Archive for the ‘Connecticut nature’ Category

The Moth Post

June 18, 2012

I figured I could wait to visit the bathroom until after I went to the store for the tortillas.  It seemed wrong to ask my husband to go for them, in the interest of getting the dinner in the oven in a reasonable amount of time, since he would never find them but would instead return home to tell me that the Stop & Shop a half mile from our house doesn’t carry them. Aisle seven, by the way.

My light rig-UV light with a Mercury Vapor light attached to a tripod. The UV hangs from the top of the sheet.

After that I thought I better get out there and set up my new mothing rig while there was plenty of light to spare. Since it’s a new one, I could run into a few snags and I wanted to be able to see so I could sort them out. Emptying my bladder would have to wait.

I dashed to the store, finished the dinner and got started on that light set-up and it was all-systems-go by the time sundown came. I was pretty sure I wasn’t in renal failure yet, so I snapped some photos of a couple of moths I saw out by the front porch. Since I work as a mom, wife and naturalist I am, well, a whiz at putting off certain private functions in favor of activities that move the family ship of state forward. Somehow, moths have gotten be a feature on my “must do” list, seemingly ahead even of vital bodily functions. To say that I am a multi-tasker is putting it mildy.

But I am all excited about National Moth Week, a celebration of moths and biodiversity (July 23-29, 2012). It’s the first one ever, and since I discovered what fun “mothing” is, and how much there is to learn, I’ve been avidly trying to soak up as much as I can.  Moths are just beautiful-not at all the plain jane grey and brown things you find in old cereal. They come in every color of the rainbow and there are thousands more species than butterflies. In other countries like England there’s been an interest in moths for many years and there are numerous field guides about their native species. Here, the most recent (until this April) field guide to moths was a Peterson’s first issued in 1922.  The plates were black and white and in general all the moths looked the same.  You had, in my opinion, to be a genius to really identify anything, but some people did.

And now there is a terrific new field guide just published with beautiful plates and commentary.  Also published under the Peterson’s imprimatur, the authors are Seabrooke Leckie (who has a nifty blog The Marvelous in Nature on WordPress) and David Beadle. It’s great. So now anyone can figure out what those moths are that flutter against their back door at night.  And you can participate in National Moth Week. Really, anyone can do it. You don’t actually need any special equipment. Just leave an outside light on from dusk until you can’t stand it anymore and you have to go to bed. You may wish to dive in and get fancy lights-it’s up to you, and it is not only an important area of scientific inquiry, it’s fun!  You can photograph the moths, or just appreciate them. Or, you can go to one of hundreds of moth events that are being held all over the country. You can find out everything about this at the National Moth Week website, along with how-to’s if you want to start mothing on your own.  Take a look at http://nationalmothweek.org/ for more information.  Our moth event at Hill-Stead in Farmington, CT is this Friday, June 22 at 8:30.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker
Naturalist

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Gold Award Project Begins

April 27, 2012

On March 25 Margaret Czepiel, a Girl Scout from West Hartford, started her ambitious Gold Award project here at Hill-Stead.  For those not ‘down’ with scouting parlance, “Gold Award” equals “Eagle Scout project” if you are a Girl Scout.

Margaret Czepiel-Is that a halo over her head?

There were scouts of all kinds there to help Margaret. Her goal is to transform our Pump House into a jewel-box nature center, an exhibit space highlighting the natural history of Hill-Stead. Together they removed decades of dust, repainted windows, removed brush, erected a bird house and identified future steps to take to fulfill the objective. Margaret’s family was there, as well as museum staff. Margaret carefully determined how best to preserve the historical import of the building, working with Curator Melanie Anderson, Eric Easton of Operations and Naturalist Diane Tucker. At the end of the day they all packed up their vans, picked up their equipment and were gone in a puff of dust, which I could swear was the last remaining particles of rust-laden detritus from the Pump House interior. Either that or the end of a dream sequence.  But no, they’ll be back, and soon, for Margaret plans to measure for pedestals and stands that will sit over the old plumbing fittings, providing places to showcase things as well as safety in navigating around the room free of tripping hazards.  Stay tuned for more on Margaret and the Natural History Bungalow-to-be.

All Fixed Up

August 4, 2011

If I see another kid stomp on a bug during a nature walk, or scream and flail his arms around when he sees a bee I will lose my mind.  And that’s only the children.  You’d never believe some of the wacky things adults do on nature walks, like the school teacher who screamed and ran away and out of sight leaving 25 astonished third-graders with me and a sleeping garter snake we had just found under a bug board.  Or the dozens of people you see going down into the Grand Canyon in high heels.  But it’s little wonder when you consider how disconnected from life in the outdoors we are.  Most people who attend nature hikes are unschooled in basic natural science and history.  Many parents view nature hikes as strictly an entertainment for children, or for a springtime “science-lite” field trip from school with a hidden hijinks agenda.

But we have some little successes.  Two weekends ago I had a completely bug-phobic mother bring her children to “moth night”, our annual evening event when I bait trees and set up black lights to bring in moths and other night insects so they can be seen up close.  You have to love a heroic parent like that, but to her surprise and mine she had a blast.  Last weekend, I had kids and adults out in our meadow munching like happy cows on Queen Anne’s Lace roots, and arguing over the last bits.  Just in case you aren’t on any of the very worthy survivalist list serves around, Queen Anne’s Lace is the cousin of the carrot and the roots smell quite alike.  In darkness you’d be hard pressed to tell them apart.  But the QAL tastes like an old, woody carrot, not a fresh one.

Looking over our meadows at Hill-Stead there are loads of wildflowers keeping Queen Anne and her lace company right now.  Joe Pye Weed and Goldenrod are starting up, Black-Eyed Susan and Milkweed have been around a few weeks. The clover has been blooming for months.  Clover, a member of the pea or legume family, grows in white, pink (often called “red”), and yellow (called “hop”), as well as a fuzzy, ochre-colored one called “rabbit’s foot”. If your yard had clover, a “good” yard service would advise you to eradicate it with pesticides. Aside from the pretty colors and the near continuous blooming habit, here’s why you might consider a stay of execution.

Nitrogen. Essential for life, it’s in about 80% of the air you breathe and is called “free nitrogen”, though it’s anything but free to us since we can’t directly use the airborne variety.  Only “fixed nitrogen” is available to animals and plants.  Where do we get it? Plants need nitrogen in the form of either nitrates or ammonia.  These come from the soil, where they are dissolved in soil water, are taken up by the roots of the plants and start wending their way through the food chain.  But, how do the nitrates and ammonia get into the soil? Nitrogen is “fixed”, or converted from free nitrogen in the air to nitrates (or ammonia) in various ways. Of course, people can add nitrogen to soil in the form of fertilizer.  And lightening can cause reactions which result in the creation of nitrates.  There is also “nitrogen fixing bacteria” that converts free nitrogen from the atmosphere into a useable form. The bacteria have enzymes that cause the change. Here’s where the clover comes in. The bacteria live in nodules on the roots of leguminous plants,-yes! Plants like clover, with both good looks AND talent.

In short, clover unlocks a key to the entire food chain.  I love it, and I keep what I have growing in my yard.  Our meadows here at Hill-Stead are filled to the brim with clover-fixed-nitrogen and the food chain to go with it.  I love showing it off to visitors.  I don’t think that nature walks need to be treated as just a Sunday afternoon diversion for the kids, yet I don’t need everyone to be a citizen scientist, either. I would like for guests to come away from our programs with a fresh understanding of the outdoors, one that sees the human individual as part of the natural continuum, a steward and caretaker and, in fact, a party to the food chain itself. You don’t have to know the ins and outs of the nitrogen cycle for that.  But you do have to go outside once in a while and look at the clover.

Fertilizer Happens

March 10, 2011

It’s been a bitter winter. Record snow and ice, roofs collapsing day after day, kids home while crews shovel mountain-loads of snow off the school roof. After a beating like that, I have a hard time lifting my head and getting on with it.  I am not a winter person.  I do my best to enjoy it, adding snow shoeing to my repertoire of sports, but this winter I only made it out once and I lost my car keys in the snow. After that I wound up like a meadow vole, ten pounds of snow overhead, living alone in my own sub-nivean world.  Now I’m struggling out of my lair, looking for a reason to stay above ground.

I saw a mosquito yesterday, though temperatures were barely in the 40’s.  He must have woken from diapause, that state of suspended animation that insects enter in the fall as days shorten.  In diapause you are just about nearly dead, and I think that free-flying mosquito and I are in nearly the same situation right now.

Soon we should start seeing an occasional Mourning Cloak butterfly floating along. These guys are the Magellans of the butterfly world, first out to explore. They over-winter as adults too, and venture forth when the days are still relatively cool. Look for them, about the size of a four-year-old’s fist, rich brown with a creamy edge all around. When I think of them, I think of possibly getting out of my armchair.  I’d hate to miss them.

As the snow melts, it’s a shock to see what’s been going on outside. When the layers recede, we see a winter’s tale of survival by those who cannot enter diapause.  Mammals don’t have this option.  So what do we see that reveals their winter lives and rituals? Footprints are preserved in ice, sometimes new ones appear in the moist snow overnight. We know there were rabbits here earlier this winter. Did they make it? Food was scarce, plants were covered. Deer had the same problem and even coyotes started to feel the pinch. In fact, there were loads of animal sightings in crazy places this winter as predators were forced to make bold to find food, any food at all. Owls revealed themselves in frantic efforts to locate mice, moles and voles, all hidden tidily under three feet of snow.  No chance to hear a telltale rustle and soundlessly pounce out of the sky.  Rehabbers reported a record number of emaciated owls brought in for nursing.  A friend tells me bears are out now, and another has seen a bobcat, so things are easing.  And that’s especially good news for animals enduring winter without a snug den.

As dog owners can tell you, there are a few other things exposed by snow melt. No,not dog toys!  There is frozen scat everywhere. Personally, I am thrilled. The educational value of poop is not to be underestimated. Nothing gets a kid’s attention like poop. And let’s be honest, grownups tend not to forget that part of the nature walk, either, though possibly due to delicate sensibility rather than potty fascination. Coprology, the science of scatology, is a biggie.  You can tell which animal did what.  Size, shape and composition are nature’s mug shot.  And it provides essential information about the diet of animals in a given area, their health and which diseases if any, are present. Tapeworm, anyone? Included in the package (pun intended) is information about where the animal has been and whether populations are rising or falling.

I better get out there before it all melts.

See you out on the trails,

Diane Tucker
Estate Naturalist

Home For the Holidays

December 21, 2010

What does it really mean to come home?  Traffic projections tell us that this holiday season more people than ever will head home, possibly breaking a record for pre-Christmas travel.  People across Europe lately find themselves stranded in airports from freak snowstorms, sleeping on the floor for days just trying to get where they wanted to go.  Yet there are a gaggle of “funny” movies about going home for the holidays, especially Christmas, that depict the annual pilgrimage as nothing short of a personal horror.  Sneering, taunting, insensitivity all play roles in such films and you have to wonder why anyone would ever go home to families like these.  The answer of course is that they likely wouldn’t and the whole thing is just a device of “entertainment”. Sure, we laugh, but sometimes it’s an uncomfortable snicker.  We recognize in them the subtle torture that only your  loved ones can mete out.

Animals go home because they have to.  It’s instinct and survival. Increasingly scientists are discovering that at some point living things across the spectrum from insect to mammal migrate from where they moved, returning to their original birthplace. Sometimes they go to breed, sometimes to die. It’s just built in. There is a lot unknown about animal interactions and in my sophomoric mind I wonder whether the outliers get made fun of when they turn back up with something new and different about them.  In people, sometimes just maturing becomes rich fodder for family members to pick at, never mind a funny haircut or strange girlfriend. Good times!

Mostly animals hunker down in winter, either hibernating or limiting their appearances to warmer winter days.  The ones with really nice winter coats get around well, but even they need somewhere snug to see out a storm.  Around here it’s pretty easy to see where our animal friends are hanging out. Because Hill-Stead’s grounds are still to my mind underused given the treasure they are, it’s a piece of cake to take a short walk and see deer tracks, coyote, our “famous” mink and loads of other creatures’ travels through snow and across the pond. You may even see one of the critters themselves.

But these darkest days of winter and indeed other dismal times, have a way of making us focus inward. Illness, loss, upheaval, have a way of isolating us whether or not we are even aware of it. To the best of my knowledge animals don’t have the luxury of introspection.  They have to get on with it, just manage or pay the highest price.  In contrast to us, they don’t go home for holidays or because they are worried and careworn.  They can’t take umbrage at the modern world, hop on a train and go home to warm welcome and hot soup.  It’s down the rabbit hole for them and hope for the best.

Wherever you go, or if you go anywhere at all, everyone here at Hill-Stead hopes you find yourself someplace cozy and restful.

Happy Holidays, and I’ll see you on the trails,

Diane Tucker
Estate Naturalist

Snake Creeps Up

September 1, 2010

Grace. Grace of motion, grace of spirit, poise.  Some have natural grace and you can easily see it, even by the corner of your eye, in an animal, insect or bird.  I’d venture animals have not only grace of movement, but also grace of spirit.  If you have that, you cannot hide it no matter what you do. Sometimes it spills out and shows itself in nimbleness of body and movement. This is certainly one of the ideas behind many martial arts.  T’ai Chi, it is said, was inspired by the sight of a crane and snake fighting with soft, curling motions. The T’ai Chi forms are even named for patterns of movement in nature:  Cloud Hands, Snake Creeps Up, Golden Pheasant, White Crane Cools Wings.

Grace combines tension, balance, order, in much the same way a work of art does.  So it was a perfect marriage of genre to have a group of T’ai Chi practitioners on our front lawn last Sunday as the farmer’s market teemed with shoppers and folks readied themselves for the Diabetes Walk.  Some wore T’ai chi uniforms-white flowing tunics and pants that reflected the white colonial revival house behind them. Others wore street clothes, the way you so often see people practicing martial arts in the parks of China.  I recognized many of the forms from my study of T’ai Chi years ago.  I used to love doing Cloud Hands.  It’s only one tiny piece of a whole form, but I could do it for hours it relaxes me so. But on Sunday I focused on Snake Creeps Up. It is remarkable how this martial art so accurately portrays the real, organic movements.  Snake Creeps Up grabbed me because we have an incredible snake down by the Pump House Bridge.  We all just love that fellow, a huge Northern Water Snake that luxuriates on the far side of the bridge as you head toward the farmhouse.  He’s an amiable sort. He’ll let you look at him from pretty close up if you are quiet and relaxed. Somehow he recognizes tension, and slinks off into the weeds. In no time he’ll be back, sunning himself and displaying his four inch diameter.  I don’t actually know how long he is, since he tucks his rear into the brush and even when he turns around I’ve never seen the whole of him at once.  But he’s just about always there, like a sentinel, recognizing those who belong, and warily regarding newcomers.

You sometimes see people react badly to snakes, screaming, running away, grabbing their babies.  It’s instinct, I think, and most of the time you can’t get them to simmer down and they scare the wits out of the poor snake. So many myths have developed.  Milk Snakes were named for their supposed ability to suck the milk from cows.  They were killed en masse by farmers “protecting” their cattle, when in reality, the snakes hung around barns to eat mice and such.  In a sad irony, the snakes were actually performing a service. Puff Adders are said to add poison to their breath, puffing it toward you in toxic, murderous clouds.  But our Northern Water Snake is a gentle giant. Reports of snake size are usually on the fantastically generous side.  But I’d say our guy is pretty well full grown, based on his coloring (he is very dark and his pattern is hidden.  Youngsters show the pattern clearly) and a full-grown Northern Water Snake tops out at around fifty-five inches.  So he might seem like a giant to some, but I hope they never see a grown up Black Rat Snake.  They can get to be about eight feet.

I’m kind of psyched right now, since I think the big guy might be about to become a father.  He has to have a lady friend at his age, and Northern Water Snakes give birth in August and September.  This kind of reptile has live babies, not eggs.  I’m not saying our snake is going to be handing out cigars, since snakes (especially fathers) have desultory parental feelings at best.  But it is nice to think of him passing on his good nature to a new generation.

My tip-top favorite snake legend is that of the “hoop snake” who when threatened takes his hind end into his mouth, turns himself into a circle and rolls away like a wagon wheel to safety.  I love the whole idea, and wish I could do it too, rolling away when times get tough. Since I can’t, and neither can any snake known of, I’ll just meander down to the bridge and relax with our big, old, comforting snake, and forget the cares of the world.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

Tree of Heaven

August 2, 2010

I see it every time I drive down Mountain Road to Hill-Stead.  It’s the Tree of Heaven, officially known as Ailanthus altissima. Originating in China, it is mentioned in ancient dictionaries and medical texts and was used there to cure everything from mental illness to baldness. Today it’s still used in traditional Chinese medicine, principally as an astringent. Like lots of invasive plants and animals, Ailanthus grows fast and soon dominates the landscape. In an extremely un-heavenly move, it sends chemicals into the ground to discourage growth around it so it can suck up all the surrounding resources and stretch unimpeded toward the sun. You can find Ailanthus anywhere the land has been disturbed and  some say it has a real stink to it, like the female Ginko tree.

Our Tree of Heaven is located near the spot where a wooly mammoth was pulled from a bog by Hill-Stead farm workers in 1902.  For a time it was the “must see” for scientists from all over, as it was then the first completely intact skeleton ever found.  One of the biggest archeological finds of its time, it even helped popularize the word “mammoth”. The Tree of Heaven couldn’t have been there in 1902 since at that time the whole area was part of the Pope farm. But when Theodate died her will dictated that Hill-Stead should become a museum.  There just wasn’t enough money from her estate (the bulk of which went to the Avon Old Farms School, which she founded and for which she designed the buildings) to create a museum.  So they sold 100 acres of land, which included the Wooly Mammoth bog and the place where the Tree of Heaven sits now. But I still think of it as “our” land. I have no doubt that if Theodate had known the value open spaces would come to have, she would have written her will differently.  Now the area is dotted with homes (some brand new as the area continues to grow) and a tennis club. Having been bulldozed by developers I think the property qualifies as “disturbed”, so no one should be surprised that this behemoth of a tree has grown there in such a short time.  Many invasive plants and wildflowers are found in such places.  An Ailanthus can reach 49 ft within 25 years or so.

I think the tree is pretty.  It has large compound leaves at least a foot long, with between 10 and 41 leaflets each.  At this time of year it flowers,and the cultivar we happen to have becomes flame-colored . You can see it from  from a long way off.  Tree of Heaven has determination, reproducing not only by seed, but also by throwing up “suckers” all around it through the earth.  It can withstand dirt, dust, pollution of every kind and still it pulls itself up toward the sun. Tree of Heaven was the inspiration for the book “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith, and it is easy to see why.

“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” tells the story of Francie Nolan, who lives in poverty in Brooklyn, New York.  Like so many immigrants at the turn of the last century, the family struggles to attain a piece of the American dream.  Francie’s mother feels the key to this is a good education and she is determined her children will have one.  A Tree of Heaven grows in a vacant lot near their apartment and symbolizes the determination of the family to rise above their circumstances.  It is a wonderful book-a real touchstone for millions of people. It was adapted to a movie and a stage play, no doubt because the story is a familiar one to Americans whose backgrounds include many a Francie Nolan.

What a contrast to Theodate Pope, daughter of one of the richest families in America! She came from Cleveland to Farmington to attend one of the most elite schools in the country,- a far cry from Francie Nolan, who yearned for any education at all, to save her from a lifetime of scrubbing floors.  And yet in her own way, Theodate was swimming against the courant, too. Unlike her peers, she wanted a farm and a career, an unseemly, unusual aspiration for a young girl with means.  Her mother couldn’t understand it and they were at odds.  Theodate and Francie were not dissimilar in their yearning for that which was just nearly out of reach to them.   Their goals were close enough to tantalize, yet odd enough to be hard to realize within their specific social castes.

What would life be without the thirst for something more?  I bet most people driving down Mountain Road in Farmington don’t notice our tree even when it blooms.  But I am just as certain that they each have a personal Tree of Heaven within them.

Hill-Stead Farmer’s Market

July 17, 2010

To market, to market to buy a fat pig, home again, home again jiggedy jig!

I used to think of myself as a farmer’s market connoisseur, since I’ve been a devotee of them long before the “eat local” craze happened. I trolled around markets in Vermont, driving my edible booty home to Connecticut in my back seat. Once on the cutting edge of fashion, now I don’t even have to leave Farmington for my weekly organic kibble. I can just stroll over to Hill-Stead Museum with my reusable sack over my arm. The trend for farmer’s markets is growing fast. There are urban farms, urban markets, country farms and country markets. They are thick on the ground in trendy suburbs. We need many more. It seems evident that an important key to restoring all manner of food integrity is local farming. In a sense, we are harvesting our food tradition to sow a food future. And it’s not just some la-di-dah keeping up with the Jones kind of food trend, either. You could argue that the value of recycling our food culture is fundamental to our long-term well-being, both at the stove and elsewhere, and is reflective of something organic in ourselves.

“Well-being” isn’t what prompts us to visit a farmer’s market. Rather, it is almost as though there is a part of our cultural DNA that has been wanting for decades, to get us back to the activity of “market day”. What would Thomas Hardy be without them? Many a plot is turned in the market square of literature. Think of Jane Austen, George Eliot, The Brontes, Mrs. Gaskell. There are today markets held all over Europe throughout the year, whereas most of ours, for now at least, seem to be summertime phenomena. Why do so many of us get so excited about about a few stands of vegetables and flowers popping up in the same location up every seven days? Why have some cultures never left off doing it?

A farmer’s market provides a “front porch” for a culture that has sadly grown away from such things. We see neighbors, offer tips to strangers about how to use an unfamiliar vegetable, embrace a fondly remembered farmer. Mr. Bingley bows deeply there to Miss Bennet. As so often also happens at the Hill-Stead poetry festival, one hears happy whoops of recognition punctuating the atmosphere as we see old friends. We begin to make new relationships, too. The crowd is heterogeneous, and thus community is made, not just among a few select neighbors, but in a town and region.

A farmer’s market turns us toward one another, emphasizing our fundamental interdependence on the level of comestible and emotional sustenance. There are other organic connections we cannot name. Joining together over food is perhaps the oldest form of community, save for procreation itself. Earthiness is, as it turns out, a great leveler.

Join us this Sunday and every Sunday until October 24, 11am-2pm, rain or shine. Beyond the vegetables, you’ll find quite a lot that is special. Enjoy companionship, hear music, get community information at our tent, pet a farm animal, drink a coffee or simply enjoy the atmosphere. After you’re done with that, take a walk on one of the historic trails. For a small fee, go inside the house and see rare art and glimpse a lost lifestyle.

For more information on our website: http://hillstead.org/activities/farmersmarket.html

And look for me, I’ll be there. Or, I’ll see you on the trails,

Diane Tucker
Estate Naturalist

Sunken Garden Poetry Festival

June 24, 2010

I had a nice time last night at Hill-Stead Museum’s Sunken Garden Poetry Festival.  How could you not? It was a perfect summer evening.  Latin flavored jazz filled the air while picnics were shared, wine poured, blankets fluffed out over the lush grass.  The Sunken Garden itself was in all its June glory, the Summer House providing the backdrop for the music and for the reading of poems.  Now and then a little cry of happy recognition flared up as friends found one another in the gloaming.

Our Beatrix Farrand-designed sunken garden played host to two fine poets, Gabrielle Calvocoressi and Bessie Reyna.  What a treat it was.  And as the sunset turned into night, birds flew to roost and night time things began to take over.  I was happy to see several chimney swifts, as I did last year.  And the wager still stands that they have nests in church steeples here in Farmington.  Other than raising young, the swifts live the entirety of their lives on the wing, and it may be that they dip their wings at us bi-weekly while we admire our nationally-known poets.  One lone bat skittered across the sky, looking uncoordinated, but being actually anything but.

The full list of the attendees were as follows:

Red-Tailed Hawk
European Starling
American Robin
Catbird
American Goldfinch
Chipping Sparrow
Chimney Swift
Song Sparrow
American Crow
Downy Woodpecker
Tufted Titmouse
Eastern Bluebird
Wood Thrush
Brown-Headed Cowbird
Tree Swallow
Blue Jay
Eastern Phoebe
White-Breasted Nuthatch
Coopers Hawk
Hermit Thrush
Red-Eyed Vireo
Cardinal
Grackle
Great Blue Heron

Shetland Sheep
1 Dragonfly
1 bat
Field Crickets
Fireflies
Tree Toads

Other than the hundreds of people, there were 24 species of bird, 3 species of insect, 1 amphibian, 1 bat, a small flock of literary critic Shetland Sheep, a slightly more than three-quarter moon and Saturn glowing in the early summer sky. And poetry. There was lots of that. Define it how you like.

See you on the trails,

Diane Tucker
Estate Naturalist

Take Back Your Mink

May 28, 2010

After my mother died, I saw her everywhere.  I followed people whose hair reminded me of hers before shaking off the idea that it might somehow be her. This kind of reaction is completely normal, and in a way comforting after a loss, but I never expected to feel similarly about a few muskrats.

Earlier this year I thought I saw a weasel of some kind around the pond, and one day I got a good view. It was a mink. They are very handsome animals, and I don’t think most people think of them as weasels although they are a member of the same family. They think of them as coats. Weasels, of course, have a bad reputation and it isn’t nice to call someone a weasel, or be called one yourself. The insult is intended to mean “sneaky and low-down”. Weasels are also considered (by farmers especially) to be cruel and needless killers. Because they often “scalp” their prey and simply leave it, people think that the weasel kills for sport. Not so-he kills and returns later to eat the prize. He’s not fussy about a little putrification, and he also “caches” his food.  A farmer who wakes to a hen house full of scalped chickens regards the weasel as the worst kind of varmint, and the natural history of it is of little importance to him.  But a weasel has to kill when the opportunity presents itself, and also have a little something to fall back on. You never know when a meal is going to come along and a mink has a high metabolism. Think of them as the Holly Golightly of the animal world. And I think I remember that Holly Golightly had a really nice mink coat.

Minks are solitary, except during breeding, at which time they virtually define the word “promiscuous”, with both males and females mating as much as possible, with as many partners as possible. So the gene pool is nice and healthy, and the DNA for survival very strong.  These animals are smart and canny predators, eating fish torpid from cold during winter and switching to slower, more defenseless animals in warm weather. Which brings me back to the muskrats.  Mink will eat anything, but they really love muskrat.  Also, “abandoned” muskrat lodges make swell mink houses. So I think it is pretty clear what happened to the Hill-Stead muskrat family. Of course, muskrats need water that covers them. Our pond is getting more shallow all the time, so the muskrat days were numbered in any case.

For a while, I saw the muskrats in my imagination, too.  But, as with my mother, I finally had to accept that they were gone. In the hierarchy of small mammals, the mink with its sensitive nose and killer instinct has it all over the poor vegetarian muskrat, who just likes to noodle around the pond eating weeds. And even in the hierarchy of coats, the mink is the trophy outerwear, the muskrat for wannabe’s.  

But nature has a way of equalizing things, and the mink may eventually be taken by a coyote or even an owl. And then I’ll miss the mink.