A monthly column in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Why Would You Take a Child Hunting?

It’s not for all kids, but for some, hunting is a great way to connect with nature and parents.

Ian is ready for this fall's hunting season.

Why on earth would you do it, a few folks have asked me.

“Why on earth would you let a child carry a loaded firearm? Why would you encourage a child to shoot and kill wildlife? Why would you take a child hunting?”

There are so many ways to answer that I hardly know where to start. The answer is both complex and simple.

First, a little setting: here in rural southwestern New Hampshire, we live in an ideal place to hunt. There’s plenty of forest, great habitat for white-tailed deer, wild turkey and other game, not to mention the warblers, thrushes and other species that thrive here.

A fair amount of these lands are open and available to hunting. And many of those lands, by the way, are protected by organizations and landowners through ownership or conservation easement. Hunters, hikers and nature-lovers of all sorts enjoy the benefits of this foresight.
Second: Unlike most people who learn hunting from their fathers, I did not. My father’s father, Ralph, was an avid hunter. You can see his pride of hunting in the weathered old photos and antlers on the walls of our camp in Maine. My dad hunted a little in his youth, but pretty much gave it up when I came of age. I took up hunting as an adult, mentored by a friend.

And while Son Number One has little interest in hunting, he’s a lover of the outdoors and a conservationist at heart, now studying forestry in college. Son Number Two, now 14, is also a lover of the outdoors and a conservationist. That’s Ian, who was a toddler when he started begging to join me hunting. 

Ian would carry a pop gun on those early “expeditions.” In later years, I’d let him carry an old .22 rifle with the action missing and we’d go out for an hour or two. For me, it was not really hunting; just fun time with the kid. For him, it was an all-out adventure, filled with the awesome, wondrous responsibility of listening, learning and safety. And always, the exciting possibility of a deer.

Youth Season for Deer

For the past two years, Ian and I have participated in New Hampshire’s youth deer hunt. It’s a specially designated weekend when a youth age 15 and under can hunt with a licensed adult. 

During the youth hunt, Ian is the one carrying the real, loaded gun. And I’m watching him carefully, making sure the muzzle is pointed in a safe direction and that he’s following all the other commandments of safe firearms handling. And like some of his youth-hunt peers, Ian has already taken and aced the N.H. Fish and Game hunter education class.  

The night before is a time of preparations. Ian lays out all the items he needs before meticulously packing his camo pack. The little survivalist packs knives, a poncho, rope, compass, gloves, extra socks, granola bars and who knows what else. He has anything needed to survive and thrive in the woods. He reads up on hunting, sets out his clothes and double-checks his alarm. This kid can’t wait.

We Hunt Because We’re Human

In today’s world, we don’t need to hunt to survive. As comfortable First World folks, we can get all the food we need at the supermarket or the farm, whether we’re vegans or omnivores. But we don’t need to do things because they’re easy or convenient. Sometimes we do things for the challenge.

We hunt because we’re human. It’s the ancient urge to gather, whether it’s nuts and berries or game. It’s an ancient urge to survive, to sustain. To learn from the world and to teach what we learn. These are impulses that arise from millions of years of human evolution. 

And as our garden veggies are delicious, so too is venison. It’s all natural, organic, free-ranging, sustainable and local. As hunters, we see how deer get by. And though we’re not guaranteed a deer, we may see how another deer gives its life and how it becomes our food. 

Getting Outside and Learning Respect

Whether a young hunter considers all these weighty matters about hunting and age-old instincts, I can’t say. I suspect a young hunter processes much of the hunt in many different and complex ways.

But I do know that kids spend too much time indoors, sitting in front of screens. Encouraging children to play and explore the outdoors is even a challenge for this parent, as it is for millions of other parents.

As for the guns, I’m not the first to admit there are too many guns (especially handguns), and American culture is way too violent. And I’m among many who’ll suggest that hunting instills in children a respect for firearms, an understanding of wildlife and a keener awareness that life and death are intertwined in many ways. Folks who grow up with farm animals know what I’m saying.

That’s not to say that hunting is all about shooting and death. Far from it. I hunted for years without shooting anything!

Preserving Our Environment and Traditions

But hunting is also about patience. It’s about reading details in the woods, like tracks, buck rubs and scrapes. It’s about stepping quietly on crunchy leaves. It’s about watching the clouds and hearing the wind and tolerating the cold rain and snow. It’s about planning and anticipation. It’s about the warm tea from a Thermos on a cold day. It’s about sitting quietly with your kin, no words exchanged, just a nod now and then and an understanding. It’s about returning to a warm home, scented with fresh-baked cookies. It’s about stories – many great stories – that we’ll share for decades.

Ian and I already have many hunting stories, from the three black bears that walked by us last year, to this year’s tree stand adventures. We look forward to many more.

But when it comes to hunting with a child, don’t just take my word for it. Here’s what Ian says about it:

“From hunting I have learned about respecting and preserving our environment and our traditions, so future generations will still be able to enjoy what we do today. I have learned about the animals themselves too, and the more you know about our nature the more you want to preserve it. Hunter education has taught me about ethics and the proper safe ways to hunt and overall has made me a better naturalist, hunter and individual.”

Well said, Ian.

Now, gather up your stuff. Let’s go hunting!

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Speckled Beauty: Hope in a Stream of Challenges

Wild Eastern brook trout is our canary in the coal mine.

As birds are flying south and deer are in the rut, another species is moving in the quest to fulfill its life cycle.

The Eastern brook trout is swimming its way upstream, into little brooks that wind through the woods, to the places of its own origin, where it will spawn and start the next generation.

If all goes well, the wild Eastern brook trout will spawn successfully, leaving another generation to renew the cycle.

From the brook trout’s perspective, it’s a challenging journey for sure. There are the predators, like anglers, great blue herons and otters. There are competitors: non-natives, like small-mouth and large-mouth bass. There is the warm temperatures and low oxygen. There’s the low water, no water and silt. And there are the obstacles: impenetrable dams and pitched culverts that block their journey.

Before I say another word about those challenges, let’s be clear about this fish: the wild Eastern brook trout, one of nature’s most beautiful creations.

Small Fish, Big Beauty

It’s a master of camouflage with its dark green-chained back, adorned with dazzling circles of blue and red dots.  And during the fall spawning season, the male radiates with a bright orange underbelly.

The Eastern brook trout is the official state fish for New Hampshire and a handful of other states. Unlike the rainbow and brown trout, brookies are native. They’ve endured here since the retreat of the Ice Age.

All three of those trout species are raised in hatcheries and stocked in New Hampshire’s waters for anglers. Many of the wild, naturally reproducing brook trout in our streams have a genetic heritage that includes some degree of stocked, hatchery-reared trout.

And while many streams in our region have lost wild brook trout, there are still a few brooks where you can find naturally reproducing brookies. These fish are small. Even as adults, only a few inches long; maybe a foot or so for a real big survivor.

Tough or Wimpy?

The streams where you can find wild brookies are also small. Twisting through the woods, they’re often small enough to step across, blessed with the shade of trees in headwaters and maybe open and marshy down low, with lots of undercuts for shade and shelter.

Depending on who you ask and what mood they’re in, the wild Eastern brook trout is either among our wimpiest of fish – constantly frail, on the edge of life and susceptible to warm temperatures and low oxygen – or one of our most resilient species, tough enough to survive thousands of years of New England’s changing landscapes and harsh climates, from sweltering, water-starved summers to frozen-solid winters.

Tough or wimpy, modern times are testing the brookie’s resilience. Development, roads, dams, pitched culverts, poor forestry and other land uses have obliterated, warmed, blocked and choked many streams that were brook trout strongholds for thousands of years. On top of all that, a warming climate isn’t helping.

One study estimated that wild stream populations of brook trout have vanished or are greatly reduced in nearly half of their watersheds. And most of their populations are fragmented.

Reconnecting Our Streams

Little wonder that the speckled beauty is likened as the canary in the coal mine. The health of its habitat is tied to the health of many other species, from salamanders to dozens of other fish and invertebrates. Its waters must be clean, cool and free-running.

As always, there has to be hope. As more people realize that the wild Eastern brook trout is a poster child for healthy streams and forests, some folks are stepping in the right direction.

One big step is the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture, a collaboration among state and federal agencies, regional and local governments, businesses, conservation organizations, academia, scientific societies, and private citizens. Since 2006, the Venture has leveraged is ability to work with partners and draw from science to fund and complete projects from South Carolina to Maine, restoring streams and improving habitat. Modeled after the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, the Venture is exactly the kind of collaboration that helps maintain momentum for conserving brook trout.

Even locally, we see examples of hope. In Hancock, one farsighted landowner decided to rebuild his farm-pond dam with a small fish ladder to accommodate brook trout. And on a nearby road, the town recently replaced a problem culvert with one that has a natural-like bottom and can handle the brook trout’s amazing journey.

A little south, in the western Massachusetts town of Whately, The Nature Conservancy helped the town rebuild a culvert over a stream where brook trout passage has been studied for many years.

In the grand scheme of things – like the long-term survival of Eastern brookies – these measures are modest examples of many. But they’re a start, and they’re among a growing number of projects moving in the right direction. They’re helping to keep streams flowing freely, well-shaded by healthy forests, free of non-native species and running the way nature intended.

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

100 Years Since the Last Passenger Pigeon

The pigeon’s extinction is a reminder for us to pay attention.


A passenger pigeon taken in 1893 in Westfield,
Massachusetts, mounted and on display at the
N.H. Fish and Game Department in Concord.
Imagine for a minute a bird that flies in flocks so enormous that they blot out the sun, taking hours to pass and in such intensity of sound that you’d swear a freight train was passing near. 

Imagining is the now only way you can experience the passenger pigeon. It has been extinct for 100 years. Martha, the last known passenger pigeon, died September 1, 1914, in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo.

It was a beautiful and strong bird. In his book “A FeatheredRiver across the Sky,” author Joel Greenberg says the passenger pigeon “looked like a mourning dove on steroids.” Its muscular body carried its 10 to 12 ounces along migrations across eastern North America, from the Gulf of Mexico in Texas to the Canadian Maritimes and west to Alberta.

Males were slate-blue and gray, with a breast of iridescent copper and purple. Females were a bit drabber, but delicately brilliant. Individually and collectively, in their enormous flocks, they were a remarkable sight, flying low like a tight school of fish, splitting off and re-forming in great undulating clouds.

While some birds would defy the crowd and fly in solo pairs, they would be seen twice a year as they moved over the lands, including here in New Hampshire. 

Loading Trees by the Thousands

They loaded individual trees by the thousands, to the point where branches would sag heavy with their weight and break. They would arrive in densities so thick that birds were atop birds.

In “A Feathered River,” Greenberg describes John Josselyn’s travels through New England in the 1600s, encountering a single beech tree in New Hampshire that supported 500 nests.

As easy prey, passenger pigeons were a staple in the diet of native peoples thousands of years ago. Northern goshawks, Cooper’s hawks and peregrine falcons likely thrived on them, too.

And from nearly the start of their arrival to North America, Europeans killed them, sometimes for sport, sometimes for market, sometimes for hungry mouths and sometimes for no good reason at all. In New Hampshire, large flocks of passenger pigeons were said to have helped stave off starvation in 1781 when crops failed.

Greenberg sites accounts of children grabbing pigeons by the feet and providing parents with meals. They were taken by rifle, shotgun, hand nets, nets strung between trees and all sorts of clever means. As rails were laid and city markets developed, pigeoners – as they were called – devised ever more improvised ways to kill, prepare, store and sell passenger pigeons for the plate.

Shooting ‘Til the End

Some pigeoners set up long poles at an angle, points protruding above the treetops, where pigeons would alight by the score. One well-aimed shotgun blast would take dozens of birds at a time. Some trained live pigeons to set atop a stool hoisted by a pole to attract hordes of wild pigeons, hence the name stool pigeon.

They were shot as sport in competition, in pigeon shoots. And when passenger pigeons were gone, clay pigeons took their place.

For three centuries, people killed pigeons throughout North America. And when their numbers declined in the 1870s, some remaining passenger pigeons amassed in great numbers. In April 1871, pigeons began nesting in central Wisconsin, ultimately gathering in an area 850 square miles, the largest recorded pigeon nesting site ever. There, they were slaughtered by the millions.

Of course, habitat loss played a role in their demise. Some speculate disease may have hastened it. But few biologists dispute what brought an end to the passenger pigeon.

“Europeans began the killing on or about July 12, 1605, and their successors, the residents of Canada and the United States, did not stop until there were literally no more birds left,” writes Greenberg. “When that happened, they shot mourning doves in the belief they were passenger pigeons. Virtually every time Homo sapiens crossed paths with the pigeons, pigeons died.”

A New Generation of Hope

The last one to be killed in New Hampshire was either a bird in Acworth in 1881 (mounted and on display at the town library), or one shot by W.W. Flint in 1885 in Concord.

By the turn of the century, the last wild passenger pigeons were gone. Only a handful of captive pigeons remained in private collections or zoos. And by September 1, 1914, the aging Martha gave up at the Cincinnati Zoo. The end of a species. Every last one. Gone.

The passenger pigeon’s demise came at a time when mankind’s extreme mistreatment of nature was also inspiring a new generation of hope. Forests in New Hampshire and beyond were being cut to the bone, filling the air with wildfire smoke and clogging Manchester’s mills with silt from the eroding White Mountains. The Weeks Act of 1911 helped protect the White Mountains and other forests.

Theodore Roosevelt and scores of other conservationists inspired new laws to limit market hunting and build what’s now known as the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. Outlaw market hunting; regulate hunters; put taxes on hunting equipment toward science and management; allow states to manage game. It’s not perfect, but it’s still pretty good.

Federal laws were passed and treaties signed to outlaw hunting of birds and other migratory species and allow for their recovery. We’ve seen many species recover, including iconic animals like bison and bald eagles.

Is There Hope?

But 100 years since the passenger pigeon’s demise, the cloud of extinction hovers. And it might be a growing cloud.

Even common species can become rare. In New Hampshire and throughout the Northeast, native bats have been ravaged by disease that biologists are scrambling to understand. One biologist told me that the loss of bats is akin to losing, say, all of our frog species.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, 30 percent of amphibians are at risk of extinction; 21 percent of mammals, reptiles and fish; and 12 percent of birds. The culprits are many and complex: loss of habitat, pollution, illegal hunting or take and the introduction of non-native species.

And the biggie: Climate change. It may threaten a lot more than polar bears. The rapidly shifting climate could bring extinctions from pole to pole and the many places in between, especially the tropics, the breadbaskets of biological diversity. In the oceans, in the forests, rivers and skies, some species are hanging on by a thread. Small shifts in the world’s temperatures, in the ocean’s chemical composition and in sea levels could spell the end for some species.

Is there hope? There has to be.

If nothing else, the loss of the passenger pigeon reminds us that we need to pay attention. Take care of what we have. Now. Before it’s too late.