Tag Archives: wildlife

Walking with wildlife

February 2, 2014

Although Alexandra Horowitz’s freshly-reviewed and much-hyped book On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes disappointingly fell flat in the execution of an otherwise nice concept, her frantic fact-finding is usually more charming than disarming. One anecdote she relates is particularly quaint. As she recalls walking with Humane Society wildlife scientist John Hadidian, who has spent more than 25 years tracking and studying Procyon lotor, the common raccoon, she says, “Even a century ago, raccoons were fairly beloved in America. They were popular as pets and were knows as mischevious, inquisitive, and quick studies. President Coolidge, sent a raccoon for his Thanksgiving table, promptly decreed her his pet, named her Rebecca, and took her with him on long walks and on whistle-stop train tours.”

Photo from the Library of Congress.

Photo from the Library of Congress.

The verity of her rendition of Coolidge’s story is questionable — how long a walk on a leash is a raccoon willing to take? Rebecca’s favorite pastime was reportedly “being placed in a bathtub with a little water in it and given a cake of soap with which to play. In this fashion she would amuse herself for an hour or more,” as First Lady Grace Coolidge wrote. She also enjoyed rides around the house, draped across the back of President Coolidge’s neck.

Now this mode of comport is unthinkable, but apparently rabies wasn’t a widespread problem in raccoons until the 1950s. Raccoons are less visible in Detroit than one might think, where the seemingly rarer foxes and, recently, even coyotes roam freely. Their nocturnal brethren the opposum and everybody’s favorite, the rat, run rampant through the neighborhoods. Sometimes raccoons turn up near restaurant dumpsters, infiltrating bags of trash with their neat slender fingers, but squirrels have some obvious corners on the domestic trash market, judging by the holes where plastic lids of garbage cans have been chewed through.

Photo from Detroitblogger John.

Photo from Detroitblogger John.

While feasting on raccoon meat seems to have also passed out of fashion, the practice persists in some places close to home where southern appetites rule. Perhaps somewhere in the city, someone keeps a pet raccoon, and if I walk far enough, I’ll find them toddling happily down the street together.

Migration

October 3, 2013

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Where are all of Detroit’s signature pheasants hanging out lately? Accustomed to seeing them often, to being taken by surprise at their sudden ascent as I tromp through a field, the dearth of them is eerie. Their staccato honk hasn’t woken me up in the morning as they roost and forage in the yard, and investigations of the neighborhood and nearby fields haven’t scared up any, either. Are they missing?

The number of pheasants in Detroit has oscillated since their introduction in the 1850s, according to a wildlife specialist from the Department of Natural Resources. Some say their presence goes back further, to Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac’s establishment of Fort Pontchartrain du D├ętroit, when he allegedly had crates of pheasants imported from his hunting lodge in France. However they got here, pheasant populations in Michigan began to shrink in the 1960s and 70s, a decline most likely attributable to toxic pesticides. That admission of fragility seems peculiar, and sad, for a bird that seems so at home in Detroit’s littered fields and heaps of discarded tires.

What’s certain is that over a six-year period in the 1980s, the DNR struck a costly deal with China to import thousands of pheasants to southeast Michigan, resulting in what seemed like robust numbers, until now. All stories appear as unlikely as the bird itself, walking nonchalantly down the pavement. What is causing the pheasants to abandon our streets? Perhaps, I hope, their paucity is only a misperception, and somewhere in the city pheasants are multiplying with wild abandon.