Thursday, May 24, 2018

What’s killing our grouse?


At first it sounds like the muffled booming of a distant jet. Or perhaps a moose thumping through the open forest over the next hill.

It starts slowly, a muted thump, thump, thump then increases to something similar to a far off sonic boom.

I don’t hear that sound often these days so I can be forgiven for not identifying it instantly. It is, of course, a ruffed grouse pumping its cupped wings against the air and creating a drumming sound.

Male ruffed grouse, or partridge, stand on a log or rock in the spring and drum to attract females. As he drums, a ruff of dark feathers expands around his neck and he arches his tail feathers into a broad fan.

Witnessing drumming and strutting is a joy of the spring forest. It is one that I experience less and less with each passing year.

Ruffed grouse populations are down throughout much of North America. Many upland game hunters have stopped hunting them.

I am reluctant to shoot  a grouse in the fall, despite the fact they are one of the finest game birds around; fun to hunt and the best eating bird in the woods. I’ll take grouse over domestic chicken or turkey any day.

I can’t bring myself to shoot one because they have become so scarce in areas where I go. I figure every one I leave alive might help grouse populations get back to where they once were.

I saw a decline in my hunting area in the early 2000s. The small flocks I used to encounter were rarely seen. Then sightings of pairs and singles became less frequent.

Any wildlife decline in one area can be the result of localized conditions, so I assumed it was me just having poor luck. About the same time, however, hunters in Pennsylvania, where the ruffed grouse is the state bird, began noticing population declines. Then other northeastern U.S. states reported falling numbers.

Wildlife biologists always talked about eight- to 10-year cycles in which grouse populations waxed and waned. Population declines were attributed to periods of heavy predation, parasitic infestations or severe weather. As these periods passed, populations bounced back.

However, grouse populations have not bounced back in many areas. What is happening to ruffed grouse is more than regular up and down cycles.


Last year a U.S. game bird report said grouse populations in the northeastern states have declined at least 30 per cent in the last 30 years. It predicted continuing declines unless the causes are clearly identified and addressed.

The causes are the subject of much study and debate in the U.S. One of the main theories of cause has been habitat loss.

These birds survive mainly on buds, berries, catkins, soft leaves and seeds. They love clover when they can get it.

These succulent foods are abundant in new growth forests. Mature forests with large canopied trees have less ground cover growth and therefore fewer food choices for grouse.   

Logging and forest fires allow for new forest growth in many areas, so habitat loss as a main factor in general population declines is questionable.

A recent theory is that ruffed grouse are being hit hard by mosquito-borne West Nile disease. Some research has shown that 80 per cent of grouse exposed to West Nile die or are left sick enough to be unable to survive harsh weather and predators.

There has been little to no research to determine if West Nile is a major factor in Ontario’s ruffed grouse decline.

No one is able to say definitively what is killing Ontario’s grouse. It might be habitat loss, West Nile, parasites, or unusually heavy predation or combination of all these factors.

We need a definite answer to be able to do whatever is necessary to stop the decline and help grouse populations get back to previous levels.

The ruffed grouse is more than just a game bird. It is an important link in forest biodiversity.

As Aldo Leopold, the American environmentalist, wrote in his A Sand County Almanac:

“ . . . the grouse represents only a millionth of either the mass or the energy of an acre. Yet subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead.”

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Thursday, May 17, 2018

‘We are the change’


Most visitors to the San Francisco Bay area take in the usual popular sights: Fisherman’s Wharf, Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz.

Not me. I am in Moraga, a small town of about 16,000 nestled in the eastern hills overlooking the Bay area. It is the home of Saint Mary’s College of California, a small liberal arts college established roughly 150 years ago.

Saint Mary’s is the venue for a one-day college fair, one of hundreds taking place across North America at this time of year.

Spring is when universities and colleges send out their admissions representatives looking for the right future students for their institutions. For students, the fairs are a chance to gather information about course offerings, admissions policies, financial aid and college life in general.

In short, they are an opportunity for students to kick the tires of their post-high school education choices.

Post-secondary schools from more than half the U.S. states, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland are represented here. So are the Canadian institutions of Queen’s, Ryerson, McGill, Waterloo and the University of British Columbia.

Why I am here and what I am doing is not important. What I am seeing here is.

The young women and men talking with the college reps are much different from those of my blackboard jungle high school days.

These are not goofy teens going through the motions of being here because someone told them to be. They are interested and focussed, asking probing questions and taking close note of the answers.

You can’t identify them by uniform dress or look-alike hairstyles. They are more diverse – more individualistic – despite all being closely connected through online culture.

Many people say today’s kids are growing up more slowly than other generations. They often are viewed as social media addicts disconnected from the real world.

I disagree completely.

So does Dr. Lisa Damour, a psychologist, author and New York Times Well Family columnist.

“Those of us who live with teenagers and are around them can see something that is different about this generation,” she said recently.

These kids have been slapped hard and toughened – and enlightened – by significant changes in our society. They know about gunfire in schools, have seen the middle class evaporating and the gap between the haves and have nots expand into a chasm.

They have watched politics in their country, and other countries around the world, turn into clown shows in which unsuitable people work for themselves and their parties instead of the common good. They are growing up in a time of massive change that has brought economic upheavals, climate change and serious environment worries, plus catastrophic human displacements.

These are kids who appear ready to work hard and create a society that is more diverse, more cooperative and less partisan. They are concerned about equality and social justice and what is happening to the global environment.

We have seen a glimpse of this new and different generation through the ‘Never Again MSD’ teen movement formed from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shootings in Parkland, Florida. Seventeen students and staff died and 14 others were wounded when a former student stalked the school halls with a semi-automatic assault rifle.

Students from the school created the Never Again movement to demand tighter, common sense gun control laws. They succeeded in getting the Florida legislature to pass laws raising to 21 the age limit for buying guns, and establishing waiting periods and background checks.

They also exposed the dark side of the National Rifle Association, which funnels money to politicians who support its interests.

Tens of thousands of teens across North America joined the movement to stop gun violence and to influence the U.S. mid-term elections this fall.

“I am fascinated by the phenomenon we are seeing in front of us, and I don’t think it’s unique to these six or seven kids who have been the face of the Parkland adolescent cohort,” says Dr. Damour. 

Even more fascinating is a comment from one of the Stoneman Douglas survivors:

We are no longer just high school students, that much is true,”  Delaney Tarr wrote in Teen Vogue magazine. “We are now the future, we are a movement, we are the change."


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Thursday, May 10, 2018

In the stockyards of the sky


I am boot-horned into seat 37B at 31,000 feet, massaging numbness from my legs when I taste a wetness at the corners of my mouth. It is a salty wetness and I realize that I am crying. In fact, I am about to bawl.

This is embarrassing. My mind shifts to overdrive, thinking of how to conceal choking sobs from my fellow passengers.

Hide beneath a blanket? Airlines don’t provide them unless you pay for them. Bury my head in a pillow? They no longer hand out pillows either.

I am not wearing a hoodie so that’s no help. Eye drops? Good idea but they are in a carry-on buried in a hopelessly overloaded overhead bin.

I wipe away the tears furtively, then pull myself together and question why I am crying on an airplane.

Studies confirm that people are more likely to cry on airplanes than on the ground. A survey from Virgin Atlantic found that 55 per cent of people admitted to being more emotional than normal when hurtling through the stratosphere.

No one seems to know why. Some say it could be the general anxiety of flying.


It is storming below so the flight is rocky. Also there are recent stories about aircraft engines flying apart because of metal fatigue.

Then there’s the crowded skies. Aviation data companies that track all the aircraft in our skies report an average 9,728 planes, carrying 1,270,406 passengers, in the sky at any given time.

The lightest day for air traffic in recent times was Jan. 1, 2017, when there were a peak 3,354 planes in the sky at the same time. The heaviest air traffic day was Aug. 5, 2016, when 12,856 planes carrying 1,590,929 people made radar screens look like spider webs.

But I am a trained private pilot, and understand all this stuff so it doesn’t make me anxious. Certainly not enough to cry.
Flight crews have observed that their passengers tend to cry more while watching movies.
A survey by Gatwick Airport in London found that 15 per cent of men and six per cent of women said they are more likely to cry watching an inflight movie than at home.
However, I don’t watch movies on airplanes. The movie screens now are in the seat back in front of you and the seats are so close that anyone wearing progressive lens eyeglasses gets a stiff neck trying to focus.
I wouldn’t be watching today’s movie anyway because the guy sitting next me says it is called The Shape of Water and is about a woman who dates a fish.
There is speculation that being in a pressurized cabin at high altitude affects levels of mood-regulating hormones serotonin and dopamine. The different atmosphere sends the hormones a bit wonky and the tears begin to flow.
But it’s not flying anxiety or rattled hormones that are dissolving me into a puddle of tears. It’s nothing to do with the airplane. It’s all about getting to the airplane.
Today’s airports are playgrounds for digital screens and torture chambers for passengers. The screens surround you, grinning and chortling as they dare you to approach.
There is no avoiding them. You must approach. They control whether you get baggage tags, a boarding pass, even passport clearance.
Only a digital screen can permit you to move into the next line of airport captives snaking its way through other banks of digital screens, humming scanners and silent hidden cameras. Seen from above the captives are unbroken lines wandering wearily through a maze in search of the Pharaoh’s Tomb.
The reward at the maze exit is a corridor of food booths where the traveller can replenish the 10,000 calories burned during the airport passage. The $38 for a Panini, small salad and a bottle of water is enough to make anyone cry.
The airlines say they are committed to reducing passenger stresses. Some are even considering sleeper berths for larger airplanes on longer haul routes. Just crawl in and sleep away the stresses and bad memories of the airport passage.
Sounds sweet but you can bet the prices will have you bawling.

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