CURRENTLY IN THE ARCHIVES:  "Laura Ingalls Wilder at 150" (10/26/17); "Mastodons in the Thumb" (11/10/16); "Honey Day" (9/6/18);  "Loons On Hold" (4/26/18);  "Lost in Missouri and Daniel Boone" (4/13/17); "Brown-headed cowbirds" (1/25/18); "Michigan Elk and the Annual Winter Survey" (3/15/18)

The Daniel J. Morrell sank off the tip of the Thumb on November 29, 1966.

It is hard to imagine that mastodons once roamed the fields and forests of the Thumb.  The thought of these prehistoric elephants living and dying in an area we now call home seems strange and farfetched.  Even when the fossilized bones and teeth of one of these extinct giants are discovered in a swamp or farm field, the mind has trouble connecting them with modern reality.  But mastodons were here. About that, there is no dispute.

Last month in neighboring Tuscola County, researchers from the University of Michigan recovered the bones of an almost complete Ice Age mastodon.  It happened during a four-day dig at the Fowler Center for Outdoor Learning near Mayville.  About 60 to 70 percent 
of the creature’s skeleton was found, including the skull and almost 75 bones.  The tusks and the lower jaw, however, were not located.

Over the years, about 300 mastodons have been discovered in Michigan, but fewer than ten have been as complete as the one 
found in Tuscola County.  Now called the Fowler Center Mastodon, the young male was about 30 years old at the time of his death, an estimate based on the condition of his molars.  The mastodon probably lived between 11,000 and 13,000 years ago.

David Fisher, a paleontology professor from the University of Michigan and one of the experts present at the dig, summed up 
the significance of the discovery:

“This is the most complete Michigan mastodon skeleton in many decades. The last time a mastodon this complete was found in Michigan was the 1940s.  That was the Owosso mastodon, a mature female skeleton mounted at the U-M Museum of Natural History.  
As I recall, she was about 80 percent complete.”

According to researchers at the site, the bones show signs that 
they may have been butchered and processed by early human hunters.  Some of them were still articulated (in the same relative position to each other as when the animal was alive), and they appeared to have been stored in separate piles, perhaps at the bottom of an ancient pond, used as a type of primitive refrigeration.

 The fine-grained, silty deposits in which the bones were found also suggest storage under water.  Sometimes, early hunters used the cold, low-oxygen environment of a pond-bottom to preserve excess meat for future use.

It was clear to the researchers that the mastodon carcass had not been left to the elements or picked apart by animal scavengers.  
The bones were not scattered around the site in random fashion, 
but rather grouped together.  Fisher is almost certain that early hunters butchered the carcass after killing the mastodon or coming across its dead body: “I would say it is roughly 80 percent likely that humans were involved and responsible….”

The recently recovered mastodon has been donated to the U of M Museum of Paleontology, where the bones will be cleaned and 
further analyzed.  Researchers will examine them carefully for 
cut marks and other signs of human butchery.  They will also use radiocarbon dating to determine the age of the specimen and carefully examine the roots of its wisdom teeth for clues to the season in which it died. 

The story of the Fowler Center Mastodon began two years ago 
when a local farmer discovered a large bone sticking out of a 
stream bank in Tuscola County.  Water and erosion had brought 
to light a fossilized skeleton, which had been hidden in the ground for 10,000 years.  Now, scientists and researchers will examine the bones to learn more about how this young mastodon lived and died. 

For residents of the Thumb, however, it is still difficult to imagine a prehistoric elephant “in the backyard.”


Notes: In 2002, the mastodon ("Mammut americanum") became the official state fossil of Michigan.  A geology instructor at Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor, David P. Thomas, Sr., spearheaded the drive for legislative action.  The new state fossil calls attention to Michigan’s Ice Age history.

Michigan also lays claim to the longest and most intact trail of mastodon footprints ever discovered.  It is located near Ann Arbor and consists of about 30 footprints.

Scientists believe mastodons originated in Africa about 35 million years ago and entered North America 20 million years later.  They became extinct about 10,000 years ago.

In addition to mastodon fossils, the bones of wooly mammoths have also been found in Michigan, but at fewer sites (about 30).

The word "mastodon" is derived from the Greek word for “breast” 
or “nipple” and the word for “tooth.”  Literally, it means “nipple-tooth.” Mastodons had teeth with nipple-shaped cusps, which were well-suited for chewing up twigs, leaves, and small branches in a forest environment. They were browsers, and their teeth were very different from the flat, grater-like enamel plates of mammoths and modern-day elephants (grazers), whose molars are designed for grinding up tough grasses on the open, treeless plains.  

The mastodon is a prehistoric relative of the modern elephant.  It became extinct in North America about 10,000 years ago.
Two prehistoric elephants and their modern-day relative (middle) with a size comparison to a human being.

           from THE MINDEN CITY HERALD - APRIL 13, 2017
On a recent trip to Oklahoma City to see my sister, I took a wrong turn in St. Louis, Missouri, and got lost.   Technically, I knew where I was, but not how to get where I wanted to be.   The traffic was heavy, and I was headed west on I-70 instead of south and west on I-44.   Eventually, I drove out of the city, took an easy on-off exit, and called my brother-in-law for directions.

I told him that I definitely was not retracing my steps back toward St. Louis, so he suggested I continue west on I-70 and then take County Road 47 south to I-44.  It sounded like a plan!

After I got off the expressway on 47, I enjoyed a leisurely drive through the Missouri countryside.   I was happy that I was no longer “lost” and that I was once again on my way to Oklahoma City. 

Just after I drove through the small town of Marthasville, I passed a country road and a sign which read, “Daniel Boone Monument.”   I did not have time to stop and did not know if I should, so I continued south for about two miles before turning around and going back to investigate.   The sign on the opposite side of the road was more explicit: “Daniel Boone Grave and Monument.”

I turned east on Boone Monument Road and drove to a small rural cemetery on the top of a low hill.   I walked up the steps and found myself at the grave of Daniel Boone, one of the greatest frontiersmen in the history of the country.  I knew that in old age he had crossed the Mississippi River in his quest for “elbow room” and that he died in Missouri, but I was astonished that I had accidentally stumbled across his grave. It was pure serendipity!

Daniel Boone was the ultimate woodsman, pioneer, and explorer - the quintessential American frontiersman.   Born into a Quaker family in Pennsylvania in 1734, young Boone grew up on the edge of the wilderness.   He was given his first rifle at age twelve and taught how to use it by local hunters and the Lenape Indians, who lived in close proximity to the tolerant, peace-loving Quakers.

At age sixteen, Boone moved with his family to the Yadkin River Valley, a backwoods region of western North Carolina.   He served as a wagoner for the British army in the French and Indian War (1754-1763) and narrowly escaped death at the Battle of Monogahela (1755).   While serving in the war, he met a fellow wagoner and fur trader John Findley, who first told him about the wonders of “Kaintuck,” and about the unspoiled wilderness beyond the mountains.

Returning from the war in 1756, Boone married a neighbor girl, Rebecca Bryan, and together they had ten children.  In the beginning, he supported his young family by trapping and hunting.  Each autumn, he was gone for several months at a time on what he called “long hunts.”  These excursions in search of deer skins, furs, and pelts took him farther and farther west.

In the fall of 1767, Boone entered Kentucky for the first time during one of 
his extended hunting trips.   He continued to explore the region for the next several years.   In 1769, he went to Kentucky on a “long hunt” which lasted two years.   Then in 1773, he decided to settle in the region he had been exploring, so he packed up his family and headed for the so-called “dark 
and bloody ground” with a group of about fifty pioneers.   However, the expedition turned back after two young boys were captured by Delaware 
and Shawnee warriors and gruesomely tortured to death.   Boone’s son James was one of the unfortunate victims. 

Two years later with the Indian menace lessened, Boone and about thirty axmen blazed a trail into Kentucky through the Cumberland Gap in the Appalachian Mountains.   The “Wilderness Road” led to a new settlement 
on the Kentucky River named “Boonesborough.”  Boone brought his family to the town named in his honor on September 8, 1775.

Boone’s exploits in Kentucky during the Revolutionary War (1775-1881) 
and his struggles with the Shawnee chief Blackfish are legendary.  His adventures define what it meant to be a woodsman on the American frontier.

 When the war ended, Boone was elected to the Virginia State Assembly and represented Bourbon County in Richmond since Kentucky was still the westernmost county of Virginia.  He also worked as surveyor, horse trader, tavern keeper, and land speculator.

As the years passed, Boone was plagued by legal and financial setbacks, especially after Kentucky was admitted to the Union in 1792 and his land holdings were questioned.   In 1799 at the age of 65, he decided to make a fresh start.   He headed west again and moved his extended family across the Mississippi River into Spanish Louisiana (land which President Thomas Jefferson would later acquire from France in 1803).  Boone settled in what 
is now St. Charles County, Missouri.   The Spanish welcomed the famous woodsman and gave him legal and military authority to administer his district.

Boone spent the last twenty-one years of his life in Missouri, enjoying the company of his children and grandchildren and basking in his fame as a famous American frontiersman.  He continued to hunt, trap, and explore 
well into his eighties.

On September 26, 1820, Daniel Boone died in Missouri at the home of his 
son Nathan.  He was just shy of his 86th birthday.  The old hunter was laid 
to rest next to his wife Rebecca, who had died in 1813.  Both were buried on a small hill overlooking the Tuque River on a farm owned by their daughter Jemima and her husband, Flanders Callaway.   Today, the Daniel Boone Monument marks their original graves. 

In retrospect, I only found this iconic location because I got lost in 
St. Louis.   I certainly would not have come across Daniel Boone’s grave 
if I had followed the correct route through the city.  I have to say I am glad it happened. Maybe being lost has its advantages.

Someone once asked Daniel Boone if he ever got lost out in the wilderness. His reply was: “I can’t say I was ever lost, but I was once bewildered for about three days.”

After my experience in St. Louis, I think I know what he meant!


Notes: The original bronze plaque on the Daniel Boone Monument was 
stolen by a vandal in 2008 and melted down for scrap.  Black granite was used in the replacement to prevent it from happening again.  The inscription on the new plaque reads:

OCTOBER 22, 1734
SEPTEMBER 26, 1820
DIED MARCH 18, 1813

As the inscription indicates, Daniel Boone and his wife Rebecca made 
“one final move” in 1845; and this time the direction was east, not west.   
A delegation from Kentucky dug up what remained of the bodies after twenty-five years and moved some of the bones to a new cemetery in the state capitol.   A large monument in Frankfort marks their final resting place.

However, some claim that Boone’s body, or at least part of it, never left Missouri.   According to the legend, Boone’s grave had not been properly marked when he was buried in the little cemetery on his daughter’s farm; 
and as a result, the men from Kentucky dug up the wrong body and took someone else’s bones back to Frankfort.

In any case, I doubt that Daniel Boone would have approved of his new 
burial site in a crowded cemetery in the east.   After all, he spent his whole life “westering” and looking for “elbow room.”    The humble graveyard in Missouri seems like a more fitting resting place for a frontiersman and explorer whose eyes were constantly trained on the western horizon.

However, in Kentucky’s defense, Boone also once said: “Heaven must be 
a Kentucky kind of place.”

In the early 1800’s, James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) wrote five novels about the American frontier, including The Last of the Mohicans (1826) and The Deerslayer (1841).   Collectively, they are known as the Leatherstocking Tales. The fictional hero of these books, Nathaniel (Natty) Bumppo, resembled Daniel Boone in his exploits and attitudes.  
Even their names are similar.  Like Boone, Natty Bumppo also moved across the Mississippi River to escape the encroachments of civilization and died 
on the western frontier.   The death of the Leatherstocking is the described 
in Cooper’s 1827 novel, The Prairie.

In the 20th century, Johnny Cash’s song “Road to Kaintuck” tells the story
 of pioneers heading west to Kentucky on the Wilderness Road.   It recounts the tragic death of Daniel Boone’s son James in 1773.   The song, written by June Carter, was featured in Bitter Tears, Cash’s 1964 album which laments the plight of Native Americans and their unfair treatment by the U.S. government.


“We're goin' west to Kaintuck, down the road to Moccasin Gap
Down the wilderness road, down the dug road, the old reedy creek road
The road down troublesome, the road through Moccasin Gap

Well, it's a hot day in '73 and this is my wife and my kid with me
Daniel Boone lost his boy the other day
Young Jim Boone's dead, now twenty miles away

Well, if you love your wife and love your baby, man
You better turn that wagon back as soon as you can
Every Injun in them hills has gone berserk
And you never gonna make it to Kaintuck
Ah, I bet I'm gonna make it to Kaintuck

I'm goin' west to Kaintuck, down the road to Moccasin Gap
Down the wilderness road, down the dug road, the old reedy creek road
The road down troublesome, the road through Moccasin Gap.”

The Daniel Boone Monument near Marthasville, Missouri, marks the spot where Daniel and his wife Rebecca were originally buried.  The black granite plaque is a replacement for the original bronze 
version, which was stolen by a vandal in 2008 and melted down for scrap.
The Laura Ingalls Museum is located in Walnut Groove, Minnesota, one of the several places that the author of the Little House books called "home."
A common loon in breeding plumage floats peacefully inside the breakwater at Harbor Beach.
In early January, a pair of brown-headed cowbirds showed up at a feeder in Sand Beach Township.

It has been a banner year for Laura Ingalls Wilder and her Little House books.  The author’s 150th birthday was observed in schools and libraries and celebrated in many of the places she called home: Pepin, Wisconsin; Burr Oak, Iowa; De Smet, South Dakota; and finally Mansfield, Missouri, where Wilder lived most of her 90 years and where she wrote her famous children’s books about growing up on the American frontier. But no place is more central to the Laura Ingalls Wilder story than Walnut Grove, Minnesota.

This is largely due to a television series on NBC, loosely based on Wilder’s books.   “Little House on the Prairie” aired weekly on Monday nights, and it made Walnut Grove a household word in the United States and later around the world.   The show starred Michael Landon, Melissa Gilbert, and Karen Grassle with guest appearances by celebrities like Ernest Borgnine, Red Buttons, Burl Ives, and Johnny and June Carter Cash.

“Little House on the Prairie” was on the air for nine seasons from 1974 to 1983, and it was one of the most successful programs in television history.  As a result, the town, the author, and her book, also titled Little House on the Prairie, became world-famous.

Laura Elizabeth Ingalls was born 150 years ago on February 7, 1867, near Pepin, Wisconsin, a place she would later write about in her first book, Little House in the Big Woods (1932).  She was the second child of Charles and Caroline (Quiner) Ingalls; her older sister, Mary Amelia, was also born in Wisconsin two years earlier in 1865.

However, Laura did not actually spend much time in the “Big Woods” because in 1868, Charles and Caroline Ingalls decided to move.   They left Wisconsin in a covered wagon and traveled west to Kansas.   The flat, open prairie of the Great Plains was just the kind of farmland that Charles was looking for.   They settled on a homestead about thirteen miles southwest of the new frontier town of Independence.   It was here in 1869 that Charles built the simple, one-room log house that his daughter would one day immortalize in her third book, Little House on the Prairie (1935).

Once again, however, the Ingalls family did not stay put.  Unwittingly they had built their “little house” on the Osage Indian Reserve and legally had no real claim to the land.  Furthermore, the deal on their property in Pepin fell through when the new owner could not come up with the required cash.  So in 1871, it was back to Wisconsin, but this time with a new baby in tow – Caroline Celestia, nicknamed “Carrie,” was born on August 3, 1870.

Back in Wisconsin, Charles Ingalls once again grew restless.   He did not like the “Big Woods” and longed for the open prairies where a farmer could plow and plant without first clearing the land of trees and stumps. So the Ingalls family moved again, this time to Minnesota.  In 1874, they settled on the banks of a stream called Plum Creek about a mile and a half north of the small town of Walnut Grove.  Laura was just seven years old at the time, but the two years she spent living there became the basis of her fourth book, On the Banks of Plum Creek (1937).

Today, Walnut Grove is a quiet little town in southwestern Minnesota with a population of 870.  It is located on Highway 14 about 50 miles north of I-90.  The sign at the edge of town says it all: “Welcome to Walnut Grove - Childhood Home of Pioneer Author - Laura Ingalls Wilder.”

The first stop on any tour of Walnut Grove is usually the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum and Gift Store with its iconic covered wagon standing nearby.   The history of the Ingalls family is on display in a series of old buildings, including a 1898 train depot, a little red schoolhouse, a chapel, an early settler’s house and a dugout similar to the one the Ingalls family lived in when they first settled on their new farm north 
of town.   The museum also has a large section focused on the “Little House on the Prairie” TV series along with information about cast members, especially those who visited the museum through the years and most recently in 2014 for the show’s 40th cast reunion.

The mandatory second stop on a tour of Walnut Grove is Plum Creek, where the Ingalls family lived in a dugout built by the previous owner in the high bank of the small stream.   The one-room structure had a dirt floor and roof of woven willow branches covered with prairie sod.   The front wall was also made of long strips of sod stacked on top of one another.  The dugout had a door and a single greased-paper window.   As “Ma” said in On the Banks of Plum Creek: “It’s small, but it’s clean and pleasant.” 

Of course, nothing is left of the dugout - the sod roof collapsed long ago and only the depression in the stream bank marks the spot where the Ingalls once lived.   That and a large sign which reads:


The current owners of the property, the Gordon family, have planted about thirty acres of prairie grasses and flowers around the site to replicate the original setting.  You can follow a trail through the prairie landscape or walk along the banks of Plum Creek as Laura often did.   You can also eat lunch on a picnic table across the steam from the spot where the dugout once stood.   Many visitors say the spirit of the Ingalls family still lives here in this peaceful, evocative setting. 

Of course, the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder does not end in Walnut Grove. After two years, the Ingalls family moved to Burr Oak, Iowa, where Charles managed a hotel.   Sadly, on the journey to their new home, the Ingalls’ only son, nine-month-old Charles Fredrick, became ill and died on August 27, 1876.  The family was grief-stricken as they continued on without him.

The Ingalls family spent the next two years in Burr Oak and while they were there Caroline gave birth of her fifth and last child on May 23, 1877. Grace Pearl was Laura’s youngest sister.

In 1878, Charles and Caroline decided that the busy, bustling town 
of Burr Oak was no place to raise their family, so they moved back to Walnut Grove for another short stay.   This time they lived in town, 
and Charles worked at the local hotel and did other odd jobs to support his family.   It was in Walnut Grove that Laura’s sister Mary lost her eyesight after becoming ill with a high fever and severe headaches.

In 1879, new job opportunities opened up with the railroad in the Dakota Territory, and Charles and his family once again headed west, eventually homesteading a farm near the new railroad town of De Smet in 1880.

While living near De Smet, Laura took a job as a school teacher and also met the love of her life, Almanzo Wilder.  Laura and Almanzo were married on August 25, 1885.  She was eighteen years old.  The next year, Laura gave birth to her daughter Rose on December 5, 1886.  She also had a son in 1889, but he died soon after childbirth.

In 1894, when Laura was 27, the Wilder family left South Dakota in a covered wagon and moved to a farm near Mansfield, Missouri.  They named it "Rocky Ridge Farm," and it was here that Laura and Almanzo spent the rest of their lives.  They cleared and farmed the land and planted fruit orchards and a large vegetable garden.   In typical fashion, they did whatever was necessary to turn a profit: they sold eggs and homegrown produce and cut and split firewood for the residents of Mansfield.

While at Rocky Ridge Farm, Laura published articles about agriculture and other farm-related topics in local newspapers and magazines like the Missouri Ruralist, but she did not begin writing the books which made her famous until much later.  Finally, in 1932, she published her first children’s novel, Little House in the Big Woods.  She was sixty-five years old.   After that, she continued to write more Little House books for the next eleven years.

Almanzo Wilder suffered a heart attack in 1949 and died on October 23, at the age of ninety-two.  Eight years later, Laura Ingalls Wilder followed her husband in death on February 10, 1957, three days after her ninetieth birthday.

Wilder wrote eight Little House books between 1932 and 1943.   The unedited draft of a ninth novel, The First Four Years, was discovered after her death and published posthumously in 1971.  It is usually included with the other titles in the Little House series.

Wilder’s books about growing up on the American frontier have never been out print since the 1930’s.  They are considered classics in children’s literature and are still widely read today.   Over 60 million copies have been sold in more than 100 countries.

The TV program “Little House on the Prairie” was one of the most successful dramatic series in television history, and it is still seen in reruns in the U.S. and in more than thirty countries around the world. 
Not bad for “a little half-pint” as “Pa” often called his daughter in the 
Little House books!  Laura Ingalls Wilder would be proud of her accomplishments, but she might be a little surprised by her worldwide fame and by the year-long celebration of her 150th birthday in 2017.


Notes: The books in the original Little House series include: Little House in the Big Woods (1932); Farmer Boy (1933) – about Almanzo Wilder growing up in New York; Little House on the Prairie (1935); 
On the Banks of Plum Creek (1937);   By the Shores of Silver Lake  (1939); The Long Winter (1940);  Little Town on the  Prairie (1941); These Happy Golden Years (1943). 

Early in January, a pair of brown-headed cowbirds visited my bird feeder in Sand Beach Township (Huron County).  They stayed around for a day or two 
and then moved on.   Although common in the area during the spring and summer, cowbirds usually migrate in the fall and are not often seen here in the winter.  However, a few strays are usually found during Christmas Bird Counts in the Thumb: in 2017, one was recorded in Huron County, and eight were located in Tuscola County (Sanilac County does not have a Christmas Bird Count).

Because of their parasitic behavior and drab appearance, brown-headed cowbirds are probably nobody’s “favorite bird,” but they are unique.

Brown-headed cowbirds are small blackbirds of the open country.   They have short, sparrow-like bills and dark eyes.  Cowbirds feed on the ground and walk with their tails cocked upward.   They are very gregarious and are often found in mixed flocks of red-winged blackbirds, grackles, and starlings - they are easily recognized in the flock because of their smaller size.   Brown-headed cowbirds are common around farms, feedlots, pastures, forest edges, and lawns.

The male has an iridescent green-black body and a brown-colored head, which often looks black in poor lighting.   The female is a plain gray-brown bird with fine streaking on the belly.   Juvenile cowbirds resemble the female but are lighter.   They have distinct dark streaks on the breast, and their back feathers are fringed in light tan, giving them a scaly look.   Young cowbirds are often seen noisily begging for food from their smaller “foster parents.”

Named for their habit of following cattle as they graze, brown-headed cowbirds feed on insects stirred up by the hooves of these large herbivores as they move through grasslands and pasture fields.  Sometimes, cowbirds land on the backs of cattle, hitching a ride and ridding the slow-moving bovines of flies and other insect pests.

In the early history of North America, brown-headed cowbirds were first called “buffalo birds” because they followed the vast bison herds on their annual north and south migration over the Great Plains.  Millions of bison were pursued by large flocks of “buffalo birds” in a symbiotic relationship, which benefitted both “buffalo” and bird alike.

In the 1800’s, the bison were ruthlessly slaughtered by hide hunters, who took the skins and left the carcasses to rot on the Plains.   In about twenty years, 
the vast herds numbering in the millions had all but disappeared; only remnant populations remained in places like Yellowstone National Park.

With the bison gone, free-ranging longhorn cattle were introduced into the grasslands of the West, and the “buffalo birds” adapted to a new reality.   They continued to follow the herds as before, but now they had a new name: “cowbirds.”

Originally confined to the open country west of the Mississippi River, brown-headed cowbirds slowly spread east.   They expanded their range as the vast forests were systematically cut down and the land converted to farms, cities, and towns. They took advantage of the new agricultural clearings and benefitted from wasted grain left in the fields after harvest.  Today, brown-headed cowbirds can be found across the entire U.S. and up into Canada.

The brown-headed cowbird is referred to as a “brood parasite.”  They do not build their own nests; rather the female lays a speckled egg in the nests of other birds, usually removing or destroying one or two of the host bird’s eggs in the process. The unsuspecting “foster parents” then incubate the egg and rear the nestling as one of their own.   About two-thirds of the time, only one egg is laid in a nest, but on occasion two eggs can be found.  Sometimes this 
is the result of two different females laying eggs in the same nest.  If two cowbird eggs hatch in one nest, there is probably no chance that any of the other offspring will survive. 

Some of the smaller birds that fall victim to parasitic cowbirds include: warblers, vireos, flycatchers, finches, and sparrows.   The Audubon Nature Encyclopedia states that, “As a rule, the species imposed upon accept the strange eggs, but robins and catbirds eject them, and the yellow warbler sometimes builds another nest over the egg of the cowbird.”

In a parasitized nest, a cowbird egg hatches more quickly than the other eggs, and the baby cowbird is usually bigger and stronger than its nest mates. Aggressive by nature, the newly hatched cowbird crowds out the other baby birds and grabs most of the food.   It might even push them out of the nest. Sometimes, the only bird that fledges is the cowbird chick.

In the Thumb, one of the birds which often falls victim to brown-headed cowbirds is the song sparrow.  Every summer, I usually see at least one pair of song sparrows busily feeding a young cowbird.   The noisy baby, twice the size of its “parents,” chases them wherever they go; and the dutiful song sparrows do their best to keep their hungry, jumbo-sized baby fed.

Since brown-headed cowbirds have expanded their range and are now common almost everywhere, their parasitic habits are threatening some populations of native songbirds, many of which are already under stress because of modern agricultural practices, habitat loss, feral cats, and pesticides.

Michigan’s endangered Kirkland’s warbler has been heavily impacted by cowbird parasitism, and it was considered a major factor in their steady decline in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

In 1972, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in connection with the USDA Forest Service, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, and the Michigan Audubon Society, began controlling cowbirds in the nesting range of the Kirkland’s warbler.   They used large live traps baited with grain, water, and living cowbird decoys.   Each day, the traps were checked, and all trapped cowbirds were euthanized in what they called a “removal program.”  Other birds were released unharmed.

According to the DNR website, “Since 1972, an average of 4,000 cowbirds per year have been removed from Kirkland’s warbler breeding areas.”   Today, less than 5% of the endangered warbler’s nests are victimized by cowbirds, down from an average of 69% in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.   As a result of the euphemistically named “removal program,” the average number of young Kirkland’s warblers that fledge each year has increased from less than one baby bird per nest to almost three.

Like most birders, I am not overly fond of brown-headed cowbirds.   They are one of my least favorite birds.   When I posted my cowbird picture on Facebook on January 7, 2018, I added the following comment:

“A pair of brown-headed cowbirds was at the feeder yesterday in Sand Beach Township.  Where are the hawks when you need them?”


Notes: Brown-headed cowbirds are native to the U.S. and are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.   It is unlawful to kill cowbirds or destroy their eggs without a permit from federal authorities.

Since brown-headed cowbirds are raised by another species, it is obvious that they do not learn to be cowbirds from their foster parents.   Evidently, that information is genetically-encoded or “hard-wired” in the young birds. Cowbirds know their own songs, calls, and displays without ever hearing or learning them.   They recognize and mate with their own kind despite never having encountered them as young birds.

Some experts believe that brown-headed cowbirds developed their unusual parasitic behavior because they did not have time to nest as they followed the bison herds across the Plains.   Others think that cowbird parasitism developed much earlier and was the reason these brood parasites were able to follow the grazing bison and still reproduce successfully.

“The cowbird is the only completely parasitic species of North American bird. Other birds such as the American cuckoos, and some North American ducks, occasionally lay their eggs in the nests of other species, but the habit is not so fixed as in the cowbird.   The origin of the parasitic habit of cowbirds is unknown.” - from The Audubon Nature Encyclopedia

The bronzed cowbird is a close relative of the brown-headed cowbird.   It is a Central American species which has expanded its range into Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and Southern California.   It can also be found along the southeastern coast from Louisiana to Florida.  It is heavier than the brown-headed cowbird with a longer bill and red eyes.   It also has a neck ruff and a shorter tail.


Each year in January, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) conducts an aerial survey of elk in the Pigeon River Country State Forest and the surrounding area.   The purpose of the high-flying census is to determine elk numbers and to assess the overall health of the herd.   The data collected is used to set yearly quotas for the annual elk hunt in the fall.   In 2018, the count was especially significant because Michigan is celebrating what could be called the “Year of the Elk” - the centennial of the successful return of elk to the state in 1918.

During the aerial survey, DNR personnel fly predetermined routes or “transects” over the Pigeon River country.  Once elk are spotted, the fixed-wing aircraft circles so that observers can count the animals and determine the number of bulls and cows in each group.   The survey also records their exact location and whether the elk are inside the Pigeon River Country State Forest or on nearby private land. 

The aerial survey takes place in January because elk are relatively easy to locate when the leaves are off the trees and there is snow on the ground.   Furthermore, it is a good time to count the animals because the elk herd is at its lowest point of the year - the hunting season is over; excess animals have been culled; and the elk calves have not yet been born.

During the 2018 survey, the DNR flew 8,000 miles of “transects” in eight days and counted 800 elk.   Since no wildlife survey can account for 100 percent of the animals in an area, a formula is used to estimate their population.

Using the 800 elk spotted in the survey and applying the formula, the DNR estimated the current population at 1,173.  However, a “confidence interval” of 339 is built into the formula.  In other words, there are 1,173 elk in Michigan, plus or minus 339. There could be as many as 1,512 or as few as 834.

According to DNR elk specialist Chad Stewart, only the minus estimate (834) would be in line with agency objectives:

“Our population goal for elk is between 500 and 900 animals.   This has been determined as the best balance for the forests, area agriculture and residents.”

This year’s estimated population (1,173) and the larger plus-number (1,512) both exceed the DNR’s recommendation for the elk range, and so they will continue to reduce the herd during the upcoming hunts.

Wildlife Field Operations Manager Brian Mastenbrook outlined the DNR’s position:

“The survey tells us there are between 834 and 1,512 elk in Michigan.   Based on this survey, past surveys, damage concerns and disease issues, our recommendation to the Natural Resources Commission is to continue reducing the elk population over the coming years.”  (The Natural Resources Commission has exclusive authority to regulate the taking of game.)

Most of Michigan’s elk herd can be found in the Pigeon River Country State Forest, a rugged 105,000 acre tract of land located northeast of Gaylord.  The DNR strives to make this state-owned forestland attractive to elk in order to prevent them from straying into nearby agricultural areas.  They plant crops to feed hungry elk and selectively mow fields to make new grass available for the herd.   Lumber operations in the state forest are also designed to benefit elk.   Selective cutting of mature trees produces clearings and new growth, both favored by these large herbivores. 

According to Chad Stewart, the goal is “…to lure elk away from agriculture, using different techniques to modify the forest.   We try to encourage elk to hang out in these modified locations.”

Of course, elk numbers have to be managed.   Overgrazing and the destruction of the forest itself are the end result of too many elk, not to mention the damage to nearby agricultural operations.  Since elk have no effective natural predators in Michigan, the annual hunting season is the only way to keep the herd in check.

Last month, the DNR released the details from the recent elk hunting season.  In 2017, elk hunters, chosen by lottery, harvested 158 elk in two scheduled hunts.   During the first period in September and early October, 100 hunters shot 30 bulls and 44 antlerless elk on private land in the area surrounding the Pigeon River Country State Forest (state land was excluded from the first hunt). 

In December 2017, another 100 hunters stalked elk in the Pigeon River Country State Forest as well as on adjacent lands.  They harvested 30 bulls and 54 antlerless elk.

The 2017 elk population was estimated at 1,158 animals, and so the 158 elk harvested represented just over 13 percent of the herd. However, the calculation does not take into account the yearly increase in elk numbers due to calf production. 

Evidently, the DNR assumed that the number of elk harvested in 2017 was enough to control the herd’s population because an additional January hunt was not scheduled.   
(If the two early hunts do not harvest enough elk, the DNR has the authority to schedule a third hunt in January.)

It should be noted, however, that hunting is not the primary focus of the DNR’s efforts to maintain a healthy, sustainable elk herd in the state.   Brian Mastenbrook explained the agency’s position:

“We manage elk primarily for viewing, not for hunting.   Hunting is really just a method of controlling the population.”

Because of this year’s centennial celebration, the DNR is expecting an uptick in “elk watchers” in the Pigeon River Country State Forest.  The most popular time to view elk is during the mating season in September and early October, a time when the bulls are busy collecting their harems and bugling to warn rivals to keep their distance.

Michigan’s “Year of the Elk” kicked off with the aerial survey in January; it will conclude at year’s end as the hunting seasons come to a close and another survey is planned for 2019.   In between, thousands of outdoor enthusiasts will travel to the Pigeon River Country State Forest to view these majestic animals and to celebrate 100 years of elk in Michigan. 


Notes: Elk are sometimes called “Wapiti,” a term which comes from a Shawnee and Cree word meaning “white rump.”  It refers to the elk’s light tan or yellowish rump patch.

There is only one species of elk in North America, but there are several subspecies.   All elk in Michigan are members of the Rocky Mountain elk subspecies.   The first elk found in the state by early settlers were Eastern elk, a subspecies that once inhabited the northern and eastern U.S. but is now extinct.

 “Prior to European settlement, more than 10 million elk roamed nearly all of the United States and parts of Canada.  Today, about one million elk live in the western United States, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina, and from Ontario west in Canada.” 
  from the website of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation

To commemorate the centennial of elk in Michigan, the DNR issued a new Wildlife Habitat license plate.   It features a bugling bull elk and the slogan, “2018 marks 100 years of elk.” It replaces the DNR’s previous loon-and-chick plate, which dates back to the 1990’s.   The money raised by the sale of the new license plates goes directly to the DNR’s Nongame Fish and Wildlife Fund. 

In 2017, I wrote two articles on elk for The Minden City Herald: “Elk Hunting in Michigan” (9/28/17) and “2018 – Year of the Elk” (10/5/17).  
In this DNR photo, elk are being counted during the aerial survey 
of the Pigeon River Country State Forest and the surrounding area.
This spring, the annual loon migration is creating quite a stir in Michigan.  Instead of their usual migratory overflight of the southern part of the state, these strikingly beautiful water birds have “stalled out” on area lakes and waterways.   Dressed in their black-and-white breeding plumage and sporting red eyes, they are waiting for the ice to melt on the northern lakes, where they nest and raise their young. 
Bird watchers downstate are reporting a once-in-a-lifetime “loon traffic jam.” 

I first learned about the phenomenon on April 16, 2018, when I saw this Facebook post from MI Birds:

“We’re in the midst of an unprecedented Common Loon invasion! Across mid and lower Michigan, there are currently thousands of loons staging on our inland lakes – including a staggering 450+ birds this weekend at Stony Creek Metropark alone!  These extraordinary numbers are due to the lakes to our north being iced over – while at the same time new loons are constantly migrating in.   So get out and enjoy this phenomenon while you can!   As soon as things warm up, these birds will quickly move north.”

I wondered if this unusual “loon bottleneck” was also occurring inside the breakwater at Harbor Beach, so last weekend, with my brother and fellow bird watcher Paul, I went up to take a look.   There were at least twenty loons swimming and diving in the calm waters around the lighthouse and beyond - we saw several at the city dock and others at the marina.   Most were single birds, but there was at least one pair.

Often, the diving loons popped up close-by after swimming underwater for twenty or thirty seconds.   At close range, their black-and-white checkerboard backs and red eyes were clearly visible – no binoculars needed.  However, all were silent - loons are famous for their hauntingly beautiful calls on the breeding grounds.

Loons are no longer found in the Thumb and most of southern Michigan, except during migration.  They are very sensitive to human disturbance and only nest on quiet freshwater lakes in the north.   They still return to some inland lakes surrounded by homes and cottages, but boating and other human activity often cause them to abandon their nests. 

The presence of nesting loons signals unspoiled country, and their eerie yodeling call is a delight to all who appreciate the beauty of wild things.   It is always special to see a loon, and doubly special to hear one.

Currently, some of these handsome birds are still inside the breakwater at Harbor Beach.  But they won’t be there much longer.   Now that warm spring weather has finally returned to the Thumb, the migrating loons will soon be on their way north.


Notes: The best time to see loons at Harbor Beach is in the morning. During the night, they often stop to rest and refuel in places like the protected harbor.

Male and female common loons have identical breeding plumage, but males are approximately 25% larger on average.  In the winter, both are dark gray above and white below with a whitish chin and throat. 

For more information about loons, visit my website, Schock McCoy Productions, at www.schockmccoyproductions.com, and be sure to LIKE SMP on Facebook.  I am also on Twitter: @JohnHMcCoy41.    
Tim McCoy (left), owner of McCoy's Sweety Bee Honey, poses with his son-in-law, Matt Jacobs, during the Honey Day event at the bottling shop on Crockard Road.
McCoy’s Sweety Bee Honey of Bad Axe, Michigan, held its first Honey Day on Saturday, September 1.  The event was hosted by Tim McCoy and his son-in-law, Matt Jacobs, at the bottling shop on Crockard Road.

Customers brought their own jars and containers and had them filled with new-crop honey at the bargain price of $3 a pound.   The complete line of McCoy’s Sweety Bee Honey products was also on sale, as well as beeswax, cookbooks, honey vinegar, and gift baskets.

A glass observation hive was set up in the shop, and visitors enjoyed finding the queen and watching the worker bees and drones. 

Due to the success of the first one, a second Honey Day is being planned for later in the year.

Additional pictures from the event have been posted on the MSBH website: www.mccoysweetybeehoney.com (NEWS).

The complete line of McCoy’s Sweety Bee Honey products can be purchased online, including creamed honey, aka “raw honey.”