Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer: Black bear

There are still more than 20,000 black bears in Maine, but you say the words “black bear” here and everyone thinks of the University of Maine athletic teams. That’s probably because, in contrast to many of Maine’s other mammals, bears are seldom seen. They seem to be the slow cousins of their more famous family members, the grizzly and the polar. They don’t pose provocatively on ice floes. They don’t pluck salmon out of mid-air. They’re a contradiction, and misunderstood. Are they ferocious or cuddly? Secretive or gregarious? They do have their strange points: animals with big teeth that mostly eat plants and berries; animals that hibernate for four or five months, during which they do not eat or drink or even eliminate waste; cubs that are born during hibernation and that feed entirely on milk from a mother’s already depleted body; mothers that don’t have a strong instinct to protect their cubs; females that stay close to home, males that range widely (as much as 100 square miles).

Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
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Sunday, July 13, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer: Bugs

Alongside the birds fly the bugs. From the public point of view, bugs are the birds’ dark side. Not flashy, mostly invisible, mostly annoying, sometimes downright nasty. You have to be a special kind of scientist to specialize in bugs. And an indefatigable one: there are some 1 million species of insects and spiders in the world, with many more to discover; if you were a beetle specialist, you’d have 25,000 species from which to choose in North America alone. I expect we know very little of the ways that their world is crucial to ours, besides the obvious (pollinating bees, food for birds, scavenging, and clean-up); we seem to care only about those with pestilential qualities. Don’t you wonder if concerted study of the insect world will give us the strongest evidence yet of the mess we’ve made? Or don’t we want to know how they will inherit the earth after we’re done and gone?
     Maine’s bugs, however, are good at getting attention. The spruce budworm can lay waste to thousands of acres of forest, and the insecticide programs to contain it are very controversial, perhaps worse than the cure. A mosquito swarm can be so thick as to be comical. The deer fly must be the most useless creature on the face of the earth. Even in biotic terms I'm hard pressed to understand where the thing fits in except as a chance mutation, an evolutionary dead-end that happens to bedevil mammals in the woods. And the black fly? Well, it’s so bad that the only defense is to stick your tongue firmly in your cheek: call it “Maine’s state bird” and “Defender of the Wilderness”; join the Maine Blackfly Breeder’s Association (whose motto is “We breed ‘em, you feed ‘em”). In some places between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day you need to duct-tape your pant legs and don headgear with netting just to be outside. Unlike mosquitoes, who sample your blood with a dainty proboscis, the black fly scrapes away at your skin until it gets enough blood to be happy. Significant itching and pain ensue.

Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer:Bald eagles

Here on Penobscot Bay the bald eagle population is apparently growing rapidly. We wouldn't necessarily know, for a sighting over here on the west side of the bay (away from the islands where they wisely live) is rare, lasts maybe two seconds, and is the occasion for wild whoops and comical gyrations as we press noses against the windows to follow its flight out of sight. Its symbolism and mystery are still strong, stirring up both patriotism and nostalgia, a gut wish for some lost America.
It makes me think that people who love Maine are essentially conservative. We’re savers, we’d be completely for maintaining the status quo if most of it weren’t so awful. (I’m pleased to report in this regard that in late 2010, the discovery of an eagle’s nest scuttled, at least temporarily, the state’s plans to build a bypass around Wiscasset and its heroic traffic jams.) My dictionary says conservatism is “a political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions, and preferring gradual development to abrupt change.” I’d agree completely if all this were nature-based. But political conservatives focus on institutions, not individuals, on the idea of a bald eagle and not the reality of its fierce and independent beauty. And the works of humans, our DDT and our mercury, are doubly dangerous: we nearly wiped out the eagles, and now that they are returning, we have somehow changed them. On their island fortresses, to which we have banished them, they are forsaking their traditional and difficult diet of live fish and are feasting on easier prey, the chicks and fledglings of the shore birds such as gulls and ducks and cormorants, and because one of those cormorant species of Penobscot Bay, the great cormorant, has so few members to begin with, it probably won’t last the decade.
     Are humans to interfere again? Who's going to win, a magnificent warlike raptor, the symbol of America, or a lowly black water bird? If you had to save one for democracy, which would it be? It’s an example of both our hubris and our interference that we have to ask such questions.

Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
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Monday, June 30, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer: jays and crows

In many ways jays and crows are my favorites. They are extensive in range, and high in intellect. Not surprisingly, they belong to the same family, along with the magpie (of course). They are social birds with loud mouths who are, as Sibley says, "mob predators." When a group of crows sets up their hollering, you can safely bet that some owl or fisher is being harassed. I've witnessed this: several times the congregation has sung in the trees near the house and a couple of minutes later I see a devil of a fox slinking and skulking down the shore, found out again. Sibley heads the pertinent section of his book "Jays, Crows and Their Allies," which seems especially appropriate in their bruising war of words against the flesh-eaters.

The range of the crow covers the entire US except for the deserts of the southwest (very sensible creature). It really should be the national bird. It's intelligent, articulate, sociable, courageous, common and adaptable. It's a democrat. Who cares about some soaring, warlike, endangered and unreachable eagle, however magnificent?

Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
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