Black -chinned Hummingbird

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One of the joyous aspects of coming to the desert is that I know that I will be seeing Black –chinned hummingbirds again. This small emerald green-backed hummingbird of the west with no brilliant colors on his throat except a thin strip of iridescent purple bordering his black chin has to be one of my favorites. Because it is so difficult to see the rich deep purple band on the males I am always on the look out for it. I have a feeder just outside my east window and in the morning when the light is right I can usually glimpse a brilliant flash of deep purple.

This year the hummingbirds arrived in Abiquiu during the middle of April from Mexico, (or the Gulf coast) just a few days too early because we had a cold spell with temperatures in the low twenties, and one morning a blanket of snow covered the desert floor.

My neighbor found a dead male Black chinned hummingbird on his feeder early that winter morning. As soon as I heard this news I requested that the bird be brought to me, because I knew that hummingbirds have developed an ability to survive cold temperatures by drastically lowering their heartbeats and going into a state of torpor. Unfortunately this bird was dead having already been placed in a freezer.

Frequently, these birds can be revived if held in the palm of one’s hand; once movement is detected it is possible to feed them sugar water with an eye dropper by forcing open the birds’ beak and dribbling drops into the side of the hummingbird’s mouth. Be very careful if you do decide to do this because hummingbirds, like all birds, run the risk of choking. The fluid can kill them. Afterwards the bird can be placed in a small softly lined box to recover completely and then set free.

It is a good idea to put hummingbird feeders out about a week before the first Ruby  throated and Black –chinned hummingbirds arrive because there are so few natural sources for food available. Here in Abiquiu, I will be placing a feeder out by the beginning of the second week in April. Most folks are aware that hummingbird populations have been stabilized because so many people love to feed them.

These birds are strictly migratory wintering in Mexico or along the Gulf coast.

Female Black- chinned hummingbirds are larger than males and have brilliant green backs and pale whitish gray throats. Most females arrive later than the males.

Courtship displays begin soon afterwards with the males sky-diving around the females, flashing their neon throats, or hovering in front of their potential mates and flying back and forth in front of them. These behaviors are always accompanied by whirring sounds.

Hummingbird nests are extraordinary structures that are built by the females. They are shaped like tiny cups and made of grasses, plant fibers, spider webs, and lined with plant down. The outside of the nest is camouflaged with lichens, dead leaves or other debris. The female lays two tiny eggs that are incubated by her for two weeks. She feeds the nestlings by sticking her bill into their mouths and regurgitating tiny insects, nectar, and sugar water. The nestlings fledge at three weeks. The female has two broods a year.

Watching a Black- chinned hummingbird feed in natural surroundings is fun. To catch small insects the hummers may grab them in mid –air and sometimes take them from spider webs!

Black – chinned hummingbirds can be found in semi – arid country, river groves, suburbs, mountains and hills throughout the west. Unfortunately they are at risk because of climate change, so lets appreciate them while we still have them.

Postscript:

This will be my last entry before returning to Maine. I will be leaving on the Summer Solstice and be making a 4 -5 day trip. Just this month a hummingbird sat under the Fire Moon as I took the picture. It seems fitting that my last article would be about these wondrous little birds that I love so much….

Doves and More Doves

IMG_2852.JPGEurasian Collared Doves

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Lily B came to me almost 25 years ago. I had always wanted a bird but my ambivalence about caging had prevented me from acquiring an avian companion. My personal bias underwent a radical change when I read that African collared doves were imported into this country to parent exotic birds because they were such good parents, and after they grew too old they were set free to fend for themselves. A few small flocks survived this harsh treatment. The fact that they were considered to be “trash birds” distressed me deeply and when I discovered it was possible to acquire one of these doves for $5.00, I ordered one.

 

Lily B is a cream colored dove with an unusual pale lavender tint to his plump body. With penetrating red eyes and a throaty triple coo, Lily loves to sun bathe in the early morning sun, and is keenly interesting in cooking. He spends a fair amount of time in the kitchen, and prefers Havarti cheese as his daily snack. He roosts in hanging baskets.

 

When I came to Abiquiu Lily accompanied me (he has never been caged) and his melodious singing brought a close relative of his, the Eurasian Collared dove, to our bird feeding station.

 

The two are almost impossible to distinguish unless one listens carefully to their calls. African collared doves have a deep throated song, while Eurasian doves have a similar triple coo that lacks the rich tone. African collared doves can also occasionally be spotted in this area but sightings are quite rare, and it is usually the Eurasian collared doves that we see this time of year in pairs.

 

Like Lily, the Eurasian doves have buff colored, robust bodies, startling red eyes that look black from a distance, red legs, and a black ring that circles their necks in a horseshow shape leaving a gap at the throat. If you think that you have spotted an African collared dove listen to the call. If the triple coo is soft it is a Eurasian collared dove and if it is deep and resonant then you are listening to an African collared dove.

 

The Eurasian dove is native to Asia and was introduced into North America in the 1980’s. Presently this bird is found throughout the U.S. except (oddly) in the northeast. They forage on the ground for seeds and insects, and sometimes eat berries. Collared doves typically breed close to human habitation wherever food resources are abundant and there are trees for nesting. The males have a harsh two syllable territorial warning call. Both males and females sing and the female adopts the mating song of her mate. The male chooses the nesting area, the female decides upon the exact site. The male builds the nest. The female lays two white eggs in the casual stick – laden structure, and both parents sit on the eggs. Fledglings become independent within a month. Both parents feed the young regurgitated pigeon milk. Four to six broods a year are common in southern areas.

 

I have at least half a dozen pairs living here in the cottonwoods along the river and early in the morning there is a cacophony of musical coo- COO –coos and fluttering of wings as the birds land on the ground both inside and outside my house!

The “Uncommon” Sagebrush Lizard

 

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Above: Leo

One of the reasons I love living in the desert is because I share half the year with lizards. Although the sagebrush lizard is “common” in that it can be found in most western states, I have had a couple of uncommon experiences with them.

The first occurred last summer after I moved into a (former) rental. One day about a week after we moved in a sagebrush lizard appeared in between the slats of the screen door on the inside. Had he been living in the house before we arrived? Each day he appeared in the late morning, seemingly from nowhere, to bask on the stone windowsill inside the house. He spent most afternoons on the inside of the screen door somewhat hidden behind its slats. A house lizard has come to live with us, I thought, with pleasure. I’ll call him Shadow.

My Chihuahuas were astonished by this small creature that snapped up ants, and moved at lightening speed from one end of the house to the other! Shadow befriended Hope and Lucy tolerating their curiosity when they nudged him on his stony plateau. Lily B, my dove kept a sharp eye on him too, sometimes flying down to inspect the floor after Shadow streaked by.

Whenever I saw the lizard during the day I would speak to him telling him how happy I was that he joined our little family. During our “conversations” Shadow peered me with bright almond shaped eyes, cocking his head from side to side and behaving as if he understood what I was saying. Perhaps he did. He certainly responded to my attention.

Researching Sagebrush lizards I soon learned that males had two bright iridescent cobalt patches on their undersides. When I went outside to peer at Shadow clinging to the screen from the inside, I saw the astonishing blue patches. Shadow was a male.

Alas, three short weeks later, the property manager who neglected to respond to my warning, twice, crushed Shadow in the door killing him instantly. I was totally bereft. After his death even the female lizard that unexpectedly bowed to me as I buried Shadow outdoors under his window made me sad… Later, I wondered if the little female had been Shadow’s mate because she stayed around the house and often basked in the same window that Shadow did (only on the outside) until the cool temperatures and a sun slipping low on the horizon sent her into hibernation in October.

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Above: Shadow on the inside of the screen

It was a steamy April afternoon four months later when I went out the back door of our little river house (having moved in February) to sit and to shell some Redbud pods.

When I sat down on a little wooden bench near the door a Sagebrush lizard appeared out of one of the wooden slats of a square slatted plank that served as a bottom step. I held my breath as I looked for blue patches and saw none. But he seemed like a male. When the lizard started bowing to me I stood up and bowed back while calling to him (?) softly. The lizard regarded me with one beady eye. “I’m glad to meet you” I said, delighted that my voice didn’t scare him. I had a sudden pure burst of joy as he and I conversed, me with words, him by using his body to respond by bowing to me after I spoke!

I recalled the little female who had made this apparently formal bowing gesture towards me as I buried Shadow under the window with some Prairie sage last fall…

This was the second lizard I had met that liked wooden slats I thought to myself, surprised by the apparent coincidence. I decided to bring him some water. After making sure he had plenty of stones to reach into shallow the water-dish, I bid him good day. “Please stay,” I finished, before rounding the house.

When I lay down to take a nap that afternoon a name popped into my head “Leo” I heard myself say. Perfect!

Later that afternoon I went out to see Leo, and sure enough, he was still basking in the sun. I saw a flash of blue although he disappeared when I took a picture. He’s going to stay, I thought, and believed it.

The next morning when I came around the corner there was Leo basking on one of the slats. “Hi Leo” I spoke softly. In truth I had no idea if this lizard was male or female (because a female could have pale blue patches too in some cases) and at that moment I didn’t care. I returned to the house for my camera and snapped a picture. Suddenly, A smaller lizard appeared out of the out of one of the slats and Leo bowed to the little lizard first, and then turned to bow to me! Absurdly happy but still stunned, I stood there gaping. I named the smaller lizard Liza.

Bursts of pure joy flooded me. Just knowing that I might have two lizards moving into this outside space was enough. My gratitude overflowed because their presence was also a healing experience that allowed me to fall in love with Sagebrush lizards again.

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Above: Liza and Leo – from left to right

Working notes:

After this second lizard experience occurred I did more in depth research on Sagebrush lizards, a common species throughout the Southwest. I was fascinated by the bowing behavior and wondered if it might be part of the sagebrush mating ritual. Sure enough, head bobbing (a single bob) and shuddering (repeated head bobbing) are part of the male’s mating behavior towards a female. (A male might do head bobbing 24 – 60 times an hour while courtship is in progress). Males are territorial and mate with more female, although they have a preference for certain females and court them frequently. Lizards also use chemical and visual cues to select a mate. The brilliant blue patches on the undersides of the male attract the females, and sometimes the female rejects a male suitor for unknown reasons. After the male impregnates one female she develops an orange belly indicating that she is carrying eggs. Her mate then moves on to another chosen female in his territory. Mating usually takes place in May or June, and one or two clutches of 2 -10 eggs are laid about an inch underneath the base of sagebrush in June or July. Incubation lasts for 40 plus days and sometimes the young appear as early as late July. I saw many very small Sagebrush lizards last August.

Sagebrush lizards are very eco – friendly eating ants, beetles, termites, grasshoppers, spiders and scorpions.

The males are bigger than the females.

Lizards are diurnal and are most active in the late morning and afternoon. They are fond of open spaces where they can bask in the sun, but are never far from some form of protection. Roadrunners love to eat them and many other animals and birds like the badger, snake, and hawk do too. If fortunate, a Sagebrush lizard will live about four years in the wild.

Although fascinating from a natural history perspective none of this information explains why any Sagebrush lizard would spend time “bowing” to me!

Silver Maidens of the Garden

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Above: big sage drying – picked middle of March 2017

Artemisia is a large genus of plants that appears in one form or another in gardens or in the wild throughout the U.S. It grows in temperate regions of both hemispheres. I first fell in love with Artemisia in Italy where I gathered large fragrant bouquets of wild wormwood from the hills of Assisi and brought them back to perfume my room. When I moved to Andover I planted the same species and within a couples of years I had huge swaying seed tipped plants springing up in the fields around my house. If Artemisia likes an area you can plan on its ability to re –seed itself and eventually takeover your garden.

Common names include mugwort, wormwood, silver mound, dusty miller, sweet annie (an annual variety) and sagebrush. Most species are perennial. These plants are known for their hardiness and the powerful chemical constituents present in their essential oils. Most species have strong scents and are bitter tasting which discourages some herbivores like our cottontail rabbits from eating them.

Artemisias are often grown for their silvery – gray foliage and for their aromatic, culinary, and medicinal properties. They have alternate, sometimes deeply divided leaves and the flowers are hardly noticeable. These plants are a great choice for rock gardens and other sunny, dry landscape sites.

The aromatic leaves of some species are used for flavoring. An example is tarragon, which is widely used as a culinary herb. However tarragon has difficulty wintering over in our climate.

The plant we call “garden sage” and use in cooking is not an Artemisia/sagebrush but a European Salvia. Although it doesn’t taste or smell minty, you can call it a mint because it is in the mint family, Lamiaceae. It is related to a host of important culinary herbs, not just clary sage, spearmint and peppermint, but also plants as diverse as lemon balm, catnip and oregano.

Members of the mint family can be recognized by the combination of a square stem and aromatic leaves, both of which garden sage has. No other plant family has square stems and aromatic leaves. Flowers of all mint family plants are similar in structure, if you look closely.

Artemisia absinth is used to repel fleas and moths. I notice if I rub the plant on my skin it gives me some protection from bugs. (most pungent Artemisias are natural flea and bug repellents). The fragrant stalks when picked in the fall make a wonderful sweetly scented smudge. This species also re-seeds itself in odd places. It is also used in brewing beer and wine. The aperitif vermouth was once made with wormwood. Absinthe, a highly potent spirit also contains Artemisia. Some teas are made from the leaves of these plants. Other species besides Artemisia absinthe are grown as ornamental plants and they can all be recognized by their lovely gray – green leaves that provide such a wonderful contrast to other garden plants.

The compound Artmisinin and its derivatives taken from Artemisia annua are used today to treat malaria.

The same Asian Artemisia, sweet annie in English, and qinghao in Chinese is widely used in Chinese medicine.

I cannot write about Artemisia without discussing the sagebrushes although we don’t have any of them growing in the wild in Maine.

Sagebrushes or sageworts, are a large genus in the same daisy and ragweed family, Asteraceae.  Common American Artemisias include prairie sagewort, Afrigida. big sagebrush, A. tridentata, and Louisiana sagewort, A. ludoviciana. There are 37 species of Artemisia native to the lower 48 states, and another 7 in Canada and Alaska. They are herbs and low shrubs of dry regions with aromatic leaves, some pleasant to smell, some not. Like other members of the aster family, what looks like a flower is actually a group of tiny flowers. The Artemisias are wind pollinated, so the flowers are inconspicuous and usually the color of the leaves. (Note that, although the leaves are aromatic, the stems are not square). Prairie sages’ closest relatives are ragweeds and asters.

Sagebrush is not a desert plant but is a resident in areas that get 7 to 14 inches of rain a year. Big sage and other Artemisia species are dominant plants of the Great Basin covering some 422,000 square miles in eleven western and Canadian provinces. The shrubs are found from 4000 to 10,000 feet in elevation. Sagebrush ecosystems have the largest habitat range in the United States. Big sage often grows in areas like the cold desert shrub or in juniper and pinion pine woodlands. The perennial shrub (that often looks like a small tree) grows from 2 -7 feet tall. The young stems are smooth and silvery but as the plant matures the stems turn gray and the bark starts to grow in long strips. The plant provides food and habitat for a variety of animals like the sage grouse, pronghorn, birds, the pygmy rabbit and mule deer. It also creates habitat for many species of grasses and herbs. Besides providing shade and shelter from the wind, the long taproot of sagebrush draws water up from deep in the soil, some of which becomes available to these surrounding shallow rooted plants.

Damage to sagebrush and other Artemisia species that grow in our gardens results in the release of volatile chemicals that are used to signal a warning to nearby plants, so others can protect themselves by increasing the production of repellent chemical compounds. This plant to plant communication extends over long distances, and is probably not the only way these plants converse. It has been argued by some that the actual “brain” of the plant is in its underground root system where most exchanges take place (see Stephen Buhner’s work). What I find so compelling is that sagebrush and many other Artemisia species appear to behave altruistically putting the lives of the whole community of plants before that of the individual.

Many Indigenous peoples use big sage as a medicinal herb, most notably for smudging. Zuni use the plant vapors for body aches. Navajo use big sage to cure headaches. My three favorites for smudging (when I am in an area where I can find them growing wild) in are Artemisia frigida, Artemisia ludoviciana, and Artemisia tridentada, (big sage), but none of these plants grow in Maine, and I refuse to buy Artemisia because I don’t know how the plant was harvested.

Unfortunately, some areas of big sage are under siege because the plant is picked, bundled and sold indiscriminately by entrepreneurs as “the” Native American purifying agent. In the Northeast we can gather Artemisia plants from our own gardens to make a smudge by bundling the stems of Artemisia vulgaris or Artemisia absinth together in the fall. We also can gather cedar bundles to purify the air in our homes like local Indigenous peoples once did. I put sprigs of cedar, Artemisia, or balsam on my woodstove to clear the air. Each is an effective antibacterial remedy for airborne bacteria, and also purifies by putting negative ions back into the air.

In mythology the Greek Goddess Artemis is Mistress of the Wilderness, protector of wild animals, who apprenticed young women to become “bear women” that is, young girls who learned how to become self directed individuals before they could marry, or dedicate themselves as priestesses to one of the temples. This is a practice we would do well to resurrect today for young girls who often lose themselves at adolescence. This goddess who presided over childbirth was also a protector of all women, and all animals. With so many restrictions being lifted off the protection of wild animal species I am invoking Artemis’s power by writing about this plant that has been named after her. Animals and plants need all the help they can get. Dark days lie ahead.

I also find it curious that Artemisia, (wormwood) is the name of the star in the Book of Revelations. This star is cast into all the waters (by an angel) making the water bitter and undrinkable. When we recognize that water is the source of all life this prophecy becomes a chilling reminder that we must not continue to pollute our waters.

Big Sagebrush

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Recently a friend and I took a trip to the monastery on a cold gray March day. Without the sun’s glare I was struck by the myriad of greens and grays that dominated the landscape. When I first noticed that the sage I was looking at had new leaves I felt puzzled because I didn’t expect to be seeing new growth on three foot tall plants this early in the year, although new growth is present in wild plants that are huddled close to the ground. I had already glimpsed two flowers, a dandelion and a deep magenta heron’s bill elsewhere, both of which were practically hidden in between sun warmed stones.

Happily, I gathered some sprigs of the sweet pungent sage, and climbed back into the car with the fragrant camphor and other volatile oils wafting through the air. Looking around the steppe I noted that a sea of sagebrush stretched out in front of me until the shrubs met red willows that lined the bank of the river. This protected riparian area was completely surrounded by cliffs, and I wondered if that was why the sage had sprouted new leaves so early in the year.

When I looked up big sagebrush I discovered that it was classified as an evergreen shrub because it keeps some of its leaves all year round. With leaves remaining on the plant during the winter big sage can photosynthesize later in the year and earlier in the spring than many other plants. Sagebrush takes advantage of the long growing season photosynthesizing even when temperatures are close to freezing. This information answered my query as to why the plants seemed to be in an (early) active growth cycle.

The size of these plants indicated to me that this land was arable, suitable for cultivation, and indeed the monks had an extensive garden not far from the field of sage. This coarse, many – branched shrub has pale yellow flowers, and silvery gray leaves. A deep taproot coupled with laterally spreading roots near the surface allows sagebrush to gather water from both surface precipitation and from the water table several meters down. It prefers deep basic soils. This sage is very long lived once it makes it through the seedling stage. A hundred year old shrub is not uncommon. Big sages’ pale yellow flowers appear in the late summer or fall. Its fruits are seed –like. This plant also reproduces through sprouts that shoot up from the underground rhizome. These daughter plants have a much better chance of surviving because they are attached to the mother plant that has adequate moisture, no matter how dry the season. Of the two strategies for survival daughter sprouts have the edge. A seedling has to find its way alone and will die without enough moisture.

Sagebrush is not a desert plant but is a resident in areas that get 7 to 14 inches of rain a year. Big sage and other Artemisia species are dominant plants of the Great Basin covering some 422,000 square miles in eleven western and Canadian provinces. The shrubs are found from 4000 to 10,000 feet in elevation. Sagebrush ecosystems have the largest habitat range in the United States. Big sage often grows in areas like the cold desert shrub or in juniper and pinion pine woodlands. The perennial shrub (that often looks like a small tree) grows from 2 -7 feet tall. The young stems are smooth and silvery but as the plant matures the stems turn gray and the bark starts to grow in long strips. The plant provides food and habitat for a variety of animals like the sage grouse, pronghorn, birds, the pygmy rabbit and mule deer. It also creates habitat for many species of grasses and herbs. Besides providing shade and shelter from the wind, the long taproot of sagebrush draws water up from deep in the soil, some of which becomes available to these surrounding shallow rooted plants.

Damage to sagebrush plants by grazing herbivores results in the release of volatile chemicals that are used to signal a warning to nearby plants, so others can protect themselves by increasing the production of repellent chemical compounds. This plant to plant communication extends over long distances, and is probably not the only way these plants converse. It has been argued by some that the actual “brain” of the plant is in its underground root system where most exchanges take place (see Stephen Buhner’s work). What I find so fascinating is that sagebrush and many other plants appear to behave altruistically putting the lives of the whole community of plants before that of the individual.

Some Native peoples grind the seeds of big sage into flour but ordinarily the plant is considered toxic for human consumption because of its oils that are toxic to the liver and digestive systems. Many Indigenous peoples use big sage as a medicinal herb, most notably for smudging. Zuni use the plant vapors for body aches. Navajo use big sage to cure headaches. I collect a couple of different types of sages and use them to help with headaches or to clear a room of stale winter air. I also put sprigs in vases in the late fall.

As previously noted big sage is part of the extensive Artemisia family and has been associated with humans for a very long time. In every state in the U.S. some form of the plant can be found in most flower gardens  and can easily be identified by its pungent odor (although the scent differs from one species to another), as well as its lovely blue gray foliage.IMG_1165.JPG

Above: a few sprigs of Big Sagebrush

 

The Elusive Black Bear : A Natural History

The Elusive Black Bear: Natural History

Ursus americanus is the smallest of the three species of bears found in North America and the most reclusive. In Maine black bears although rarely encountered, often provoke irrational fear. Terrifying images of snarling black bears with bloody jaws poised for attack appear on the covers of hunting magazines and over the Internet, while thousands of children hug cuddly teddy bears. These extremes in attitude and behavior suggest that the bear embodies the Spirit of the Wilderness in both its most frightening and comforting aspects. But what do we really know about black bears as a mammalian species?

Paleontology teaches us that this shy denizen of the forest co – evolved into its present form on this continent 500,000 years ago with huge meat eating predators like the 1500 lb short faced bear and the Dire wolf which are now extinct. Black bears are native to this continent and are found nowhere else. To adapt and survive as prey animals black bears needed forest cover and learned to flee from the first sign of danger by hiding in thick brush or by climbing trees (the primary reason we rarely encounter them in the woods today). Before Europeans came to this country black bears could be found throughout the United States.

Today, because of extirpation and de –forestation black bears inhabit less than a half of their original range. Currently they are most commonly found in the northern parts of this country and in Canada where large tracts of arboreal woods still exist. Their dependence on mature forest for cover, protection, and for fall mast (food: beechnuts, acorns) is presently threatened in Maine because we continue to harvest beech and oaks before they are old enough to produce good crops of nuts. Maine has about 16 percent of mature nut producing forest left.

Although considered omnivores, black bears are 85 percent vegetarian; consuming tender green shoots, corms, roots, buds and flowers in early spring. Tasty beetles, grubs, ants, and larva come next providing the bulk of bear protein. It isn’t until the berry crops appear in early summer that black bears begin to gain weight. Without an adequate fall mast of high caloric acorns, beechnuts (in northern Maine the only nut crop) black bears won’t gain enough weight to survive hibernation/torpor. Of all the possible foods a bear might eat only five percent of a bear’s diet consists of fish, carrion, or the occasional fawn/young moose.

After emerging from their dens in April it takes bears about two/three weeks for their metabolism to return to normal. By May bears are hungry and may be driven (instinct overrides caution) into people’s backyards to eat birdseed and unsecured garbage if natural foods aren’t available. Wandering young sub- adult males that are also searching for new territories are the greatest offenders. Removing birdfeeders and securing garbage can easily remedy this conflict.

Mothers with cubs emerge last in the spring and stay close to the den while the cubs (from one to three) continue to practice their climbing skills. Mothers teach their small (6-10 LB) cubs to tree themselves at the first sign of danger. As the season progresses the mother will leave her young hidden safely in the trees to forage on her own or when she visits a bait site later that summer.

Contrary to popular belief, it would be difficult to get between a mother and her cubs because at the first sign of danger she trees the cubs and runs away (however, grizzly bears and polar bears may attack if they believe their cubs are threatened). In Maine females breed in June and July and practice delayed implantation which means that the blastocyst floats freely in uterus and will not develop until late fall after the mother enters the den. If the female hasn’t put on enough fat she will abort. Cubs are born in January weighing about 12 ounces, and mother is awake and alert responding to each cub’s needs. Cubs’ blue eyes open at about four weeks and they begin to climb around the den shortly thereafter. Black bear milk is richer than that of any mammal in North America and the cubs will suckle well into their second year. First year cubs will den with mother in the fall (unless the mother has been shot) and family break –up occurs the following spring (early June in Maine) when the female goes into estrus. This long period of childhood/adolescence – 17 to 19 months is needed so that black bears can teach their young the skills they need to survive. Although females maintain home ranges of about 5-6 square miles (that they will share with their daughters) they will travel up to 50 miles out of their home territories to show the cubs where to find berries and nuts.

Black Bears have been prey animals for a long time and are understandably very NERVOUS around humans avoiding them whenever possible. All are very much afraid of other bears until they recognize them as kin. Females with cubs are particularly afraid of males who will sometimes kill a cub in order to bring a female back into estrus. Not much is known about adult male bears beyond the fact that they leave their mother’s territory as sub adults in their second or third year, appear to have very large/flexible ranges and have exceptional navigational abilities.

Black bears have a very large brain in relationship to their body size and scientific studies indicate that these animals are highly intelligent and surpass chimps in some learning abilities. Black bears have also been observed using tools. What bears do with body fluids during what can be a six to seven month “hibernation” is a mystery. They do not defecate or urinate during torpor (unless a female is birthing cubs) and they do not lose muscle tissue.

Without Minnesota’s bear biologist Lynn Roger’s groundbreaking “trust based research” which includes but is not limited to telemetry, videos and den cams we wouldn’t know that we could radio collar bears without tranquilizers, or that we could develop relationships with some bears in order to learn about bear behavior from observing individuals and kinship groups in the wild. For more than 30 years Lynn and his students and literally hundreds of participants have been collecting and analyzing data in the field by observing bears as they forage, interact, mate, rest etc. With trust based research the goal is to have the black bears become comfortable enough with humans to ignore them while the bears are being observed in their natural habitat. Ironically, the most difficult part of this discipline is getting a bear to tolerate human presence. Most bears are simply too shy. If bears were as dangerous as we are told they are by the state agencies like Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife (MDIF&W) trust based research simply could not have been done for all these years without incident. In Maine the MDIF&W does not practice a methodology that includes direct interaction with black bears. Why? The notion of developing individual relationships with bears undermines the “official” MDIF&W position that black bears are dangerous predators that must be killed in order to control their numbers.

We have a three – month long hunting season in Maine. We are the only state in this country that utilizes steel traps to hunt bears. Bears have been known to gnaw off their paws to get free. The use of hounds outfitted with sophisticated GPS units violates traditional hunting ethics, as does the practice of bear baiting which only began in the eighties. What kind of sportsmanship is involved with all three practices when a bear becomes the unwilling victim to those who simply stand there and shoot a trapped bear, a treed bear, or a bear with his head in a can? Worse, as any skilled field researcher will attest to, it is almost impossible to sex a bear before shooting it. What this means practically is that almost as many female bears are shot in this state as males. If those females have first year cubs they will die a death of slow starvation, or be killed by other omnivores. In the last ten years Maine has voted twice to defeat a bill that would end the above hunting practices which would encourage hunters to hunt black bears in a more traditional manner as they do in other states.

Ursus americanus has been in its present form for 500,000 years, 300,000 years before humans inhabited the earth. Bears are literally our Elders. It seems ironic to me that we need to “manage” and “control” these animals when black bears thrived on this continent without human intervention for millenium. I am also dismayed because humans continue to ignore a chilling fact: it is the exploding human population that is devouring earth’s resources at an unprecedented level. Animal populations aren’t the problem, we are.

Indigenous peoples had deep respect for the black bear. Many eastern and western tribes believed that the bear was the “Owner of the Animals” and the most powerful plant healer of all. Acquiring black bear “medicine” involved complex rituals that included hunting “Grandfather” bear who was also believed to sacrifice himself to feed the People. Perhaps we have something to learn from the way these elusive denizens of the forest conduct themselves? If bears ruled the world we would have no wars.

The chances of being killed by a black bear are about a million to one. An important question to ask is why so few of these wild bears retaliate when we have treated them with such cruelty? One obvious answer is that black bears are reclusive prey animals that want to co –exist with humans in peace if only we would let them.