Gerry Goldstein: No lions and tigers, but bears and other oddball visitors

Common cuckoo in flight | Credit: Chris Romeiks/vogelart.info |

When a cuckoo is spotted in Rhode Island, you’d think any columnist who ignores the opportunity for wisecracking is a rare bird, indeed. 

But the appearance of this creature in Johnston recently was such low-hanging fruit for punchlines that it offered little professional challenge.

It did, however, provide a peg for looking back on visits to our state by other forms of wildlife that took people by surprise.

We don’t know what put the cuckoo so far from its normal habitat in Europe, Asia, and Africa, but for a few other unusual visitors, logical explanations were forthcoming.

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Decades ago, when I was covering news in South County, a Point Judith woman called to say she was watching two flamingos through her living room window – and they weren’t plastic. 

A preposterous assertion, but to be ignored at a reporter’s peril. So, camera in hand, off I went. When I arrived at the waterfront house, there they were – a pair of exotic flamingos wading in the Rhode Island surf.  Easily spooked, they took off at the sight of me and landed further up the shore, a process we repeated for miles until they soared away for good from the Narragansett Town Beach – and me with no photos to document the adventure. 

This was a head-scratcher until an expert from URI provided the probable explanation: Just 130 air miles away over Long Island Sound, in Queens, N.Y., a World’s Fair was underway that imported hundreds of flamingos as living decorations. Easy to connect the dots.

Then there was the time shoppers along Main Street in Wakefield heard a chattering from above and looked up to see the source vaulting through downtown trees and utility wires – a monkey. 

Its antics were show-stoppers – and traffic stoppers – for two days while police and animal control wardens tried vainly to coax it down. Finally, the Police Department’s dog officer offered a deal that couldn’t be refused: Standing still as a statue in his crisp uniform, he held up a peeled banana. The monkey stared suspiciously, reviewed its options, and caved.

Flamingos can fly, but monkeys can’t – so where did this one come from? Some detective work revealed that coincident with the monkey’s appearance, a traveling menagerie had packed up and left after spending time in town.

Rhode Islanders of a certain age remember the six-day downtown commotion that ensued in 1962 when a whale made its way up the Providence River. 

Quickly nicknamed “Willie the Whale,” it attracted hordes of visitors to the Point Street Bridge. The Providence Journal wrote, “Mothers brought their children down…Fathers stopped off to get a look. Teenagers by the hundreds, toting their transistors, flocked to the bridge and the river.”

Hope was that the 13 1/2-foot Willie would swim back to sea, but sadly, the whale did not survive, done in either by stress, starvation, or the infamous toxicity of the water. An autopsy revealed one final surprise in this surprising visit to Providence: Willie was a girl. 

Nature continues to offer the unusual in Rhode Island as coyotes become more common, fisher cats scream in the woods, and bobcats and bald eagles are sighted. Black bears are no longer a rarity. Several years ago one ambled across a section of Smithfield and plunged into Stump Pond for a swim.

So if you see something bizarre in the neighborhood, trust yourself; you may be onto something. In our pleasantly wacky state these days, cuckoo has a new and respectable meaning.

Gerry Goldstein (gerryg76@verizon.net) is a retired Providence Journal bureau chief and columnist.

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