Jim Conrad's Naturalist Newsletter

from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA

July 20, 2003

Ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-kow-kow-kowlp-kowlp-kowlp- kowlp...

These summer dog-days when afternoon heat and heavy sunlight stun the fields and woods and the cicadas' monotonous dronings are the main sounds all day long, and the days are indeed long, long and tiresomely hot, sometimes you hear that ka-ka-ka call. It's a good sound. The long-day heat has left you a bit dazed, your mind floating, your body numb, and then this loud, distinctly articulated ka-ka-ka ending with a country-bumpkin kowlp-kowlp-kowlp, and you just have to smile and perk up a little. If your computer eats WAV audio files you can hear the call at www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/htmwav/h3870so.wav

This is a sound from my Kentucky childhood, from the same kind of long summer days with the call issuing unexpectedly from high up and deep inside shadetrees around the house. My father would hear that call and say it was going to rain. He knew this was the call of the Rain Crow. Amazingly, I spent my whole childhood trying to see what a Rain Crow looked like, but the bird always was as secretive as its call was attention-getting. For me, the invisible Rain Crow was a wonderful mystery.

When I went to college and discovered the Peterson fieldguide for birds, maybe the first bird I sought in the book's index was the Rain Crow. However, no Rain Crow was listed there. It took me a couple of years of birding on my own before I figured out that the species making the Rain Crow's call was what the books named the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, COCCYZUS AMERICANUS.

I used to wonder why this bird was considered a cuckoo, since its call sounds nothing like what emanates from a cuckoo clock. When I began traveling in Europe, often I heard the cuckoo-clock call from real cuckoos, minus the chimes. Europe's cuckoos seemed very different from ours. First, European cuckoos are nest parasites like our Brown-headed Cowbirds -- the females lay eggs in the nests of other bird species. Our cuckoos build their own nests. It's true that, like our birds, European cuckoos fly with a certain sneaky stealthiness, quickly, in straight lines and often among the shadows, but when you see European cuckoos perched they look chubby and somewhat frumpy, like an especially lazy housecat, and that's very unlike our sleek, rather elegant birds. You can see what a European cuckoo looks like at http://digilander.libero.it/emstival/uccelli/cuculo.jpg

Nonetheless, our cuckoos are real cuckoos -- they're in the Cuckoo Family, the Cuculidae. All members of that family share certain anatomical features. For example, they all have long tails with the outer feathers being the shortest, their upper mandibles are curved, and their feet have two toes pointed forward and two backward ("zygodactyl" toes, like woodpeckers).

Yellow-billed Cuckoos spend our winters in South America. Another very similar-looking cuckoo, the Black-billed, passes through our area during migration and also winters in South America, but it summers far north of Mississippi.


For the last month I've enjoyed watching a flock of 15-20 Barn Swallows, HIRUNDO RUSTICA, who alternately fly over the big field next to the barn, and rest on the power lines between the field and the highway. To see a fine picture of a Barn Swallow nest with a parent feeding one of the young, and to read all about these birds and learn how to attract them, got to www.americanartifacts.com/smma/per/b4.htm

I love these birds' playfulness. In the sky it's obvious that sometimes they forgo their insect- catching for a few moments and play something like bird-tag, chasing one another through deep dives and close maneuvers. The telephone line running to the barn is strung so low and loose that it sways a lot. Young swallows take special pleasure in perching on that wire, apparently because it's so much fun trying to keep one's balance. The birds tip forward, catch themselves with a flutter, then fall backward and flutter again, then a leg slips, then another tip forward, etc., on and on. One afternoon an Eastern Kingbird chased them all away, landed on the wire himself and played the game, then, gradually, one by one, the young swallows returned and landed a distance from him, and for several minutes they all played on the crazily snaky line.

Some bird species seem almost mechanical, but if you watch an individual Barn Swallow long enough you'll decide that it has its own nature or mood. It's especially hilarious when the parent is beginning to think that the young are old enough to be feeding themselves, but the young are perfectly happy to have food plopped into their mouths. Harried, exhausted, almost sulking, stand-offish adults with too many playfully beseeching, eternally pestering, demanding kids, as in millions of households among thousands of species...

A few Barn Swallows spend their winters along the US Gulf Coast, but most of them go on into Central and South America.


These days it's not unusual to see a wasp lugging through the air something nearly as large as its own body. Sometimes the wasp even drags its burden over the ground, half flying and half walking, and other times the wasp seems to give up and just leave the bulk lying on the ground. Typically the carried thing is a stunned spider or caterpillar, but it can be other things, too. Organ-pipe Mud-daubers and Spider Wasps specialize in spiders. Potter wasps and Paper Wasps usually go with caterpillars, while Thread- waisted Wasps choose grasshoppers.

The deal is that at this time of year many wasps are provisioning their nests with food supplies for their future offspring. Here is the average scenario:

A wasp stings its chosen prey, paralyzing it but not killing it. The wasp carries its victim to its nest, which may be a hole in the ground, a mud-dauber nest, a paper nest, or whatever. The victim is then placed in a cell of the nest along with the wasp's egg, and the cell is sealed. The victim continues to live in a paralyzed state, possibly for a long time, even until the following season. When the wasp's egg hatches, the larva consumes its paralyzed, still-alive food supply. The reason the prey is paralyzed and not killed is simple: If it were dead, it would decay. The wasp thus utilizes the prey's own immune system to keep it fresh for its eventual eating.


Upon leaving Laurel Hill I regretted abandoning the bats in the cistern of my outside kitchen. During my last census, on July 22 of 2002, I counted 1,783 Southeastern Myotises entering the cistern at dawn. You may recall that later in the year I identified Eastern Pipistrils and Rafinesque's Big-eared Bats in a nearby culvert. I reported these findings to bat researcher Alison Sherman at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Sciences and she continues to monitor and gather data on them on a monthly basis.

The first day I spent in the barn at my new location I was thrilled to see that we had bats here, too. With about 95% certainty I identified them as Big Brown Bats, EPTESICUS FUSCUS. A colony of about 15 roosted inside the barn where timbers came together forming the roof's ridgepiece. Those timbers were warped just enough to permit entry of the bats through the crevice between them. You can see a Big Brown Bat at www.batcon.org/discover/species/l0001517.jpg

During those first days while cleaning up the barn I made a lot of noise and moved many things around, and the bats began leaving. Maybe worse than me, however, was the heat. In late afternoon on sunny days the sun beats down on the barn's tin roof just an inch or two above the roost. Bats can be seen extending one wing through the slit below them trying to catch a cool breeze. Sometimes you see a line of little noses poking downward through the slit as they try to breathe fresh air. One day I found a dazed one on the concrete floor. I sprinkled water on him and fanned him, and he quickly got himself together and flew off. After that day all the bats were gone for a couple of weeks.

Nowadays a few individuals come and go but instead of trying to stay in their scorching crevice all day, on sunny afternoons they exit their hole and hang on timbers in full view. Sometimes they fly about in the barn before settling someplace, maybe trying to cool off. Once they've landed, sometimes I climb into the crossbeams and look at them from just two or three inches away. I'm tickled with these bats.

Big Brown Bats are among the species you'd expect in an old house or barn. Their species is one of the few among wild animals whose populations may have grown as human society has altered the landscape for its own purposes. Big Brown Bats are found over a very large area -- from southern Canada through North America, down through Central America, to extreme northern South America, and the West Indies. One reason for their success is that, as bats go, they are a bit tolerant of disruption and flexible in their behavior.

One neat feature of their behavior is that at this time of year mothers with their one or two babies gather in "maternity colonies," while the males roost alone or in small groups. I think I have hanging-loose males here. In nature it's nearly always the case that the most sophisticated beings produce few children but take good care of them, while it's the opposite for less sophisticated ones. The fact that Big Brown Bat mothers produce just one or two offspring tells me that my bats are uncommonly intelligent and complex creatures.

You can read a lot more about Big Brown Bats at http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/accounts/eptesicus/e._fuscus$narrative.html


Last week I told you about Hophornbeam trees. This week I want to look at American Hornbeams, CARPINUS CAROLINIANA, which belong to a different genus, but the same family (Birch Family). You can see a picture showing an American Hornbeam with fruits exactly like those so abundant in our woods around me right now at www.mobot.org/gardeninghelp/plantfinder/photoa/H540.jpg

In our woods, both hophornbeams and hornbeams are very common, both species are small understory trees, both have elm-like leaves with very finely toothed margins, yet they are easy to distinguish from one another. That's because Hophornbeam bark is broken into smallish, narrow scales with loose ends giving the trunk a shaggy appearance. Hornbeams have smooth, blue-gray bark. In fact, hornbeams are often called Bluebeech because of their bark's similarity to smooth Beech bark.

Both hophornbeams and hornbeams are probably overlooked by most woods-walkers because their leaves are similar to those of elm. Hophornbeam and hornbeam leaf margins are much more finely toothed than elms, plus the bases of elm leaves are lopsided -- one side bulges downward while the other curves upward. Among hornbeams and hophornbeams most, but not all, leaf-base sides are more or less mirror images of one another.

In response to last week's Newsletter, Leon Felkins up at Vicksburg wrote, "Since it is an extremely dense, heavy wood, we decided to slice one up into boards with our band saw. However when you try to dry them out, they 'check' badly. Until we can solve that problem, I guess we won't be making any boards."

It's the same with hornbeams -- really strong and dense wood, but it behaves badly upon drying. That word "check," when applied to wood or steel, refers to cracking, and it's neat that Leon knew to use it, and caused me to look it up! Anyway, you might use this wood as a fencepost or a mallet head, but nothing elegant you'd mind twisting and splintering upon drying.

Hornbeams have close cousins in Europe and Asia. In Europe, tall, thick hedges are much more a part of the culture and landscape than in the US, and the "hornbeam hedge" is one of the best. The European species is Carpinus betulus. When I lived in Belgium I spent untold hours clipping such a hedge that was about 15 feet high (4.5 m) and 5 feet thick (1.5), and when it was all squared up it made quite an impression. You can see what I mean at www.buckingham-nurseries.co.uk/acatalog/product_10215.html

An Asian hornbeam species, Carpinus coreana, is famous for quite something else: It makes a beautiful bonsai. At www.bonsaiboy.com/catalog/product465.html you can see a 17-year-old, 2-ft-tall (60 cm) bonsai Carpinus coreana selling for $175. Having observed how our own hornbeam sprouts tiny branches and leaves from certain wounds, I suspect our species could be nurtured into a similar work of art. If anyone wants to try it, just find yourself a hornbeam seedling, Google "bonsai techniques," and let me know how it turns out.


Back to those Barn Swallows...

One day this week I sat in my rockingchair in the barn door while the usual late-afternoon storm darkened the sky and growled. As I watched swallows cavorting over the Loblolly field, on the radio Beethoven's wonderful Eighth Symphony was playing.

The symphony's first movement is often dark with wrathful emotions, yet every now and then there are bursts among the bassoons and drums that have always struck me as very like laughter. The whole piece is on the one hand deadly serious, yet, throughout, there are unmistakable explosions of horse-laughing glee. It's very like swallows playing in a stormy summer sky.

History tells us that when Beethoven wrote the good- natured Eighth he was ill and profoundly disturbed by the political events and wars of his time. In the same vein, whenever I hear the Dalai Lama speak, he seems to laugh a lot, despite the plight of his people under Chinese domination. When I was in India I met several holy people and their faces always glowed with cheerfulness, despite the poverty and degradation in which they lived. In this world of collapsing ecosystems and ongoing mass extinctions of species, The Creator populates the darkening sky with playful swallows.

As the storm broke and the Loblolly field heaved beneath wind and rain, those swallows took their time getting to safety. And I could only look on dumbly and feel ashamed that in my own life maybe I have been too slow at catching most of the jokes around me, and too clumsy ever to dance.