WEDNESDAY’S BIRDS – Marilyn Armstrong

We’ve got funeral in Boston today and Garry needs to speak. This was not only one of his colleagues but a friend to both of us. I will miss Tom Ellis. We will both miss him very much.

This also means that we have to be there early and probably won’t be back until late. And considering Boston traffic, it might be even later than I think. It’s one of the reasons we so rarely go into Boston … but this is one we cannot miss.

So enjoy the birds. They are beautiful and they remind us of peace.

A pair of doves
Two Tufted Titmouses
Two Tufted Titmouses
A pair of Chipping Sparrows
Looking down Dove
Two finches and a chickadee
One little Goldfinch
Titmouse in the air and Chickadee on the feeder
One more Goldfinch
Diving Chickadee
A couple of Cowbirds

LIFE AS A DEPUTY ANIMAL CONTROL OFFICER – Marilyn Armstrong

I live in a small town. Just under 13,000 people call Uxbridge home. The village, or as we say around here, “downtown,” has a classic brick town hall, circa 1879, an elegant old library, and several other historic buildings.

Our neighboring town, Millville, makes Uxbridge look like Metropolis.

Millville town center.

Their town hall is a unit in an old condo building. The center of town is a sub shop. There’s no sign to indicate you are in Millville, so it’s easy to miss. When you get there, it will be closed anyway. The following notice is posted on Millville’s website:

Due to budget constraints, effective immediately the Town Clerk’s office will only be open on Mondays from 9am-1pm and Wednesday evenings from 6pm-8pm for public assistance. If you cannot be at the Municipal Center during these scheduled hours, please call the Town Clerk’s Office to schedule an appointment.m

There are approximately 3100 people living in Millville.

Perhaps 9 or 10 years ago, the town of Millville decided they needed a Deputy Animal Control Officer. I don’t remember how I heard about the job. It may have been a tip from our local animal control officer who knew I liked animals and needed part-time work.

This was about as part-time as a job could be. The pay was $1200 per year, payable semi-annually. Before taxes.

Millville already had a Senior Animal Control Officer who was theoretically in charge, but passionately fond of golf. I suspect he also had a full-time job elsewhere. So, in exchange for $600 every 6 months, I would have the official title of Deputy Animal Control Officer. I would be on call 7 days a week, 24 hours a day.

I’m basically an optimist. I figured Millville is tiny. How many calls could there be? I took the job. I was sworn in, just like in the movies, hand on the Bible. I promised to protect and serve.

A mere couple of hours later, I got my first call. A homeowner had found an almost dead skunk by their trash bin and wanted it taken away. It was my first call — a Sunday morning — so my “senior officer” thought he should come along, show me the ropes as it were.

Photo: Greenshield Pest Control
Photo: Greenshield Pest Control

Luckily, the skunk did the right thing and went from nearly dead to absolutely dead while I was trying to figure out what I was supposed to do. I was informed by my erstwhile boss that the skunk had probably been rabid and I should not touch it. If the skunk had not died on his own, I would have been obliged to shoot it.

Me: “Shoot it?”

Boss: “Yes, shoot it. With the rifle.”

Me: “Rifle? What rifle?”

Boss: “Oh, didn’t I mention that? We have a couple of rifles in the office. When an animal is behaving suspiciously, you have to shoot it.”

Me: “Behaving suspiciously?”

Boss: “You know, approaching people rather than running away. Acting weird. Most of the animals you’ll get calls about are rabid. There’s a lot of rabies around here so you don’t want to get close. Just shoot’em.”

Rabies. Shoot the animals. $100 a month. I was getting that creepy feeling I get when I think maybe I’ve signed up for something, the implications of which I had failed to fully grasp.

After we bagged the skunk to send to the county animal medical examiner, I promised to go to city hall as soon as they reopened to discuss guns and the other equipment I would need. Like shovels, leather gloves, heavy-duty plastic trash bags (the non-human version of body bags), tags for the medical examiner. Forms to fill out. Oh, and where to put the corpses. Turns out, you can’t just stack them up in city hall.

My boss was not upset that I’d never handled a real weapon. I’d never shot anything currently or previously alive. I was puzzled about what I was supposed to do if I got a call, actually needed a rifle, but it was locked up at city hall which was pretty much always closed.

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Would the offending animal make an appointment for a more convenient time? Or wait for me to call someone, get them to unlock the gun cabinet, then hang around while I drove over to get it, then drove back to shoot him? Are the rabid animals of Millville that cooperative? Was I supposed to keep the big hunting rifle in my house in case I needed it? The rabies thing had me spooked, too.

When I was finally able to get to city hall, I demanded a rabies vaccination. No way was I going to handle rabid animals without a vaccination. They pointed out rabies vaccinations are expensive and I was only the deputy. They suggested I pay for it myself.

Me: “How much will it cost?”

Clerk: “Around $450.”

Me: “That’s four and a half months pay.”

Clerk: “Well, we don’t normally pay for it.”

Me: “I’m not doing this unless I’m vaccinated.”

It turned out that the animal medical examiner could provide me with the appropriate vaccination, so Garry — who had begun to look alarmed — drove me to the doctor. While the doctor prepared the inoculation, we got a rundown of exactly how common rabies is in our neck of the woods.

“Why,” he said, “Just last week they found a deer with rabies. Chipmunks, skunk, fox, coyotes, squirrels, deer … even possums get rabies.” The only exceptions are rabbits who are naturally immune. Go figure.

The following day, I got another call. A really big snapping turtle had wandered into the road and was blocking traffic. It didn’t sound too threatening, so armed with my shoulder-high heavy leather gauntlets (no rifle), I drove to the site and met the snapping turtle from Hell.

Keep in mind that there is water everywhere in the valley. Not only the Blackstone, but all its tributaries, feeder creeks, lakes, brooks, ponds, pools, and swamps. Snapping turtles are called common for good reason. They live just about everywhere you find water. Undoubtedly, the big snapper had wandered into the road, lost his bearings. Someone needed to grab the turtle and carry him back on the river side of the road.

The someone was me.

This turtle was not in the water, not docile. His beak was sharp. His neck was extremely flexible. Not my kind of nature pal.

So there I was, by the side of the road, trying to figure out how I could grab him. He was approximately 30 pounds of pissed-off turtle. He seemed pretty agile to me. He could move. Okay, maybe he’d lose a footrace to a rabbit, but he could trundle along at a nice pace. And he had that snaky neck and was determined to bite me.

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Meanwhile, an entire construction crew — big brawny guys who were supposed to be repairing the bridge — were watching. They didn’t seem eager to help. In fact, they were the ones who called in the first place.

I eventually herded him across the road. I looked at those jaws, looked at my leather gloves, did a quick mental calculation about the strength of the gloves versus the power of the turtle’s jaws. I decided the gloves weren’t nearly strong enough.

My personal weapon: a Red Ryder BB rifle
My personal weapon: a Red Ryder BB rifle

Have you ever tried herding a turtle? Of course not. You can’t herd a turtle, but I did. I don’t know exactly how I got him across the road. I know there was a big shovel involved, but otherwise, it’s a blur. The next thing I remember doing after getting the turtle over to the river side of the road was calling the clerk and resigning.

The turtle was enough for me. I figured if I didn’t get out quick, they’d have me hunting rabid coyotes with a large gun and I’d shoot my foot off.

They tried to bill me for the rabies shot. We settled for not paying me. I think I got the better part of the deal.

ALL CREATURES – Marilyn Armstrong

Many creatures crossed our deck today. When I first peeked out my bathroom window at around 5 in the morning, there were three squirrels hanging onto the feeders. I went back to bed.

When I got up later, there were at least half a dozen Brown-Headed Cowbirds chowing down. I turned on the coffee and looked again. A big Red-Bellied Woodpecker and a small flock of House Finches and Goldfinches were chowing down. I went to take a picture and before I turned it on, they were gone. Vanished. Poof!

House Finches and I think the bird with the blue bill is a Bluebird
House Finches

I went back to the kitchen, cut open a couple of English muffins and popped them into the toaster. More Cowbirds, miscellaneous finches and a couple of Chickadees. I went and picked up my camera. Both feeders were empty.

Cowbirds

Back to the kitchen. Garry was setting up the coffee, so I cream cheesed the English muffins. When I turned around there were half a dozen House Finches and a big Red-Bellied Woodpecker. I went and picked up the camera. They did not all fly away.

Red-Bellied Woodpecker

The woodpecker played peek-a-boo with me, then abandoned ship and a squirrel took over his spot. It was the middle of the day when squirrels are not usually out and about, but this squirrel seriously needs to have a chat with an older, more mature squirrel and get a grip on the dangers of squirreldom.

And although the House Finches hung around a bit, mostly, they were out of focus, but then the Cowbirds came back … and they were in focus. Not that they are particularly interesting, but they are big and easy to shoot (with a camera).

HUNTERS AND HUNTED – Marilyn Armstrong

We live in the Blackstone Valley. During our 18 years here, more and more predatory animals have moved into the region.

A relaunch to the feeder from the rail

We used to have rabbits and chipmunks and other small mammals. I remember when the chipmunks used to line up and chatter at us.

Meanwhile, we have gotten bobcats and many more coyotes. Many hawks and eagles (American eagles, mostly, but also Cooper’s and Red-tailed hawks and many others … and Fishers … and bear tracks have been found all over the area and I don’t think they have been hibernating this winter, either.

Tufted Titmouse

I have not seen a rabbit or a chipmunk in years. We saw bobcat tracks after the recent snow, so we know they are in the area again … and the coyote never leave. The fisherS are part now a regular part of our wildlife. A few days ago, a Cooper’s Hawk glided past the deck and the feeders and the birds fled.

The squirrels hid under the metal table on the deck.

I think they feel safer on my deck than they do in the woods. Many of them show a lot of scarring from encounters with hawks.

Two Red House Finches

For several days, the feeders were empty. Today, they’ve started to come back, a few at a time. The Cardinal was back, some nuthatches and finches. They are easily frightened by the hunters.

Oh yeah? What are you gonna do about it?

We seem to have a massive number of hunters and a serious lack of prey.

I’m sure the increasing urbanization in other areas of New England is forcing wildlife towards this region which remains relatively rural and wooded … but there isn’t nearly enough food for all of them.

How did we get heavy with predators and light in prey? Usually, the small mammals outbreed the predators which maintains the balance, but that has not been happening.

Squabbling Juncos

And is there anything we can do to balance things?

I can’t think of any answers. This has happened mostly during the past 10 years, but with the upsurge of the coyote population and the roaming bobcats, it has gotten worse. With the weather warming up, the bears will become more lively, too.

It’s going to become very interesting around these parts!

THE NEWEST SQUIRREL – Marilyn Armstrong

Most of the squirrels who come to hang out on the flat feeder are bigger and fatter. They have scars, some of them relatively new and raw. This was quite a small squirrel. Not scars that I could see, not even a mismatched grown-in area of fur. Maybe still a young one.

Not yet a survivor. I wondered how he would do with all the dangers surrounding him. It was like watching your little one and hoping they will survive kindergarten … or freshman year … or … parenthood!

Young squirrel
We see each other!
Young and hungry

THE SAFETY OF HOME – Marilyn Armstrong

While I was starting dinner, I was watching out the window. Suddenly, a hawk with a white front swooped by the deck then winged off into the woods.

I followed him with my eyes. The camera was in the dining room and I didn’t hurry to get it. I knew I’d lose the hawk before I got the camera focused. Mostly, I wanted to get a good look at him before he disappeared.

I was curious why he swept so close to the house.

Hawks are hunters and don’t usually get so close to houses. It turned out, after minimal research, to be a Cooper’s Hawk. It wasn’t hard to find because among the white-breasted hawks, there are only two living here: American Eagles and Cooper’s Hawks. I’ve seen plenty of American Eagles. They are much bigger than this hawk, so Cooper’s Hawk it had to be.

And he was hunting for exactly what was on my deck: birds and squirrels. Those are a Cooper’s Hawks two favorite foods. The deck is his perfect hunting ground, his dinner buffet.

This is one of the things I feared when I set up the feeders. We have so many predators in the area and so little prey. How did we get so out of balance? Doesn’t it usually go the other way? Don’t deer usually overtake the area?

I remember when we had so many chipmunks they used to line up and chatter at us in groups. Now, we never see chipmunks. We use to see rabbits sitting on the lawn in the sun in summertime. I haven’t seen a rabbit in years and until we put up the feeders, I hadn’t seen any squirrels, either.

Mice I know about because they invade our house every autumn. We have an annual battle to keep them outside. It’s not personal. It’s just that they make an awful mess in the house.

We also used to see more deer, but I’m sure the coyotes have taken them down.

I wonder now if the reason the squirrels have taken refuge on the deck is that they think the house is some kind of protection for them from the hawks and the other predators. Is this house protection for the birds and squirrels?

By sending them back into the woods am I sending them to their deaths? That’s a terrible thought.

I feel like I should invite them all in for a warm dinner and a comfortable nap, but I’m pretty sure the dogs wouldn’t get along with them especially well. It could get pretty raucous.

THE BOBCAT’S BACK – Marilyn Armstrong

The bobcat’s back and I hope we don’t have any trouble. We never had dogs running loose before, but we can’t keep the Duke in the fenced yard, so I just hope they don’t intersect anytime soon.

Squirrel survivor

I looked out on the back yard this morning. It was covered in a couple of inches of snow on top of a crunchy batch of solid sleet. I could see Duke’s prints too. There was an interesting crosshatch of bobcat and dog prints and I got to thinking that I really hope the Duke doesn’t try to take on the bobcat. I’m pretty sure the bobcat would win that one.

A local bobcat. Smaller than ones in other parts of the continent, but able to leap 30 feet in a single bound. I’ve seen them do it. It’s amazing.

It’s a small bobcat, about the size of a large house cat, but those little guys are strong. And hungry. We only have one bobcat at a time except when we get a mother with kittens. As soon as one of the kittens lays claim to the area, all the other cats disappear. There’s only one bobcat in an area at a time and unless they are mating, they don’t pal around with each other.

Our perching Mourning Dove … He actually sat there long enough for me to finally get a few clear shots. Then he flew away but he was really patient with me and the camera.

It also explains why the birds have been so nervous. The squirrel that showed up this morning looked healthy, but something — my best guess is an eagle or a hawk — took a piece out of his neck. Somehow, he wrenched free.

Red-Tailed Hawk – They live in Canada and the U.S.., coast to coast.

It’s a battleground out there. We have always had more predators than we have prey. That’s why we don’t have a cat. They get eaten, as often as not by coyotes, but a big red-wing hawk can take a cat or a small dog … or a baby goat or lamb. They always warn us not to leave puppies outside unless they are in a cage with a roof. And even with that, keep it close to home.

We have a lot of these guys, too. You can see them in the driveway around twilight.

Raccoons can easily kill even a pretty big dog. They have super thick skin, long teeth, and claws. Adults can (and do) top fifty pounds. They are a lot stronger then they look and can under the right circumstances.

They come in all sizes and no matter how cute they are, be careful. If they aren’t tame, they can be pretty rough.

And then we have our own polecat, the Fisher, which will pretty much eat anything but prefers fish. We tend to get very romantic about animals in the wild, but they are the hunters and the hunted. The small ones hunt bugs and the eggs of smaller birds. Bigger ones hunt them … and then, there are even bigger hunters.

The Fisher who is not actually a cat. He’s a weasel with a beautiful coat. Nearly extinct from hunting and is now making a serious comeback. He likes our backyard. It’s sunny and he will sit in the middle of the sunny area and he won’t leave until he’s good and ready. They come in very dark brown, black, and deep red. They are not friendly and they are bigger than they look in pictures.

In the end, there is us. We hunt everything because we have guns … and we can. Meanwhile, I hope my little wild dog doesn’t decide to take on a bobcat. That isn’t a match I want to see.

And then, there’s the Duke