from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
March 9, 2003
BROWN THRASHERS SINGING
In last year's October 13 Newsletter I described a "wave" of Brown Thrashers passing through migrating southward. I remarked how secretive they were, hiding themselves in bushes and issuing melancholy smacking sounds. All winter some have hung around, always skulking and staying quiet, sometimes showing a yellow eye glaring at me from deep in the shadows. There's a beautiful picture of this handsome bird at http://info.hartwick.edu/pinelake/pics/birds/brown_thrasher.jpg
One day last week and several days this week, the Brown Thrashers have begun singing. It's not half- hearted stuff, either. They fly into the tops of the taller trees and call louder than anyone else, except the hawks and owls. Whole mornings they sing.
I have been thinking what it must be like being a Brown Thrasher at this time of year. Naturally these behavioral changes are brought about by alterations in their hormone levels. Yet, surely, for birds as well as with us, hormones express themselves through the agency of moods.
So, what must have been that mood like that all winter kept the Brown Thrasher silent and withdrawn? What conflict of urges have these poor birds endured these recent days as their minds lay locked in gloomy hush while their hearts irrepressibly began swelling with the need to fly high and sing? What must it be like now there in the top of the big Water Oaks singing with nothing but the sky above and the broad Earth spread out below, when just a day or two ago it was enough to lurk inside dismal Blackberry thickets?
On another matter, I'll bet that much Brown Thrasher singing nowadays is being misidentified as Mockingbird singing. Sometimes it's hard for me to tell the two birds' songs apart, too. In fact, Brown Thrashers, Mockingbirds and Catbirds are all common in our area and though their plumages are very different from one another, all three species have similar songs, all are of similar size and shape, and all are members of the family Mimidae. Here is one trick I use to distinguish their calls:
Mockingbirds usually repeat their phrases three or more times before changing to a different one in their ongoing serenades. Brown Thrashers usually repeat their phrases twice. Catbirds just emit a strung- together series of calls with no repetition. Often you hear exceptions to these rules. In fact, one Brown Thrasher near my trailer repeats his call three times so frequently that a couple of times I've gone out with my binoculars to make sure a Mockingbird hadn't taken his place!
ROTIFERS IN THE BIRDBATH
Returning from a walk checking on how the Cyclopoid Cyclopses and such are doing in the various ponds, I noticed the 2-inch high tray from an old refrigerator I keep near the trailer, for birds to bathe in and for the general use of wandering critters. The tray has been there about a couple of years and gradually some green algae has grown on its white metal sides. Therefore, I asked myself, might not there be some tiny animals in there as well?
Onto my belly I went and out came my precious ten- power handlens brought from Germany. Instantly it was clear that the water's surface was thick with yet another species of Globular Springtail, this one prettily striped. And the water's surface beneath the springtails was busy with fast-moving, nearly transparent little animals shaped a little like a short, blunt hypodermic syringe, moving with the flat end forward. They were rotifers, and you can see a full-screen enlargement of one at www.mcb.harvard.edu/meselson/Proseola.jpg
These creatures, just barely visible when sunlight shined on them, swam very fast, sometimes briefly in straight lines, more often suddenly bending their bodies into circles and "chasing their tails." Sometimes they anchored their pointed ends, or "feet," to either the water's surface or else an underwater leaf, then they'd sway back and forth like a wildflower in the wind.
The above-mentioned image shows a blur at the animal's blunt, or front, end. This blur is caused by the rapid rotating movement of tiny hairs, or cilia. The hairs paddle the water so that water streams into the animal's "mouth," plus the animal itself is pulled through the water. Water streaming into the animal's mouth carries algae and animals even smaller than itself. The rotifers, in turn, are eaten by animals larger than themselves, such as worms and crustaceans.
How did these rotifers get into my tray? I wondered whether the Pickerel Frog that each summer visits my domain might have carried them from a nearby pond, or maybe a bird had had a rotifer from a pond sticking to its beak when it came to drink. When I researched the matter with Google I saw that such fancy happenstances weren't really required for rotifers to be found just about anyplace.
When a rotifer's habitat dries up, the rotifer forms a kind of cyst that can be blown by the wind. Thus you might find a thriving rotifer population in your suburban birdbath and house gutter. They're blown about with such ease that a lake in Africa will have the same rotifer species as a similar lake in our area. Reproduction in this genus also helps the species get around because it's so simple: only females are know to exist. Females bear female babies without needing males around.
I spent a good hour with my nose in that refrigerator tray. I got up shaking my head, amazed at this Earth's earnest fecundity.
COCKROACH EGG CASE
I had thought that the Green Anoles who so frequently invade my trailer through the crack in the ill-fitting door were keeping my little home free of spiders and cockroaches. But this week beneath my sleeping platform I found a handsome little black item half an inch long (13 mm) shaped a bit like a woman's purse. It was the egg case of the American Cockroach. Of course I scanned it and you can see it at www.backyardnature.net/pix/cockeggc.jpg
The case was made of hard, thin, shiny, plastic-like material, and I had to marvel at the workmanship of the neat saw-toothed crown, which is visible in the scanning. Google advises that each egg case contains 16 eggs. When the eggs hatch, the young peep from the saw-toothed suture, first just one or two but latter the whole gang, then the young depart into the world leaving the case to fall apart.
There's a page to help with cockroach identification, and showing that each cockroach species produces an egg case of a different shape, at http://pested.unl.edu/appenxd.htm#broach
THE NATCHEZ INDIANS AIN'T ALL DEAD
This Wednesday I got an email with this message: "We ain't all dead... "
The letter was from K.T. (Hutke) Fields, Principal Peace Chief of the Natchez Nation, sent from Oklahoma. Chief Fields had seen my Web page about the Natchez Indians at www.earthfoot.org/loess/ind_natz.htm. On that page I describe how the Natchez Indians were killed, died of diseases, escaped the French massacre of 1729 to go live with other tribes, and were sold into slavery, but I had said nothing about the Natchez today. I had read that the last Natchez-language speaker had died in Oklahoma many years ago, so I had assumed that by now all vestiges of the Natchez culture had been obliterated, and that no intact communities of Natchez Indians survived.
But Chief Fields tells me that the Natchez are alive and well, making a comeback, and have big plans for the future. He writes that the main Natchez settlements are in the southern half of the Muskogee Reservation and the west central part of the Cherokee Reservation in Oklahoma, especially near Braggs, Sourjohn Mountain, Natcheztown, and Hulbert. He continues:
"Natchez families are also to be found among the balance of the Five Civilized Tribes including the Seminole and Chickasaw. Smaller Natchez communities and settlements may be found in and throughout the southeast and as far north as North Carolina. There is a recognizable Natchez Community in Georgia."
I plan to see the Chief when he comes to a powwow at the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians in Natchez on the weekend of March 29 and 30. You may be interested in the Homepage of the Natchez Nation at www.natcheznation.gq.nu
MAIL LISTS FOR BIRDERS IN OTHER STATES
After mentioning the Mississippi Birding List-Serve last week, Stephanie McGuirk in Nashville wrote asking if I knew of a similar list for Tennessee. In searching for such a list I gathered information that birders in other states might find useful.
At the Virtual Birder Web Site at www.virtualbirder.com/bmail/uss.html there's a list of birding list-servers. The page at that particular address only lists list-servers in the US Southeast. For lists in other regions and Canada, click on the appropriate link in the menu at the left. In the Southeast, only list-servers for Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, the Carolinas and Georgia are given.
BUTTERFLIES OF MISSISSIPPI
The "Butterflies of North America" web site at www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/distr/lepid/BFLYUSA/bflyusa.htm is turning into a wonderful resource. Their "Butterflies of Mississippi" page is found at www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/distr/lepid/BFLYUSA/ms/toc.htm. Those of you in other states have your own pages, which are linked to from the front page.
On the Mississippi page, butterflies known to occur here are listed according to their family, and for Mississippi these six families are included:
Just click on a butterfly name and you'll be sent to the species page where photographs and information is provided. Sometimes larvae and pupae are also illustrated. At the bottom of the species page, there's a map showing the counties in which that species has been recorded. If you're in a rural county, there's a good change the species hasn't been recorded there, even though it might be common.
Therefore, how about this: Get ready to become a butterflywatcher this summer. Get a butterfly- identification book, learn identification basics, then when you find a species not recorded in your county, send it in! You don't have to send a dead butterfly. I've been scanning them, then attaching the scanned image to emails sent to the state "expert." My mails and identifications have been confirmed but I'm not sure if anyone is updating the maps yet.
You can find the "expert" for your state at www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/distr/lepid/bflyusa/coord.htm. For Mississippi, it's Ricky Patterson at Rpatte42@aol.com.
To review the "National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies" and buy it from Amazon.com, if you want, go to my page at www.backyardnature.net/buttrfly.htm and click on the title next to the picture. By buying Amazon.com books through my site you don't pay any more, but I get a tiny referral fee.
Back to those singing Brown Thrashers...
Biologists are trained to avoid being anthropomorphic when interpreting animal behavior -- they don't assume that ducklings follow their mothers because they love them. I believe in that admonition, but I fear that in our culture we have gone too far with it, and this reduces our sensitivity to, and appreciation for, other living things.
The Brown Thrasher at his appointed time overcoming his wintry sulk, then flying to the tallest treetop to sing his loudest and clearest has this week been what I think of as a local outburst of the Creator's spirit. Each morning when I passed that singing bird I tipped my hat in form of a silent prayer.
For, I believe that the Creator's spirit flows everywhere, and we -- we humans and birds and everything else -- are part of it, the way that notes are part of music. The Creator's spirit wrought something out of nothing, crafted unfathomable beauty and complexity out of chaos, and right now evolves the Universe and all things in it to ever higher levels of sophistication, and ever more exquisite manners of being and conceiving.
So, I think I know that bird's feeling, though I try to avoid anthropomorphism, and I know for sure that the bird's brain is wired much differently from my own. I know the thrasher's feeling because each of us is part of the same general flow of the Creator's spirit flooding through the Universe.
The bird doesn't sing because he's happy in a human way, but I am confident that he is indeed tickled through and through by the Creator's spirit flowing through him, just like me.