JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Written in Sabacché and issued from a
ciber in nearby Tekit, Yucatán, MÉXICO

August 25, 2008

CHICKEN CHACHALACAS
In late afternoon with the temperature in the upper 90s, the sun's brightness brain-numbing and the village just emerging from siesta I strolled mad-dog- Englishman down the middle of the street. Doña Martha, buried in shadows beneath her Anona tree, almost whispered, but in a way carrying in the afternoon's deadness, "Look at the chachalacas... "

I'm half deaf and these Maya speakers throw Spanish phraseology at me I'm unaccustomed to so I'm always expecting what I think I hear to mean something other than what it seems to mean, but "Look at the chachalacas" was pretty straightforward. The problem was that chachalacas are wary birds. You hear them calling raucously at dawn from out in the scrub but then they're quiet the rest of the day, and in this area where hunting is the main male activity after gathering firewood (people eat chachalacas) typically you can't get very close to them.

With dumb incomprehension I looked at Doña Martha who smilingly pointed across the road where indeed two Plain Chachalacas, ORTALIS VETULA, calmly promenaded atop a neighbor's stone fence.

"I'm going for my camera," I said, and the picture is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080825ch.jpg

They were young chachalacas with their tails just beginning to develop but they displayed the basic features making them chachalacas. Namely, they were brownish, largish, long-legged, long-necked birds with chicken-like beaks, and with reddish, naked, loose throat skin. On an adult the tail is about as long as the body, minus the neck. The sexes are similar.

Once I understood that they were juveniles already I could guess what their story was: "Someone found a nest out in the scrub, got the eggs and put them under a broody hen," I suggested to Doña Martha, who nodded in affirmation. These birds were thinking that they were chickens, which explained why I had been able to get within five feet of them.

Among the thirty or so taxonomic ORDERS of birds, chachalacas fit with the "Gallinaceous Birds," along with chickens, turkeys, grouse, quail, pheasants and the like. Within this order, chachalacas belong to the Cracid FAMILY, which includes other cracids such as guans and curassows. Howell refers to cracids as "large, primitive, neotropical gamebirds." Plain Chachalacas reach about 22 inches long (56 cm).

Mexico is home to four chachalaca species. Our Plain Chachalaca is distributed from the southernmost tip of Texas south along the Mexican Gulf Coast and the Yucatan to western Nicaragua.

*****

HOODED ORIOLES NESTING
If you were with me during my earlier Yucatan days you may recall that orioles tend to show up here in disproportionate numbers, both in terms of species and sheer numbers of individuals. You might enjoy my review of "Orioles of the Northern Yucatan" archived at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/orioles.htm.

Orioles are brightly colored birds with cheerful, pretty calls, and often they display complex social systems. Because the various species of orioles often show female, juvenile and first-year plumages that are often similar to those of other species, identifying them can be a challenge. Adult males have more distinctive plumages. Here at Sabacché we can expect to see eight oriole species, though one of those, the Baltimore or Northern Oriole, visits only during migration, and the Orchard Oriole only overwinters here.

Here our most common oriole is the Hooded Oriole. Last Saturday when I camped overnight at one of the cenotes I got a good look at the species because a pair had built a nest among the down-hanging blades of thatch at the edge of the palapa (thatch roof on four poles) beneath which I'd set up my tent. You can see that nest, which is only about eight feet off the ground, and make out at least one sleepy-eyed nestling with its bright-yellow, down-turned mouth-corner at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080825ho.jpg.

Most oriole species for their nests weave pendulous cups or pouches with plant fibers slung under branches or leaves. Some pouches are quite deep; the Altamira Oriole's bag-nest can be 26 inches deep (65 cm). Obviously the Hooded's little cup is much shallower.

It's interesting that most of the fibers of which the pictured nest is made are black. In fact, all oriole nests I've seen here are woven of predominantly black fibers. Near where the above picture was taken another oriole nest was built completely of black fibers, seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080825hp.jpg.

My guess is that these black fibers are extracted from the old henequen plants you can still find surviving in the scrub though the old plantation was abandoned decades ago. Finding a henequen blade that had been hacked off some time ago and left on the ground I confirmed that with time the fibers blacken, as you can see yourself, black fibers emerging from the cut, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080825hq.jpg.

A brightly orange-and-black male and a yellow-and- black immature male were very actively feeding the palapa-nest's inhabitants, always flying together. Actually the "immature male" conceivably could have been a female, for instead of having the black bib shown in the field guides it bore only a black spot on the chest. Anyway, these two birds always flew together, though usually it appeared that only one of the birds returned to the nest with food. Sometimes the adult male brought the food, sometimes it was the other bird

Was this an immature male learning from the adult male how to feed nestlings? Without being positive about it, that's my guess.

*****

ACANTHOCEREUS CACTI FRUITING
You can walk through the scrub for miles and miles in all directions around Sabacché. That's because back when the whole landscape was intensively cultivated with henequen the plantation owners maintained an intricate, interconnecting network of fairly straight, fairly level, unpaved roads over which large loads of henequen were transported. Sometimes narrow-gauge railroad tracks were even laid.

Today the trails are mostly used by firewood gatherers who ride heavy-duty, three-wheeled bicycles (the two-wheeled carriage platform up front), and are kept clear by wandering cattle. They also provide me with birding access to the scrub. In most scrubby areas you can't really move through the vegetation because of spines and the sheer density.

These trails through the scrub nearly always are bordered by walls up to chest high and built of white, irregular-shaped, uncemented limestone rocks. One of the most typical sights along these walls is a certain much-branched, somewhat sprawling cactus clambering over the walls' top, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080825cc.jpg.

That's ACANTHOCEREUS PENTAGONUS, for which I can't find a common English name. Folks here of course have a Maya name but it's hard for me to guess how it'd be printed. My best guess is X'nuun Tsutsuy (shnoon tsoot-SOO-ee).

As in the picture, often this cactus bears a single, red, jumbo-egg-size fruit, but so far I haven't found a single fruit that hasn't been opened by animals and emptied. The fruit in the picture has a quarter-size hole on its far side and the red part is nothing but a dry shell.

"It's sweet and good eating, but full of seeds," I'm told. "The problem is finding find one the birds haven't gotten to first."

The cactus is also appreciated for its medicinal value. If you get cut, you can slice off a slab of stem, apply the slab's succulent, mucilaginous face to the cut, and it'll prevent infection.

*****

TROPICAL MISTLETOE/ INJERTO FLOWERING
Our surrounding ocean of green scrub is dotted here and there with very conspicuous, airborne islands of orangish red. These islands are created by a flowering, woody, semi-parasitic, epiphytic (growing on trees) species of the genus PSITTACANTHUS, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080825ps.jpg.

About the size of a hippopotamus the airborne shrubs are "semi-parasitic" because they are firmly rooted in the tissue of their host trees, from whom they rob sap. They're not entirely parasitic, though, because they don't rob their hosts' photosynthesized food. They just steal water and nutrients, then with their own chlorophyll photosynthesize their own carbohydrate.

I've seen Psittacanthus referred to as Tropical Mistletoe, and that's OK since it really is a member of the Mistletoe Family. Mexicans often call it Injerto, which means "grafted," which it sort of is. Temperate Zone members of the Mistletoe Family produce small, inconspicuous flowers, so our Psittacanthuses are definitely doing a special tropical thing. You can see a cluster of two-inch-long Psittacanthus flowers at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080825pr.jpg.

*****

MIMOSAS FLOWERING & FRUITING
The scrub surrounding Sabacché, as it was at my former locations in the Yucatan, is dominated by woody, frilly-leafed, often spiny members of the Bean Family. By "frilly-leafed I mean that the leaf blades are once- or twice-pinnately compound -- compound leaves composed of numerous smaller leaflets. You can meet some of the most common Yucatan members of this group at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/bean-fam.htm.

Now in the heart of the rainy season our most conspicuously flowering of the group is MIMOSA BAHAMENSIS. Local people call it Catzin, but when I remind them that that's what they also call a common acacia with enormous, thick-based spines -- one of the Bull-horn Acacias -- they admit it's true, and add that it also can be called Sak-Catzin. "Sak" means white, and probably refers to the abundant white flower heads.

Sak-Catzin is a small tree very common along roadsides and recently abandoned fields. In other words, despite being woody, it's almost weedy. It seldom grows more than 15 feet tall. You can see its flowers and fruits at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080825mi.jpg.

Though several members of the group produce fuzzy-looking, spherical flower-heads, this species' flat legumes are fairly distinctive with their brownish, papery, jagged wings along both sides of the flat pods' faces.

The local folks more or less ignore this plant, it being too small to produce firewood, and not known as being particularly medicinal, though some say somewhat vaguely that it has been used for baby medicine. Its abundant flowers do feed untold numbers of nectar- and pollen-seeking invertebrates, which in turn feed birds, which perform many services in the scrub, so Mimosa bahamensis is a good citizen nonetheless.

*****

PIÑUELA FUZZ FOR STAUNCHING BLOOD
You may remember the day back in March when Andrés at 28 de Junio in Chiapas guided me up sacred Yalem Chem hill and on the way we passed by refrigerator-sized bromeliads growing on the ground. Those were Piñuelas, BROMELIA PINGUIN, closely related to Pineapple plants, and members of the Bromelia Family. Andrés picked sweet, finger-sized fruits for us to snack on. You can see the plant and the fruits Andrés picked at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/pinuela.htm.

That was deep in the dry season and now we're deep in the rainy season. Nowadays Piñuelas here in the Yucatán -- and they're abundant in the scrub around Sabacché -- bear no mature fruits.

So, the other day I met Don Vicente out in the scrub and he showed me how to reach into a big, stiff-bladed, spine-margined Piñuela the way Andrés had done and retrieve the pinch of pale orange fuzz you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080825pn.jpg.

"If you're gathering firewood and you cut yourself so that the blood just runs down your arm," he said, "you go collect this fuzz. Spread it over your cut as if it were a bandage, and it'll stop the bleeding."

I've run into lots of blood-staunching remedies like this and I always wonder whether the thing being talked about possesses a particular chemical that staunches the blood, or whether just about any powder or fine-textured material will do. I carry Golden Seal powder for cuts, and we all know that placing a small patch of toilet paper over a cut will staunch it. In some cultures spider webs are placed over the cuts.

I think the main idea is to provide lots of surface area over which the blood's platelets can arrange themselves, and most powders, most thin-pulpy tissues, most wads of slender filaments, and most fuzzes will do the job.

Or maybe really there's a special chemical coating Piñuela-fruit fuzz that almost magically orders the blood's platelets just the way they need to be to work effectively, and that chemical is just waiting to be discovered by science.

*****

CORNCRIB HONEYMOON
This week my cousin Audra in Kentucky sent me a note about a detail of my grandparents' lives I hadn't known about. She entitled her note "Corncrib Honeymoon."

About 90 years ago when my grandparents married, life in our part of rural Kentucky could be hard and basic. People were poor. My newlywed grandparents could have stayed in my great-grandfather's house but the young couple chose instead to move into the farm's corncrib.

Audra writes that my Papaw Conrad "hunted up a cook stove and stove pipes to extend outside... They brought in a table for two and moved their bed from upstairs of the main house. That was all the furniture they needed... They were happy in their own little nest."

Audra finishes with "Jim: Your love for the simple life comes honest!"

You can imagine how it feels learning that my own tendency to gravitate to rustic circumstances is just an echo of something that may have been going on in my family for generations. Maybe my peripatetic nature also is an echo of my grandfather's grandfather's move from Germany to the US. Knowing the family's history, I know myself better, even feel a bit more human.

Now back to those Hooded Orioles. Once I realized the teacher/student dynamic, and maybe even father/son dynamic, in the two birds always flying together as they sought food for the nestlings, my appreciation of what they were doing increased enormously. My heart softened and I felt brotherly toward them.

Finally, let me tell you about a note sent by Leona in Missouri, who lately has been ruminating about the nature of human brains, and what it all means, the way I have. She sends this quote from "The Sensitive Nervous System" by David Butler:

"It is as if the Milky Way entered upon some cosmic dance. Swiftly the brain becomes an enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern, though never an abiding one, a shifting pattern of subpatterns."

And this line Leona sends "from a lecture from a person named Sherrington":

"My God how can we ever aim a bomb or missile where it will damage the brain or body of any of our fellow creatures? Will we ever get it, as a race of people?"

Everywhere, everywhere, learning more, understanding more, feeling more, begets ever deeper insights attended by ever more intense empathy, more intense compassion, greater LOVE. Opening the eyes wider, exposing the heart more, lowering defenses, accepting what is, all leads to a blossoming. Grandparents, orioles, the Milky Way are all the same blossoming, all the same beauty, knowable only by the open eye, the seeking mind, the vulnerable heart, the lover.

In this light, what is sin?

It is inertness before the television, and yielding to deadening routines. Being satisfied with preconceptions and off-the-shelf belief systems. Self-centeredness.

What is enlightenment?

Sometimes a glimpse into the Milky Way, sometimes a flight of orioles, sometimes reflecting on the context of a little corncrib in Kentucky. Whatever it is, it always requires the never-ending but hard to maintain struggle to know, to understand, to feel, to keep opening up until your very soul's nerve endings are exposed to all.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim