A monthly column in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

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.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Black Bears and Bird Feeders: “Is the Public Even Listening?”

N.H. Fish and Game wonders if the “Something’s Bruin” message is getting lost.

Foolish? Yes it is. Photo courtesy NH Fish & Game Dept.
Okay, show of hands, folks.

Raise your hand if you’ve never heard of N.H. Fish and Game’s advice to put the bird feeders away so you don’t attract hungry black bears.

Thought so. Pretty much everyone has heard the annual early spring message. 

Then why do people continue to ignore the advice? Why do good, decent, smart folks continue to fill the feeders and then are shocked and surprised to wake up and see metal poles bent to the ground, feeders crunched or carried off and the remnants of a hungry black bear’s visit left behind?

The folks at the N.H. Fish and Game Department are wondering the same thing. 

“Is the Public Even Listening?”

For decades, Fish and Game has spread the word through their “Something’s Bruin” public awareness campaign.  It’s a pretty simple message, really. Come springtime, put the feeders away. Clean up the spilled seed.  Secure your birdseed inside.  Keep your garbage inside at night. Don’t leave anything outside that might attract a hungry bear that’s waking up after a long winter’s sleep.

A subtext of the message is “a fed bear is a dead bear.” When black bears become habituated to finding their food from bird feeders and other human sources, the experience informs and bears become bolder. What starts as raiding a feeder becomes raiding a neighborhood of feeders. Then the bear finds a trash can; then two. Then he enters an open garage. Then a screen porch.

What was once a majestic wild black bear becomes dependent on human food sources and develops into a nuisance that’s unafraid of people and ever more emboldened in its quest for food. Ultimately, the emboldened behavior and habits can end in the bear’s demise, either by being shot by an angry landowner or by Fish and Game.

The Something’s Bruin message has worked pretty well for years. But now, Fish and Game folks are wondering if the message is working.

A recent op ed piece by Andrew Timmins, N.H. Fish and Game’s bear project leader suggests that people are not getting the message. In his piece, “Bear and Human Conflicts – A Need for Change,” Timmins wonders, “Is the public even listening anymore? Is our society that self-centered and callous towards the wildlife of our state?”

Managing Bears = Managing People

As bear project leader, you’d think Timmins’ job is all about managing New Hampshire’s black bears.  But honestly, it’s often about managing people’s behavior that affects black bears.

As such, Timmins is on the front lines of bear/human conflicts. And too often he’s put in the position of putting down good, decent, smart black bears that have learned bad behaviors.

Timmins has had to shoot more than his fair share of bears that have become habituated simply because people have not heeded the message that Fish and Game has spread since the mid-1990s: Don’t feed the bears. Inadvertently or intentionally.

Intentional Feeding & Bird Feeders

Don't let this happen to you. If you care about the
black bears, put away the feeders.
Photo courtesy NH Fish & Game Dept.
At one end of the spectrum are people who are intentionally feeding bears. Hard to believe people would be so stupid, but unfortunately, a small number of people actually feed bears. Since 2006, Fish and Game rules prohibit this activity and Department officials will first warn the perpetrators, followed by a summons, if necessary.

In his op ed, Timmins mentions one repeat offender in North Conway who has been intentionally feeding bears for years, despite warnings. Bears in this neighborhood have been breaking into motor vehicles, garages, sheds and killing livestock. Fish and Game has had to kill two bears here in one week.

In southwestern New Hampshire, Timmins told me, one resident in Stoddard has also been repeatedly warned to stop feeding bears.

At the other end of the scale are people who continue feeding birds, despite repeated visits by black bears and years of advice by Fish and Game to stop bird-feeding in the spring.

A Reasonable Resolution?

And when a bear comes along to raid a feeder, sometimes the errant homeowner is readily transformed into “wildlife photographer,” proudly posting his or her bear photos on Facebook.

“The next time you are reviewing a friend's photos of a sow with cute cubs lying next to a pile of feed in their back yard, think about the consequences for the bear and her cubs, who are learning behaviors that may result in their future death,” Timmins writes in his op ed. “When you see a dumpster with muddy paw prints on the side and garbage strewn through the woods, think long and hard about that image. Is that how you picture New Hampshire's majestic black bear? The next time you hear about Fish and Game biologist climbing to the top of a tree to remove cubs because the sow was shot at an unsecured chicken pen, ask yourself if that was a reasonable resolution to a conflict.”

Good advice.

As much as you love the birds, they’ll do just fine without the bird seed. You can always see and hear the birds in the neighborhood. Put the feeders back up in winter when the bears are asleep.

‘Til then, do your part and help keep our black bears wild.

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Staring into the Eyes of the Eastern Coyote

A complicated story and a complicated canine.

It was a bright Saturday afternoon in March when my son and I were driving home from a fairly remote spot in Hancock. We were on our way back from pulling a disk of images from my game camera. 

We turned a corner and saw standing in the road a light blonde canine staring back at us. For the few seconds that it stood in the road, we could see it was big, maybe over 50 pounds, with front legs tight together and ears thick with fur.

And then it turned and confidently strode into the woods, brisk but unhurried.
“Was that a dog?” Ben asked.

“Nope,” I said. “That was a coyote. A nice, healthy one. And a great view of it.”
When we got home and checked the game camera images, I saw more coyotes staring at me. It didn’t take long for me to see that the camera had photographed three coyotes over the past few weeks. There were shots of all three together, and many more images of each individual.

Tawny, Scruffy and Healthy

After a few more weeks of setting up the camera at this spot, I got to know each coyote little. I could see their individual characteristics, a little personality and patterns of behavior.

There’s the tawny one, generally shy, who stopped appearing in late-February. I’m not sure, but I theorize that Tawny could be a female who’s now with pups in the den.

There’s the scruffy one, who’s smaller than the other two, with a bad coat and loss of fur at the base of its tail. Scruffy’s problematic coat could be mange, malnutrition or both. Scruffy seems to take risks, doesn’t have rigid timing patterns and appears less confident than the others. Maybe I’m wrong, but Scruffy could be an 11-month old who has remained with the parents as a pack.

And finally there’s the healthy one. This coyote is bigger than the others, appears at predictable times and seems cautious and confident. Healthy has a nice, shiny coat, a bushy tail, and a black streak between its bright yellowish eyes. I think Healthy is the elder male, and he is very handsome.

The Advantage of Crust

My camera can’t follow this pack everywhere, but if it could, it might show their den, typically just a small hole in the ground that goes back into a larger chamber. On a cold mid-winter night, you might find all three in there. By April or May, it could also be holding Tawny’s litter of four to eight pups.

The past few weeks before snow-melt have been tough on coyotes. This omnivore has few dining options during a good chunk of winter. But by late-winter, the snow gives coyotes an advantage. This winter was a good example. The snowpack of 1 to 2 feet can form a crust that coyotes can navigate easily, but deer cannot. While deer are near the end of their rope by late-March, coyotes – whether single or in a pack – can take down even the healthiest buck.

I saw this recently when a neighbor showed me a deer that had just been killed by coyotes. This healthy buck had a puncture wound in the neck, and its back end had been eaten out.

The thought of coyotes killing deer is just too much for some deer-hunters to bear. A vocal set of deer hunters say killing more coyotes will help the deer herd, thus improving the hunters’ chances of tagging a deer in the fall.

Despite the good intentions of helping both deer and hunters, this misguided approach doesn’t work. Coyotes that dodge the bullet tend to respond to increased mortality by having larger litters.

Cold Eyes from a Postcard

We’ve learned plenty about Eastern coyotes in the past few decades, and there’s plenty more to learn. The Eastern is a lot bigger than its western cousin. We know it hunts in packs, though not as often or as organized as wolves.

And we know that the Eastern coyote is part-wolf (some refer to it as coywolf). We know it appeared in New Hampshire in the mid-1940s.

This point about the Eastern coyote’s emergence into New England touches home with me by way of a 1953 postcard that’s tacked to the kitchen wall at my family’s old camp in Cherryfield, Maine. It shows a Maine game warden inspecting the carcass of a big canine. On the back, the caption says that this was the “first timber wolf shot in Maine in over 100 years.”

Sure, maybe so. Or maybe not. Also possible that the mysterious canine was actually one of the first coyotes to be seen in that part of Maine. Part coyote, part wolf. A complicated story and a complicated canine.

The eyes of the coyote in that postcard are lifeless and cold. Nothing like the bright, alert eyes of the blonde, healthy coyote that glanced at me and my son a few weeks ago. And nothing like the eyes of Tawny, Scruffy and Healthy, whom I’ve come to admire over the past few weeks.

I hope to get to know these coyotes a bit more in the coming months.

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.