Nature: English sparrows drive out native birds

There were surprises in the wood pile this week! Some family members discovered some interesting inhabitants one day. Several redbelly snakes have apparently been calling this pile their home or at least a refuge. We have only five species of snakes living here and three species of turtles because of our colder temperatures in the winter.

The snakes found here are the redbelly snake, garter snake, ring-neck snake, smooth green snake and milk snake. None are poisonous!

The redbelly snake is fairly common, but since it is quite secretive it is not often seen by the average person. This attractive snake is quite shy and stays out of sight for the most part. It is only a threat to its potential prey which includes soft bodied insects, sow bugs, and earthworms. Slugs are an especially sought after meal which should please gardeners. The redbelly snake is eaten by a host of other creatures so it tries to stay out of sight!

The snake’s entire underbelly is colored in red or red-orange. It is a gentle creature and even when picked up will not bite.

The commonly seen garter snakes wiggle and try to bite when picked up. They also are known to release a noxious liquid on you to make you drop them and leave them alone. That usually works! Garter snakes, though, are very useful in your garden for they consume unwanted grubs.

Just remember, no snake is poisonous on this island and they are all helpful in our environment. Let them live!

The redbelly snake is one of the few snakes that bear living young. This is called being viviparous. Breeding takes place now in the spring and the young (as many as 1-21) are born in the middle of August and September. Welcome them to your garden!

The little ring-neck snake is another small, shy, moist woodland snake. It has a complete ring of gold around its neck so there is no mistaking it. It is a quiet and attractive neighbor! These snakes eat most anything that they can swallow. Look for them in decaying logs, under stone walls and woodpiles. Have no fear in picking one up for a close look and then releasing it back in it hiding place.

If you are interested in reptiles and amphibians I recommend two publications. One is a paperback booklet entitled “The Native Mammals, Reptiles and Amphibians of Mount Desert Maine” by Dale Rex Colman. The other is a more comprehensive book called “Maine Amphibians and Reptiles” by Malcolm Hunter, Aram Calhoun and Mark McCollough, published by the University of Maine Press. This wonderful book comes with a CD playing the sounds of all Maine amphibians. It is a great aid for a family wanting to recognize what is making the sounds of spring in our wetlands.

Bird reports come into me almost daily. I was particularly delighted to hear of bluebirds here on the island returning to make a nest in Tremont. For many years these birds were almost gone from the island because of the stiff competition for nesting sites given to them by the house sparrow, commonly called English sparrow here.

This sparrow is bird introduced to our country from England. Eight pair were brought over from Europe and released by some non-thinking persons in 1850 in the mistaken belief that they might control larvae of the linden moth. The bird actually doesn’t feed on linden moth larvae so it was all in vain and these sparrows became very unwelcome guests in our country.

The sparrows can live almost anywhere in the city or in the country. Their nests are associated with more than 25 diseases of humans and domestic animals. They bully other birds and drive out native species such as the bluebirds, robins, woodpeckers, Carolina wrens and martins.

Concerted efforts in various parts of our country to help bluebirds especially have gradually helped the native birds. The help from one retired man in the west building nest boxes and putting them up in one area brought the bluebirds back to this area. It is an encouraging story of how people can help sometimes. Check this out on your computer or at your local library.

To hear that bluebirds are back in Tremont again is good news! Putting up a bluebird house in your yard is a good idea, so look up the requirements for making a house and/or putting one up in the best spot.

Turkey vultures are in our skies again. They are big birds but they are not aggressive and generally do not kill. There are a small number of accounts of them killing prey but these instances are rare and involve weak or helpless animals like baby rats, grouse chicks or small fish. When you see circling vultures over head it doesn’t necessarily indicate a carcass on the ground. It may mean the birds are just gaining altitude for a long flight. I’ll have to research the habits of the black vulture to see if they are different or the same. A black vulture would be a very rare sight over MDI.

Enjoy every day as spring unfolds over our island!

Send any questions, photos or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.


Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.
Ruth Grierson

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