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 Maynard's 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.


#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)
                                                                                              demolished Jan 2016
#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                demolished March 2016
#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 #                       ---              few windows
146 Main (1903)                no #                        9               med offices and Maynard Hist. Soc.
150 Main (1905)                no #                      10

When buildings are torn down some of the construction details come to light. Photographed is the west end of Building 2, built in 1887. Individual bricks did not have lettering, so these post-dated the era when brick-mix was pressed into a mold by hand (the mold having lettering across the inner surface to leave a brand mark on the brick face). Nails in the floors and roof were rectangular in cross section versus round - a shape that became obsolete circa 1900.

The exterior walls were three bricks thick. The inner and outer bricks were aligned parallel to the wall, with the exception that every eighth row, every brick was end out, so that the other end extended into the center of the wall. With both sides of a wall having this pattern, the inner and outer face surfaces were linked to the center, making the entire wall rigid.

*An April 2016 column about the demolition of 2A and 10 pointed out that the buildings probably pre-dated 1887. Both were in an image of the mill celebrating the 40th anniversary, 1886. An earlier image - the 1879 aerial map - showed Building 2A but not Building 10.

Fifty of David Mark’s 2012-2014 columns were published in book "Hidden History of Maynard" available at The Paper Store, on-line, and as an e-book.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Up the Assabet Without a Paddle

If the question is, "If it's possible to kayak down the Assabet River through the middle of Maynard, i.e., Ben Smith Dam to Waltham Street Bridge, a bit over one mile, is it possible to walk up the same stretch of river?" then the answer is "Yes, but..."

David Mark, Assabet River, 7/26/15
Beginning a half-mile river walk
To test this, I stepped into the river by the footbridge behind Gruber Bros. Furniture and walked upstream half a mile to the Mill Street Bridge. Elapsed time was one hour. I had intended to continue to the Ben Smith Dam (another quarter mile), but was exhausted, hence the decision to step out early.

The water was clear, with little in the way of surface-growing algae and duckweed that have plagued the river in past years. There were no off-putting odors. What with the steep, rocky riverbanks, there was little in the way of shoreline water plants, such as cattails.   

There is a beaver lodge on the north bank of this section of the river. Dimensions are about twelve feet across and six feet tall, topped and surrounded with lushly growing plants.  Low water on the day of my walk meant that the two entrances were not under water. I startled a young beaver that was munching plants on the riverbank. It did the tail slap and swam past me underwater, eight feet from where I was standing. Other nature sightings included a great blue heron, fish, frogs, crayfish, mussels... Not-so-nature sightings included bottles and pottery shards, a propane tank and an engine block. No automobile tires. 

Safety, you ask? I was wearing water shoes - a rubber-sole, shoe/sandal hybrid - and using two ski poles for balance. Every step, I had both poles in contact with the river bottom. The poles also helped me check depth as I moved forward. This was useful, as while depth at the downstream gauge was only 1.5 feet, there were several passages two to three feet deep and one section I skirted that was more than four feet deep. Much of the bottom was loose rocks from baseball to softball size and larger. Other stretches were a mix of sand and gravel, some bare and others covered by aquatic plants. There was very little of silt/mud bottom because small particles are trapped behind the upstream dam.

How bad was it? Photo of tires, underneath the Walnut Street Bridge (1974)
Ralph Sheridan, courtesy Maynard Historical Society 
Guidelines for whitewater rafting, canoeing and kayaking strongly caution against trying to stand up in fast-moving water. The risk is that a person can get a foot entrapped in rocks or sunken tree branches, be pushed over by the moving water, and be unable to self-rescue. My adventure in the Assabet was at a time the water level and flow at the U.S. Geological Service gauge was at the lowest it has been all summer: 1.5 feet deep and 36 cubic feet per second (cfs). No part of the river would have qualified as Class I rapids. Fast-moving water was no more than half a foot deep. Deeper at the gauge would also mean faster - six inches more would mean flow at 100 cfs. At 2.75 feet (the lowest considered boatable through town) the flow rate would be 300 cfs, with sections of Class II rapids.

Approaching Mill Street Bridge. Note large rocks and
tree trunk downstream of the middle channel (July 2015)
The river's flow through town is actively managed, and has been mismanaged in the past. Old record show that at times during summer months the volume of water would decrease precipitously for a few days, getting to as low as two cfs - a trickle - and then revert to what it had been before. What was happening was that all water was being diverted to top up the mill pond at the expense of the river. Currently, restrictions are in place so that whenever river volume drops below 39 cfs, no water can be channeled to the pond.  

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts and towns in the Assabet River watershed aspire to getting the river to Class B, defined as clean enough for swimming. Right now most of the river's status is Class C, which allows for fishing and fish consumption, diverse aquatic life, maintenance of biological integrity, use for agriculture irrigation and secondary recreation, the last defined as wading, boating, and other uses involving human body contact with water where such activities take place in an infrequent, unorganized, or incidental manner.

Engine block on rocky shore. Begs the
question: "How did that get there?"
When I first had the idea for this adventure, friends suggested I inform the police of my intentions, the concern being that a homeowner along the river, or a passer-by on a bridge might call 911 to report a person in the river. I took their advice. I also discussed my plan with the Conservation Commission. I did have a conversation with one waterfront owner, but he was more interested in telling me of his efforts to remove trash from the river than what I was up to.

Ten hot, dry days after my river walk, flow had dropped to under 30 cfs. Then, the afternoon of August 4th, severe thunderstorms with wind, rain and hail, swept in from the west. Rainfall was over an inch in less than half an hour. In the same time period the river rose more than half a foot and flow tripled.

Extreme low water at the Ben Smith Dam (July 2010)
Sofferman has posted several videos on YouTube of kayaking the Assabet through the center of Maynard under various conditions. A seven minute clip posted as  is from February 2014, with the river still sporting lots of ice and snow.