Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

May 7, 2007

Adobe Acrobats

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:13 pm

According to one dubious internet study, 6 % of Americans fear attacks from Barn Swallows. Alfred Hitchcock might have had something to do with this, but in his movie he employed gulls and ravens for the nasty cinematic work – not swallows. I suppose “Hitch” could have imperiled Tippi Hedren with thousands of chortling swallows, but these birds have tiny beaks and would not have been able to peck out her eyes. The fork-tailed hordes would plaster her with mud pellets instead.  Such is not the stuff of horror films.

Since a majority of swallow-fearing people probably have not even seen “The Birds,” I guess the explanation lies in a simple misunderstanding.  Barn Swallows are graceful masters of the air, proficient insect eaters, and expert mud masons. They use all these abilities for the forces of good – not evil.  These 7 ½ in. blue and orange birds have long pointed wings and delicate bifurcated tails which allow them to acrobatically pursue insects on the wing. Though unable to peck out eyes, they actually have huge mouths with which they engulf insects in flight and carry mud. Swallowphobes mistakenly believe that these mouths are large enough to enable the bird to swallow a barn – thus the name.  If that’s the case, it would be more productive to worry about Cliff Swallows.

No, Barn Swallows are just simple builder folk who make their nests out of adobe. Adobe is a mixture of clay, sand & fiber used to make unfired bricks. Such technology has long been used to build human structures in Central America and the desert Southwest. Since there is no logical reason to fear people from the Southwest (unless they try to serve you green hot sauce) there is no reason to fear swallows. As a matter of fact, current “Green Building” trends promote adobe structures throughout the world, so Barn Swallows are on the cutting edge.

I recently watched a colony of swallows collect their adobe building ingredients.  The first destination for each shopping trip was a patch of dead grass along the edge of a parking lot. Each bird would land and waddle among the grass stems to find one suitable for the job. With a few twists of the head, the brittle stems were snapped off and held crossways in the mouth like a buccaneer holding a dagger.  After a few stems were gathered, a brief flight brought the builder to the muddy edge of a large puddle. With the grass firmly wedged crosswise, the swallows then reached down to grab several pellets of mud with their bills agape.  They sunk in their tiny beaks and pinched off bits of chocolaty soil.  Once the short material list was satisfied, the birds launched into the air and returned directly to the construction site (under a dock in this case).

The grass and mud mixture was palpitated onto the rim of the nest in a motion reflecting that of a potter building a vessel of clay. These vessels were taking on the form of a wall pocket adhered to the dock beams (the nests will be about the size of a pair of cupped hands when completed). Each mouthful adds a new wrinkle of texture to the wall, and provides a record of material gathering trips. The grass fibers add strength to the structure and even out the drying process – just like the straw in adobe bricks.

By mid-morning, my birds were slowing down a bit. Instead of returning to the “pits”, they dipped their open mouths into the water to wash the mud out, and twirled around to immerse their heads for a healthy spray of bath water.  Clean of mouth and deserving of a rest, they then perched along the dock and preened.

The next to last step in nest construction will be to line the dried mud cup with a layer of fine grass and a few feathers. The feathers are a swallow thing – they have to be large, soft, and white.  Gull feathers are the plume of choice for the Barn Swallows in this colony.  The large white birds, and their feathers, are everywhere around here. Once the feathers are in, the nest is ready for use.

As I left the contented little swallow village, I had the distinct impression that the gulls were beginning to gather over my head. For a brief second I felt like a large French fry sitting out in the middle of a fast food lot – alone.  It was time to go.   




May 5, 2007

A Crayfish by any other Name

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 3:39 pm

Diogenes was definitely one of the weirdest of the Greek philosophers. Living up to his nickname, “The Cynic,” he was known for wandering the streets during the day with a illuminated lantern searching in vain for “an honest man.” When Alexander the Great stood by his side and questioned him, all Diogenes said in return was “get out of my sun”. He modeled much of his life on that of a dog and therefore owned nothing, begged for food, and used the streets as his toilet. Even his chosen home was a huge clay pot or tub.

Look up Diogenes on the internet and you’ll hit on the site of the Diogenes Naturist Sun Club – a group of nudists living outside London, England who claim a membership of all ages from “nappies to nineties.” Their philosophy is to “take off your clothes and live in harmony with the natural environment.”

Now that I am responsible for your present mental picture of a naked septuagenarian playing vollyball and a crazy Greek guy lifting his leg next to an ancient fire hydrant, I must explain myself. You see, I was doing some research on crayfish. Crayfish do not wear clothes and they do live in harmony with the natural environment, but the particular one that led me down this naked path was the Chimney Crayfish. The scientific name of this species is Cambarus diogenes – he is named after Diogenes. I was only trying to follow a scholarly lead.
Chimney Crayfish earn their common name because they excavate tunnels and pile up chimney-like towers of mud around the burrow entrance. Like the rest of the crayfish clan, they are gill breathers that need to be in the water, but unlike the others, they do not live in open water. They choose instead to dig down to the water table and soak themselves in privacy. Wet yards, open fields, and other non-crayfish type places are home to this unique crustacean, although they also build right next to ponds and marshes. Hauling up pea-sized pellets of wet soil, the Chimney Crayfish deposit them in a ring which builds up around the surface entrance. These clay pebble towers can reach a nose-bleed height of 12 inches in the springtime, but eventually wash away under the punishment of heavy rains (although the burrows remain).

One enterprising little digger in my yard has built himself a 4 1/2 in. structure. They are active only at night, so I haven’t been able to spot him yet. A couple of flash light trips to the backyard to catch a glimpse of this honest crayfish have proved fruitless. He added a 1/4 inch of mud to his chimney last night while I was dreaming about a stupid joke I just read in which one snake was complaining to another about the fact that he ‘didn’t have a pot to hiss in.’ Chimney Crayfish are mostly scavengers so, besides chimney building, the usual night-time activity involves searching for dead earthworms and rotten vegetation. They retain water within their body cavities on these dry land forays and breath with internal gills. Of course, being crayfish, they have a substantial pair of pincers which are equally qualified for handling mud or food bits.

Taking all this into consideration, I really don’t have any idea why the specific name was given. A naturalist named Girard was responsible for this, but he did it back in 1859. He is either dead or currently the oldest member of the Diogenes Naturist Sun Club, so we can’t ask him. The fact that Chimney Crayfish hole themselves up within clay “containers”, seems to be the only relation they have to philosophers in clay pots.

In the long run, it doesn’t matter. To the average Jill or Joe, this crayfish has plenty of names. “Burrowing Crayfish” is both appropriate and descriptive. In some parts they are known as “Meadow Crayfish.” “Devil Crayfish” is one of the dumber names – probably in reference to the reddish highlights on the body. To one elderly Monroe county farmer, the familiar little mud chimneys were known as “Frog Towers.”

I’d like to leave this discussion with a word of philosophical wisdom regarding Chimney Crayfish and their burrows. Enjoy them for what they are and leave it at that. Perhaps you can try and spot one some night or read up on their life history. Do not, however, attempt to find out how deep their burrows go. Be happy in knowing that they go down to the water table and the tunnels basically spiral down through the earth. Last year I decided to find out for myself and poured Plaster of Paris down a small Chimney Crayfish tunnel not far from my front door. I wanted to make a cast of the burrow. With an emphasis on the word “small”, this small hole seemed to be bottomless. After pumping in at least 50 gallons of Plaster (perhaps I exaggerate a bit) the top finally overflowed. I started to dig it out a few hours later and found myself excavating a four foot hole that took the better half (actually the worst half) of the afternoon. The spiral hole ended in a sharp turn well below the foundation of the house. While extended head down in the expansive cavity, I heard strange voices down there – sounding like a variant of the Greek tongue. I soon realized that these phrases were issuing from my own mouth. I was inventing new names for this crayfish, but they weren’t nice ones.

In the end, I ended up with a nice cast of a crayfish burrow, a dead crayfish (let’s not talk about that) and one more thing checked off my life list.  In retrospect, Diogenes would have been proud of my dog-like digging ability.

May 1, 2007

Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeee Be Guys

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:25 pm

  In the gossamer light of an oval moon the invasion begins. The quiet invitation to assemble is triggered by the breath of a warm spring night and the near full lunar light. The siren call – integrated within the fabric of the air – broadcasts throughout the forest landscape and vibrates tiny cells within the primal brains of those living there. It awakens an urge that has slumbered for a year. It prompts their four legged owners to move out from under stone and log and to hop, waddle, and crawl to the ancestral water places.

  The low steady inner mantra pulsates louder with each step and reaches a tribal frenzy by the time the pond edge is achieved.  Immersing in the moon speckled elixir, the beckoned are overtaken by their inner chant and give it voice. Instantly the mantra is translated into a loud mechanical “Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeee” that announces to the world that the toad mating season has begun.

  Perhaps I am being a bit overdramatic here, but the annual American Toad migration/mating season is a fascinating thing to witness.  For a very short time each spring – night and day – the warty amphibians make their way to local marshes, ponds and watered ditches to sing, mate and lay eggs. For the balance of the year, toads are solitary land dwelling creatures as likely to be found in your garden as beneath a rotten log. As far as we know, their thoughts are strictly on food and shelter for most of the year (perhaps this is the reason behind their permanent scowl). When the gentle winds of spring awaken their romantic instincts, however, they head for the singles bars.

  A toad gathering place needs to be shallow, wet and weedy.  As long as it doesn’t dry up before mid summer, it can even be temporary in nature. At any rate it should be someplace where there are no fish predators that could eat the kids. For the most part these are ancestral places remembered like a salmon’s home stream. Beckoned to assemble at the mutually common watering holes, the guys and gals can get together and do what nature hath demanded they do.

  The basic routine is this.  The guys sing until the gals eventually show up to listen to the show. A female selects a personal favorite and makes eyes at him. Without the need for further prompting, the guy leaps at her and grabs her tightly from behind – a position known as amplexus. He hangs on for dear life and refuses to let go until she lays her eggs.  (I recall one news story from 25 years ago that showed a picture of a “two headed toad” which was obviously a male amplexing with a female. Imagine the wonder when this creature miraculously separated into two complete individuals).

  When the Misses begins laying her gelatinous string of eggs, Mr. fertilizes them as they come out. The eggs kinda look like those old fashioned dot candies that you used to get – you know the ones on the paper strip (except these dot candies are black and covered with snot).  Once the laying is complete, he releases his grip and is gone to find another love interest.  She does the same (when you hold it in for a year at a time, I guess that’s the way it goes!). Neither text messages the other for the remainder of the year.

  This is the way it’s supposed to happen, but there are some mighty embarrassing moments at the toad pond before the gals show up.

  Today I watched a dozen male toads perform their ancient ritual at a stag affair.  To begin each call, air is taken in through the caller’s nostrils and the body is inflated with a few rapid pulses of the throat.  The air is then re-directed into the throat pouch which inflates into a hard round balloon. The “Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee” call, an alien spacecraft type sound, is created by passing the air through the vocal chords. While in mid call, the water touching the side of the caller vibrates like a sonic cleaner.  After 5 seconds or so the sound trails off and preparations begin for another call.

  As each male calls, others join in until the air is ripe with deafening vibrations. Each toad eyes the nearby water for any movement that would indicate an adoring female. Any movement will elicit a leap and grab response. Unfortunately, in this group of males, other males are the only ones moving.  Time after time, I witnessed an overzealous male singer grab onto another overzealous male singer.  The grabber, lost in the passion of the moment, expects a loving embrace while the one being amplexed reacts with a harsh indignant “Ewwwwwwwwwwwwww” call.

  This “Ewwwwwwwwwww” call immediately informs the first of the errors of his ways.  It is a verbal slap on the back of the head that says “Back off Jack- I’m a guy too.” The first releases his hold and the two look away as if it never happened.  Soon the girls will come and all will be forgotten. Until that time, all resume their “Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee be guys” chant.

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