MOHAWK - Discovering the Valley of the Crystals Copyright 2003
Wonderful World of Wildlife
There is more wildlife in the Mohawk Valley today than there has been in thousands of years. Fact is, when the first Dutch, Palatine and then New England settlers came here most of this area was mature forest; poor habitat for much of the wildlife we see today. Except for along streambeds, stillwaters and marshlands, or where blowdowns, fires, frequent flooding or Indian farmers had opened up the forest canopy, most of the edible vegetation was at the top of trees.
Although there were concentrations of whitetail deer where the Mohawks had farmed and hunted for generations, deer food was scarce in the rest of the valley, especially during the winter. Black bear, on the other hand, were abundant, surviving most of the year on beechnuts, wild cherries, berries, grubs, rodents, and in some places Indian corn. When such delicacies were covered with ice and snow, bruins were sleeping.
Where blowdowns and fires occurred, and thick conifer forests dominated the scene, snowshoe rabbits were abundant. Where they hadn't been trapped out, beaver provided table fare. If brush, poplar (aspen) and hardwoods filled the opening created by nature and man, partridge came to feed. That---and a few wolves, catamounts, elk and moose---according to the earliest settlers, was it . . . until the spring and fall migrations of waterfowl and passenger pigeons.
Other species of wildlife mentioned in early accounts were bald eagle, herons, ducks, geese and raccoon. Of course most of the early settlers looked at wildlife as a source of fur and food, or competition for food. Consequently, they killed them whenever and wherever possible.
Where the soil was rich and the growing season long, the wilderness was turned to farmland so rapidly, and habitat changed so dramatically, some species of wildlife disappeared and others took their place before 1825. By the mid 1800s seeing a bear, wolf, deer, moose, snowshoe rabbit or turkey was rare indeed. As the forest was replaced by fields, interspersed with hedgerows and woodlots, gray squirrels, cottontail rabbits, fox and hawks moved in.
In the highlands, particularly in the mountainous regions of such tributaries as West Canada Creek and East Canada Creek, where there were fewer farms and more forest, bear and moose were still common and deer and partridge populations were on the increase. Following logging operations in the mid and late 1800s, and again in the early and mid 1900s, whitetail deer populations skyrocketed, and then slowly declined as much of this land became state forest and logging was prohibited. Today, except for such large tracts of private land as Miller Park and the Adirondack League Club, much of this mountain forest has reverted to wilderness and is almost like it was 200 years ago.
In the mid 1900s dairy farming began a dramatic decline. As more and more cropfields, hayfields and pasture reverted to forest, it created ideal whitetail deer habitat, providing edible vegetation next to forest. With such an abundance of food and cover, the deer population grew and grew, until today there are more deer than at any time in history. During late winter and early spring herds of up to 100 deer can be seen feeding in meadows and pastures that once supported dairy cattle.
With the increase in hardwood forests, came a decrease in cottontail rabbits, partridge and fox populations . . . and the end of the previously successful ring-necked pheasant stocking programs.
In the 1960s New York State wildlife biologists re-introduced wild turkey into the forest and fields of western New York. As these flocks grew, a "trap and transfer" program distributed small flocks of turkeys to other areas of the state, including the Mohawk Valley. The rest, as they say, is history. Turkeys have spread throughout central and northern New York State. Today there seem to be turkeys everywhere. Large flocks can be seen picking feed from spread-manure during the winter months, and smaller flocks and individual birds are seen in fields and woods throughout the year.
The creation of the Barge Canal in 1915 was a boon to waterfowl in the Mohawk Valley. Miles and miles of stillwater in the canal and in canal-feed reservoirs created thousands of acres of waterfowl habitat. This boon was further enhanced by tributary reservoirs built for municipal water, power generation and flood control, and then bumped up again by a proliferation of farm ponds. All of this stillwater and associated wetlands attracted more and more migrating waterfowl, and resulted in a dramatic increase in resident duck populations. While mallards, black ducks, wood ducks and mergansers have nested here for eons, Canada geese, until recently, were passersby; stopping only during spring and fall migrations. Today, Canada geese nest here and flocks of 50 or more resident birds are quite common in the valley. Many of them stay in the area even during the winter..
Coyotes have replaced the wolf (and in many areas the fox) as the most prolific four-footed predator. They feed primarily on rodents but will also attack larger animals, including deer. Some farmers like them because they eat so many woodchucks. Some deer hunters don't like them because they eat too many deer. In reality coyote haven't put a dent in the record population of deer in recent years. Coyote populations fluctuate with prey populations, so they are sure to be around the valley for a long time.
Other often-seen wildlife include such large birds as: red-tailed hawk, osprey, turkey vulture, great horned owl, crow, raven, great blue heron, green heron, bittern, and an occasional bald eagle, loon, snowy egret or swan. The number and variety of smaller birds is astounding and include such friendly species as hummingbird, chickadee, goldfinch, robin, mourning dove and cardinal; such loudmouths as bluejay, red-wing black bird, grackle and kingfisher; flying insect eaters like swallow and cedar waxwing, plus a variety of woodpeckers and an occasional oriole or bluebird. That list goes on and on and on.
Other mammals most often seen, or evident by track, skat and other activity, are: red squirrel, chipmunk, woodchuck, beaver, muskrat, mink, raccoon, skunk and porcupine. There are also fisher, bobcat, weasel, mink, otter, opossum (a newcomer) and moose in the valley.
There are a number of books and websites available that describe the habits and habitat of the wildlife found in upstate New York. They include information, illustrations and/or photographs that can help anyone interested in wildlife to identify the many species that reside in the Mohawk Valley.
Following are brief descriptions of the most popular and /or most commonly seen species. The items underlined are posted, the rest are coming attractions.
Whitetail Deer Wild Turkey Ruffed Grouse (Partridge) Great Blue Heron1/31/03 Mallard Merganser Wood Duck Canada Goose Osprey Eastern Coyote Black Bear Beaver1/31/03 Turkey Vulture Cottontail Rabbit Sea Gull Red-tailed Hawk
Photographs added as they become available
Articles About Wildlife
Gert Gives a Hoot Wildlife Drama in the Winter Woods Strange Bedfellows and It's All In The Eyes West Canada Geese On Ice
Strange Bedfellows and It's All In The Eyes
December 30, 2002, 35 degrees, Cloudy
After the Christmas 2002 Nor'easter dumped a pile of snow on the Mohawk Valley, many of the deer in this area sought cover under evergreens. Not far from my home are two big white pines with branches low to the ground. While snowshoeing after the big snowfall, I discovered six deer bedded under those pines.
There were a half-dozen deer bedded under these white pines.
When grandkids Jack and Andi Nicholson visited later in the week, we took a hike to see where deer sleep when the snow gets deep. That short hike became a nature lesson for young minds. I didn't have snowshoes to fit all of us, so we walked in my previous snowshoe tracks. Even then it was difficult going, so we took our time, noting rabbit and deer tracks and their "poop" along the way. We also saw a patch of bloody snow next to a rabbit hole.
When we finally got to the pines, I asked Jack and Andi if they would lay down in a couple of the deer beds so I could take some photographs. Judging from their expressions, they thought it a strange request even from Grandpa Paul. However, when I told them that not many people have been in a deer's bed they readily complied.
I counted 19 beds under those two white pines. Not all the beds were used at the same time, but there were at least a half dozen deer using this cover. Although white pine is not a preferred whitetail food, the needles were eaten off the lower branches and a couple of small pines nearby were stripped.
On the way back, we stopped again at the rabbit hole where we had seen the bloody snow. I told the grandkids that a predator, perhaps a coyote or even an owl (I couldn't find any fresh tracks or wing marks.) had probably killed the rabbit when it came out of its hole and took it away to eat. I asked if they knew an easy way to tell predators from prey. When they said they didn't, I told them it's all in the eyes, and then elaborated.
Jack and Andi tried deer beds on for size.
"Eyes front predator . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Eyes side prey."
Predators have eyes in the front of their head, facing forward. Prey have eyes on the sides of their head. With eyes on the sides of the head, prey can look almost all the way around so they can see predators coming to get them. Predators look straight ahead so they can find and catch prey.
Prey animals like rabbits, deer, squirrels and mice, and birds like grouse and doves eat vegetation. Predators, like coyotes, foxes, dogs and cats, and birds like owls and hawks eat meat. Some predators like bears, coyotes . .. and man eat meat and vegetables. I didn't describe the difference in the teeth and digestive systems of predator and prey animals. Thought I'd leave that for another time.
Before we got home I asked my "students" how to tell the difference between predator and prey, Andi, answered, "Eyes front predator. Eyes side prey." Lesson learned.
(Rabbit and Owl are Internet file photos.)
Wildlife Drama in the Winter Woods
Winter offers a unique opportunity to study wildlife. Even when you don't see any wild critters, their activities are etched in new fallen snow.
February 13, 2002, 20 degrees, Falling Snow
Early this morning I discovered an unusual looking trail. Something had been dragged through the snow, but I couldn't see any distinctive tracks. However, there were wing marks on both sides of the trail, which I followed for some 50 yards, finding drops of blood along the way. I thought a fox was dragging a grouse that didn't want to give up easily.
At the end of the trail, lying next to a large stump was a dead cottontail. Considering this was a nighttime kill, I reasoned that an owl had dragged and killed the rabbit . . . that didn't give up easily. The rabbit was not eaten. Perhaps something had spooked the owl.
I backtracked and discovered a brush pile where the owl had first attacked the rabbit. This wildlife drama extended for some 75 yards through the woods and brush before ending inches away from a hole at the base of the stump.
The following day when I returned to the stump, blood, bone and talon tracks revealed the owl had eaten one leg and then dragged the rabbit to the other side of the stump. The next day, the rabbit was gone, taken by a coyote.
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