Thursday, September 24, 2015

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: The gray fox – the dog that can climb trees

The red fox is one of the most common mammals on the Niagara Frontier. It has adapted well to the presence of humans and can be found in a number of habitats, from woods to farmland to developed areas. Despite its abundance, it is rarely seen because of its mostly nocturnal activities. But, if you have an overnight or early morning commute as I do, you will certainly see them. Not a day goes by that I don’t see at least one when driving across the county.

The gray fox can climb trees. (PHOTO COURTESY
Its cousin, the gray fox, which also is a creature of the night, is not so common. A number of factors, such as its more secretive ways, its aversion for human activity and the fact that we are at the northern edge of its range contribute to that. In all of life I’ve seen only a handful of these dogs in Niagara County.

An attractive wild dog

If you’ve ever seen a red fox you know that they are fairly small for a canine. The gray fox is even smaller than that. They are 30 to 40 inches in length (counting the tail) and weigh 7 to 13 pounds.

They are very attractive animals. They are primarily a grizzled dark gray with white to ashy gray underparts. There are small splotches of red in their fur, usually around the neck and accenting the legs and tail. Their face is a patchwork of black, white and red.

A hunter of the brush 

One reason that there are so few gray foxes in the county is their propensity for brushy areas. They aren’t as keen on open areas and farm country as coyotes and red foxes are. Even the open woodlots that can be found throughout eastern Niagara County farmland don’t make good gray fox habitat. They prefer thickly wooded and lush areas, brushy places if you will, and aggressively hunt that terrain, going after rabbits, mice, squirrels, and voles. They are omnivorous and will eat apples, wild grapes and acorns to supplement their diets.

An ancient dog

The gray fox is a prehistoric creature and one of the oldest canines. The fossil record shows that they first appeared over 3.6 million years ago and shared North America with giant sloths, small wild horses, elephant-like beasts, and the large-headed llama. This little critter somehow outlived all of those giants.

The dog that climbs trees

If you ever see a fox way up in a tree, you are not hallucinating.

The gray fox is unique in that unlike all other canines, save the Asian raccoon dog, it can climb trees. It is a very good climber and does so for hunting, escape from predators (like coyotes), and rearing its young – they will have dens in hollow logs and brush piles at ground level, but have also been known to maintain dens in tree hollows up to 20 feet off the ground.

The gray fox can climb because it has deeply curved claws and a bone and muscle structure that allows their forearms to rotate, which makes for an excellent grip. They grip and hug the tree with their front legs while they push upward with their back legs. They will then walk along branches and limbs. To get down, they do as cats and slowly climb down backwards (hind legs first).

Gray foxes are extremely interesting and beautiful creatures. If you hope to track one down for a photo op, two public areas where they can be found in eastern Niagara County are the Lockport Nature Trail (which is bordered by brush to the east and is also a hundred yards from a vast expanse of brush) and Golden Hill State Park, which has a large brushy area frequented by pheasants and rabbits. Good luck in finding them -- if you ever get the chance to see one, count yourself lucky.

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where gray foxes climb trees better than he can. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 24 September 2015 East Niagara Post

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Say “no” to a constitutional convention

For the past few years it has been popular for folks of the right persuasion (Republicans and neoconservatives) to call for a constitutional convention (“Con-Con”) in hopes of passing a balanced budget amendment (BBA). A lot of people have jumped on that bandwagon; no doubt your email inbox or Facebook news feeds have shown that. 

While all of these efforts might be, for the most part, well-meaning, they are extremely dangerous. Ignore the fact that a BBA in itself is counterintuitive and counterproductive to its intent -- to balance a budget, the government needs only to increase revenues (taxes) to meet expenses (spending). The real danger in a Con-Con is that it would open Pandora’s Box.

Article V of the US Constitution allows for a constitutional convention by which new amendments to our federal government’s primary legal document can be proposed. 34 state legislatures would have to submit applications for a Con-Con. Once said convention has proposed an amendment, it would have to be ratified by three-fourths of the states in order to become part of the Constitution.

Under such circumstances -- in today’s world especially -- it would be a free-for-all and any amendment under the sun could be proposed. That’s why you never hear anyone on the left denouncing the right’s calls for a Con-Con (as they do for anything the right brings up – and vice versa). They know that they, too, would have the ability to propose amendments that meet their desires, whether it’s recognition of abortion as a right, an increase in federal powers, or permanence of social welfare programs.

The Constitution is a document better left alone. Adding to it is dangerous. Sure, some amendments introduced after the Bill of Rights have some merit, like XV which clarified that no one may have their rights abridged on the basis of race or color. But, others have been downright ruinous to the United States, including XVI (which gave the feds the ability to collect income taxes) and XVII (which transferred the election of senators from the states to the people). The outcome of a Con-Con might make XVI and XVII look docile by comparison; the legal basis of our federal government could be forever transformed, even dismantled and replaced with something new.

Were new amendments – whether they were new controls or new powers – to be installed, who’s to say the law would be followed? The Constitution in its past and current states clearly defines the expectations and parameters of the federal government. We have allowed our federal government to grow well beyond those lines, to the point that it has almost become a national government, one that has assumed countless powers that truly belong to the states and the people. It’s long been said that were the federal government to actually operate within its constitutional limitations, it would be one-tenth its current size.

It seems like every day we are getting closer to a Con-Con becoming a reality. In recent years, most states have seen bills and resolutions calling for a constitutional convention introduced among their legislatures on an annual basis. The fact that so many legislators and legislatures across the country have seriously considered them is frightening. As our federal government continues to confound people on both sides of the aisle and calls for a convention become common on social media, in newspapers, and around water coolers, a Con-Con within the next twenty years is certainly foreseeable, especially given its novelty.   

If you value what our United States were intended to be and what they should be (by their very definition in the Constitution as she stands now) then you shouldn’t be among those calling for a constitutional convention and you should be educating the people who are. A Con-Con would be a con game, letting the wolves run the hen house.  

From the 21 September 2015 Greater Niagara Newspapers 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Jimsonweed – a deadly hallucinogen – creates problems in Lockport

A plant that is typically uncommon in the area has sprung up in a high traffic residential area and is creating problems for some Lockport homeowners.

Property owners on Lincoln Avenue who had to deal with road reconstruction over the past few months saw jimsonweed, which can become a bushy plant that is difficult to control, spring up in big numbers in the soil that had been transplanted on their land following the construction. The jimsonweed had become so abundant and such an eyesore that the city and town mowed down the weeds and will be applying herbicide in the coming weeks.

If this is the biggest problem that jimsonweed is causing local residents and governments, we can count ourselves as lucky. The problems could be far worse, even deadly, as we shall discuss.

Finding and identifying jimsonweed

Jimsonweed is deadly in injested. But that doesn't stop people from doing
Jimsonweed starts to make its appearance on the Niagara Frontier in late-August and it will grow quite well, and rather quickly, becoming a large, bushy weed by mid-October when they can max out at 4 feet in height and width. It frequents fields, barnyards, and places that naturalists classify as waste areas (brownfields, rail beds, newly turned soils, etc).

It is a unique, unmistakable plant that immediately catches your attention. It has a stout, deep green, sometimes purplish stem, with numerous irregularly-lobed leaves that can be up to 8 inches long. The flowers are fairly large and trumpet shaped (that trumpet is often folded shut). Some plants will sport white flowers while others will have violet ones. Throughout the late-summer and fall, the jimsonweed will hold large, spiky seedpods that will gradually open and expose dozens of black seeds the size of BBs.

It is those numerous, hardy seeds that can cause jimsonweed to take over an area once the first plant appears. If you don’t kill the initial plant before the seed pods ripen, those seeds will make their appearance next year and what was one plant will be a dozen of them within a few inches or a few feet of the mother plant. Within a few years, an area can be choked by the plants. That is something that the Lincoln Avenue residents should be aware of – they and the local road crews may be stopping the plants now, but they can be assured that they’ll be dealing with jimsonweed again in 2016.

I would consider jimsonweed to be fairly uncommon in Niagara County. I’ve personally encountered it in only a few places before – once in a brushy area in the town of Lockport and then outside of my office window in North Tonawanda where it was introduced via bird droppings underneath my bird feeder.

Officials don’t know the cause of the outbreak, if you will, on Lincoln Avenue, but I know for sure where it started. While driving through the town I used to marvel at how a Lincoln Avenue resident used to grow numerous jimsonweeds like it was a garden plant. No doubt, seeds from those plants proliferated in the soil and once that soil was disturbed, piled elsewhere and then returned to the neighborhood, everyone got a few seeds in their dirt.

Unfortunately, that person probably didn’t know he was playing with fire.

Jimsonweed is a deadly hallucinogen 

Jimsonweed is one of the most vicious naturally-occurring hallucinogens in North America. Not only will it create powerful, uncomfortable hallucinations, its consumption can also lead to death, which is why even drug users won’t even touch the stuff – while cocaine and meth might kill them gradually, jimsonweed can kill them with relative immediacy. Unfortunately, that has not stopped teens from experimenting with jimsonweed.

The best thing to do with Jimsonweed is to kill it. (PHOTO COURTESTY
Here in the United States, where it is not a controlled substance, there are approximately 900 jimsonweed poisonings every year. I remember hearing of one group of teenagers who toyed with it in Arizona a few years ago. One boy thought his body was covered with spiders while his friend thought he lost all of his limbs. They remained in such a state for a few days and stayed in hospital for a week and were lucky that their doctors were able to keep them alive.

In Canada, they have had a rash of situations in recent years. Look as these disturbing reports, all from Ontario:
  • In 2000, a St. Catharines teen died from eating Jimsonweed leaves
  • In 2005, more than a dozen Toronto high school students were hospitalized after eating the seeds
  • In 2007, 3 boys, aged 14 to 17, in Hamilton went into incoherent, unresponsive states that lasted for days
  • Then, last fall, despite all of that recent history, a handful of Ottawa teens were hospitalized after nibbling on the plants on a dare
Anyone who survived the weed is lucky. It can kill because it blocks major neurotransmitters in the brain which lead to a loss of voluntary and involuntary functions. Symptoms of jimsonweed poisoning include inability to urinate, double vision, slurred speech, heartbeat abnormalities, increased body temperature, difficulty breathing, convulsions, and coma. It’s not a pretty death as the body painfully shuts down piece by piece.

Little children have been known to die from it after innocently picking at the seed pods and eating the seeds. Cattle, sheep and goats will also die from eating the plants.

That’s why it is strongly suggested you kill the plant when you see it. And, you should wear gloves when doing so – some people are susceptible to the plant juices and will get a rash when handling it.

The history of jimsonweed

Jimsonweed got its name as a mutilation of the name “Jamestown Weed.” In 1676 a detachment of British troops was dispatched to Jamestown, Virginia to handle its residents. Near the settlement, the soldiers ran out of their rations so they boiled jimsonweed, thinking it was edible. Had they not boiled it, they surely would have died. Instead, they went absolutely nuts for a week and a half. In a historical report prepared in 1705, it was said that it was…
…a very pleasant comedy, for they turned natural fools upon it for several days: one would blow up a feather in the air; another would dart straws at it with much fury; and another, stark naked, was sitting up in a corner like a monkey, grinning and making mows at them; a fourth would fondly kiss and paw his companions, and sneer in their faces with a countenance more antic than any in a Dutch droll.

In this frantic condition they were confined, lest they should, in their folly, destroy themselves — though it was observed that all their actions were full of innocence and good nature. Indeed they were not very cleanly; for they would have wallowed in their own excrements, if they had not been prevented. A thousand such simple tricks they played, and after 11 days returned themselves again, not remembering anything that had passed."
Jimsonweed has a long history of medical uses and abuses. Among them, the Algonquin Indians used it as the primary ingredient to wysoccan, which was a hallucinogenic blend that boys took on the path to manhood. They were forced to ingest it, then spent 20 days being violently deranged, coming out of it so ruined that they even forgot their childhood.

Other societies, when making ritualistic killings for their Gods, gave jimsonweed to the person to be sacrificed. I guess it made it easier to kill someone who was insane.

Jimsonweed was also a critical component of European witchcraft and spell casting. It may have even led to the belief that witches fly, because inhaling jimsonweed smoke caused many people to have the sensation of flight.

While I find jimsonweed to be an incredibly interesting plant, a real conversation starter, it’s in the best interest of all that it be destroyed. The residents and government officials in Lockport are doing right to get rid of it. It’s dangerous. Someone or some animal could purposely or accidentally ingest it, resulting in frightening hallucinations, a body in the process of shutting down and death.

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 14 September 2015 East Niagara Post

Friday, September 11, 2015

Immigrants and the American work ethic

Donald Trump is at once the most qualified and unqualified man running for President. No other candidate comes close to his executive experience (and it is an executive we are supposed to elect); nor do they dole out even a dollop of the hate and vitriol that he directs at various classes of people. It’s that behavior that makes him unfit for office despite his phenomenal credentials – and it’s that same behavior that promotes and encourages xenophobia.

Trump’s brand of foreigner fear is dangerous. To him and those who champion his candidacy, it’s impossible to distinguish between illegal immigrants who come here in all the wrong ways and for all the wrong reasons and the countless legal immigrants who come here in all the right ways and for all the right reasons.

It’s unfortunate, because the folks who take the legal path to our country via student visas, work visas, naturalization and refuge should be welcomed to this country with open arms and open hearts and treated like the good neighbors they are. They help make America better and one could even argue that they are more American than many of us.

The American people used to pride themselves on an unconscionable and unmatched work ethic. Our predecessors cleared the Earth and tamed half of a wild continent, working through conditions and with tools that are now unfathomable to build a great nation for themselves and their heirs. The knowledge that hard work and ingenuity yielded greatness carried into the late-1900s as men and women grinded it out to achieve it.

But, we live in a different world, a different America. Ask any business manager or Baby Boomer who is still in the workplace – they will tell you that today’s younger generations don’t get it. They don’t like to get their hands dirty, they don’t come to work on time (if at all), they don’t want a 40 hour week, and they immediately expect the wages and benefits that people before them worked years to get.

That sense of entitlement permeates society, as the labor participation rate is less than 63 percent, a 38-year low. A record 94 million people are choosing not to work and government makes it too easy for them not to.

But, the people who come here legally want to work, as they know it’s the only path to achieving the incomparable American Dream. They know that through hard work and thrift, they can have a middle class standing and live exactly like the privileged the upper classes and kings do in their homelands.  

You see this exercising of the fabled American work ethic everywhere -- from factories to farms to hospitals -- out of folks who weren’t born Americans.

I have a pretty diverse workplace, with a minority population in excess of 30 percent. A good number of those diverse peoples are immigrants and refugees. Among the first to come to us were the Vietnamese. One fellow, who has been with us for over 15 years, has an incomparable work ethic that should shame anyone. A couple of years ago, while working on one of his Buffalo apartments, he took a bullet from a random shooter that lodged in his skull. He came to work that same night and I had to forcibly tell him to leave and get it taken care of. And, to think, some of his American-born cohorts look for even the smallest ailment to get out of work.

That ethic is not unusual for Asians, as we’ve welcomed two dozen of the 9,000 Burmese refugees who call Buffalo home. They work, they don’t create headaches, they feel bad for missing time and most do not miss any time at all. They are absolutely fantastic coworkers. Quite simply, they work, just as Americans used to and were expected to.

That’s just one workplace. Take a look at the farms and orchards across the Niagara Frontier, most of which are staffed with migrant workers from Jamaica or Mexico. As I wrote a few weeks back, they are paid well and receive great benefits. So, why aren’t Americans gobbling up those jobs? Because they don’t want to: It’s easier to collect benefits from the government than it is to get muddy, pick fruits, milk cows or work under the sun.

So, if you like American-made products and good, quality produce realize they’re being made possible by immigrants, “new Americans” – just as most of your surgeries and medical advances are. If it weren’t for them, the American work ethic would be dead. Despite what the Donald Trumps of the world might believe and say, they are not ruining America…they are making it better.   

From the 14 September 2015 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Friday, September 4, 2015

Cuomo mandates testing of cooling towers

Property managers take notice: Under new regulations issued by the Governor last month, all cooling towers – which are used for heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) in apartments, hospitals, dorms, and retail outlets and in industrial applications in many factories – are due for immediate and recurring inspection.

This comes on the heels of an August outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in New York City. More than 100 people were sickened and a dozen killed by the atypical pneumonia that is caused by a specific type of bacteria that got its scientific name (legionella) and common name from an infamous outbreak that killed 29 attendees of an American Legion convention in 1976.

Despite the fact that Legionnaire’s disease is not necessarily rare (there are 18,000 cases per year in the USA) and outbreaks are usually isolated, it tends to get significant media attention from the fear-mongering press in big cities where it is most likely to occur.

That has led in New York City and the Empire State as a whole a sort of war between NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo, who haven’t been on the kindest of terms to begin with. The Mayor mandated inspections of cooling towers across the Big Apple, so the Governor one-upped him and has issued new, stronger standards for all towers across the state.

Although they might be well-intentioned, it’s overkill, rather silly and poorly administered. It’s no different than Cuomo’s Chicken Little-like history of declaring states of emergency or closing roads in advance of storms that are either normal parts of winter in the northern US or never live up to their advance billing. 

Cooling towers are a sort of Quixotic windmill in this cause. In a matter of (im)perfect timing, the Center for Disease Control issued a study in August that said most Legionnaires’ comes from bad or old plumbing, be it through faucets, drinking fountains or showers. Despite that, the state has trained its sights on larger properties and their towers.

If those property managers are doing their job, Legionairres’ is already being addressed. Almost all introduce or have an outside contractor introduce biocides and other chemical agents to their cooling towers to prevent  the growth of legionella (which could harm residents or workers) and the build-up of algae and fungi (which will harm equipment and efficiency).

The state now wants to take that to another level and add reams of paperwork and numerous re-inspections to facility managers’ duties. Cuomo required that all cooling towers be registered and inspected within 30 days of his official statement – which makes September 17 the deadline. You must register the equipment on the state’s online database indicating model, serial number, capacity, usage and more while providing a detailed history of maintenance. Then, you must have a licensed specialist conduct a culture to check for Legionnaire’s. This test must be done every 90 days thereafter in perpetuity.

Then, managers must obtain and implement a maintenance program and plan by March 1, 2016. The plan must include a schedule for routine sampling, as well as procedures for emergency testing and disinfection to destroy Legionella bacteria. Owners must maintain a copy of the plan on the premises where a cooling tower is located, and make it available immediately upon request. Cuomo’s rule also requires annual certification from an outside firm regarding the maintenance and cleaning of cooling towers by November 1 of every year.

This law was launched with minimal fanfare or notice to property owners. I knew the day that Cuomo launched the plan because I follow what goes on in Albany. Most folks don’t. So, a vast majority of facilities owners don’t know or are just finding out now, with just over a week to spare. Ignorance of the law is never an excuse that flies with government, so that won’t cut it when local and state health departments start targeting and inspecting cooling towers – which is a low-hanging fruit because towers are readily seen from the road and with hundreds of thousands of them across the state there are countless dollars in fines just waiting to be levied after September 17.

Even if you know now or have known, being compliant is still a tough go. This plan also caught off guard the pros – the HVAC and chemical guys who do this for a living. There’s no way that they can pull off the number of inspections that they need to so soon. It’s going to be interesting to see how this is administered in the coming days and months.

For more information about the regulations, visit Cuomo’s website at 

From the 07 September 2015 Greater Niagara Newspapers  

Thursday, September 3, 2015

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Stay away from this caterpillar!

Cute, yes. Cuddly? No. The Hickory tussock caterpillar should not be
When it comes to kids and Mother Nature, the younger they are, the more hands-on they are. While a teenager might be grossed out by any number of creepy-crawlies (like nightcrawlers or cicadas), little ones will gladly pick them up.

In most cases on the Niagara Frontier, they can do that safely. It’s not like we’re dealing with scorpions or tarantulas around here. Nonetheless, caution is advised, because irritations and dangers can come from even the most innocent looking creatures — consider the caterpillar of the hickory tussock moth.

The caterpillar looks harmless at first glance. It’s quite attractive, a hairy little bundle of white with a stripe of black hairs along the back mixed a couple tufts of longer black hairs (those tufts lend to the name “tussock”).

Any toddler or youngster who has ever picked up a wooly bear caterpillar would probably feel compelled to pick up one of these caterpillars, too, after all, wooly bear encounters go without incident and one might even say those alleged predictors of winter (a column for another day) are cute.

If a kid picks up a hickory tussock caterpillar, things won’t go so well. The hairs of the caterpillar are barbed (like porcupine quills) and will break off of the caterpillar and embed in your skin. Making matters worse, the longer hairs are connected to small poison glands. All of the hairs, and especially those with venom, will lead to skin irritation.

The issues caused by the hairs can best be compared to reactions to nettle or poison ivy – the skin will swell or bubble up and itch. For some it will be bothersome, for others, especially small children or those hypersensitive to the toxin, it will be painful and require much scratching. Some folks will experience nausea or headaches, but that is rare.

What makes the caterpillar’s defenses such a struggle with children is the fact that they are always putting things or their hands in their mouths or rubbing their eyes (the latter is guaranteed if they start crying over the poisonous hairs being stuck in their hands and wrists). Those activities only make things worse.

I read one report about a baby who was playing in her yard, picked up a caterpillar and then got dozens of the hairs in her mouth and on her tongue and she wouldn’t (couldn’t) eat for two days. Rubbing the eyes can be just as painful — I’m sure no one wants barbed hairs in or behind their eyelids. That would be agonizing.

If you or your child comes in contact with a hickory tussock caterpillar, immediately wash hands and wrists with soap and water. If it is too late and the hairs have taken root, you will have to battle the discomfort for 1 to 2 days. The irritation can be lessened by taking antihistamines or using calamine lotion. You could even try to use tape to pull the hairs out.

This is certainly something to be aware of this summer. This may be one of the “best” years for hickory tussock moths in quite some time. I don’t remember ever seeing as many of the caterpillars as I have this past month. They seem to be everywhere, especially where nut-bearing trees are found. The caterpillars have been busy eating the leaves of hickory, beech, oak, butternut and black walnut.

So, my advice is this: be on the lookout and be careful and make sure your kids are, too. Hickory tussock caterpillars might look cute and cuddly — they can be anything but.

Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where the rule is, “don’t touch hairy caterpillars.” Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 03 September 2015 East Niagara Post