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Archive for February, 2017

This is a striped skunk smelling some sardine oil.  Striped skunks vary greatly on how extensive their white stripes actually are.  This one just has some white on its head.

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Amazing footage from the eagles!

Also, check out the wire-haired vizsla-DD cross dogs.

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The Land Left Feral

feral-land

My roots are deep in central West Virginia.  I am not many generations removed from people who truly lived off the land as subsistence farmers.  They were hill farmers like one would find in the North of England or the Harz Mountains of Germany. They ran rugged dairy cattle and woolly-backed sheep and turned out hogs into oak groves to fatten them on acorns before the November slaughter.

Though I grew up in essentially the same location as my ancestors did, their world is not mine. I didn’t grow up hoeing acres of corn on rocky soil. I didn’t go out with a scythe and cut hay and brush. I am high tech. I use the internet. I grew up watching MTV and The History Channel.  I am a product of industrial America evolving into the information age.

I was lucky to have grown up just down the road from grandparents, who could remember the days when everyone farmed, and areas that always seemed like virgin wilderness to me were actually places where many families lived.  My grandpa told me stories of hoeing out corn for pittance during the hard days of the 30s, of feeding his foxhounds shot groundhogs and rabbits, and of times when there were great coveys of bobwhite that moved through the pastures and cornfields.

I have never seen a wild bobwhite in West Virginia in my life, but I have seen many ruffed grouse and tons of wild turkeys.  The ruffed grouse and the wild turkey are creatures that prefer more forested habitat than the bobwhite.

My grandparents grew up in the pasture and the cornfield. I grew up in the woods.  Their sustenance came from the land near them. Mine always has come from the grocery store.

Their world had been tamed. The wolves were all trapped out and poisoned, and the cougar or the panther or puma or whatever you call the species known as Puma concolor had also met its fate.  The gregarious passenger pigeon and the loquacious Carolina parakeet were gone for good, as were the bison that roamed the Eastern forests and bugling herds of elk.

By 1900, central West Virginia had been tamed into landscape of hill farmers. Sheep could graze without fear of wolves tearing into them on some moonless night, and the hog-killing black bears had been driven to the highest mountains. Jefferson’s vision of an agrarian republic could now finally be realized here– but only for just a few decades.

Sooner or later, the industrialization of America and lure of good jobs “up in Ohio” began to take their toll. In the 1950s, a generation  of hill farmers was lost to the steel mill and the auto plant. Then, the dual forces of subsidized agriculture and the interstate highway system brought in cheap groceries at the store, and all but the toughest and most stubborn farmers held onto the plow.

Decades of rural flight meant that farms were left behind, and in a rainy climate that has always favored forest over grassland, it did not take long before the pastures became filled with brush, usually introduced pests like multiflora rose and autumn olive. But then the Virginia pines start growing, and sooner or later, an aspen colony gets founded. And then you’re back to the woods again.

Much of rural West Virginia now looks like primeval forest. It is almost entirely an illusion. Those forests are built upon the ruins of the old hill farms. If you take a long walk in virtually any of them, it isn’t long before you find rotten fence posts that still hold a few twisted strands of barbed wire. You make think you’re in an ancient grove of red maples, but you’re standing in old cow pasture or oat field just decades ago.

I call such lands “feral land.” When it comes to animals, we often talk of feral cats, which are descendants of fully domesticated animals that just happened to go wild long enough to raise kittens without human contact. These kittens grow into fully functional wild animals, superb predators of birds and small mammals. They live uncultivated lives without our direct control.

I don’t see why such a concept cannot be applied to land, for just like those cats, it was once tamed and now is pretty wild.  It is now home to things like Eastern coyotes, prowling bobcats, and a resurgent population of black bears. Bald eagles can be seen along the rivers, and ravens now drive crows off of road-killed deer. Every time I walk in the woods, I am amazed at the plethora of songbirds and woodpecker species, creatures that simply would not have thrived when the hills were pastures and the bottom lands filled with corn.

Probably no creature exemplifies this transition than the rise of the gray fox once again over the red. The red fox is a creature of the grassland. The gray fox is a creature of the thicket and the forest.

The red fox was not here when the Europeans arrived, and conventionally, it has long been argued that it came from England to give the wealthy planters of Virginia and Maryland some sport.  We now know through analysis of red fox DNA that our red foxes came from Canada and are not that closely related to those of England.

The gray fox, however, is a native an American dog as exists anywhere. Its lineage has been solely confined to this continent for the past 8 to 12 million years, a very distinct and very old form of wild dog.

The two species are enemies. Grays are known to run off red foxes if they encounter them. Even though they are typically just a bit smaller, they are much more aggressive.

The gray fox requires the forest to thrive. When it is hard pressed by predators, it usually shoots up a tree, and its prowess as a climber also gives it access to bird nests. When the forests are gone, it just does not do as well.

But when the land was turned into pasture, the Canadian red fox saw its opportunity and moved south. Because of its long association with England, the red fox was seen as a sign of civilization.

The gray fox’s extinction was event that at least one historian noted. William Henry Bishop, in his History of Roane County, claimed that the gray fox had gone extinct there in 1882. It was a lamentable step on the way to domesticating the county, but it had to happen as surely as the bison were killed off and the last virgin timber was cut.

But if you were to go to Roane County now, it would not be hard to find a gray fox. The return of the forest has meant halcyon days for its kind once again.

The old hill farms now stand in ruins. We pass the old barns and chicken houses and wonder about the people who built them. We wonder about the the livestock they kept and of the varieties of plants they grew in their gardens. We think of the shame that they are no longer being used. We become saddened that the culture that grew up out of the agrarian society is now holding on only with palsied fingers.

But to a gray fox scenting for cottontails along an old farm road lined in autumn olive the world couldn’t be better. The trees and the brush cover its movements as it slinks along in the feral land. Its lot in life enhanced because of our demise.

 

 

 

 

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barred-owl

Trigger warning:  Even if you love birds and half-way decent nature writing, alt right special snowflakes should not read the following text. It might harm your delusions of dominance, or at the very least, it might make you angry or sad.  We can’t have that.

I don’t know what caused the old barred owl that roosts deep in the white pine thicket to let out a single haunting scream. Perhaps the weather was ready to change, and before the snow falls, they let out their little eerie screams in the gray wood. It is an odd little ritual, but one I listen for when I know it might be snowing soon.

But it was a oddly mild day in early February, and no snow was forecast.  No rain either. Just the ugly winter sun casting its sallow glares on the gray woods.

I knew they would come, but they came more quickly than I imagined. Tiny black jets zoomed sharp across the hollows and ridges until at last they found their target in the pine woods. It was a murder of crows on a mission.

The owl had stupidly positioned herself on the bow of a dead quaking aspen, and she was now exposed for the aerial attacks of the corvids.

One would distract her with its loud cawing, while one of its compatriots would zip in and peck the owl on the head.

More crows kept coming until the pine thicket had about 20 of them, each screaming its curses as the predator as a few of the braver ones dived bombed her from behind.

After about thirty minutes, the owl took flight across great hollow beyond the pines, but every crow followed her gray form, harrying her as if she were some great pestilence on the land.

A barred owl is a beautiful animal. Its soft gray feathers are streaked down the breast with darker gray streaks, and the feathers that form the dishes on its head frame the darkest brown eyes of any owl in these woods.  To us, it is an impish creature with the eyes of a cocker spaniel.

To a crow, it is perhaps the greatest of all demons. During the day, the crow’s sharp eyes and keen intellect work in tandem with its more maneuverable wings to avoid the owl’s depredations.

But at night, when the crows roost in flocks in their favorite trees, the owl becomes a gray dragon of the night. She comes swooping in on soft wings and carries off the hapless crows before they ever know she is there.

The long nights of winter must the worst sort of hell for crows. Hour after hour they sit in darkness, sleeping or trying to sleep, and at any moment,the soft wing-beats of the gray dragon could come to cast some death among the canopy.

The crows’ remedy for this terror is to go on the offense.  They spend much of their days scouting for owls. If they spot a large owl of any species, they will begin the most aggressive cawing and harrying of it they can muster. They will dive bomb it from behind until the owl, which usually wants to spend its days sleeping, will fly off. If the owl finds another roost in roughly the same vicinity, the crows will begin the same crazed harrying.

I’ve seen crows spend hours doing this behavior. I have come to think of it is as the primary activity of crows. They might spend some time in the winter searching for food, but they are always up for a good war on owls.

A single crow would stand no chance against an owl, but crows are intensely social and remarkably intelligent birds. They work together to drive the owl from their hunting and foraging grounds. They surely must have some sense of solidarity that allows themselves to risk injury in confronting the gray dragon.

In this way, crows are not too different from us. Our species has a strong sense of solidarity. We once banded together to throw stones and sticks at the great cats and giant snakes that preyed upon us. Later, we did the same toward the great predators we encountered as we left Africa. We spent many long nights, hoping that a Machairodont or a leopard wouldn’t come sailing in on one of our band and carry him off as silently and swiftly as the owl does with the crow.  We may have spent our days looking for where such beasts made their lairs and then we may have spent lots of time driving them away from our encampments.

We’ve become good at fending off threats. We started with sticks and rocks. Then we made arrows and spears. Then we rudimentary firearms, and then graduated to machine guns and tanks. We made sophisticated cannons and then intercontinental ballistic missiles.

And now a handful of countries posses the ultimate weapons– ones that will destroy virtually all of humanity and all life if we ever use them.

Most of us have no reason to fear the predators of the night, but we still live in fear. Fear drives us into madness at times, for deep down in that massive brain of ours, there is still a terrified ape that knows that a leopard could be lurking somewhere.  Our hope is that the rational parts of that brain temper the scared simian.

Right now, I see us in madness. The frightened ape mindset has taken over enough of the polity in my country to allow an absolute madman to take over. He lies to everyone, promising the moon, the sun, and the stars, but what is worse is he lies to himself..

He was elected in part to drive out the “bad dudes” as he calls them. These “bad dudes” become “bad hombres” when talking about Latinos, but they mean much the same. He speaks of the foreigner, who either wants to engage in violent jihad against Americans or steal someone’s job. Or maybe sell drugs.

He ran as a crow who sees a lot of owls. The Muslims were an owl. The Latinos another owl. The media was an owl.  Foreigners in general were owls.

And now that he’s been in power just these few weeks, I think there is an owl, and that’s the president!

We need to be good crows and start cawing away.

We need to say boldly that there is an owl, and we’re not about to be taken in the night.

We must remember that as crows we can act together to stand up to an owl.

He is not our gray dragon in the night, but with his hand on the button, that gray dragon could become a mushroom cloud.

Our constitutional system, hewed from the green wood of England and transported and modified on this system, could be threatened by a man who sees the rule of law as an encumbrance to his obvious genius and popular appeal.

The gray dragon of the night could descend upon us in one crazed tantrum or with slight winnowing away of liberal democracy one tweet or executive order at a time.

But we cannot allow the gray dragon to come and take us.

This the crows know, and we must follow their lead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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