JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER

Written at Yerba Buena and issued from a ciber in nearby
Pueblo Nuevo Solistahuacan, Chiapas, MÉXICO
{at about 1740 meters in elevation, ± LAT 17° 11' 27"N,  LONG -92° 53' 35"W.}

October 22, 2007

THE LAYING OF A TURKEY EGG
Inés told me that one of her turkey hens was laying eggs somewhere out in the overgrown abandoned garden and she, Inés, wanted to find the nest and move it into the chicken pen so the dogs wouldn't get the eggs. Already after just a few seconds of my inattention a dog had stolen a fresh egg from my table, broken it on the ground and lapped it up, so we knew that the egg- eating-dog scenario was a possiblity.

Once the nest was found each day Inés would remove that day's egg as soon as it was laid and save it inside her house. When a dozen eggs were collected she'd move them all into a corner of the pen and put the turkey hen atop them. Over the hen and her nest Inés would place a box fixed so the hen could look out through slits but not get off her nest, and then after three days of sitting on the nest the hen would continue incubating her eggs.

But first we had to locate the nest somewhere out there in half an acre of waist-high weeds. Happily, Inés knew the trick for doing that.

I arrived about ten in the morning expecting us to put the trick to use right then but Inés stepped outside, looked at her pen for a few seconds, and said her turkey wasn't ready. We'd know when she was ready because she'd cluck in a nervous manner and pace back and forth.

When three hours later when I descended the slope again from fifty yards away I could hear an anxious turkey clucking and when we approached the pen the hen was pacing back and forth. She didn't really need to do so, because we already could see that the hen needed to lay her egg immediately, but Inés showed me how she could put her finger up the hen's rear end and actually feel the hard egg right at the opening, "coronado," Inés called it, "crowned." You can see this operation at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071022tf.jpg.

Inés placed the turkey on the ground and then we watched. That old hen with her tail bent curiously low zigzagged all over the yard before she even entered the garden, then zigzagged some more, and went to the far end and circled back with her head held low. Obviously she didn't want us to know where her nest was. Then I lost sight of her but Inés didn't. After maybe fifteen minutes Inés announced that the hen had settled down inside a particularly thick clump of weeds beneath the spreading guava tree.

Al in the US's Southern Smoky Mountains wrote saying that if you like turkey stories you should read Jan's Wild Turkeys of the Smokies.

We went and stood about ten feet away and could hear the hen quietly clucking. "In about fifteen minutes," Inés diagnosed, and she was right on the mark.

The turkey hen clucked a few minutes, then was quiet, and finally began clucking in a different way, louder and somehow contented-sounding. Now finally I could see her as she dragged straw and grassblades over her nest for a little added camouflage. Then she sneaked away still keeping her head low, but now with her tail held normally.

You can barely see the three eggs her nest contained, viewed through an opening in the weeds, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071022e3.jpg.

A close-up showing the eggs' speckles and how the hen had spread straw over them is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071022e4.jpg.

*****

A TURKEY FEATHER
Speaking of Inés's turkeys, the other day I found the handsome turkey feather you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071022tk.jpg.

Three features make this feather a bit unusual.

First, instead of tapering to a rounded point, it's almost square-tipped. While I was looking at this feather a turkey wandered by and I could compare my feather with those on the passing turkey, and mine seemed to have come from where the bird's tail merged with its lower back.

Second, this feather's lower half bears more fluffy vanes, or down, than most feathers. I'll bet the turkey who lost this feather felt a cold spot when the feather fell out.

Third, notice right above my thumb that the feather's shaft, or rachis, splits, producing a tiny side-feather rising upward and bending to the right. I didn't know feathers could do such things! It's like a down feather sprouting from a regular feather.

*****

CINNAMON-BELLIED FLOWERPIERCERS
Down below Inés's house in a wet valley a couple of acres have been cleared for gardening. However, since Inés thought the invaders might succeed in running her off this year, now the whole area is burgeoning with rampant weeds. Inés did halfheartedly sow beans among the weeds but hasn't cared for them, anticipating having to leave anytime. Now the vines are flowering and two bird species are glorifying in gathering nectar from them.

Many White-eared Hummingbirds, whose "ears" are really just white eye-stripes, zip from one clump of flowers to another chattering as they go. Sometimes they spot me and come hovering and buzzing three or four feet before my face a bit tetchy about my presence. Mainly, however, they just rush from bean-flower to bean-flower gathering nectar.

Less common but maybe more interesting are the Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercers which, despite being placed in the Emberizinae along with thick-billed sparrrows and brushfinches, are warbler-sized birds looking like slender little American Robins with slate- gray upper parts and dark cinnamon underparts. Like dwarf robins, that is, except for the beak, which is slender, slightly recurved, and with the upper mandible conspicuously hooked at its tip. It's that hooked mandible tip that enables the bird to be a flowerpiercer. You can see a flowerpiercer here.

Instead of approaching flowers from the front the way a decent hummingbird or bee does, Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercers go at them from the side. With their hooked beak-tips they puncture and/or rip the blossoms' corollas at the base, down where the nectar resides, enabling the birds to rob the nectar without doing the flowers the favor of pollinating them.

This week in Inés's weedy bean field I've watched the whole process many times but it all happens so quickly that so far I've been unable to see exactly how they do it. The birds approach their flower, do their surgery and withdraw at about the same rate or faster than a hummingbird visits and sups from the front.

While hummingbirds put on a circus flying all over the place, flowerpiercers spend most of their time hidden among the bean vines and weeds, coming into view only when they emerge to pierce a flower. Most of the time you can follow their movements, however, by watching the vegetation shake as the birds hop from stem to stem below.

So, here's a whole species designed to get what it wants without doing the "work" of pollinating the blossoms providing them their sustenance. I suppose the flowers do eventually get pollinated, for hummingbirds do eventually come along, poke in their beaks in the accepted manner, pollinating the flowers even if the flowers already have been robbed dry.

You may recall from back in my Mississippi days my descriptions of how carpenter bees robbed blossoms in a similar manner.

It all just shows what a liberal, experimental, hard- joking streak Mother Nature has, I guess.

Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercers occur in highlands from central Mexico south to Nicaragua.

*****

BOTIL BEANS
Inés's weedy field of bean vines is pretty to see especially because the bean flowers are red, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071022bu.jpg.

In North America you seldom see red bean flowers, so it's worth reflecting on the diversity of bean-plant species in general.

Regular garden beans belong to the genus Phaseolus (not soybeans, which are the genus Glycine). Of the many species of Phaseolus known, my old classic Bailey's Manual of Cultivated Plants lists twelve species commonly cultivated in North America, among which appear such well-known names as Lima, Kidney, Mung and Adzuki -- each a different species. Other species are known by such interesting names as Snail-flower, Metcalfe, Rice Bean, Moth Bean and Tepary Bean. Our most frequently planted bush and pole beans, such as "Kentucky Wonders," are considered Kidney Beans, and are Phaseolus vulgaris.

Inés's red-flowered beans key out to PHASEOLUS COCCINEUS, known commercially as Multiflora Beans or Scarlet Runners. They're native to the American Tropics. Inés calls them Frijoles Botil, or Botil Beans, Botil sounding like a native word, maybe Tzotzil. Inés harvests the beans, dries them, and stores them in big glass jars, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071022bv.jpg.

Notice how variously colored Botil Beans are, in contrast to the garden beans we usually plant up north. Our northern beans have been genetically selected to the point that there's little variability among them, but these native beans clearly still are lustily mixing things up, providing genetic diversity that may be behind their ability to compete with all those weeds and insects. Can you imagine what would happen to a Burpee Lima Bean planted among such rank weeds?

A neat feature of Phaseolus flowers -- a feature distinguishing the genus -- is that the blossoms' two lowest of five petals are united along one side of each petal into a scoop-like, boat-shaped "keel" and this keel is then strongly coiled. It's normal for Bean- Family flowers to have two petals joined into a keel, but this coiled feature is something special. You should look for it on bean flowers in your own garden. On some Botil-Bean flowers you can see the coiled keels knotted up in the blossoms' centers at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071022bt.jpg.

I wondered why a bean flower would coil its keel. Imagining myself to be a hummingbird approaching the flower I found that with the keel twisted to one side a hole was created beside the keel just right for inserting my beak!

*****

LEMON GRASS
Most mornings begin with a steamy mug of campfire ennobled Lemon-Grass tea. I get Lemon Grass leaves from the plant standing in front of Inés's henhouse, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071022lg.jpg.

It's amazing how good a mug of that tea tastes on a chilly morning, and just as amazing that in the North so few people bother with it. It's very commonly grown throughout Mexico. The species' original homeland isn't known because now it's found only under cultivation.

Lemon Grass is a real grass, meaning that it's a member of the Grass Family, the Poaceae. It looks just like a big, weedy clump of roadside fescue up North. It belongs to the genus CYMBOPOGON and is closely related to the broomsedge that so often occupies abandoned fields in eastern North America. About 40 species of Cymbopogon are known and many yield fragrant oils.

Actually, there's a Lemon Grass and a Citronella Grass and I'm only guessing that what I'm drinking here is Lemon Grass, CYMBOPOGON CITRATUS. Citronella Grass is CYMBOPOGON NARDUS. I'd need to see the flowers to distinguish them and my plant has no flowers.

In southwestern Mississippi I've seen Lemon Grass survive several years without attention. Some I planted in Kentucky endured two winters with my covering them with tree leaves before frost, but then a bad cold snap on the third winter came and killed it off.

This is such a fine plant, however, that in northern climes it deserves to be dug up and kept inside through the winter, then replanted after spring's last frost.

*****

CALLIANDRA, THE BEAUTIFUL-STAMEN BUSH
Maybe the most eye-catching plant flowering along the road to town right now is the shrub shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071022ca.jpg.

Averaging ten to fifteen feet tall, that's the genus CALLIANDRA, probably the species HOUSTONIANA. One local name for it is Barba de Chiva, which mean's Goat's Beard, but lots of plants go by that name. Those red, slender bristles poking nearly three inches from the brown, leathery calyxes and corollas are the stamens' filaments. You can see that each filament is tipped with a tiny, yellow, pollen-producing anther. This is one flower depending on its stamens' red filaments to draw the attention of pollinators, not colorful corollas the way it is in most flowers.

North Americans might say that both the twice-compound, ferny leaves and the red, powder-puff-like flowers look a lot like the pretty backyard tree up there often called Mimosa or Silk-tree, Albizia julibrissin, which is native from Iran to Japan. It's true that the two species are closely related, both belonging to the same subfamily of the huge and important Bean Family. However, botanists assign them to different genera largely on the basis that Calliandra's fruits split open when they're mature -- they're "dehiscent" -- while Albizia fruits don't.

The genus name Calliandra is a good one, based on the Greek root calli for beautiful, and andro for male, pertaining to the beautiful male stamens. We also find the root calli in "calligraphy" (beautiful graphics), and andro in "androgynous."

This is a common roadside weed throughout most of humid Mexico. My Las Plantas Medicinales de Mexico reports that people in Sinaloa chew the shrub's bark to toughen their gums. I'd be careful using the plant for that purpose, however, since the root bark contains an alkaloid said to paralyze the heart so that it's unable to contract -- hinders its systolic action.

*****

THE LOCAL HOT PEPPER
It seems as if each of Mexico's regions has its own preference with regard to the hot peppers it eats. In the Yucatan it was super-hot habaneras. In Querétaro they ate jalapeños but when they wanted a really good hot-sauce they used the tiny chili piquín. The pepper most seen in the market here is one clearly related to the habanera but maybe a quarter of its size and not as hot. You can see some bought from a Tzotzil-speaking lady at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071022cb.jpg.

Some people here call this habanera, even when they know it's not "the real" habanera. The men renovating my dwelling call it Chile Blanca, or "White Chile," and say that the way you eat it is to grind it up in a stone mortar (molcajete), add the juice of one or two lemons and a little salt, maybe a bit of onion, and then you have a sauce perfect for spreading on a tortilla or whatever.

I add several to my daily campfire stews, which are based on locally produced cabbage, potatoes, onions and eggs, thickened with oatmeal and soy protein -- the latter available because so many vegetarian Adventists live in the area -- with a few drops of corn oil added, and graced with a big clove of garlic chopped to pieces.

I also eat one or two with each of the several bananas I consume each day. Take a bite of banana, then a bite of pepper, and that hot-fruity taste hits the spot!

*****

CHIAPAS'S DEEP PITS & CAVES
Last week I mentioned a document I'd seen describing me as the director of a local ecotourism project, and that one of my tasks was to develop interest in the Soconusco Cave Complex "with more than 50 kilometers of caves, including three of the ten deepest vertical caves in Mexico."

I'd never heard of the Soconusco Cave Complex but Mark Minton of the Association of Mexican Cave Studies sure had. It seems that my document was off the mark. Mark writes:

"_None_ of the ten deepest caves in Mexico are in the state of Chiapas. The deepest in Chiapas is indeed Soconusco, but it is number 32 on the list. That's also not true for just the deepest PITS, either, because only number 10 of the top ten is there, which is the 283-m-deep entrance pit of Sótano del Arroyo Grande, although numbers 11 and 12 are also in that area. And Sistema Soconusco - Aire Fresco is only 28 km long, followed by Cueva del Arroyo Grande at 10 km. Maybe if you added up all of the caves in the area you'd get over 50 km. It is indeed a spectacular area for the density of deep pits, but they are not record setting, even in Mexico."

Thanks for the correction Mark, and I'll have to be a bit more wary of that document declaring me a director.

For a full review of Mexico's deep and long caves go to http://www.amcs-pubs.org/longanddeep.html.

*****

BECKY'S "WRITING WITH NATURE" CLASS
Becky in Georgia has accepted my invitation to offer a free online class about keeping a nature journal, using the Moodle platform available at my Nature site. To see what's available and maybe take the class go to http://www.backyardnature.net/moodle/.

Becky describes it as "a self-directed come as you please type class" with a discussion forum.

I'm impressed that Becky has taken the time not only to put together a class but also to learn enough about the Moodle platform to set up a forum. This is really getting back to the Internet's old days when we were all saying "Information wants to be FREE!"

Once you see what Becky has done, maybe you'll consider offering a class yourself. Maybe one on birding, or identifying trees, or growing alfalfa sprouts, or whatever fits in with the Backyard Nature website.

Thanks Becky, and good work!

*****

REVOLUTION, EDUCATION & SUSTAINABILITY
You might wonder why the Mexican government would let groups of campesinos take over land the way they have here.

First, remember that many consider that the Mexican Revolution is still underway. A central feature of the Revolution and the resulting Constitution of 1917 has been that large landholdings are broken up and redistributed to the agricultural masses who may have no land of their own. Sometimes payment, at least partial payment, has been paid for confiscated land, sometimes not.

At least here in Chiapas and I suppose other states as well there's been a legal process by which campesinos could petition to take possession of "unused" land, even when someone else legally owns it. The petition process is long and can be denied at different stages. Here local campesinos did petition for reserve land they considered to be unused but the petition was denied. Some people, unimpressed by the notion that the reserve was "used" as a watershed and refuge for biological diversity, didn't accept the judgment and took the land anyway.

I can see both sides of the argument. If you are the father in a family living from one meal to the next, you know how to produce your own food but have no land, and you see land lying "unused" right down the road, you might come up with a different definition of what "used" means yourself.

Of course the root of the problem is overpopulation. Too many people are competing for too little land. In the past disease, wars, starvation and emigration kept things here on a sustainable basis but now all that has changed. Now the situation, with more and more people wanting more and more dwindling resources, is unsustainable.

I'm fascinated by something I heard this week on the BBC -- that Italy now has the lowest birthrate in Europe. I think Spain probably has the next lowest. When I was traveling in these countries in the 70s and 80s seeing their large families, I never dreamed such a change could come about so quickly. Some people say the change has been caused by education. Once people think about how much children cost and reflect on the dynamic of quality verses quantity, they want fewer children.

Here, people need more access to education but education can't be the cure-all. The problem is that here poverty trumps everything. Italy and Spain had economic support from outside their borders, from the rest of the European Union, but Chiapas doesn't have any such benefactor. Even if a corn-planting father is educated all about watersheds and biological diversity, he still needs to put beans and tortillas on the table, and Brussels, Washington or Mexico City don't seem to be offering many alternatives to "taking" what land is needed.

So, there seems to be a layered pyramid of challenges human communities must ascend before accomplishing a sustainable equilibrium with Nature.

At the pyramid's base lies overpopulation, atop which all other problems rest.

Then there's poverty, the removal of which affords people the luxury of considering the next-up layer, which is:

Education. Educated people understand the value of forested watersheds and biological diversity.

But, knowing isn't enough. One must be sensitized to the surrounding world before caring whether other living things survive or not. Thus sensitization is the next-to-the-top pyramid layer a people must rise to, and to get there they must be encouraged and guided by inspired teachers, artists and philosophers.

At the pyramid's top is spirituality (not religion) enabling thinking, feeling people to know the joy of harmonizing with the majesty and beauty of the Universe as it is. It is my experience that the spiritual person does not destroy what is lovely, or crave more than Nature freely provides.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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