Nature Notes: The Eastern or Taiga Moose
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Maine is blessed with large populations of three iconic creatures that loom large in the imaginations of tourists and locals–lobsters, loons and moose. Around the state, on most summer evenings you will find cars parked near known moose hangouts with folks hoping to spot a moose enjoying a tasty meal of wetland plants. Just imagine how many tourist dollars remain in our state each year thanks to the sale of moose-themed clothing, candy, signs, coffee mugs, on and on.
Yet most people know relatively little about these largest members of the deer family, partly because moose are most abundant in the less populated areas of our state, and they prefer the solitude of a high mountain ridge, or a sheltered bog. Alces alces is the scientific name for moose, and Maine is home to the Eastern or Taiga sub-species, one of four in North America. The Taiga ranges from western Ontario through Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, with sustaining populations in most northern New England states. The English word “moose” is based upon an Algonquin word “moosu,” which means “bark stripper.”
A mature moose is an impressive animal by any standard. While a mature cow will average 850 pounds, a six-year-old bull averages 1,100 pounds. The largest recorded Maine bull was estimated at 1,750 pounds! Moose are up to nine feet in length, and stand six feet or more at the shoulder. A large bull can carry massive antlers nearly six feet in width and weighing 50-60 pounds. Their hide and long hair are extremely heavy, since they must protect the moose during severe winter weather. That hide encourages moose to seek out cooler hideouts on warm summer days, with bulls favoring higher elevations and cows with calves heading to water holes.
With very long legs, a moose looks rather ungainly. Those legs are an adaptation for deep winter snows and walking in soft wetland areas. Large round feet up to six inches across make the moose a strong swimmer.
Moose are vegetarians, eating mostly buds and twigs from new growth trees and shrubs. When fires, wind storms, insect damage or logging operations disturb mature stands of trees, the regenerating forest provides a banquet for moose and other browsers such as whitetail deer. Favored species are aspen, red maple, willow, birch, pin cherry and mountain ash, but in deep winter, moose can survive on balsam fir. Moose will also eat forbs and fruit. Salt is an important nutritional aid for moose, which is the reason you will often find them snacking on calcium-containing pondweed and water lilies (or licking salt from roadsides). The moose is even capable of diving down to grab water plants, equipped with special muscles that allow them to seal their noses while underwater. A mature moose can consume up to 75 pounds of food each day, resulting in some forest areas looking like a plague of weed whackers has passed through at about two feet high.
Unlike deer, moose are not prone to herding, although you will see cows with their offspring, and younger bulls will sometimes hang out together when not in breeding mode. They are generally slow moving and placid, unless threatened by a very few predators; bears, wolves or humans. However, in autumn, bull moose can become extremely aggressive and they move surprisingly well when provoked. My son and I got a surprise close up view of a massive bull during a September hunt near Van Buren when he stalked within four feet of us. I was very concerned for my son’s welfare, because he did not have a tree between him and this angry bull, nor did we have a bull license. Fortunately I was able to scare the bull off with a shout, although he stomped around us for about 15 minutes making very aggressive grunts and raking trees with his antlers.
After breeding in autumn, the cow will carry her fetus for eight months. Calves are born in May or June, normally one but twins are possible if the cow is healthy and food is plentiful. The calf will stay with its mother for up to one year, when the female will chase it away before the next breeding season begins. In the wild, moose live on average seven to eight years, but in captivity they have reached 20 years.
We are fortunate to have a large and generally healthy moose herd in Maine. Recent aerial counts and hunter surveys place the population state-wide at 65,000 to 75,000 animals. In 2014, state authorities lowered the number of moose hunting licenses by 25 percent to around 3,000 out of concern for moose killed by winter ticks. These small parasites can infest a moose by the thousands, literally sucking the life from the moose at a time when it is most at risk from environmental stress. The state is currently conducting a new aerial survey, so we can hope that the population is still in good shape.
Moose make an occasional appearance in Harpswell. When we first moved here in 2007, HHLT member George Patterson assured me that he had seen a moose swimming across Ewing Narrows. Since George is known for his leg pulling, I took this story with a grain of salt. But in 2013, a cow and her calf were spotted by a number of residents, and tracks were confirmed at both Skolfield Shores and Long Reach Preserves. I find it comforting to know that our beautiful town still has enough wild places to accommodate these fascinating creatures.