A Northwoods Almanac for Feb. 19 – March 4, 2010
At this time of year, Mary and I always scrutinize our woodpile to make sure we’ll have enough wood to make it to May (which still may not actually mark the end of the heating season). We usually burn somewhere between four and five full cords of wood, and we’re thankful to have an efficient wood stove that squeezes out the most BTUs.
But it wasn’t always energy efficient to burn wood. America once operated almost entirely on an exceptionally inefficient wood-based energy economy. Heat for homes, energy for industry, and fuel for transportation in 18th century colonial America were all wood-based. Fireplaces in homes were extremely large – up to ten feet wide and four feet deep. While this greatly saved on the cutting and splitting of logs, since one could easily lay a 7-foot-long log on the fire, as much as 90% of the heat went up the chimney. Such practice was accepted then because of the perceived “inexhaustible” supply of wood. As Francis Higgeson wrote of living in New England in 1630, “Here is good living for those that love good fires . . . Nay, all Europe is not able to afford to make so great fires as New England.”
Estimates of firewood used per family in a typical 18th century home vary widely, but all fall within the range of 20 to 60 cords. Peter Kalm, a Swedish botanist, wrote in 1772, “[Wood was] really squandered away in immense quantities day and night all winter.”
Benjamin Franklin invented the fuel-efficient Franklin stove in 1742, but it was too expensive for the average settler to purchase. Plus, it took far more time to chop up the wood into smaller lengths, so the stoves weren’t adopted widely until the 1820s, and then mostly in urban environments where wood shortages had begun to appear. Both smaller fireplaces and the Franklin stove brought consumption down in the 19th century to 10 to 20 cords per family, which meant every fireplace still required 10 to 20 acres of woods, given that an acre of woods typically produces about 0.5 to 1 cord of wood per year.
The price of firewood in cities became particularly high due to transportation costs. In 1806, wood cost $1.25 a cord inland in Maine, $2.50 a cord on the coast, and $6 to $8 a cord when transported to Boston. Fuelwood became scare in the more populated areas along the East Coast, starting perhaps the first discussion of energy policy in the U.S. when Noah Webster proclaimed in 1817: “We must either reduce the annual consumption [of wood] within the limits of the annual growth, or that time will arrive when we must search the earth for fuel.” Little did he know of the bigger energy picture to come in the next two centuries.
To show how prevalent and wasteful the use of firewood was, until 1890 much more wood went into fireplaces and stoves than was used in construction of houses. Total fuelwood consumption across the Northeast and Midwest peaked in the 1870s at about 90 million cords per year, but even as late as 1919, over 45 million cords were still consumed per year.
Coal-burning stoves became more common in the 1830s, and eventually displaced wood as the major source of fuel in the 1880s. Soon after, we began our energy journey into two new “inexhaustible” energy sources – natural gas and oil.
Now, nearly 200 years later after Webster’s prescient words in 1817 (the world’s population then is estimated to have been 1 billion), our energy policy fears have escalated because non-sustainable gas and oil have no annual growth like wood, and the world now contains over 6.7 billion people who utilize energy in ways and amounts Webster could never have imagined.
And everyone wants more.
That’s the big picture. For now though – the little picture – we just want our wood to hold out to May.
Food Caching and Early Nesting in Gray Jays
Gray jays are the earliest nesting songbird in the Northwoods, laying eggs as early as mid-February, although most clutches are laid between early March and mid-April. Nesting when the snow remains deep and sub-zero temperatures still prevail at night seems nonsensical, but like everything else in nature, it reflects an evolutionary compromise that works to these birds’ ultimate advantage. Whereas most birds and mammals are struggling to just find food during March, the gray jay is sitting pretty because of the food caching it did during autumn. Gray jays are able to store food that won’t rot for long periods of time because of the remarkable composition of their saliva. Whereas most spit is slippery in order to enable food to slide down one’s throat, the gray jay’s spit coagulates on contact with the air. Gray jays mix the plentiful food of autumn with their saliva to form a glue-like mass that they can store in bark fissures, knot holes, and in clusters of conifer needles. Coupled with their superior memory, which allows them to find most of these caches months later in the depths of the winter, they have then, in effect, cupboards full of food that they only they know exist. Thus, they can begin nesting, a highly energy-intensive labor, before any other songbirds.
Still, it’s quite cold in March, so the gray jays also have evolved the ability to construct a very well insulated, deep, and bulky nest quite unlike the see-through, bare twig nests of their cousins the blue jays. By using fur and feathers to cradle their eggs, their eggs remain warm enough to incubate. In fact, if you have gray jays near your home, put out some cotton balls, grouse feathers, or facial tissue for them – they’ll readily accept your generosity for the construction of their nests, a fact researchers use to help them when they need to locate gray jay nests.
Gray jays utilize one last critical behavioral component to permit them to nest so early. While they often raise three to four chicks, usually no more than one of them is permitted to spend the next winter with them. Researchers think the strategy has evolved because trying to support the entire family throughout the winter would potentially overwhelm their cache supplies and cause them all to starve. The weaker individual juveniles that are aggressively chased away in the fall often survive the winter by catching on with another gray jay pair whose nesting failed.
Bob Hart’s bobcat picture in my last column generated numerous responses. Pat Schwai on Cochran Lake sent me several pictures of a bobcat that came into her yard: “Neither of our cameras really caught the detail even though the critter was only 12 feet away. But in our defense, trying to crack open the door and hold the camera steady while our dog was going bonkers was a challenge. The bobcat seemed completely unfazed by Zoie's ferocious barking, although it did briefly turn its head in our direction. The cat was within pouncing distance of two feeders . . . Before "nature could take its course" in front of my eyes, my husband went out to shoo the cat away. Instead of running away from the house, it jumped onto and ran the length of our deck before heading into the woods.”
Chomingwen D. Pond in Minocqua wrote that a bobcat has been around the south shore of Lake Shishebogama this winter: “Most recently, I glanced out the window Wednesday morning, Feb. 3, to see it tussling with a gray squirrel. (A black and possibly another gray escaped.) When it got the squirrel's head in its mouth, it sat up and apparently bit the squirrel's head or neck until the squirrel stopped thrashing. Then some minutes later it stood up and trotted off into the woods, the squirrel's body hanging from its mouth. Not a pleasant thing to watch, but as Mel Ellis (naturalist at the "Milwaukee Journal" "eons" ago) said, ‘The first law of life is not 'Survival of the fittest' but 'to give up life for the sake of other life.'"
Karen MacGregor on the Pike Lake Chain wrote that when skiing at the Round Lake Wilderness Area a few weeks ago her brother identified some bobcat tracks. Her question was: Are there a lot of bobcats here in the Northwoods?
The WDNR estimates the state’s bobcat population by looking at harvest numbers and data from the winter furbearer track survey. Their analysis suggests that fall population size increased from about 1,500 to about 3,100 during the 1990s and early 2000s, but the population appears to have stabilized and declined slightly in recent years. The 2009 fall population estimate was 2,100 total bobcats in Wisconsin.
Elinore Sommerfeld wrote: “We occasionally see fox on our property, but we've had 3 sightings in 2 days! I've never seen them on our road, but yesterday, I saw a pair trotting down the road ahead of me. They casually kept an eye on me and eventually peeled off into the woods. On the same stretch of road today, a single fox headed towards me. Even as I kept approaching it and making noise, it kept coming till it was within 50 feet of me before heading into the woods. And this afternoon, on our property, about 1/2 mile from where I saw the others, we saw a fox roaming the woods.” Fox mate in January and February, so perhaps these fox had other more important things on their minds than the presence of a human.
Joyce Brundage in Mercer e-mailed that on a 17 degree morning, while watching the snowmobiles on the trail in front of her house and fisherman on the frozen lake out the back window, a robin flew into the tree by her front window.
Mitch Mode forwarded a picture of a Cooper’s hawk tearing apart a mourning dove in his yard in Rhinelander. The red eyes indicate the bird is an adult.
Numerous people have asked me why we haven’t seen any northern lights for what seems like a very long time. Well, on Feb. 8, we received the following e-mail from the Aurora Forecast Website: “After 3 years of no auroral alerts, this is to let you know that you are neither forgotten nor dropped from the list. The first solar flares of the new solar cycle have now begun to produce auroral activity. The effects of one of these flares will be arriving today . . . it is good to know that the sun is awake again.”
To subscribe to the Aurora Alert mailing list at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, click on http://www.gi.alaska.edu/mailman/listinfo/gse-aa . The Aurora Forecast page can be viewed at www.gedds.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast/
On 2/25, look for Mars about 5° north of the waxing gibbous moon. We hit 11 hours of daylight on 2/27 The full moon occurs on 2/28. Called by some Native American tribes the “Hunger Moon,” the name reflects the great difficulty that many animals have in surviving the last few months of winter.