We’d just caught the bear in our yard, again.
This time, he was gazing at the Asian pear tree—and presumably, the ripe, fragrant pears that were only 10 feet and one fence away from him.
After more than 5 months of bear “visits” this latest appearance was getting to be old hat! Still, John and I went into the orchard to investigate how the bear had gotten in this time.
Well, it was the usual way: the bear had found a weak spot in our deer fence, and simply pushed right through the wire. I found an extra length of steer wire, and held it in place as John strung it all along that side of the orchard.
Ready to go back to the main yard, I saw an odd sight. Our Honeycrisp apple tree was missing a whole bunch of leaves on this year’s growth. As in, entire branches were bare of intact, healthy leaves.
Though the stems remained, the leaf remnants were ragged, like they’d been eaten.
My first thought was caterpillars—the demoralizing sight of our defoliated orchard trees during our 2013 and 2014 tent caterpillar plagues is burned into my memory. But caterpillars would devour the leaves in the spring, not fall.
Other insects? Some kind of destructive beetle, maybe?
I carefully inspected the apple tree—up, down and sideways. But there wasn’t a bug on it. Not a caterpillar, beetle, or worm.
Naturally, I circled back to the bear. With all my recent bear research, I knew they do eat leaves. But that’s in the springtime too, when leaves are freshly unfurled, bright green and full of nutrients. In the fall, bears are all about fruit and other high calorie food. They wouldn’t bother with tough autumn foliage like these apple leaves.
Besides, the bear would have had to climb the tree—leaving broken limbs in his wake. And this tree was intact—unlike the other apple trees the bear had molested this summer!
Anyway, I wasn’t unduly disturbed about the leaves…until one evening, close to dusk, I noticed the tree was getting more and more bare. Every time I looked, more branches were defoliated. Something was systematically hitting this tree!
Then I heard it. The beating of wings, and a shape flew out of the tree. A bird?
A game bird, by the sound of it.
It seemed completely unlikely. What kind of bird would eat leaves? And keep eating them, night after night? Neither John nor I had the faintest clue—so we just let it go.
But many an evening, if I approached the orchard, I’d hear that same rush of wings.
Now, John is a great believer in the philosophical notion, Occam’s Razor: to simplify, it means the simplest and most logical explanation is usually the correct one. “I think it’s the bird,” John said, after yet another view of our rapidly deteriorating tree. But I was skeptical.
Anyway, the bear was a far bigger problem.
We recently had a state Fish & Wildlife officer, Tucker, out to our place to consult about this darn bear—the story, The Bear Strikes Again, is in my November newsletter, just out! When Tucker was ready to leave, John showed him our by now bare Honeycrisp tree—about 75% of the leaves were gone. “What do you think ate the leaves?”
Tucker, who knew everything there was to know about bears, had never heard of a critter that devoured apple leaves in the fall. So John and I were still stumped.
And now our second Honeycrisp tree was getting defoliated too!
I didn’t know if losing leaves the hard way would hurt the trees—but it seemed it was just one of those Little Farm mysteries.
Then last week, I was in the orchard, where I was storing chicken manure compost. I heard the rush of wings again—and this time, I caught it in the act!
A large bird of variegated brown flew out of the second Honeycrisp tree. I clearly saw the ruff of short feathers around its neck.
|Photo thanks to John!|
A Ruffed Grouse. Mystery solved!
We’ve had grouse around our place for years and years. Why one of them would start devouring so many of our apple leaves after all this time is still another mystery.
But with all our years here in the boonies, John and I have learned to “expect the unexpected”!
For our full bear saga, you’ll find it in my Little Farm Writer newsletter!