Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Suburban Ravens in Massachusetts

EXTIRPATED: the condition of a species that ceases to exist in the chosen geographic area of study, though it still exists elsewhere, i.e., locally extinct. Often tinted with a meaning that incorporates a deliberate destruction and eradication of an evil presence.

For those with an attentive ear to bird calls, Maynard's summer has been host to a mystery which, depending on how you feel about scarily large black birds, is either a return of nature or a return of evil. Amongst the common "Kaws" of crows there has been the occasional deeper-voiced "Awk, Awk." First guess was that this was a crow with a sore throat, or perhaps a vocal dyslexia (Kaw versus Awk?). However, many sightings confirmed that what Maynard has is a resident pair of ravens, which this year successfully raised a family.

What's interesting here is that dogma on ravens states they are people averse. Most habitat maps show ravens in Alaska, Canada and down the spine of the Rocky Mountains, but in the east limited to northern parts of northern states. The reasons are three-fold. First, ravens prefer forests. As this part of Massachusetts became settled by European colonists the forests were cut to make space for farming, for housing, for industry and to provide firewood. Even unfarmable hilltops became sheep pasture.

Three exposures of one raven in flight (internet photo)
Second, ravens prefer not being shot. Past times, there were no hunting/shooting restrictions on crow and ravens. Both are known to damage crops, including pulling up seedling corn to eat the kernels. Both are carrion eaters, but ravens have been known to be more proactive, for example, raiding chicken coops for chicks and eggs, and killing newborn lambs. For good reasons, generations of ravens taught their offspring to stay far away from humans.

Third, ravens like to eat. Pre-colonial forests had been home to deer, elk and moose. Wolf kill and winter kill provided carcasses for these carrion feeders to dine on all winter, and of greater importance, hair to line nests and early spring food sources for their hatchlings. The recent explosive growth of the deer population contributes to a year-round food source, supplemented by scavenging road kill, nest robbing, and so on. Ravens will eat almost anything, including food left outside for pets and garbage from open-top dumpsters behind restaurants and food markets.

So, much akin to other extirpated species which have been returning to eastern Massachusetts - deer, turkey, beaver, bear - a decline of hunting combined with an expansion of preferred habitat (forests over farmers' fields) has led to a return of ravens. For birds, especially, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act made it "...illegal for anyone to take, possess, import, export, transport, sell, purchase, barter... any migratory bird, or the parts, nests, or eggs of such a bird except under the terms of a valid permit issued pursuant to Federal regulations." There is a hunting season for crows (and deer, and turkeys, and black bears), but not for ravens.

Ravens are wanderers but not migrators. An adult pair will defend a territory that can be ten miles in area, chasing away interlopers, including their own chicks from previous years. Younger birds, up to five years old, will gather to roost at night, or to take advantage of a food bonanza (dead deer) by day, but otherwise are opportunistic feeders and solo travelers.  

In conclusion, if ever you hear a bird call louder than any crow should be, look to the sky. The size difference is hard to perceive without a side-by-side, but ravens in flight glide more often compared to crows' flap, flap, flap. At wing ends, the primary feathers of a raven are splayed. What you are seeing is an extremely intelligent, playful, ruthless, long-lived species, known throughout history as a battlefield follower, gallows haunter, trickster, thief and oft-used symbol or omen of evil.

In 2014 Chris Renna posted a video of ravens hanging out in Maynard, some of it on rooftops of mill buildings. See YouTube (search Ravens Maynard). A 2015 video of ravens raising a family at/on the Wellesley College Science Center is posted at Mind of the Raven, by Bernd Heinrich, provides great detail on raven intelligence and lifestyle.

Cornell University has audio at

Beak to tail-tip, ravens are 50-60% larger than crows, and weigh twice as much. The head and neck is larger in proportion to the rest of the body. In flight, a crow's tail is straight across the back end, while a raven's widens, then narrows. Both can walk or hop (many smaller birds only hop).

As to why we sometimes see small birds in flight chasing and harassing much larger birds, that is nest defense. The smaller birds are agile enough to fly above/behind the larger bird, then dive in for a peck or two. On a different scale, in Alaska, ravens have been known to harass bald eagles in the air, and on the ground, when feeding at the same carcass (left behind by wolves or polar bear), to sneak up and pull an eagle's tail feather.   

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

How Old are the Mill Buildings?

The existing mill buildings date from 1859-1918. Older, wood-frame buildings were either replaced or destroyed in a 1920 fire. A walk/bike tour can help visualize the evolution of the mill complex - older buildings in the center surrounded by newer buildings on all sides - first under the Maynard family (1846-1898) and then as part of the American Woolen Company (1899-1950). Digital Equipment Corporation started as a tenant in 1957, in time owned everything, but did not add or remove major buildings. Clock Tower Place (2000-2015) added the parking garage in 2001. Saracen Properties LLC, the new owners/operators, intend to remove two of the smaller buildings both dating to 1887 (#10 and the west end of #2) to create more open space.  
"You are here" map with present-day building numbering of Maynard's mill buildings

Viewed from the parking lot next to Main Street, three large buildings face the pond. Building #1, with Powell Flutes sign on the end, was built in 1911 as Building #21. The larger building to its right was completed in 1918 and initially designated Building #1, is now #3. Its construction required draining the pond. There are photos of people walking on the pond’s bottom. Building #5, on the far side of the pond, and the largest at 640 feet long, was completed in 1902.

Walking under the parking garage traces the path of the railroad tracks that delivered coal for the steam engines. Continue forward here, keeping in mind that there was nothing but mill pond to the right of the tracks. The buildings on the left, now bannered as #2 at the near end and #4 at the far end were originally #'s 2-7 and among the oldest still standing (parts back to 1859). These were where the pre-steam waterwheels were sited. Outflow, on the river side, was through what is now a red-painted gate. Situated between the waterwheels and river were a number of low-storied brick buildings in which water was pumped out of the millrace for purposes of washing raw wool and the dyeing process. Discharges discolored and polluted the river.

 Mill pond control gate(click on any photo to enlarge)
At the end of Building #3, on the right, is the old pond control apparatus. From here, water was released to the river whenever the pond level got too high. Prior to the installation of steam engines this channel powered a saw mill. Afterwards, it provided water for the engines, as roughly six tons of water were needed for every ton of coal. Spent steam and coal ash were vented from the top of two 200 foot tall chimneys, of which one remains, obsolete.

Our walk continues toward Walnut Street. Building #4 (left) went up in 1871. The powerhouse building, unwindowed, dates to 1900. Current maps show it as #9. After a left turn onto the sidewalk along the river, pass Building #6, completed in 1901. It’s possible, but in need of researching that this is when the river was narrowed and walled from Florida Street to the Walnut Street Bridge.

The next building on this tour was originally #11 (1893) but now designated Building #8. Behind it is the old #8 (1870). Between the two is the clock tower, which was erected in 1892 atop the external freight elevator structure for the older building. Continuing left onto Main Street, the building currently bannered as #12 was built in 1866 (as Building #1).

#10 (1887) slated for removal
Completing the walk along Main Street back to the starting point passes two modest brick buildings on the left and two wooden buildings on the right. The first wooden building, on the corner of Florida and Main, was the residence of Amory Maynard before he built a mansion south of the mill. The next over belonged to Lorenzo Maynard, his oldest son. The brick building at 146 Main, medical offices on the first floor and current home of the Historical Society on the second, was built in 1903. The last building before reentering the parking lot was built in 1905. These two buildings housed mill offices.

While on this tour, look for architectural details, particularly the varying styles of brick arches over the tops of windows and decorative brickwork at the rooflines. Most of the buildings were well windowed to provide natural light for the workers, but from the very beginnings the mill also has gas lighting.


OLDEST # (YEAR)        INTERMED #       NEWEST #        COMMENTS
#21 (1911)                         1                            1                      1, 3 and 5 face pond
#1 (1918)                           3                            3                      second largest
#5 (1902)                           5                            5                      largest
2-6 (1859-1887)                  3                            2                    the west end of #2 (two stories)
                                                                                                   will be torn down
#7 (1871)                           4                            4                      called "new mill" when built
#7 (1906)                           7                            7                      one story, restaurant area
#6A-6D (1901-2)                 6                            6                    faces river
#8 (1870)                           8                            8                      "old" 8 and "new" 8 connected
#9 (1861)                           9                            ---                    no longer exists
#10 (1887)                         10                          10                    will be torn down
#11 (1893)                         8                            8                      new 8
#1 (1866)                           12                          12                    described as weave mill
#16-19 (???)                      these were one-story dye buildings, all replaced by #7
Powerhouse (1900)            no #                       9                      few windows
146 Main (1903)                no #                       146                  med offices and MHC
150 Main (1905)                no #                       150

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Assabet River Rail Trail Update - August 2015

A long write-up of years of progress and current (2015) walkability and ridability on the Assabet River Rail Trail is posted at this blog ( as a June 2013 entry. The content below is about the construction plans for 2016-17.

The Assabet River Rail Trail website has posted the latest blueprints for the rail trail section to go from the Acton train station to the White Pond Road Bridge at the Maynard:Stow border. This is considered the final plan. Construction is scheduled to begin spring of 2016 and be completed by summer of 2017. See:

The 32-page PDF document starts at the west end. The first part of each page is an overhead view of the proposed trail. The second part of each page is the side view, showing change in elevation.

No surprises. Most of it is 12 foot wide, paved, with 2 foot stone dust shoulders. Parts have a flanking fence and/or a drainage ditch ("swale") on one side or both. Sections through the center of Maynard are narrowed to ten feet wide - a few squeezed spots to eight feet wide.

Parents of young children will need to be warned that in Maynard, heading west behind the Knights of Columbus building, and again on Railroad Street, after crossing Florida Road, there are short stretches with grades of 6 to 8.6 percent - too steep for a young child to safely ride a bike.

There will be a small parking lot at Ice House Landing, just off Winter Street, near the Department of Public Works (Maynard). This will also serve people planning to put a canoe or kayak into the Assabet River. Not possible to put in a boat from a trailer. Small parking lots will also be at the end of Sylvia Street (Acton) and off Maple Street (Acton). Mid-town Maynard has metered (25 cents per hour) parking.

Sites along the Assabet River Rail Trail will have benches, bicycle racks and information kiosks. Some parking spaces will be lost in the municipal lot behind CVS and the Outdoor Store.

This does not complete the Assabet River Rail Trail. The south end was paved years ago, but the completion of this north end will still leave the middle unfinished. From the White Pond Bridge on the Maynard:Stow border it is possible to walk or bike on a dirt road ("Track Road") past Sudbury Road, in Stow (almost to Lake Boon), but not much farther, as there is no bridge over the Assabet River. Any connection between north and south is years away.

OARS: Assabet River Clean-up 2015

The 29th annual rivers clean-up is scheduled for 9:00 to noon, September 19, 2015.  Information is posted at 

2014: From the OARS website: Thanks to beautiful weather and strong community support, OARS’ 28th Annual River Cleanup was an outstanding success! Over 150 smiling volunteers took advantage of low water levels to haul tires, bicycles, TVs, rugs, furniture, and even a toilet from the Assabet, Sudbury, and Concord Rivers. The event was followed by free soda and pizza.
Assabet River under the Walnut Street Bridge 1974
Photo by Ralph Sheridan, Courtesy of Maynard Historical Society

From a 2010 write-up of that year's event: "Cleanup tasks roughly divide into muckers, heavers and drylanders. Muckers work in the river, either wearing waterproof waders or old pants and shoes that they are willing to get very, very, wet. Trash found in the river is loaded into canoes which serve as shallow draft barges to transport trash to the haul-out sites. Heavers work at the edge of the river. They remove trash from the canoes and either drag or heave it to the top of the riverbank. There, drylanders drag everything to the piles that will later be collected by the Department of Public Works trucks from the various towns. Drylanders also collect and bag trash that can be reached along the riverbanks without getting wet."

Same site, an August afternoon, 2015
 How bad was it, before OARS (originally OAR for Organization for the Assabet River) started the trash removal efforts? For whatever reasons, there had been a long, long tradition of dumping old tires into the Assabet River off of the Walnut Street Bridge. Maybe the thinking was that all this trash would be washed away by high water in the spring.

To some degree that was true, As late as 2010, hundreds of tires were still being removed from the river each year, from the stretch downstream of the Elks Lodge parking lot. Either these had been being dumped there or had washed the half mile down river from the Walnut bridge location.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Six Years, 200 Columns

Tempus fugit. So, 200 columns and almost six years into this adventure of exploring local history and nature, let's revisit a few of the popular columns from the last twelve months.

Fire Station Horn: A September 2014 column mourned the passing of the tradition of sounding the fire horn at 12:10 p.m. Most towns with a fire horn system conduct daily test blasts at noon. Maynard's unique practice dates back to the 1890s. The operator would walk to the train station to set his pocket watch to "Washington time," then walk back to the Nason Street fire station. As the walk was about five minutes, the daily test was set to ten minutes after the hour. The tradition is captured by the fact that the official Seal of the Town of Maynard shows the clock at 12:10 on town documents, vehicles and street signs.

Truth to tell, the fire horn system was in poor repair and heading toward obsolescence. According to former fire chief Stephen Kulik, "The horn stopped working now and then, and it was hard to get parts. Every time we triggered the fire signal we had our fingers crossed." Purely for historical purposes, i.e., restoring the 12:10 blast, a new horn could be mounted on a mill building at a cost of $6,000. 

Female winter month on birch tree. Note small wings.
Length just under half-inch. (Click to enlarge photo)
Winter Moths: Were your trees' leaves chewed to shreds this spring? A description of this invasive species was published November 2014. The 'winter' part of the name refers to an evolutionary strategy used to avoid predation. Insect eaters are active during warmer months, so winter moths shift the active parts of their life cycle into colder months. Eggs are laid in December and hatch in March. By June the mature caterpillars descend to the ground where they transform into pupae, to stay dormant until after the first frosts of fall. The emerging adults are freeze-resistant.

Winter moths have an interesting dimorphism. Males have strong flight muscles. Females have only vestigial wings, sacrificing flight capacity so more body weight can be given over to eggs. Mating is achieved after the females climb up tree trunks and release scent pheromones into the air. Males fly to them. Treatment involves putting sticky products such as Tree Tanglefoot around tree trunks in November and/or spraying in the spring.

Snow: a Record Year: Lest we forget, a write-up in February 2015 captured the record snow season of 2014-15. At that time winter's snow was rapidly closing in on setting a new record for Boston and Worcester. These cities, each with 125 years of weather data, average 44 and 64 inches per winter. The snowiest winter on record for both cities was 1995-96, at 107.6 and 132.9 inches. By the end of 2014-15 Boston topped 110 inches, setting a new record. Worcester reached 120 inches - its third snowiest.  

Snowfall measurement methods are set by the National Weather Service. Briefly, if snow is falling continuously, depth is measured every six hours, the device then emptied and set out again. Wet snow means that 6-8 inches converts to one inch of water, but the northeasters sweeping through our area in 2014-15 were cold enough to generate powdery snow that averaged 17-18 inches per inch of water. 

Clocktower clock has IIII for four o'clock
IIII for Four O'Clock:  This April 2015 column made note of the observation that on the faces of the Clocktower clock, four o'clock is designated by a Roman numeral IIII rather than IV. The answer appears to be that Romans did not use Roman numerals the way we do. We use a subtractive mode (IV instead of IIII, IX instead of VIIII), which became the standard in Europe only long after the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. An exception was that IIII was used on Roman era sundials and appeared to have been carried forward in time to mechanical clocks.

Alternative theories are that IIII provides more visual symmetry for the clock face, with clock makers conforming to this practice by choice. With IIII for four and VIII for eight, the two numbers opposing each other are of similar width. Jibing with this concept is the fact that the same clocks that do not use subtractive mode for four do use it for nine (IX), creating a closer visual match for III on the other side. Using IIII also means that the first third of the clock face has I's, the next third has V's and the final third has X's. Internet searching yields a few other explanations, but these two - tradition and symmetry - make the most sense.