the trustees of reservations
On The Land
The Trustees of Reservations

Friday, October 19, 2012

Resurgent Massachusetts forests and wildlife!

The regeneration of New England from its 19th century landscape of open fields and farms to an increasingly thick and diverse forest habitat is a fascinating, ongoing story, made even more interesting by the fact that this was entirely uplanned, caused only by the mass abandonment of farmland in the 19th through early 20th centuries.  Farmers sought the flat landscape and fertile soils of Ohio and the Midwest during this time period, leaving our glaciated, rocky, and steep landscape behind them.  As a result while we live in the nation's third most densely populated state, supporting a large, dynamic, and hectic metropolitan region, Massachusetts today is also the eighth most forested state in the country, with over 60% forest cover

Image credit: USDA Forest Service

Creatures long eradicated from Massachusetts during the agricultural prime now call our new forests home.  Some even wander into our crowded suburbs and cities.  My cousin ran to the window one morning as a child in the early 1990s, calling out to her mother - "Mommy, look, there's a horse in the back yard!"  Confused for a moment, as equestrian facilities were rather lacking in our Fitchburg neighborhood, her mom quickly realized the "horse" was a cow moose!  Such sightings of moose are more and more common these days, and not just in the expected places like rural parts of Western and Central MA - but in places as urban as Worcester, and as close to Boston as Weston, Wellesley, and Needham.  Black Bear sightings have become more common as well, stretching far south to Cape Cod and even in Brookline

A wild turkey relaxes at Allandale Farm in Boston / Brookline, perhaps after a sidewalk stroll in Coolidge Corner?
The most resilient animals are able to adapt to life among our suburbs and urban centers - territorial wild turkeys amuse and sometimes terrorize the suburbs and Beacon Street, and have given CR staff some unnerving looks at the Allandale Farm CR in Boston and Brookline.  Meanwhile, we have seen Massachusetts' ubiquitous deer on CR properties hop 7-foot-high fences in Millis, and converge in a winter herd of over twenty in Ipswich.  A fisher cat startled our CR Program Director at the Gateway Park CR in Fitchburg last year (see previous post).  We have yet to see the animals themselves, but have seen bear and moose droppings and tracks on CR properties in New Marlborough (not to be confused with Marlborough, though they probably pass through there occasionally too!).  In the end, though, the most adaptable and controversial relative newcomer (1950s) to Massachusetts may be the eastern coyote.

In fact not native to New England - wolves are the native species, but were eradicated by 1840 - research has shown the eastern coyote to be a complex hybrid of the western coyote, with certain wolf species.  As a result, the term "coywolf" has been coined to describe them.  They are in fact larger on average than their western cousins, and are often mistaken for wolves as a result!  These wolf sightings are unlikely but not impossible - the first confirmed Massachusetts wolf in ~170 years was killed in October 2007 in Shelburne, MA, and found to have migrated from Canada.  Since coyotes are opportunistic feeders - hunter of rodents and other small animals, foragers of fruits and berries, and scavengers of roadkill and garbage - they find our suburbs and even cities to provide quite a lavish banquet, including, sadly, the occasional unfortunate pet.  Their eerie choruses of howling are a common sound from the deep forests to the subdivisions these days! 

A coyote on Nashawena Island greets the monitoring crew!
The media is humming with articles and editorials on suburban coyotes, some in favor of peaceful co-existence, others staunchly against.  As there are 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts, and Nantucket is the only one of those which definitely does not have coyotes - they've even swam out to establish themselves on the Elizabeth Islands (confirmed) and the Vineyard (unofficially) - there are probably some near you!  Since coyotes are both territorial and some are migratory, in search of their own territory to fill, they have established themselves quickly and persistently, and eradicating them is neither simple nor necessarily desirable.  Coyotes eradicated from their own territory through natural or human-caused death are often quickly replaced by migratory ones in search of territory.  It may not be entirely desirable either, as coyotes keep certain rodent populations under control, which can be both general pests, and some being carriers of ticks that can cause Lyme and other diseases.  That said, we'll leave you with more photos, and the state's official advice on Living With Coyotes, from MassWildlife

Coyote mama and pups on a Marion CR!

Her vigilant maternal eyes hardly left us for a second!

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