Archive for May, 2014

Verdict: Not Guilty of Nuisance


Profiling or labeling is one of the great embarrassments of being human.

Sadly, we not only profile individuals based on how they look, eat or believe,  I see we have stooped so low as to unfairly judge hungry wildlife.  And why not? Of all species on the planet, humans are not only the most judgmental but the sloppiest as well.

A recent piece was published in a local newspaper about a hungry black bear wandering into the nearby city limits of  Cambridge, Minnesota. It did not end well for the bear.

First some background. Bruins learn that we two-leggeds have a keen propensity to be messy with food. Why wouldn’t a winter hungry bear roam into a neighborhood following the promising smells coming from open garbage cans, torn garbage bags, open compost bins topped with yesterday’s leftovers, BBQ grills soaked in bratwurst and burger fat.

Bears are wise in avoiding humans. But once in a while they get used to us. Such a bear is called a habituated bear.  They learn to ignore folks and basically become unafraid of humans. But that doesn’t mean that we become unafraid of them.  Most folks have a deep-rooted fear over large mammals with sharp teeth and claws. They are convinced that the bear will kill them.

Ignorance goes along way in delivering a fear package. Black bears are expert omnivores. They eat alot of plant and alot of protein. But note that much of their protein is garnered from insects such as ant eggs and larvae. Every spring I watch black bears unabashedly slaughter heaps of dandelion blossoms as they graze roadside ditches near our Outpost in the Yukon Territory.

For the record, I am an avid hunter. However, I’ve never been drawn to the idea of shooting a bear because I don’t find it sporting to sit over a pile of greasy and sweet bait foods to wait for a bear.

What if the recently executed Cambridge bear had been visiting such a bait station last fall and managed to avoid getting shot? Now spring comes along and it smells all those delicious odors again. Hurrah easy picking calories just down the street!

Getting into improperly stored human “food” (trash, etc) even just once can start a bear down the path of securing the title “habituated.”It’s far too easy to label such a bear as a nuisance bear. It makes it easy to justify its removal.

In reading the recent short story titled, “Nuisance bear spotted in Cambridge,” the end of the first paragraph states that the bear was “taken care of.”  Usually when something is “taken care of” it means that efforts are made without causing damage. Come on, don’t try and sanitize the act. Be bold, just say up front that the bear was executed for following its nose to our mess.

By labeling a bear as a “nuisance” we can easily justify its removal. We humans are good at that. If the paper had run a title such as, “Beautiful black bear murdered in Cambridge,” I suspect just as many readers would have read it. Its another perspective that is just as accurate as the one printed.

Given that bears, raccoons, skunks, crows and other critters that love our overflowing bird feeders, sloppiness and garbage were here first, should we not consider who the real nuisance is? In all fairness, the paper did go on to give good instructions of the need to keep your premises clean of food temptations for wandering bears.

All I ask is for us to take responsibility for the death of a bear that was looking for an easy meal. You know, kind of like when we dash to a fast food joint for a quick and easy meal.

This is a case where we have met the nuisance and it is us.



Pillow Talk

Canopy BedCanopy Bed

Canopy BedCanopy Bed


Fate would have it that the old brass bed, the same one that my great grandfather slept in, would align with our bedroom window so well.

Canopy BedCanopy BedCanopy Bedpillow talk photo

With the second story window opening next to my supine self, there is maybe an inch between the top of the mattress and the windowsill. On recent nights, I’ve tucked  the familiar dried piece of birch sapling in place to hold the double hung window open.  Our house  is over a century old and the inconvenience of blocking a window opening is almost pleasing. With the window “locked” open I can push my pillow onto the window sill and practically  lay my head outdoors. It is the closest thing to camping while sleeping in my home.

Walt Whitman, one of America’s most beloved poets, urges us in the lines of Songs of the Open Road to live robust lives and “inhale great drafts of air.”

In sleeping nightly, almost in the oak canopy just outside the window, I am following his advice as dictated in his highly touted poem,  Leaves of Grass.

“Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons. It is to grow in the open air, and to eat and sleep with the earth.”

It is said that sleeping outdoors strengthens one’s immune system and improves overall physical vigor and endurance. An additional benefit is found among the nocturnal sounds. Buzzing and chirping insects, rustling leaves or sighing winds through pine boughs create a soothing white noise that lullabye asleep.


Carl Linnaeus, the famous Swedish scientist, often dubbed the “father of botany,” flung open his family’s house windows in the summer to simply hear bird and insect song.

But that wasn’t enough. Linnaeus so loved the male cricket’s courting stridulations that he even secretly released live crickets into their Uppsala home. These courting songs produced only by the male crickets did little to excite his wife, Sara. She was not pleased with the housebound crickets and did her best to rid the household of them. When the house cricket music lessened, Carl quietly found more replacements.

Another fellow Scandinavian, Norwegian polar explorer, Roald Amundson loved the practice of open windows. He was a giant in polar exploration and was the first human to reach the South Pole and the first to fly successfully over the North Pole.


His open window sleeps were not seasonal. As a means of acclimating himself to cold weather, he also allowed the Norwegian winter night into his bedroom.

While lying in our bed, spirited by fresh air,  I am privileged to experience the blessed duality of my mate snuggled next to me and to sleepily peer out the window at an emerging spring morning. My gaze takes me directly into the craggy branches of a dear bur oak that I have christened the “home place oak.”

In the bold annual act of pushing open the window, I am declaring winter’s end. Some years, like this I clearly rushed the issue and I had to pull the birch out and set it aside for another week or more.  Recent chilly nights have both not  freshened our sleep but also prolonged the need for the down comforter. And I am assured more snuggling.

Usually the first grand window openings are in April. It is then that I bear witness to the sassiness of courting crows and even the occasional guttural croak of neighborhood ravens. Ravens have steadily become a newer fixture in our parts and I am partial to their corvid calls.

By mid-April, I am assured of being awakened prior to sunrise when the roosting male turkeys gobble their dominance to other males and more importantly, their readiness to put on the strut for the hen turkeys.

Call it cruel, but I love having a morning chat with the gobblers. I sometimes keep my mouth turkey call on the windowsill. After I’m awakened by a distant gobble, I can slip the call into my mouth and either gives him a challenging gobble or a seductive hen cluck.

The first time I did this, I learned that it is to my advantage to awaken and warn Miss Nancy of my turkey talk. To do otherwise, threatens the snuggling part I mentioned.

In May, I get to witness the amazing daily transformation of opening oak leaves. My favorite view is early spring when the all the trees within view of my bed, wear a different shade of green. Most are muted and soft. By the time we hit June, the colors all blend to a sameness of dark green.

But it is when the tiny bundles of new bur oak leaves emerge that I await the tassels of butter-colored, catkins. Even at this stage the tiny oak leaves are easily recognizable as bur. Unlike other local oaks, the top of the bur oak leaf throughout it’s growth is . . .well burly. It has the look of broad shoulders. Like the white oak the lobes of the leaf are rounded. But the white oak does not share the broad shoulder and tapered profile of a bur.

Before things leaf out much, early dawns become noisier with bird song. I find I wake up more fully when I hear the slurry, robin like call of a rose breasted grosbeak that perches only feet away.

Pillow birding is an amazing sport. Without lifting my head, I have simultaneously spied four species of warblers from the home place oak. The breaking sunshine illuminated each of them. All bore the colors of a painter’s pallet.  Less than four bed lengths from me was a Blackburnian warbler, a Chestnut-sided warbler, an American redstart and a yellow warbler. It was so newsworthy that I dared disturb Miss Nancy’s sleep. I nudged her foot with mine and  excitedly hissed the discovery of newfound colors in the home place oak.

These are indeed the secrets of making the best persons.





Enthusiastic Declaration of Spring





Now and only now can I unequivocally declare that spring has settled.

For some this fair season is declared when they hear the peal of the first spring peepers, for many it’s the clear notes of a robin and for others it might be the clamor of Canada geese. But this year, each of those harbingers was derailed by another dump of snow.

Yesterday morning I was washing the outside of the dining area windows when I heard the ecstatic pronouncement of spring back in the woods behind me. A male ovenbird was repeating his jubilant sounding phrases that are easily memorized if you think of them repeating the words, “teacher-teacher-teacher.”

Ovenbirds belong to a group of colorful, small birds known as woods warblers. Naturalists and biologists often refer to this group of birds as “neotropical migrants.” This group of small migrants spends the winter in a tropical destination and nest in northerly non-tropical settings.

The ovenbird I was listening to had just arrived, likely the night before, riding the steady south wind.  After spending weeks on a precarious migration from its wintering grounds in Central America and northern Venezuela, this singing territorial male sounded tireless.

I have a special fondness for ovenbirds because of an intimate relationship with one particular male. I first met him on May 30th sometime in the mid-1990s. He had flown into the nearly invisible mist net that we had set up in the woods to capture songbirds so we could band them.

After carefully removing him from the tangled, fine net mesh, I tucked him in a small cloth bag and brought him to the table where we could process him. Process means to try and determine his age, sex, note the date, and then fit him with his tiny aluminum band and record the unique 8 or 9 digit number that gives this bird a one-of-a-kind identity. The bird is not kept captive long and is quickly released after processing it.

For over 100 years biologist have been banding birds with lightweight bands.  Bands range in size from those that resemble wide finger rings that are used in banding large birds like eagles and large waterfowl or tiny fragments of foil that are used for affixing to the wire like leg of a hummingbird. Each band has a unique 8 or 9 digit number along with an inscription that says CALL 1-800-327 BAND and WWW.REPORTBAND.GOV . Obtaining a federal permit is not easy and requires many skills and a mess of paperwork.

Of the many, many birds I’ve banded I honestly think I gave nearly all of them a subliminal “good luck” as I released them.

It’s pretty special to catch a bird that has been previously banded. But when I caught this same fellow the following year, on May 29th in the very same mist net location it was like a happy reunion.

Songbirds are very lucky to survive to adulthood; most die before they are a year old. They are exceptionally lucky to make a long-distance round trip migration. In the case of my little ovenbird friend, he had likely flown over 6,000 miles just in its fall and spring migration!

Having caught my new found ovenbird friend twice, he had now logged over 12,000 miles on just his migrant flights.

The next year I didn’t catch him. It turned out he eluded the net because the fourth year I caught him again! It was May 30th and yes, in the same net!

Feeling in the presence of a true Olympic champion, I was humbled at his timeliness and durability.

While I think I have a pretty good sense of direction when in the woods, mine pales in comparison to these songbirds when it comes to homing in to an exact spot. Their ability to hone in to an exact place makes the most expensive of GPS units look like junk. It amazes me to think that this little bird, weighing only a few grams, found its way into the same net, at the same swath in the woods on nearly the same date for three years.

I didn’t mourn the fact that I never caught him again because he had already outperformed the odds. And somehow I like to think the bird I heard the other day is genetically tied to my special little friend.

To listen to the song and learn more about ovenbirds and to listen to their song, click on to the link for the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. It’s a great resource.

Happy spring.