In Eastern Ontario turkey vultures arrived in 1969. We didn’t know what these strange birds were. Thinking it was a goose, my room-mate from Toronto shot one. That was my one up-close encounter with this spectacularly ugly bird. Its beak was strange. I could see through it: a big hole for nostrils with what must have been scenting equipment lying below the holes. But the consistency of the beak was even stranger. It reminded me a great deal of my thumb nail, flexible and not very thick.

A Canada Goose would be a more formidable predator than this critter.

While commuting to Smiths Falls for my first teaching job I began to pay attention to these ungainly birds after I noticed how a pair had figured out Hwy. 15 traffic.  A tasty bit of carrion lay on the pavement near the centre line on an open section of road.  These two evidently had decided that it wasn’t worth the effort to fly away from their feast every time a car came by.  They simply stepped across the centre line to the other lane and waited for me to pass.  That was pretty smart.

Turkey vultures always loved the buildings on the farm, especially the tall Victorian house jutting up from the side of the hill.  I gradually realized that the expert sail planers were using the air currents for altitude.  A couple of loops around the roof of the brick house on a hot day and the bird would be off on his afternoon glide.  The lazy birds love to glide, and put considerable intelligence into perfecting their craft.

Many years later I was forced to abandon the barn on the property when the foundation collapsed but the timbers still held the thing in place a few feet downhill from its original position. It was too dangerous to enter. Expecting a quiet abode due to the diminished activity, a pair of ravens spent the late winter building a nest somewhere on the second floor, but then they abandoned it because I persisted in mowing the lawn around the barn. A family of vultures sat on the peak of the smooth metal roof of the barn and pondered these developments. Eventually they decided that my wife and I were harmless, though they made themselves scarce if strangers came around.

So for the last three years we’ve gotten to know a group of five turkey vultures. It’s clear their evolutionary advantage is their brain power. They recognize human faces. They observe. One of the summers I conducted trench warfare with the local raccoon population over a stand of sweet corn in my garden. After I had live-trapped and euthanized sixteen raccoons and had harvested a mere three dozen ears of corn, I gave up. By that time the vultures had learned that if I started my UTV and drove it down the hill to the garden, game was afoot. They’d be circling my carcass-dumping ground in a distant field by the time I got there.

Waking up in the morning is a chore for turkey vultures. The sun gradually thaws them out and they extend their wings a little bit and they seem to freeze there. Then the wings go out a little further to let the dew dry off. Much later, someone will try a tentative flap or two. Eventually one will catch a breeze and lift off the peak of the barn.

Then one morning I watched a sleepy vulture put a foot wrong and begin to slide down the long, smooth slope of the roof. He didn’t panic and flap, just controlled his slide, gained speed, and gently lifted off in a glide. From then on more and more of them tried this approach at the first hint of a breeze in the morning. They seemed to get a big kick out of their playground slide.

This year it was clear that someone was nesting in the barn, rather than merely using it as a roost. That fact slipped my mind when I needed a trailer wheel from the abandoned barn, so I wiggled through a collapsing door, hopped four feet across a chasm onto the rickety second floor, and with some trepidation located the trailer wheel. I heard a scuffle behind me and turned around to see a large turkey vulture frantically trying to fly straight up and over a beam 14′ in the air, and then make her way across two other similar beams and down through the open door to the other bay of the barn.

Turkey vultures don’t look all that big when they’re 200′ in the air. Inside an empty hay mow, trying to escape, the same bird is huge.

After the insult to his mate, the largest of the birds circled me steadily whenever I was outside the house. Then I guess he forgave me.

A couple of months later the barn fell down. It was far from sudden. At first it sounded like a heavily-loaded farm wagon being towed down the paved hill road, over bumps, but with no wheels. This went on for about fifteen minutes, amid a great cloud of dust. It had been very dry. The lime mortar in one section of the wall must have failed and the wall fell apart.

The vultures were quite perturbed about this noisy re-location of their home, but they continued to perch on the collapsed roof for several days, then one by one they went away. Except for one. She maintained a vigil over her lost nest for two weeks to the day. Others came back to visit her, but I don’t think she left to feed or drink, though I wasn’t watching all of the time. And then she was gone.

I should mention in conclusion that I detest pigeons because of their filthy habits.  Our turkey vultures were very tidy birds:  there were no streaks on the steel of the barn roof, even after years of summer roosting.  As neighbours they were polite and clean.  While up close they were far from beautiful, when aloft they moved with grace and elegance.

Not bad neighbours at all.

Skunks

February 19, 2016

This morning a Quora contributor asked “Is a skunk good for anything?”  I felt compelled to respond:

A healthy skunk is a fine garden companion in that it has a great appetite for grubs, insects, small rodents, and little desire to destroy vegetables.

Skunks have beautiful pelts. In the 1930’s “Alaskan Sable” was one of the most fashionable coats. Truth in manufacturing legislation put an end to that fad: nobody wanted to be known to wear a “skunk” coat.

At the height of the depression my grandfather dug out a skunk den and harvested the hides to buy warm winter clothes for his family. In Cananda agricultural products were almost worthless during the dirty 1930’s, but fur prices remained high.

Skunks have many PR problems, though. Most notably, most tend to spray when rattled by dogs, loud noises, passing tractors, or inquisitive seniors peeking into their dens. During a local infestation of Japanese beetles many home owners discovered their lawns methodically torn up by these nocturnal foragers.

Rabies is the scourge which wipes out skunk populations as the virus is an aerosol, spreading by air to the eye membranes of all members of a hibernating colony, be they bats, racoons, or skunks.

Skunks have even less road sense than raccoons, so on moist summer nights when the frogs are migrating, passing cars take a fearsome toll.

Some years ago we had a large skunk on the property. He lived in a pile of rails along a fence row, peaceably interacted with the wolves and raccoons, and somehow avoided encounters with our dog. Trouble was I needed to mow around the little trees planted in the field next to his rail pile, and he was a little incontinent when a tractor went by. Just a little. So every three weeks the poor skunk would have a fume-filled morning.

Then one day a bus load of tree huggers dismounted in our yard for a tour of the woodlot. After several hours confined to the coach, they had scattered like cats when released. I used a bullhorn to round them up, instructing them to proceed west until they smelled the skunk, then to turn south and follow the path to the woodlot. One elderly but very alert gentleman in dress shirt, shorts and bare feet made a beeline for the pile of cedar rails and peered in, looking for its occupant. This was too much for the poor skunk. Fragrant, but unchastened, the gentleman rejoined the group.

That summer during a pitched battle with local raccoons over several rows of sweet corn in the garden, I captured the skunk a couple of times in live traps. Most of the time a tarp over the metal frame would keep him calm enough that I could release him, but for some reason one day I delayed the release and felt compelled to give him a drink of water against the sunny day. This didn’t go so well and we both stumbled back to our respective dens in embarrassment. After that he avoided the garden.

One spring years ago we needed a supply teacher for a week at our school and my colleague Elizabeth Docker had a sister visiting who was willing to help out.  Margaret had just completed her  PHD in biology at the University of Guelph.

At the time I was writing a young-adult science fiction novel, and when I discovered our new English teacher specialized in fish, our talk drifted to the semester Margaret and her classmates made salmon fry grow very large by manually destroying the gene in the egg which limits growth.

They used the tiniest pipette they could find, heated it in a bunsen burner until it melted, then twisted it apart until a tiny shard of glass protruded.  With an electron microscope they could carve away at fertilized salmon eggs with this improvised tool and actually damage individual genes.  Apparently the growth-regulating gene is easy to find and shut off.

The salmon fry which hatched grew really big, about 30 times the regular size.

In further research I read a newspaper account of a similar study in New Zealand which ended, not when the test specimens hit 750 kg and took on a scary green hue and huge lumps on their skulls, but when the scientists doing the work realized the things were fertile.

Current news stories have a Canadian aquaculture company raising Chinook salmon with an eel chromosome in fresh-water tanks inland in Panama, but also another company raising double-sized Atlantic salmon in saltwater pens in Nova Scotia.

My friend Dr. Martin Mallet is a geneticist and president of the New Brunswick Shellfish Grower’s Association, so I emailed him an open-ended question on the topic.

So, Dr. Mallet, what do you think?

Martin:  My understanding is that these new GMO salmon are to be sterile females only (though I suppose there must be fertile broodstock somewhere).  

Regardless, my biggest beef with this is not so much with the technology itself as with the production and economic system it embodies. I do not want to see the mistakes of intensive agriculture repeated at sea.

Here’s a similar example: 

Total North American cattle inventory in 2014 was about 100 million head. Peak Buffalo population in North America before we exterminated them? about 100 million. 

So instead of responsibly managing a wild resource, we’ve come up with our own pathetic approximation, a heavily subsidized, unsustainable and polluting one at that. 

How is this different from your oyster operation?  Is it not a feedlot as well?

Martin:  Hardly. We don’t feed the oysters anything once they’re out to sea, so we’re not relying on non-renewable resources for our production, with the exception of gas for the boats and plastic for the grow-out bags and buoys. I’ve not done the formal calculations but I estimate that those costs are largely offset by the carbon oysters capture in their shells. Oyster abundance is historically low, so we’re contributing to restoring some of the lost ecosystem function by adding to the oyster biomass in our bay, with many of the same advantages as natural reefs (filtering capacity, habitat for small fish and crustacean etc..). On top of that, cultured oysters spawn and their offspring are able to colonize available habitat so are much more likely to contribute to wild stocks rather than harm them.

I would argue that the gap between farmed and wild is much much smaller in shellfish culture than in almost any other food production system. If I believed I was doing harm, I wouldn’t be doing it.

Of course, that doesn’t guarantee I’m not doing harm.

My other learned friend Roslyn Dakin, an evolutionary biologist, is completing post-doctorate research on hummingbird flight at the University of British Columbia.

Dr.  Dakin, what’s the view on genetically modified salmon from the west coast?

I like what Martin has to say. I don’t think there’s anything inherently or necessarily bad about genetically modified fish. Same goes with genetically modified plant crops. I’m all for both, if they would solve problems that result from having to fuel so many humans. The classic example is artificial selection – every domesticated animal and plant is the result of genetic modification by many generations of breeders. The question is, do we have the right incentives and regulations to avoid harm by a GM fish industry?

It’s also interesting that just the idea of genetically modified whatever can be so horrifying. The “ick” factor increases the closer you get to us on the evolutionary tree. It’s not hard to sell a GM tomato. But will people buy GM chicken, or GM pork? Also interesting that people in the UK are particularly against genetic modification. Why?

But how about the view in your lab?

The one thing I know is a little bit of the work on wild salmon here showing that their temperature tolerance is remarkably well adapted to the exact natal stream to which they return in the Fraser.
The downside of this is that as the river warms the populations lower in the system will probably be wiped out.  No kidding.

I wonder if the eel-gene allows B.C. salmon to tolerate warmer water?

UPDATE:  9 December, 2015

Dear Rod,

It’s good to hear from you, and I have to say that I’m very surprised that you remembered our discussions after all these years.  I read your blog on GM salmon and, although some of the details are inaccurate (e.g., there is no way that one can manually destroy select genes of interest in salmon eggs while leaving others intact), I’m impressed that you remember the conversations.  I don’t even want to try to figure out how long ago that was!

I hope you’re enjoying retirement.

Best regards, 

Margaret

Margaret F. Docker, Associate Professor

Department of Biological Sciences

University of Manitoba

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Oops!  I guess it’s as my friend Robert Ewart says: my memory is rather flexible on the details when a story is at stake.  Now Rob will  undoubtedly chime up with a correction of this quotation from the dimmest echoes  of last Sunday’s dinner.

 

Toad goes biblical on Bet.

September 21, 2014

This afternoon my wife stepped out the back door with a steaming plate of sockeye Alfredo only to have a tree toad fall ten feet off the roof and hit the heap of penne noodles dead centre. No damage to the toad from the hot airbag, apparently, though he took some time to contemplate his adventure before moving on.

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Bear!

May 12, 2014

Gee, the Canadiens – Bruins game is about to come on. I hope this isn’t an omen.

Black Bear

This evening I looked up while walking to the garage and there it was, placidly grazing on grass in a wet spot in the field, happy as a clam. It was upwind of me and didn’t seem to have a care in the world, though it moved very quickly when startled by a noise on the road on one occasion.

After a long while it made its way over the fence and into the neighbour’s quarry at the top of the drumlin.

This was a first. Bear spray is now on the shopping list and night-time perambulations will require caution for a while.

Regarding the omen: my wife pointed out that this bruin went away, so maybe things are now looking better for the Canadiens. We’ll see.

7:43. Les Habs just scored. Bet called from the kitchen, “What did I tell you?”

UPDATE: 13 May, 8:13 a.m.

I examined the area of the field which had held such an attraction for the bruin last night. The grass didn’t amount to anything there, and it didn’t touch the ripe cranberries on the bushes nearby. But there were thousands of dandelion buds. Picking them one-by-one would produce the grazing action I watched from some distance away. The one I tried didn’t taste bad.

So our fierce, scary bruin was picking dandelions in the field.

But a dogwood growing along the fence likely wouldn’t share my Winny-the-Pooh treatment of this fellow. Apparently it’s mating season, so the torn bark on the bush might be a valentine to any sows in the vicinity.

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As the snow has retreated it’s been muddy for the last week in Eastern Ontario.

Over the years I have taught the various spaniels the “Wash your paws!” command, leading the dog of the day through the patch of clean snow nearest the door to clean her paws for drying inside the house. This morning for the first time in recent memory there was no snow for the procedure. On the other hand the dog had avoided the small puddle in the driveway and her paws weren’t all that bad when we arrived at the mat inside the front door.

Things are drying up a bit, at least temporarily. At this stage I truly dread the next big dump of snow.

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With the sap refusing to run without another freeze I decided to prune trees to fill in the time. Four acres of walnuts planted from seed in 2005 were first for the annual trim, then a row of thirty blight-resistant butternut hybrids planted in 2008, then a hundred butternuts from 2006. Twig borers regularly attack the butternuts, killing the leaders. The trees respond by shooting out lots of lateral branches and even suckers, effectively turning the butternut into a shrub, unless pruned.

Because the hybrids are a test plot owned by someone else I’ve been reluctant to prune them, but finally Rose gave permission last year and I had at the suckers and extra leaders. They look much better now and I fervently hope they don’t contact blight from the wounds, as so far I haven’t seen any blight on any of the planted butternuts.

Mind you, half of the 2007 butternut planting next to the woodlot are routinely stripped of their early leaves by a convocation of insects ranging from caterpillars to twig borers, but they simply grow new leaves and carry on. What’s more, every rutting buck who braves the wolves to explore the property stops to beat up on a butternut tree or two, tearing the fragile bark and snapping branches. Something about butternuts just seems to challenge bucks. Maybe the thick terminals on the branches look like antlers.

Speaking of things which look like antlers, (Wandering much this morning?) the handle-bar ends on a mountain bike can also provoke a buck. Back in my salad years I was racing a spaniel down the Clear Lake Road and turned at speed onto the Cataraqui Trail only to encounter head-on a large buck. Instantly he dropped his antlers for a fight. As I reluctantly closed the distance between us he thought better of it and abruptly sat down on the trail before leaping into the swamp and making his escape. By the time I had clawed the bike to a stop he was long gone. That was one very large buck, likely the twelve pointer who lived for years in the area.

If I have wandered this far I might as well go all of the way. The buck encounter wasn’t a patch on my friend Les’s session one Sunday morning on the Marina Road. Cell phone coverage at the Indian Lake Marina is spotty for some carriers so Les got into the habit of driving a golf cart out towards the county road when he needed to call Ottawa. His favourite calling spot was on a flat stretch adjoining a swamp, halfway between the lake and the road.

Les had likely picked up the paper at the mailboxes and stopped on the return trip this fine morning. He had no sooner shut off and taken out his phone when he heard a rapid series of slurps crossing the swamp. A doe raced out of the mud and across in front of his cart. Then he heard more slurps and a very large cat tore across the road after the deer!

The wide-eyed report of this sighting led to some skepticism at the marina and suggestions it was probably a wolf or fisher, so owner Wayne Wilson jumped into his Kubota and drove out to look for tracks. He returned assuring us that there were both deer tracks and very large cat tracks in the mud exactly where Les had said.

Emily in hot water

September 9, 2012

The afternoon buzzed its way along. Martin was in the wood shop with a trailer-load of pine to machine into baseboards for his house renovation. I think he had the shaper running at the time of the event.

Charlie was next door in his garage, the red Porsche half-up on the hoist, seats disassembled and scattered around the floor while he installed a roll bar.

Every light in both buildings was on and all doors were open. Of course.

That was when Emily the wolf finished her afternoon meal of ripe pears and trotted up across the yard, only to encounter her beloved Ranger, the bearer of dead squirrels and fish heads, and a strange human making loud noises in the building. She looked in, then continued on to the next building she hadn’t seen open before. So she stuck her head in for a look, satisfied herself that there was nothing of value to her there, and continued on out to a secure spot in the middle of the adjoining field.

Just then I happened to walk up the driveway to see Emily stage her trot-by of the artisans’ alley. I didn’t know it was she. The hairs on a wolf’s muzzle are a lot like a Monet painting: they show different colours at different distances and angles. Up close Emily didn’t seem to have any white on her muzzle at all. I assumed this was a new wolf, and a bit of a threat.

Prodded by my wife (“She’s not a pet. She’s a wild animal.”) and Martin (“There’ve been a whole raft of people killed by them down east!”) I reluctantly got the rifle and headed out into the field to deal with the rogue.

The wolf had lain down in the middle of the field behind the garage to sleep off the effects of all of those sugary pears. She looked up as I approached in the Ranger. From the accustomed line of sight I realized immediately that this was Emily, not a stranger. Still, she had crossed the line in alarming family and friend, so I had to take action.

From a hundred yards, offhand, I took careful aim with the rifle and shot … the dirt three feet to the right of Emily’s left paw. She bolted up, ran twenty yards, turned and looked at me: “What are you doing? Are you sure you want to do this?” I sent another 180 grain 30 calibre Emily’s way. Another direct hit on the spot three feet to the right of her left paw. This time she took the hint and galloped away, mouthing a vile imprecation back over her shoulder. Nothing can curse like an angry coyote.

But where was she to go? This was her field, her home. She has defended it against all comers for three years now.

The rifle again locked up and order restored, Martin took the Ranger with two oil drums of sawdust back to the pile, only to drive back with the barrels unemptied. Seems Emily had stood her ground against this interloper, sitting by the path and defying him to come any closer. Martin turned tail. He unlocked his fancy automatic shotgun, loaded up, and asked me to ride shotgun if I expected him to get rid of the sawdust he had generated over the afternoon.

Emily met us back around the sawdust pile, but acted less resentful when I spoke to her, even though I scolded her for her walk through the yard on a busy afternoon. Reassured that I was there, she retreated to the fence row where she peeked out at us from concealment. Martin dumped his sawdust without bloodshed.

Charlie’s reaction to Emily’s visit was visibly less aghast than Martin’s, but then Charlie grew up with dogs. He knows how they think. Martin seemed a little spooked by the large and overly familiar canine examining his woodworking project.

I hope Emily thinks it over and decides to leave off the lawn visits for a while. Otherwise I may have to improve my aim with the rifle.

Now I know what writers mean when they say that if you feed a wolf, it’s a death sentence for the wolf.

UPDATE:

It’s been two weeks since I educated Emily with the .300 Savage.  She’s become a good deal more discreet in her movements since.  A couple of days later she came upon us in the field but took herself to the other side and cover as soon as Cagney barked at her.  Emily’s still around, and still makes her visits to the orchard.  She’s just more careful with the scheduling now.  An old wolf can unlearn a dangerous habit, it seems.

FOOTNOTE: October 27, 2013

Emily’s been gone since early spring. We kept hoping she’d come back for the pears in the fall, but we haven’t seen her or any wolves, for that matter. I miss her. She was a good neighbour.