Community, Plants

Remnants of an Industry

Walking the place in November’s fresh snow, I notice the remnants of an industry – stumps that were left to grow a second, third or fourth Christmas tree.  The phrase was “stump culture” and the practice fit in with production of wild Douglas Fir Christmas trees.  By cutting high and leaving branches on the stump, it took less time to grow the next tree.  Whether the stump kept superior genetics, or had a better microenvironment for producing Christmas trees, stump culture worked.  The next tree had the benefit of a pre-existing root system, and, if it looked like it was growing too fast, could be slowed by peeling a bit of bark on two sides.

As the photographs show, it has been a long time since Christmas trees were harvested – the stumps now have 30’ tall trees growing where the Christmas trees weren’t harvested.  The stumps, left by my father and grandfather (and a few by me) stand as a monument to a vanished industry.

I entered the Christmas tree industry at age ten – dragging the trees from where Dad cut them to the trail where we would load them on the old Chevy pickup.  Unloading them along another old road, and sorting stacks by sizes – deuces, fours, sixes, eights, tens and twelves.  Eight deuces made a bale, six fours, four sixes, three eights . . . later I learned to tie, building my sawhorses with guides for the trees, wrapping the twine and pulling the figure eight knot tight, then cutting the butts straight with the smallest one hand crosscut.  If I’m remembering correctly, I made 10 cents per bale for tying them.  Good pay – ideally fours and sixes, and it wasn’t hard to tie 20 bales an hour.  Cutting trees was a good business for a teenager – an axe and an old pickup, and a handshake deal where the landowner got half and you were in business.  A hundred trees a day on weekends, cutting and dragging.  Memory brings back pay at $2.50 to $3.00 per bale, plus the dime for tying.  The landowner didn’t get half of the dime.

Tying trees was the intense season – the load had to go out by Thanksgiving.  Cutting started after the first hard frost, so usually around October – tying trees probably in mid-November, and the loads of Christmas trees leaving the valley on Thanksgiving, or the following Friday. 

And now, the stumps are left, showing the remnants of an industry long gone.

Community, Wildlife

Fishing with Drones

Montana’s Fish and Wildlife Commission is considering a new rule, specifically a ban on the use of drones while fishing. As it happens, many states have already done so. But my question was this:

How are drones used for fishing in the first place?

The simplest use is a reconnaissance drone, specifically helpful for fishing in an unfamiliar area. A drone can fly around, noting logs and the like in shallow water, and giving a fisherman the lay of the land, as it were. This provides information that can be used to guess where the fish will be.

That’s the simplest use, though. A drone can also be used to extend a cast, vastly increasing the distance a fisherman can cast. Fancier than that even, drones can not only cast for fish, they can actually catch them and bring them back. Learning that made it much more clear why the Fish and Wildlife Commission might object.

Of course, not everything that they are worried about is in the air. Modern technology allows for underwater exploration as well, with the same fish catching capacities.

The same technology that makes over-fishing a region easy is also useful for conservation efforts. It allows endangered populations to be monitored, and for more detailed examination of how populations move and interact with their environment.

Personally, while the reconnaissance capacities of drones sound very neat, especially the underwater varieties, actually having the drone catch the fish just seems a bit… unsporting.

What do you think?

Patches' Pieces, Wildlife

The not so Perfect Game Camera: Night Video

The trick to capturing pictures, and video, is to know where things are going to be and to put the camera up before they arrive. In the short term, this is a matter of luck, in the long term it becomes a matter of experience.

In winter, this is easier. Tracks in the snow provide some clues about what has been by, and where might be a good place to position a camera. As the snow piles deeper, the local wildlife is no more inclined to wade through it than we are, and cameras can be placed along cleared areas (such as plowed driveways) with greater success.

On the whole, getting good pictures and video requires luck, good camera placement, and wading through a great many bad photos and deer selfies.


More Game Camera Articles:

Ask The Entomologist, Community

Why are there flies in my house? There’s snow outside!

If your home is anything like ours, it has had an abundance of flies lately. You may ask yourselves “why now?” – after all, it’s snowy out, and there can’t be much food for them. Shouldn’t they die with the cold like everything else?

You’d be entirely right in thinking so. Regardless of the type of fly, most of the good food sources are rather scarce this time of year, and the cold kills many. However, insects are just as uninterested in freezing to death as we are. Most of these gathered indoor flies are trying to avoid that particular fate.

My Mother-in-Law’s elegant, clear sticky traps, thoroughly filled with Cluster Flies and Fungus Gnats.

While we see many house flies, flesh flies, and blow flies in the summer, they aren’t the primary species to invade our homes in the winter (though I’ve met a few of each overwintering inside my home).

The vast majority of our new fly guests are a different group entirely – the Cluster Flies. Until quite recently, the Cluster Flies were grouped as a special sort of blowfly, but just over a year ago, they were given their own scientific family name, Polleniidae.

Cluster Flies get their name from their habit of gathering in large groups, often in windows. Some try to stay warm outdoors, nestled deep inside rotting tree trunks. More sensible ones move inside with us to stay warm and survive the winter. Cluster Flies don’t want anything to do with your food, plants, or pets – they’re just here to avoid freezing.

Eternal optimists, Cluster Flies often come out on warmer days, and try to find their way outside.
Thus the accumulation of dead ones on your windowsills when weather turns cold again.

It’s this habit of moving inside for the winter that is thought to have introduced Cluster Flies to the New World. You see, the Cluster Flies we have now aren’t North American natives. No. They’re thought to have sailed over from the Old World with some of the first European colonists.

Back when European countries were busy sending ships to build colonies in the New World, they brought many unintentional stowaways with them. Many of these scalawags are with us today, for better or worse. In this story, we care about two such emigrants. Earthworms (especially the Green Worm) and Cluster Flies.

It’s thought that earthworms were transported across the Atlantic in ships’ ballast. Meanwhile, some Cluster Flies took refuge from bad weather inside the ships themselves, just like they’re doing in our homes this winter, and so found their way to America as well.

Earthworms flourished when ships made landfall. Many of the formerly-glaciated parts of North America no longer had earthworms, and were ripe for Lumbricid conquest. The spread of earthworms, in turn, opened up North America to the spread of Cluster Flies. Both spread like wildfire, and now can be found all over our continent.

Why are earthworms important to Cluster Flies? You see, Cluster Flies are specialist parasites. Their maggots feed almost exclusively on earthworms. Mother Cluster Flies sensibly lay their little ones near earthworm burrows, and the newly-hatched maggots then see about journeying into earthworm burrows. There they lurk in ambush, waiting for a worm to pass by.

Thinking of tiny maggots catching hold of vast earthworms with their mouth-hooks as the worm passes by very much brings scenes of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” to my mind. I like to imagine the tiny Cluster Fly maggots singing this song as they hunt their earthworm prey, and carve their way inside.

Our friendly, local Cluster Fly – Pollenia pediculata.
As you can see, they’re a bit larger and hairier than our common houseflies, as well as easier to catch.

Because of their worm-based diet, Cluster Flies are actually remarkably clean compared to other flies with carrion- or dung-based diets. While you may not appreciate Cluster Flies’ presence, at least they will not spread disease.

Additionally, both my dog and I can attest to their superb flavor.

Ask The Entomologist, Community

Are there bugs in your mail?

I recently started working for the United States Postal Service, and, while I’ve been seeing quite a few bugs lately, few are the kind I like. While I’m not terribly fond of them, the sheer numbers these bugs occur in has been very impressive.

Mercifully, with elections past, there’s been a sizeable reduction in the numbers of incoming bugs in our P.O. boxes.

I’m talking about union bugs, specifically printers’ union bugs. These minuscule beasties seem to be on well more than half of our political junk mail this season! Here’s some fine examples of the species:

These strange ink-based critters colonize almost all publications that come out of unionized printing presses.

If you’ll notice, there’s a certain bias in the political affiliation of these bugs. At present, almost all Democrat-leaning political flyers are published in unionized print shops. Republican-leaning political flyers, on the other hand, are seldom published in unionized print shops, and most lack union bugs.

Republican flyer, lacking the Union Bug

This trend doesn’t necessarily hold constant across the country, though. Nor has it held constant over time – unions used to be strongly supported by the right, as a way that capitalism led to better worker conditions. And, alas, the presence of the union bug is no longer as indicative of an entirely union-made product as it once was…

Due to prevalent local political sentiments, certain political flyers have been disguising themselves to sneak their messages into new homes. Take a look at this piece of political mail – at first glance, you’d assume that LR-130 is opposed to the Second Amendment.

But look closer!
A union bug. This indicates a union press was used, and the flyer in question was most likely published by a left-leaning group. When we examine the bones of this legislation, LR-130 is actually in favor of the Second Amendment.

Cleverly camouflaged flyers and a fair bit of funding led to a surprisingly close vote on LR-130. It’s important to be well-informed on what the issues we’re voting on actually are – legislation and flyers rarely aim to be straightforward.

Mercifully, while pests of a sort, political flyers do not reproduce, unlike invasive insects. Personally, I’m rather grateful that we only have to deal with this volume of political propaganda once every four years.

Community, Recipes

Prairie Communists and Rhubarb Pie

The communism you encounter in Montana and the Dakotas is generally based on Acts 2:44 “And all that believed were together, and had all things in common.”  On the prairies of Montana and the Dakotas, communal ownership and living is not Godless communism, it is based on that verse from the New Testament.

They’re Hutterites – and not all Hutterites are the same.  Historically, they aren’t even all communal – when the Hutterites came to America, the 1880 Census showed 443 Hutterites living on four colonies, while 825 (called the Prairieleut) lived non-communally.  By 1952, all the non-communal Hutterite churches became Mennonite.  It appears that the faith requires communal living to survive.

In the Ukraine,  communal living was abandoned in 1819, and reinstituted under the leadership of Schmide (blacksmith) Michael Waldner.  Darius Walter led a second group’s return to communal living in 1860.  Janzen summarized the differences between the communal and non-communal Hutterites: “In Ukrainian Russia, communal and non-communal Hutterite groups had been virtually indistinguishable except for the differences in economic arrangements.  In America, a vibrant spirit of assimilation had caused the two groups to become radically different from one another” . . . (1999:177).  One of my colleagues at SDSU confidently stated that his family was never Hutterite – despite a surname (Tschetter) that shows up only among Hutterites.  He might have more accurately said that his family was never communal Hutterite, at least in North America.

A couple of recipes for rhubarb pie might show the differences:

Jeeta Kant’s Hutterite Community Cookbook:

            4 cups fresh cut-up rhubarb (½ inch pieces)|
            2 cups sugar
            3 Tbsp cornstarch
            1 double unbaked 9-inch pie crust

  1.  Mix all filling ingredients together and let stand overnight.
  2. Place in an unbaked pie shell and cover with a top crust and seal.
  3. Bake at 425 for 10 minutes, then at 325 for 30 more minutes.

Opposed to the recipe from Pots of Gold from Hutterian Kitchens:

About 5 pails cut up rhubarb               72 egg yolks

            1 ½ c. flour                                          72 egg whites

            24 c. sugar                                           5 ½ c. sugar

            12 c. sweet cream                              72 egg whites

Place 3 cups cut up rhubarb in unbaked pie shells.  Beat egg yolks.  Stir in 24 cups of sugar, flour and cream; mix well.  Pour over cut up rhubarb.  Bake at 350 until done; cool.

Beat egg whites with a little salt.  Add 5 ½ cups sugar, put on top of pies and brown in oven.


My Super Spreader Event

I am an experienced super-spreader.  Not recently though – my super-spreader event occurred in 1953 when I was 3 years-old.  Dad was a CWO4 boatswain aboard the USS Breckenridge (AP-176), a troop transport.  Ships complement of 426 enlisted men and 40 officers – accommodations for 393 officers and 4,896 enlisted troops.  

I had the opportunity to infect more people than the Diamond Princess.  I had the beginnings of chickenpox, and I had access to the galley – a wonderful place with cookies, a pair of petty officer cooks that liked both Dad and children, and a place where over 5,000 people would visit for three meals daily. The Breckenridge was a child-friendly ship, and perhaps, had my visit been limited to the “Children’s playroom” I might never have been a superspreader.

As an adult, I’ve checked the records and realized that I didn’t “accomplish what the entire Imperial Japanese Navy couldn’t,” as a third class petty officer accused me.  The ship may have been delayed and inconvenienced a bit with chickenpox – but she was launched on June 30, 1945, in New Jersey, and was en route to Marseille on her first operational voyage when Japan surrendered. I guess it was to be expected – his stripes were red, not gold.


Adapting to the Cold- Conifers

As it starts to get colder, animals have several options. “Leave for warmer places” is the primary strategy of migratory birds. Many animals take the “Find somewhere warm and stay there” strategy that is my personal approach to winter. Many animals find warm dens for the winter and hibernate, avoiding the cold and snow altogether. Finally, there is the “Bundle up real warm and live with it” strategy of of some of the fluffier varieties of wildlife. Of course, some mix and match of strategies is common; Venturing out for food and returning to a warm den is common enough.

But plants have one major handicap to their potential strategies. Unlike animals, which can move, plants are rather stuck. This means that a tree has no choice but to go with the “Live with it” strategy for coping with cold. Consequently, the trees we have in the area tend to be rather well equipped for that strategy.

We’re dominated by evergreens, or conifers. Conifers do not generally shed their leaves in the fall. The reason for this is that they don’t generally need to. The needles of a conifer are shaped very differently then the leaves of a broad-leafed tree (such as a maple), despite having pretty much the exact same purpose. Not losing all the leaves (they will lose some to wear and tear) is a huge advantage; it means that conifers can keep doing photosynthesis as long as there’s enough warmth and light to do so.

Why the needle shape? Snow load. Everything about the shape of a conifer helps with snow load. A tree is a lot like a roof, in that it can be damaged by the weight of accumulating snow. Conifer needles are shaped to avoid accumulating snow, and each needle will hold far less snow than the leaf of a deciduous tree. The tree itself is shaped to shed snow, with branches that tend to be fairly flexible. While branches may break from a particularly wet (and thus heavy) accumulation of snow, for the most part they bend and shed snow.

Freezing is, for most living things, a pretty serious problem. Water expands as it freezes, and at the cellular level this is quite destructive. Conifers avoid serious damage from this by allowing water outside of the cells to freeze, and by having cell walls that are harder, hard enough to generally withstand the pressure of expanding ice.

The final challenge of winter is not drying out. For conifers, that especially thick waxy coating on the needles is a way of preventing that.

Lessons to be learned from conifers?

  • Too much snow piled atop one is a bad thing. Being cone shaped helps
  • A waxy coating prevents water loss (chapstick?)
  • Don’t freeze

Community, Wildlife

A Pig in a Coat

Thursday morning had an unusual announcement on the Community Page – two pigs were out on the road south of Trego School.  So long as they were on the road, I figured it was no problem, and kept doing a little maintenance on the Suzuki.  Then a red pickup came in, Kiki and the little Lass started their intruder alert, and I prepared the “hunter talk” – a chat that explains that there are too many residences past the trees to hunt safely here.

I didn’t need the “hunter talk”.  The driver asked if I owned pigs.  I had to get him to repeat himself.  Turns out there was a deputy alone on the road with two pigs, one who couldn’t move its hindquarters, a second pig with road rash, and he needed to get to work.  I loaded the Pomeranians into the Suzuki and went to be of minimal assistance.  Admittedly, the thought of a downer hog dragging itself into the woods was not particularly upbeat.  After all, last week was the picture and tracks of mama griz and baby bear.  

The first thing I saw was a crippled, shivering market size hog wearing my recruiter’s coat.  It is good to know that the neighbor you just met is the sort of person who will cover an injured pig with his own coat as he drives off to search for backup for the deputy.

Todd arrived with the Pub’s Beer Jeep – and replaced the coat with a blanket.  I kept the pigs company while the deputy searched for a place the pigs might have known as home.  The deputy returned, Todd returned, and then the owners came in with a horse trailer.  They were a lot more skilled at pig handling than we were, so the pigs were soon loaded up and on their way.  It’s a good community where a guy will give the coat off his back to keep an injured pig warm.  And I can speak to Todd’s decency in putting an injured pig in a blanket.


Polling Responses over Time

Polling response rates also affect polling results.  As State Demographer in a rural state (South Dakota), changes in how the Census obtained and disseminated data made us increasingly dependent on the American Community Survey.  It was definitely more current than the decennial census – but the small numbers of participants made it less reliable.  Deborah Griffin, in “Measuring Survey Nonresponse by Race and Ethnicity” concluded: “The data suggest that special efforts are needed to address differential survey response rates – to increase the rates for areas with high concentrations of AIANs, Blacks and Hispanics . . . New methods to address low mail response must be developed.”

On February 27, 2019, PEW published “Response rates in telephone surveys have resumed their decline.”  The critical part of the article is shown in the graph below – in 1997, the response rate was 36%, twenty years later it was 6%.  Kind of makes polling more difficult – particularly when you project the decline down to 2020.

On 10/26, PEW published “What the 2020 electorate looks like by party, race and ethnicity, age, education and religion” and said, “Around a third of registered voters in the U.S. (34%) identify as independents, while 33% identify as Democrats and 29% identify as Republicans, according to a Center analysis of Americans’ partisan identification based on surveys of more than 12,000 registered voters in 2018 and 2019.”   Contrast that with Gallup’s findings.

In 2013, the Research Council of Norway published, “Fewer Willing to Participate in Surveys.”  The most relevant observation to political polling is “In general, NSD sees that young, single men living in urban areas are the least likely to respond, while older women are the most willing.” 

Polling accuracy depends on random selection.  As the proportion of respondents becomes smaller, the quality of randomness declines.  Causation is not proven by correlation, it must be inferred.  My inference is that the middle has stopped responding to polls – pollsters are getting responses from the same ideologically extreme friends who post political memes, and not from the center.  When 94% of those surveyed do not respond, we’re looking at some extreme nonresponse bias.