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American Pie: Nature -Taking Back Connecticut

...During a recent stay with friends in a Milford suburb, I heard Coyotes howling for the first time. It was a startling and spine tingling experience, and truly a sound from the wild...

John Merchant tells of the proliferating wildlife in the small state of Connecticut before making a startling prediction.

To read more of John's superb columns please click on http://www.openwriting.com/cgi-bin/mt-search.cgi?IncludeBlogs=1&search=john+merchant

The third smallest state in the USA, Connecticut, is a comfortable mix of urban, suburban, pastoral and rural areas. A major proportion of its population is concentrated in a coastal belt stretching from New York City to the Massachusetts border, and many residents commute to jobs in New York or Boston. Away from the coastline, cities such as Waterford, Hartford, Danbury and Springfield are past their prime, and struggling to retain their dwindling populations as jobs become less available due to company closures or relocations.

In a superficial way, given its population density, (In 2001, 706 persons per square mile) the State would not instinctively be thought of as synonymous with a large and varied wildlife population, like say Montana or Wyoming, but such is the case. With four major rivers: the Housatonic, the Thames, the Connecticut River and the Mystic, a grand total of 91, and over 90 miles of coastline, there are wildfowl, sea and tidewater birds aplenty.

These include Egrets, many types of ducks, Ospreys, seagulls, Sandpipers, and Heron. Probably the most intrusive bird species is the Resident Canada goose, which long ago ceased its annual migration, preferring the easy life provided by Connecticut’s estuaries and ponds.

The prolific geese, estimated at over 5,000 statewide, have outlived their initial attraction, and become a pest in most places: polluting ponds and reservoirs, fouling parks and golf courses with their droppings, and endangering airplanes during takeoff and landing. A variety of methods are used to discourage them: herding dogs, firecrackers, even captive hawks, but they persist. Though regrettable, culling seems to be the only answer.

Like the geese, White Tailed Deer, also a protected species, have prospered, and not only in rural areas. Though regulated deer hunting is permitted in season, the use of firearms in proximity to dwellings is not allowed, thus creating a haven for the animals in suburbs, and even in parts of cities. Deer populations of as many as 200 per square mile have been recorded in some places. According to Connecticut’s Department of Environment Protection – Wildlife Division, 18,000 deer are killed annually on CT roads, causing an estimated $28 million in vehicle repair costs.

Given the fecundity of these various species, it’s probably not surprising that predators also thrive. Chief among these are the Coyotes. These wolf-like carnivores were originally native only to North and Central America, but have extended their range from Alaska and Canada south through the continental U.S. and Mexico to Central America. They started to move into Connecticut in the 1950’s, and now are seen frequently across the State. During a recent stay with friends in a Milford suburb, I heard Coyotes howling for the first time. It was a startling and spine tingling experience, and truly a sound from the wild.

Though not strictly predatory, Black Bear are also present in significant numbers. An accurate population count is hard to come by since the bear roam and may be counted more than once. Their diet is primarily fruit, berries, grubs, nuts, herbs and leaves, and on a lucky day, honey, but they are opportunistic animals, and more than willing to feast off human leftovers, and even to enter houses in search of an easy meal.

Residents who leave their garage doors open and their trash or pet food uncovered, sooner or later will receive a visit. Black Bear seldom attack people, but there have been incidents resulting in serious injury or even death, though not in Connecticut. In the nine years since the year 2000, there have been 15 deaths nationally from Black Bear attacks.

In addition to the creatures mentioned so far, the State has its fair share of other, less threatening wildlife. The Department of Environment Protection – Wildlife Division, lists 14 “nuisance species” on its web page. These include Foxes, Opossums, Raccoons, Skunks, Bats, Squirrels, Woodchucks and Beavers. Perhaps surprisingly, in this modern age, the State still issues trapping licenses for River Otters, Beaver, Mink, Muskrat, Weasel, Coyote, Gray and Red Fox, Raccoon, Opossum, Skunk and Fisher.

Wild Turkey, introduced to the early settlers by the Native Americans, became a staple, and was ultimately hunted almost to extinction. Hatchery bred birds were re-introduced in Connecticut and other states in recent times and have thrived. Flocks of 25 and 30 birds are a common sight, even in suburbs, despite an annual hunting season. The cocks are a magnificent sight when they fan out their tails to ward off threats to their concubines.

Despite an influx of immigrants from Asia and Russia in recent years, Connecticut’s human population is declining as people move away to find work or a lower cost of living (In 2003, combined state and local taxes in Connecticut amounted to 10.9% of income, the fifth highest in the USA). If that trend continues, the State may well become the largest uninhabited wildlife preserve in America.

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