May 23, 2018
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Of Wooly Bears and other signs of spring

Photo courtesy of Kathy Pollard
Photo courtesy of Kathy Pollard
By Kathy Pollard, Special to the BDN

Spring and puppies seem to go hand in hand — or leash in hand, as the case may be. Ten years after losing my best friend Megan, a rescue Chesapeake Bay retriever-chocolate Lab mix, I finally realized my dream of acquiring another Chessie. Several weeks ago I found a handsome 8-week-old male puppy from York River Chesapeakes of York, Maine, and the adventure of raising him began.

Cruiser acquired his name on the ride home to Orono that day: He settled onto the armrest between my daughter Ann and me as if he’d always been there, cruisin’ (and snoozin’). We also gave him the nickname Wooly Awasos, the latter word meaning bear in Penobscot; thus, he is aptly nicknamed Wooly Bear for his dense, curly brown coat.

Since coming home, he has met each new day — bright and very early — with unbridled joy, a huge appetite, renewed energy, and leaps and bounds of growth and development. He learned sit, down, and how to walk on a leash almost immediately, and soon our morning ritual evolved: a walk along the Stillwater River in Orono, rain or shine.

This walk provides us with a relaxed setting to work on commands such as, “This way,” “That way” and “Over here” — all vocabulary that makes adventures in the woods with a leashed dog much easier.

While Cruiser enjoys sniffing this and that, mouthing sticks and other debris, and learning how to pace himself with my steps, I have had the opportunity to observe the early blooming spring wildflowers and the leafing out of trees.

I was happy to see again the snowy petals of bloodroot, and then the plant’s oversized leaves unfurling — this is a medicine plant of the Cherokee, and I use its roots to dye my basket splints a splendid, everlasting orangey-salmon. Nearby, black walnut and butternut trees — among the last to reveal their leaves in the spring — provide the full complement of traditional Cherokee dye colors: brown from black walnut husks and black from butternut hulls. These tree species are not usually found in Maine’s north central woodlands, yet they occur here, having been planted by someone in the last century.

Farther along the trail I spot the lacy blue-green foliage of another important Native American medicine plant: blue cohosh, once used to help ease the process of birthing. Nearby, the nodding heads of yellow trout lilies, with their multicolored spotted leaves, carpet the ground.

These are among a long list of the beauties that are here today, gone tomorrow, seldom noticed unless one regularly frequents their habitat. Cruiser has given me reason this spring to get out and take note of each day’s growth, and I am happy for the excuse to mingle with the season’s fleeting succession of beautiful changes.

As I was studying the sharply climbing esker above the river path, I noticed a fresh excavation of sand: a fox den. I’d seen a beautiful male fox trotting the high trail one evening last autumn, and lately, the same individual had been passing through my backyard a mile and a half away — announced by the crows who nest in a big pine. Seeing the den, I would now be on the lookout for a mama and kits.

It wasn’t long before Cruiser’s keen nose located the cast-off remnants of their meals. Each day we encountered another piece of evidence of what the fox family dined on the day before.

The list grew to include duck carcasses, snake remains, leftover frog, a deer’s leg (no doubt obtained after a mortality likely caused by a vehicle-deer collision), snapping turtle, smallmouth bass, groundhog, a beef rib bone perhaps pilfered after it had been discarded from a nearby barbecue, and many gray squirrel pelts. I have not yet seen remnants of a porcupine baby that a man reported he’d observed the papa fox carrying back toward the den recently.

This time of year, parent foxes must hunt night and day to supply the nutritional needs of their rapidly growing young. Unlike Cruiser, who receives three meals a day of Taste of the Wild, purchased in beautifully decorated bags from a local pet supply store, those babies are eating the real thing. There is no grocery store or fast-food outlet for wild animals to acquire their food.

Although healthy foxes are seldom seen during the daytime, for the interval in early spring when they have young to feed, sightings of the parent foxes out and about at all hours become more frequent. Somehow, in the minds of many, the sight of a fox or other predator in the daylight is paired in their minds with the risk of the animal being rabid or otherwise diseased.

Before jumping to conclusions, consider the animal’s appearance and behavior. How does the coat look? No sign of mange? Good. Is the animal minding his or her business, does he or she avoid proximity to people? Yes? Is there a sense of aggression or froth spilling from the mouth? No? Then consider the time of year. If it’s spring, the chances are that there is an assortment of ravenous young waiting back in the den for something to quell the gnawing in their bellies. The parent fox is doing everything possible to come home with a fresh “Taste of the Wild” meal for them.

If in doubt about an animal’s health status, contact your local DIF&W wildlife biologist or a wildlife specialist licensed by DIF&W to evaluate your concern. These professionals are familiar with the seasonal rhythms of the wild animals of Maine, and of the signs and symptoms of disease. They can offer tips and suggestions should you encounter a concern with a wildlife “neighbor.” Although it may seem distasteful to see a squirrel or other prey item carried in the mouth of a parent fox, remember, that is the way these species evolved, and the fox keeps the squirrel and other rodent populations in check so that overpopulation does not threaten the health of us all.

Last week, Cruiser and I caught a fleeting glimpse of a fox kit. The baby had been sunning itself outside one of the den entrances, and as we turned the corner on the low trail, it saw us about the same time we saw it, and it dived into the den. I paused and made the hand-kissing sound that attracts many animals’ curiosity, and soon two pointed russet ears and shining black eyes popped out of the hole — just long enough to register where the sound was coming from; then it disappeared again.

Our walk, the half-mile downriver from the parking lot, is always at an unhurried pace. When the time comes to turn around, I tell Cruiser to “find the car,” and he is suddenly all business, at 11 weeks old. He puts his nose to the ground and unfailingly sniffs his way back, no matter which series of trails I have taken. Instead of a leisurely pace, he trots purposefully and he does not stop until we make it back to the car. His reward is enthusiastic praise, a drink of water and a “treasure hunt” of Taste of the Wild once inside the car. In no time, my little Wooly Bear will be grown, just like the fox kits who soon will be on their own. What adventures await us over the years, I can only imagine. In the meantime, I will cherish this busy interval of bonding and training, as much as the mischievous sparkle in his amber eyes.


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