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I was struck this week by the comments made by a Maine astronaut, primarily his assertion that “We will have to get off this planet someday,” which explains why NASA and others are spending so much time and money getting space stations built, moon landings resumed and trips to Mars placed on the open market for anyone who wants to enjoy a lengthy, one-way excursion to the Red Planet.
All of this made me wonder what it is about humans that make them unable to adapt to changing conditions. Rather than learn to live with what we have (or fix the environmental damage we’ve done) we want to hop on a space ship and go somewhere else where, no doubt, we’ll ruin that as well.
I’m thinking maybe we should take a tip from our wild neighbors. Because of changes in their traditional habitat (mostly caused by humans) they have a choice: Adapt or perish. The point was driven home this week when I went to the wood shed for another load of oak. The top, back row of firewood was covered with leaves, twigs and packed mud, and inside were four flying squirrels that had taken up residence there last November. I haven’t bothered them all winter and they seem to tolerate me coming in and banging around with the wood cart for a few minutes. I often catch them peering out through the stacked billets like curious little gnomes – way cute, of course, and a welcome addition to my backyard menagerie.
Over time their natural habitat (old, hollow trees with lots of cavities made to order for these diminutive rodents) has been turned into firewood. Rather than fly away in a bug-eyed panic, the squirrels simply did the most logical thing – they adapted to the changes in habitat and commandeered my wood pile for their winter home. Their nest is the size of a trash can and is surprisingly compact and air-tight. The squirrels spend their nights gleaning what they can from the bird seed left on the ground under the feeders and so they thrive despite the changes in their environment.
I’ve noticed the same behavior with raccoons, skunks and porcupines that have found their niche under the wood shed, where it’s dark, dry and protected from the elements just as a fallen log or overturned stump might have provided equally good shelter before human “progress” interfered with the natural plan.
Most startling to me is that I now see ravens flying around built-up areas where strip malls and subdivisions have replaced what once was fertile farmland. I have observed ravens in their natural, forested habitat as far north as Labrador and the wilds of northern Newfoundland, wilderness areas where gravel roads are the only sign of human encroachment. Once a denizen of Maine’s wild northern forests, now I’m hearing ravens chuckle, gurgle and croak as they swoop by high overhead in back yards, along highways and in small patches of woods where the bustle of human activity can be heard night and day. No doubt these big, black birds would prefer their former wilderness haunts, but they’ve learned to take what they can get when wilderness is no longer an option.
Red squirrels are also creatures of the deep evergreen forest. Their chirps and chirrings may be heard all day long while paddling or hiking Maine’s vast wild areas. Of late, however, our appetite for softwood products has decimated the spruce, fir and cedar stands that red squirrels called home for thousands of years. Now it’s either adapt or go the way of the dodo, and it’s no surprise that these clever, manic little rodents have decided to change with the times. I have a family of four red squirrels living in the rock pile I call my outdoor fireplace. There’s not an evergreen in sight yet the red squirrels have found the place to their liking. They are first and last at the feeders each day and are demonstrably annoyed when the more aggressive gray squirrels, turkeys and blue jays show up to challenge their authority.
It may be in response to this frigid, slowly passing winter but I’ve seen more owls hanging around developed areas than ever before. Snowy owls from Canada have been frequent visitors to Maine in recent months, and they seem to be content to dine on American squirrels, mice and rabbits because the supply of lemmings has taken a nosedive. I’ve had barred owls, horned owls and even bald eagles stop by for days, even weeks, and this winter. I’m always reminded that bird feeder is in fact a “bird” feeder, even when the raptors swing by to feed, not with the birds, but on them. They’ve learned that when pickings are slim elsewhere there’s always plenty of prey to be had where sunflower seeds, corn and grain are readily available. I don’t think any of these critters want to be this close to human habitat and all but the barred owls flee at the first hint of an open door or window, but they do what they must in order to survive.
The bigger predators are also learning to adapt to changes in their environment, though more cautiously than the smaller critters and birds of prey. I keep a pile of road-killed critters near the edge of the woods about 150 yards from the house and while I rarely see anything visit the stash, tracks in the snow reveal that coyotes, foxes and bobcats have come through during the night for a quick bite. These animals do not like spending time in the open and so they wait for the cover of darkness to conduct their business. Every so often I’ll catch one sneaking in just before sunrise or at sunset, but most of the time they stay quietly back in the woods and bide their time till it’s safe to venture beyond the protection of the saplings.
Things are evolving on earth but if our wild neighbors can adapt to the changes so can we. I’ve heard there is no wildlife on Mars and if that’s the case I see no sensible reason to go there. What a dreary, lonely place it must be – and there’s no coming back!
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