Sycamore's Animals

by John Thomson

Animal life has always been a matter of concern to Sycamoreans. Early on, the Club informed the Caretaker that he must get rid of his rabbits "because of their burrowing habits." In the floods of 1924, there was considerable concern for Mr. Johnston's cat which opted to hide under the clubhouse as the waters rose. Dogs were regular visitors to the Island until the mid-forties. Since then they have been exiled -- to Ruppert Island or the canal bank -- to wait while their families enjoyed the Sycamore pleasures. This ostracism occurred, according to Ben White, following a confrontation between the then President's wife and a friendly family dog. The dog went in for a swim, came out, stood by the woman with tail wagging, and shook. Her beautifully pressed starched dress was a mess. At the next meeting, on motion, dogs were banned from the Island.

There are exceptions, of course. Caretakers may keep dogs on the Island. Our best known recent canine friend was Hard Times, Peter Day's companion. So much for the resident domesticated animals.

Sycamore's wildlife is harder to track. As Phil Stone has pointed out, most animals, in the presence of human predators, have adopted nocturnal life styles and we, who are wedded to the sunlight, seldom see them. We rely on their leavings for our evidence. Squirrels on Sycamore are, perhaps, the only exception and they have the security of our high trees to protect them. Herewith, however, a list of recent residents. Beavers. Their tree-cutting has been so extensive that we've been forced to screen special plants to protect them. Ground hogs. I've not seen them, but their burrowing has been the source of repeated relaying of the brick on the screened porch. Muskrats. They've been seen swimming freely between the islands and the shore. Despite our formal ban on their presence, which has been in effect for nearly a century, rabbits were observed by Ken Fassler shortly before our most recent flood. And so were raccoons. Neither had any fear of the human presence on the Island. In addition, a few years back we had a deer visit. We surprised it on the upper end of Sycamore and presumably it swam back across the channel to join its friends whose regular home is between MacArthur Boulevard and the canal.

In the reptile field our resident guests, or hosts, are fewer. I once met a copperhead basking in the spring sunshine on a fallen tree at the upper end of the Island well, away from the areas we usually travel. I've never seen it again. Our more frequent contact is with black snakes. The first time I saw one was at the end of a May Potomac River White Water Race. The snake was climbing up a sycamore next the volleyball area and disappeared into a hollow from which the feathers flew. Stuffed with fledglings, it stayed there for several days. Our more common meeting ground, however, is the walkway from the Clubhouse to the ferry landing. The snakes enjoy the sun's warmth. Members have frequently been shocked by their presence but, as Ken has pointed out, these snakes are harmless and indeed helpful as they feed on rodents and keep down the mice population.