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Black squirrels once were common in America before European migration

Peering out the front window with my first cup of coffee this morning, I was rewarded with the sight of at least a half dozen squirrels cavorting on my snow-covered lawn, running up and down the trees, chasing each other and creating a maelstrom of snow powder and furry activity.
    One of the frisking rascals, I noticed with surprise, was melanistic, a black phase of our common gray squirrel. Though fairly rare (one in 10,000) these days, the jet-black variety is a handsome mutation and jogged some interesting facts loose in my memory.
    Winter storm warnings of about two inches of snow had been choking the airwaves. Despite having been born and raised around the snow-bound Great Lakes and immunized to such hysterics, I did begin to feel concern for the neighborhood critters. Which is why I had piled an ample supply of corn and seeds under the sheltering hull of my trailered skiff for the squirrels and birds.
    This, of course, made my yard quite a gathering place for local wildlife, including the black squirrel (which, I later found, regularly lives about a block away). Black squirrels, I also discovered, were much more common in America and perhaps even dominant in many large areas before Europeans began migrating to North America.
    Heavily forested with mature hardwoods, the dense canopy of the pre-settlement forests was not readily penetrated by sunlight. Dim light provided an advantage to the darker coloration of the melanistic squirrel variety. They were not as visible as the grays were to the many owls and hawks that were their principle predators.
    Agricultural, however, soon changed that. Clearing the forests to provide for shelter, fuel, farming and livestock likely left the darker-colored squirrels more visible in the now semi-forested areas. Since black offspring are common only when both parent squirrels are black (the black gene being recessive), the black variant began to give way to the gray as the dominant squirrel variety.
    Today the gray is far more common throughout their ranges. But exceptions remain. When I arrived in this area to work for the Department of Agriculture, I lived in Washington, D.C., where I was surprised to note a large number of black squirrels in the parks surrounding DuPont Circle and the Executive Office Building grounds. I distinctly recall one female, quite friendly, that lived near my apartment and sported a tiny rhinestone collar.
    It turned out that the National Zoo had imported 18 black squirrels from Canada (where they remained relatively common) during Teddy Roosevelt’s administration (1901-1909). They were released on zoo grounds, quickly became acclimated, then spread throughout the city, which had previously lacked any appreciable squirrel population.
    Today, Maryland (at College Park and Joppatowne), Kansas, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Pennsylvania, among other states, are noted as having populations or concentrations of black squirrels. Their exact source is undetermined or at least undocumented. More I don’t know, just as I don’t know how this one came to my yard.


Seen any black squirrels? Tell us where and when: editor@bayweekly.com.
 

Snowbirds

Their winter nutrition is worth your money

Set up a feeder, and you’ll have the energetic company of snowbirds that, like you, aren’t driven south by January’s black-and-white chilly minimalism.
    Holly-berry red male and Dior-cloaked russet females add color and conflict, as each pecks off others of its own sex. The cold first weekend of January, scattered black oil sunflower seed brought a battery of six Cardinals into view.
    Yellow-throated sparrows came out in abundance, too. This time of year their plumage suits another ball team of my extreme youth: the St. Louis Browns. Would that I’d also get the Browns’ current incarnation, as Baltimore’s Orioles. No such luck. What the sparrows lack in color they make up in energy, both in their little foraging dance and in their flurry against any other sparrow that dared to peck beside them.
    Though neither of those species likes to hang on a feeder, others do.
    Each fill-up makes me a betting woman, booking either the chickadee or tufted titmouse as first arrival. These saucy little birds could dot your eye if you don’t get out of their way quick enough. Sooner or later, a few gold and house finches show up, neither wearing much of their distinctive yellow or red-tint colors this time of year.
    Now and again I’ll also get some acrobats: the strutting wrens, climbing brown creepers and downward-walking white-breasted nuthatches.
    Other woodpeckers come, too. Ms Hairy Woodpecker — her sex is my assumption as she has no red patch — scouts the nearby tree, a blue atlas cedar, for insects and sap before making a hop to the feeder. A bigger treat still is the red-bellied woodpecker whose name seems to me so unsuitable that I call him the red-necked woodpecker. Outsized for the cylindrical feeder, the big bird makes a comically ungainly attachment.
    As winter continues, other birds will visit, in more species, colors and antics.
    Birds, of course, aren’t my only feeder company.
    Omnipresent are Mr. and Mrs. Squirrel and often their cousins. Their voracious appetites and indomitable cleverness control my choice of feeder. They’ve destroyed three niger seed feeders of two sorts, plastic and mesh, and no suet feeder is safe among them. My squirrels are gray. I have to travel to Deale to see a black squirrel, the subject of this week’s Sporting Life.
    Their winter nutrition is worth my money. I help them survive; they give me a great show. As a bonus, early summer sunflowers will sprout from seed they missed.

P.S. The Bay Gardener remind us to provide water for the birds and dehydration is a great factor in overwinter deaths.

A triumph of hope over experience

The 18th century English writer Samuel Johnson got it as right about New Year’s resolutions as about his original subject, marriage. That thought struck me as I attempted to set personal goals for the New Year, hoping these meet with more success than usual.
    I’m going to have to exercise to increase my energy and endurance throughout the winter if I am to mount the kind of fishing campaign I intend to begin in just four short months.
    Resolution Two is to simplify my tackle. Over the years I have accumulated an excess, to the point of hindering my activities. An angler does not need to choose from 100 lures when on the water. A dozen will do. I know many an angler who excels with less than half a dozen.
    Divesting myself of all of these lures is not without pain. I’ll have to find someone who wants them, for I can’t throw them away, and there is no practical market for used fishing lures. And I must do it well before the next season begins so there is no temptation to hold on to them.
    Resolution Three is to cull my outdoor clothes. My wife pointed that out just last week as she gathered used items for a Purple Heart collection. A lucky fishing shirt is difficult to resign to the rag bin, even if its elbows are holed. A significant portion of my many ball caps suggest they may also be well past their due date. I must send them all off without pity.
    Last comes the most painful resolution of all. I had some great angling successes last season but also some disappointments. I told myself that the brutal August heat dampened the bite for the following months as well. I was wrong.
    I have come to acknowledge my reluctance to rise early in the morning as the reason my later season fell off.
    Six o’clock may be early in the spring when the water temperatures are in the 50s and the bite will only get better as the sun brings more warmth to the depths. But from mid-August on, the fish will be on the move at the first blush of light when the water is at its coolest and most comfortable for them.
    That means rising at no later than 4am — and not just one or two mornings, when I feel conditions may be perfect, but every morning to give all of my sorties a better chance of success. The thought of that early hour brings tears to my eyes. But again, it must be done in 2017 or my freezer will be empty again next winter.

Your pot must runneth over

By now your houseplants are adjusting to winter life inside. Or not. Many potted houseplants fail to grow properly because they are never watered properly. Here’s the right way.
    Every watering should be so ample that an excess of water drips from the bottom of the pot. Of course the pot should have drainage holes in its bottom and sit in a saucer to protect the furniture or windowsill. 
    If a plant’s soil is all the way to the top of the pot, you’ll have a watering problem. When repotting, always leave three-quarters to one inch of free space between the surface of the potting medium and the top edge of pot.
    If your plants were repotted with a half-inch or less of space between the surface of the potting medium and the top edge of the pot, your solution is to water by slow release using ice cubes. For plants in pots three to five inches in diameter, place two to three ice cubes on the surface of the soil. As the ice melts, the water will enter the soil without overflowing. Judge the number of ice cubes by inspecting the saucer beneath the pot in about an hour. If water is not visible, add another cube or two, and base the number of ice cubes needed in the future on the test results.
    If you are watering your plants by placing water in the saucer and allowing the water to be absorbed through the bottom of the pot, you’ll have noticed salts accumulating on the top edge of the pot. Continuing sub-irrigation of potted plants generally always results in this accumulation of fertilizer salts because the excess fertilizer salts in the soil migrate upward with the movement of the water. The salts appear as yellow-white to gray powder along the edges of the soil surface or on the pot, depending on the type of pot being used. 
    To prevent this accumulation, water the plants from the surface at least monthly or in two to three consecutive irrigations before resuming sub-irrigation.
    It’s that easy, and your plants will thank you by prospering.


Ask The Bay Gardener your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

The amazing story of three unknown stars of the space program

Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson: Empire) is a mathematical genius. But she is a woman, and she is black. In 1960s Virginia, Goble can’t even sit at the front of a bus, let alone gain independence as a mathematician.
    She works at NASA as a computer, a mathematician who performs calculations and checks the numbers generated by engineers.
    While fighting racial stereotyping, sexism and paranoia about Soviet spies, Goble is also helping to invent the math that will eventually guarantee safe orbits for America’s first astronauts. Her work is, of course, unacknowledged.
    Goble was not the only overlooked woman genius at NASA. Two more unrecognized black women on the job make a mark in history. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe: Moonlight) contributes to the Mercury 7 project, helping perfect its cabin design. But as a black woman, she isn’t considered qualified to be an engineer, and her race is banned from the school offering classes that could help her advance. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer: Bad Santa 2) is a mechanical prodigy who recognizes and surmounts the threat IBM computers pose to the computing women at NASA.
    Hidden Figures is their long-awaited recognition, and it’s a crowd-pleaser. Performances are great, the soundtrack is snappy and the script will make you want to learn more about these remarkable women. Director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) parallels the race to get an American into space alongside these women’s struggle for significant work and respect in a time when the outcome of neither effort was guaranteed.
    Dialogue can feel stilted as conversations become lessons in facts you need to know to get the point. Performance, however, is a rich counterbalance. As Goble, the star and heart of the film, Henson gives a powerful performance bearing rudeness and cruelty with kindness and dignity.
    Spencer and Monáe are lighter, even comic, though each has moments of drama. They make the three women’s bond of friendship a joy to watch.

Good Historical Drama • PG • 127 mins.

That’s our hope for you in 2017

Self-Care 101 was not in my college curriculum. I graduated knowing more about forms of poetry — I especially liked terza rima — than how to live healthy, let alone wealthy or wise. (Though the latter was supposed to be the road to which my liberal arts education led.)
    Not in high school or elementary school either did I learn when a cold was contagious, how to survive nausea or how to enjoy exercise and make it part of my life. Even motherhood left me clueless, so it’s a good thing my children played hard outdoors and had pets to desensitize them to life’s everyday germs.
    The knowledge I’ve acquired of basic survival skills I pretty much picked up on the go. Among those tidbits were folk remedies easily dismissed. A world away from my immigrant grandmother, my mother’s description of her prescriptions seemed pretty silly. Now I see that garlic does have healing properties and that a rub of olive oil and a warm cloth can soothe a stiff neck.
    Those are not among the wellness tips you’ll read in Bay Weekly’s first paper of our 24th year, Vol. XXV, No. 1. (Unless you take my word for it.)
    What you will find is a nice Whitman’s Sampler of ways to consider as you set out on the self-improvement campaign that’s comes with each new year’s jolt, whether or not we make formal resolutions.
    Our tips pop up all along the spectrum of well-being. They range from fitness to finance, wellness to wealth, bodywork to body care — and touch on food for our and our pets’ health.
    Do you want to find medical care that helps you stay well as well as get well? Owensville Primary Care makes you that promise in these pages.
    Do you want to stop smoking in 2017? You’ll read here how to take a first step with Anne Arundel County’s Learn to Live program.
    Is your resolution America’s third most popular: losing weight? Doctor James M. Wagner offers insight into that annual challenge.
    Are you ignoring what the sun may have done to your skin because you can’t find a dermatologist who has time for you? Maybe Calvert Dermatology is the one. I’m going to see for myself.
    Do you need to know where to go when you feel too bad to wait for your doctor? Maybe AFC Urgent Care is right for you.
    Is it finally time to learn CPR or upgrade your First Aid knowledge? Much of our community made that decision when a walker was stricken on our roads. Carrie Duvall of Duvall CPR & First Aid offers group and individual classes when and where you want.
    Just how sick is your kid — and when should you seek help? Dr. Azam Baig of South River Pediatrics gives you tips I wish I’d known way back when.
    Is fitness your goal? Get the help you need to succeed from Chesapeake Health & Fitness, Pilates Plus or Poston’s Fitness for Life.
    In assembling these tips, we partnered with local businesses that have a stake in your well-being. We’ve not sought to be comprehensive or conclusive. Our purpose has been introducing you to people, places and programs in our own community that guide you in making wise wellness choices. Each of our well-being partners promises you not only a service but also information and expert help in making your 2017 healthier, wealthier and wiser.
    I send you my best wishes in achieving those goals.

Sandra Olivetti Martin
Editor and publisher; editor@bayweekly.com
Plus a life in stories: www.sandraolivettimartin.com

Based on August Wilson’s play of the same name, Fences is a stirring drama about the effects of systemic racism on the black family

From the outside, Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington: The Magnificent Seven) has a pretty good life. He has a steady job as a garbage collector, an adoring wife named Rose (Viola Davis: Suicide Squad) and a nice house in a Pittsburgh neighborhood. A born storyteller with a gift for hyperbole, Troy enjoys spinning colorful yarns as he drinks his weekly bottle of gin with his coworkers. In the late 1950s, it’s as close to living the American Dream as any black man could hope to get.
    Troy, however, is not content. A once-great baseball player, he resents the racist system that kept him from playing pro ball. He keenly feels the injustices that have kept him from greater success in work and at home.
    Some of his complaints are solidly founded. Black men must empty the garbage cans, not drive the trucks. The army refuses full compensation to Troy’s brother and veteran Gabe (Mykelti Williamson: Designated Survivor), who runs the streets disturbing the peace.
    Some complaints are less valid. Troy sees his son’s football skills as a curse and will hear no talk of football scholarships or college. He doesn’t trust sports, even after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. He wants his son to learn a trade and work after school.
    As the years wear on, Troy obsesses over the idea that his life has been wasted.
    Based on August Wilson’s play of the same name, Fences is a stirring drama about the effects of systemic racism on the black family. Washington, who also directs, brought this adaptation from stage to screen, retaining most of the 2010 revival cast for the film. This was a brilliant choice.
    As the leads, both Washington and Davis are remarkable. Washington makes Troy a deeply flawed but fascinating character, full of contradictions. He’s a charming rogue, a born storyteller and selfishly obsessed with what he’s owed. He revels in pointing out his son’s flaws, building himself up as the only true man in the family, even as he’s riddled with insecurity.
    As his wife Rose, Davis plays Troy’s polar opposite. Quiet and kind, Rose is more than a devoted partner. She is in many ways the heart of the play, sacrificing her own strength and emotional wellbeing for her family. Davis makes Rose’s inner turmoil both poignant and relatable.
    The film’s weakness is cinematic production. Washington borrowed not only the play’s cast but also its staging conventions. You feel like you’re watching a play. In those confines, action seems stilted. There is also a play’s long running time, well over two hours. Viewers whose theatrical tastes were formed at the movies may grow bored.


Great Drama • PG-13 • 138 mins.

My favorite stories of 2016

Together, we read a lot of stories over the course of a year. Many of them give you a moment’s insight or delight. Others tell you just what you need to know. Some of them stay in your mind, even after all those words have come between you and them all that time ago. So I can still recount stories we ran five, or 10 or 23 years ago.
    Before I close the book on 2016 (yes, I really do have a large, heavy book labeled Vol. XXIV), I want to revisit some of my favorites this year.
    Following the pattern of this Best of the Bay edition, I’m awarding them categorical bests. Some categories have more than one winner.


Best Story on a New ­Technology — and How to Use It
Bob Melamud’s Printing in Three Dimensions: How I learned to make my own cookie cutter at the library: www.bayweekly.com/node/36221

Best Heart Warmers ~ TIE
• Victoria Clarkson’s Mary Francis Christmas: www.bayweekly.com/node/36240
• Kelsey Cochrane’s Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Cut Off Your Hair: I couldn’t cure anyone, but I hoped my hair would give hope: www.bayweekly.com/node/35827

Best Halloween with a Little History Story
Diana Dinsick’s The Haunting of Crownsville’s Rising Sun Inn: ­www.bayweekly.com/node/35438

Best Profiles ~ TIE
• Robyn Bell’s Shooting for Fun, Bringing Home the Gold: ­www.bayweekly.com/node/33556
• Diana Dinsick’s The Two Faces of Tom Plott: www.bayweekly.com/node/35016
• Alka Bromiley’s Balloon Man of Annapolis: www.bayweekly.com/node/34431

Best Animal-Related Story
Karen Holmes’ Easy to Bee Passionate: www.bayweekly.com/node/32566

Most Useful Story
Kathy Knotts’ 8 Days a Week, plus Summer Fun Guide and Season’s Bounty Holiday Guide

Most Helpful in Your Own Backyard
Dr. Francis’ Gouin’s weekly Bay Gardener column

Best Reason to Get Out on the Water
Dennis Doyle’s weekly The Sporting Life column

Best New Feature
Christine Gardener’s weekly Chesapeake Curiosities

Best Play Reviewers on the Bay
Jane Elkin and Jim Reiter

Best Reason to Go to the Movies
Diana Beechener’s The Moviegoer

Most Likely to Keep Bay Weekly in Your Hands
Coloring Corner artists Sophia Openshaw and Brad Wells

Best Bay Weekly Cover of 2016
Joe Barsin’s Blue Angels cover of May 19: citizenpride.com

Most Missed Feature
J. Alex Knoll’s Sky Watch, on sabatical

Best thanks to all these writers for bringing us good stories in 2016:
Kelsey Cochrane, Beth Dumesco, Laura Dunaj, Jerri Anne Hopkins,
Diana Knaus, Karen Lambert, Aries Matheos, Kristen Minogue,
Mary-Anne ­Nelligan, Susan Nolan, B.J. Poss, Elisavietta Ritchie,
Mike Ruckinski, Selene San Felice, Caiti Sullivan and Peggy Traband.

Sandra Olivetti Martin
Editor and publisher; editor@bayweekly.com
Plus a life in stories: www.sandraolivettimartin.com

An inoffensive cartoon that will keep small children quiet for 90 minutes and that might give their parents a few laughs

Koala Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey: Kubo and the Two Strings) loves theater. He has achieved half of his dream. He owns a theater, but he has no audience.
    Facing foreclosure, Buster makes a desperate decision to host a singing competition. To draw local talent, he plans to offer a $1,000 prize. But his secretary types $100,000 by mistake, and soon the whole town turns out to win a fortune.
    Surely he can raise the money later, Buster decides, so he holds auditions. A motley crew competes. Johnny (Taron Egerton: Eddie the Eagle) is a softhearted gorilla with a sweet voice who seeks to get away from his criminal father. Ash (Scarlett Johansson: Captain America: Civil War) is a prickly teen porcupine finding her voice as a songwriter. Rosita (Reese Witherspoon: Hot Pursuit) is a housepig worn out by caring for her husband and 25 piglets. Meena (Tori Kelly) is a shy elephant with the voice of an angel but crippling stage fright. Mike (Seth MacFarlane: Family Guy) is a mouse with the voice and attitude of Sinatra.
    As the contestants struggle to find their voices, Buster struggles to find funding for his musical spectacular. Will he get the ovation he’s always wanted? Or is this his curtain call?
    Sing is the latest in a long line of inoffensive animated films that will keep small children quiet for 90 minutes. There’s nothing special about writing, acting or story, but all are satisfactory. Illumination Studios has settled into making movies — like this and the Minions film — that entertain small viewers while offering adults passable fare. It’s not a bad formula. At my screening, children paid close attention to the singing animals while adults huffed a few laughs.
    If you pay attention, you’ll notice two big problems. First is the story. Writer/director Garth Jennings (Son of Rambow) makes Buster’s journey his theme. But we don’t connect with Buster, as he’s a bit of a jerk and McConaughey’s vocal performance is flat. Our hearts are with Johnny, caught in a fraught relationship with his robber father. Instead of his story, we get dozens of B storylines and flatulence jokes.
    There’s also too little music for a movie called Sing. What there is — mostly small snippets from popular songs — seems contrived to keep adults entertained.
    A DVD of Zootopia or The Secret Life of Pets will cost you less than movie tickets to Sing and give you and your children better stories and cuter animal characters.


Fair Animation • PG • 108 mins.

Santa’s a gardener himself, so he knows what’s on your list

T’was the night before Christmas, and all through the yard
The branches were bare and the ground frozen hard.
The roses were dormant and mulched all around;
To protect them from damage if frost heaves the ground.

The perennials were nestled all snug in their beds;
While visions of compost danced in their heads.
The new-planted shrubs had been soaked by the hose;
To settle their roots for the long winter’s doze.

And out on the lawn, the new fallen snow;
Protected the roots of the grasses below.
Then what to my wondering eyes should appear
But a truck full of gifts, and all gardening gear.

Saint Nick was the driver — the jolly old elf —
And he winked as he said, “I’m a ­gardener myself.
I’ve brought Wilt-Pruf, Rootone and gibberellin, too —
Father can try them and see what they do.

“To help with the weeding I’ve brought a Weed-Bandit;
And to battle the bugs a floating blanket.
To seed your new lawn, I’ve a patented sower;
In case it should grow, here’s a new power mower.

“For seed-planting days, I’ve a trowel and a dibble;
And a role of mesh wire if the rabbits should nibble.
For the feminine gardener, some gadgets she loves;
Plant stakes, a sprinkler and waterproof gloves.

“A fungus agent for her compost pit;
And for pH detecting, a soil-testing kit.
With these colorful flagstones, lay a new garden path;
For the kids to enjoy, a bird feeder and bath.

“And last but not least, some well-rotted manure.
A green Christmas year round these gifts will ensure.”
Then jolly St. Nick, having emptied his load,
Started his truck and took to the road.

“And I heard him exclaim through the motor’s loud hum,
“‘Merry Christmas to all, and to all a green thumb.’”