from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
May 5, 2002
A WEEK FOR PROCREATION
Weeks ago I told you of the Carolina Wrens building nests in my outside kitchen. Finally they built in my toilet, produced a brood there, and as I type this I hear all kinds of squeaking and peeping from at least FIVE Carolina Wrens. Three fledglings who can fly very well but still squeak and have huge yellow mouths have a special fondness for the biking helmet used when I go into town for supplies. Well, despite some animals having begun their families so early, this week many other animals' amorousness has been hard to miss.
One morning a couple of White-footed Mice engaged in a prolonged chase around my feet as I sat at the morning campfire. One afternoon I noticed a fuss in a Sweetgum and got to see two Northern Parula warblers enthusiastically going at it. The female lost her grip and fell to the ground with the male hanging on. They fluttered in the grass for a good three seconds before disengaging and getting back into the trees like decent birds.
High in a Pecan tree a female Yellow-billed Cuckoo was flicking her long tail in a strange manner. She'd cock the tail way skyward then flip it down again, then repeat the motion, each time the tail going higher. Suddenly a male came out of nowhere, landed atop her, grabbed some feathers atop her head with his beak, and went through an exercise looking like a complete botch of a mating. He didn't seem to know what to do. Finally he just flew off and the female looked after him in a way that can only be described as "complete disgust," then turned to the side and scratched her head. Now I understood that her tail flicking had been a sign to the male that she was ready to mate. She had cocked her tail exactly as she does when she's actually mating, to allow access. I can't imagine a more suggestive come-on for a female Yellow-billed Cuckoo.
You almost have to pity the male cuckoo. Not only are there no traditions among adolescent Yellow-billed Cuckoos during which they can get together and pool their knowledge about this sex matter, but the plain fact is that they don't even have penises. Therefore, cuckoos, like most birds, can't copulate in the manner humans understand it. When a male of most bird species mounts a female all he can do is to press his cloaca (anal opening) against that of the female. In delicate company this action is termed a "cloacal kiss." It does get the job done, however, and sperm are transferred, as all the birds outside my door testify. Some swifts do it while flying!
Oddly, a few male birds do have penis-like appendages -- most familiarly, certain ducks, geese, ostriches, and swans. There's an article about this matter at http://exn.ca/Stories/1997/02/19/06.asp
More than one of my scientist friends might sniff at my using words like "amorousness" and "complete disgust" when speaking of a bird, for they say that this is projecting human emotions onto animals.
In a sense, they are right. However, I feel that our culture errs too far in the opposite direction by insisting that animals and humans are completely different things. Humans, I say, are just animals specialized in thinking, as fish are animals specialized in swimming. Our culture so underrates the feelings of other animals that I feel obliged to assert whenever I can that while other animal species certainly do experience the world differently than we do, they "feel" nonetheless, and theirfeelings demand respect.
When I was a boy on the Kentucky farm I witnessed the attachment that hens had for their chicks, and I learned that each hen had a distinct personality. I am convinced that I have seen real emotional attachment between a bull and his favorite cow and I have known jealous goats and self-centered pigs. Anyone who has been close to dogs and cats knows that they possess an enormous range of feelings. I have spent some days following a troupe of Howler Monkeys in the Lacandón Jungle of Chiapas, southern Mexico, and among those fellow primates I saw expressed all the basic emotions I have known among humans.
So on Thursday I noticed that a paper wasp had begun a nest below a bookshelf in my trailer, coming and going through a crack in my ill-fitting screen door. While the mother wasp was out foraging I removed the half-formed nest. She returned and for two days afterwards she sought her nest in the spot it had been. Moreover, earlier, during the time when she had been building her nest, she always entered and exited the crack in my door energetically -- one would say with a sense of purpose. By the end of her second day of seeking the lost nest she would pass through the crack lethargically, hesitatingly. All her purpose seemed gone.
Of course this can be explained in terms of her innate behavior being like a chain that has had a link removed. Each link in the chain is an occasion of cause-and-effect or stimulus-and-response, and now I had removed one of those links. But, I ask you if most human behavior is really much more than that?
J. Henri Fabre's classic studies demonstrated that if you cut the antennae off a certain bug, a wasp programmed to pull that bug into its nest by its antennae will not have sense enough to grab hold of a leg or a mouthpart instead. It is programmed to pull on the bug's antennae, and that's that. So surely you cannot ascribe much thinking power to a wasp. However, still, seeing how sad the wasp was made me sad, too, and I do not feel squeamish about saying the wasp looked sad.
On Saturday morning during breakfast when the male Cardinal brought a large, green caterpillar to the female nesting in the top of the young Loblolly Pine about five feet from my trailer, and I heard the endearing peeps the two birds made to one another, and saw the male simply give the caterpillar to the hungry female and then fly away, my resolve to think like this was strengthened.
Sometimes I am sitting here at my computer, glance out the screen door, and my breath is simply taken. Tuesday afternoon as the temperature approached 90 (32°C) and the sun beat down the way it does in Mississippi, I gasped twice.
The first time was when I looked exactly where last week the Snout Butterflies supped on my foot-sweat, and there basked a foot-long (32cm) Broad-headed Skink, EUMECES LATICEPS. This lizard-like creature had an olive-colored body but its head was bright orange-red and monstrously equipped with swollen jowls giving its head an arrowhead shape. Smaller, more normal looking Five-lined Skinks, EUMECES FASCIATUS, getting to only about 8 inches (20cm) ramble around my outside kitchen all the time but this is the first Broad-headed I've seen here. My fieldguide says that this skink has been seen shaking the nests of paper wasps to dislodge pupae, which it eats! Broad-headeds are typically found high in the trees so I was particularly honored for him to grace my foot-sweat spot. You can see a Broad-headed Skink, one whose jowls aren't nearly as swollen and bright as mine, at www.nsm.iup.edu/pha/photos/lizards/broadheaded.html
Not an hour later I looked outside and on a piece of plywood leaning against my elevated fireplace there perched my second breath-taker. This time it was a 3-inch-across (8 cm), mostly black-iridescent butterfly with its wings fringed with the most intricately figured cream-yellow fringe, bordered inwardly by brilliant blue spots. It was the Mourning Cloak, NYMPHALIS ANTIOPA, and at a glance one understands the English name. The wings' somber black color fringed with bright golden filigree instantly puts one in the mind of the traditional perhaps Spanish widow dressed in mourning black, but with just a touch of elegance fringing the cloak indicating that life goes on.
The Mourning Cloak's caterpillars feed on Sugarberry trees and we have plenty of those. The beautiful colors I've described apply only to the inside wing faces, for when the butterfly closes its wings the undersides are camouflage-patterned. As my fieldguide says, "Few butterflies show such a great contrast between the drab underside the colorful upperside." You can see both sides at www.rlephoto.com/butterflies/mourning_cloak01.html
A Broad-headed Skink and a Mourning Cloak in a course of an hour! Tuesday was a day I'll remember a while.
MILDEWS & RUSTS
Though we've received less-than-normal rain this spring, the heat and humidity have been appropriate for this part of Mississippi. It's been good fungus weather. Next to the gardens there's a large area occupied by violet-flowered oxalis plants. Usually these oxalises put on a real show but right now every plant is withering and its clover-like leaves are covered with orange stuff looking like rust. This is a rust fungus, PUCCINIA OXALIDIS.
In the forest, some of our Flowering Dogwood trees' new leaves are pale, puckery looking, and covered with white powder. This is another disease, Dogwood Powdery Mildew, either MICROSPHAERA or PHYLLACTINIA.
I have scanned both of these interesting fungi and you can see them at the bottom of the fungus page at my nature site at www.backyardnature.net/fungi.htm
Newsletter subscribers in Mississippi may be interested in the Mississippi State
University Extension Service "Lawn & Garden" page, which is a good place to
go if you have a sick plant. We're fortunate to have a source of information that takes
into account our special problems with heat and humidity. It's at
A BIG-FANGED CENTIPEDE
Saturday I found a drowned Scolopendromorpha centipede, SCOLOPENDRA VIRIDIS, in one of my water buckets and I managed to get a wonderful scanning of it. If you're interested in seeing the fangs on this three-inch (8 cm) critter, go to www.backyardnature.net/1000legs.htm
Last week I mentioned how Snout Butterflies loved the salt from my sweaty left foot. This week I was reading about salt itself, NaCl, in our bodies and an interesting point was made by the author Kenneth Hutton. He says that just a tad more than half of a percent of our bodily fluids is salt. In contrast, ocean water is much saltier, about 3 percent salt. However, some 400 million years ago when our amphibian ancestors were moving onto land, far less salt had washed into the seas than now has, so then seawater probably had about... half a percent salt. Hutton suggests that the level of salt in our bodies today is a relict circumstance surviving from those days when our very distant ancestors were just becoming terrestrial, moving onto land with bodies perfectly tuned to the salinity of the ocean at that time.
THIS WEEK'S MIGRATING BIRDS
Here are the migratory species I identified on Friday, April 26:
WINTER RESIDENTS PREPARING TO LEAVE
58 Cedar Waxwing
SUMMER RESIDENTS JUST ARRIVED
2 Mississippi Kite
12 Yellow-billed Cuckoo
9 Chimney Swift
8 Great Crested Flycatcher
18 Acadian Flycatcher
5 Eastern Wood Pewee
1 Purple Martin
7 Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
2 Wood Thrush
1 Brown Thrasher
27 Red-eyed Vireo
15 White-eyed Vireo
4 Yellow-throated Vireo
1 Black-and-white Warbler
9 Northern Parula
14 Hooded Warbler
3 Kentucky Warbler
1 Prothonotary Warbler
1 Yellow-throated Warbler
4 Yellow-breasted Chat
6 American Redstart
2 Orchard Oriole
8 Summer Tanager
8 Indigo Bunting
1 Gray-cheeked Thresh
3 Tennessee Warbler
PERMANANT RESIDENTS WHO MIGRATE
1 Black Vulture
1 Turkey Vulture
1 Red-shouldered Hawk
5 Brown-headed Cowbird
One highlight of this count is the 58 Cedar Waxwings, which seem to be forming a big flock in preparation for their journey north. All 58 birds were in a single flock irresistibly drawn to the White Mulberry tree. I got a few of those delicious fruits right as they were beginning to mature about 3 weeks ago, but then the waxwings discovered them and I haven't enjoyed a single white mulberry since. However, Red Mulberries are now producing ripe fruits, so I get some of those, as other critters also do. One pile of red-stained raccoon poop consisted of little more than undigested Red Mulberry seeds. White Mulberries are introduced trees that have escaped into the wild, but Red Mulberries are native trees. White mulberries taste better, but red mulberries are bigger and juicier.
Another highlight in the list is the Gray-cheeked Thrush, which winters in the West Indies, Central and South America, and now is on its way to Alaska and northern Canada. This is a denizen of high mountains and cool coniferous forests, living in alder and willow thickets. It's a cold-loving bird who must find these hot, jungly woods very exotic. Gray-cheeked Thrushes are plain-looking birds, hard to distinguish from some other thrushes, but their song is beautiful and flutey.