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Features (Creature Feature)

When a duckling lost its way, Patsy Wills rescued it and became its ­protector, surrogate and friend

Spring is just around the corner. Soon you’ll see wild mallard mamas marching their downy hatchlings to our Chesapeake waterways.
    The spring one of those countless ducklings lost its way, Patsy Wills of Owings Beach first rescued it from a tight spot, then became its surrogate mother.
    After freeing the tiny creature, Wills, now 63, carried her to the beach and searched for the duckling’s family. But Mama and her brood had moved on. “I took a different approach,” Wills said. “I tried introducing the duckling into another family. No luck.”
    Which gave the nature-loving Wills a new role.
    Up went a predator-safe shelter in her back yard, and in went Duck. The duckling took to her new home and to Wills.
    Duck was hatched in the wild. The first thing she saw was a mallard. Thus, through a process known as filial imprinting, Duck imprinted upon its mallard mother and acquired and kept some of her behavioral characteristics. Duck behaved like a duck, but she accepted Wills as protector, surrogate and friend.
    Thus Duck grew up lucky. She feasted on poultry pellets and earthworms. The sight of Wills picking up a garden fork sent Duck into a frenzy of joy. Duck walked with Wills in the yard or on the beach, stubby wings flapping. Snoozed on the porch. Paddled around the filtered pond installed just for her.
    Wills bought a new plastic kayak, and she and Duck paddled around the edge of the Bay near the mouth of Rockhold Creek. As Wills propelled the kayak, she dangled one foot in the water, so Duck could surf the ripples atop her toes, then hop aboard.
    As Duck grew, her feathers came in. On one walk, Duck’s usual wing flapping lifted her off the ground. She flew through the air for 20 yards, then landed at the edge of the Bay.
    Duck seemed surprised, as well as pleased. She turned to look at Wills, as if to ask, Did you see that?
    From that day on, Duck spent less time in the yard. She came and went as she pleased. Then, in her second spring, she brought home a drake.
    Wills didn’t care for him. He took Duck’s food.
    A second drake seemed immature, simply following Duck around the yard.
    At last, Duck came home with a keeper. This guy was friendly. Mama approved. The pair mated and Duck laid a clutch of 13 eggs.
    After that season, Duck appeared less often. Wills knew she’d done her job well; she’d raised her Duck to self-sufficiency.
    But for many years, she says,
“whenever I stepped outside, I carried poultry pellets just in case.”
    As for Wills, life has gone on. She’s now married to a man she met at a local dance and has changed her surname to Watkins. But she still regales friends with tales about the duck she raised till love did them part.

The black, white (blond, tan) and gray of it

Dennis Doyle’s piece regarding black squirrels was very interesting.” … So said reader after reader.

•   •   •

Been seeing them in Londontown by the Pub, yesterday and last week. Not sure if it’s the same one or different ones. Cute.

–Ernie Kleppin

I was somewhat surprised at the statement that black squirrels are so rare these days (1 in 10,000), as we see them with some frequency here in the Apple Greene neighborhood in Dunkirk. Our most recent backyard sighting took place in late November of 2016. Before departing for parts unknown (hopefully not a tragic encounter with one of the several hawks patrolling the woods behind our house), Mr. Black Squirrel frequently dined at our “squirrel-proof” bird feeders.

–Gary Schmidt

We often see black squirrels on Germantown Road in Edgewater.  There seems to be a herd(?), family, group, gathering of them living in the woods at the corner of Carrs Wharf Road and Germantown Road. Thank you for sharing your observations of them.

–Linda Hines

For the last five years or so I have watched black squirrels near the intersection of Carrs Wharf Road and Cadle Creek Road in Mayo
    Keep up the great paper.

–Gordon Reynolds
 

I liked Dennis Doyle’s column on black squirrels and was intrigued with his explanation of their existence. Somewhere I heard that the black color was a genetic mutation triggered by being in an area of ample food ­supply; the canopy/camouflage angle was a new one.
    All our squirrels are a treat. We have two blacks in the yard; only one will come to the door. Several friends do a double take on seeing the black squirrels. One visitor was sincerely freaked out; kept saying it was “evil.”  Go figure.
    At any rate, we live downtown on Market Street and think Cerný is a marvelous addition to the neighborhood.

–Ed & B.J. Skinner

Ed and B.J. Skinner have named their black squirrel Černý (black in Czech). They report that he has become progressively bolder over the last few months and now will readily take the peanuts directly that we used to leave outside. “Yes, I’m pretty sure a committed naturalist would be appalled at hand-feeding, but it’s really hard to resist that smile,” says B.J.


When I was a teenager in the late 1970s, my family lived in Landover Hills. We had a hickory nut tree in our yard that a black squirrel used to drop nuts and shells down on the two Dachshunds we had at the time. We would watch him and the other squirrels all the time from our porch. We really missed him and the other squirrels when we moved to Marlton.

–John Jones

My husband and I live in a wooded area in Dunkirk, and we almost always have a black squirrel or two around. In fact, we’ve had black squirrels here for many years. Sometimes, especially in summer, they’ll take off for parts unknown, but they make sure to return for free food (birdseed) in the winter.
    Thank you for putting out a great newspaper every week.

–Faye Graff

My wife feeds two black squirrels in our back yard in Apple Greene in Dunkirk for the last six months. They show up everyday.

–Martin Burless

I enjoyed your article on black squirrels. This was often a topic of discussion at the dinner table. My dad, who grew up in Wisconsin, would say it was a sign of good luck if  you saw a black squirrel. We considered ourselves very lucky to live in Kensington.
     In my high school years, we had many black squirrels running in the Rock Creek Hills neighborhood. I was in the area recently and saw two black squirrels on Beach Drive along the bike path. I made a mental note of this because I have only seen a few black squirrels while living in Pasadena the last 10 years.
    I currently reside in Riva and have not observed any black squirrels.
    I have had many fox and deer sightings in the back yard. I purchased a seed bell to hang outside for the  furry friends. Maybe I will be fortunate to have a black squirrel sighting and bring good luck to my new dwelling.
    May the new year bring you good health and a special vision of a black squirrel gathering.

–Catherine Schaaf

I live in the neighborhood behind Heroes Pub in West Annapolis, and there are probably a half-dozen black squirrels  around our house. I’ve noticed them the four years that I’ve lived here.
    I enjoy reading your newspaper each week.

–Dave

I live on the Eastport peninsula and have seen one black squirrel three times or three black squirrels once each. Each time, the squirrel was alone, once in my little backyard, where I feed birds and, thereby, squirrels; once in a large lot where boats park in sailing weather closer to the Maritime Museum; once in a large yard around the corner from my house. Each one looked healthy and had a very shiny black coat.

–Elliot Abhau

I enjoyed your article on black squirrels in the January 12 issue of the magazine. I thought it might interest you to know that the town of Cheverly has a large and apparently thriving population of black squirrels. In fact, it is rare to see a gray squirrel in the township. Cheverly is close to D.C. and College Park; perhaps this population is descendant from those introduced at the zoo from Canada. It would be interesting to do some genetic tests to determine if in fact these populations spread from that initial introduction or if they are naturally occurring populations that have somehow survived in spite of the general dominance of our common gray squirrel.
    Thank you for your magazine. I remain a loyal reader.

–Egan O’Brien

You want to see black squirrels come up to my house in Fairhaven. I feed them. I’ve got about 10.

–Barbi Shields

Seen Any White Squirrels?

What do you make of this critter I ­spotted in Minneapolis in December?

–Sal Lauria

White and black squirrels have one thing in common, they are both color phases of the American gray squirrel.
    They are rare genetic color variations, though just how rare is open to interpretation. The black variety is reported at 1:10,000. The white even more unusual, though that may be because of predation since they are so much more visible to hawks, owls and foxes.
    There are two types of white squirrels. Leucistic types occur because of a mutated gene (like the black squirrel) and can include blond and tan-colored squirrels. These have dark eyes. Albino squirrels are white with pink eyes because they lack any kind of color pigmentation.
    A number of cities in the U.S. boast populations of white squirrels: Olney, IL; Brevard, NC; Marionville, MO; and Kenton, TN among others. Most populations number up to 100 or so, but Brevard claims to have more than 1,000 within its three square miles of city limits.
    All of these concentrated populations of the color mutations are protected and encouraged by the citizens and have become tourist attractions in many cases.
    I have only seen a few blacks and one white in Maryland, though there may well be more in specific locations.

–Dennis Doyle

Black squirrels once were common in America before European migration

Peering out the front window with my first cup of coffee this morning, I was rewarded with the sight of at least a half dozen squirrels cavorting on my snow-covered lawn, running up and down the trees, chasing each other and creating a maelstrom of snow powder and furry activity.
    One of the frisking rascals, I noticed with surprise, was melanistic, a black phase of our common gray squirrel. Though fairly rare (one in 10,000) these days, the jet-black variety is a handsome mutation and jogged some interesting facts loose in my memory.
    Winter storm warnings of about two inches of snow had been choking the airwaves. Despite having been born and raised around the snow-bound Great Lakes and immunized to such hysterics, I did begin to feel concern for the neighborhood critters. Which is why I had piled an ample supply of corn and seeds under the sheltering hull of my trailered skiff for the squirrels and birds.
    This, of course, made my yard quite a gathering place for local wildlife, including the black squirrel (which, I later found, regularly lives about a block away). Black squirrels, I also discovered, were much more common in America and perhaps even dominant in many large areas before Europeans began migrating to North America.
    Heavily forested with mature hardwoods, the dense canopy of the pre-settlement forests was not readily penetrated by sunlight. Dim light provided an advantage to the darker coloration of the melanistic squirrel variety. They were not as visible as the grays were to the many owls and hawks that were their principle predators.
    Agricultural, however, soon changed that. Clearing the forests to provide for shelter, fuel, farming and livestock likely left the darker-colored squirrels more visible in the now semi-forested areas. Since black offspring are common only when both parent squirrels are black (the black gene being recessive), the black variant began to give way to the gray as the dominant squirrel variety.
    Today the gray is far more common throughout their ranges. But exceptions remain. When I arrived in this area to work for the Department of Agriculture, I lived in Washington, D.C., where I was surprised to note a large number of black squirrels in the parks surrounding DuPont Circle and the Executive Office Building grounds. I distinctly recall one female, quite friendly, that lived near my apartment and sported a tiny rhinestone collar.
    It turned out that the National Zoo had imported 18 black squirrels from Canada (where they remained relatively common) during Teddy Roosevelt’s administration (1901-1909). They were released on zoo grounds, quickly became acclimated, then spread throughout the city, which had previously lacked any appreciable squirrel population.
    Today, Maryland (at College Park and Joppatowne), Kansas, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Pennsylvania, among other states, are noted as having populations or concentrations of black squirrels. Their exact source is undetermined or at least undocumented. More I don’t know, just as I don’t know how this one came to my yard.


Seen any black squirrels? Tell us where and when: editor@bayweekly.com.
 

Snowbirds

Their winter nutrition is worth your money

Set up a feeder, and you’ll have the energetic company of snowbirds that, like you, aren’t driven south by January’s black-and-white chilly minimalism.
    Holly-berry red male and Dior-cloaked russet females add color and conflict, as each pecks off others of its own sex. The cold first weekend of January, scattered black oil sunflower seed brought a battery of six Cardinals into view.
    Yellow-throated sparrows came out in abundance, too. This time of year their plumage suits another ball team of my extreme youth: the St. Louis Browns. Would that I’d also get the Browns’ current incarnation, as Baltimore’s Orioles. No such luck. What the sparrows lack in color they make up in energy, both in their little foraging dance and in their flurry against any other sparrow that dared to peck beside them.
    Though neither of those species likes to hang on a feeder, others do.
    Each fill-up makes me a betting woman, booking either the chickadee or tufted titmouse as first arrival. These saucy little birds could dot your eye if you don’t get out of their way quick enough. Sooner or later, a few gold and house finches show up, neither wearing much of their distinctive yellow or red-tint colors this time of year.
    Now and again I’ll also get some acrobats: the strutting wrens, climbing brown creepers and downward-walking white-breasted nuthatches.
    Other woodpeckers come, too. Ms Hairy Woodpecker — her sex is my assumption as she has no red patch — scouts the nearby tree, a blue atlas cedar, for insects and sap before making a hop to the feeder. A bigger treat still is the red-bellied woodpecker whose name seems to me so unsuitable that I call him the red-necked woodpecker. Outsized for the cylindrical feeder, the big bird makes a comically ungainly attachment.
    As winter continues, other birds will visit, in more species, colors and antics.
    Birds, of course, aren’t my only feeder company.
    Omnipresent are Mr. and Mrs. Squirrel and often their cousins. Their voracious appetites and indomitable cleverness control my choice of feeder. They’ve destroyed three niger seed feeders of two sorts, plastic and mesh, and no suet feeder is safe among them. My squirrels are gray. I have to travel to Deale to see a black squirrel, the subject of this week’s Sporting Life.
    Their winter nutrition is worth my money. I help them survive; they give me a great show. As a bonus, early summer sunflowers will sprout from seed they missed.

P.S. The Bay Gardener remind us to provide water for the birds and dehydration is a great factor in overwinter deaths.

Scout lures wood ducks to Franklin Point State Park

Wood ducks are swamp-loving birds, so Shady Side, with its historical nickname The Great Swamp, ought to be the kind of place they’d like. All the more so Franklin Point State Park, 477 acres of wood and waterfront on the Shady Side Peninsula, where humans are welcome but not common.
    Wood ducks are welcome, too. To add curb appeal to the park, Boy Scout Reggie Scerbo, 18, of West River, has built and installed seven nesting boxes that satisfy the requirements of the picky and distinctive species.
    The medium-size dabblers have heads shaped like helmets and thick, upright tails. The males stand out like brilliantly colored harlequins. Less visible are the clawed toes that enable them to climb trees to nest in cavities. Lacking trees, they settle for nesting boxes built to just the right specifications.
    “The entrance hole had to face the water, regardless of compass direction,” Scerbo explained. “The height from the ground had to be about six feet, with an oval hole with a diameter of three by four inches. It is also important to put bedding inside the boxes, since wood ducks rely on the rotten wood that would be in a dead or dying tree. A predator guard is also important to keep out snakes, raccoons and other predators.”  
    Reproductive survival is low as the newly hatched ducklings are driven by instinct to flop out of the nest and follow their mother to the water. Nearly 90 percent of wood ducklings die within the first two weeks, mostly due to predation, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program. The vulnerable species was hunted nearly to extinction a century ago.
    Now humans are helping the species recover.
    Scerbo’s box is one of about 1,800 on Maryland public lands, from which some 8,000 chicks were anticipated in 2016.
    The Maryland Wood Duck Initiative recruits volunteers like Scerbo, offering training, site review and box location help as well as providing materials — cypress for the boxes and street sign poles for the supports.
    “Reggie figured out how to make it happen,” said West/Rhode Riverkeeper Jeff Holland. “He worked with experts from the Maryland Wood Duck Initiative to get technical support, cleared the location with the Maryland Park Service and got the help of the Scouts of Troop 249 of Edgewater in assembling and putting in the right place.”
    The ducks helped Scerbo earn the rank of Eagle Scout.
    “We expect a wonderful impact on resurgence of this species in our habitat,” Holland said.

They’ll keep us company till the osprey return

Right on time, tundra swans
have dropped from the skies over Chesapeake Country like giant snowflakes. They are big birds, weighing 20 pounds or so in maturity with a six-foot wingspan.
    About December 1, perhaps I heard their raucous cries cutting through the dark of night. Four or five days later on Fairhaven pond, I saw a pair of white birds so big that they couldn’t have been gulls. December 10 the evidence was incontrovertible: a pair flapping over the pond, a couple pair more paddling through the water, skirting the skin of ice.
    That’s modern swan time; used to be they’d arrive reliably for Veterans Day, just as the osprey arrive reliably for St. Patrick’s Day.
    Tundra swans are creatures of cold weather, but the freeze in their Canadian nesting grounds sends them south in search of food. They come as families, parents and a cygnet or two, only four months old and making this two-month flight of thousands of miles from above the Arctic Circle. The big birds fly at about 50mph; they follow the freeze south through Canada, feeling along the way.
    The Chesapeake is a historic wintering spot, and they’ll stay with us from now until earliest spring. So you’ve lots of opportunity to meet them.
    See their loose Vs passing overhead, hear their bark and spy the huge birds close up as small flocks float on Bay marsh ponds and coves, long necks stretched to the muddy bottoms to harvest grasses, clams and other small mollusks. Long-distance flying is hard, hungry work, so it may take a while before those elegant, long necks rise to show you the species-signature black beak.

Why are pelicans still hanging around the Bay so late in the year?

Brown pelicans have become summer residents hereabouts, nesting on Smith and Holland islands in the southern Bay when the water is warm and fish are plentiful. This late fall, however, the big-billed birds have been sighted as far north as Ft. Smallwood Park and Ft. Armistead Park near Baltimore.
    “Seeing them that far north in the Bay in November is notable,” says David Brinker of Maryland Department of Natural Resources. “I don’t remember observations like this in years past.”
    As for explanation, Brinker explains that last month was warm “so the waters of the Bay don’t seem to be cooling as fast as they generally do. This means that fish are more active than usual, so the pelicans can still find food easily. So they’re sticking around longer than normal.”
    In a typical year, pelicans start migrating south in late October or early November. Leaving Maryland, most pelicans end up in Florida or the Caribbean islands for the winter. Some go as far south as the northern part of South America.
    In the Chesapeake, pelicans nearly disappeared in the 1960s and 1970s because the pesticide DDT weakened their eggs. They didn’t return until 1987.
    Now, Brinker says, “We have somewhere between one to two thousand breeding pairs of pelicans every summer. I think part of the reason we’ve had this great expansion of birds is that they’ve discovered the great resource of the Bay ecosystem, especially the menhaden.”
    Odder still, a small flock of white pelicans winters at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the Eastern Shore.
    “Thirty to 50 birds have been spending their winters there for the past five or so years,” Brinker said.
    White pelicans spend their summers in the Midwest and west, nesting in freshwater wetlands, then typically wintering along the southern coasts of the U.S. and Mexico.

Once upon a time …

Step into the ancient Chesapeake, and you could have become a crocodile’s dinner. So it’s a good thing all those crocodiles were creature of the Miocene epoch (23 to five million years ago), gone long before Homo sapiens discovered the modern Chesapeake.
    Their remains, however, are still here, along the Calvert Cliffs, as well as in coastal states down to Florida.
    There avid fossil collector George Klein, of Chapel Hill, NC, got to know these ancient crocodiles, called ­Thecachampsa, whose length may have approached 30 feet. He’s gotten to know them in such detail — down to each of the 19 bones that compose their skulls, excluding the lower jaw — that he’s published a book on the beasts and their comparison to living American alligators.
    His book, published in digital and hard copies by Calvert Marine Museum, is of necessity skeletal, as bony fossils are all our two species of large crocodiles — Thecachampsa sericodon and Thecachampsa antiquus — left behind. Skeletal Anatomy of Alligator and Comparison with Thecachampsa is the kind of book you’d read as a fossil collector seeking to identify your finds.
    “I expect that this work will inspire on several fronts and further our understanding of extinct alligators and crocodiles by bringing new finds to light,” says Dr. Stephen Godfrey, curator of paleontology at the museum — and sponsor of its Fossil Club.
    That’s where you’d go to get to know crocodiles, great white sharks and many other ancient denizens of the oceanic pre-Chesapeake. You’d also meet human enthusiasts near and far as the club works with fossil collectors all over the world to advance the field of paleontology and grow the museum’s collection.
    Or you could wait a while and maybe see the real thing.
    “Although crocodilians have not inhabited northeastern North America in several million years, as global climates warm,” writes Godfrey, “perhaps they will someday re-inhabit coastal Maryland.”
    Take a look at all that remains of Thecachampsa at www.calvertmarinemuseum.com/276/CMM-Publications.

Santa down the chimney, pests at the door

To give Santa a friendly welcome, have your chimney swept before he slides down on Christmas Eve.
    Other seasonal visitors to your home are likely to evoke less hospitable greetings. For as the chill comes on, creatures come in. Mice, for example. And the creatures that like to eat mice.
    There’s not much you can do to keep out a determined mouse. Mice can squeeze through the smallest of openings, gaps you never imagined and will likely never find. They’ll be happily active in the warmth of your home and will likely set up housekeeping before you notice them. Even if one doesn’t run over your foot, there will be signs: chewed linens in tightly packed drawers and, alas, tiny mouse turds.
    How to get rid of them?
    If your cats are anything like mine, don’t depend on them. After no luck with live traps, we’ve had to resort to spring traps. The Bay Gardener advises baiting the trap with sunflower seeds attached with a drop of glue from a glue gun.
    Winged invaders are trying to get in, too.
    Stinkbugs are much reduced by cold winters since the memorable invasion of 2011, when they came by the thousands. They derive their name from the foul odor they release when squeezed. Mostly harmless — though they do bite — they are a determined nuisance.
    Box elder bugs are also out and wanting in this time of year. With red bodies and black wings, they’re a prettier bug than the stink bug. They get their name from their favorite food, the juices of the female box elder tree, which may be covered with the bugs in early summer. Now, they want warmth. But if they come in, they’ll most likely have given up the ghost before Santa’s arrival.

DNR considers protections from bowfishers

Like osprey, cownose rays have abandoned Chesapeake Country for warmer climates. But they’ll be back late spring, finning through our waters to eat, mate and give birth. Baby rays are born, not hatched like their marine cousins, the skates.
    Does their proliferation endanger the recovery of our native oyster, both in the wild and in aquaculture operations?
    That’s been their rep in recent years, for favorite ray foods are oysters and clams.
    “Bay watermen and oyster farmers contend the creatures are threatening their livelihoods,” Rona Kobell reports for the Bay Journal. “An oft-cited 2007 study in the prestigious journal Science said the Atlantic ray population had ballooned because of declines in sharks, their chief predators. In the Bay, hordes of rays were blamed for depleting Bay oysters.”
    How to control them?
    Rays aren’t a high prestige catch in the Chesapeake. Snagged on a line, they give anglers a good fight. But then what are you going to do with a ray? Neither ray nor skate does much as a food fish in America, though both are considered fine fare in France.
    Bowfishers, on the other hand, have made rays a prime target, with tournaments highly popular.
    So popular that, Kobell writes, “biologists have grown concerned about the impacts of such unlimited carnage, noting that rays produce one pup a year and are slow to mature.
    “In the spring of 2015, animal rights groups began filming the tournaments to publicize the slaughter of rays, attracting local television coverage. The groups also began to pressure the governors of both states to stop the tournaments.
    “Advocates for protecting rays gained support earlier this year, when a new study contradicted the 2007 one and found they are not to blame for declines in oyster populations.”
    Now the kite-shaped creatures may be getting a little love.
    “Maryland Department of Natural Resources last month notified fishing groups that it was considering declaring the cownose ray a species “in need of conservation” and setting some first-ever harvest limits to protect them,” Kobell writes. “Last week, DNR called — quietly — for public comment on whether to place a limited ban on the controversial staging of bowfishing tournaments to slaughter the rays.
    What will happen next? That’s a story in progress.