SCORES & OUTDOORS: Cottontail population has direct affect on Canada lynx numbers

Eastern Cottontail Rabbit

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

Walking through the woods following a snowfall can show evidence of many wildlife tracks. This past winter, I did see tracks of the Eastern Cottontail rabbit.

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

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

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

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

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

The rabbits are active at night, and do not hibernate in winter. Predators include hawks, owls, coyotes, foxes, wolves, the aforementioned lynx, bobcats, weasels, raccoons, and even domestic cats and dogs. Trace amounts of eastern cottontail remains have been detected in black bears. On farms and in gardens, they are considered pests and are often trapped or shot to protect plants.

Reproductive maturity occurs at about two to three months of age. The average period of gestation is 28 days, ranging from 25 – 35 days. The young are born with a very fine coat of hair and are blind. Their eyes begin to open by four to seven days.

Females can have one to seven litters of one to 12 young, called kits, in a year; however, they average three to four litters per year and the average number of kits is five.

The leading cause of mortality is probably by predators. The second highest number of deaths occur with automobile collisions. The peak period collisions is in the spring, March through May. The annual adult survival rate is estimated at 20 percent, and the average longevity is 15 months in the wild.

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

The Eastern cottontail is a very territorial animal. When running, it can jump from 15 feet, which can aid in avoiding predators. When chased, it runs in a zigzag pattern so the animal chasing it will lose its scent, making the rabbit harder to follow. They can run up to 18 miles per hour. The cottontail prefers an area where it can hide quickly but be out in the open. Forests, swamps, thickets, bushes or open areas where shelter is close by are optimal habitation sites for this species. Cottontails do not dig burrows, but rather rest in a form, a shallow, scratched-out depression in a clump of grass or under brush. It may use the dens of groundhogs as a temporary home or during heavy snow.

Typically, eastern cottontails occupy habitats in and around farms, including fields, pastures, open woods, thickets associated with fencerows, wooded thickets, forest edges and suburban areas with adequate food and cover. They are also found in swamps and marshes, and usually avoid dense woods. They are seldom found in deep woods.

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

We once had one reside near our camp. Our neighbor had a patch of clover that it seemed to enjoy, but liked to raid the other neighbor’s garden. I think it met with an unfortunate demise – commonly referred to as lead poisoning.

Wild rabbits. Adorable little creatures, but they can wear out their welcome.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Which MLB team won the 1994 World Series?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Porcupines are plentiful and not in danger


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.

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 got home from school. One of them was to make sure they picked up after themselves following their after-school snack. Upon returning home from work, I found a folded paper towel on the counter. I grabbed it to crush it into a ball to throw away when this sharp pain shot through my hand. When I unwrapped the towel, I found a porcupine quill inside, but now 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.

Porcupine in a tree.

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:

Which pitcher, who played for the Red Sox between 1977 and 1989, is the only player from the state of Maine to receive All Star honors?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: The beneficial, destructive, disease carrying, smart European starling

European Starling

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

Last week while while doing some work in my backyard, specifically, dealing with the compost bin following the winter, spreading fertilizer in the garden, pruning my black raspberry bushes, and just doing some general clean up, I noticed a flock of starlings in a bush in the corner of my property. I had seen them before, but it seemed a little early for them.

The common starling, Sturnus vulgaris, also known as the European starling, or in the British Isles just starling, is a medium-sized bird about eight inches long and has glossy black plumage with a metallic sheen, which is speckled with white at some times of year. The legs are pink and the bill is black in winter and yellow in summer; young birds have browner plumage than the adults. It is a noisy bird, especially in communal roosts and other gregarious situations, with an unmusical but varied song. Its gift for mimicry has been noted in literature including the Mabinogion and the works of Pliny the Elder and William Shakespeare.

The common starling has about a dozen subspecies breeding in open habitats across its native range in temperate Europe and western Asia, and it has been introduced to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, United States, Mexico, Peru, Argentina, the Falkland Islands, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, South Africa and Fiji.

Large flocks typical of this species can be beneficial to agriculture by controlling pests; however, starlings can also be pests themselves when they feed on fruit and sprouting crops. Common starlings may also be a nuisance through the noise and mess caused by their large urban roosts. The species has declined in numbers in parts of northern and western Europe since the 1980s due to fewer grassland invertebrates being available as food for growing chicks. Despite this, its huge global population is not thought to be declining significantly, so the common starling is classified as being of least concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The European starling ranks third, behind only the red-winged blackbird and the American robin, as the most abundant species in North America.

After two failed attempts, about 60 common starlings were released in 1890 into New York’s Central Park by Eugene Schieffelin. He was president of the American Acclimatization Society, which tried to introduce every bird species mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare into North America. About the same date, the Portland Song Bird Club released 35 pairs of common starlings in Portland, Oregon. These birds became established but disappeared around 1902. Common starlings reappeared in the Pacific Northwest in the mid-1940s and these birds were probably descendants of the 1890 Central Park introduction. The original 60 birds have since swelled in number to 150 million, occupying an area extending from southern Canada and Alaska to Central America.

The global population of common starlings was estimated to be 310 million individuals in 2004, occupying a total area of 3,420,000 square miles.

A majority of starling predators are avian. Their ability in flight are seldom matched by birds of prey. Adult common starlings are hunted by hawks. Slower raptors tend to take the more easily caught fledglings or juveniles. While perched in groups by night, they can be vulnerable to owls, including the little owl.

Common starlings are hosts to a wide range of parasites. A survey of three hundred common starlings from six U.S. states found that all had at least one type of parasite; 99 percent had external fleas, mites or ticks, and 95 percent carried internal parasites, mostly various types of worm. Blood-sucking species leave their host when it dies, but other external parasites stay on the corpse.

Common starlings introduced to areas such as Australia or North America, where other members of the genus are absent, may have an impact on native species through competition for nest holes. In North America, chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, purple martins and other swallows may be affected. For its role in the decline of local native species and the damages to agriculture, the common starling has been included in the IUCN List of the world’s 100 worst invasive species.

Common starlings can eat and damage fruit in orchards such as grapes, peaches, olives, currants and tomatoes or dig up newly-sown grain and sprouting crops. They may also eat animal feed and distribute seeds through their droppings, which is how I think I got my patch of black raspberries in my garden area. I never had them before, but they showed up about eight years ago. Agricultural damage in the U.S. is estimated as costing about $800 million annually. This bird is considered to be damaging to agriculture the United States.

The large size of flocks can also cause problems. Common starlings may be sucked into aircraft jet engines, one of the worst instances of this being an incident in Boston in 1960, when 62 people died after a turboprop airliner flew into a flock and plummeted into the sea at Winthrop Harbor.

Starlings’ droppings can contain the fungus Histoplasma capsulatum, the cause of histoplasmosis in humans. At roosting sites this fungus can thrive in accumulated droppings. There are a number of other infectious diseases that can potentially be transmitted by common starlings to humans, although the potential for the birds to spread infections may have been exaggerated.

The common starling’s gift for mimicry has long been recognized. In the medieval Welsh Mabinogion, Branwen tamed a common starling, “taught it words,” and sent it across the Irish Sea with a message to her brothers, Bran and Manawydan, who then sailed from Wales to Ireland to rescue her. Pliny the Elder claimed that these birds could be taught to speak whole sentences in Latin and Greek, and in Henry IV, William Shakespeare had Hotspur declare, “The king forbade my tongue to speak of Mortimer. But I will find him when he is asleep, and in his ear I’ll holler ‘Mortimer!’ Nay I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but Mortimer, and give it to him to keep his anger still in motion.”

Mozart had a pet common starling which could sing part of his Piano Concerto in G Major (KV. 453). He had bought it from a shop after hearing it sing a phrase from a work he wrote six weeks previously.

After all of this, I wonder where the starling fits in our ecosystem. Is it beneficial, is it destructive to agriculture, is it a carrier of disease, or is it smart enough to learn Mozart? Whatever the outcome, I hope the black raspberries make it to fruition.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

What manager led the Boston Red Sox to their first championship in 86 years in 2004?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Signs of spring continue to be around us

common house fly

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

We all know, of course, that spring has arrived, at least according to the calendar. But there are many signs all around us. I have noticed some bushes, and even trees, have begun to bud.

But, this weekend, I saw my first house fly of the season.

The house fly, Musca domestica Linnaeus, is a well-known cosmopolitan pest of both farm and home. This species is always found in association with humans or the activities of humans. It is the most common species found on hog and poultry farms, horse stables and ranches. Not only are house flies a nuisance, but they can also transport disease-causing organisms. Excessive fly populations are not only an irritant to farm workers but, when there are nearby human habitations, a public health problem could occur.

This common fly originated on the steppes of central Asia – there’s Asia-borne pests in the news, again – but now occurs on all inhabited continents, in all climates from tropical to temperate, and in a variety of environments ranging from rural to urban. It is commonly associated with animal feces, but has adapted well to feeding on garbage, so it is abundant almost anywhere people live.

The house fly has a complete metamorphosis with distinct egg, larval or maggot, pupal and adult stages. The house fly overwinters in either the larval or pupal stage under manure piles or in other protected locations. Warm summer conditions are generally optimum for the development of the house fly, and it can complete its life cycle in as little as seven to ten days. However, under some conditions the life cycle may require up to two months. As many as 10 to 12 generations may occur annually in temperate regions, while more than 20 generations may occur in subtropical and tropical regions.

The house fly is about a quarter of an inch long, with the female usually larger than the male. The female can be distinguished from the male by the relatively wide space between the eyes (in males, the eyes almost touch).

Adults usually live 15 to 25 days, but may live up to two months. Without food, they survive only about two to three days. Longevity is enhanced by availability of suitable food, especially sugar. Access to animal manure does not lengthen adult life and they live longer at cooler temperatures.

The potential reproductive capacity of flies is tremendous, but fortunately can never be realized. Scientists have calculated that a pair of flies beginning reproduction in April may be responsible, under optimal conditions and if all were to live, for the production of 191,010,000,000,000,000,000 flies by August.

The flies are inactive at night, with ceilings, beams and overhead wires within buildings, trees, and shrubs, various kinds of outdoor wires, and grasses reported as overnight resting sites. In poultry ranches, the nighttime, outdoor aggregations of flies are found mainly in the branches, and shrubs, whereas almost all of the indoor populations generally aggregated in the ceiling area of poultry houses.

According to a study conducted in Texas, breeding site suitability (in descending order), was horse manure, human excrement, cow manure, fermenting vegetable matter, and kitchen waste. However, another study found that structures containing swine, horse, sheep, cattle, and poultry varied in fly abundance, with swine facilities containing the most and poultry the least. Fruit and vegetable cull piles, partially incinerated garbage, and incompletely composted manure also are highly favored sites for breeding.

Of particular concern is the movement of flies from animal or human feces to food that will be eaten uncooked by humans. Also, when consumed by flies, some pathogens can be harbored in the mouthparts for several days, and then be transmitted when flies defecate or regurgitate. In situations where plumbing is lacking, such as open latrines, serious health problems can develop, especially if there are outdoor food markets, hospitals, or slaughter houses nearby. One of the pathogens commonly transmitted by house flies is Salmonella. These flies are most commonly linked to outbreaks of diarrhea and shigellosis, but also are implicated in transmission of food poisoning, typhoid fever, dysentery, tuberculosis, anthrax, ophthalmia, and parasitic worms.

The threshold density for determining when to control flies depends on the area where the control measures will be taken. In general, in homes the threshold is very low and control actions are taken with few flies. Tolerance of flies depends greatly on circumstances. In sensitive environments such as food preparation and packing facilities, restaurants, and hospitals, even small numbers of flies cannot be tolerated.

The more commonly used control measures for house flies are sanitation, use of traps, and insecticides, but in some instances integrated fly control has been implemented. The use of biological control in fly management is still at a relatively early stage.

Good sanitation is the basic step in any fly management program. Food and materials on which the flies can lay eggs must be removed, destroyed as a breeding medium, or isolated from the egg-laying adult. Since the house fly can complete its life cycle in as little as seven days, removal of wet manure at least twice a week is necessary to break the breeding cycle. Wet straw should not be allowed to pile up in or near buildings. Since straw is one of the best fly breeding materials, it is not recommended as bedding. Killing adult flies may reduce the infestation, but elimination of breeding areas is necessary for good management. Garbage cans and dumpsters should have tight-fitting lids and be cleaned regularly. Dry garbage and trash should be placed in plastic garbage bags and sealed. All garbage receptacles should be located as far from building entrances as possible.

Around homes and businesses, screening or covering of windows, doors or air doors, and trash containers proves useful in denying access of flies to breeding sites. Packaging household trash in plastic bags also helps to eliminate breeding.

The house fly is a nuisance. They just seem to have this knack of annoying you until you can’t stand it any more. That’s why, at camp in the summer, there is an ample supply of fly swatters available.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Outside of the New York Yankees, who have won 27 World Series, which MLB team has won the second most?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Turkey vultures becoming more and more common in central Maine

SOAKING THE SUN: This turkey vulture was photographed by Pat Clark, of Palermo, stretching its wings while soaking in the sunshine.

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

I remember as a young boy growing up of going to the “movies” at the old State Theater, on Silver St., in Waterville (now Cancun Restaurant). It was the Saturday kids’ marathon. You would get to the theater at 10 a.m., and probably wouldn’t come out until dark. There were cartoons galore, news reels, several feature films, and even a commercial for popcorn in the lobby. (For 25-cents, you got admission to the theater, a bag of popcorn and soda – and get change back.)

One of the things I remember well, and are still my favorites today, were the old film noir westerns. The films were marked with poor lighting, corny sound effects and acting – but Gene and Roy could sing you a tune, and beat up the bad dudes. Pretty versatile guys to have around.

One scene would always be of a vulture circling overhead, signaling the presence of a corpse, or a carcass of a dead animal near a watering hole, an indication of a poisoned pool.

I had never seen a real vulture. I thought they only existed where the cowboys roamed the western range.

Later in life, around the 1980s, I saw my first real vulture on top of French’s Mountain, in the town of Rome. However, recently I have seen a growing population of the turkey vultures in central Maine. First, on the Nelson Rd., in Vassalboro, and recently on Chase Ave., in Waterville, near the Delta Ambulance headquarters. Last Sunday, I saw four of them in the road.

Its range is from southern Canada to the southermost tip of South America.

Turkey vulture

The turkey vulture, Cathartes aura, or turkey buzzard as it is known in some North American regions, is a scavanger that feeds almost exclusively on carrion. It finds its food using its keen eyes and sense of smell, flying low enough to detect the gasses produced by the beginnings of the process of decay in dead animals. This is an uncommon ability in the avian world. The olfactory lobe of its brain, responsible for processing smells, is particularly large compared to that of other animals. Lacking a syrinx, the vocal organ of birds, its only vocalizations are grunts or low hisses. It nests in caves, hollow trees, or thickets. It has very few natural predators. In the United States, the vulture receives legal protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

It is listed as a species of Least Concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list. Populations appear to be stable, thus has not reached the threshold of inclusion as a threatened species, which requires a decline of more than 30 percent in 10 years or three generations.

In the U.S. it is illegal to take, kill, or possess turkey vultures, their eggs, and any body parts including but not limited to their feathers; violation of the law is punishable by a fine of up to $100,000 for individuals or $200,000 for organizations, and/or a prison term of one year.

Turkey vultures appear black from a distance but up close are dark brown with a featherless red head and pale bill. While most of their body and forewing are dark, the undersides of the flight feathers (along the trailing edge and wingtips) are paler, giving a two-toned appearance.

The turkey vulture received its common name from the resemblance of the adult head of a wild turkey, while the name vulture is derived from the Latin word vulturus, meaning “tearer,” and is a reference to its feeding habits.

The wingspan of a turkey vulture is between 63 – 72 inches, has a length of 24 – 32 inches and weighs 1.8 to 5.3 pounds. Northern vulture are generally larger than the ones from its southern range. It is the most abundant vulture in the Americas. The global population of the turkey vulture is estimated to be 4.5 million individuals.

The turkey vulture is gregarious and roosts in large community groups, breaking away to forage independently during the day. It roosts on dead, leafless trees, and will also roost on man-made structures such as water and microwave towers. Though it nests in caves, it does not enter them except during the breeding season. The turkey vulture lowers its night time body temperature to about 93 degrees F, becoming slightly hypothermic.

Turkey vultures are perceived as a threat by farmers due to the similar black vulture’s tendency to attack and kill newborn cattle. Turkey vultures will not kill live animals, but will mix with other flocks of black vultures and will scavenge what they leave behind.

The breeding season varies according to region. In the north, it commences around May and continues into August. They do not lay eggs in a nest, but rather on a bare surface. Females generally lay two eggs, but sometimes one and rarely three. The incubation period lasts between 30 – 40 days. Chicks are helpless at birth. The young fledge at about nine to ten weeks, and family groups will remain together until fall.

Turkey vultures are majestic but unsteady soarers. Their teetering flight with very few wingbeats is characteristic. Look for them gliding relatively low to the ground, sniffing for carrion, or else riding thermals up to higher vantage points. They may soar in small groups and roost in larger numbers. You may also see them on the ground in small groups, huddled around roadkill or dumpsters.

Turkey vultures are common around open areas such as roadsides, suburbs, farm fields, countryside, and food sources such as landfills, trash heaps, and construction sites. On sunny days, look for them aloft as early as 9 a.m.; in colder weather and at night they roost on poles, towers, dead trees, and fence posts.

Thankfully though, they are pretty harmless. Turkey vultures really do only eat dead flesh, so your pets and children are technically safe. When they gather together in trees though, people will often bring their children inside. They also can give people an eerie feeling when they circle overhead.

They have no incentive to attack humans and they lack the physical attributes that could pose a threat. Some vultures will spew projectile vomit as a defense mechanism, which is about the extent of their hostile behavior.

Again, like many other species I have observed, more and more of these critters are beginning to show up in the urban surroundings, where in the past they were only seen in rural areas.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Who is the only NFL quarterback in the Hall of Fame who is left handed?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: In search of those early signs of spring

American robin

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

I think I have some good news.

It all started last Saturday about the time I was ready for my second cup of coffee of the morning. The Keurig is located at the end of the kitchen counter near the window to the side porch. My wife has a couple of bird feeders hanging from the porch, and many species are seen coming in and out on a regular basis – chickadees, nuthatches, house finch, gold finch – you know the usual suspects.

Well, on that certain morning something caught my attention from the corner of my eye. There seemed to be a lot of activity coming from the driveway. My first thought: a squirrel was shaking things up.

A closer look showed maybe a dozen or two of birds active in and around a choke cherry bush that grows next to my garage. They were on the bush, on the ground, and even on my next door neighbor’s lawn.

At first glance, because the sun was in my eyes and all I saw were silhouettes, I thought they were European starlings, which I see all the time, especially in my back yard among the shrubs and black raspberry bushes that grow along the fence. It took a little while, but I finally discerned the birds were all American robins. Very unusual to see that many in the same place at the same time. I usually see a couple hanging around, but never that large a number of them.

What I have discovered is that American robins are social birds, especially during the winter, when they gather in large night roosts. During short winter days, smaller groups break off to forage for food, rejoining the roost in the evening.

This species has a wide-ranging diet. Robins feed on fruits and berries (especially in fall and winter), earthworms, snails, spiders, and insects such as grubs, caterpillars, and grasshoppers. Most people are familiar with the sight of American Robins hopping busily to and fro on lawns and in other open spaces, pulling up earthworms. Although they mainly glean food from the ground, robins also perch in trees while feeding on fruit and can catch flying insects in midair.

American robins, Turdus migratorius, are fairly large songbirds with a large, round body, long legs, and fairly long tail. Robins are the largest of the North American thrushes, and their profile offers a good chance to learn the basic shape of most thrushes. Robins make a good reference point for comparing the size and shape of other birds, too.

Since American Robins forage and feed on the ground, they are especially vulnerable to predation by outdoor cats. Collisions with windows, communications towers, and car strikes are other common hazards.

The American robin is a migratory songbird of the true thrush genus. 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 Old World flycatcher family. The American robin is widely distributed throughout North America, wintering from southern Canada to central Mexico and along the Pacific Coast. It is the state bird of Connecticut, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

According to the Partners in Flight database (2019), the American robin is the most abundant bird in North America (370,000,000), ahead of Red-winged blackbirds, introduced European starlings, Mourning doves and the not-always-naturally-occurring House finch)

The adult robin’s main predators are hawks, domestic cats, and snakes. When feeding in flocks, it can be vigilant, watching other birds for reactions to predators.

Migratory populations spend the winter from extreme southern Canada south to central Mexico. Although originally a bird of forest clearings, this species adapted particularly well to the widespread settlement and clearing of forest and grassland that occurred over the last few centuries.

The American robin is considered a symbol of spring. A well-known example is a poem by Emily Dickinson titled 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. The association has continued down to the present day, as, for example, in one Calvin and Hobbes cartoon from 1990 that had Calvin celebrating his inevitable wealth and fame after seeing the first robin of spring. The spring folklore is borne out by the fact that American robins tend to follow the 37°F temperature north in spring, but also south in fall.

American popular songs featuring this bird include When the Red, Red Robin (Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along), written by Harry M. Woods, and a hit for Al Jolson and others, and Rockin’ Robin, written by Roger Thomas and a hit for Bobby Day and others. Fly, Robin, Fly, by the German disco group Silver Convention, was a popular hit in the 1970s.

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.

So, getting back to the good news.

It’s always been a folklore that robins migrate south for the winter, and their first re-appearance north in late winter indicates how much longer it will last and that spring is near. But does the robin migrate south for the winter? The answer: yes and no.

We associate robins with spring for good reason: In many places, they arrive with the warm weather. But that doesn’t mean all of these birds escape winter’s bite.

Unlike long-distance migrants and many hummingbirds, which head south en masse during the fall, robins react to winter’s onset in two ways.

Many retreat southward. Northern Canada empties of robins, while areas far to the south like Texas and Florida receive large winter flocks. But those making the journey are not lured by warmer temperatures. Robins can withstand extremely cold temperatures, adding warm, downy feathers to their plumage. The real motivation is food, or rather the lack of it. As their warm-weather diet of earthworms and insects wanes, robins begin searching for fresh supplies.

But declining invertebrate numbers aren’t a problem for all robins — and a good number stay up north, which is the second way robins react to winter. They have been observed in every U.S. state (except Hawaii) and all southern Canadian provinces in January. They’re able to remain thanks to several important adaptations.

First, they change their diet, transitioning from protein-rich invertebrates to vitamin-rich winter fruits and berries, including junipers, hollies, crabapples, and hawthorns.

They also begin moving. In the spring and summer, robins aggressively defend their territories and raise young. In the winter, they become nomadic, searching widely for their favorite cold-weather fare. Weather also influences robin movements. A heavy snowfall that persists for more than a few days may send them on their way, searching for better conditions.

Since I haven’t seen that flock since, I assume they have moved on. But, on the other hand, spring can’t be too far off.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

There are only two states in the United States that have yet to send a team to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. What are they?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Ah, March! In like a lamb, or in like a lion?

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

As we say “goodbye” to February and welcome March with open arms, a thought comes to mind of an old weather lore, “In like a lion, out like a lamb.” In this case, it could be vice versa, considering the mild weather we have had as we usher in the third month of the year. So, it’s more like, “In like a lamb, out like a lion.”

In that case, we could be in for a rough March. But, there is light at the end of the tunnel. I will get to that later in the column.

Much like regular folklore, weather lore is passed down through speech and writing from normal people without the use of external measuring instruments. The origin of weather lore can be dated back to primieval men and their usage of star studying in navigation. However, more recently during the late Middle Ages, the works of two Greek philosopher-poets, Theophrastus of Eresus on Lesbos and Aratus of Macedonia, are known greater for shaping the prediction of weather. The­ophrastus and Aratus collated their works in two main collections for weather lore: On Weather Signs and On Winds. These were used for helping farmers with harvest, merchants for trade and determining the weather the next day.

Weather lore is the body of informal folklore related to the prediction of the weather and its greater meaning.

Astrology and weather lore have been closely interlinked for many years – with each planet often being associated with a weather state. For example, Mars is red and must therefore be hot and dry. Prevalent in ancient Roman thought, astrologists used weather lore to teach commoners of the star and cloud formations and how they can be used to see the future.

Before the invention of temperature measuring devices, such as the mercury thermometer, it was difficult to gather predictive, numerical data. Therefore, communities used their surroundings to predict and explain the weather in upcoming days.

Weather folklore, therefore, refers to this mid-latitude region of daily variability. Other common proverbs are:

When clouds look like black smoke,

A wise man will put on his cloak.

(Thick, moisture-laden storm clouds absorb sunlight. It gives them an appearance that somewhat resembles black smoke.)

Red sky at night:

A red sunset probably means dry weather the next day.

Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight.

Red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning.

(In a common variation, “shepherd” is replaced by “sailor”.)

A red sky – in the morning or evening – is a result of high pressure air in the atmosphere trapping particles of dust or soot. Air molecules scatter the shorter blue
wavelengths of sunlight, but particles of dust, soot and other aerosols scatter the longer red wave length of sunlight in a process called Rayleigh scattering. At sunrise and sunset, the sun is lower in the sky causing the sunlight to travel through more of the atmosphere so scattering more light. This effect is further enhanced when there are at least some high level clouds to reflect this light back to the ground.

When weather systems predominantly move from west to east, a red sky at night indicates that the high pressure air (and better weather) is westwards. In the morning the light is eastwards, and so a red sky then indicates the high pressure (and better weather) has already passed, and an area of low pressure is following behind. That is a scientific fact.

So, what does that have to do with March coming in like a lion or a lamb? Whether you believe in the myth or not is up to you but it sure is fun to think about.

As mentioned in the beginning, the month of March came in relatively mild. So what’s in store? The Farmers Almanac says we could see a significant snow event around March 9 – 12, but things improve from there with mostly rain and temperatures above normal, and, thus, go out like a lamb with sunny, mild weather heading into April. Came in like a lamb and will go out like one.

Does a phrase that originated in England and Wales centuries ago even have relevance in a state in our northern part of the country?

Sandi Duncan, managing editor of that old standby, the Farmers’ Almanac, once said the lion/lamb saying is probably more wishful thinking than fact.

They do a lot of articles on weather sayings, but sometimes they are awfully true because they’ve been handed down by people who observe the weather, according to Duncan, from her office, in Lewiston.

“The ‘in like a lion’ one is based on the idea if it comes in bad it will go out nicely. People really do hope March is at the end of winter.”

The phrase is based on the beginning of the month being in winter and the end being close to spring.

But a weather phrase like ‘red sky at night, sailors’ delight’ is much more accurate. With that, there is scientific backing, but not with the lion saying.

In the last 16 years, March has come in with a roar eight times and gone out with a “baah” 10 times.

But March has also roared once at both ends of the month while braying four times at the beginning and end of the month during those years.

If you’re worried about amounts of snow and spring floods, March is the type of month where snow can come at any time. It doesn’t really matter how the month goes out or comes in, but what happens in between.

March is a very variable month. It can be winter-like and cold with snow, while other times it can be mild and lots of snow melt like last year.

Alas, the interpretation is up to you. Snow and cold early next week, then heading to the first day of spring on March 20.

There is one thing for certain. Only 16 days ‘til official spring.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Who is the highest scoring defenseman in NHL history (goals and assists)?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS – Pigeons: are they a nuisance or are they heroes?

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

One of the educational things that I do for myself every day is read the comics in the daily newspaper. It kind of sets the tone for the rest of the day for me. I have my favorites: Snoopy, Hi and Lois, Beetle Bailey, Garfield, etc. I even like to read Mark Trail just to see what kind of adventure he sets out on, and invariably, brings to a successful and happy ending.

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

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

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

Having seen birds as small as a ruby-throated hummingbird, and as large as a Great Blue heron, it was difficult to see which one in between would get my attention. Then it dawned on me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Where did the NHL’s New Jersey Devils and MLB’s Atlanta Braves franchises begin their existence?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Lady bugs are good things to have around the house: Really!

The common ladybug

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home
Your house is on fire and your children are gone
All except one, and that’s Little Anne
For she has crept under the warming pan.

The ladybug as immortalized in the still-popular children’s nursery rhyme. They have been, for very many years, a favorite insect of children. But what about these little bugs that appear in our houses at certain times of the year?

Well, they come from the beetle family Coccinellidae, and are found worldwide with over 5,000 species, with more than 450 native to North America.

It is known by numerous names, but only in the U.S. is it called a ladybug. Other names include ladybirds, God’s cow, ladycock, lady cow and lady fly. Scientists increasingly prefer the name ladybird beetle, as ladybugs are not true bugs.

Coccinellids are small insects, and are commonly yellow, orange, or scarlet with small black spots on their wing covers, with black legs, head and antennae. A common myth is that the number of spots on the insect’s back indicates its age.

For the sake of this column, let’s refer to Coccinellids by the commonly-known name, ladybug.

A few species are considered pests in North America and Europe, but they are generally considered useful insects, as many species feed on aphids or scale insects, which are pests in gardens, agricultural fields, orchards and similar places. These insects were introduced into North America from Asia in 1916 to control aphids, but is now the most common species as it is out-competing many of the native species. While predatory species are often used as biological control agents, introduced species of ladybugs out-compete and displace native insects, and become pests in their own right.

Ladybugs are brightly colored to ward away potential predators. Mechanical stimulation — such as by predator attack — causes reflex bleeding in both larval and adult lady beetles, in which an alkaloid toxin is exuded through the joints of the outer shell, deterring feeding. Ladybugs are known to spray a toxin that is venomous to certain mammals and other insects when threatened.

These insects overwinter as adults, aggregating on the south sides of large objects such as trees or houses during the winter months, dispersing in response to increasing day length in the spring. Eggs hatch in three to four days from clutches numbering from a few to several dozen. Depending on resource availability, the larvae pass through four phases over 10-14 days, after which pupation occurs. After a molting period of several days, the adults become reproductively active, and are able to reproduce again. Total life span is one to two years on average.

Predatory ladybugs are usually found on plants where aphids or scale insects are, and they lay their eggs near their prey, to increase the likelihood the larvae will find the prey easily. A larva uses its sharp jaws to crush an aphid’s body and sucks out the aphid’s juices.

The most common plants where you will find ladybugs include any type of mustard plant, such as other early blooming nectar and pollen sources, like buckwheat, coriander, red or crimson clover, and legumes, and also early aphid sources such as bronze fennel, dill, coriander, caraway, angelica, tansy, yarrow of the wild carrot family, dandelions and scented geraniums.

These insects are sensitive to synthetic insecticides.

Many cultures consider ladybugs lucky. In many countries, including Russia, Turkey and Italy, the sight of a ladybug is either a call to make a wish or a sign that a wish will soon be granted.

In Christian areas, they are often associated with the Virgin Mary, and the name that this insect bears in various languages in Europe corresponds to this. Though historically many European languages referenced Freyja, the fertility goddess of Norse mythology, in the names, the Virgin Mary has now largely supplanted her.

For example, freyjuhoena (Old Norse), and Frouehenge (Norwegian) have been changed into marihone, which corresponds with Our Lady’s Bug.

Although the ladybugs are beneficial insects to have around, they still gather the curiosity of children. In the animated film, A Bug’s Life, Francis the Ladybug (voiced by Dennis Leary) is an aggressive beetle and the clown in P.T. Flea’s circus. The contrast between him being a male and a “lady”bug, is a recurring joke in the film.

Don’t squish that ladybug, it will keep unwanted insects off your plants, and even entertain the children and grandchildren.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Red Sox player Dustin Pedroia recently announced his retirement. He won the American League MVP award in 2008, becoming only the second Red Sox second baseman to do that. Who was the other?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Brown-tail moth caterpillar is back in the news in 2021

browntail moth caterpillar

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

Well, it looks like the brown-tail moth caterpillar is back in the news in 2021 with news that they are abundant in the central Maine area, including Waterville, Vassalboro, China, Albion and Winslow, according to a Maine Department of Agriculture Conservation and Forestry report. In all, 54 Maine communities were on the list.

I have seen and been around brown-tail moth caterpillars before, but the summer of 2020 was my first contact with one.

We had been doing some extensive outdoor renovations at camp this spring. With the tick population at record high numbers, we’ve been clearing and pushing back growth and decaying leaves further back into the woods, away from the camp. We had also torn down our old screened-in room, and prepared a new platform for the new one to be installed later. During all of this, we dress accordingly, long-sleeved shirts, long pants, socks and boots, to try to alleviate the possibility of ticks jumping on-board.

Apparently, there was another enemy out there. With the high, sustained winds, I somehow came in contact with airborne hairs from the brown-tail moth caterpillar. Saturday found both my arms, left shoulder and upper thigh on my left leg, covered with a pinkish rash, that itched like the dickens.

I have since dispatched three of the caterpillars I have found strolling along my deck.

They were accidentally introduced to the United States in the 1890s. During the early 20th century they were present from eastern Connecticut northward into New Brunswick, Canada, but a subsequent severe population collapse reduced the territory to parts of coastal Maine and Cape Cod, Massachusetts, by the late 20th century. One theory for the decline appeared to be a parasite introduced to combat gypsy moths. Starting in 2015 there has been a population spike and territory expansion along coastal Maine.

Hairs from the caterpillars are toxic for humans, causing a poison ivy-like itchy rash of up to weeks duration due to mechanical and chemical irritation. Direct contact with larvae is not necessary, as the hairs are shed and can become windblown. Toxins in the hairs remain potent for up to three years. Outdoor activities such as mowing a lawn or raking leaves in the fall can cause exposure.

The brown-tail moth is an invasive species in the United States and Canada, having arrived in Somerville, Massachusetts, circa 1890, and becoming widespread there and in neighboring Cambridge by 1897. Initial outbreaks were most evident in pear and apple trees. Doctors reported “poisonings” (skin rash) far worse than poison ivy rash. Within a few years it was seen as a serious, fast-spreading, horticultural and health problem – apparently, not enough though, to cause a complete shutdown of the country. Through the early parts of the 20th century it was present in much of New England from eastern Connecticut to Maine, and northward into New Brunswick, Canada, but the 1906 introduction of the parasitic fly Compsilura concinnata to counter gypsy moths collaterally impacted brown-tail moths. By the late 20th century the habitat was reduced to the coast and islands of Maine, and also parts of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Cold and wet weather hinders re-expansion of the population outside its current territories, although starting in 2015 there has been a population spike and territory expansion in coastal Maine, from Portland to Bar Harbor.

Photographs taken from aerial fly-overs are used to identify areas where the trees have been denuded of leaves, by the moth, and where the branch-tip tents are present. The white-winged adults are nocturnal and strongly attracted to light; a report from 1903 likened their appearance around streetlights as being akin to heavy snowfall.

The brown-tail moth produces one generation a year. Eggs are laid in July and hatch in August.

In the United States, many species of birds prey on the winged adults, including English house sparrows and blue jays (I wonder if that is what has led to an increased number of blue jays around our bird feeders at camp?)

How to control it? Branch-tip webs can be clipped in winter and very early spring, and either dropped into a bucket of soapy water or burned. Gloves should be worn. Appropriate pesticides should be applied before early May because that is when the larvae start to develop harmful hairs. For organic garden and farm situations there are sprays that use a strain of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt).

Cicely Blair wrote a paper about the rash caused by the brown-tail moth caterpillar in the British Isles. It, and other descriptions, confirmed that loose hairs can break off and cause very itchy rashes on contact with skin, as well as breathing difficulties similar to asthma if inhaled. Rashes can persist for weeks. The same symptoms have been reported as far back as 1903. The reactions are due to a combination of mechanical and chemical stimuli, the barbed hairs in effect becoming lodged in and physically irritating the skin.

The species should be handled using protective gloves at all stages of its life cycle. Shed hairs blow about, and can be brought indoors on clothing and shoes, so rashes can occur without the victim coming in direct contact with the caterpillars.

Brown-tail larvae have been reported as feeding on 26 genera of non-resinous trees and shrubs belonging to 13 different families. This is considered unusual. Non-specific host plant feeding combined with its tendency to reach extreme outbreak densities makes this species a major pest of fruit orchards, ornamental trees and hardwood forests. Partial list of plant species: apple, cherry, beach plum (Cape Cod, Massachusetts), beech, elm, grape, hops, maple, oak, pear, raspberry, rose and willow. An early description of the introduction to the United States in the 1890s identified pear and apple trees as most greatly afflicted, but mentioned that once trees were entirely bare of leaves, the larvae would descend to the ground in great numbers and move toward any leafy plant, including vegetable plants.

The hairs are almost like silent attackers. You may acquire the rash without even knowing it, as I did. All the precautions and protections I took were to no avail once the hairs became airborne.

I did find out, though, that baby powder will relieve the itching, but the best “antidote” I found was Benadryl spray or cream. That completely took away the itching, although the rash remained.

Meanwhile, be on the lookout for the little irritating critters come warmer weather.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

In Super Bowl LV, the Kansas City Chiefs failed to score a touchdown in the game. This has happened three times in the Super Bowl era. Once in 1971 when Dallas defeated Minnesota, 24-3. When was the other?

Answer can be found here.