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Black vultures (Coragyps atratus) are not that common in West Virginia. The turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) is much more common.  The way you tell them apart is that turkey vultures have a longer wingspan and all the flight feathers are light-colored. Only the flight feathers towards the tip are light-colored on black vultures.

I came across a flock of four black vultures that were cruising in the sky with a single turkey vulture, and then I realized I hadn’t photographed this species before. So took a few photographs.

So here are my first photos of a black vulture. They aren’t the best photos, but they are pretty cool to me.

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Getting to be a big dog.

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Death of squirrels

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My deer season was unproductive, but I spent enough time on oak-lined ridges to realize that this summer had produced a bumper crop of gray squirrels.

I prefer gray squirrel meat (yes, Americans eat squirrels) to venison anyway, and I managed to drop these three.  I shot them with an 20 gauge (Stevens Model 940D). I shot two out of trees, and the third came running up a log toward me while I was sitting down.

 

What is Gobi?

This little dog was discovered in the Gobi desert in China on 155-mile race.

The thinking that this dog is a “chihuahua cross” is a bit wrong, I think. I think she’s something a bit more special than that.

I think she is a landrace East Asian toy dog, the ancestral form that leads to the Pekingese, the original pug, the Japanese chin, and other dogs of this type.

I don’t there are many chihuahuas in the Gobi Desert, and she certainly should have her DNA tested.

Canis rufus

It should be noted that the bulk of the genomic data show that the creature called a “red wolf” is actually a hybrid between some now extinct population of wolves and coyotes. Indeed, the most in depth genome comparison study performed on wolves and coyotes not only revealed that “red” and “Eastern” wolves are hybrids, it also revealed that coyotes were recent derivatives from Eurasian wolves and not ancient North American jackals.  Thus, the whole population of wild Canis in North America is much more closely related than we assumed.

Most of the data supporting the red wolf’s validity as a species are based upon fossil and subfossil evidence, which tended to show that the creatures being bred for introduction in the wild look an awful lot like ancient North American wolves.

But it now seems that the animals running loose in North Carolina are actually wolves with lots of coyote ancestry.

That’s what the science is telling us, and as I noted back in 2011, when this evidence from genome-wide analyses was being published, that it wouldn’t be long before politicians noticed a problem and began to use red wolves to chip away at the ESA.

I support the ESA, but I’ve long thought that adhering to red and Eastern wolf paradigms could cause real problems with the act’s long-term viability.

I recently had the pleasure of reading Nate Blakeslee’s American Wolf, which is a biography of a Yellowstone wolf named “O-Six.”  O-Six was the breeding female of the Lamar Valley pack, a wolf widely photographed in the park. She was a great elk hunter and mother, and because she was so well-known in the park, she became a sort of celebrity.

O-Six died from a hunter’s bullet, and her death never would have happened had the Democratic-controlled Senate not allowed a provision in a government funding bill to pass, which overturned a federal judge’s ruling that stopped a proposal that would have allowed Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming to regulate wolves as a state matter.  It was allowed to pass in order to provide immunity to Montana’s incumbent Democratic Senator, Jon Tester, who was facing a tough re-election.

This political drama is carefully described in Blakeslee’s work, and although little was made of it at the time, this provision was the first time congress had intervened on ESA listing in this manner.

Flash forward to 2017, and it looks like the Republican-controlled congress is about to do the something similar to red wolves. Senator Lisa Murkowski has introduced a provision the bill funding the interior department that declares the red wolf extinct in the wild and cuts all funding for its recovery.

This is problematic on many fronts.

First of all, the Endangered Species Act was designed to use scientific evidence for listing and recovery efforts. For most of its existence, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has been left to use science for these efforts, but now congress has begun to intervene to affect endangered species policy citing political concerns only.

Part of the reason why congress is doing such a thing is that the US Fish and Wildlife service has pretty much been impervious to the growing data on what red wolves actually are. The bureaucracy still maintains Canis rufus as a species, but the evidence that it is a recently derived hybrid between the wolf and the coyote is pretty hard to ignore.

Whenever I’ve pointed out these problems, I’ve been called a wolf-hater and a right-winger and a Republican. I’m none of the three.

The problem is that wolves are political symbols.  Every wildlife conservation organization in the country uses wolves for fundraising. Wolves have two things going for them: they are the wild ancestors of dogs and they tend to recovery fairly quickly when not persecuted.  It is easy to turn the wolf into sort of the canine equivalent of the noble savage, a dog that lives in nature, wild and free, and with greater wisdom and intelligence than any mere cur of the street.

To others, the wolf is the federal government coming for your hunting rights, your farming enterprises, and your guns.

So we now have this dynamic in which our political issues with each other are being meted out over an animal.

This says much more about us than it does the actual biology of wolves and coyotes. We are fractious. We are at war with each other.

The romantic notions of a unique Southern wolf species has been racked convincing in depth genomic data that show it is hybrid have come to pass just at the same time that a resurgent right wing has taken over the US government at all three branches. This is a perfect storm for disaster for the Endangered Species Act.

Until the Republican majorities in congress are reduced significantly, the red wolf will ultimately be used to undermine the act.

It is a very sad state of affairs, but the US Fish and Wildlife Service clearly did a lot to anger sportsmen in Eastern North Carolina, as this thread clearly shows, and the Endangered Species Act will not last if this sort of implementation is ever repeated again.

No real solution for this problem exists. I would put money on the red wolf being delisted. I should be glad that the ESA has gone onto preserve other predators, like the Mexican wolf and Florida panther, but because it is happening in this fashion, it could be a real disaster.

And all because of this wolf, not a real species at all, but one in which many lines of nonsense on both sides have been written.

 

 

 

 

 

Domestication goes on

In my lifetime, I’ve seen African pygmy hedgehogs for sale as exotic pets.

I now see them bred in fancy color varieties.

We’ve bred so many interesting and often strange forms of domestic animals, but now we’re breeding hedgehogs like we do rats or sheep.

As a North American, hedgehogs are as exotic to me as kangaroos.

But people keep them as pets.

I don’t mind it at all.

Domestication goes on.  Maybe we’ll have new varieties of fennec foxes.

Or kinkajous.

Our fascination with nature pushes us into these directions. Our love for novelty and oddity takes us down many rabbit holes.

But domestication requires refining the oddity, distilling it into a strain.

And that’s where this all ends up.

 

 

buck white antler

The second Thursday in November has just passed. In most of the country, thoughts will be about the big feast that comes exactly seven days later, but not in my part of the world.

This coming week does include American Thanksgiving. Big family meals will be held that day, and swarms of people will go charging out to shopping malls on Friday.

But in West Virginia, another holiday takes precedence: “buck gun season.”  This coming Monday, the woods be filled with more loud booms than the Fourth of July.  Organic protein and “horns” will be the prize, and a few more forest destroying cervids will be removed from the population before the coming winter turns them into twig chomping fiends.

When I was a child, all sort of people came into the rural districts, often people who had grown up in the area but had gone into the industrial parts of Ohio for work. Ohio’s deer season, “shotgun only,” came later in the year, but West Virginia’s came the week of Thanksgiving. If one wanted to visit the family for the holiday, why not come a few days early and drop a buck for the freezer?

It was such a big event that the school was out all week, not just Thursday and Friday. We received a truncated Christmas vacation, but school attendance during that week would have been terrible. So the district let us all out.

And the tradition continues. I don’t know of a single school district in West Virginia that stays open the week of Thanksgiving.

In fact, virtually every college or university in West Virginia has a week-long holiday this coming week. It is that big a deal.

And it’s not like the deer are massive trophies. The state has antler restrictions in only a few public hunting lands, and in most of the state, there will be many young bucks taken. Because the “antlerless” firearms season occurs at the same time, button bucks will be taken as well. When that many younger bucks are removed from the population, the number of mature deer with nice racks becomes much lower.

But this is a state that allows the hunter to take six deer a year.  If you have a family who owns land and have two hunters who have resident rights to it, you’re talking potentially twelve deer killed a year, which could feed a family of four fairly well.

I come from a family of deer hunters, but they were not venison eaters. When I was a kid, every deer that got shot was given to a relative or someone who couldn’t hunt. My grandpa, who loved to hunt everything and would have us eat cooked squirrel brains, wouldn’t even field dress a deer. That was my dad’s job, and for whatever reason, if my dad or my grandpa even smelled venison cooking, it would make their stomachs weak.

I never had this problem, and in the last few years, I’ve learned how to cook venison properly. I much prefer the meat to beef, especially when we’re talking leaving certain steak cuts rare.  These deer have been living well on acorns, and their flesh has that oaky, rich taste, which some call gamey. I call it delicious.

I’ll be in the woods early Monday morning. I don’t know if I’ll get anything.  The odds are usually against my killing anything that first week.  I don’t have access to the best deer bedding grounds, and the hunting pressure means they won’t be moving into the area where I hunt.

My favorite time to go is Thursday evening, when more than half the local hunters are at home watching football games and digesting turkey. I would rather go through waterboarding than watch a football game, so it’s not big loss for me.

I am a naturalist hunter on the quest for meat. My ancestors in Germany, the Netherlands, and Great Britain hunted the red deer and the roe thousands of years. They got their meat from the forest.

I am doing the same.

And if you really wanted to know what I think of deer, I’d have to say that I love them. They are fascinating animals.  This particular species has been roaming North America virtually unchanged for 3 million years. This animal watched the mammoths rise and fall. It was coursed by Armbruster’s wolf and the American cheetahs.  It saw the elk come down from Beringia– and the bison too. It ran the back country with primitive horses and several species of pronghorn. It quivered and blew out at jaguars and American lions that stalked in the bush, and it dodged the Clovis points of the Siberian hunters who first colonized this land.

The white-tailed deer thrives so well, but this coming week is the beginning of the great cull. Fewer deer mean less pressure on the limited winter forage, which means healthier deer in the early spring. Better winter and spring condition means that does have had a chance to carry fawns to term, and mature does usually have twins if the conditions are good.  Healthier bucks get a better chance to grow nice antlers for the coming year.

A public resource is being managed. Organic meat raised without hormones or antibiotics is easily procured, and stories and yarns are being compiled for exposition that rivals any trophy mount on the wall.

I know deer stories, including ones about the people I barely knew and are no longer with us.

For example:

My Grandpa Westfall once went on a deer drive for my great grandpa, who was getting older.  He valued his clean shot placement, as many of those old time hunters did, and he would not shoot a deer on the run.

But as he grew older, deer hunting became harder for him, so my grandpa decided to jump one out to him.

My grandpa went rustling through the brush to drive one into my great grandpa’s ran, and he happened to bump a nice little buck and a few does that went running in his direction.

Expecting to hear rifle shots, my grandpa was a bit surprised to hear nothing. So when he approached the deer stand, he saw my great grandpa sitting there.

“Did you see those deer?”

“What deer?”

“I ran three out to you. A buck and two does. Why didn’t you shoot?”

“I didn’t see or hear any deer.”

“Well, you should have at least heard them.”

“Well, if there were that many deer coming my way, they must’ve had their sneakers on.”

He didn’t want to tell my grandpa that he appreciated the effort, but that deer drives were against his ethics. He shot deer cleanly, or he didn’t shoot them at all.

These old men will be with me when I’m out on Monday.  I go in their memory, participating in the Great West Virginia Deer Cull.

 

 

 

 

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