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Saturday, July 25, 2009

Where Do All the Rabbits Go?

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, July 25, 2009.)

Some hunters must feel like Elmer Fudd chasing that one
"wascally wabbit." They wonder why they see so many all
summer long, and then most are gone come October.
People are saying there are soooo many rabbits this year. Cottontails hop all over the yard, all along the road, and many end up as road kill. Believe it or not, someone wrote a field guide to road kill. (It’s satirical.) But you don’t need a field guide to identify flattened rabbits – the cottony tail is a dead giveaway.

All puns aside, we do have lots of rabbits this year. We do every year. Rabbits are extremely prolific. We think of them being born in spring, but even at the end of July I’m still seeing lots of them that weren’t born much before yesterday. And more will be born before summer’s end. Looking like tiny adults, they sit munching on greens at the salad bars that are perilously close to nearly every road.

For many hunters of my generation, rabbits were their first game animals. I remember as a high schooler rushing home at the end of the day and traipsing back up to Warren Area High School to hunt rabbits. I’d walk across the football team’s practice field with my beagle and my Ithaca pump shotgun, wave at Coach Shea, then hunt near the cross-country track above the school. (Don’t try that today.)

My beagle was on the slow side, so she didn’t put much pressure on the rabbits. Often a rabbit would take her out of earshot, but soon I’d hear the dog’s full cry and she’d always bring it back around. Sometimes I waited 5 minutes after shooting before her nose unraveled the trail of the dead bunny and she found her way back to me.

For many reasons, people don’t hunt rabbits as much as previous generations did. Keeping a dog is expensive today. It’s hard to find time for training. Many more activities compete for the attention of today’s youth. The schedules of modern two-income households make caring for the dog more challenging. And fewer places are available to hunt with a dog.

Some hunters who do pursue rabbits must feel like Elmer Fudd chasing that one "wascally wabbit." They wonder why they see so many all spring and summer long, and then most are gone come October. The reason is simple. Rabbits are under threat from the moment they are born.

Domestic cats and dogs take a share of them before or soon after they leave the nest. Crows, when they discover a nest, harass a mother rabbit endlessly. She’s no match for even one relentless crow, and usually the ruckus a crow creates draws more crows. We tend to think of crows as scavengers rather than predators, but whenever a crow discovers a nest, it’s unlikely any baby bunnies will survive.

If the young survive the nest, life doesn’t get any easier. The adage about safety in numbers doesn’t hold true for rabbits, because those high spring and summer populations actually insure that dumb bunnies will be caught and eaten every day. Rabbits are a fast-food store for hungry foxes, coyotes, owls and hawks – a McDonald’s for carnivores.

When rabbits live near residential areas more of them manage to avoid the predators that feast on their tasty, tender meat. But there, rabbits bump into one more unsympathetic foe – vengeful vegetable gardeners who don’t care that rabbits are cute and cuddly.

I live in a spot that used to be great rabbit hunting. The rabbits are still around and I see them every day. So does my little wiener dog Remy, who quivers with excitement at the sight of br’er rabbit.

But these rabbits aren’t the ones we used to hunt. Those are long gone. The houses have been here for more than 20 years, but two years is a long time for a rabbit to live.

Watching rabbits nibble clover might make us think they live in a world where peace guides the planets and love steers the stars, but don’t be deceived. Even in adulthood, bunnies are the bottom of the food chain. They live in a vicious world, and they’re extremely vulnerable 365 days a year.

Their numbers will continue to dwindle each day until spring, when a high fertility rate will be their main insurance policy against extinction.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Lots To Do in This Oily Playground

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, July 11, 2009.)

My usual scribbles are about hunting,
shooting and a tiny bit of fishing, but
that's not all we have to do around here.
If I lived in Alaska it would be odd if I’d never paid Denali a visit. If I lived in South Dakota, people would raise eyebrows if I’d never seen Mount Rushmore. If I lived in Arizona and had never witnessed the Grand Canyon, people would wonder what I was waiting for.

But I live in northwest Pennsylvania, and it’s a minor embarrassment to admit that I haven’t yet visited some of the attractions here. Lots of us haven’t. I suppose that is odd. I’m not surprised people would raise eyebrows. And I don’t know what I’m waiting for.

My usual scribbles are about hunting, shooting and a tiny bit of fishing, but that's not all we have to do around here – especially remembering the fact that northwest Pennsylvania is where the oil industry got its start.

It was 150 years ago (August 27, 1859) that Colonel Edwin Drake drilled a well near Titusville, PA and “discovered” oil only 69½ feet deep. Today, even with the environmentalist movement’s hatred of all things oil, that event is properly a source of pride for the people of Titusville and the region.

The truth is, however, that Drake wasn’t the first to bring oil to the earth’s surface. Two years earlier, a successful 49-foot well was dug by hand in Ontario, and it produced 150 gallons per hour using a hand pump. In 100 B.C. the Chinese had a rudimentary oil and gas industry. They actually drilled wells and even had a distribution network through bamboo pipelines. And, going back as far as 4000 years, petroleum products were in use by the ancient Egyptians, Sumerians, Persians and others.

Here in North America, natives of the “new world” had also discovered oil, and commonly used it. With oil in some places less than 50 feet from the surface, we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that it sometimes actually seeped from the ground. American Indians (always the pragmatists) gathered it and found uses for it.

So, thousands of years before the gasoline engine, civilizations found many and varied uses for petroleum from waterproofing to lubricants to medicinal purposes – even mortar for masonry.

What made northwest Pennsylvania the birthplace of the oil industry? More than anything else, it was the readiness of entrepreneurs to exploit petroleum. So, Drake wasn’t the first to discover oil – rather, he drilled the first successful commercial oil well. And that fact brings us to today.

This summer is the peak of activities celebrating our region’s oil heritage. In preparation for this event, President George W. Bush in 2004 signed a bill designating Pennsylvania's oil region as a National Heritage Area. The Oil Region Alliance was formed to plan and promote the 150th anniversary of Drake’s success.

Events have been going on all year, but plenty more are on tap. Here are just a few upcoming that will help cultivate an appreciation for the region’s key place in oil history:

July 17-18, Dramatic production: Melba, The Toast of Pithole (Oil City)
July 23-26, Oil Heritage Festival (Oil City)
July 24-25, Queen Cutlery Collector’s Knife Show (Titusville)
August 26, Oil Man’s BBQ & Bluegrass Band (Cross Creek Resort, Titusville)
August 29, Taste of the Oil Region Brewfest (Titusville)
October 22, Lecture: Edwin Drake, a Reintroduction (Venango Campus of Clarion University, Oil City)

If you go online to www.oilregion.org and www.oil150.com, you’ll find plenty more to do in our oily playground. Or, call 1-800-483-6264 for more information about events.

Me? I might start at the old oil boomtown of Pithole, which accelerated from zero to a thriving city of 15,000 in nine months, complete with plenty of unsavory fortune-seekers (including John Wilkes Booth.) It’s now nothing but a ghost town, having died as quickly as it was born, but what a place to let your imagination off its leash!

And, since this is an outdoor column, I can’t fail to mention the Allegheny River Bass Tournament on September 13. The Allegheny is an underappreciated smallmouth fishery. This might be your opportunity to discover it – and maybe, if you’re a fortune-seeking type, win the $1000 cash prize.