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It’s not often that one is privileged to see instant and immediate wildlife adaptations to drastic changes in their environment. Over time we have seen turkey vultures, opossums and even mockingbirds (all common warm-climate critters) slowly move into Maine, but the phenomenon I’m talking about occurs when a large parcel of habitat is suddenly, permanently altered.
In the past week or so a neighbor has had commercial loggers in to remove about 40 percent of her 90-acre woodlot. Nothing new or unusual about that, but being the next-door neighbor, I noticed a change in our wildlife patterns that certainly are the direct result of large numbers of trees being cut and removed in a matter of minutes.
For example, our resident flock of turkeys has disappeared, no doubt because their traditional roosting site is no longer there. The birds would fly down from the ancient oaks on the hilltop and spend the day feeding literally in my back yard, and then work their way back up the hill in the evening to roost. Now the top of the hill is flat and barren and the turkeys are gone as well.
I have also noticed more (albeit temporarily) goldfinches, phoebes, robins, thrushes and other birds moving off the woodlot into neighboring parcels. For example, a split rail fence runs through the middle of my back field and on a normal day I’d see a phoebe or two sitting on the fence posts as they’d scan their surroundings for insects. This week while the cutting was going on, there were phoebes on every fence post and on the cedar rails as well – more than a dozen new birds where just last week there were only three.
My porch feeders (I feed the birds year-round) normally attract a small group of goldfinches at dawn. The bright yellow-and-black birds would consume maybe a cupful of sunflower seeds each day. In recent days my feeders have been shoulder-to-shoulder with finches and they are eating more than four cups of seeds daily!
Sadly, the family of barred owls that used to hoot us to sleep at night is gone, too. They shared the oaks and pines on the hill where the turkeys roosted but the big trees have been cut down – no place for an owl to hoot from.
The cutting has also changed the habits of our local deer population. For years whitetails have used a trail that skirted the field. They’d go up through a swampy area to a beech ridge and then bed in the pines in a hollow on the hilltop, but now the beeches and pines are gone and so are the deer. We haven’t seen one in two weeks (ever since the cutting began) and there are no more tracks in the garden at the corner of the field. It may well be that the noise and commotion that goes with modern woodcutting has sent the deer running to quieter havens, but for now at least they are nowhere to be seen.
Other mammals are also affected by the loss of den and cubby trees. On the stretch of road bordering the cutting operation it was normal to see one or two road-killed raccoons or porcupines each month, but in the few weeks since the cutting started we’ve seen over a dozen such kills.
I can just imagine the turmoil among the various species as each day’s cutting displaces more birds and animals, forcing them into the surrounding woodlands. Disney movies notwithstanding, the other creatures do not welcome the new arrivals with open arms. Every bird, mouse and moose fights long and hard to establish its home territory, and when an intruder shows up, even one of its own species, the territorial battles begin.
This week I have seen more chases and fights among gray squirrels, chipmunks and red squirrels than ever. I’m sure the displaced critters are trying to find a new home close to their old digs, but the established residents on our side of the property line are not interested in being anyone’s Welcome Wagon.
This week I had to resort to a mechanical alarm clock to wake me up in the morning because the resident flock of crows, which roosted on the hill and raised such a ruckus at sunrise have left the area as well. Crows need roosting sites, look-out trees and calling positions so they can survey and manage their territory. With the biggest trees gone, they must find another place to set up their command post.
Not that most folks would care, but for at least the last two years that hilltop was also home to a breeding pair of coyotes. We’d commonly hear them howl in the distance during the days before and after the full moon. That’s another sound we have not heard since the cutting began, and the moon was full just days ago. I gladly shoot every coyote I can call into gun range, but they are part of the wild world around here and people notice when they go missing.
Fortunately, one 40-acre clear-cut is not going to eradicate the local wildlife population. In fact, as the tract grows back into grass, brush and saplings we’ll see more, varied species take up residence. Clear-cutting does create drastic changes in the short term, but our wild neighbors will get used to the situation faster than we will. They will investigate, negotiate and repopulate as quickly as the new growth allows.
So, over the next decade or two I’m expecting to see a wide variety of birds and animals to come and go as they adapt to the slowly regenerating vegetation. With 40 acres of new edge cover I’m expecting to see more grouse and woodcock (we have fewer than ever of them in this region of mature forest), certainly rabbits, deer and moose, maybe even a bear or bobcat. Diverse habitat means diversity of species – and it’s all incremental. As the new forest grows and changes so will its residents.
Meanwhile, I’ll be here on the front porch watching the woods grow up and the creatures thrive around me. As long as we don’t pave it, everything will be fine!
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