Friday, December 1, 2006
A history of Carlisle's creatures
Carlisle has a huge variety of habitats that support an abundance of wildlife. Too often we forget to get out and experience nature's bounty. We even complain at times about how much nature we have. Luckily, we don't have to go any further than outside our front doors, in the backyard, the attic, cellar, or just open the door to the pantry and follow the trail of crumbs.
Ruth Chamberlin Wilkins notes in Carlisle, Its History and Heritage, that the early settlers "found deer, bear, moose, marten, otter, beaver, muskrat, foxes and wolves." The ponds and streams in the area were full of fish, snakes, turtles, freshwater clams, mussels and eels. A large variety of birds including turkeys were hunted, as were squirrels. In Indian New England Before the Mayflower, author Howard S. Russell quotes early settler Roger Williams, who noted the difficulty Indians had at keeping their corn free from freeloading wildlife. "They put up little watch houses in the middle of their fields in which they, or their oldest children lodge, and early in the morning prevent the Birds." Williams said additional pests were chipmunks, crows, and "The great beasts, as Stagges [deer]."
The early 1600s English settlers, delighted by the apparent overabundance of fur animals, established a disastrous fur trade with the Native Americans. Hunters stripped the forests of beavers, martens, foxes and even bears, and fur animals became scarce after 1650 in Massachusetts. In 1644 Carlisle offered incentives to kill as many wolves "as possible," according to Wilkins. In 1648 30 shillings was awarded for each wolf head. Wilkins tells the story of the naming of Wolf Rock (at the end of Wolf Rock Road). Legend has it that the hunted wolves used to hide in a cave beneath the large rock. Bears were never welcomed. An old Carlisle tale says that resident Mary Chandler Heald single-handedly killed a problem bear in 1693. In 1805, according to Sidney A. Bull, author of The History of the Town of Carlisle, 1754 — 1920, a "premium of twenty-five cents a head..." was placed on crows. Woodchucks were worth 25 cents in 1872.
Land trades encourage deforestation
Forests, animals rebound
Between 1820 and 1915 Carlisle saw a decrease in population, from 681 to 490, and a decrease in farms. In 1900, reports Wilkins, assessments on farm animals included 205 horses, 529 cows, 100 other cattle, 24 swine, 2,720 fowls. Electricity arrived in 1911, decreasing the need for wood and candles. Barns were being turned into stores, the blacksmith business, though still active, was focused on more artistic wares and grist mills were closing. From 1920 to 1940 Carlisle's human population remained generally flat, around 500 residents. Poultry was still important, and a Poultry Club was created in 1923. "In 1939," notes Wilkins, "it was reported that Carlisle was becoming more of a poultry-raising town, and that several families also had a considerable number of turkeys." In 1950, there were still three large dairy farms, noted Wilkins. As to why Carlisle didn't experience the same deforestations and population stresses as Concord, she explained that Carlisle's isolation led to its protection. There was no direct train service, just scattered bus service, and the proactive zoning slowed development.
According to the Canid Specialist Group (CSG), coyotes first showed up in New England in the 1930s and 1940s, filling the void left by the extermination of wolves. The term coyote was derived from the Aztec term, "coyotl." In the southwest, the Navajo called the coyote "God's dog," and it played a large role in Native American mythology. Coyotes now live in all of North America. When coyotes were first spotted in Carlisle, there was an air of wonder and cautious delight in town that this wild creature was adopting New England. Concerns were raised, however, as the coyote population increased in the 1980s. Coyotes can be mistaken for medium-sized dogs with extremely thick fur and are known as opportunistic feeders. Living in family groups, they will eat just about anything; fruit, vegetables, rodents, deer, insects, and small domestic animals such chickens, cats, and small dogs. They do keep down the population of squirrels, chipmunks, mice, and road kill. Residents reported having heard howling in the evenings. The Carlisle Police chronicles ever-increasing coyote/human encounters from 2000 to today, including sick coyotes in a driveway, a coyote chasing horses, dogs and cats bitten and killed, coyotes hanging around a day-care center, and cars hitting coyotes. The hunting season for coyotes, which are still valued for their fur, extends from November to the end of February in Massachusetts.
Indians used to stay up at night to guard the cornfields from bears, which would strip unripe corn from the stalks. Early settlers, coming from a Europe that had rid itself of large predators, were overwhelmed by the number of native "pests" they encountered. Since 1998, black bears have been wandering through Carlisle from August to October, knocking down birdfeeders and destroying beehives on their way to "denning." (Where does a 400-pound bear den? Anywhere he wants.). The eastern black bear can live 15 to 25 years and is mature at age three. According to Lynn L. Rogers of the Wildlife Research Institute, adult males can reach 500 pounds. Females can weigh 300 pounds and reproduce every other year, with a 70% survival rate for cubs. They'll eat anything that doesn't argue with them: nuts, fruit, acorns, insects, road kill, mice, and greens. But are they dangerous? Rogers stresses that black bears are inaccurately characterized with traits that belong to the grizzly bear, such as rushing a human if she has cubs next to her. Bears are shy but are desperately seeking fat, and will follow their excellent sense of smell to a food source such as open garbage or an open door. Most male bears do not die naturally but are killed by humans.
Fox, raccoons, opossums
Fox and raccoon, hunted for their fur, rebounded faster than other larger predators. They are small and secretive. We have two species of fox in Carlisle, the red fox and the gray fox, and one species of raccoon, Procyon lotor. Both species eat whatever is handy, including rabbits, rodents, birds, eggs, fruit, carrion, insects, garbage and squirrels. Though they pose no threat to humans when healthy, they can carry rabies. Foxes will eat cats if they can catch them. Foxes are lovely to watch as they scurry from their dens, which are usually built in a hillside or under a log. Raccoons live in a variety of spots, including chimneys. Gray foxes can climb trees, making them seem more raccoon than fox. Opossums are North America's only marsupial (the female has a pouch). They are small, about the size of a cat, gentle, timid and, like foxes and raccoons, will eat anything handy. They have a strong musky odor, similar to a fox, which causes other animals and people to stay away from their small dens.
Two of the stinkiest critters in our woods are the woodchuck and skunk. Woodchucks love gardens, but when they forage, they eat down to the ground. They always look like they should be on a diet. When we moved to Carlisle we inherited a woodchuck who constantly stole our vegetables. We finally caught him in a Havahart trap, which is a silly name because we were planning to have him shot (woodchucks cannot be transported). But the poor thing was so thirsty and hungry while waiting for the man to pick him up that I began feeding it through the cage. What a stink it emits; it's hard to imagine it is a member of the squirrel family. We let it go and moved the garden to Foss Farm. Skunks, of course, are the smelliest animal, perhaps rivaling the stinkbugs that show up every fall. Woodchucks and skunks both like to burrow, and may take up residence under a porch or shed. Rodents
Mice, moles, voles, squirrels and chipmunks never moved out when the settlers moved in. Except for squirrels, none were eaten by the early settlers but all were cursed at. Pity the poor Carlisle residents in the 1700s trying to keep their stored food free from mice, or their gardens free from voles. Pity the landscaper today who watches her hostas disappear down a hole leaf by leaf as voles pull the plants underground.
Who would ever list birds as pests? The early settlers tried to wipe out crows, and had to deal with hungry flocks of redwing blackbirds. Indians did not hunt crows, Russell explained, "because of the tradition that the crow had brought them the first grain of corn in one ear and a bean in the other." Settlers hunted all birds for food, destroyed their habitats, and fought with them over ownership of the harvest. They also decreased the bat population, which increased the mosquitoes. If you sit outside at dusk on a warm summer evening (somehow protecting yourself from mosquitoes) you will see a fantastic aerial display from hunting bats. We need our bats. These wonderful creatures can eat over 500 insects an hour. There are nine species of bats in New England. We've had two little brown bats stuck in our house, but after we opened the window, they quickly found their way out. Big brown bats, which live in farm areas, eat June bugs, cucumber beetles, stinkbugs, leafhoppers and tent caterpillars.
Beavers and muskrats
From the late 1700s to around 1900 beavers were not seen in the Carlisle area, due to hunting and deforestation. Our modern-day beavers love to create ponds in some of the most inconvenient places. When the culvert on Maple Street was being repaired in 2003, reported the August 1 Mosquito, "Some industrious beavers have been damming the stream below the culvert, raising the water levels and impeding progress." In 2004 the beavers continued to cause havoc to homes on Brook Street, Maple Street and Page Brook Road by blocking the stream and causing flooding on several spots. Since 1996, beavers have been protected and cannot be trapped or moved unless no other course of action can be taken.
Muskrats thrive on the Concord River, in the wetlands at Great Brook, and at the Cranberry Bog, where they can be annoying by digging up the dikes. They also like to dig up landscaping around ponds and lakes. Carlisle residents report seeing weasels, minks, and fisher cats, which aren't cats at all but look more like weasels crossed with a cat. They are nasty enough that they will take on the spiny porcupine, along with anything else they can wrestle to the ground.
Here's a fascinating summary of animal problems reported in the Police Blotter during the years 1999, 2001, and 2005: bats — 6, bear — 6, birds — 3, beaver — 1, cows loose — 7, coyotes — 4, deer hit by cars — 47, ducks — 2, donkeys loose — 1, fox — 3, geese — 3, rabbits — 2, raccoons — 8, sheep — 1, skunk — 4, snake — 3, turtles — 4, squirrel — 3, and woodchuck — 1. Clearly deer need better road-crossing skills.
Carlisle's forests, fields, farms, and waterways are full of creatures, but we rarely see them unless we look carefully. Occasionally we get unlucky and the creatures become nuisances. With a new generation of residents moving into Carlisle, will we maintain our equilibrium with our wild neighbors? Or will we eventually become so frustrated with
the damage they cause, or become so fearful, that we mimic the early settlers, destroying habitats to master our land? Only time will tell.
Editor's note: To read more about critters in Carlisle in recent history, see Carlisle, As the Mosquito Saw It, published by the Carlisle Mosquito. The "Carlisle Cat," who frightened residents in 1975 with its scream ("worse than a mountain lion") is described on page 25. It was never identified. Other wildlife not included in the article above includes bees, caterpillars, moose, and snakes.
© 2006 The Carlisle Mosquito