JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Written in the community of 28 de Junio and issued from a ciber in
Pujiltic, Chiapas, MÉXICO
{at about 800 meters in elevation, ± LAT 16° 18'N,  LONG-92° 28'W.}

April 14, 2008

BLUE-BLACK GRASSQUITS
Usually when I pass a certain cornfield on my way to the reserve I hear the slurred, buzzy, slightly metallic TZSSIIU song of a male Blue-black Grassquit, VOLATINIA JACARINA SPLENDENS. Most of the time he's accompanied by a small flock of females and immatures. With their size, form and short, thick beaks, male Blue-black Grassquits look like Indigo Buntings with their blueness darkened to the point of being almost black. Brownish, streak-breasted females are reminiscent of Song Sparrows.

Since the species specializes in weedy fields and second growth, of which tropical America has a lot, the species is fairly common and I wouldn't bother telling you about them except for the funny thing the male does when he sings:

Each time he TZSSIIUs, he jumps. It's more like a brief flight upward for a foot or two, then instantly he returns to his perch, and when he calls again a few seconds later he jumps once more. How on Earth could such a behavior have evolved and how does it serve the species?

Maybe the jumps help females better judge how vigorous the male is. That makes sense now that they're still in small flocks preceding the rainy-season nesting period, but I've seen them doing it when supposedly they were defending territories, thus already had their mates.

Jumping certainly draws attention to the males making them more vulnerable to predation, but maybe that's exactly what Mama Nature wants. In this species with abundant habitat and easy-to-find food (small weed seeds), once nests are established maybe part of the relatively expendable male's "job" is to remove his genes from the species gene pool if he's not alert or fast enough to dodge incoming predators. It wouldn't be the first time Nature has evolved a species producing individuals with self-destructive behavior.

If someone else has another idea how this behavior might serve the species, maybe you can post your theory at our Google Backyard Nature forum at http://groups.google.com/group/backyard-nature/.

*****

STREAK-BACKED ORIOLES WEAVING NESTS
Streak-backed Orioles, ICTERUS PUSTULATUS, are mostly orange birds, the heads flushing a bit with redness, the tails black, the wings black with plenty of white streaking, and the backs orange with heavy black streaks running lengthwise. They're non-migratory and are distributed from just south of the Arizona border through western Mexico to Costa Rica.

The other day I noticed one repeatedly visiting a banana tree so I went to see what was going on. The bird was gathering fiber from banana leaves for her nest. She'd land on the midrib, bend over and yank and tug awhile, and before long she'd fly away with a curly, stringlike fiber in her beak.

I've noticed several other orioles weaving their nests this week, too. Oriole nests are woven cups or pouches of woven plant fibers slung under a tree branch. The Streak-backed's nest isn't nearly as deep as an oropendola's or an Altamira Oriole's, but it's deeper than most other oriole species', maybe 1.3 times deeper than broad. Though I'm not sure it's a Streak-backed's, you can see a half-finished oriole nest, the top part fairly well advanced but the sky showing through the unfinished bottom, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080414on.jpg.

Speaking of orioles, North America's Orchard Orioles have been very common here all winter, but silent. During last Wednesday's breakfast, however, one for a few seconds burst into full song. And what memories that evoked of that very song issuing ever so sweetly yet a tad monotonously from deep inside tree shadows during deliciously long, summer afternoons up north.

*****

BANANA-TREE FIBERS
Seeing the Streak-backed Oriole so easily dislodging one fiber after another from a banana tree, I went to see if I could do it. Once I began paying attention I decided that lots of birds must have been pulling out lots of fibers to cause the trees' leaves to be so tattered. You can see a really tattered blade at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080414be.jpg.

In that picture notice that here and there entire sections of leaf appear to have been removed. I felt sure that these were animal-made, but then I looked closely at how fibers were arranged in the leaf: http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080414bg.jpg.

The fibers are actually parallel-running veins conducting water and the products of photosynthesis up and down the blade. Splits appear to develop naturally beside certain larger veins, then continue into the blade's midvein, angling toward the trunk. To extract a fiber I found it easiest to start tugging where the split enters the midrib and from what I can see orioles think the same. Also I found that fibers in old, dry leaves are too brittle, but those in young leaves are too weak. A leaf old enough to already have lots of splits in it is just right.

I suspect that orioles and other animals also use fibers from old banana-tree "trunks" (actually leaf petioles), for they are very fibrous, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080414bf.jpg.

In fact, Nature is full of useful fibers. Often I see birds gathering them from palms. Remember back at Pollys Bend in Kentucky how House Finches gathered fiber from Paper Mulberries, and other times I've mentioned the strong fibers in nettles.

*****

CUTTING BANANA LEAVES
Banana trees are good for more than fibers and bananas. The other day Andrés took me along to cut banana leaves whose blades later would be fashioned into flat squares in which tamales would be wrapped for steaming.

Arriving at the plantation Andrés removed from his side-bag a short, curved, steel blade with the cutting edge on the inside curve. This he fitted onto a long pole, and then he proceeded to cut banana leaves. It was a simple operation of positioning a banana-leaf petiole inside the curved blade, and jerking downward. The six-foot blade would then flutter to the ground.

Once he'd cut about twenty blades he began gathering dry leaf-clutter from beneath trees and piling it into a heap. "It's too cold, so we need a fire," he joked in the 97° heat. We'd just been joined by our friend Pancho, who'd come to cut bananas for his family, and he, lying on the ground watching us, laughed so hard he had to hold his stomach. Then Andrés set fire to the dry leaf-trash and undertook the operation you can see taking place, with Pancho in the background, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080414ba.jpg.

Andrés knew I didn't understand why he was doing this but he didn't offer a word. Instead, after he'd finished he cut a small square of unfired banana leaf and crumpled it in his hand. It was so brittle that it crunched and tore. Then he cut a similar square of a fired leaf, crumpled it, and it made no sound, didn't tear, but behaved like a moist cloth. All was clear.

Pancho found the notion that a big, smart gringo such as myself wouldn't know all this simple stuff so funny that once again he broke into hysterics, actually rolling on the ground. Though in our community, unlike so many others in the area, drunkenness isn't a problem, I thought that Pancho surely was drunk. But, no, later I could see that he was just happy to lie on the ground in the shade with a good breeze blowing, watching his friends work as he poked good-natured fun at them. The man was simply happy!

Andrés began cutting the leaves' flat side-blades from their stiff midribs while I folded the resulting sheets per his instructions. Several time Andrés asked, "It's interesting stuff, isn't it Jim?" and I'd say yes, and Pancho would laugh even harder than the last time.

You can see what Andrés looked like as I followed him home from the banana plantation, flat sheets of banana leaf compactly rolled and held in his headband gear, in his mecapal, over his shoulder, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080414b4.jpg.

Sunday morning Andrés brought me some tamales wrapped in our banana leaf sections. Tamales are pillow-like packages of cooked corn stuffed with various ingredients. Mine were filled with a bean/tomato mix and wrapped in spicy leaves of Piper auritum, sometimes called Hoja Santa but here called Mu-mu. Then the Mu-mu package was wrapped in sheets of our banana leaves. During steaming the green Mu-mu leaf softens and blends with the corn package so I just bit through the Mu-mu as if it weren't there. The tamale was delicious and the Mu-mu flavor was a nice touch. You can see my tamale, green banana leaf at the left in the picture, the Mu-mu-encased tamale at the right, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080414bh.jpg.

*****

BRASIL'S RED-DYE WOOD
In this year's Newsletter of February 18 I introduced you to the pretty, yellow-flowered tree called Brasil. See http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/brasil.htm.

At that time I mentioned that the tree was closely related to the blue-dye producing tree called Logwood, and that similarly a red dye could be extracted from wood of our local Brasil. However, not wanting to hurt a tree by hacking a chunk of wood from a trunk, I forewent producing a picture of Brasil's red dye.

The other day I was out with Andrés and of course men here chop at everything whether there's a need for it or not, and one trunk Andrés whacked happened to be a Brasil. I gathered the woodchip he knocked off, soaked it for a couple of days, and got the results shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080414br.jpg.

*****

COYOL NUTS
In the same Newsletter in which Brasil appeared I introduced you to Coyol, our very spiny palm. See http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/coyol.htm.

At that time I was focused on the palm's spininess. Now their flowers and fruits are grabbing my attention. First see the size of the fruits at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080414cy.jpg.

Then see the abundance with which they're produced at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080414cz.jpg.

The two-ft-long fruit clusters are impressive enough, but maybe even more imposing are the semi-woody, spine-covered, brown "spathes" partially covering them. A spathe is a bract or leaf surrounding or subtending a flower cluster. It protects the flowers as they develop. Sometimes they stay small and fall off, but on Coyol obviously they enlarge into something substantial. Coyol's spathe might be more useful to humans if they weren't so spiny. Coconut Palms also produce conspicuous spathes. You can a Coconut Palm inflorescence emerging from its protective spathe halfway down the page at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/coco-frt.htm.

In the upper left of our Coyol picture you can see several slender, yellow items. Those are spikes bearing many very small flowers. In the same picture remnants of those spikes can be seen emerging from the fruit clusters, now pale gray and stiff with age. Since fruits occur only at the bases of each of these grayish items, I'm assuming that on Coyol inflorescences male flowers occupy the top of the spike while fruit-producing female flowers are limited to the spike's lower part.

When I first saw how abundant the fruits were I began thinking I might have something to add to my diet here. However, the "nut" inside the hard shell was too hard to deal with.

"You eat them when they're younger," I was told. "Then they're softer inside. You put sugar on the nuts and they're good to suck on."

I asked about medicinal uses.

"Boil some leaves in water and make a tea," a young man told me. "It's good for bones, makes them strong, and keeps your joints in good shape."

"Nah, no good at that," an old man with bad arthritis contradicted in this traditional society where people seldom openly contradict one another.

"Well, if your bones and joints are in good shape," the young man compromised, "a tea of Coyol leaves keeps them that way.

The old man looked skeptical but didn't say a word.

*****

ANOTHER "COFFEE"
In this year's February 18th Newsletter I described how Eliezer and I made a very flavorful "coffee" of the toasted, ground fruits of the Ramón tree, Brosimum alicastrum, growing abundantly in protected valleys here. Last Friday I was hiking through the Tzotzil-speaking higher outskirts of Venustiano Carranza with Andrés' brother Don Sebastián when I espied the weather-bleached, past-prime, very familiar plant seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080414ok.jpg.

I've seldom seen okra, or gumbo, ABELMOSCHUS ESCULENTUS, growing down here, but here it was, the plants a gangly ten feet tall and the fruit pods in the process of splitting to release BB-sized seeds. There was no evidence of any of the pods having been cut earlier for eating.

Okra was introduced into the Americas from Africa so I wondered what name Tzotzil-speaking Sebastián might have for it. I was hoping for a Tzotzilized name rooted in either the words okra or gumbo, which I imagined might be of African origin.

"Café," replied Don Sebastián. "Roast the seeds, grind them up, and you get coffee."

Don Sebastián showed every indication that he didn't believe my assertion that immature okra pods collected when they're about 1.5 inches long and snipped into a stew improve its flavor and even that properly fried and eaten with fresh-from-the-garden tomatoes they can be absolutely delicious.

"Café," he repeated. "This plant provides a drink, not food."

*****

THE OAK FOREST ON YALEM CHEM
I was hiking through Sebastiano Carranza with Don Sebastián because a couple of Newsletters ago I wrote about ascending sacred "Big Cross Hill," where we found ancient Maya figures chiseled on a stone slab in the oak forest atop the hill. Don Sebastián was my guide that day. No one knows that mountain better than he, or wants to protect it more..

After reading the Newsletter, Jim with Conservation International wrote me that his organization has a project to help create community-owned and-run reserves in pine oak regions in Chiapas and the Guatemalan highlands, and he wanted more information.

Once again I climbed the hill. This time the men who hold the hill sacred said that I should call it by its Tzotzil name, Yalem Chem, instead of the Spanish for "Big Cross Hill," which they'd given me earlier. I think that before they hadn't wanted to use the sacred hill's real name with someone they didn't know well. They tell me that the name Yalem Chem refers to a deep pit with water in it, though they know of no such pit in the area. They also say that there's a river on the mountain that the ancients could see but they can't. The ancient Maya regarded the netherworld, or "Heaven," as being accessible through deep pools of water.

There's much more oak forest there than I'd thought, for until now I've been viewing it from its eastern side, which is largely deforested. Take a look at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080414x2.jpg.

The top half of that image shows Yalem Chem as seen through haze from the community of 28 de Junio. The bottom half is the exact same image, but manipulated with PhotoShop to emphasize the darker forested area. All I did was to crank up the image's "contrast" beyond where any reasonable photo-finisher would go. The lower image shows that on our side of the mountain fires have converted oak forest to grassland and naked stone. Happily, however, the far side and the northern slope at the right in the picture are still almost entirely mantled with oak. Nevertheless, during both of my visits I saw men carrying oak firewood from the forest, despite the community's wish to protect it.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080414yc.jpg you see Don Sebastián leading me across the northern face. Note the grassy floor. Periodically fires sweep through but the grass is short enough that only shrubs and seedlings are killed.

If something comes of Conservation International's interest in Yalem Chem, I'll let you know.

*****

LIBERACE ROOSTER, JULIA CHILD HEN
Most people here keep chickens, some behind fences but mostly just running loose. When I first arrived I began noticing a certain rooster and hen couple who always stayed together, apart from the others. The rooster was very handsome but so cowardly that when he found something to eat he'd cluck the way he's supposed to in order to call the hen, but when the hen would run toward him, instead of mounting her like a decent rooster, he'd get visibly agitated and run away. Toss him corn and he'd run from that, too, and he ran in a tight, prissy manner, as well. I called him Liberace because he was so outrageously elegant, and soft.

Liberace's red hen companion was one of these "novelty breeds" whose feathers curl back on themselves, giving the chicken a comically fluffed-out look. She was overly plump and so perpetually busy rushing from one place to another that I suspected her of being a bit too nervously effusive, at least in hen terms. I called her Julia, after Julia Child, and could almost hear her thinking in a high, squeaky voice, "Ah, another magnificent grass seed, how maaaaarvelous!"

I had it analyzed that Liberace needed a hen like Julia because Julia was so enthusiastically excited about everyday details that she didn't seem to really notice or care about Liberace's cowardice. And Julia needed a companion like Liberace who wasn't so fixated on sex that he'd never give her enough space to effervesce and get excited over every little detail of everything, which was just the way Julia was.

Then one day Julia disappeared. Liberace spent days by himself wandering out in the tall grass. I feared for his safety because three times I've seen a Gray Fox out there.

Eventually Liberace took up with a sleek, too-young hen. It wasn't long before several other hens joined his flock, and now when he called for them to come and eat something real or feigned, he actually mounted them when they bent over to see what was there, instead of running away. Moreover, each day he visibly grew more muscular, more aggressive, and began crowing -- good crows, too, as good as any cock-a-doodle-doo out there.

Then Julia reappeared. The family who owned her had broken up, there'd been a custody battle over the chickens, and part of the settlement had been that Julia would return. Now her wings were clipped. Liberace and Julia spent a whole day awkwardly looking sideways at one another. The next day Liberace was back with his small flock of young admirers and Julia began a new life of wandering from the periphery of one loose flock to another, sometimes even Liberace's, though Liberace hardly seemed to notice. The world had gained another good-looking, flamboyant rooster, but lost a good-natured hen so absorbed in the world's details that she didn't require her rooster to be a hero.

I'm telling this story to remind us that all living things possess their own dignity, importance and life stories. In this light it seems to me proper to suggest that no one should ever eat the flesh of another living being without reflecting on the fact that a sentient, feeling individual has given up the rest of his or her life to make that moment of swallowing possible.

From what I've read, "primitive people" knew to pray for animals they'd just killed, or at least to thank them. Each time we buy cellophane-wrapped flesh while background music plays in the supermarket and we don't even wonder what the creature was like from whose body that flesh came, we further desensitize ourselves to the wonder of life itself. This desensitization limits human spiritual and emotional development.

You can see Liberace and Julia together recently, briefly and strictly by accident, Liberace lustily flapping his wings and Julia with her clipped wings, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080414lb.jpg.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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