The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Thursday, January 30, 2003

Birds and Beyond
Picking a Field Guide
Claire Curry, January 2003, Wise County Messenger, © 2003

Everyone needs at least one field guide to identify birds, but which one to pick? There are guides with photographs, guides with paintings, regional guides, national guides, and even guides with digitally edited photographs. Hopefully this article will help you if you need some advice on picking one.

First, there is the debate between photographs and paintings. Photographs show a picture of a real bird, so it would be the most realistic, right? Not always, since lighting, angle, and individual variation can make a photo look much different than the bird you’re looking at. Paintings are a sort of “average” representation of a particular species or plumage. However, not all bird paintings are equal and some may not have accurate shapes, or may not capture the bird’s general appearance.

Many guides are available, but here I will describe several of the best. The Sibley Guide to Birds, by David Allen Sibley, has (in my opinion) the best artwork of all the field guides. There are more plumages and forms than other books, and all birds are shown in flight. Some people don’t like it for a field guide because it is larger than most pocket-sized field guides. However, I find that the stunning and accurate artwork makes up for the bulky size. The National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, another very popular guide, is also illustrated with paintings. Several artists contributed to this guide, so the quality of the paintings varies from mediocre to beautiful. This book has many more rarities than the Sibley Guide, and also is smaller sized. Birds of North America, by Kenn Kaufman, uses digitally edited photographs. The birds are digitally edited to highlight field marks, which helps take away some of the limitations of photos. In addition to showing adult, male and female, and juvenile plumages, some species have several pictures showing different postures or views of one plumage. Stokes Field Guide to the Birds, by Donald and Lillian Stokes, has two volumes (one each for Eastern and Western regions.) This is a photographic guide, with its strong point being species accounts including some life history and behavior.

Finally, your field guide needs to be one that you like. If possible, browse through the pictures, and find a familiar bird. Does the painting or photo accurately capture the essence of the bird? Does the range map seem reasonably accurate? Are you comfortable with the format of the book?

Once you get your field guide, remember that sometimes, for that one hard-to-identify bird, you may need to consult several guides to make an identification. You can never have too many bird books!

Sunday, January 12, 2003

Raccoons - They are Intelligent, Neat, and Dainty
Ro Wauer, January 12, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

There are few mammals so well known and admired, but also despised, as the raccoon. It may be cute and fun to watch one minute, but a cunning and devious creature that can wipe out bird feeders or anything else edible left unattended the next. Although it prefers wetlands, it possesses the ability to live practically anywhere in South Texas. One reason for this is its omnivorous behavior, able to eat almost anything alive or dead. Fish, frogs, snakes, snails, small mammals and birds and their eggs are all susceptible. Even vegetable matter is regularly consumed: mesquite beans, grapes, acorns, persimmons, cactus fruits, and all the berries it can find. And in summer, it may even utilize adult and larval wasps and their stored foods.

Raccoons are easily recognized by their robust, small dog-sized appearance, black mask, and ringed tail; an extremely large "coon" may weigh 50 pounds. They are known to scientists as Procyon lotor, Latin for "fore-dog" that washes its food. This is because of its basic appearance and its eccentric habit of washing its food whenever possible. It may even carry food for a considerable distance to wash it before eating. Watching a raccoon with food proves its dexterity; they are able to use their "hands" almost as well as humans. Their fingers are long and extremely sensitive. They are used not only to grasp food, but also to grasp branches when climbing trees, hunt for crayfish, open mussels, strip husks for corn, and pick fruit and nuts. There are few more amazing sights than an old raccoon crouched down by the edge of a pool, looking elsewhere as if totally uninterested, while its fingers are busy exploring every nook and cranny under the bank for some frog that thought itself safe in the underwater retreat.

Raccoons normally den in hollow trees or logs, but sometimes utilize cavities in banks or cliffs, or even in old deserted barns and other structures. Daylight hours are usually spent sleeping, as raccoons are naturally nocturnal in their habits. Their breeding season begins in February, and a single litter of one to seven (average 3 or 4) tiny youngsters are born in April or May. Females handle all of the family chores, from tending the young to teaching them the way of life after leaving the nest. The male refuses to assume any responsibility. William Davis, in "The Mammals of Texas," tells about a female that reared her three newborn in a "nail keg that had been fashioned as a nest site for wood ducks and wired 16 feet up a tree standing in water 20 feet from shore." Raccoons also have been found using a crow's nest as a daytime roost, and in Colorado a mother and her "naked and blind young occupied a large magpie nest" in a scrub oak tree,

Raccoons are polygamous or promiscuous in their relations. Females reach sexual maturity in nine to ten months, but the males become sexually active only when about two years of age. After a brief midwinter courtship, he returns to a solitary bachelor's life.

Early Americans valued the raccoon for its meat, that has a good taste but rather greasy. And its fur was famous for coonskin caps in frontier days. Although it is rarely eaten today, and coonskin caps are more a novelty than a practicality, raccoons remain one of our most abundant and fascinating wildlife.