Friday, July 16, 2010

Times Are Strange

In the words of Bob Dylan,  “People are crazy and times are strange …”

Free-ranging turkeys have been spotted from backyards in Massachusetts to the streets of downtown New Haven, where they casually stroll down the center line oblivious to the traffic they are tying up.

In June, a coyote attacked two children in Rye, New York.

Seals are seemingly everywhere in the waters off Chatham at the elbow of Cape Cod.

Great white sharks have been swimming in New England waters for the past two summers.

My theory? These phenomena have one commonality. Each would seem to be the unintended consequence of a human action or actions.

The turkey in residence in a Richmond, MA backyard.
Wild turkeys were abundant in North America when the colonists first arrived.  Benjamin Franklin lobbied for the turkey to become the national bird. Through hunting and loss of woodland habitat, their numbers had dwindled so greatly that the government re-introduced them to “recovering woodlands” in the 1940s. The program “took.” The turkeys have done so well that they are repopulating  urban areas, such as the New Haven Green, and appearing in places where they did not live at all when the Europeans set foot on these shores.

Coyotes originally inhabited the Pacific Northwest. They are opportunistic eaters and have been migrating across the country following man’s footsteps in search of easy food. They now occupy territory that once belonged to the wolves, a species that was hunted and nearly decimated. Wolves and coyotes are normally enemies, but recent studies show that hybridization has occurred. The coywolf is larger and more aggressive than the coyote, preying on mammals larger than mice, the normal coyote target, including dogs and deer. It is suspected that coywolves may have carried out the recent attacks on children. Some speculate that this new species will fill an ecological niche and may actually help bring the deer population under control. Plans to re-introduce the gray wolf into the Adirondacks have been put on hold while more research is conducted on the coywolf population.

Seals were a rarity in Chatham waters when we took a boat ride in 1995 with a teen-aged “Captain Andy” to have a closer look at them and recorded the event with the photo on the right. Andy was the one who first told us that seals are not well-loved by fishermen and explained why.  Seals are voracious eaters and ruthless killers. They have been known to catch a large fish, to rip out its highly-prized internal organs, and to leave the remainder of the carcass on the beach. We also heard from Dave Brooks, the owner of Judie's Bakery in New Haven, that in Wellfleet last summer his brother-in-law lost a bluefish on his line to a gray seal, who popped its head out of the water and glanced back at him to show off the fish held in its teeth.

In Massachusetts there was a bounty on both harbor seals and gray seals until 1962. The passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972 ensured that they would be protected. The population of both harbor and gray seals in Chatham, the part of the Cape I know, has grown considerably in the decades since then. Instead of migrating, many seals have become year-round residents. One benefit to the local economy is that seal watching tours have become big business.

But guess for whom seal is a favorite meal? Bingo — the great white shark! Another determining factor in great white happiness is water between 59° and 67°F, the typical mid-summer temperature for the water on the ocean side of the Cape between Orleans and Chatham, where shark sightings led to beach closings last year. Jim Horna, Chatham’s marine operations supervisor, stated on on June 29 that with this June’s warmer than normal weather, the waters around Lighthouse Beach currently ranged from 58° to 64°F — just how the great whites like it.

A great white was sighted off Nauset Beach last Sunday (July 11), the day after we returned home. Every sighting leads to a media frenzy, which may be helping to keep some visitors away from the Cape’s clean and refreshing waters — not what tourism needs in these recessionary times. My advice (and that of the experts) is simple and easy to follow — avoid swimming with seals. Keep in mind that the last death blamed on a great white shark in Massachusetts was in 1936.

We spied vacancy signs even during the long weekend when temperatures inland were reaching 100°. This would not have been the case 20 years ago.

As the rest of the song goes, “… things have changed.”

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