); the top three being 2016, 2019 and 2020. An exceptionally strong El Niño event occurred in 2016, which contributed to record global average warming.

With the weather being so warm, does this qualify as an Indian Summer?

According to the definition, the answer is a clear “yes”!

An Indian summer is a period of unseasonably warm, dry weather that sometimes occurs in autumn in temperate regions of the northern hemisphere. Several references describe a true Indian summer as not occurring until after the first frost, which we have had.

Weather historian William R. Deedler wrote that “Indian summer” can be defined as “any spell of warm, quiet, hazy weather that may occur in October or November,” though he noted that he “was surprised to read that Indian Summers have been given credit for warm spells as late as December and January.” Deedler also noted that some writers use Indian summer in reference to the weather in only New England, “while others have stated it happens over most of the United States, even along the Pacific coast.

Why Indian? Well, no one knows but, as is commonplace when no one knows, many people have guessed.

Some say it was from the prairie fires deliberately set by Indian tribes; from raids on European settlements by Indian war parties, which usually ended in autumn; or, in parallel with other Indian terms, it implied a belief in Indian falsity and untrustworthiness and that an Indian summer was a substitute copy of the real thing.

But my grandfather, who could spin a yarn with the best of them, had the best I’ve ever heard.

It seems an Indian chief was concerned about a hunting party that was delayed in returning from a late summer gathering of meat for the winter. The year had been an extremely difficult one and the tribe needed the buffalo, deer and turkey meat for their winter consumption, and the hides for clothing and shelters. Fearing the crops in the fields would go to waste before the braves returned to harvest, the chief sat at his campfire and began to feverishly smoke a pipe, and did so for days, until the air was filled with smokey, hot air. Once the hunting party made its return, the air was still warm enough to gather the crops that had not been damaged by frost, that the chief feared would be destroyed by the impending cold weather. By warming the air with the smoke from his pipe, the chief, essentially, saved the crops.

There is a lot to think about here.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Who is the New England Patriots’ all-time single season leader in touchdown receptions?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS – Eels are in central Maine lakes: so what about them?

American eel

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

A reader this week asked about eels. And urged me to write something about them. Well, I know for a fact that eels exist in Webber Pond, in Vassalboro, because my wife and I have caught them. They also can be found in China Lake. This one goes back a while. I was a young lad in the 1950s, when I was probably about nine years old, and I remember being in an old wooden boat, with no motor, but oars, with my dad and an uncle. I don’t remember which uncle. Someone in the boat caught an eel, because my only recollection of that adventure was when they took out a cleaver-like knife and cut its head off on the gunwale of the boat. It was a white boat with red trim. By the way, that was the only time I can ever remember being on China Lake.

Another instance I have had with eels was catching one through the ice on Three Mile Pond one year back in the 1990s. We left it on the ice to die, and then scaled, gutted it, and cut it into chunks for dinner. I can remember the muscled fish “dancing” in the frying pan, and had the consistency of a scallop. We kind of altered the taste with a little garlic.

OK, so what about eels. They are slimy, and most people don’t want to be bothered with them.

Eels are elongated fish, ranging in length from two inches to 13 feet. I remember one time when my wife caught one that measured about 22 inches. They possess no pelvic fins, and many species also lack pectoral fins. The dorsal and anal fins are fused with the caudal fin, forming a single ribbon running along much of the length of the animal. Eels swim by generating waves which travel the length of their bodies. They can swim backwards by reversing the direction of the wave.

Freshwater eels have a slender, snake-like body that is covered with a mucus layer, which makes the eel appear to be naked and slimy despite the presence of minute scales. A long dorsal fin runs from the middle of the back and is continuous with a similar ventral fin. Pelvic fins are absent, and relatively small pectoral fins can be found near the midline, followed by the head and gill covers. Variations exist in coloration, from olive green, brown shading to greenish-yellow and light gray or white on the belly. Eels from clear water are often lighter than those from dark, tannic acid streams.

The eel lives in fresh water and estuaries and only leaves these habitats to enter the Atlantic Ocean to make its spawning migration to the Sargasso Sea. Spawning takes place far offshore, where the eggs hatch. The female can lay up to 4 million buoyant eggs and dies after egg-laying. After the eggs hatch and the early-stage larvae develop, the young eels move toward North America, where they metamorphose into glass eels and enter freshwater systems where they grow as yellow eels until they begin to mature.

American eels hunt predominantly at night, and during the day they hide in mud, sand, or gravel very close to shore, at depths of roughly five to six feet. They feed on crustaceans, aquatic insects, small insects, and probably any aquatic organisms that they can find and eat.

American eels are economically important in various areas along the East Coast as bait for fishing for sport fishes such as the striped bass, or as a food fish in some areas. Their recruitment stages, the glass eels, are also caught and sold for use in aquaculture, although this is now restricted in most areas.

Eels were once an abundant species in rivers, and were an important fishery for aboriginal people. The construction of hydroelectric dams has blocked their migrations and locally extirpated eels in many watersheds. For example, in Canada, the vast numbers of eels in the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers have dwindled.

The American eel Anguilla rostrata was first described in 1817 by Lesueur. Anguilla is Latin for eel, and rostrata is a Latin word that can mean either “beaked or curved” or “long nose”. French: Anguille d’Amérique, Spanish: Anguila americana.

Their natural range includes the eastern North Atlantic Ocean coastline from Venezuela to Greenland and including Iceland. Inland, this species extends into the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River and its tributaries as far upstream as Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Eels are bottom dwellers. They hide in burrows, tubes, snags, masses of plants, other types of shelters. They are found in a variety of habitats including streams, rivers, and muddy or silt-bottomed lakes during their freshwater stage, as well as oceanic waters, coastal bays and estuaries. During winter, eels burrow under the mud and enter a state of torpor (or complete inactivity) at temperatures below 5°C, although they may occasionally be active during this period.

Little information about predation on eels has been published. It was reported that elvers and small yellow eels are prey of largemouth bass and striped bass, although they were not a major part of these predators’ diet.

In the 1970s, the annual North Atlantic harvest had an averaged value of $84,000. In 1977, the eel landings from Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts were about $263,000 (US Department of Commerce 1984).

Substantial decline in numbers and fishery landings of American eels over their range in eastern Canada and the U.S. was noted, raising concerns over the status of this species. The number of juvenile eels in the Lake Ontario area decreased from 935,000 in 1985 to about 8,000 in 1993 and was approaching zero levels in 2001. Rapid declines were also recorded in Virginia, as well as in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, in Canada.

Because of its complex life cycle, the species face a broad range of threats, some of which are specific to certain growth stage. Being catadromous, the eels’ reproductivity success depends heavily on free downstream passage for spawning migration. It also depends on the availability of diverse habitats for growth and maturation.

Sex ratio in the population can also be affected because males and females tend to utilize different habitats. Impacts on certain regions may greatly impact the number of either sex.

Despite being able to live in a wide range of temperatures and different levels of salinity, American eels are very sensitive to low dissolved oxygen level, which is typically found below dams. Contaminations of heavy metals, dioxins, chlordane, and polychlorinated biphenyls as well as pollutants from nonpoint source can bioaccumulate within the fat tissues of the eels, causing dangerous toxicity and reduced productivity. This problem is exacerbated due to the high fat content of eels.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reviewed the status of the American eel both in 2007 and in 2015, finding both times that Endangered Species Act protection for the American eel is not warranted. The Canadian province of Ontario has canceled the commercial fishing quota since 2004. Eel sport fishery has been closed.

OK, this is running a little longer than usual, but the eel is an interesting fish that has a bad reputation, but most people know very little about.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

In what year was game 3 of the World Series postponed due to an earthquake?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Chipmunks preparing for a long hibernation

Cute squirrel climbing a tree. Free public domain CC0 image.

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

During one of the final weekends of camp, my wife and I, one day, were sitting on the deck, enjoying the unseasonably warm weather and watched nature as we made our plans for closing up camp for the summer. It was a warm, sunny day with a slight breeze coming out of the northwest. During that time I was able to watch this one particular chipmunk, which I would have to describe as resilient and determined. Right in front of our storage sheds, he had dug one of his may entry holes. As we later went about our business of closing things up, the chipmunk’s hole kept getting filled in. Over the next few days, we would wake up in the morning and the hole had been re-opened.

On the fourth day I noticed his hole had not been re-opened from the day before.

Suddenly, out of the brush he came, and right there in front of us, began to dig as if we were not there. I know he knew we were there, but I couldn’t figure out whether he wanted to show us that we were not going to discourage him, or maybe he was just being plain defiant.

They are cute litte buggers and very industrious. We watch them at our camp all the time, and they become braver as the summer turns to fall.

The common name of the chipmunk comes from the native Ottawan word jidmoonh, meaning “red squirrel.” The earliest form of “chipmuck” appeared in the Oxford Dictionary of 1842, although it appears in several books from the 1820s. They are also referred to as striped squirrels, chippers, munks and timber tigers.

They are omnivorous, primarily feeding on nuts and other fruits, buds, grass, shoots and many other forms of plant matter, as well as fungi, insects and other arthropds, small frogs, worms and bird eggs. Oh, and did I mention bird seed.

They forage basically on the ground but will climb trees for hazelnuts and acorns. They begin to stockpile food in early fall. They stash their food in their burrows and remain underground until spring, unlike some other species which make multiple small caches of food, such as the gray squirrel.

As small as they are, they fulfill several important functions in forest ecosystems. Their activities harvesting and hoarding tree seeds play a crucial role in seedling establishment. They consume many different kinds of fungi, including those involved with trees, and are an important vehicle in the dispersal of the spores of truffles which have co-evolved with these and other mammals, and thus lost the ability to disperse their spores through the air.

The eastern chipmunk hibernates during the winter.

Chipmunks also play an important role as prey for various predatory mammals and birds, but are also opportunistic predators themselves, particularly in regards to bird eggs and nestlings.

Chipmunks, on average, live about three years, but have been known to live up to nine years in captivity. In captivity, they sleep an average of 15 hours a day. It is thought that mammals which can sleep in hiding, such as rodents and bats, tend to sleep longer than those that must remain on alert.

What my wife and I fear is the presence of many feral cats in our area over recent years, that stalk and attack any unwary chipmunk. In the latter stages of the summer, we were seeing fewer and fewer chipmunks, to the point where there was just this one.

Well, when we left our little friend on Sunday afternoon this year, his hole was open and he was seen scurrying around in the leaves, gathering the acorns that were falling from the trees …as if we weren’t even there. It survived another year.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

MLB’s Atlanta Braves and the NHL’s New Jersey Devils called two other cities home, respectively, before settling into their present locations. Where were they?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: The summer of 2022 sure has been a strange one

photo by Eric W. Austin

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

It’s always a sad time of the year when we have to close up camp. That is a ritual my wife and I do every year on the last weekend of September. While taking a break during last Saturday’s “just gorgeous” day, we started to rehash the last six months.

It has been a strange summer, with many of the observations we discussed while sitting on the deck. It actually all started back in March and early April. It is said that a 40-year-old maple tree should produce approximately 10 gallons of sap to make maple syrup. I have two trees that I tap in my backyard. This year, those two trees produced 48 gallons of sap. Do the math, it doesn’t add up. They produced more than double what they should have produced.

Then, on to May. We didn’t realize it at the time, but later we would conclude that the black flies this year were not all that bad. And that was followed by a summer when mosquito numbers were down. Even the dreaded browntail moth caterpillar was nowhere to be found. I saw one in late spring-early summer.

Another strange occurrence, we only saw three June bugs in late May and early June. This is compared to some years when, in one particular season, we counted 53 June bugs in one night.

We moved on from there, and noticed that the cicadas, the insect that “sings” (buzzes) during the hot summer days of July. I, personally, didn’t hear one until July 26. Remember the old farmers folklore? From the day you first hear a cicadae, we will get the first killing frost 90 days from that time. However, that is not the problem. I probably heard cicadas less than a half dozen times during the hot days of summer. Unusual. You normally hear them almost every sunny day. Oh, by the way, the first killing frost should come around October 22.

How about the hickory tussock caterpillar? The fuzzy white one with the long black “feelers” that usually show up in abundance in August. If you just make incidental contact with them they can leave you with a rash. I have not seen one yet.

Another caterpillar is the wooly bear, which usually predicts the severity of a winter depending on the length of the rust-colored bar on its body, and usually makes its appearance around early to mid September. So far, I have not seen one. You usually see them crossing the road everywhere. Nothing, so far, this year.

Over the last couple of weeks, however, we have heard and seen an unusually large number of Canada geese settling on Webber Pond for their break before continuing south.

This summer, we have gone through an unusually long, hot, dry spell. A time when we are pestered by yellow jackets who are in search of moisture. Well, they made their presence known this year, especially in July and August. So far, I haven’t seen a nest. So, that predictor of upcoming weather will be unreliable. Old folklore has it that the amount of snow you will receive over the winter is forecasted by where you find the nests. The higher, the more snow you can expect.

For those of you who have taken vacation time to go leaf peeping, it’s not happening at the same time this year. Have you noticed that, here in early October, the trees have just started to change colors.

One thing that did remain constant was the hummingbirds arriving and departing on schedule. Even the annual overrun by the harvestmen (daddy long legs) was not all that bad.

Things, overall, just don’t seem right in 2022. But, following some research of my journal, I found we had similar summers in 2015 and 2018. Maybe not as hot and humid, but very similar with respect to natural activities.

Even some of the old, reliable folklore observations are inconsistent. Peelings on the onions have been thin and easy to peel, indicating a mild winter, while the squirrels have some of the bushiest tails I have ever seen, an indication of a severe winter. Again, not having seen a bee hive is unreliable.

You can probably blame it on climate change; El Nino, La Nina or polar vortex, but it’s just not normal. Weather folklore warnings of a harsh winter are based on La Nina.

However, three almost identical summers within a seven-year span could spell the beginning of a pattern. I’ve heard many predictions on our upcoming winter. I don’t believe any of them. I will continue to get ready for a “Maine winter.” The oil tank is full, snowblower tuned up, and shovels ready to go. Are you?

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Outside of Bailey Zappe, who was the last Patriots rookie quarterback to win his first NFL start?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Bobcat makes presence known in the area

This bobcat was recently photographed strolling through Phil and Joann King’s yard, in Palermo. (photo by Phil & Joann King)

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

I recently received an email from Phil and Joann King, of Palermo, telling of a sighting on a bobcat in their yard. They live on the Hostile Valley Road, and the bobcat casually strolled through their property during the night. They say he glanced through the sliding glass window and strolled up to the garden. According to them, he seemed completely unconcerned.

Bobcats are common in Maine, some, obviously, more visible than others. They tend to be solitary and generally travel only at night.

The bobcat, Lynx rufus, also known as the red lynx, is a medium-sized cat native to North America. It ranges from southern Canada through most of the contiguous United States to Oaxaca, in Mexico. It is listed as Least Concern on the International Union for Conservation of Nature, IUCN, Red List since 2002, due to its wide distribution and large population. Although it has been hunted extensively both for sport and fur, populations have proven stable, though declining in some areas.

It has distinctive black bars on its forelegs and a black-tipped, stubby (or “bobbed”) tail, from which it derives its name. It reaches a total length (including the tail) of up to 50 inches. It is an adaptable predator inhabiting wooded areas, semidesert, urban edge, forest edge, and swampland environments. It remains in some of its original range, but populations are vulnerable to extirpation by coyotes and domestic animals.

The small tufts on a bobcat’s ears are difficult to spot at even moderate distance.

Though the bobcat prefers rabbits and hares, it hunts insects, chickens, geese and other birds, small rodents, and deer. Prey selection depends on location and habitat, season, and abundance. Like most cats, the bobcat is territorial and largely solitary, although with some overlap in home ranges. It uses several methods to mark its territorial boundaries, including claw marks and deposits of urine or feces. The bobcat breeds from winter into spring and has a gestation period of about two months.

The bobcat is thought to have evolved from the Eurasian lynx, which crossed into North America by way of the Bering Land Bridge during the Pleistocene, arriving as early as 2.6 million years ago.

The adult bobcat is 18.7–49.2 inches long from the head to the base of its distinctive stubby tail, averaging 32.6 inches; the tail is 3.5 to 7.9 inches long. The adult male bobcat is slightly larger than the female.

The species’ range does not seem to be limited by human populations, as long as it can still find a suitable habitat.

The bobcat is active mostly during twilight. It keeps on the move from three hours before sunset until about midnight, and then again from before dawn until three hours after sunrise. Each night, it moves from two to seven miles along its habitual route. This behavior may vary seasonally, as bobcats become more diurnal during fall and winter in response to the activity of their prey, which are more active during the day in colder weather.

The bobcat is able to survive for long periods without food, but eats heavily when prey is abundant. During lean periods, it often preys on larger animals, which it can kill and return to feed on later. The bobcat hunts by stalking its prey and then ambushing with a short chase or pounce. Its main prey varies by region: in the eastern United States, it is the eastern cottontail and New England cottontail, and in the north, it is the snowshoe hare. When these prey species exist together, as in New England, they are the primary food sources of the bobcat.

Bobcats are also occasional hunters of livestock and poultry. While larger species, such as cattle, and horses, are not known to be attacked, bobcats do present a threat to smaller ruminants, such as pigs, sheep and goats.

The adult bobcat has relatively few predators. However rarely, it may be killed in interspecific conflict by several larger predators or fall prey to them. Cougars and gray wolves can kill adult bobcats, a behavior repeatedly observed in Yellowstone National Park. Coyotes have killed adult bobcats and kittens.

Diseases, accidents, hunters, automobiles, and starvation are the other leading causes of death. Juveniles show high mortality shortly after leaving their mothers, while still perfecting their hunting techniques. The bobcat has long been valued both for fur and sport; it has been hunted and trapped by humans, but has maintained a high population, even in the southern United States, where it is extensively hunted. In the 1970s and 1980s, an unprecedented rise in price for bobcat fur caused further interest in hunting, but by the early 1990s, prices had dropped significantly.

Stories featuring the bobcat, in many variations, are found in some Indigenous cultures of North America. In a Shawnee tale, the bobcat is outwitted by a rabbit, which gives rise to its spots. After trapping the rabbit in a tree, the bobcat is persuaded to build a fire, only to have the embers scattered on its fur, leaving it singed with dark brown spots.

The Mohave people believed dreaming habitually of beings or objects would afford them their characteristics as supernatural powers. Dreaming of two deities, cougar and lynx, they thought, would grant them the superior hunting skills of other Tribes. European-descended inhabitants of the Americas also admired the cat, both for its ferocity and its grace, and in the United States, it “rests prominently in the anthology of … national folklore.”

Grave artifacts from dirt domes excavated in the 1980s along the Illinois River revealed a complete skeleton of a young bobcat along with a collar made of bone pendants and shell beads that had been buried by the Hopewell culture. The type and place of burial indicate a tamed and cherished pet or possible spiritual significance. The Hopewell normally buried their dogs, so the bones were initially identified as remains of a puppy, but dogs were usually buried close to the village and not in the mounds themselves. This is the only wild cat decorated burial on the archaeological record.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

What’s the diameter of a basketball hoop in inches?

Answer can be found here.