I looked out my office window yesterday to view five deer happily munching on my back lawn and thought about how different the wildlife is from 60 years ago when I was growing up in South County. In the 1950s there were lots of farms and open spaces. The salt ponds had very few houses on them and Southern Rhode Island had yet to be discovered by our neighboring states.
Many of the hills, ponds and forests I used to roam with my bow or fishing rod are now subdivisions and other housing units. There is still significant open space thanks to the South Kingstown Land Trust and perhaps even more wildlife than there was 60 years ago. Wildlife has, however, change dramatically. Back then, seeing a deer or a bobcat was a rare occasion. There were raccoons, foxes, squirrels, rabbits, skunks, groundhogs in abundance, as well as quail, pheasants, ruffed grouse and ducks. Most of those are still here but not as plentiful as they once were. Other creatures have taken over parts of their habitat.
Quail and pheasant population are gone thanks to house cats and red-tailed hawks. So are the ruffed grouse due to loss of habitat. They have been replaced by wild turkey and Canada geese, both of which did not exist in South County in the 1950s. Canada geese discovered South County just before the residents of our neighboring states. The geese decided it was a nice place to settle and not migrate any further south. An abundance of turf farms, golf courses, fresh and salt ponds made it an ideal for raising a family.
I would however be remiss if I did not also mention the changing duck population in South County. The huge flocks of scaup and canvas backs in our salt ponds are gone along with the widgeon, ruddy, buffleheads, pintail, wood duck and green wing teal that migrated through in October and November. We used to have a local population nesting black ducks, but they have been replaced by mallards. You can still occasionally see some of these species at Trustom Pond Wildlife Refuge but nowhere near the numbers that we had 60 years ago.
Wild turkeys were reintroduced to Rhode Island in the eighties and nineties by the Department of Environmental Management. With no natural predators and an abundance of food, they have thrived. Along with the turkeys, the deer population has also exploded as we have created a perfect environment for them. Deer can exist on an incredible number of food sources, but where they figuratively used to eat at McDonald’s, they now dine at the Matunuck Oyster Bar on a buffet of succulent grass and non-native shrubs. They also have almost no natural predators and we kill almost as many of them with our cars as hunters do with guns. Almost never a week goes by when I do not see a deer and wild turkey.
Three new species that are somewhat more recent to South County are the fisher, beaver and the coyote. The fisher is a member of the weasel family, and they found a home here thanks to reforestation and an abundance of squirrels, rabbits and small rodents as well as an occasional chicken. Beavers were also reintroduced and now occupy several of our streams and ponds. The coyote has migrated in from neighboring states and to a significant extent replaced fox and bobcats as the apex predator in our state. They, like deer, have adapted very well to a suburban environment. They hunt small animals and birds but also can be found scavenging road-kills and trash cans. Last but not least, is the black bear. I once saw one while deer hunting on the Connecticut border more than 60 years ago, but now we have them occasionally visiting again from our neighbor to the west. There has also been an occasional moose in northern Rhode Island, but none have made it to South County thus far. Nor has there been a documented case of a mountain lion in Rhode Island although several people claim to have seen one. Certainly, there are enough deer around to support a mountain lion population if they ever migrate into Rhode Island.
Most residents don’t realize that there were almost no trees left in South County in the early nineteenth century as evidenced by the many stone walls indicating pastures for horses, sheep and cattle. Early pictures of the area show an abundance of wide-open clear-cut land.
While some might argue that climate change is the reason for changes in wildlife populations, I would suggest that it is changes in the physical environment has allowed some species thrive and others dwindle. There is however no doubt that wildlife is still abundant in South County despite the significant increase in human population over the past 60 years.