Sunday, December 29, 2019

Opposing Views on Chipmunks

Though I can talk to someone for an hour and not notice what they are wearing, I do notice things in nature. Take this rock for instance, which was sitting unassumingly next to the sidewalk near the back entrance of the local supermarket. I noticed the rock, and then noticed that it wasn't a rock, really, but instead was made of plastic and just happened to be the size of those electronic rat traps you might see in NY alleyways. Sure enough, a closer look revealed round entry points of the appropriate size cut in the plastic.

Then a few days later, a supermarket employee was outside near the "rock", and I mentioned it to him. That was enough to get him talking about a chipmunk that lives in the bushes there. He obviously was fond of this chipmunk, showed me the hole in the ground into which he'd seen it disappear. He hoped it was smart enough to avoid the trap. "Rats may be smarter than chipmunks," I said, realizing I wasn't exactly feeding the wellsprings of hope.

He also told me that he'd seen the chipmunk duck into the store when the doors first open, snatch whatever it could find on the floor behind a counter, and then make it's escape to enjoy its gleanings back in its own private chipmunk preserve in the courtyard. It was a darling story of a cute and enterprising rodent, but might also explain the presence of the "rock."

On my next visit, I noticed pieces of bread scattered in the small plaza near the trap, too numerous to be accidental. In the photo, the bread crumbs are in the foreground, while the trap is a tiny speck across the sidewalk in the background.

The photo nicely captures the opposite views of chipmunks that can be found in my own family. Though I don't remember ever feeding them, I grew up loving chipmunks--their striped good looks, their perky manner and upbeat chirp, the comic but highly utilitarian way they'd stuff nuts into their cheeks. All through the intervening years, I have yet to be wronged by a chipmunk, and have cheered their periodic arrival in the yard--though a vulnerability to local predators may explain why they never seem to sustain a presence.

So it was a surprise to hear my sister in Cleveland describe them as the bane of her vegetable garden. Have Cleveland chipmunks gone rogue? Or might it be that her low opinion of chipmunks is due to a lack of sufficient predators to keep their numbers in check? Interesting to contemplate a predator being the guardian of a prey's reputation.

When it comes to liking or not liking, whether in nature or society, both the judge and the judged can easily get trapped. One positive trait can make people ignore all the negatives, and one negative trait can overshadow all the positives. Emotion seeks purity--a definitive judgement up or down--even as good and evil become increasingly intermixed. When it comes to chipmunks, for now I'm content to, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." I'll carry opposing ideas like a chipmunk carries nuts bulging in its cheeks, to be stored as future food for thought.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Are Foxes Poised for a Cyclical Decline?

Walking back towards the parking lot at Herrontown Woods the other day, I was surprised to see a fox up ahead, trotting in my direction. It turned down a side path before it reached me, seemingly unaware of my presence. The fox was showing the classic symptoms of mange, more specifically sarcoptic mange, having lost much of its fur, and you have to wonder what it's prospects are for the winter.

That sad, raggedly fox moving on down the trail, seemingly resigned to its fate, brought back memories of this photo sent to me years back by Christy and Brian Nann, taken at Greenway Meadows. The Mercer County Wildlife Center confirmed for me that it was a red fox stripped of fur by mange, with little chance of survival.

Typing "mange" into the search box for this blog, I was not surprised to find that the photo was taken in late 2008, roughly ten years ago.

That eleven year gap in sightings of mange may not be a matter of chance. Somewhere along the way, growing up in small town Wisconsin or reading wildlife magazines, I learned that foxes and their prey go through a ten year population cycle. There's a boom and then there's a bust.

In recent years, we've been witnessing the boom. Foxes have been flourishing in Princeton, moving up stream corridors into new urban areas. Certainly they've been making their presence known in our neighborhood. My wakeup call came two years ago, when a fox ambushed two of our last three chickens, consuming one and leaving the other stashed under a neighbor's bush for a future meal. Clearly, the local predators were upping their game. Earlier this year, during dogwalks at dusk, I would occasionally see a fox trotting confidently down the middle of the street before ducking behind a house. Late at night, I'd hear their baleful bark in our driveway. A few blocks away, a fox family had a large litter under a neighbor's porch, causing some controversy as to what if anything should be done. The most impressive sighting came last winter, when I was standing in the Herrontown Woods parking lot. Across the stream, a beautiful specimen was moving stealthily through the woods. It paused and went into a crouch, then pounced, penetrating through the few inches of snow with uncanny precision, then trotted off with a rodent in its mouth.

There's logic to the boom, and logic to the bust that may now be underway. When predators are few, rabbits and rodents increase, providing foxes with an abundant food source. Then, as the fox numbers increase, their skillful predation continues taking a toll on their food supply until the foxes find themselves with little to eat. The too numerous foxes begin to starve, and their weakening immune systems make them vulnerable to the burrowing mites that cause mange. The fox population crashes, the rabbits and rodents rebound, and the cycle begins anew. The internet is full of stories of this boom and bust, from Colorado to one out of Vermont that gives an especially detailed description of the biology behind the afflicted fox's misery. The Vermont post suggests that mange can be an isolated event, but also tells of how mange once precipitated a 95% drop in the fox population in a city in the UK.

There are lots of questions to ask. Has the boom cycle in foxes reduced Princeton's population of rats? Might it explain why there seem to be fewer squirrels around than in past years? Might predation of mice be expected to reduce the prevalence of ticks and lyme disease? Is there a ten year ebb and flow to fox raids on chicken coops?

Though rodents can survive a boom in the red fox population, less certain is the resilience of ground-nesting birds on the Jersey shore, like the endangered plover. Red foxes, it turns out, were introduced from Europe. The native gray foxes tend to stay deeper in the forest, and so the red foxes may pose a threat in more open habitat that the shorebirds have not evolved to defend themselves against.

To protect the birds, the state Division of Fish and Wildlife has been culling the red fox population along the shore. Residents outraged by the intentional killing of such beautiful animals managed to get 80,000 signatures on a petition demanding the state's trapping program end. If the petitioners were successful, however, the results might not be exactly humane. When an unfettered population of foxes ran out of endangered shorebirds and other prey to eat, it could succumb to mange--a painful and deadly condition that makes the government's trapping program look highly humane by comparison.

Of course, no enlightened fox is going to rise up and warn its brethren to have smaller litters in order to sustain adequate prey and avoid the epidemic of mange. It is humans who have that gift of foresight and sophisticated communication that can forestall calamity, and yet our special gifts are being spent not to limit our own boom and bust cycle--played out over centuries rather than decades--but to create the conditions for a bust of such global proportions that no life form will remain untouched. Whether it's CO2 or foxes, we live in an era when superficial views of nature predominate, when the misplaced sympathies of 80,000 people can be manipulated to oppose the one government action that could protect both the endangered birds and the foxes from calamity.

This is the journey of thought, back to my youth and forward to a shared future, that can spring from a chance sighting of a forlorn fox along a wooded trail.

Some useful links: 
Princeton's Animal Control officer
Mercer County Wildlife Center

From what I've read, mange in foxes poses little risk to people or pets

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Unexpected Bird Sightings -- Red-Headed Woodpecker, and a Displaced Woodcock

In my inbox recently were two remarkable bird sightings. The first was of a juvenile red-headed woodpecker, spotted Nov. 30 by Susan Miles at Rogers Refuge. This refuge, renowned among birders but not known to many other Princetonians, is on American Water property at the bottom of the Institute Woods, accessible via West Drive.

David Padulo took these excellent photos of the bird, which has been continuing its residency in a prominent snag in the woods.

Red-headed woodpeckers were a fairly common sight in the mature forest that I grew up next to in southeastern Wisconsin. Sightings became more rare when I moved to Durham, NC, where they seemed dependent on large congregations of snags created by flooding or fire.

The red-headed is the one species of woodpecker I have not seen since moving to Princeton, so it's good to hear that at least one juvenile has strayed into the area. One theory is that the tragic loss of ash trees due to the introduced Emerald ash borer may boost woodpecker numbers for as long as the snags last.

Melinda Varian offered the following directions for finding the woodpecker.

Walk along the Stony Brook, about 0.4 miles along the Blue Trail, going from the parking area through the water company and down along the brook. The best place to find it is to walk the Blue Trail to the area where we had to move the trail inland a couple of years ago because it was about to fall into the water.
Halfway along that new section, stand with your back to the brook and look for a light-colored, very tall snag that leans slightly to the right. The bird flies to the top few feet of that snag frequently before going to the other trees in the area. It makes a very recognizable sound that could be described as a sort of chuckling.

Susan Miles added that "the sound it makes could be confused with a Carolina Wren, but it's coming from high in the trees."

Lee and Melinda Varian are now leading the Friends of Rogers Refuge. Lee recently built a new trail--accessible by walking down the gravel road to the left of the water company buildings--in memory of Fred Spar, long-time leader of FORR. The trail helps provide better access to the lower marsh.

Years back, I wrote an ecological assessment and stewardship plan for the refuge, and still help out from time to time. FORR just received another grant from the Washington Crossing Audubon Society to continue invasive species control in the refuge.

The other unusual bird sighting that showed up in my inbox came from Mimi Mead-Hagen.
An odd occurrence happened to us when we were in Philly visiting our son at Penn. We were leaving the squash courts walking along a path when my 21 yr old son was almost hit by something…he ducked and there on the pavement landed this stunned bird. It had hit the ground in an awkward way then recovered to a sitting position as seen in the photo… 
Woodcocks sometimes migrate, and my guess is that this one hit a glass building and crash landed on the pavement. By the body language in the photo, there's some promise that it would recover. Thanks to Mimi for the photo (below).

Rogers Refuge happens to be one place to see the male woodcocks do their spectacular mating flight in February and March. Because the Alexander Rd bridge is closed, many drivers happen upon the refuge when they take West Drive in search of an alternative route to Route 1. There is no alternative route, however, and the water company said it would erect a sign to make clear that the gravel access drive to their buildings is private. You can still drive in there and park next to the observation tower to enjoy the refuge.

Saturday, December 07, 2019

A Pumpkin's Smile That Would Not Die

Not everyone will see the smile that lingers here on a Michigan friend's front step long after Halloween has passed, just as not everyone will see the value in keeping any sort of organic matter around that is transitioning back to the air and soil from which it came.

This pumpkin, too, would have long been gone if not for its smile, and for an assignment given to its carver, an art student named Theadora, to draw an object in progressive stages of decomposition.

For me, this smile, here visible, is inherent in all things making nature's magical journey from death back to new life. For me, leaves keep their smiles all the way through winter and the following year, as they are slowly dismantled, losing themselves to a soil's riches, casting their carbon to the winds to take new forms.

In addition to the artist, the art teacher, and my friend Dan--the patient, appreciative father who took the photo--there is one other person to credit for this lingering smile.

As we know here in Princeton, many a pumpkin's well-carved expression has been lost, or reworked, by a neighborhood squirrel.

Squirrels tend to render one-eyed faces, or a face that is all mouth and no eyes,

though perhaps a couple squirrels teamed up to carve what here looks like a face with bunny ears.

Sometimes, if a squirrel is too hungry, it abandons all pretense of artistry and eats its own carving down to the ground.

Thea's smile in Michigan might too have been radically reworked by a local squirrel if not for the mother, Karen, who has been paying off the local squirrel mafia with peanuts in a shell, which she delivers one by one to their tender, appreciative paws on the back porch.

Moral: It takes an artist to make a smile, and a family to keep it going. I wonder what other stories this smile has to tell.