from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
June 30, 2002
This week several bird families around my trailer have been experiencing the "teenager" phase of life. Sometimes it's been funny, sometimes it's been hard to watch.
A family of White-eyed Vireos in the blackberry field was the Ozzie & Harriet of the neighborhood. The neat-looking little parent quietly flitted from stem to stem gathering bugs among the berries while three well-mannered fledglings orbited about gawking and, when the parent found something, quivering their wings to look pitiful so they might be fed.
The Pileated Woodpecker family was more like real life. Flying into the top of the big Pecan tree, it looked like a single mom with a clumsy, big-boned brat in tow. The young bird's body language spoke an ongoing monologue:
"There she goes again, all she can think about is banging her head against trees, boring, boring, boring, how disgusting... but, LOOK, what a big grub! Gimme gimme gimme GULP! Wellllll... I deserved that. So there she goes again, another tree, another banging, just can't enjoy life, same old thing, well, guess I have to tag along, what a drag!"
I witnessed a heart-wrenching crises among the family of Cardinals whose territory centers around my trailer. There were 3 almost-grown kids, two females and a male, and one late afternoon the father apparently decided that the male kid had to go. The father attacked the young male and the kid was obviously shattered. When adult males fight over territories they position themselves on opposite sides of the imaginary territorial line, they glare at one another and skirmish until one flies off.
But here the young male was inside his family's territory and he didn't know where to go. When the father chased him, he flew in circles or figure 8s round and round inside the only home area he had every known. Finally in exhaustion he landed on a Hophornbeam's lower branch, but the father went right at him, nabbed the top of his head in his beak and rode the kid to the ground where they both flapped and the kid screamed. Even with my human ears I could hear in the young bird's call a profound sense of feeling betrayed. It was much more than a "Stop, you're hurting me!" tone, there was a clear "I thought I was your son!" sound, and it was heartbreaking to hear.
As dusk closed in and the two young females huddled wide-eyed in shadows watching the conflict escalate to another confrontation at last the young bird stopped flying in circles and figure 8s, suddenly rose higher into the air and in a straight line flew across the blackberry field into unknown territory, not to return.
IGNORANCE BEGATS VIOLENCE
In the shadows beneath Black Willows at the edge of a pond dug for the deer deep in the forest I came upon a poisonous Western Cottonmouth, or Water Moccasin snake, AGKISTRODON PISCIVORUS LEUCOSTOMA. Its lay with its head resting atop a coil of its own thick, black body. You can see a picture showing exactly what I saw at www.kingsnake.com/venom/leucostoma1.jpg
Usually I wouldn't have paid much attention but I could see that this particular snake was extremely dangerous. That's because he was about to molt. When a snake's molting time draws near, its outer skin starts separating from its new, inner one. The skin over the eyes also is molted, and there's a brief period when air gets between the old eye covering and the new one, causing the space to turn white. You can see the molted skin of a Racer, found near my trailer and exhibiting old eye-skin at www.backyardnature.net/snakes.htm#racer
My cottonmouth's eyes were completely white because of this problem. He was practically blind.
The snake tensed, turning his head all around, but obviously he was unable to see where I was. Then suddenly like a spring being released, his coiled body shot into the air and there was a flash of whiteness as he stabbed where he thought I might be. Again and again he sprang, the white discharge of his open mouth for half a second vivid in the gloomy light.
I moved away thinking the snake might be overdoing it a bit. I'd never seen a serpent attack with such ferocity. But then I'd never seen a snake whose lenses were so completely opaque just before shedding. Maybe it's a law of nature that the less information you have, the more vulnerable you are, and therefore the more aggressive and violent you must be to stay alive. It's almost as if the snake were telling us that if we wish to reduce violence in our human society, we would do best to invest our monies in schools.
AN INTERESTING WASP NEST
Tuesday morning I was cutting giant bamboo to build something with when inside the bamboo stem, which was about 3 inches (8 cm) across, I found the nest of a paper wasp. A hole in the stem must have allowed the wasp mother entry. This nest was noteworthy because most of the nest's cells were open. Inside those cells you could see the heads of developing wasp larvae, and in a few cells there were eggs. Here was a beautiful demonstration of wasp metamorphosis.
Naturally I scanned the nest and you can see it, with the larvae heads, eggs and a few capped cells at www.backyardnature.net/metamorf.htm#n
My log files show that of all the more than 1,100 pages I maintain on the Web the most frequently visited page is the "snake page" of my nature-study site. Therefore this week I spruced up that page. One thing added was a list of the 34 species of snake possibly found in the Natchez area. I wanted to show students how listing our local species helps us "get a handle" on the snake world around us. The list contains some species I never dreamed would be found here -- the Rainbow Snake and the Glossy Crayfish Water Snake, for instance. You can view the list at www.backyardnature.net/snaklist.htm
I LEARN ABOUT BARKLICE
At last we've received some much needed rain here, about two inches (5 cm). Thursday a bit before dusk a storm had just passed and because I don't work at the computer when it's lightening I was lying on my platform at the trailer's rear, staring up through the louvered glass windows, listening to the radio. In the dim light a smudge of about 25 closely packed, ant-size insects moved onto the top window just inches from my face. Their bodies were too thick to be ants and they moved very unlike aphids, so I knew I had something interesting.
They formed a short, snaking line about 3 individuals abreast, and gave the almost comical impression of timidly stumbling over one another as they moved across the glass's surface like neurotically gregarious cows. Whenever an individual found itself leading the line it quickly turned around and entered the line further back. Sometimes the whole line jogged to the right or left en masse.
A quick glance at my insect fieldguide confirmed that these were Common Barklice, of the Common Barklice Family, the PSOCIDAE. I couldn't determine their genus and species. There are some 40 genera and nearly 150 species of "psocids" in the US so you can imagine the challenge in naming such small creatures.
Barklice aren't at all like lice parasitizing animals. Animal lice have sucking mouthparts while barklice chew, and belong to a completely different ORDER. Barklice eat fungi, lichens, algae, plant debris, and other organic matter, so they are about an innocuous as can be. The name "barklice" does these harmless, funny little critters an injustice. Anyway, the northern side of my trailer where sunlight never hits and gradually algae is casting everything in a lovely green hue, is a perfect place for them.
For me it's a big deal that barklice along with booklice have their own insect order. On my Web page at www.backyardnature.net/insects.htm#o you can see that the entire insect world comprising some 900,000 known species is divided into only about 27 orders. Moreover, only ten or so of these 27 orders are represented among insects we see every day. There's the beetle order, the order for butterflies and moths, another for dragonflies, etc. But these barklice have a whole order to themselves...
Elsewhere I've said that each new species I meet is like hearing a new melody introduced into a long-playing song. With Monday's booklice I was hearing not only a new melody, but a new melody in a never-heard-before key.
You can see a picture of a "herd" of barklice at http://troyb.com/photo/images/photos/00003033.jpg
BARKLICE AND WORLDCOM
In the growing dimness I lay watching my little herd of barklice while listening to All Things Considered on National Public Radio. As they spoke of the financial collapse and corporate corruption of WorldCom (based near Jackson northeast of here) the barklice grazed modestly on my back window's field of algae and fungus.
One way of thinking about life in general, maybe the most fundamental way of all, is to note the level each living thing occupies on life's Energy Pyramid.
Algae on my window collect sunlight energy, storing it in multitudes of tiny algal bodies. My barklice eat the algae, thus transferring that stored sunlight energy into their own bodies. Maybe a spiderlike harvestman (Daddy-long-legs) will eat the barklice, then possibly a Green Anole living on my trailer's skin will eat the harvestman. Maybe the little Sharp-shinned Hawk who occasionally swoops through camp will eat the Green Anole. No one will eat the hawk, so the sunlight energy first collected by my window algae may end up fueling the hawk as it streaks through the woods at the peak of its own energy pyramid. It's a pyramid because untold numbers of algal bodies at the bottom must gather energy to fuel just one hawk at the top.
Most species occupy a fairly fixed position on the Energy Pyramid of Life. Humans, because we can think and have more flexibility in choosing what we eat, can choose our position on the Pyramid. A person who eats other animals is near the pyramid's top; I as a vegetarian am near the pyramid's bottom. On this pyramid I do not mind being closer to barklice than to hawks.
One reason is because every time energy transfers from one level of the pyramid to the next, a lot of energy is lost. On my Web page at www.backyardnature.net/ecoenrgy.htm I write, "In Eugene Odem's classic textbook 'Fundamentals of Ecology' it's stated that during the course of a year 20,000,000 alfalfa plants weighing 17,850 pounds are needed to fuel 4.5 cows weighing 2,250 pounds, which will satisfy the energy needs of a single 105-pound boy." Thus, because it is my nature to be sparing, I am comfortable at the pyramid's base.
A second reason for being happy at the bottom of the pyramid is this: When a thinking human consciously chooses the barklouse path instead of the hawk's (not only in diet, but general energy-consumption in daily life), it seems that a magical thing happens. Somehow it appears that the energy conserved through making this conscious decision gets rechanneled into energy enabling greater liberty of thought, feeling, and spiritual awareness. I'm not sure how this works. I just see it happening. This observation seems to coincide with the teachings of the World's great religions.
"The meek shall inherit the Earth" is perhaps another way of saying this. Yoga perhaps puts the concept to practice.
The officers of WorldCom have found that by scrambling toward the top of their world's money-pyramid (in Capitalism, money is analogous to energy in real life) without respecting their environment's basic ecological principles (honesty, established procedures), today they find themselves in a mess, and a lot of people have been hurt. In contrast, in my little trailer not far from WorldCom's corporate headquarters, it seems that by anchoring my body close to the bottom of the Earth's energy pyramid not far from barklice, in an environment where my mind and spirit are given free reign, I enjoy a healthy, sustainable contentment and enthusiasm about life's potentials.
It's like having a good view from a pyramid's top.