Thom Smith: Reader asks, where have the groundhogs gone?

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Q: After reading your news of a giant groundhog appearing near the Mark Belanger field at East and Newell streets, I have to ask if you know anything about the disappearance of groundhogs in the General Electric fenced-off field next to the Belanger field. I hate to say it, but they may have been deliberately killed by the PCB clean-up crew.

My wife and I are exercise walkers and loved to watch families of groundhogs wandering around the outside of the fence next to the Belanger Field walking track. We also love animals so please check into this for us.

— Richard and Wendy

A: Often, there is more than one answer to a question, and as for the PCB crew deliberately killing the groundhogs or woodchucks, I think not. The woodchucks would have evacuated the site as soon as any work commenced.

And certainly within the Mark Belanger Field, where we once would routinely see groundhogs, the construction of the playing field, track and parking area, would have sent these cautious rodents scurrying to a safer place. If this answer isn't the one you expected, all of the activity at the playing field may have eventually caused them to leave for quieter environs.

And one last thought, a coyote or coyotes may have exterminated the small population.

Q: We live at the top of a hill in Shaftsbury Vt., with lots of open sky and often see flocks of birds overhead, flying west in the early morning and east in the early evening, and we wondered what species of birds they were.

They're not that far overhead, but are impossible to identify — just all black from our perspective. They don't appear large enough to be starlings and their flight pattern doesn't look like a finch pattern. We often see four to six "flights" an evening.

(In a subsequent email following my suggesting the flocks may be crows moving to and from a night-time roost, she writes:)

Hmm — that could be. It's hard to tell how large they were, but they didn't have any distinctive flight pattern and they appeared to be dark/black, so perhaps that's what they were. They seemed a bit small to be crows, but then again, they were pretty high and this would really make sense.

— Judie, Shaftsbury, Vt.

A: The daily pattern of crows flying one direction in the morning and the opposite direction in the evening or late afternoon, is one I have watched many times. Of course, crows are not the only species that roost in large numbers, and you may also consider the possibility of blackbirds, starlings and grackles, and, although not in this case, even vultures. These birds flock together during fall, winter and early spring, often forming huge roosts in urban areas, although not many, if any blackbirds, grackles or vultures spend winters in the Northeast.

This question reminds me of just why some birds flock together, and space only permits a cursory look. I have often notice starling family groups gathering in a flock to canvass the open field beyond our yard to search for insects and grubs.

Other times, as fruits ripen, I notice flocks of cedar waxwings feeding together until they relieve a tree of all its crop. In winter, robins and bluebirds, sometimes with wintering cedar waxwings are seen in flocks feeding in crab apple and dogwood, as well as sumac.

Excitement breaks out in the birding community when Bohemian waxwings arrive from the north to join in the feast.

We may call this behavior forage flocking. And often, especially during the cold winter months, many songbirds will gather to feed in small flocks, or large ones in the case of erratic winter finches.

I will continue this next week with a look at flocking for protection, mating and raising a family, warmth, and aerodynamic advantage, with a recent personal encounter with two large starling flocks.


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