Louisiana Flavored Natural History from the Edge of the D’Arbonne Swamp (with Books as Lagniappe)____________________________________________________________________
Bayou-Diversity (21 January 2015) One wild animal in the bayou state is singularly unique among our native fauna. It is kin to Tasmanian devils, koala bears and kangaroos. A persistent myth involving their reproductive habits is that they mate through the nose. This animal has opposable toes just like your thumbs and almost certainly has prowled about in your backyard. It has more teeth than any Louisiana land mammal and is even known to fake its own death when threatened. Correctly labeled the Virginia opossum, we all know them simply as possums.
Possums are marsupials, a group of animals in which the females have a pouch where the young are suckled and raised. They are found across the eastern half of the United States and have been introduced on the west coast. In the South they are ubiquitous in all terrestrial habitats. About the size of a short-legged house cat, possums have long gray hair that is used in the fur industry. A long, bare prehensile tail, a sharp-pointed nose, and naked ears combine to make this critter unmistakable. Captain John Smith of the Virginia colony wrote in 1608: “An Opassom hath a head like a Swine, and a taile like a Rat, and is the bignesse of a Cat. Under her belly shee hath a bagge, wherein she lodgeth, carrieth, and suckleth her young.”
The reproductive habits of possums are unique but not as creative as the old wives’ tale. Pregnancy lasts only 13 days, and when born the embryonic young weighing 1/200th of an ounce migrate to the pouch where they remain for about two months. After about a hundred days they leave their mother to seek their own fortunes.
Possums are omnivores and scavengers. They’ll eat about anything – dead or alive. Insects, fruits, berries, birds and their eggs, carrion, even their road-killed cousins are fair game. Except for the occasional raid on a chicken coop, possums rarely impact human activities. Indeed, they serve a critical function. Along with vultures they belong to nature’s local union of sanitary engineers, i.e. disposers f natural garbage. As such, they are important citizens wherever they live. (adapted from “Bayou-Diversity, LSU Press)
Bayou-Diversity (15 January 2015) 1835 BALLOON ACCIDENT As with other cultures around the world, the first human inhabitants of what is now Louisiana undoubtedly marveled at the mysterious ability of birds to fly and perhaps even yearned to soar over the bayous and swamps free from the bonds of gravity. They could not imagine a night sky in which the blinking of aircraft lights or satellites was always present somewhere in the heavens as is the case today. Humans of course have mastered flight through a series of technological advances but not without peril even when Louisiana was a fledgling state. The following newspaper account reveals an 1835 Icarus-like episode involving a hot air balloon.
“Mr. Elliott, the aeronaut, has attempted to make an ascension in New Orleans, but the wind proved to be too strong. After seating himself in his balloon, and cutting loose, he was swept violently across the arena, knocking down several persons in his passage. The balloon next encountered a chimney top, which was overthrown by the concussion, and Mr. Elliott’s thigh was broken. Part of the bricks of the chimney falling into the car, prevented the balloon from rising higher, and it was afterwards dragged over housetops and walls, and dashed against windows, till the aeronaut’s hands, face and head were shockingly cut and mangled. At length, the cords of the balloon became entangled on the masts of two vessels in the river, and fortunately for Mr. Elliott, his farther flight was checked. In his passage over the buildings in the city, some of the cords by which the car was attached to the balloons, were sundered, and the aeronaut afterwards smiled with his head nearly downwards. If he recovers from his wounds and bruises, he will owe his life mainly to the great presence of mind that he maintained amid all the perils through which he passed.”
I expect that when the dust of this affair settled Mr. Elliott had an even greater appreciation of birds.
Bayou-Diversity (9 January 2015) SASSAFRAS In the midst of the Civil War Kate Stone, a fierce advocate of the southern cause, wrote from a plantation near Tallulah, “The plums and sassafras are in full bloom and the whole yard is fragrant. We all drank sassafras tea for awhile but soon got tired of it, pretty and pink as it is.” At the same time the infamous Yankee General Benjamin Butler was enjoying the delights of genuine New Orleans gumbos during his occupation of that city. His meals were surely spiced with dried, powdered sassafras leaves known as filé.
Sassafras is usually a shrub or small tree but can grow to eighty feet tall and three feet in diameter in optimum conditions. It often forms dense, shrubby thickets. The deciduous leaves are unusual in that three different shapes may grow on the same plant. Sassafras is widely distributed throughout the eastern and southern United States.
As a medicinal plant, sassafras is reported to be one of the first exported to Europe from the American colonies. Tea brewed from the roots was used to treat fever, pneumonia, bronchitis, catarrhs, measles and mumps. In recent years safrole, an oil found in the plant, has been reported to be carcinogenic in lab animals.
The wood of sassafras is very durable yet somewhat brittle. It was used for ox yokes, cooperage, light boats, poles, posts, and crossties. Bedsteads and roost poles in chicken houses were once made of sassafras to deter insect pests. A yellow to orange dye was made from the roots. Although an additive is manmade today, the odor of root beer drinks once derived from sassafras roots.
Like a host of other plants wild and cultivated, sassafras was used to brew an alcoholic drink during the Civil War. If you are interested, here’s a period recipe: “Take eight bottles of [sassafras] water, one quart of molasses, one pint of yeast, one tablespoonful of ginger, one and a half tablespoonful of cream of tartar, these ingredients being well stirred and mixed in an open vessel; after standing twenty-four hours the beer may be bottled, and used immediately.”
Adapted from Flora and Fauna of the Civil War, LSU Press
Bayou-Diversity (14 December 2014) SEWING MACHINES & SWEETGUM One of the most under-appreciated native trees in Louisiana grows in every parish, is important to wildlife, and has a fascinating local history. Distinctive star-shaped leaves identify sweetgum, which grows to 150 feet tall on rich alluvial soils. During the autumn it is one of our most colorful trees as leaves on the same tree may be purple, burgundy, orange and yellow. Sweetgum is important to several species of migrating spring warblers, each of which uses different parts of the tree to forage for insects. Liquidambar, the genus of the sweetgum tree, translates as “liquid amber” and refers to the waxy sap that was often chewed like chewing gum. During the Civil War, the Confederate surgeon general directed all of his medical officers to make available indigenous astringents including sweetgum for the treatment of bowel complaints among sick soldiers. Soldiers of both sides sought the plant for curative purposes. Sweetgum bark mixed with that of maple and copperas produced a purple dye, and the fruits were once used in a unique type of lighting in the South. Sweetgum balls were placed in shallow dishes filled with melted lard, and when lit the fruits produced a soft glowing light. The lustrous heartwood of large, virgin trees was known as red gum in the lumber industry. The vast Tensas Swamp in Madison and Tensas Parishes was once exploited for its giant red gums by two major corporations. One area was known as the Singer Tract where most of the wood in all Singer sewing machine cabinets originated. The other was called the Fisher Tract and yielded lumber for Chevrolet car bodies. The last stands of the virgin trees were cut by the 1940s, but there are plenty of their offspring left to appreciate. (adapted from my Flora & Fauna of the Civil War, LSU Press)
Bayou-Diversity (8 December 2014) MISTLETOE Well, the druids thought it peculiar also. As you are traveling around the next few days, scan the tops of the leafless hardwood trees and look for the dark green clumps of mistletoe. Now contemplate just how they came about growing in the loftiest boughs of our tallest oaks.
There are more than 20 species of mistletoe in North America and even others in Europe. The most common type in Louisiana has fragile green stems and small opposite leaves. Clumps of white berries form in late autumn. Eastern mistletoes grow on hardwood trees while most of those found in the western mountains and the Pacific region grow on evergreen conifers such as pine and spruce. Mistletoe is parasitic on its host tree, deriving most of its water and nutrients from the branches to which it is attached. Although a heavy growth of mistletoe may contribute to the decline of a tree with other ailments, it doesn’t usually kill its host.
To the druids, mistletoe appeared to spring from thin air. Equally strange, it seemed to defy nature by living its entire life high in the branches of trees, never descending to earth, a plant’s natural habitat. For these reasons they declared mistletoe and the oak trees on which it grew sacred. Six days after the new moon, white-robed priests gathered mistletoe with a golden sickle and following prayers and the sacrifice of two white bulls brewed a potion with special health-giving properties. Or so they say.
How does mistletoe become established in treetops? Birds of course are the culprits and after eating and digesting the berries scatter the seeds on the next convenient perch. In our area the berries are especially relished, and thus dispersed, by bluebirds, robins and cedar waxwings.
Mistletoe does not, as some believed, descend in a flash of lightning from the sky to alight on the sacred oak. My advice concerning the legends of mistletoe is to heed only that one which encourages holiday kisses.
Bayou-Diversity (17 November 2014) RIVER OTTERS What does a small meandering bayou in north Louisiana and a main branch of the Mississippi River that empties into the Gulf of Mexico have in common? It seems that both were named by French explorers for a semi-aquatic mammal that was abundant in each of the areas. Bayou de l’Outre in Union Parish and Pass a Loutre in Plaquemines Parish were named for river otters.
River otters, members of the weasel family along with mink and skunks, were once found throughout North America wherever wetlands existed. Built for a life in the water, they have streamlined cylindrical bodies covered with waterproof fur, short legs, and long tapering tails. Their ears and nostrils can close when submerged. Large males can be three and a half feet long and weigh 30 pounds. Up to five otter pups per litter are born in shoreline dens that are often usurped beaver cavities. An otter’s diet consists mainly of fish, which they are remarkably adept at catching. Depending on availability they also consume crawfish, crabs, mussels, snails, rats, and snakes. In Louisiana otters have no natural predators when they are in the water except humans and alligators. When on land they can become prey for bobcats, coyotes, and dogs.
In their aquatic environments otters are very susceptible to pollution. As top predators, the impacts of contaminants in fish are concentrated and multiplied in otters that eat them. Pollutants such as oil remove the protective water-proofing of otter fur. The direct loss of essential wetland habitat has contributed to otter declines nationwide, and in some areas trapping for their valuable pelts has been a contributing factor.
During the 20th century otter populations in Louisiana plummeted except for those in the coastal region and the Atchafalaya Basin. Otters were extirpated from many inland areas including Bayou de l’Outre, which suffered salt water contamination associated with the natural gas industry. In other parts of the country, especially the Midwest, some states lost all of their otters. Ironically, otters are now thriving in many of these same areas as a result of restocking programs that obtained otters from coastal Louisiana. With improved water quality and restrictive trapping regulations, Louisiana otters are once again common throughout the Bayou State, and some have even settled in as Yankees farther north. (Image is of Corney Creek otter with 2 pups.)
Bayou-Diversity (9 November 2014) ARBOREAL HAIL The white oaks of Union Parish released their offspring on November 9th of this year. Actually they began several days earlier and will continue for a week or so. On this day from my front porch my watch could not mark 10 consecutive seconds free of acorn-fall within earshot. It was the largest acorn crop in 10 years for this naturally cyclic species. As they fell at speeds up to 100 miles per hour they riddle the leaves below them like arboreal hail and buried their butts in mother earth. Some blasted the metal roof of my house, accelerated on the 7/12 pitch, and launched off the edge of the front porch at a very unbotanical angle. Once on the ground their troubles just began. Acorn borers, fungi and other pathogens, birds, and mammals attacked this nutritional cornucopia with relish. Few survived.
Unlike their spring germinating red oak cousins, white oaks germinate in the autumn. A myth involving squirrels is entwined with this adaptation. Squirrels are commonly believed to assist in the planting of acorns as they bury them for winter food caches. However, gray squirrels are known to cut out the embryo of white oak acorns before they bury them. This keeps the acorn from germinating, which would result in a loss of food energy for the squirrel. Remarkably, squirrels do not excise the embryos of spring germinating red oak acorns.
I counted 25 acorns in a measured square foot in my front yard. Eight of them were infested with acorn borers or were otherwise bad – better than normal. I also counted 44 white oak trees within 200 feet of my front porch. Each had an average crown of 1,300 square feet. I computed 1,430,000 acorns on the ground under the 44 trees. The 25 acorns that I collected weighed three ounces. All of the acorns in my yard thus weighed 10,725 pounds and probably a third of the crop was still on the trees.
In spite of this tremendous reproductive effort by nature, the probability of even one of these acorns growing into a mature tree is almost zero. The old trees in my yard produce deep shade, and oak seedlings are shade intolerant. This means that unless I cut down enough trees to allow sunlight to reach the forest floor, the seedlings will never get taller than a few inches. In natural conditions that rarely exist today, oak forests reproduce sporadically in tree-fall gaps. When an old, large tree falls its offspring grows up in the sunlit gap. The aesthetics of a giant fallen tree in the front yard is of no mind to Mother Nature. (adapted from Bayou-Diversity, LSU Press)
Bayou-Diversity (29 October 2014) “Doodlebug, doodlebug, your house is on fire! Come out! Come out! Wherever you are!” As a child this rhyme was my introduction to entomology, the study of insects. My mother, a south Mississippi country girl who migrated to Louisiana, instructed me to recite the passage while poking a straw into a doodlebug hole. Of course to enhance the chances of catching this animal, you should always spit on the end of the straw first. For a five year old, the educational and entertainment value of this exercise is unsurpassed.
Doodlebugs are also known as ant lions. They are members of a primitive order of insects unrelated to ants. More than 2,000 species are found worldwide. Some types of ant lions have a larvae stage that digs small conical pits about the size of a quarter in sandy areas. Here the fingernail-sized, predaceous larvae armed with barbed jaws lie buried in wait for ants to pass by and slide down the slippery slopes of the pit. From an ant’s perspective this critter is indeed a lion. After a period of time the larvae ant lions begin the mystery of metamorphosis and change into a completely different form that resembles a dragonfly. These long-winged, feeble-flying adults are mostly nocturnal and thus rarely observed. Pit-digging ant lions are called “doodlebugs” because of their meandering trails in the sand that resemble the “doodles” of a daydreaming artist.
Ant lion folklore is present in cultures around the world. Rhymes and charms associated with the insect can be found in Africa, Australia, China and the Caribbean. Mark Twain wrote in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: “Doodle-bug, doodle-bug, tell me what I want to know!” One of the Apollo 16 astronauts, while walking the surface of the moon, compared lunar features to ant lion craters and was recorded chanting, “Doodle-bug, doodle-bug, are you at home?” My guess is that he learned the verse early in life from his mother—who may have been from south Mississippi.
Bayou-Diversity (22 October 2014) TWIG GIRDLER – A single beetle less than three-fourths of an inch long recently caused my computer to crash. My first thought was that all my valuable data were now in some black hole in another galaxy with family photos, essays, and email archives spinning around with a bunch of imprisoned light particles. Simultaneous with the computer failure, all of the smoke detectors in the house began their piercing out-of-sync chirp-whines, not unlike an imagined cat squirrel on meth. And oh yeah, the electrical transformer on the pole just outside the door exploded like a cannon shot then too. One oblivious beetle hell-bent on procreation started a chain of events that altered my day and that of several others.
The bug was a twig girdler. Her business in life is to produce more twig girdlers. She does this by chewing a v-shaped groove around the stem of a small twig, usually pecan, hickory or oak in our area. She then lays an egg under the bark of the twig beyond the cut. The girdled twig, deprived of nutrients, quickly dies and soon falls to the ground. Clumps of brown leaves with stems that resemble a partially sharpened pencil can often be seen under yard trees after a spate of autumn breezes. The egg hatches into a larval beetle that bores deeper into the twig to feed and settles in for the winter. Pupation occurs in the cavity and a new adult beetle emerges in late summer to early fall to mate and renew the cycle. Life for the twig girdler goes on.
But insect life is hazardous and the cycle was interrupted for at least one beetle in my yard when her egg-laden twig fell across the electrical lines causing a dead short that blew the transformer fuse. I was more fortunate than the beetle as summoned utility workers resolved the problem in a couple of hours. My computer data resurfaced with the fresh flow of electrons, like a revitalizing current returning to the stagnant bayou down the hill.
Bayou-Diversity (15 October 2014) OSAGE ORANGE On May 7, 1857 a slave named Hastings was put to work trimming a dense, thorny hedge around a field on a plantation just southwest of Bastrop. Six years later on June 7, 1863, Major General J.G. Walker of the Confederate Army attacked a Union force at Milliken’s Bend in Madison Parish in hopes of relieving pressure on the besieged fortress of Vicksburg. His attack was thwarted, in part, because of a dense hedge around part of the village. Yankees massed behind the hedge and fired through the openings. General Walker wrote “Upon reaching the hedges it was utterly impracticable to pass them except through the few openings left for convenience by the planter.”
The plant that contributed to the slave’s misery and the Rebels’ frustration was osage orange, also known as bois d’arc or horse apple. Originally, it likely grew only along the Red River Valley in Texas and Oklahoma. The name of the tree comes from the Osage tribe, which lived in that area and valued the strong, elastic wood to make bows. The spread of the species into other areas began as the Osage traded it among Plains and southeastern Indian groups. White settlers quickly learned to use the tree to create impenetrable living fences before the invention of barbed wire. Saplings were pruned to promote a bushy growth. “Horse high, bull strong and hog tight” were the criteria for a good osage orange hedge. This meant that it was tall enough that a horse could not jump it, strong enough that a bull could not push through it, and woven so tightly that not even a hog could root through.
Osage orange is in the mulberry family. It grows to 40 feet tall and is known for it unusual fruits, which are hard, warty, yellow-green, and about the size of a soft ball. Squirrels relish them, but oddly few other animals eat the fleshy fruits. Some scientists speculate that now-extinct large mammals such as ground sloths, mammoths, and mastodons once ate the fruits and dispersed the seeds. The wood is still used for fence posts, and at one time the bark was used for tanning leather and making a yellow dye.
The famous Dunbar and Hunter expedition up the Ouachita River in 1804 made the first known scientific documentation of osage orange in North America. Two hundred years ago they recorded it as growing upstream of what is now Monroe, and in their report to Thomas Jefferson said that these plants had been transplanted from somewhere else. Today it is still possible to find descendents of the early hedges scattered as individuals along the high banks of the river and bayous such as Desiard and Bartholomew. They harbor a bit of local history under that gray, ridged bark. (adapted from Bayou-Diversity: Nature & People in the Louisiana Bayou Country, LSU Press)
Bayou-Diversity (6 October 2014) POISON IVY! At the same time Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark to explore the Missouri River he commissioned William Dunbar to conduct a similar expedition on the Ouachita River. Dunbar’s mandate was similar to Meriwether Lewis’ in that he was required to record and describe native plants and wildlife observed during the journey. One passage in his journal reads, “We have a Vine called the poison vine, from a property it possesses of affecting some persons passing near it, by causing an inflammation of the face resembling an Erysipelas. Other persons may handle this vine with impunity. It is believed perhaps without reason, that some are affected by only looking at it.”
Fortunately you can’t get poison ivy just by looking at it although for some folks it doesn’t seem to take much more than that. It is a vine in the cashew family that grows to fifty feet or more and has characteristic three-lobed leaves. The plants contain poisonous oil called urushiol. When it comes in contact with skin the chemicals cause an immune reaction producing redness, itching and blistering. It is important to remember that you don’t have to touch the plant to have a reaction. The oil can be carried on the fur of pets, on garden tools, or on any object that has come in contact with the plant. It can even be transmitted in the smoke of burning poison ivy vines. It cannot, however, be spread by scratching the blisters in spite of what your mother said.
Fruits of these poisonous plants are consumed by many kinds of wildlife without any apparent ill effects. Deer relish poison ivy leaves and concentrate the toxin in their chambered stomachs creating an occupational hazard for careless biologists who sometimes must examine them during herd health checks. This I can vouch for personally. (adapted from Bayou-Diversity, LSU Press)
Bayou-Diversity (29 September 2014) RED WOLVES – Gone & Mostly Forgotten – Not uncommonly, the yips and yaps of coyotes can be heard across much of Louisiana. They evoke images of lingering wildness in our heavily altered landscape. Ironically, when our area was truly wild, coyotes were nowhere to be found in this region. Their voices were instead replaced by the haunting howls of red wolves. As the dominant canid of virgin forests of the Southeast, red wolves restricted the range of coyotes to western prairies for the most part.
Weighing 45 to 80 pounds, red wolves are larger than coyotes but smaller than gray wolves. Their name derives from the reddish color of their fur behind the ears and on the neck and legs. In the early 1930s researchers from the Chicago Academy of Sciences discovered that many in northeast Louisiana were melanistic, being totally black. Socially, red wolves live in packs of five to eight family members. Breeding pairs bond for life and have one litter per year. Their diet consists of small mammals such as rabbits, raccoons, and rodents, and occasionally deer.
The fate of red wolves was sadly similar to that of many native predators that tend to compete with human interests. Aggressive government predator control programs coupled with widespread habitat destruction decimated red wolf packs throughout their range. Then as their social structure deteriorated, hybridization with coyotes almost drove the species to extinction. By the mid-1960s pureblood red wolves were restricted to the gulf coast region of extreme southwest Louisiana and southeast Texas. They were designated an endangered species in 1967 and efforts began to restore the species. Fourteen of the remaining wolves were captured to begin a captive breeding program. The species was declared extinct in the wild in 1980. Offspring from the captive animals were released on a North Carolina refuge in 1987 and later in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The release failed in the Smokies but about 100 red wolves roam their historical range in eastern North Carolina today. Two hundred others remain in captive breeding facilities. Human attitudes will determine if the mournful howls of red wolves are ever heard again in Louisiana. If the controversy involving the gray wolves of the West is an indicator, coyotes will remain king of the canids in Louisiana for a long time to come.
Bayou-Diversity (9 September 2014) EYESHINE – In my family there are stories about lean times during the Depression when rabbits were a welcomed source of protein in the household larder. Most were shot at night with the aid of a carbide lantern. Rabbits were detected by their eyeshine in the dim glow of the light. Boys, new to the venture, were reminded that because rabbits’ eyes are on the side of their head, only one eye could be seen at a time. And if, when walking through the lonely swamp at night, a person were to detect a creature with two eyes shining, he should remember that such physiology is a trait of many predators that can see much better at night than a mere boy.
The cause of much hope and apprehension during these undertakings was a cluster of highly refractive crystals behind the retinas of the shining eyes. Known as tapetum (ta-PEA-tum) lucidum, these organs make the pupils of some animals appear to glow when struck by an outside light source. Animals with the brightest eyeshine usually have more rods and fewer cones in their retinas resulting in excellent night vision but also color-blindness. Not all animals have a tapetum or eyeshine. Humans don’t. Those animals that do have eyeshine tend to be mostly nocturnal and include many mammals but also spiders, some fish, frogs, and alligators. The color of eyeshine also varies by species. Horses have blue eyeshine, fish have white eyeshine, and that of the possum and many rodents is red. The eyeshine of cats and canids, which include cougars and wolves is yellow, a fact not lost on my hungry kinfolks when they spotted two glowing orbs in the heart of D’Arbonne Swamp.
Bayou-Diversity (9 August 2014) – ANTLERS – Even the dog days of summer can’t dissuade many Louisiana hunters from dreaming of frosty autumn mornings and the chance to bag a trophy buck. Much of the appeal involves the boney appendages that grow from the skull of male white-tailed deer. Bigger is better. If you want to make a biologist cringe, refer to these prized objects of desire as “horns.” They are not, but rather are correctly termed antlers. True horns consist of a core of dermal bone covered by a horny epidermal sheath. The sheath is the actual horn, and they are not usually shed. Cows have horns. Antlers are branched structures of bone characteristic of the deer family and are shed annually.
Antler growth of deer in Louisiana usually begins in April or May. The antlers are covered by skin and hair, sometimes called velvet, until they mature in the early fall. Mature antlers are about 60 percent mineral and 40 percent organic matter. Velvet is shed and antlers are polished in most bucks by mid-October. Antlers are shed or cast as early as January, but most are retained through mid-March.
The entire antler growth-development-casting cycle is directly tied to seasonal fluctuations in day-length, or photoperiodicity. Growth begins as day-lengths increase, and physiological changes that lead to antler shedding occur as day-lengths decrease. When deer are subjected to artificial light sources, their cycles can be shifted out of phase. As would be expected, deer in the tropics where day-length is constant exhibit antler development cycles at various times of the year. These cycles do not occur in unison.
It has long been recognized that antler development in white-tailed deer is a function of at least two independent factors: age and level of nutrition. Genetics is also important. Overall, older bucks have larger antlers up to a point. Research shows that dietary energy, protein, and minerals are critical. In most situations these variables are tied directly to the soil type in a given area. Fertile soils produce deer foods high in energy and protein. Infertile soils don’t. This means that the greatest potential for large-antlered deer in the bayou state lies in the rich alluvial soils of the Mississippi and Red River floodplains. However, trophies can and do occur in other areas in response to special conditions. An entire industry has developed around the nutritional aspect of antler development. Dietary supplements in the form of mineral blocks, high protein feed, and purported miracle clovers sell like hot cakes to hunters in search of the perfect wall-hanger. Many are of dubious value.
The science of deer antler growth and development is quite advanced. The knowledge vacuum lies in the arena of their lure and intrigue to humans.
Bayou-Diversity (31 July 2014) Fences et al.
About a hundred yards north of my house in the dense woods, the remnants of an old fence can be seen running north-south over a sandy-clay hill on the edge of the D’Arbonne Swamp. The forest looks the same on both sides of the rusty wire now, but it once enclosed a ten-acre field where my father chopped cotton as a teenager. When boll weevils, armyworms, and worn out soil forced the Union Parish hill-country cotton farmers to seek work in paper mills, chemical plants, and on pipelines, the field reverted to forest through natural plant succession. The timber on it has been cut at least twice since the Great Depression, the last time about 1988. I moved next door to the property a couple of years later and remember finding grog-tempered potshards in the loader sets. It occurred to me at the time that this evidence, along with a few chert artifacts, was the only indication that hundreds of generations of humans had lived here long before white settlers of European descent began off-loading up the river at Alabama Landing. For better and worse, the lingering and continuing changes to the local natural world can be attributed to the offspring of these new people. We regal in the better but are blissfully ignorant of the worse. The biological sterility of commercial pine monoculture has swept clean the rich biodiversity of historical upland hardwood forests. Even the once abundant free flowing springs that nurtured Native Americans and settlers alike have disappeared into plunging aquifers, collateral damage of unquenchable local industries.
The cotton field is gone now, and I often wonder what this area will look like in a hundred (or even a half dozen) generations. Nature is remarkably resilient. A forest can restore itself with biodiversity if demand for single-species pulpwood is assuaged, and aquifers can be replenished, but only when the fence that restrains thoughtful consumerism rusts into the shadow of time.
Bayou-Diversity (18 July 2014) Dog Day – In the dog days of summer after the fresh-split firewood reeking with the sweet acerbity of tannin is stacked in a neat pile close by the house, we become crepuscular. Like certain amphibians striving to maintain a proper balance of body fluid and temperature, we venture forth into the out-of-doors only in the twilight hours of dawn and dusk, leaving behind our artificial cocoons of refrigerated and dehumidified air. Even the cicadas are now out of sorts, droning about their business at mid-day when a pregnant cloud passes in front of the sun. In the first slow light of morning we sip strong coffee on the back porch facing east and the hardwood forest where the birdsong rises. The cardinal calls first; then the liquid flute of the wood thrush sounds from the understory. Thoreau wrote of the wood thrush song, “Whenever a man hears it he is young, and Nature is in her spring; wherever he hears it, it is a new world and a free country, and the gates of Heaven are not shut against him.” This cousin of the bluebird is now tracking the declining hours of daylight with a mysterious sundial embedded deep within his brain. On a night in mid-August he will flush at a silent alarm and begin a nocturnal journey that will end for the season in the coastal lowlands of Central America. As for the cardinal, he suffers not from innate wanderlust and with his kind will still be around to serve as Christmas ornaments in the vanishing dogwood trees of Union Parish. With coffee cups almost empty, we are surprised this morning by the running-late possum that peeks over the edge of the porch on his routine check of the bird feeders. We all conclude that in spite of the bidding thrush and Thoreau’s doggerel to the contrary, it is time to seek shelter again until the evening respite.
Bayou-Diversity (12 July 2014) Tomatoes & Lawyers For many southern palates ambrosia can be defined as a home-grown, vine-ripened, freshly sliced tomato. In their long journey to domestication tomatoes have made a number of interesting stops around the world, none less so than the U.S. Supreme Court. This particular side trip began in 1883 when congress imposed a 10 percent tax on all imported vegetables. One disgruntled and botanically astute importer challenged the law on the grounds that tomatoes were technically fruits and not vegetables. He was correct according to accepted biological definitions. The justices though unanimously leaned in the direction of the common man’s vernacular, rejected the botanical truth, and the misconception was perpetuated along with the taxes.
The wild kinfolks of tomatoes grow in Central America and along the western coast of South America. From Peru an ancestor of the tomato may have migrated to Mexico where it was first domesticated. Aztec recipes using peppers, salt, and tomatoes may have been the original salsa. These first tomatoes were small, cherry-like, and grew on a creeping vine.
Very soon after Cortez’s infamous triumphs in Mexico in 1521 tomatoes turned up in Europe. Cultivation quickly became widespread after overcoming a few superstitious speed bumps. Often associated with other poisonous and hallucinogenic members in its nightshade family, tomatoes got a bad rap early on. In German folklore they were tied to werewolves, and the Latin scientific name for tomatoes translates to “edible wolf peach.” Tomatoes sailed back to North America with the colonists, but maintaining a shady reputation they were largely considered as ornamentals. Suspicions of the tomatoes’ safety were not put to rest until the 19th century. It is a good thing. Who would we be without shrimp creole and BLTs?
Bayou-Diversity (2 July 2014) “Their toes are five in number on the anterior feet, and four on the posterior; their sharp and conical teeth are arranged in a single series in each jaw; their tongue is flat, fleshy, and closely attached almost to its very edge; and their bodies are clothed with large, thick, square scales, the upper of which are surmounted by a strong keel, those of the tail forming superiorly a dentated crest, double at its origin.”
So goes the description of an alligator kept in the Tower of London menagerie in 1829. Pass these facts on to your friends and family as you eagerly await the next episode of Swamp People.
Alligators are reptiles in the taxonomic class called Reptilia. Members of this group have common characteristics. All are ectothermic or cold-blooded and have backbones. Most have four limbs (except snakes, which have four-limbed ancestors), reproduce by laying eggs with shells (except, again, for some snakes), and have bodies covered in scales or scutes. Within Class Reptilia, alligators are placed in the subdivision known as Order Crocodilia and are referred to as crocodilians. Members of this group have similar anatomical traits and include 2 species of alligators, 13 kinds of crocodiles, 6 species of caimans, and the gharial. Alligators differ from crocodiles by having a broader snout and an upper jaw that overlaps teeth in the lower jaw. The gharial has a long, slender snout. Alligators most closely resemble caimans that live in Central and South America. The American alligators that Troy Landry dramatically pursues grow larger than their closest relative, the Chinese alligator, which rarely exceeds 7 feet in length. Still, there might be potential in an oriental version of Swamp People for any of you entrepreneurs out there with Beijing connections. (Adapted from American Alligator: Ancient Predator in the Modern World; photo by Burg Ransom)
Bayou-Diversity (24 June 2014) Please don’t “rescue” her! Every year in late spring and early summer Louisiana wildlife officials begin receiving reports of abandoned deer fawns from concerned citizens. Often young fawns are observed alone with their mothers nowhere in sight, which leads to the almost always erroneous conclusion that the fawn has been abandoned. Exceptions occur such as when the doe is known to have been struck by a vehicle, but they are uncommon. Problems occur when well-intentioned people attempt to rescue the apparent orphans. Several studies, some using radio telemetry to track deer movements, have shown that it is very common and natural for does to leave their fawns for extended periods during the day to feed. In these situations the does always return and have no problem locating their young. Even if the fawns move while they are gone, their mothers have no trouble tracking them down using their keen sense of smell. Capturing fawns is almost always counterproductive from a natural standpoint. They are rarely orphaned, and it is very difficult to successfully reintroduce pen-raised fawns to the wild. It is also against the law.
An interesting note on a related subject involves the differences in the breeding cycle of deer in our area. Although fawns can be born anytime from late spring until early fall, those in the delta lands east of the Ouachita River and particularly those in parishes along the Mississippi River tend to be born about a month later than those in the hills west of the Ouachita. The gestation period is the same, about 205 days, and the reason for this variation is not clearly understood. Perhaps deer in the low-lying areas evolved a breeding regime better adapted to the historic annual backwater flooding there. If this is the case, man-made levees and drainage districts have mostly eliminated the cause of divergence in the breeding cycles and future adaptation may bring the hill deer and swamp deer back into sync. (Adapted from Bayou-Diversity, LSU Press)
Bayou-Diversity (14 May 2014) BAYOU EARTHQUAKE?! Dr. R.F. McGuire was a prominent Ouachita Parish physician and planter in the first half of the 19th century. He was also a diarist and kept a journal from 1818 until 1852. An educated man, he dutifully recorded the weather and other natural phenomena in north Louisiana along with business and politics of the era. His entry of April 7, 1842, hints intriguingly at links to a human tragedy that occurred 1,500 miles away on that same day.
At about 5pm local time, several thousand feet below the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean, where two giant plates of the earth’s crust meet under grinding pressures, one of the plates suddenly lurched twelve feet. The result was a devastating earthquake with an estimated magnitude of 8.1 and a dreadful tsunami. The earthquake was felt over a wide area, including Jamaica, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, but the northern coast of Haiti and what is now the Dominican Republic received the brunt of the natural disaster. Following the earthquake at Port-de-Paix, Haiti, the sea withdrew 200 feet from shore and returned to drown the city in 15 feet of water. Five thousand people perished there as the estimated human mortality throughout the region approached 10,000. History remembers the event as he 1842 Cap-Haitien earthquake.
Communications of the day precluded any chance of Dr. McGuire learning about the disaster for weeks. However, in referring to that date he writes, “it is reported the waters in the [Bayous] Darbonne & [Choudrant?] were instantly [raised] about a foot with a gurgling noise & receded again without any storm.” He goes on to speculate that the bizarre event may be tied to the presence of a comet. We now know this to be a false nexus, but other than the distant earthquake what could explain the strange happenings on Bayous D’Arbonne and Choudrant?
Bayou-Diversity (1 May 2014) NATIONAL CHAMPION BALDCYPRESS* – Nothing characterizes a southern swamp more than a giant moss-draped cypress tree standing knee-deep in a backwater slough. Technically known as baldcypress, these survivors of ancient life forms once found across North America and Europe are now greatly restricted in range. In the United States they are native to river bottoms and swamps in the Deep South and along the eastern seaboard north to Delaware. In Louisiana, although the last large virgin stands are gone, cypresses can still be found in every parish.
Cypress trees once grew to 17 feet in diameter and 140 feet in height. They were the largest trees in the South and lived to be 400 to 600 years old. A few were estimated to be more than 1,000 years old. Even though cypresses commonly grow in wetlands, their seeds cannot germinate under water and young seedlings die very quickly if they are overtopped by floodwaters. This means that the trees growing in Monroe’s Bayou DeSiard, Old River in Natchitoches, and Lake Pontchartrain near New Orleans began life on dry or muddy ground that was not flooded during the growing season for at least a couple of years. Older trees can adapt to intermittent flooding regimes and usually develop fluted trunks, but permanent, deep flooding will eventually kill most mature trees. A steady decline of cypresses in the areas mentioned above is quite evident.
Most cypress stands today are second growth, but there still remain a few giants among us. They exist because they are hollow and thus not merchantable or because they grow in an area so remote as to make harvest unfeasible. They tower one hundred feet above the earth and laid down their first annular rings during the classical period of the Mayan culture. They germinated and grew into seedlings as Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman emperor. They were sound and mature when the sun gleamed from the swords of Hernando DeSoto’s men as they marched across northeastern Louisiana in a fruitless search for gold. It is possible that their limbs were once laden with the weight of a thousand passenger pigeons and that their bark was probed by ivory-billed woodpeckers. Cougars and bears may have sought refuge in their hollows. It is likely too that a few of these will still be greeting each spring with a fresh feathering of needle-like leaves in centuries to come. (adapted from Bayou-Diversity book, LSU Press) (*note person standing in hollow of tree)
Bayou-Diversity (21 April 2014) Many people along the rivers and bayous of Louisiana got hell scared out of them on the early morning of November 13, 1833. Clergymen reported widespread, sudden confessions followed by conversion of sinners as definitive signs of the Apocalypse engulfed their world. Indeed, every living human east of the Rocky Mountains in North America was exposed to phenomena with heavenly origins never since repeated in history. It is noted in the chronicles of scientists of the day, Native Americans, and Deep South slaves. It was “the night the stars fell.”
On this date a record breaking meteor storm of such intensity as to be nearly unimaginable occurred. We now know that the event was part of the annual Leonid meteor shower that occurs each autumn when Earth passes through the debris field of particles left by comet Tempel-Tuttle. The meteor shower got its name because the bright streaks of light seem to originate in the constellation Leo. At the peak of the 1833 incident, reliable sources reported over 200,000 meteors per hour. Night was turned to day.
A Louisiana man wrote, “There came on a complete shower of stars. They fell for two hours from the clouds, as thick and fast as a July shower of rain, and continued until the sun destroyed their light . . . the earth was so illuminated at intervals that a pin could be seen at any moderate distance.” Lakota Indians recorded the event on their buffalo skin calendars. Afterwards, slaves in different areas of the South reckoned their age from “the year the stars fell.” One slave woman remembered, “Somebody in the quarters started yellin’ in the middle of the night to come out and to look up at the sky. We went outside and there they was a fallin’ everywhere! Big stars coming down real close to the groun’ and just before they hit the ground they would burn up! We was all scared. Some o’ the folks was screamin’ and some was prayin’. We all made so much noise, the white folks came out to see what was happenin’. They looked up and then they got scared, too. But then the white folks started callin’ all the slaves together, and for no reason, they started tellin’ some of the slaves who their mothers and fathers was, and who they’d been sold to and where. The old folks was so glad to hear where their people went. They made sure we all knew what happened . . . you see, they thought it was the Judgment Day.” There are no records to determine if the religious convictions were lasting, but history suggests that most were as ephemeral as the meteors.
Bayou-Diversity (31 March 2014) A Storied Rocker – Not long ago a cousin passed along to me a chair that once belonged to my great-great grandmother. She is said to have brought the chair with her when she came to Union Parish from the Atchafalaya Swamp or south Mississippi. No one is sure which. She died in 1925 at the age of 77. The chair is laden with hints and mysteries of lives past. Just a bit larger than a child’s chair now, it was originally a rocking chair but was converted to a simple ladder-back when the rockers wore out or broke. Someone with hardscrabble talent built the hand-made chair out of native white oak. Flaking brown paint reveals bare wood with long horizontal rays, a characteristic that distinguishes white oak from red. Though simple in style the chair is not without a touch of refined craftsmanship in the three thin, curved slats that undoubtedly supported the weary backs of subsistence farmers. The seat was originally made from the stretched hide of either a deer or cow. About the time of the Great Depression the seat wore out, timing that may not be coincidental. By then the chair had been passed down to my cousin’s mother, and her husband promptly replaced the seat with a hand-sawn cypress board. Saw marks on the board indicate that the lumber was cut with a circular saw blade about three feet in diameter. It was not run through a planer, thus forgoing an unnecessary expense in a time when cash was scarce. Someone, probably a mischievous boy cousin with a jackknife, whittled small notches in the top slat when no one was looking. The most intriguing parts of the chair are the front stretchers. These rungs have been worn to nearly half their original diameter by propped feet, and likely by the same person because most wear is on the same part of the same stretcher – a person who favored his or her left foot. Knowing how hard it was to survive on a small farm in the red clay hills, I suspect the mark to be an artifact of worry. On the other hand, great-great grandmother was known to revel in the music of her small, round accordion. I prefer to think she rocked the rockers off her chair and then wore the rung through while marking time to a Cajun reel. (Adapted from Bayou-Diversity-Nature & People in the Louisiana BayouCountry, LSU Press)
Bayou-Diversity (24 March 2014) The most famous mascot of the Civil War was a bald eagle known as Old Abe of the 8th Wisconsin Regiment. The eagle was carried on a mast instead of a regimental flag and allegedly witnessed numerous battles and skirmishes. A soldier at Vicksburg in 1863 described a staged confrontation between Old Abe and a canebrake rattlesnake: “the carrier gave Old Abe a little toss and he flew up on the limb where he sat turning his head first to one side and then the other, looking down at the angry rattler below. Then his keeper said, ‘Take him Abe.’ And before I could see how it was done he gave a scream, dropped from the limb, and with one claw seized the rattler by the head, and with the other on his body literally tore his head off, then hopped on the limb again. I would have lost my money sure. The rattler had no chance to bite.” Old Abe survived the war to appear at fund-raising events for veterans and orphans. (Adapted from Flora & Fauna of the Civil War by K. Ouchley, LSU Press)
Bayou-Diversity (17 March 2014) “Louisiana Orchids” – Is there a southern twayblade or fragrant ladies’ tresses in your life? Perhaps not, but they and their kin are about in numbers and diversity that might surprise you. Orchids are often thought of as exotic, gaudy, almost unnatural flowers found only in jungles and corsages. Actually they make up the largest family of flowering plants in the world with more than 30,000 species. Several are very common in Louisiana.
Orchids are unique in many ways. Most species found in the tropics are epiphytic, which means they grow above ground attached to tree branches and bark. However, with one exception those that live in Louisiana are terrestrial, growing in the ground. Orchids are considered the most specialized of flowering plants and will only grow in habitats with very specific conditions. They produce the smallest seeds of any flowering plant, and one plant may release more than a million of the dust-like particles. Once the seeds germinate, growth will not occur without the presence of mycorrhizae, a special type of soil fungus. The fungi actually penetrate the cell of the seeds and provide nutrients for the growing plant. Development of the mycorrhizae relationship is slow, and some species need ten years before the orchid appears above ground to flower.
Native orchids in Louisiana include the crane-fly orchid, common in the hill parishes. For most of the year it lives as a single purple-bottomed leaf on dry upland pine/hardwood sites. The water-spider orchid that grows more than two feet tall lives at the other end of the hydrologic spectrum. It is found in masses of floating aquatic vegetation in swamps and bayous throughout the state. Because each native species of orchid has very different and exacting needs, they should not be removed from the wild. Precise amounts of sunlight, nutrients, moisture, and the presence of critical mycorrhizae are extremely difficult to mimic in a cultivated setting. Native orchids grow where they grow for a reason, and unlike many cultivated plants, the reasons have nothing to do with the desires of humans.
Adapted from Bayou-Diversity: Nature and People in the Louisiana Bayou Country (LSU Press).
Bayou-Diversity (6 March 2014) [Photo of Abita from Iron Branch] One hundred fifty years ago the American Civil war was raging across the South with halcyon days somewhere in a hazy future. It affected every one of us today, and the following is just a part of my story.
In late November 1864 just before the battle at Franklin, Tennessee a hungry lieutenant of the 1st Florida Volunteers crawled around on his hands and knees in a dark, recently captured blockhouse searching for something to eat. He felt a promising object and took it out into the light for a better look. In recalling the event he said, “It was a big flat ear but I had no appetite.” Henry W. Reddick could not have imagined that his Civil War memoir recounting this incident and many other trials would shape a great great grandson’s life 150 years later.
As a precocious reader I have long been enthralled with the written word. When I was about nine years old I began to hear family rumors that one of my distant grandfathers had actually written a book, an amazing thing to contemplate. This instigated my persistent inquiries until an aunt presented me with a mimeographed copy of Seventy-Seven Years in Dixie. She duplicated it from the family’s only remaining original edition, a tattered softback with a red paper cover. I still have it. An enchanted document, it induces new questions every time I read it. Without a doubt, the book with its provenance fertilized my nascent interest in history.
So, after retiring from a career as a biologist during which most of my writing was “governmentese,” I came back to Grandpa Reddick’s work along with thousands of other Civil War diaries, journals and letters. I gleaned them for natural history anecdotes and compiled a manuscript that became Flora and Fauna of the Civil War. Broader research even resulted in a novel: Iron Branch – A Civil War Tale of a Woman In-Between.
I have a young grandson. Should one of his future grandchildren discover my books someday, I hope that he or she is moved, even if in a small way, to burrow deeper into the joys of the written word and to consider the possible inspiration of their own creations.
Bayou-Diversity (25 February 2014) OUACHITA/AMAZON On a recent trip to the upper Amazon Basin I was able to see the Ouachita River as it appeared 200 years ago. The time reference could also be labeled as 100 BC – BC being before Corps of Engineers and their snagging, dredging and lock-building efforts to domesticate a feral river in the good name of economic development. Riding down the Madre de Dios River in a thirty-foot canoe, like a giant, hollow pencil sharpened at both ends, one only has to squint a bit to blur the unfamiliar riparian vegetation of a rain forest into a generic green mass that resembles the bottomland hardwoods along the Ouachita.
The Amazon tributary, unencumbered by levees and dams, is homeless and wanders the jungle floodplain in the manner of what geologist’s call a braided stream. Today’s main channel may be an oxbow lake next week as the river seeks a path of least resistance to carry its combined burden of glacial till, suspended clays, and organic nutrients ever seaward. Point bars, cut banks, and meander loops come and go with seasonal frequency. On the Ouachita such instability is viewed as counter-productive, dangerous, and a challenge to modern riverine engineering.
Human activities along the Madre de Dios today and the Ouachita two centuries ago are similar. In the jungle, scattered small villages of indigenous peoples cling to the high outside banks, their palm-thatched huts not unlike those palmetto-roofed houses of Choctaw along the Ouachita. Small gardens and bounty of the forest sustained them both. Evidence of small-scale illegal logging by poor natives in the form of riverside piles of rough-sawn timbers mar the image of a pristine rain forest. Such activities can be compared to similar practices by Native Americans farther north on lands dubiously claimed by the likes of the Baron de Bastrop and Marquis de Maison Rouge.
Biodiversity along the Ouachita never approached that of the Madre de Dios even in the best of times, a function of the Amazon’s isolation from the glacial driven extinctions of North America. The faunal assemblage there is intact, and while wildlife is still abundant in our region, several important historical players are gone forever. Carolina parakeets don’t visit clay licks along the Ouachita like their counterpart parrots and macaws in the Amazon. Great flocks of passenger pigeons no longer break the limbs of oaks in their acorn feeding frenzies, and Ouachita River fords felt the last sharp hooves of bison more than two centuries ago.
Along many rivers in the Amazon Basin, all of the parts are still present, connected, and humming along according to natural rhythms and processes. If one believes in the repetition of history, this short essay, in a flip-flopped sort of way, may yet be relevant there in 200 years. (Adapted from Bayou-Diversity: Nature & People in the Louisiana Bayou Country, LSU Press)
Bayou-Diversity (18 February 2014) DÉJÀ VU – In the spring of 1996 a feathered bolt of lightning launched from the top of a skyscraper in downtown Minneapolis. During her maiden flight the young peregrine falcon tested long, pointed wings that make her species the fastest fliers on the planet. She soon learned to knock the city pigeons from the sky by sheer force of impact and returned to roost at her nesting site on top of the office building.
Peregrines are found around the world and have been worshiped by kings and sheiks for centuries as the most sought after weapon in the ancient sport of falconry. Admiring owners harness the prowess of semi-tame falcons to hunt game birds. They have also served humanity in ways other than recreation. At the beginning of World War II, the Royal Air Force trained peregrines to intercept Nazi carrier pigeons in the time-honored tradition of Caesar, King Richard I, and Bismarck.
By the 1960’s, peregrine populations in North America had plummeted as the pesticide DDT worked its way up through the food web into the falcons. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service formally listed the bird as an endangered species. DDT was eventually banned, peregrine restoration programs began, and the species slowly recovered.
The Minnesota falcon ranged farther as the summer progressed and continued to hone her hunting techniques on wild birds up to and including her size. Larger than her brother, she eventually left him and the nest site for good. Later in the autumn she began to respond to an urge with origins in her Miocene ancestors – the mysterious phenomenon we call migration. She followed the crests of north-south ridges, riding thermals to ease her journey. Traveling flocks of shorebirds and waterfowl provided ample food.
By January 18, 1997, she had flown nearly 800 miles and crossed the invisible boundary between the Natural State and the Sportsman’s Paradise following the sinuous Ouachita River with its attendant bayous. Barely five miles into Louisiana, her pilgrimage ended when a person who likely claimed to be a hunter shot her.
We know these details of her life because biologists banded her in the nest on the skyscraper, and someone brought her mortally wounded to my office. We don’t know the details of the perpetrator’s life. In other times when human survival depended literally on intelligence, this person may not have lived beyond adolescence. He does not think. (Adapted from Bayou-Diversity: Nature & People in the Louisiana Bayou Country – LSU Press)
Bayou-Diversity (7 February 2014) Beginning in the early 1970’s strange activities started to occur during early spring in graveyards throughout Louisiana. Reports indicated bizarre behavior by small groups of people in cemeteries both rural and urban. To observers these people were obviously not there to pay respect to deceased loved ones or friends, as is usually the case with visitors. They were dressed in rugged field clothes; some were shabby in appearance. Most of them were young, but there was always an older balding man in their presence, obviously the leader of their rituals. The scenario was the same at each event. The group would arrive at the graveyard in a hodgepodge of vehicles and immediately gather around the leader for a blessing of sorts. With plastic bags in tow they would then disperse across the cemetery to begin the really weird goings-on. As soon as each individual reached a mysteriously chosen spot he or she immediately fell to his or her knees and began crawling slowly about on all fours with butts often higher than noses. It seemed to be a quest for some tiny, ghoulish treasure, and when the object was found the discoverer emitted a screech of pleasure, which straight away caused a mini-stampede as everyone rushed over to worship the object. This went on for a while with varying degrees of enthusiasm or despondency depending on how many totems were found until the entire group loaded up and drove away as inexplicably as they had arrived. The activity continued for several successive springs – or so it all seemed.
The truth of this matter when anyone bothered to ask was about as strange as the speculation. The leader of the group was a prominent professor of botany at Northeast Louisiana University and the others were his students of plant taxonomy. They were searching for botanical treasures in the form of any of five species of a tiny plant called adder’s tongue fern in the genus Ophioglossum. Very un-fern-like, the plants consist of a single, simple, ground-hugging leaf less than an inch long. One has to be purposefully and intently looking to find it. It is most common and most easily found in areas that have been mowed closely for many years, thus the cemetery searches. In their diligent hunts the professor and his students contributed to science by expanding the known range of these little-known plants – facts usually lost on curious passers-by. (Adapted from Bayou-Diversity-Nature & People in the Louisiana Bayou Country by Kelby Ouchley, LSU Press)
Bayou-Diversity (28 January 2014) SWAMP SNOW – Swamp snows don’t come often to Louisiana. Only during a rare conjugal visit of otherwise estranged weather gods, warm wet air from the gulf overrides a lingering cold front to produce moisture that morphs into hexagonal crystals. If the snow seeds are sufficiently fertile and the humidity high flakes the size of dimes, nickels, or even the wings of bride moths float into the winter world of baldcypress trees, Spanish moss, and squealer ducks. Almost always the temperature is marginal, the apparition fleeting as a persistent sun sweeps clean the spell in a cruel shower of snowmelt. It is best to visit a snowed swamp soon while the sky is still leaden, to eschew the garish glare in favor of shadowless hues, subtle and natural.
Tree bark and slough water provide contrast for the whiteness. Willow oaks have coarse, dark-roast coffee bark; the skin of cypress is furrowed russet. All things botanical, apart from the vertical, wear ermine mantles, especially the logs on their journeys back to earth. Members of the wetland arboretum appear to doze and transpire slowly under their insulating blankets. The water is translucent black, and cold as liquid water can be. It is swamp blood sustained now with snowflakes as well as raindrops. As molecules flowing across the gills of widow skimmer dragonfly larvae they are not discernible. Pumped through xylem eighty feet up to the highest twigs of an overcup oak in order to nurture an acorn, it matters not what form they entered the swamp. Here contrast is absorbed.
Louisiana swamp snows bear other gifts in the shape of anomalies. Orb spiders in their webs snare snowflakes instead of mosquitoes. In the frigid water wood ducks preen, cavort, and squeal in anthropomorphic displays of delight. Emerald mosses go about their subtropical business of procreation, and fish crows fly over without ever uttering a word. They know that all traces of the day’s conjuration will vanish on the morrow. (Adapted from Bayou-Diversity, LSU Press)
Bayou-Diversity (9 January 2014) Alligators did not welcome the recent spate of cold weather. The least known aspect of alligator life history involves their behavior during the winter, especially in inland swamp habitat. In general, they retreat to dens during cold weather, but they do not hibernate. Instead, they brumate, a condition when the core temperature and other physiological processes decrease, but not to the extent that occurs in true hibernation. Other kinds of reptiles, including some snakes and turtles, also brumate. Alligators must surface to breathe when brumating and apparently move in and out of this state as the weather changes. They bask on warm winter days, but an alligator out of water on a very cold day is usually the sign of a sick alligator. Their ability to slow down bodily functions allows them to survive cold weather only up to a point. Infrequently, extended periods of unusually cold weather, when water remains frozen for several consecutive days, occur in northern Louisiana and southern Arkansas. In the last 30 years I have observed alligator mortality within two weeks of almost all of these events. Usually the dead alligators were larger adults that floated to the surface. Larger individuals may have been more sensitive to cold or just more likely to be seen when they died. During a severe cold spell in the winter of 1983-84, thousands of alligators died in Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi. The temperature dropped to 13 degrees in coastal marshes with an ice cover four inches thick for several days. Surveys showed that alligators of all sizes succumbed, and deaths continued for several weeks after the weather event. The extent of alligators’ ability to regulate their body temperature limits where they can survive. As the climate warms in some areas, we might expect their range to expand, but there will always be setbacks as likely occurred here recently. (Adapted from American Alligator – Ancient Predator in the Modern World by Kelby Ouchley, Univ. Press of Florida; photo by Burg Ransom)
Bayou-Diversity (1 January 2014) In Tolkienesque fashion, crows and owls live an
epic drama of perpetual conflict. Their behavior conjures up anthropomorphic notions of hatred and revenge as crows mob owls in daylight and owls decapitate crows on stealth wings in the dark of night. Such conduct, though, is merely part of the business of survival for these species. For hobbits and humans – not so much. . . .
Bayou-Diversity (21 December 2013) Don’t expect blue jays to come to your bird feeder on Fridays. They spend that day with the devil telling him of the bad things we did all week – or so I’ve been told by a “reputable” source. A recent government survey indicated that over 60 million Americans feed wild birds, and that they spend a lot of money doing so. For economic and biological reasons it’s best to be knowledgeable about the critters you’re dealing with and what they eat. For example, if your goal is to have robins, bluebirds or purple martins at your feeder, you are going to be disappointed. These birds eat insects and barring hummingbirds, woodpeckers and the occasional oriole, birds that routinely come to feeders are seedeaters. And not just any seeds will do. The big box stores are full of so-called birdseeds that are for the most part worthless. Certain species of birds prefer certain kinds of seeds and its best to match them up. In our area birds that frequently come to seed feeders include cardinals, goldfinches, house finches, chickadees, titmice, white-throated sparrows, juncos, doves, and blue jays. Studies find that black oil sunflower seed is the most popular seed with most seed-eating species. However, if you want to attract titmice, white-throated sparrows, or blue jays you’ll probably have better luck with peanut kernels. Mourning doves prefer white proso millet as unfortunately do English sparrows and cowbirds. Goldfinches like sunflower seeds and niger thistle. In this area, canary seed, German millet, red millet, wheat, safflower, rape, hulled oats, milo, and cracked corn are almost worthless and a waste of money. Feeding wild birds is educational, a great hobby and helps birds on a local basis, but don’t look for the blue jays on Friday. (Adapted from Bayou-Diversity, LSU Press)
Bayou-Diversity (12 December 2013) One of the most profound mysteries of nature involves salmon and their epic journeys from the ocean back to the freshwater rivers and streams of their birth in order to reproduce. In Louisiana there exists a species of fish that performs a feat no less amazing. In fact this species does the salmon act backwards. I am referring to the American eel.
Eels are widespread in North America and common in the rivers and larger streams of our area. Though their bodies are elongated and snake-like, they are actually scaleless fish with fins and gills. They should not be confused with what many local people call “lamper eels”, which are not eels at all but rather a species of harmless salamander that frequents swampy areas and ditches. The true eels are sometimes called “fish eels” in this region. They occasionally reach 5 feet in length and are mostly nocturnal, feeding on a variety of fish, insects, snails and crawfish.
There is much yet to be learned about the life cycle of this species, but what is known is remarkable. Behaving exactly opposite of salmon, eels live out their adult lives in freshwater and return to the ocean to spawn. In fact, all eels return to a specific area known as the Sargasso Sea just north of the Bahamas. Here their life begins and ends. Eggs hatch into 2 inch larvae and drift in Gulf Stream currents for up to a year, most eventually arriving on the eastern coastline of North America. Some are drawn into the Gulf of Mexico. As they drift they change into a more eel-life form and usually in the autumn when they are still less than 4 inches long they begin to enter freshwater rivers and streams. The young eels are determined at this stage and have been known to climb the wet walls of dams and wiggle up moist grass banks to get around obstacles. Many travel upstream several hundred miles where they may live as adults from 5 to 20 years. At some point the adults begin drastic physical changes that prepare them for migration back to the sea. They stop feeding, eyes and fins enlarge, and their body color pattern transforms. The migration occurs during autumn nights as they retrace their natal routes down rivers and streams through locks and over dams and back into the ocean for a January spawning in the warm Caribbean waters. Here the females lay 10 to 20 million eggs each and life for the species is renewed even as the adults soon die on the spawning grounds. This profound mystery occurs right here in our midst and always below us as we cross the Louisiana bridges with our minds on the mundane issues of our own lives.
Bayou-Diversity (1 December 2013) GOOSE MYSTERY: The source of mysteries is not limited to the likes of Tony Hillerman or P.D. James. Nature also serves up some perplexing whodunits from time to time. On the evening of January 25th, 1983 several people called the Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge in southwest Louisiana where I worked to report unusual snow goose mortality near Jennings. As the regional wildlife disease biologist I was responsible for looking into the matter. The affected site was a rural farming area about two miles wide and five miles long. Local residents reported first seeing dead geese on the morning of the 25th. Birds were found in yards, roads, and ditches as well as in open fields. I saw about 50 dead geese scattered at random lying belly up. They made indentations in the wet fields where they struck the ground, indicating that they became incapacitated while flying and fell from the sky. I estimated the total mortality to be 200 to 300.
I collected and necropsied several of the geese. No lesions characteristic of infectious diseases were found although all exhibited free blood in the heart and lung cavities. A definitive cause of death could not be established, but the pattern of mortality seemed to rule out diseases, parasites, or poisoning. No known waterfowl disease or parasite causes such a rapid death, and mortality from something like pesticide poisoning might be expected to emanate from a central focus where contact with the agent occurred. Such was not the case.
The National Weather Service station at Lake Charles and local residents reported heavy thunderstorms in the area the night before the first dead geese were seen. Although the carcasses showed no signs of lightning or hail strikes, I concluded that the mortality was weather related. Severe thunderstorms are known to spawn powerful updrafts capable of lifting aircraft thousands of feet. Coastal thunderheads often tower to seven miles above the earth. The barometric pressure and oxygen content of air at these heights are greatly reduced. It is feasible that a flock of geese caught in an updraft and carried rapidly to such heights will experience respiratory and circulatory problems similar to those found in the necropsied birds. This theory would also explain the distribution of carcasses as geese succumbed and fell out of the storm at slightly different times and places.
Geese have been observed flying at extreme altitudes in places such as the Himalayas. These heights were probably achieved over a period of hours thus allowing time for physiological adjustment. The Louisiana geese were likely carried aloft in a matter of only a few minutes, which precluded their acclimation and resulted in mortality. So, nature mystery solved. Well….at least in theory.
(Adapted from Bayou-Diversity: Nature & People in the Louisiana Bayou Country – LSU Press)
Bayou-Diversity (19 November 2013) Among the greatest ecological calamities of our times in north Louisiana has been the conversion of diverse upland forests in the hill country to pine plantation monoculture. One hardwood species that was historically common though never abundant is black walnut. Other than a few surviving trees planted in old farmsteads, walnuts have almost vanished from this region. They once grew to over one hundred feet tall and were cherished for their important wood and edible nuts. Still common in parts of the Midwest, walnut trees are so valuable, with individual trees worth thousands of dollars, that timber poaching is often a problem.
Walnut lumber is used to make high quality furniture, flooring, and coffins. It was once the most sought-after wood for beautiful gunstocks, but has been increasingly replaced by plastic for this use. Ironically, the petroleum that is processed into plastic is often produced using drilling fluids that have ground walnut hulls as a major component. The ground shells are also used in water filters, cosmetics, and abrasives.
Walnut fruits are nuts encased in a hard shell that is embedded in a softer green husk. The nutmeats are difficult to extract but have a unique, natural flavor much richer than that of English walnuts commonly found in grocery stores. Black walnuts are used in gourmet baked goods, ice cream, salads, and pasta dishes. The husks contain chemicals that were once used to make a dark brown dye. When I was a boy, local trappers would boil their steel traps in a tub filled with walnut husks to camouflage the traps and remove human scent.
The ecological role that black walnut played in Louisiana forests in unclear. Certainly, wildlife ate the nuts. Walnut leaves contain chemicals called “polyphenols” that repel insects. Roots produce another chemical that inhibits nearby competing plant growth. The vegetation under a black walnut tree looks different from that found under nearby trees. Whatever the function once provided by the scattered black walnuts in our natural forests, it has been supplanted by genetically modified pine trees that grow in nice straight rows.
Bayou-Diversity (6 November 2013) What does a chickadee at your bird feeder, a tyrannosaur that lived in northeastern China 175 million years ago, and a tragic 16th century play have in common? That the chickadee is covered with feathers is not surprising, but finding the richly detailed plumes on the fossil of a Jurassic dinosaur seems a bit incongruent. Feathers are made of a special group of proteins called keratins. During development, the proteins bond into twisted sheets that result in microscopic structures similar to but stronger than those found in the hair, claws, and horns of mammals. The job of feathers on modern birds is to provide insulation from cold temperatures in both air and water. Proto-feathers found on dinosaurs served the same function. Feathers allow birds the remarkable concept of sustained, controlled flight, a phenomenon shared only with bats and some insects. Feathers also play important behavioral roles in the lives of birds during courtship and defense of territory.
The significance of feathers for humans is cross-cultural and spans the globe. They have adorned the bodies of British queens, Aztec kings, and New York socialites. They are used in the religious ceremonies of Native Americans and in snakebite medicine by East Asians. Feathers are fashioned into fishing lures for anglers and regimental headdresses for generals. They have been stuffed into mattresses during times of peace and fletched on arrows for war. Feather quill pens yielded the U.S. Constitution, the novels of Jane Austen, and the complete works of Shakespeare. Paleontologists consider the discovery of feathered dinosaurs further evidence of kinship between those reptiles and the ancestors of birds, thus the connection between an oriental tyrannosaur, a Carolina chickadee, and incidentally Romeo and Juliet.
Bayou-Diversity (30 October 2013) In humans and other animals a covering of skin serves various functions including protecting the body within. In trees and other woody plants bark can be considered analogous to skin. Like skin, bark is comprised of several layers, some living and some non-living. The outermost layer is called cork and does not consist of living cells. It is usually impermeable to water and gases. Moving inward, specialized layers of living cells perform critical functions including the transport of nutrients. The nutrients are manufactured via photosynthesis in the leaves or needles and flow through sieve-like tubes throughout the rest of the plant.
Humans have been using bark products for thousands of years. The inner bark of some plants is edible. The spice we call cinnamon is finely ground bark of the cinnamon plant. Latex and resins are bark products used in chemicals. Tannin from oak bark was used to tan animal skins for centuries. Lifesaving medicines such as quinine and aspirin were made from bark. As a construction material bark is used as shingles and flooring. Native Americans made birch bark canoes, and today we grind it up to use as landscape mulch.
This discussion of bark would be incomplete without mentioning how we thoughtlessly abuse it even while cherishing the plant it protects. The invention of the gasoline-powered string trimmer has resulted in the unintentional and untimely deaths of countless landscape trees and shrubs. If a string trimmer has been used in your yard, I challenge you to look closely at the base of your woody plants. There is a very good chance they have been partially or completely girdled. Once the bark of a plant has been seriously damaged, the plant will never thrive to reach its potential and will often die. Besides destroying the nutrient transporting cells, bark wounds are prime entryways for pathogenic bacteria, viruses, and insects.
To view another bark-related travesty in our region, visit a public campground and consider the nearby trees that we love for their shade and aesthetic values. Most will likely be hacked, scored, burned, or carved with initials. Beech trees in particular are condemned if they are so unfortunate as to germinate in a public area. Considering the many benefits that we have reaped from bark over the centuries, what does this unnecessary destruction say about us?
Bayou-Diversity (24 October 2013) I claim to be the only person in Rocky Branch, Louisiana with a whale in an aquarium. He shares my living room tank with two moody zebra cichlids. Other than being unfailing stimulators of conversation among visiting friends, they have little in common.
The cichlids of course are fish and originated in Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, and I found the whale, a mammal, in the Bayou Dan Hills in Caldwell Parish. The main difference is that the fish are alive, and the whale breached and took his last breath about 40 million years ago. Less important details include the fish being four inches long and the whale nearly 70 feet in length. The fish are also intact in my aquarium, but unfortunately the whale consists of only a single tail vertebra that resembles a large, brown, petrified mushroom.
The bones of “Basilosaurus cetoides,” as paleontologists dub him, have been found in a band across Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama where Eocene marine deposits are exposed. This layer surfaces near the community of Copenhagen in Caldwell Parish. Heavy rains occasionally erode whale bones, great white shark teeth, and coral from steep hillsides that were once the bottom of a warm shallow sea. Whale vertebrae were so common in some areas that settlers used them as fireplace andirons and blocks to support cabins. In 1843, Dr. Richard Harlan first described this species from bones collected in Caldwell Parish at bluffs along the Ouachita River. Thinking that he had the remains of a giant ocean-going reptile, Harlan named the animal Basilosaurus, which means “king of the lizards.” Later, another scientist found a complete skeleton in Alabama and recognized the creature as a primitive whale. An impressive specimen hangs from the rafters of the Smithsonian Institute today.
In his prime my whale had a stream-lined body that resembled a sea-serpent more than a modern whale. His head was five feet long with teeth-laden jaws that allowed him to capture and gulp down fish by the tub full. The cichlids don’t seem to worry much about this though, and his surviving tail bone is a constant reminder that indeed, “the times, they are a changing.”
*Adapted from Bayou-Diversity: Nature & People in the Louisiana Bayou Country (LSU Press)
Bayou-Diversity (9 October 2013) At the turn of the 20th century, Louisiana’s vast natural resources in the form of virgin forests and teeming wildlife were besieged by commercial interests and others lacking environmental mores. In this state of diminishing wilderness Ben Lilly emerged from the swamps of northeastern Louisiana to become a folk hero. His reputation as the best hunter of his day evolved as a result of his obsessive compulsion to kill bears and cougars. President Theodore Roosevelt hired him as his chief guide during his noted Louisiana bear hunt. Ironically, Lilly’s successful efforts in Louisiana and later out West contributed to the loss of a life style that he cherished.
Benjamin Vernon Lilly was born in Wilcox County, Alabama, in 1856. As a young man he settled on his uncle’s Morehouse Parish farm near Mer Rouge. He hated farming, and dabbled in the cattle and timber businesses. None of these occupations were satisfying. He discovered his passion in the local swamps of Bonne Idee and Boeuf after killing a bear with a knife. From that point forward his life centered on the pursuit of large predators. Accordingly, in 1901 he transferred his property to his wife and children and walked out of their lives.
Lilly soon learned that he could make a living as a hunter and became good at it. The U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey hired him to collect for the national museum. Over the years he sold them many skulls and skins. From Louisiana he shipped a cougar, five black bears, seven red wolves, and two rare ivory-billed woodpeckers. In 1906 Lilly decided to seek greener pastures and left Louisiana for the Big Thicket of east Texas. There he was successful in killing a number of bears and his reputation spread. He drifted into Mexico and spent many years in Arizona and New Mexico conducting predator control for ranchers and the gvernment.
Lilly’s legendary status was due in part to his peculiar looks and habits. President Roosevelt wrote of him:
“He has a wild, gentle face, with blue eyes and full beard; he is a religious fanatic and is as hardy as a bear or elk, literally caring nothing for fatigue and exposure which we couldn’t stand at all . . often he would be on the trail of his quarry for days at a time, lying down to sleep wherever night overtook him.”
Lilly would not raise a hand to work on Sunday. He never cursed, smoked, or drank alcohol or coffee. He was known to subsist for days in the wilderness with only a sack of corn meal. Ben preferred to sleep and eat outdoors even when amenities were available. Laden with bearskins and live cougar kittens, his brief and infrequent visits to towns only enhanced his enigmatic aura. Given the opportunity in a crowd, he was known to promote his own heroic folklore.
Lilly died in Grant County, New Mexico in 1936, about 80 years old. His epitaph in the Old Silver City Cemetery reads, “Ben Lilly – Lover of the Great Outdoors.” By modern standards, the inscription would contradict his lifestyle of the relentless pursuit of apex predators. He was, by any standard, cast of a different metal.
Monuments to Ben Lilly have been erected in Mer Rouge and in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest. Recently, the Ben Lilly Conservation Area was established in Morehouse Parish along Bayou Bartholomew. (adapted from: Ouchley, Kelby. “Ben Lilly.” KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana. Ed. Dave Johnson. La. Endowment for the Humanities, 23 July 2013.)
Bayou-Diversity (19 August 2013) Is there a grown man in Louisiana who as a boy has not, in spite of dire warnings, chunked rocks at a wasp nest and paid the dear, dear price? I doubt it, myself included. Most types of social wasps aggressively defend their nest. Because the stinger is a modified egg-laying organ, only females can sting. Unlike some bees, which sacrifice their lives when they sting, wasps have a barbless stinger that can be used many times. During a sting, venom is injected into the skin of the victim, and nerve endings of pain receptors are promptly stimulated. Usually, a short burst of vigorous, aerobic exercise follows almost simultaneously. If the exercise results in a murdered wasp within a 15-foot radius of its nest, the situation quickly deteriorates. Dying wasps release a pheromone that attracts revenge-minded sisters. Retreat is always a better option. About two people out of a thousand are hypersensitive to wasp stings, and an encounter can be fatal if not treated promptly, usually with epinephrine. It’s important to remember that native wasps are a spoke in the wheel of our ecosystems. A few are pollinators, and most serve to keep in check various insect populations. Aldo Leopold, the father of modern wildlife conservation, once said, “The last word in ignorance is the man who says of any plant or animal, ‘What good is it?’”
-Adapted from Bayou-Diversity (LSU Press)
Bayou-Diversity (14 August 2013) Okay, here’s the Louisiana bayou trivia question of the day. Just what are those softball-sized, jelly-like globs that are often seen attached to bayou trees and boat docks, especially after water levels fall? Impress your friends with this answer: Bryozoan Colony. These gray, gelatinous masses are actually colonies of thousands of individual animals called zooids. Each zooid is a microscopic creature complete with a mouth, digestive tract, muscles, and nerves. The jelly-like material serves as a protective matrix for the colony. Individuals feed by filtering tiny algae from the water through tentacles. Since algae don’t usually grow well in muddy water, the presence of bryozoan colonies in a stream can be an indicator of good water quality, at least in terms of turbidity. Colonies grow in size by budding from the adult zooids. New colonies are established from free-swimming larvae produced by the zooids. There are many species of bryozoans, but most live in salt-water environments. Of the approximately 20 freshwater species found in North America, most live in warmer regions.
Studies have shown that humans are much more susceptible to develop an affinity for animals that have soft, furry coats and large eyes than for creatures without backbones. So where does that leave the blind, slimy, bayou dwelling invertebrates that make up the bryozoan colony in terms of popularity? Well, as long as we don’t pollute all of our waterways, it probably doesn’t matter. Bryozoans have been around for 450 million years according to the fossil record and will probably be here long after we’ve stopped asking trivia questions.
[adapted from the book Bayou-Diversity, LSU Press]
Bayou-Diversity (6 August 2013) In 1976 while most of the nation was celebrating America’s bicentennial, the Louisiana state legislature was up to more important things. They were debating the designation of an official state fossil. Apparently the issue became contentious when one senator nominated a colleague for the title. Calm returned to the chamber floor only when the second senator declined in deference to age rather than beauty. Subsequently, the distinguished body voted unanimously to name petrified palm wood as the official state fossil.
Fossils in Louisiana are relatively scarce, and petrified wood was a good choice. Petrified wood is formed when any of several types of minerals replace buried woody tissue. Silica is the most common replacement mineral. In the western United States much of the petrified wood developed after being buried by volcanic activity. In Louisiana the wood was buried in the silts and sands of meandering rivers and streams that occurred on the Gulf Coastal Plain around 30 million years ago. The shore of the Gulf of Mexico was further north then explaining why most petrified wood is found in the northern half of the state.
The Louisiana state fossil is specifically petrified palm wood. Of the many types of petrified palms, those found in Louisiana are most commonly in the genus Palmoxylon. It is a favorite of rock collectors because of high silica content, well-defined rod-like structures, and variety of colors. Jewelers like it because it polishes well and for its durability. They follow in the tradition of Native Americans who used worked petrified wood as tools for thousands of years.
While some might argue that Louisiana politicians are indeed petrified at least in their thought processes, their efforts to recognize an interesting fossil should be considered on the educational merits. (from Bayou-Diversity – LSU Press)
Bayou-Diversity (15 July 2013) 150 years ago, New Orleans was occupied by Union forces during the Civil War. Some of the northern men discovered unanticipated environmental hazards as related by Private Isaac Jackson, 83rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, on August 16, 1864: “There was quite an accident happened to one of Co. F today. He was down to the river washing his shirt. . . . when a ‘Gar’ came up and caught hold of his hand. It nearly cut three of his fingers off. It nearly jerked his arm off, he said. The Alligator Gars are a savage looking fish. They have a very large mouth with a long bill running out in front. They look like they could take a man’s leg off at one snap. I will send you the scales of one I found on the river bank.”
The image is a rare photo of Union soldiers fishing. For more on this topic, see my “Flora and Fauna of the Civil War” (LSU Press).
Bayou-Diversity (8 July 2013) For many southern palates ambrosia can be defined as a home-grown, vine-ripened, freshly sliced tomato. In their long journey to domestication tomatoes have made a number of interesting stops around the world, none less so than the U.S. Supreme Court. This particular side trip began in 1883 when congress imposed a 10 percent tax on all imported vegetables. One disgruntled and botanically astute importer challenged the law on the grounds that tomatoes were technically fruits and not vegetables. He was correct according to accepted biological definitions. The justices though unanimously leaned in the direction of the common man’s vernacular, rejected the botanical truth, and the misconception was perpetuated along with the taxes.
The wild kinfolks of tomatoes grow in Central America and along the western coast of South America. From Peru an ancestor of the tomato may have migrated to Mexico where it was first domesticated. Aztec recipes using peppers, salt and tomatoes may have been the original salsa. These first tomatoes were small, cherry-like and grew on a creeping vine.
Very soon after Cortez’s infamous triumphs in Mexico in 1521 tomatoes turned up in Europe. Cultivation quickly became widespread after overcoming a few superstitious speed bumps. Often associated with other poisonous and hallucinogenic members in its nightshade family, tomatoes got a bad rap early on. In German folklore they were tied to werewolves, and the Latin scientific name for tomatoes translates to “edible wolf peach.” Tomatoes sailed back to North America with the colonists, but maintaining a shady reputation were largely considered as ornamentals. Suspicions of the tomatoes safety were not put to rest until the 19th century. It is a good thing. Who would we be without shrimp creole and BLTs?
Bayou-Diversity (5 June 2013) Hardwood giants reigned on the ridges of Lafourche Swamp until the rake of crosscut saws reduced their tight annular rings to a lifeless commodity. Large sweetgums such as this one were called “red gums” because of the carmine tint of the heartwood. The logs were quarter-sawn and veneered to become the cabinets of Singer sewing machines and the paneling of woody station wagons. . . so that we might experience progress.
Bayou-Diversity (25 May 2013) Screech owls are the smallest of four types of owls found in Louisiana. Their call is not a screech but a soft, mournful whinny that rises and falls down the scale. Renowned for superb night vision due to eyes with large retinas and a high concentration of light-gathering cells, owls have even more remarkable hearing. Large heads and ear openings with flat faces receive minute sounds not unlike a radar dish. These senses along with soft, serrated wing feathers for noiseless flight make owls unparalleled stealth predators of darkness. As adults, screech owls are about 10 inches long with ear tufts. They exhibit two color phases – gray and red, as shown by these babies in my nest box.
Bayou-Diversity (22 April 2013) Nothing characterizes a southern swamp more than a giant moss draped cypress tree standing knee-deep in a backwater slough. Technically known as baldcypress, these survivors of ancient life forms once found across North America and Europe are now greatly restricted in range. In the United States they are native to river bottoms and swamps in the Deep South and along the eastern seaboard north to Delaware. In Louisiana, although the last large virgin stands are gone, cypresses can still be found in every parish.
Cypress trees once grew to 17 feet in diameter and 140 feet in height. They were the largest trees in the South and lived to be 400 to 600 years old. A few were estimated to be more than 1,000 years old. Even though cypresses commonly grow in wetlands, their seeds cannot germinate under water and young seedlings die very quickly if they are overtopped by floodwaters during the growing season. Older trees can adapt to intermittent flooding regimes and usually develop fluted trunks, but permanent flooding will eventually kill the trees.
Historically, cypresses have been very important to humans in Louisiana. The wood is easy to work and attractive, the heartwood having a reddish hue. The most prized characteristic is the durability and resistance to decay that develops in the wood of trees several hundred years old. Native Americans were the first to recognize this attribute and routinely used cypress for dugout canoes. Early colonists were quick to discover the trait. By the late 1800’s the demand for cypress lumber for boats, furniture, pilings, trim, shingles, siding and coffins was great. It was during this period that the vast virgin stands were logged over. By 1925 the once thriving cypress industry was in a spiraling decline as the last of the raw products were exhausted.
Most cypress stands today are second growth, but there still remain a few giants among us. They exist because they are hollow and thus not merchantable or because they grow in an area so remote as to make harvest unfeasible. They tower one hundred feet above the earth and laid down their first annular rings during the classical period of the Mayan culture. They germinated and grew into seedlings as Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman emperor. They were sound and mature when the sun gleamed from the swords of Hernando DeSoto’s men as they marched across the South in a fruitless search for gold. It is possible that their limbs were once laden with the weight of a thousand passenger pigeons and that their bark was probed by ivory-billed woodpeckers. Cougars and bears may have sought refuge in their hollows. If humans so choose, it is likely too that a few of these will still be greeting each spring with a fresh feathering of needle-like leaves in centuries to come.
Bayou-Diversity (5 April 2013) This from my field diary 40 years ago: “17 Feb. 1973 –
observed 2 golden eagles and 3 bald eagles on McClemore Plantation [now part of Tensas River NWR] 13 miles south of Tallulah, La. All eagles were mature. 1 golden and 1 bald eagle were feeding on deer carcass hung in fence. Golden and bald eagles flew together in mock aerial battles.” This incident remains a highlight of my birding career. Although bald eagles are much more common today, golden eagles are still a rare sight in Louisiana.
Bayou-Diversity (18 March 2013) As is the case with most predators, gar are usually considered nuisances because they compete with man for other species. For many years fisheries biologists sought ways to exterminate gar including elaborate
shocking devices, traps and nets. They have no doubt been reduced in numbers, especially the larger individuals. What is not clear is the role that gar play in a natural aquatic ecosystem as they sit at the top of the food web. It is likely significant. In addition to controlling populations of other fish, they are known to be intermediate hosts in the larval stages of some freshwater mussels. Mussels are the natural filtration system in our lakes and rivers. No gar > No mussels > No filtered water. We don’t even know what we don’t know about Mother Nature.
Bayou-Diversity (7 March 2013) An early-spring blooming native, goldenclub is an excellent aquatic plant for home water gardens. The plant grows from a rhizome, and the bright yellow flowers are clustered on an odd-shaped spadix. In the 1800s it was called “never wets” because of the water shedding quality of the waxy leaves and was used medicinally to treat burns. Within Louisiana, it is found most commonly in the Florida parishes east of the Mississippi River and in the southwestern marshes.
Bayou-Diversity (2 March 2013) Many people have the idea that orchids are only found in exotic tropical jungles or in the local flower shop. They are surprised to learn that wild orchids grow in Louisiana. In fact at least 40 species grow in various habitats across the state. Some are rare like white-fringed orchid, which has been found only in one parish, and others are very common. The southern twayblade in this photo is most abundant in the northern half of the state and in the Florida parishes. It is blooming now!
Bayou-Diversity (21 February 2013) Mayhaws are blooming!
For those of us who might be considered unrefined epicureans, May is the month of ritual pleasures involving a wild gourmet treat. It is the season to gather mayhaw fruits and make one of the finest jellies to grace a buttermilk biscuit.
Born of southern swamps, mayhaws are small trees technically considered hawthorns in the rose family. They grow in wetlands across the Southeast and are usually found in soils that have a sandy component. Accordingly they are rare in the heavy clay soils near the Mississippi River and common along the Ouachita/Black River system and its tributaries.
The white mayhaw flowers occur in February and March and often present the first splash of spring color to local woodlands. Flowers usually occur before and during the emergence of leaves. Marble-size reddish fruits resemble small apples and ripen in May and June. An old axiom claims, “If mayhaws flower in the water, they will fall in the water.” This refers to the backwater flooding common to most mayhaw habitat. Studies have shown that trees standing in water have a delayed bloom period.
Mayhaws are an important food source for many kinds of wildlife. Deer, raccoons, squirrels, opossums, and several species of birds relish the fruits. Native Americans undoubtedly consumed them for thousands of years, and the first Europeans quickly learned of their value. One pioneer Louisiana diary account reveals that mayhaw gathering could be quite an adventure. Miss Caroline Poole, a schoolteacher in the frontier village of Monroe, writes in her entry of May 7, 1836, “Hunt for May-haws. Rode sixteen miles on horseback. Saw rattlesnake. Crossed bayous where the water was above the saddle skirts, thirty yards wide. Saw black snakes in abundance. Camped in the woods. Coffee. Bacon cooked on a stick. Enjoyed the day but very much fatigued.” A note in The Gazette of Farmerville on May 2, 1894 reads, “Mayhaws are ripening and the teeth of the small boy will soon ware a wire edge, but he will cut the mayhaws all the same.”
Currently, during years of abundant crops, hundreds of thousands of pounds of mayhaws are gathered from Louisiana swamps by individual connoisseurs. A commercial market has also been developed, and it’s now possible to enjoy a fine local mayhaw wine with the exquisite jelly on that buttermilk biscuit. Amen.
Bayou-Diversity (11 February 2013) In all likelihood when the first humans migrated into what is now Louisiana, domesticated dogs were in the vanguard leading the way, alerting the Native Americans to dangers, and helping them obtain food. At one time it was thought that the dogs of southeastern Indians were derived from local red wolves. Modern DNA work has disproved this notion by showing that genetics of prehistoric American dogs more closely resemble Old World canids than those found in the New World. The conclusion then is that people brought their dogs with them when they journeyed from Asia into North America.
Especially in Louisiana one breed exists that may have direct ties to the early dogs. The Catahoula Cur, also known as Catahoula Leopard Dog, is a distinctly American breed named after the Catahoula region of our state. Various theories explain the origins of the breed, one of the most romantic being that Indians bred their dogs with those of Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto when he pillaged his way through the Southeast in the 16th century. The truth is buried in time and regardless of the actual genealogy, the result is a unique creolized canine.
Though highly variable in appearance, the stereotypical Catahoula Cur carries a merle gene that expresses itself in a mottled coat of dark gray, black, and white splashed about in a random manner. The most striking features of some individuals are their white, haunting eyes, often called “cracked glass” or “marbled glass” eyes. Early French settlers wrote of the strange looking dogs with glass eyes that were used by Indians for hunting in the swamps.
Jim Bowie is said to have slept with a Catahoula Cur at his feet. Teddy Roosevelt bear hunted with Catahoula Curs. In 1979 Governor Edwin Edwards legally proclaimed the Catahoula Cur the official state dog of Louisiana. Today Catahoula Curs are used for hunting and herding in addition to being demanding pets, and as Louisiana residents their tenure far exceeds ours.
Bayou-Diversity (1 February 2013) Nature, in order to bedizen a stark winter swamp, plants possumhaw (aka deciduous holly) on bayou banks in 62 of 64 Louisiana parishes. Her fruit (only the females produce the red berries) lingers into late winter when the likes of cedar waxwings, bluebirds, and hermit thrushes, having depleted more desirable fare, finally resort to the bitter but dazzling drupes.
Bayou-Diversity (26 January 2013) Eastern Mole – aggravator or aerator? Aldo Leopold, considered the founding father of wildlife conservation in America, was a forward thinking man with a deep understanding of human dependence on healthy, natural ecosystems. He once remarked, “The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: ‘What good is it?’” The mole has been subject to this unmindful query along with a host of other species that are generally considered “pests” or “vermin” such as snakes and predators in general. For those who ask such questions, answers laden with aesthetic values are at right angles with their reality. They are only satisfied with a practical reason to exist. In this vein the mole serves as nature’s roto-tiller to aerate and form soil, and allow percolation of water to deeper roots. One might hope that, when educated, even the most pragmatic would not question the merit of keeping all the parts that maintain human life in good order.
Bayou-Diversity (16 January 2013)Good examples can be discovered in the most unexpected places. Catch a plane to the Central American country of Costa Rica and land at the capitol of San Jose. Get out of town quick because the traffic can be horrendous even with gas at five dollars a gallon. Take a bus northeastward through the vast and mountainous Braulio Carrillo National Park where crashed airplanes have gone undiscovered for weeks. Continue for fifty miles until the hard-surfaced road forks and becomes a narrow cobbled lane. Bounce over this bone-jarring side road for two hours through corporate banana plantations and steadily increasing heat and humidity until it ends on the bank of a roiling, muddy river. Here the tropical rainforests of a real jungle begin. Hire a rustic boat and motor north through a myriad of canals, rivers and lagoons for 27 more miles while flocks of parrots squawk overhead, and howler monkeys scream from somewhere inside the adjacent walls of chlorophyll. Finally, pull ashore at the small native village of Tortuguero. Located on the edge of a national park with the same name, the hamlet of Tortuguero sits astraddle a narrow spit of land bound on the east by the Caribbean Sea and on the west by the river. The people are dark-skinned and speak with a rich Jamaican patois. They thrive in an aquatic habitat where children are not allowed to swim in the ocean because of the sharks nor in the river because of crocodiles. The beaches of the area are best known for harboring the largest concentration of nesting green sea turtles in the western hemisphere. Walk down the wide sidewalk that serves as the main street of this roadless village until you pass the one-room police station. There in the heart of the settlement one can view a genuine “good example.” Four freshly painted containers under a small kiosk are labeled in Spanish for “paper,” “plastic,” “aluminum,” and “glass.” How is it that recycling can occur in the remotest jungle of a small, relatively poor, third-world country and not along the bayou cities and towns in most of Louisiana?
Bayou-Diversity (3 January 2013) Irruption! One of the joys of bird watching is the ever present chance of seeing something new – an unusual or perhaps rare species that suddenly appears unexpectedly. This is possible of course because many birds are great travelers, often flying thousands of miles in the mysterious wonder of migration. Especially in winter, bird watchers across the country hope for the arrival of avian visitors that don’t normally occur in their areas. When numbers of them do visit periodically, the phenomenon is termed an irruption. In North America the species most often associated with winter irruptions include pine and evening grosbeaks, crossbills, purple finches, pine siskins, and even snowy owls. Some of these birds usually spend their winters no farther south than southern Canada or the northern U.S. In the bayou state we are experiencing one such irruption right now. Red-breasted Nuthatches have abandoned their normal haunts in northern coniferous forests and are showing up throughout Deep South states this winter. Please be advised that they are not here for the sun and sand, and their arrival is not a portent for harsh winter ahead. The cyclic occurrences are driven by a scarcity of food on the normal wintering grounds. Red-breasted nuthatches are in Louisiana this year because of a cone crop failure in northern pines, spruces, firs, and larches. The small, short-tailed birds are dependent on seeds in the cones. Happy bird watchers are reporting seeing them all over the state, some at bird feeders stocked with sunflower seeds. As it may be years before they return, watch for these feathered Yankees while they’re here.
Bayou-Diversity (10 December 2012) A special wisdom will vanish with this man and his sort. Knowledge of wild things and their ways accumulated in the laminae of his bones, like tree rings, over a lifetime of seasons, backwaters, spawnings…, and dark moons. His insights are not to be found in the great libraries for they are wordless, and as antipodal examples hampered with the blinders of “education,” we cannot see the fish for the shimmering water. It is also likely that few of his kind will come our way again.
Bayou-Diversity (22 November 2012) SENSES OF THANKSGIVING:
Thank you, O Lord, in this bountiful season for the five senses to relish your world.
Thank you for the succulent smells of the fruits of the earth in the kitchens of our mothers and wives. Thank you for the odor of rich delta dirt on a warm, foggy winter morning. Thank you for the smell of wood smoke, especially that tinted with lightered pine. Thank you for the stew of odors distinct to our rivers and bayous— cypress needles, primal water, mud and decay, life and life to be.
Thank you for the sound of voices of those who came before us and those who will carry our legacies into the future— our parents, grandparents and our children. Thanks for the muffled wings of waterfowl above an overflow swamp and the belligerent snort of a doe at dusk. Thank you for haunting sounds of great horned owls and distant thunder.
Thank you for the taste of spring mayhaws and autumn muscadines in the jellies of a late November Thursday. Thank you for the abundance of other native flavors, subtle and brash— breast of teal, pecans, filet of bass. Thank you for the taste of contentment.
Thank you for the feel of a driving north wind as an Arctic front races for the gulf. Thanks for the textures of sweet gum balls, feathers, gumbo clay, and beech bark. Thank you for the heat of an open fire and the warmth of an open heart.
Thank you for the sight of falling leaves, fattening squirrels, and rising waters that foretell the change of seasons. As the sun approaches the solstice, thank you for lengthy shadows and longer sunsets. Thanks also for fleeting glimpses— of a bobcat at dawn, of a shooting star on a rawboned night, of curiosity on the face of a young grandson.
I pray also, O Lord, for a sixth sense. Grant us common sense to be good stewards of these treasures. Amen.
[Link to audio version:
Bayou-Diversity (18 November 2012) When you hear the wild cry of migrating geese in Louisiana, always look for them. It is your chance to gaze upon an enigma from deep time. Born of Arctic winds and reindeer moss, they drift for 3,000 miles with the tide of eons etched on their DNA that you might glimpse a mystery high above an autumn bayou.
Bayou-Diversity (12 November 2012) In order to save such things, well-meaning economists have tried to place monetary values on wild creatures and natural places. The worth of a bass dinner is calculable, but how does one assess a fresh coat of paint on the soul?
Bayou-Diversity (27 May 2012) Disquieting though it may be for the cloistered wood duck inside the nest box, old man barred owl is intent this morning on a crawfish breakfast from the pond below. He rolls up his britches’ legs to dive-bomb them in the shallows. Being a wise old bird, he prefers only the tails and litters his aerial perches with claws and carapaces like a Saturday night Cajun.
Bayou-Diversity (23 May 2012) Go Native! Stokes’ Aster is a native, perennial sunflower that grows wild in wet pine flatwoods, savannas, and bogs. It loves our acid soils and has evergreen leaves. Pull up a zinnia in your flower bed and plant a Stokes’ Aster.
Bayou-Diversity (17 May 2012) It is that time of the year on the creekbank of a free-flowing stream within the Mollicy Wetlands Restoration Project. As large as your
grandmother’s old enameled wash pan, this spiny softshell lays her ping-pong ball sized eggs on a sandbar once buried in muck because levees stymied the natural flow. Rusted gears of the emancipated ecosystem are beginning to turn once again.
Bayou-Diversity (20 April 2012) This, my favorite tree, is of ancient lineage in the botanical world. Her candelabra arms are seductive in their winter bareness, and oh those voluptuous summertime leaves! They fetch the passion of the tropics to a red clay hill and snare photons on a scale that obliges the buckeyes beneath to wilt with envy. Dressed for a day in the swamp, I don’t dare touch her nectarless flowers. She is from an epoch before proboscised bees and butterflies; her deportment permits pollination only by beetles in black dinner jackets.
Bayou-Diversity (22 March 2012) In 1971 I found a morel in Lincoln Parish that was said by my botany professor at the time to be the first scientific documentation of the mushroom in Louisiana. Today in Union Parish I found 3 more freshly erupted after yesterday’s deluge. They grow here only under upland hardwoods – a scarce commodity in the land of rowed up pine trees. For more than a moment I contemplated these gourmet treats sautéed in butter, but finally skulked away in hopes of a bumper crop next year.
Bayou-Diversity (2 March 2012) Honeysuckle it is not, so DON’T sip the nectar of yellow jasmine as you would the unrelated native coral honeysuckle or invasive Japanese honeysuckle. Yellow jasmine is laden with strychnine-kin alkaloids not conducive to sweet experiences.
Bayou-Diversity (23 February 2012) This damselfly, a fragile forktail, and her mate were photographed in north Louisiana on February 6, the earliest record in the year for this species in the state. Another anecdote in the climate change ledger…
Bayou-Diversity (6 February 2012) Rich in mythology, more than 40 species of crows around the world are considered among the smartest of birds. They are confirmed tool users and also have the ability to recognize individual humans. When addressed this hooded crow in Istanbul declared with a croak that he did not know me.
Bayou-Diversity(17 January 2012) They’re up! The first wildflowers of 2012, white violets display their goods as enticement for sunny day insects interested in an early sip of nectar in return for a bit of inadvertent pollination.
Bayou-Diversity(9 January 2012) Highly refractive crystals behind the retinas of
this gray fox result in eyeshine captured by a trail camera monitoring our compost pile. Her pupils appear to glow yellow as do those of visiting raccoons and stray cats. The scavenging possum, though, glares out of red eyes behind his devilish grin. With the aid of these specialized organs (called tapetum lucidum) many animals can see us much better than we can see them in the dark of the night – a fact that encouraged our ancestors to seek the light of a campfire as the sun set.
Bayou-Diversity (1 January 2012)This 3/4″ white oak acorn has the potential to develop into a living organism that will exceed 100 feet in height, 100,000 lbs. in weight, and 400 years in lifespan. Until just a few years ago white oak was a keystone species in the canopy of Louisiana hill country forests. As a nurturer of wildlife, it has few equals. Today it no longer grows on hundreds of thousands of acres, being replaced by genetically modified pine trees planted in rows and harvested in about 20 years. For a 2012 New Year resolution, perhaps we should strive to appreciate the value of life around us in species other than our own – and in units other than $$$ derived from the likes of pulpwood cords.
Bayou-Diversity (19 December 2011) The lower third of the Mississippi River
experienced the historical record flood this past spring. Spring floods often build on waters in the basin from the preceding winter. Today the Mississippi River at Vicksburg is 25 feet higher than it was a year ago. Just saying…
Bayou-Diversity (12 December 2011) Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, just so long as the beholder is another brown pelican. Officially designated Louisiana’s state bird in 1966, the species in a splash of irony vanished from within our borders that
year due to pesticide poisoning. Since recovered from that calamity, brown pelicans now keep a watchful eye out for signs of actual progress toward coastal restoration.
Bayou-Diversity (28 November 2011) Gray fox can climb trees to escape predators, search for bird nests, and in this case to snack on juniper berries. Earthbound red fox is perhaps more cunning but lacking the ability to climb trees must look up to his arboreal cousin.
Bayou-Diversity (11 April 2011) Louisiana marsh scene – NOT. This is Dalyan Delta on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey with phragmites, needlerush, bitterns, egrets and herons just the same. We call the streams that braid our vital wetlands bayous; there the term is “batakliki kol,” arms of the swamp.
Bayou-Diversity (13 March 2011) Past week’s developments as the angle between our hemisphere and the sun lessens: first damselfly (fragile forktail), first dragonfly (common baskettail), first carpenter bees, first fireflies, first anoles; flowers of pawpaw, sassafras, buckeye, and redbud; fronds of sensitive and cinnamon ferns – phenology all.
Bayou-Diversity (28 February 2011) Gone to garlic. A tenant shack on a former Red River plantation returns to earth. Two miles below the sagging joists the sweet odor of 150-million year old sea life enriches descendants of former landlords. For progeny of the sharecroppers, natural gas in the Haynesville shale formation is as pungent as the herb.
Bayou-Diversity (13 December 2010) Sunlight + Seasons = Autumn’s Water Oak Acorn > Spring’s Wind-thrown Oak > Summer’s Firewood > Winter’s Refuge
Bayou-Diversity (6 December 2010) Frozen Fright – Bayou grackles bedizened in sunlight enspirit a sandbar during daily ablutions. This vulnerable occasion requires vigilance. Was that the shadow of the small lightning hawk?
Bayou-Diversity (29 November 2010) On these dark nights they swim unnoticed down our bayous and rivers bound for a procreative rendezvous thousands of miles away in the Sargasso Sea. Only those American eels several years old and sexually mature feel the tug of the cosmos in every cell. For them it is now a one-way trip to their natal, spawning, and burial grounds. For us it is an enigma too profound to explain with science.