This valley is full of shifting echoes, both real and figurative. One hundred and fifty years ago, the whistle of a locomotive from the now-abandoned tracks along the creek or the cracks of a hammer from some Shaker industry bounced across the open hillsides. Today, the roar of the summer speedway or the yips of coyotes are swallowed by the expanded woods that ring the valley. The echoes are not just in the air but also on the wet, uneven ground of this February swamp.
Here, where a rock face juts up near the wetland’s edge, a trio of tracks have crossed paths in the snow: Fox, Fisher and Bobcat. The Fox (probably a Red Fox), its compact canid prints laid out in single file as if deposited by a pogo stick; the Fisher, bounding eagerly with some of the apparent exuberance of its cousin the Otter; the Bobcat on round-padded paws, occasionally stopping to rest calmly on its haunches. Last night, these three creatures had arrived to hunt down the same quarry as brought me here in the morning. Together they formed a novel set of predators and prey.
A mere 40 years ago, Fisher and Bobcat would have been rare as solo sightings, let alone together. Forty years before that, the call of the Coyote was unknown here. The Red Fox would have been present eighty years ago, although its abundance may have only harkened from the time of European settlement. Other factors have played their part, but the loudest ‘shout’ for whom these tracks are an echo is probably that of changing land cover and habitats. In 1750, we estimate the County was roughly 90% forested; by the second half of the 19th century, at the height of agriculture, it was roughly 80% open farmland; in 2000, the County was more than 60% forested. These were rapid, dramatic changes in wildlife habitat. Some species suffered, others benefited.
The folk song, “The Fox is on the Town-o”, makes a valid ecological observation. Creatures such as Red Fox, Eastern Cottontail, and Deer benefitted from the mosaic of forested and open lands created by early farming, especially as hunting and trapping declined. On the other hand, Fisher, Marten, Lynx, and Moose retreated with the forests. As the land reforested in the 20th century, it also, to some degree, repopulated with wildlife. Fisher, Bobcat, Black Bear, and Moose have all begun to flow back into their former haunts. However, this reforestation has not brought back the forests of 500 years ago; it has brought back a different land, with echoes of the past but also with new elements. As such, not all former wildlife residents have benefitted. Our shared quarry on this day is one example.
Stumbling about the swamp I was not looking for the predators but rather their prey, specifically, as Elmer Phudd would say, “wabbits”. Elmer Phudd, Warner Brothers Cartoons’ inept rabbit hunter, while caricature, did reflect a real subcurrent of American culture during the mid 20th century. Rabbit hunting was popular sport, and sportsmen widely introduced their favored game, such as the Cottontail. What they often did not realize was that there are actually two species of Cottontail in the East, the so-called “Eastern Cottontail” and the very similar “New England Cottontail”. In 1900, New England Cottontail was probably the only species east of the Hudson. Nearly indistinguishable in the flesh (but not ‘in the bone’ or in their DNA), some introductions around the Northeast were made using the more conspicuous and hence more easily captured Eastern Cottontail. Furthermore, and perhaps even more important, the Eastern Cottontail is better suited to the habitats of suburbia and semi-suburbia. Witness their evening visits to our lawns. The New England Cottontail, on the other hand, was originally an inhabitant of the thick brush of wetlands and burn-overs. Two habitats that, with our control of beaver and fire, have waned despite the forest’s return. For a while, the abandonment of agriculture provided substitute shrubland, but now most abandoned agricultural land has reverted to forest. The shrubland boom of the mid 20th century has passed and so too, perhaps, the era of the New England Cottontail.
I did find a rabbit in the end, or rather its tracks and, more importantly, its pellets which can be sent out for definitive DNA analysis. The animal had been feeding in and around a dense rose-alder-dogwood tangle, not surprising given the number of wandering maws hoping to sup upon it. I carefully spooned a few pellets into a vial, retrieved my knit hat from the rose that had grabbed it, and stumbled back out of the swamp, having witnessed a constellation of wildlife that Elmer Phudd would not have found 60 years ago and that our children will probably not find 60 years hence.
This time (first decade of the 21st century) and place (a forest-edged swamp along the Taconics) are ones which have woven together a novel yarn of wildlife. Never before have Red Fox, Bobcat and Fisher threaded their tracks through those of Coyote, and Eastern and New England Cottontails (all of whom are surely nearby if not in this swamp on this particular day). And perhaps never again. These new forests may not, in the long run, support the same species that previous forests did. Furthermore, Northeastern forests, after decades of resurgence, are now widely receding as they are eroded by development. These are portents or echoes of a future fauna that is different from today’s. Some of these changes are inherent ebbs and flows. Others, however, are our doing, and while those changes are not necessarily wrong because of that, they are ours to be conscious of and to consider.
Perhaps after I left the swamp, another animal came along, sniffed my tracks, and then changed its path, heading back up into the hills or instead backtracking along my route and so finding a rabbit to ease its hunger.
Post Script: The Rabbit droppings collected that day turned out to be from Eastern rather than New England Cottontail.
The below discussion considers the broader historical interactions of our wildlife and our landscape.
Most of our larger native mammals are, more or less, associated with forest. Some appreciate edge or mixed habitats, but all are primarily woodland creatures. Their ebb and flow is largely a reflection of the ebb and flow of woodland, human exploitation, and urbanization.
Prior to European settlement several large mammals ranged throughout most of the State, but then disappeared and have not returned. These include Elk, Wolf, Cougar (also called Mountain Lion or Catamount) and Wolverine. Other mammals, such as Mastodons, existed in the County after the last glaciations but were already extinct by 1500. In 1705, Claverack happened to be the site of the first recorded find of Mastodon remains in North American. Wooly Mammoth, Reindeer and Bison also occurred in New York, although there are no records of any of these specifically for Columbia County, and it is still unclear how far east the Bison came (teeth were reportedly recovered near Albany).
Elk are large relatives of the deer, weighing up to twice that of the latter species. It is supposed that, at the time of European settlement, they existed throughout almost all of New York except Long Island. They waned quickly, possibly because they were prime game animals and their herding habits made them conspicuous and their breeding congregations could be easily disrupted. By 1840, they were, except for some last pockets, all but gone. They went extinct in New York State before the end of the 19th century, and despite efforts to re-introduce them, they have not returned. (Although, as with many of these species, there have been occasional apparent strays – one was shot in Essex County in the 1940s or 50s.)
Deer warrant more detailed consideration, given their familiarity and current abundance. Our local species is the White-tailed Deer; Mule Deer (also called Black-tailed Deer) is the analogous western species.
Early European visitors to the Hudson Valley and much of the East Coast commented on the abundance of deer and other game. Certainly, compared with densely settled Europe, game animals abounded in unimaginable numbers, despite the effects of Wolves, Mountain Lions, and humans. Europeans were quick to exploit this source of food. By the middle of the 19th century, deer were becoming a rare beast in some rural areas, probably including Columbia County. Reporting from nearby Williamstown, Ebenezer Emmons in 1840, does affirm that “it has also been taken within the past year in Williamstown”. Obviously, deer were rare enough to make this a noteworthy occasion, although he does go on to say they were common in the “Hoosic Mountains”.
DeKay, writing two years later about New York mammals, confirms that Catskill populations are still supplying New York City, but cautions that “the united attacks of men and wolves are daily decreasing their number.” Audubon and Bachman, writing in the 1840s, reported that it existed in all Atlantic states, albeit in “diminished numbers”. In Thoreau's journal for 1860, he reported that, “Farmer says that a farmer in Tewksbury told him two or three years ago that he had seen deer lately on the pine plain thereabouts.” Deer appear to have been approaching the stuff of urban myth. All agreed it was an elusive animal, rarely seen in the open. Ernest Thompson Seton, a noted artists and naturalist, put the nadir of New York State deer populations at 1890, when they were found only in the Adirondacks.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, deer were reportedly exterminated from the states of Delaware, Illinois, Ohio, Iowa and Indiana; although elsewhere legal protection was apparently helping populations to rebound. In 1904, William T. Hornaday, director of what is now the Bronx Zoo, proclaimed, “The author is proud to be able to say that in Putnam County, New York, his family garden is regularly visited and browsed by real wild deer.” Another author, writing in 1902, commented, “It is said that in some parts deer are already making decided nuisances of themselves by foraging on the farmer’s crops; I trust it is not a far look ahead to the time when it will be true of them where I live in New Hampshire.” The demographic rebound was probably the combined result of hunting laws and of the secondary forests and the shrublands that were rebounding as farmland was abandoned.
This general scenario is reflected in the graphs showing buck harvests in Columbia County and New York. During the first quarter of the twentieth century, there were very few deer in New York. As populations rebounded during the first half of the 20th century, hunting seasons were opened and harvest increased. It continued to grow through much of the remaining decades of that century. Recent drops in harvest may partially reflect declining hunter numbers — between 2002 and 2007, New York State big game license sales declined more than 7%; in Columbia County total, resident hunting license sales declined more than 15% over the same period.
The wax and wane of hunting is only part of White-tailed Deer’s recent demographic story; habitat change has also had an important effect. The relatively extensively (vs. intensively) used fields with ample edge and shrubland that were part of early European agriculture may have generally improved deer habitat, although the concommittant hunting probably masked the habitat benefits. During the first half of the 1900s, any consequences of the intensification of agriculture were balanced during by extensive farmland abandonment. Thus while marginal habitats were extirpated from the farm core, they were allowed to flourish outside of the focus area. These were just the habitats that deer loved. A mapping of the most recent harvest statistics (below) suggests that deer are most common in some of the towns which are intermediate in terms of forest cover, regions that had ample forest shelter but also substantial open land for foraging.
Surges in deer populations were initially welcomed as a demonstration of a conservation success, these mounting deer populations were soon recognized to cause damage to other native species. While the shade of the forest canopy is sometimes responsible for a relative dearth of understory and herbaceous ground plants, deer browsing is often the explanation. The resulting forest tends to feel more open and airy than one with a thicker growth near the ground, a growth that clutters the view and trips the foot; but, if the majority of saplings are browsed then it is, in some ways, a forest without a future. In work that eventually raised the ire of some traditional game managers who had become focused on the goal of raising deer populations, as early as the 1920s botanists began pointing out that the forests were being radically altered by deer activity. Wildlife managers whose raison d’etre had been the maintenance of deer populations were now being criticized for succeeding too well.
Today, it is widely recognized that deer have profound ecological impacts on forests. When they exist in population densities well above historical levels, they can have very measurable effects on plant communities. For example, in our outings we rarely see Canada Lily, a graceful chandelier of a lily with a large flower reminiscent of a Day Lily. According to Dr. McVaugh, this Canada Lily was common in our landscape during the 1930s; and yet its flowers are relatively rare today. This Lily is apparently a favored deer food, and while Rogers McVaugh recalled seeing few if any deer during his days afield, none of the forested sites we visit today are without them. Their trails often criss-cross the wet forests where this flower abides. Other herbaceous (that is, not woody) native plants said to experience high levels of browsing include Trillums and Orchids. In all, researchers found that if one excluded deer from certain sections of forest, those sections grew three times more plant material by the end of the season.
Deer population management is not a simple issue, but we should be aware of the consequences of our choices: if, for example, we choose to do nothing to control deer populations, then we should be conscious that we are thereby choosing to reduce forest plant diversity and forest regenerative ability. Similarly, if we advocate for hunting, then we must be conscious of the rising tide of evidence that the distinction between humans and other animals is more one of degree than of uncrossable difference.
Mustelids are the family of mammals that include Weasels, Mink, Badgers, Marten, Fisher, Wolverine and River Otter. It appears that, because of their small pelts and inconspicuous size, Weasels and Mink were able to survive throughout most of New York during the past four centuries. The Otter also seems to have been surprisingly resilient, although the historical literature makes frequent mention of severely reduced populations. Otter’s ability to bounce back may have been due to its highly aquatic life style which meant that its habitat was less directly affected by humanity’s changes to terra firme (although water pollution, fishing, and siltation no doubt had their influence). River Otters are regularly seen in the County today.
The biggest of our native mustelids was the Wolverine, with males averaging perhaps 50% larger than male River Otters. They are muscular scavengers and predators. At the time of European settlement, they apparently occurred in the Adirondacks and Catskills, but by the middle of the 19th century they were gone from the Catskills and by end of that century, they were gone from the State. I have found no definite record of them in Columbia County, but there are reports of them in Rensselaer County and in the Hoosic Mountains of northwestern Massachusetts, so it wouldn’t be surprising if they had occasionally roamed into our woods. Wolverines were apparently trapped and hunted for their pelts and as pests. The timing of their disappearance parallels that of the Beaver to some degree, however, there were no subsequent efforts to re-introduce them.
Marten and Fisher are large, weasel- or mink-like animals that share the same genus (Martes). Both animals seemed to also share similar pre-settlement ranges in the State, although the former was apparently absent from the environs of New York City and Long Island. Both probably occurred in Columbia County, and there are specific reports of Marten from adjacent western Massachusetts during the first half of the 19th century. By the beginning of the 1900s, these animals had retreated to the Adirondacks, and, today, Marten remains confined there. When I was growing up in the County in the 1970s, Fisher and Marten were exotic, distant animals. Fisher, at least, has returned. By the late 1990s, they were wandering through the County, and we now regularly find their tracks in the snow. Why the Fisher should have rebounded but not the Marten is unclear. It may be that New York is near the southern margin of the Marten’s range, and so that species was never as common as the more-southerly Fisher.
The approximate distributions of Lynx, Bobcat and Cougar in New York State at various historical points.
Three species of wild cats range or have ranged through the County: the Cougar, the Lynx, and the Bobcat. First two are now, except perhaps for the occasional visitor, extinct in our area, the last has returned like the Fisher. Cougar shared the fate of Wolves and was assiduously hunted out of the state as a dangerous varmit. Bounties were paid for Cougar through the end of the 19th century, and it had apparently disappeared in NY by the middle of the 20th century. Sightings still occur in the Northeast and occasionally sign is found. DNA analysis of scat show that the sign so far found is of western Cougars. Apparently they are transported east as pets. There is a reported sighting of a mother with kits from the Adirondacks, so populations may have now re-established.
Lynx probably occurred at least occasionally in the County prior to colonization. There is a 19th century record from Rhinebeck in Dutchess County; and it was described as “not very infrequent” in Berkshire County around the middle of that century. There is even a possible 20th century record from Columbia County itself. The Lynx’s range shrunk as trapping and forest removal took their toll. In 1940, some Lynx remained in the Adirondacks; today, they are apparently extinct in the State. Despite several attempted re-introductions, they have reportedly not re-established themselves. Some attribute the Lynx’s final extinction in the Adirondacks to the increase of Bobcat. Bobcat favor lower, more southerly climes than the Lynx but also seem to do well in semi-open forest such as created around human settlements or in logged forests. As their numbers rose during the height of Adirondack logging, it is thought that Bobcat may have out-competed Lynx. Adirondack Bobcat numbers are now waning, and new attempts are being made to re-introduce Lynx to those Mountains. Bobcat or their sign are regularly seen in or around the Columbia County; like Fisher, they were rare or absent during my childhood.
The distribution of Coyote is a reverse image of that of the Wolf, with Coyote appearing as the Wolf disappeared from the State. The Wolf was apparently found throughout New York State prior to European arrival, and the Coyote was likely absent (there are some anecdotal early reports that could describe coyote or the dogs of Native Americans). Wolves, like Cougar, were pursued as vermin. Bounties assured their demise. Although wolves apparently occurred in the Adirondacks at the turn of the 19th century, they were soon gone. Coyotes apparently found their way in from the West at around the same time, they were first sighted in the State during the 1920s. It is thought that they benefited from both the removal of the Wolf and improving (human-caused) habitat for White-tailed Deer. Their arrival may have been aided by intentional or accidental introductions. Today, Coyotes are found throughout the State. The eastern Coyotes are noticeably larger (50-70% heavier; up to 60lbs) than the western animals that are their proposed progenitors. Coyotes are frequently heard yipping and sometimes almost howling in our woods. In some places in the County, they are common enough to occasionally threaten small livestock. Red Fox (whose range is not illustrated) may have followed a similar scenario as the Coyote, but at an earlier period. This species seems to have been rare or absent in much of New York in the 17th and 18th century, but increased subsequently, perhaps aided by the huntsmen's introduction of European individuals (the species occurs naturally in Europe and North America). It is favored by habitat mosaics and was probably favored by the spread of farmland.
Beaver spurred much early settlement in the Hudson Valley. Early Dutch commerce was based largely on beaver hides. Most trapping was apparently actually done by Native Americans and an intricate economic network resulted with Albany (Beaverwijk) as a central point. Beaver were widespread prior to intensive exploitation, but trapping quickly drove down their numbers. It seems probable that Beaver went extinct in the Hudson Valley during the 18th century. By 1900, the remaining beaver lived in a small reserve in the northern Adirondacks. Reintroduction programs began in 1901 and continued for at least a decade or two. The results were dramatic: beaver had returned to almost all of their former range by the middle of the Century, and today they live throughout almost the entire State and are commonly see in the County. It seems doubtful however that their densities are anywhere near those of pre-colonial times, at least in our region of the State. Trapping is legal, and beaver are regularly removed and/or their dams breached. It seems unlikely that the current level of persecution and harvest will threaten the survival of our beaver populations, however, it certainly does reduce the extent of their dam building and wetland creation. That, in turn, likely affects the populations of the plants and animals which had co-evolved with such habitats.
Various small and medium sized mammals also inhabit our forests, from the miniscule long-tailed shrews through the squirrels and rabbits. Most of these have probably continued to make a living in our forests, despite periodic reductions in forest habitat. One species is, however, of particular concern. The New England Cottontail was THE Cottontail east of the Hudson until the 20th century. It is even suggested that, at the time of European settlement, no other Cottontail occurred in the entire state. Changing habitats and extensive introductions by hunters helped spread the Eastern Cottontail throughout New York and into New England. In the current landscape, that species appears to generally be displacing the New England Cottontail, and the latter is now under consideration for Endangered Species status. New England Cottontails do still occur in Columbia County, but their distribution is uncertain. It is not possible to definitively distinguish that two species from their size or pelage, and so identification relies upon skull or DNA characteristics. This difficulty has hampered an understanding of the current interactions of the two species. Because it was only recognized as a distinct species in 1895, there are little data for plotting historical ranges; although skull differences do allow for the identification of early specimens when material still exists.