Welcome to SCHOCK MCCOY PRODUCTIONS by J.H.McCoy. This website will give you information about a variety of topics: nature, literature, history, and astronomy, as well as additional details about my articles in THE MINDEN CITY HERALD (989-864-3630). The last two pages are a tribute to my mother, Gloria (Schock) McCoy (1923-2013). The journal she wrote on our trip West (1977) can be found in "Writing/GSM."  It is my hope that you will always find something interesting and informative on this website and that 
you will visit often.  Please sign the guest book, and thank you for stopping by.       
        J.H. (John Herbert) McCoy           
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             MARCH 15, 2018
            THIS WEEK IN
THE MINDEN CITY HERALD
VIRGINIA OPOSSUM
from THE MINDEN CITY HERALD - MARCH 1, 2018
Opossums are “light sleepers” in the winter.   They do not hibernate, and if the weather warms up during a January or February thaw, they quickly become active.  Opossums take advantage of any breaks in the winter cold to venture out and look for food.

Even though they are nocturnal animals, during a thaw they are often seen in broad daylight, waddling across the melting snow.  Some unlucky opossums make their first foray into the spring-like temperatures only to end up as roadkill along busy highways.   Everyone has seen a dead opossum on the road during a midwinter thaw.

The opossum I photographed in Minden Township during this year’s January thaw was busy looking for food under a crab apple tree, which was still loaded with last year’s fruit.   After finding a few tidbits on the ground, it simply walked up the slanted tree trunk and went right to the source.  That’s when I got out of my car and snapped a few close-up pictures.

The opossum (or “possum” in the South) is usually called the “Virginia opossum” in mammal field guides, a name derived from its Latin binomial, Didelphis virginiana.   In North America, it was first discovered in the Virginia Colony - a vast tract of land claimed by the English circa 1584 and named for their sovereign, the so-called “Virgin Queen,” Elizabeth I.   In 1608, Captain John Smith, the leader of the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown, wrote a description of the Virginia opossum:

“An Opassom hath an head like a Swine, and a taile like a Rat, and is of the bignes of a Cat.  Under her belly she hath a bagge wherein she lodgest, carrieth, and sucketh her young.”

Smith’s account was the first of many attempts to describe this unusual animal.  A modern description of the Virginia opossum can be found in Stan Tekiela’s Mammals of Michigan Field Guide:

“Gray to brown body, sometimes nearly black.  A white head, throat and belly.   Long narrow snout and wide mouth [50 teeth – more than any other mammal in Michigan].  Oval, naked black ears. Long, scaly, semi-prehensile, naked pinkish tail.  Short legs. Feet have 5 toes.  First toe on hind feet is thumb-like and lacks a nail.  Pink nose and toes.”

The field guide author also mentions that the tip of an opossum’s “naked pink tail and ears often become frostbitten during the winter, turn black and fall off.”

The Virginia opossum is North America’s only marsupial, a mammal whose young are born in an undeveloped state and crawl into their mother’s pouch, where Captain Smith says, “…she lodgest, carrieth, and sucketh her young.”  The most well-known marsupial is Australia’s kangaroo, and everyone has seen pictures of a baby kangaroo in its mother’s pouch. Similarly, the mother opossum nurtures and protects the undeveloped babies in her pouch until they are fully developed.

The Kaufman Field Guide to Mammals of North America describes the process:

“Each [opossum] litter contains eight to a dozen or more young, born after less than two weeks’ gestation.   The babies are born in an embryonic state: naked, undeveloped, and the size of a bumblebee.  They make their own way through their mother’s fur into her pouch and attach to a nipple, which swells in their mouth, attaching them securely for the next two months.   If the litter size exceeds the number of nipples (13), unattached young die.   During their third month, the young ride around on the mother’s back, returning to the pouch only to nurse.”

The Virginia opossum is an omnivore.   It eats insects, seeds, nuts, berries, fruit, leaves, bird eggs, fish, reptiles, amphibians, small mammals, earthworms, and roadkill.   In other words, “just about anything.”

Originally common in the southern U.S., the Virginia opossum has expanded its range and can now be found in much of the Northeast and Midwest.   According to the range map in the Kaufman Field Guide, opossums are also common in Mexico and in western states like Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska.  They have also been introduced into areas on the west coast and can be found along the Pacific Ocean in California, Oregon, and Washington.

The slow-moving opossum defends itself by snarling, hissing, and showing its numerous teeth.  If that doesn’t work and it’s unable to flee, the wily opossum curls up in a limp ball and pretends to be dead. Half-closed eyes, bared teeth, and an open mouth dripping saliva give the appearance of death while a foul secretion from its anal glands mimics the smell of a sick or dead animal. Predators are often confused and stymied by this ruse because they usually pursue live prey and their hunting instincts are triggered by movement and flight.

The opossum’s defensive maneuver is actually an involuntary response triggered by fear of danger (like fainting).  In the process, the animal’s heart slows down and its respiration nearly ceases.   An opossum pretending to be dead can be prodded, poked, turned over, or carried by the tail.  It will not move or show any signs of life until the danger has passed.  An opossum can remain in this catatonic state for several hours.

The phrase “playing possum” is part of our language.  It means: “to remain quiet and still in order to escape attention or remain undetected; to lie low; to feign sleep or illness.”  The expression first appeared in print in 1822, but it is much older than that.  From the earliest days of the Jamestown settlement, hunters witnessed and talked about the opossum’s unusual defensive strategy.

However, “playing possum” did not work on humans - opossums were captured and eaten by Native Americans, English settlers, and Southern colonists.  According to Wikipedia, “The Virginia opossum was once widely hunted and consumed in the United States.”  The famous author Mark Twain listed the opossum as part of American cuisine, and Jimmy Carter, a Georgia native and the 39th President of the United States, wrote a poem about his experiences hunting possums, which he called “Of Possums and Fatback.”

The word opossum is derived from the Algonquian language.   The unusual creature, which the English had never seen before, was called apossoun (“white animal”) by the native people.  The settlers adopted the term, and it soon appeared in the literature of the colony.   Eventually, the word was changed to apossom, and within a century the modern word opossum and its abbreviated form possum were commonly used in Virginia.

The word opossum is an early Americanism dating back to the 1600’s, but the animal itself is ancient.   The Virginia opossum belongs to a mammalian family which began to evolve at the end of the Cretaceous Period in the Mesozoic Era.  Scientists have traced the evolution of the opossum back to the extinction of the dinosaurs and the rise of mammals, roughly 66 million years ago. Without question, these unique marsupials have been “playing possum” for millions of years – long before John Smith and the English arrived at Jamestown in 1607 and first saw the strange creature with “an head like a Swine…tail like a Rat…[and] bignes of a Cat”

J.H.McCoy

Notes: Opossums are solitary animals.   According to the Audubon Nature Encyclopedia, “…no naturalist has yet reported seeing two wild adult opossums together, even during the breeding season.”  Probably an exaggeration, but I have never seen two together.

Stan Tekiela writes in his Mammals of Michigan Field Guide that an opossum “…Also climbs trees well, using its tail to hold onto branches (semi-prehensile).   While the tail is strong enough to aid in climbing, an opossum is not able to hang by its tail like a monkey.”

Incidentally, monkeys have prehensile tails, which are “able to seize, grasp, or hold, especially by wrapping around an object.”

Some wildlife experts claim that a single opossum eats up to 5,000 ticks in a season, but they don’t contract or carry Lyme disease.  Tick populations are on the rise in Michigan, and knowing that an opossum destroys thousands of them every year gives the average outdoorsman a new appreciation for this unique animal.

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A hungry opossum poses for a picture in a crab apple tree during this year's January thaw.
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"MARK OF THE   BEAVER AND   THE MINDEN   CITY STATE   GAME AREA"
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"VIRGINIA   OPOSSUM"
EVENING PLANETS
Anyone who spends time in the Minden City State Game Area (MCSGA) will eventually 
come across beaver sign.  It might be a well-constructed dam blocking a ditch or small stream.   It could be a large aspen lying on the ground and scarred with tell-tale tooth marks.   Or it might be the stump of a small tree or shrub, seemingly sharpened to a point and surrounded by wood chips.

The American beaver, Castor canadensis, is a rodent or gnawing mammal.  It is related 
to squirrels, gophers, and woodchucks, as well as to porcupines, muskrats, and field mice.  Weighing 20 – 60 pounds, the beaver is much larger than other members of the rodent family; in fact, it is the second-largest rodent in the world - only the capybara of South America outweighs it. (The only other beaver species in the world is the Eurasian or European beaver (Castor fiber) – superficially similar, but different from and not genetically compatible with Castor canadensis.)

Everyone knows what the American beaver looks like.  The Audubon Nature Encyclopedia gives a detailed description:

“The beaver is a chunky animal with dark brown back and sides, and with somewhat 
lighter underparts.   It has a large, deep head with small, rounded ears – which nevertheless are prominent, particularly when the animal is swimming.   In the front of the mouth are 
very strong, chisel-shaped incisor teeth, two above and two below, which serve as the 
tools and weapons of this animal.   These teeth are noticeable, not only because of their large size but also because of their yellow color.  The forefeet of the beaver are rather small and clawed; they are very mobile and serve as rather efficient hands.   The hindfeet are 
large and have webs between the toes – obviously to propel the animal through the water.  Perhaps the most characteristic external feature of the beaver is the broad, flat, trowel-shaped tail, virtually naked of hair and covered with overlapping scales.”

While swimming, a beaver uses its flat, powerful tail to control direction and as an aid to propulsion; the tail also serves as a prop on land when a beaver stands on its hind legs.  
A beaver also uses its tail to warn nearby family members of approaching danger.   Just before it dives to safety, the beaver slaps the water with its tail, producing a loud, sharp warning sound to alert all others within hearing.   Beavers in the vicinity will usually follow suit, and a series of explosive slaps might echo across a beaver pond.

Seeing the “mark of the beaver” in the Minden City State Game Area reminded me that beavers have always been here.   Long before European settlement, native tribesmen hunted them in the Great Lakes region and locally in the so-called “Minden Swamp.”  
Later, their soft, shiny fur became an important trade item as white men penetrated the North American wilderness.

Fortunes were made on beaver pelts, and men like John Jacob Astor (1763-1848) got rich buying and selling furs.  The Hudson Bay Company, chartered in 1670, controlled the British fur trade in North America for centuries, shipping millions of beaver pelts to England.  
Their coat of arms featured a silver shield supported by two elk (similar to Michigan’s 
Great Seal) and a red cross with four beavers, one in each quarter.  The motto read: pro 
pelle cutem (“skin for leather”).

In 1680, the Hudson Bay Company began trading their famous 100% wool “point blankets” for beaver pelts.   The short black lines woven into each blanket indicated its size and could be seen when it was folded.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not true that the number of black lines on the blanket indicated the exact number of beaver pelts required to make a trade.  The lines merely indicated the blanket’s size, and that alone determined what it was worth in beaver pelts. During the fur trade era, the most popular sizes were 2 ½, 3, 3 ½, and 4 points; but that was before the size of beds increased dramatically.   Today, Hudson Bay blankets come in a 6 (queen) and an 8 point size (king).

In North America, the fur trade was the backbone of the economy for at least two hundred years, and the beaver pelt was the most lucrative and widely traded item.   The Audubon Nature Encyclopedia describes the close connection between the beaver and the settling 
of the North American wilderness:

“The trade in beaver skins formed a basis for the early settlement of North America, and the history of Canada particularly has paralleled the traffic in beavers.   New Amsterdam, which later was to become New York, was founded as a trading post, the most important commodity of which was beaver pelts.”

The Seal of New York City still has two beavers on it, symbolic of its historic link with the beaver trade; and the beaver is the official national animal of Canada and is featured on 
the Canadian nickel.   Even the scientific Latin name, Castor canadensis, reflects its close connection with Canada.   In most field guides, the large aquatic mammal is called the “American beaver,” but the Latin translation is “Canadian beaver.”

Between the 1600’s and early 1800’s, beavers were the most hunted animals in North America, and the most valuable.  In the late 1600’s, a man could trade twelve beaver pelts 
for a gun, and a single skin could purchase four pounds of shot, a kettle, or a pound of tobacco.

As beaver populations declined in the east, French, English and American trappers slowly moved farther west.  Much of the exploration of western North America was done by trappers and mountain men, who constantly searched for streams and rivers that had not yet been trapped out.

Although Native Americans hunted beaver and traded their pelts to the Europeans, they 
had great respect for the animal and its ways.  They regarded the beaver as a special creature, which had the power to create “new worlds” by building dams and producing 
life-giving ponds.

In his book Mammals of Michigan Field Guide, Stan Tekiela gives a modern twist to the old belief:

“No other mammal besides humans changes its environment as much as beavers.   
Beaver ponds play an important role in moose populations.  Moose feed on aquatic plants, cool themselves and escape biting insects in summer in beaver ponds.  Other animals such as frogs, turtles and many bird species, including ducks, herons, and egrets also benefit from the newly created habitat.”

Today, the beaver population of North America is only a small fraction of what it once was. According to The Audubon Nature Encyclopedia, “…conservative estimates place the [historic] number at no less than 60 million, and more probably at 100 million.”   Like the vast herds of bison on the Great Plains, beavers were nearly exterminated by unregulated slaughter.

However, the Kaufman Field Guide to Mammals of North America claims that the beaver 
“…has been restored to much of its former range.”  The field guide’s range map indicates that today the beaver is common in the Canadian Provinces and in almost all of the fifty states, excluding Florida, Hawaii, Southern California and much of Nevada and Arizona.

Beaver trapping is now controlled and regulated by the states in order to protect the species, but beavers still run afoul of human settlement.  Road commissioners look askance at beaver dams because they might flood county roads, and as a rule, no land owner wants his trees cut down or his fields flooded by beavers.

But, there is still room for Castor canadensis on public land and in places like the Minden City State Game Area.

Tim Gierman, Wildlife Technician for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in the Cass City Office, believes the MCSGA is home to a sizable number of beavers.   He called the 9,000 acres of state land in northern Sanilac County “ideal beaver habitat” and 
a “beaver Nirvana.”

Unfortunately, some of this “ideal beaver habitat” borders roads and farm fields at the 
edges of the game area.  When “nuisance beavers” block drainage ditches and flood agricultural land or area roads, various state and county offices step in.   For example, during the closed season, the DNR can issue a special permit to trap offending beavers; 
and the road commission will supervise the removal of dams when local roads are involved.

Incidentally, it is legal to trap beavers in the MCSGA, and there is no bag limit. The trapping season runs from November 10 to March 31.

The beaver population of today is only a remnant of the untold millions that once lived in North America.  However, I am glad that some of these iconic animals can still be found in the Minden City State Game Area - itself a small fraction of the vast acreage that once was known as the “Minden Swamp.”

J.H.McCoy

Notes: “Active mainly at night, [a beaver is] often seen or heard at dusk swimming with
just its head showing above the water or slapping its tail on the surface of the water in alarm…. Beavers along rivers live in burrows in banks, but those in quieter waters build elaborate lodges with underwater entrances, dry living quarters, floors lined with wood chips, and vents for fresh air.  [They eat] the inner bark of willow, aspen, and other trees, using the stripped logs for construction.” from the Kaufman Field Guide to Mammals of North America 

“At the lodge, [a beaver] eats the soft bark of smaller branches the way we eat corn on 
the cob.  Doesn’t eat the interior wood.   Stores branches for winter use by sticking them 
in the mud on a lake or river bottom….Monogamous and mates for life.   However, will take 
a new mate if partner is lost.  Can live up to 20 years in captivity.... Dam repair is triggered by the sound of moving water, not by sight.   Most repair activity takes place at night.” from Mammals of Michigan Field Guide, Stan Tekiela

“The ponds created by well-maintained dams help isolate the beavers’ homes, which are called lodges.  These are created from severed branches and mud.  The beavers cover their lodges late each autumn with fresh mud, which freezes when frosts arrive.   The mud becomes almost as hard as stone, thereby preventing wolves and wolverines from penetrating the lodge.   The lodge has underwater entrances, which makes entry nearly impossible for any other animal, although muskrats have been seen living inside beaver lodges with the beavers who made them.” from Wikipedia

“Unlike most other kinds of mammals, beavers keep growing throughout their lives.   
Most beavers look larger than they really are because of the humped backs and thick fur. Thousands of years ago, the beavers of North America were about 7 ½ feet (2.3 meters) long, including the tail – almost as long as the grizzly bears.  No one knows why these huge beavers disappeared.”  from The World Book Encyclopedia.


from THE MINDEN CITY HERALD - FEBRUARY 8, 2018
          MARK OF THE BEAVER AND
THE MINDEN CITY STATE GAME AREA
The "mark of the beaver" can be seen on two aspen trees in the Minden City State Game Area - one gnawed at the bottom and the other lying on the ground.  The unchewed splinter in the middle of the fallen tree indicates that the beaver played it safe.  He let the weight of the tree and the wind bring it down after he was out of the way.
"Drawing on extensive research and a rich oral tradition that is rarely shared outside Native American circles, Marshall -himself a descendant of the Lakota community that raised Crazy Horse - creates a vibrant portrait of the man, his times, and his legacy."  (from the backcover)
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