It's National Hunting and Fishing Day

No kidding, today is indeed National Hunting and Fishing Day.

Unfortunately, one of my worst memories of growing up was sitting at the bottom of the basement steps cleaning ducks. And geese. And pheasants. Feathers and shot. And you better not miss any of either, my father would warn.

His favorite activity, in addition to golf, was hunting pheasants in the abundant Iowa cornfields and sitting in a duck blind on the Missouri River. And he must have been a good shot, because I cleaned a lot of birds.

Which isn't to say I didn't enjoy eating them.

But, looking back, I can say that, in my adult life, I've never, and will never, clean a duck. Or a goose. Or a pheasant. Ever again.

And, I further admit to having felt some relief those many decades ago when my father's hunting shack burned to the ground, sending volleys of exploding shells into the air like bottle rockets on the Fourth of July.

Although I've spent time with a gun in my hand, I have to admit that I feel sorry for the creatures that the hunters gun down, even knowing that in many cases it will help the survivors have healthier, heartier lives.

But today, and tomorrow at the Westfield Sportsman's Club open house, we salute our hunters and anglers and say thank you for their contributions to conservation and wildlife programs. Some $21-billion, from taxes, fees and licenses. So we can all enjoy a growing population of everything from ravens and eagles and osprey to white tailed deer.

And bear. Even in our heavily populated neighborhood, where houses have eased out the forests for at least 20 years. And very close to home, where Neighbor Norm saw one enjoying a snack between his deck and our deck, a space of maybe 50 feet.

That bear hasn't returned, as far as we know. He's probably found better foraging elsewhere, along with his brothers and sisters and distant cousins who are spending a lot of time in the farmers' cornfields, chowing down on fresh tomatoes, enjoying the remains at campgrounds and in trash cans, feasting on fresh honey from the hives, and finding the few backyard feeders still out.

Admittedly, the growing bear population is becoming a problem, according to the state's Fisheries and Wildlife folks. So they've extended this month's black bear hunting season, from 6 to 17 days. The experts say that, with extra hunting days, we'll slow the population growth and thereby head off additional conflicts between man and bear in the years to come.

I admit, however, to feeling sorry for the bear. During a foray into the woods a few years ago to put radio collars on mother bears and ear tags on the cubs, I learned a lot about out hairy neighbors and their habits.

For example, the females are not monogamous. In fact they can be impregnated by more than one male each season. So when they give birth to the fairly common sets of twins or triplets, the cubs may all have different fathers.

Cubs, born in the winter, stay in the den with mom, nursing until spring. Then, spend summer, fall and another winter accompanying the mother bear on her rounds and back into hibernation.

Every time I read about a hunter killing a bear in western Massachusetts, I just hope it's not the little bear I harbored under my winter jacket out in the woods while our state's wildlife experts weighed, measured, collared and took body fluids, for research, from its mother.

But I do wonder if bear tastes good. Like deer? Buffalo?

As an aside, hunters, and others, have been warned not to eat mallards or wood ducks bagged in the Berkshires. It seems that PCB contamination in the Housatonic has polluted the population along the river, from Pittsfield to Great Barrington.

In fact, if you insist on eating waterfowl from any areas in Massachusetts, you should skin the wild birds and remove all fat before cooking. No more than two meals a month are advised. ( Canada geese are excluded.)

Good bird news: From Worcester west, ravens are increasing. Some 51 raven chicks were banded in 17 different nests this year. Counted by state naturalists who climbed cliffs, quarries, trees and bridges to get to the nests.

Finally, continuing the nature theme, here's a project for the kids. List all the mammals in Massachusetts. Don't know the answer? Go up on the web to www.state.ma.us/dfwele/dfw for the complete list and information on each.

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