Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

July 7, 2008

I Am Sooooo Sorry. Really I Am.

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:09 pm


 Every once and a great while, muskrats make the news. They normally go about their daily lives existing just under the “radar.” Give them a bed of cat-tails, some water to swim in, and at least a three month reproductive start on the trapping season, and they are good for the long run.

  If you’re from Monroe, a trapper, a regular reader of my blog, or a combination of these, the muskrat will be a bit more familiar to you. I bring the subject up all the time. Otherwise, the incidences of general muskrat fame are few and far between. You have to go back to the Captain and Tennille in the 70’s or the Cowardly Lion in 30’s to hear public mention of the creature.

  The lion conjured up notice of the muskrat’s courage while protecting his musk in the Wizard of Oz. Since Oz is one of the best movies of all time, you could say that the muskrat has made it really big. I’m pretty sure, however, most people won’t recall this part as the high point – nothing can top those creepy flying monkeys. Unfortunately it was the hit song Muskrat Love, one of the worst songs of all time, which still sticks in the modern mind whenever muskrats enter the conversation.
  Such a thing, by this I mean the public mentioning of a muskrat, just happened last week.  On June 27, 2008 most of the national news outlets led off with the following Associated Press byline: “WINFIELD, MO. – A heroic effort by hundreds of townspeople, volunteers and National Guardsmen to hold back the Mississippi River failed today – undone by a burrowing muskrat.” Yes, all the frantic efforts of the population of Winfield to hold back the surging waters of the Old Man River were undone “by an animal weighting no more than 5 pounds.” 

  The muskrat burrow riddled levee failed just before dawn and opened up a 30 foot breach where waters poured into the fields leading to the town. Nearly all the 720 residents, aided by the Guardsmen, scrambled to re-erect a four foot wall of sandbags to stop the flood waters. The breech occurred under the existing pile of sandbags already stacked onto the Pin Oak Levee.

  In the end, it looks like the town was saved, but you can imagine how folks around those parts feel about muskrats. A local is quoted in the article as saying “It’s so disappointing. With all the guns in this country, couldn’t we kill a muskrat?”

  I don’t normally do this, but I followed a few of the public comment strings that followed the article postings on the USA Today website and some other venues. The comments covered the gamut of human intellect (which is a wide range). “I did not know we had muskrats in Missouri,” one citizen wrote, but concluded “at least muskrats do not know what they are doing.”  This person pointed out that a levee was once busted by a drunken guy in a motor boat. I’m not sure that guy knew what he was doing either, but the point is valid. Others laid blame on the president for forcing the muskrats to resort to terrorist tactics. An eye winking writer hinted at a dark and secret muskrat link with the descendents of Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow and a secret animal plot to destroy all human life. 

  I found some delight in a learned comment claiming an “Ah Ha! gotcha” moment. “People don’t shoot muskrats, lady” answered one helpful opinionator in reference to the gun comment in the AP article, “You trap them.”  While this statement is mostly true within a modern context, it doesn’t hold historical water (pun intended).  The post prompted a “flood” of replies. “Yes, actually we did shoot them,” was one answer from a fellow talking about “back in the day” when they would plink muskrats off the dikes in order to keep them from doing the very thing that just happened.

  It is with a sense of historical duty that I also feel the need to add a snippet here from a much earlier newspaper article. In the Dec. 14, 1906 issue of the Monroe Democrat (maybe you still have this one in your newspaper pile?) which states: “The Monroe Yacht Club contemplates holding a muskrat hunt as soon as there is sufficient ice in the marshes, the object being both to give the boys a great days sport, as well as provide a good proportion of the muskrats for the annual banquets…”

  Muskrats do make a habit of destroying dikes and levees. It’s not that they mean to be destructive; it just that they are doing what comes natural. In the absence of cat-tails or rushes, muskrats construct earthen burrows with extensive side galleries and nest chambers. The entrances to these structures, like those of their cat-tail mound houses, are underwater and therefore invisible to the land based observer.

  Their local burrowing activities are especially evident along the control dikes at the Pointe Mouillee marsh.  I took this picture a few days ago in order to illustrate my point and to shed some light on the Missouri muskrat fiasco. You’ll see how the dike is literally honeycombed with ‘rat burrows where they are exposed due to a lowered water level. There is no sign of this above the old water level.  All it takes is for a few of these burrows to connect with the ones coming in from the other side and you have a potential disaster on your hands.

  Yes, dike-digging levee-liquidating ‘rats need to be controlled for the sake of humanity. Go for it, Winfield residents – it is your right. Muskrats always have and always will bounce back from any effort to eliminate them, so there is no danger of extinction on their part. The only danger here is an overreaction due to a small bit of bad press.  

  Let’s leave the final word to poster knitter4democracy who says “Muskrats are really cute and they do good work a lot of the time.” While I would never use those exact words I will plead, on behalf of the lowly rodent, not to be too harsh on muskrats. They are just doing what they are supposed to do in order to protect their musk. I am sure, if asked in the proper manner, they would express their sincere apologies.

July 5, 2008

Long Tongue Do See

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:40 pm

Last time we met, I introduced you to the Flicker’s tongue.  This time I’d like to stick another tongue out at you – a much longer tongue on a much smaller critter. In this case, the tongue in question is found on a type of moth called a Laurel Sphinx.

  Although endowed with some wonderfully cryptic coloration meant to blend into a barky background, this individual stood out like a sore thumb against the pale siding shingles of my house. I decided to pluck the thing off its moorings, as a favor, mind you. I figured it was better for her to have a temporary inconvenience caused by a curious non-predator than a permanent ending caused by a real predator.

  This species of moth is relatively un-common in our neck of the woods. It was nice to get an opportunity to “collect” one via the magic of digital photography (see above).  As a group, sphinxes are sleek winged flyers that get their name from their distinctive larvae. The caterpillars are better known as horn worms (because of the pokey appendage sticking out of their hind ends). When frightened, they pull up the front half of their body and look for all the world like Egyptian sphinxes.

  All Sphinx moths are endowed with long hollow tongues that enable them to sip nectar from deep tubular flowers. The larger sphinxes, such as the Laurel, can imbibe from deeper flowers such as the Trumpet Vine.  Inch for inch, their tongue is one of the longest in nature. It extends out several inches when uncoiled – this equals the length of their body. Now that’s a tongue!  I inserted a stick into the center of the tongue coil and un-rolled it as far as the creature would allow (see here).

  Once I finished with the tongue examination I held the large moth in my hand and let it prepare for take off.  It revved up it’s engines and trembled all over as a means to warm up its flight muscles (see here). After a few minutes it was ready to go. Given the nature of this discussion, I should say that it was off in a lick (sorry, I had to say that).

July 2, 2008

Long Tongue No See

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:53 pm

  “It was about this high,” the earnest fellow declared as he held his hands about 3 feet apart. “It was brownish and had speckles all over. The head was all red with a lighter throat. Oh yes, it had a long beak too – something like a woodpecker beak.”  For a brief moment I entertained thoughts that maybe a specimen of the incredibly rare Red-headed Pixal Crane had landed in town and that the observer had truly described to me the find of the ages.  Just in case, I probed.

  I questioned the size again and found that the bird had shrunk in size over the last few seconds. It now vacillated between 20 -24 inches high. “It was up on a hill, so it may have looked bigger than it really was,” the man admitted.  I held my hands about a foot apart and asked if it could have been that size. “I suppose,” he said.  When asked about color and anything else that might have been distinctive he repeated his “brownish and speckled” theme and emphasized the long beak. “The red was more on the back of his head, now that I think about it.”

  I asked him if it was on the ground.  He said yes, but up on a hill.  Speckled? Yes. Long beak? Yes, like a woodpecker. Red on head?  Some, a little on the back of the head. Sad that ornithological history had not been made on this day, I concluded that he saw a Northern Flicker – a large type of woodpecker. “But aren’t woodpeckers supposed to live in trees?” he asked justifiably. “Yes, but this one spends a lot of time on the ground. They like to eat ants.” I almost added that “ants live on hills and that everything looks big next to them,” but bit my lip.

  When I go into a hardware store and try to describe what I want, I bumble over the proper descriptive words – resorting to words like “thingy” and “flange” (I like the word flange because it sounds so hardwaredy). I am to the hardware guy what this visitor is to me, so it is not in my place to condemn his exaggerations and in-exactitudes.

  I am used to people coming up to me and wanting a tight identification after telling me they saw “a little brown bird with no marks.”  I may attempt an answer and ask about the presence of a flange or something, but have to admit ignorance.  In answering the Flicker question, however, I found myself shaking my head and re-analyzing my view of this common bird.  The more you think about it, it is an odd bird even when described correctly. A woodpecker that wants to be an anteater is like an elf wanting to be a dentist in an animated Christmas special. This is a woodpecker that is always looks down to earth.

  Take a look at the picture above and you’ll see the species in question. Note that it is sitting on the ground, that it is heavily speckled, that it has a long woodpecker bill, and that it is looking down. You can’t see the back of the head in this view, so take my word that it is purplish with a bright heart-shaped red spot in the middle.  On the throat you’ll see a distinctive black crescent mark that looks like a gorget worn around the neck.

  The most distinctive field mark of the Northern Flicker is a bright white rump patch. This feature shines out like a beacon when the bird is seen from behind as it flies away. When the thing is up on a hill this field mark is impossible to see (wink, wink).

  As a card carrying member of the woodpecker family the Flicker has a fine woodpecker-like chisel bill. It even uses this bill to excavate nest holes and tap out syncopated rap music. It can feed on wood boring insects, but has a decided taste for ant meat.  Most ants live on the ground, so the flicker must descend earthward for feasting. Here is where the bird actually shows some adaptive flare (or is it an adaptive flange?).

  Hidden within that impressive beak is an even more impressive tongue.  The tongue measures about 5 inches in length.  It is, according to one reference, one of the longest tongues to be found in nature. This is a proportional reference, not a literal one, but I think an inaccurate one. I happen to know of another creature with a much longer proportional tongue, but I’ll divulge that one next time. Let’s just say that the Flicker tongue is a fine piece of tonguage. This organ is so long, in fact, that it curls around the back of the head and anchors in the nostrils.

  All woodpeckers have long tongues covered with barbs in order to harpoon their tunnel dwelling prey. Flickers differ in having a smoother tongue that is covered instead with sticky saliva.  This is the same weapon of choice that is employed by mammalian anteaters such as Aardvarks, Pangolins, and Giant South American Anteaters. These guys are pros and the Flicker can keep up with the best of ‘em. Employing that long sticky tongue, the bird laps up ants like candy- angling their heads low to the ground and flicking the tongue like a snapped towel.

  As far as I know, the name Flicker stems from their maniacal laughter-like call, but once you’ve seen one flick’n away at an ant hill, you’ll be convinced that this is real reason behind the name.

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