I think the first time I ever saw a moose in Massachusetts was when my mom and I were heading out on one of our “run-away playdates.” It was back in April 2006. Mom had arrived from New Jersey. We packed up our gear, and headed east on Route 2 towards Cape Ann, our favorite get-away. As we traveled along, something big and brown caught my eye up on the hill to the left, in a church parking lot. I slowed down fast as some part of my brain recognized MOOSE. I turned into the parking lot and lo and behold, it was a moose, just standing there. Why, I wasn’t sure. But there she was. Wow! Moose are huge! Tall! I stopped the car and she let me snap a few photos from a safe distance. I didn’t want to press my luck, so I thanked her, and we were back on our way.
Moose (Alces alces) are ungulates, meaning hooved mammal, and are the largest member of the deer family, standing 6-7 feet tall and measuring up 8 feet in length. Cows weigh up to 700 pounds and bulls weigh upwards of 1,000 pounds. Though brown in color, how they manage to disappear into the underbrush is a mystery. One would think that such a large animal could not go undetected, But I have heard from enough trackers and hunters to know that these sure-footed beings can silently walk slip through the forest, hardly being detected. Their tracks measure 4-6⁷⁄₈” long by 3½-5¾” wide with a stride 30-54” long. The next time you are outside, measure your own stride, and you will respect the distance this mammal can cover, even just in a walking gait.
Moose, like all members of the deer family, have 4 stomachs to help them digest such seemingly indigestible material such as bark and twigs. Their preferred diet consists of maples, willows, aspens, oaks, fir, and viburnums. They also eat aquatic vegetation in the summer. As a mega-fauna their predators are minimal; their strong hooves make them a creature not to be trifled with and a healthy adult can run up to 35 miles per hour. A combination of stressors can lead to moose mortality. There is a parasitic brain nematode worm that deer host called Parelaphostrongylus tenuis that can cause blindness, disorientation, paralysis, and death in moose. The winter tick is also the bane of moose. While moose are bedded down thousands can congregate on the moose’s tender belly and sup on their vitality. Disease, starvation, falls, liver flukes, and collision with vehicles are also mortality factors. Additionally, young, sick, or old moose can succumb to predation from coyotes and black bear. There is no hunting season for moose in Massachusetts.
Rutting season is late August through October. Bulls can be a bit ornery during that time; I am guessing because, well, they are horny, and if they are not finding a willing cow, I would think that could put one in a bad mood. But cows can get equally pissy, so best not to get too close to any moose. Those who agree to be social and mate will pass on their genes to the calves born in mid-May. Shortly after calves are born adult bulls begin to grow their antlers again.
Moosewood, aka goosefoot maple aka striped maple (Acer pennsylvanicum), is a favorite food source of moose, hence the common name moosewood. Moose browse on bark, twigs, and buds. And you know it is moose browse when you see signs of browsing above your head on the tree. Notice the long bottom incisor marks as the moose scrapes off the bark up the tree. You will hear me calling the tree striped maple for its white striping on green bark with a purplish hue. I love seeing this pretty understory tree in the forest, so it was to my dismay when a forester I was working with one summer called this tree a “trash tree” with no value. “What?” I exclaimed. To the nearest striped maple, while patting the bark as if to comfort the tree, “Don’t listen to her. She doesn’t see your beauty like I do.” Eyeing the forester while talking to the tree, “She doesn’t see the tree through the forest.”
Striped maple leaves are 3-lobed and can rather resemble a goose’s webbed foot. Twigs are green. The buds are stalked with two scales. As buds emerge, they are green with a rosy hue and tips. Not trashy at all. Once you see this tree dressing up the understory as the buds unfurl, I hope you too come to appreciate it for just being itself despite having little use to humans… unless you like seeing moose – then the tree has great value in potentially luring a moose in for a tasty treat.
So, as you are meandering the woods in March, take time to look for moose tracks and moosewood.
Into the Outside is a bi-monthly feature in the Ashfield News. This article appears in the March 2020 edition of The Ashfield News.
Like Hearken to Avalon on Facebook and learn more about the magical world and natural history of plants and the Faie, and human interactions with them.