Nature Notes: Ticks Aplenty

I hadn’t gone more than 30 feet when I looked down and saw there were little brown dots at the bottom of it — ticks!

    I don’t go anywhere without my white tick towel; I even have it at hand in the winter. You never know what will happen on a very warm January day. I went out for a walk around Trout Pond in Noyac last Thursday followed by a longer walk Saturday afternoon around Big Reed Pond in Montauk. You may remember that Thursday was very cold with a brisk wind. Saturday was nice and warm and quieter.

    As one might expect, dragging my towel through several different spots at Trout Pond produced nary a tick. Saturday was a different story. Before starting out down the west trail of East Lake Drive east of Lake Montauk, I saw a young couple sitting on the bench at the foot of the trail. The young man was in his 20s and he looked at me and my towel inquisitively. I said I was going to flag for ticks and he shuddered. It turns out he was in the grips of Lyme disease for seven or eight years and is frightened at the prospects of another bout.

    I started out down the path dragging my towel along the edges. I hadn’t gone more than 30 feet when I looked down and saw there were little brown dots at the bottom of it — ticks! When I brought it up to look closer, there were three kinds of ticks, the deer or black-legged tick, the dog or wood tick, and a single Lone Star female tick with the characteristic white dot on the back, which the male lone tick doesn’t have. There were equal amounts of wood and black-legged ticks, the former being easily differentiated from the latter by its larger size.

    I was puzzled that there were so many mature wood ticks, as they have been in scarce supply over the last five years or so, and only one Lone Star tick. The latter, the species that gives one erlichiosis, a more serious sickness than Lyme disease, had become by far the most common Long Island tick in the new millennium.

    The black-legged ticks came in two sizes, nymphs and adults, and two sexes. The females are reddish on part of the back and edges, the males not. A few days earlier, Meg Gage of Springs had given me a very red-backed tick that she found on her cat. It turned out to be a female black-legged tick, so I knew how to tell the females from the males. Males are harmless, it is said, but I’m not sure; I’m not an acariologist.

    I went on and on for another two-plus miles, mainly interested in the flora, but dragging my tick towel here and there. There were black-legged and wood ticks everywhere, but not another Lone Star tick. Maybe they are late coming out. Chiggers, or harvest mites, don’t come out until midsummer. They are the itchiest of all.

    Inasmuch as most of the black-legged ticks, which can also give one babesiosis, start out as larvae on mice, deer mice or Peromyscus maniculatus in particular, I gathered that we had a fairly large mouse population in the area. Perhaps the foxes, which are on the upswing, and the screech owls aren’t enough to depress the small rodent population. Also, I noticed on this walk as I have on almost every other of my early spring walks thus far on the South Fork that there was a bountiful production of acorns last year, many on the ground are still unopened. Turkeys, gray squirrels, chipmunks, deer, and blue jays aren’t the only acorn eaters in town. White-footed mice also feed on them in the winter to a large extent.

    A rather exhaustive study of the relationship of white-footed mice and black-legged ticks aired in The New York Times last week. We had a strong inkling about that relationship before that article, but now we have even stronger evidence that the two are tied together in a very dependent way. The mouse is the reservoir for the Lyme disease vector, the spirochaete bacterium. Ticks just out of the egg are disease free. They find the first mouse that comes along and, zowie, they acquire not only mouse blood but the spirochaetes that live in it.

    Sure, the white-tailed deer and every other mammal around, including feral cats and dogs, are host to black-legged ticks and the two other common ones, but the mice are mostly responsible for hoarding the disease organisms. Perhaps we should hire some sharpshooters to kill off the mice with rifles equipped with silencers. They would have to be very good shots and have the patience of Job. Any takers?

    I took a bath when I got home, but nevertheless, a couple of hours later I felt a bump on my left arm. Yup, it was a nymphal black-legged tick. I had a tussle getting it out with tweezers, but it wasn’t in that long, not long enough to give me babesiosis or another case of Lyme disease.

    Larry Penny can be reached via email at