July 20, 2003
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,
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.
BARN SWALLOWS ON POWER LINES
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.
WASPS CARRYING SPIDERS
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.
BIG BROWN BATS
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
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
You can read a lot more about Big Brown Bats at http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/accounts/eptesicus/e._fuscus$narrative.html
FRUITING AMERICAN HORNBEAMS
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.
BARN SWALLOWS & BEETHOVEN
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.