The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Sunday, November 21, 2004

The Turkey Is Our Symbol of Thanksgiving
by Ro Wauer

The turkey, that huge, ungainly bird of the oak woodlands and barnyards, has become a common symbol of Thanksgiving. No "Turkey Day" would be complete without it.

We are told that turkey is one of our most nutritious and healthy foods; we are encouraged to eat it year-round. For me, however, except for that marvelous smell from the oven, freshly cooked turkey is rarely as appealing as it is two or more days later. I like it best when I can pick the remaining meat from the bones or eat it in a sandwich or enchiladas.

The vast majority of the frozen turkeys we purchase at the local grocery stores are mass-produced and are a far cry from the critters that occur in the wild. Harry Oberholser, in "The Bird Life of Texas," provides a marvelous comparison: "A wild gobbler has an alert eye in a slender blue head, a streamlined body covered with highly burnished feathers, and long legs; the domestic bird has a dull eye sunk into a swollen red head, a flabby body clothed in dirty feathers, and dumpy legs. The former bird runs better than a race horse through the woods and flies as lightly as a ruffed grouse; the latter can scarcely walk about its pen, much less fly." Wild turkeys can be separated from feral turkeys by the tuftlike beard hanging from the wild male (occasionally female) bird's chest.

Wild turkeys are magnificent birds, especially a courting male that struts about in a pompous manner with a fanlike tail display and expressive gobbling. The polygamous gobbler maintains a sizable harem, fending off rival males. The hen hides her nest with great care and protects it and a dozen or so eggs against predators and other invaders. Incubation takes about twenty-eight days, but the poults are so precocial that the hen and young leave the nest immediately after the last egg has hatched. Within three weeks, they are able to fly well enough to perch overnight in trees. By fall, when acorns are ripe, several families may congregate into huge feeding flocks.

The Native Americans had already domesticated wild turkeys by the time the first Europeans reached North America, and it was one of the few animal imports to the Old World. The abundant wild turkeys of the New World (estimated at 10 million) became all important to the settlers. They were so important, in fact, that when our "national bird" was chosen, the turkey was second only to the bald eagle. Benjamin Franklin defended the turkey as his choice because it was "more respectable" than the thieving scavenging bald eagle.

As Europeans moved westward, wild turkeys were plentiful throughout the eastern half of the continent, but by the late 1800s, only remnants of the original population remained. So, today, the Texas turkey population is largely a product of reintroductions from other localities. But because of its adaptable nature, it has become commonplace again in our fields and woods. No other creature is so representative of our natural world, as we prepare to give thanks for our many blessing, as our wild turkey.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

House wrens are common in winter
by Ro Wauer

It seems like every pile of brush and wooded area in all of South Texas can claim its very own house wren. This little, rather nondescript songbird has literally invaded our area this year, probably more so than any year than I can remember. It isn't that it is so obvious, because it is such an elusive and solitary species, but its loud calls and occasional songs are commonplace to anyone paying even the slightest attention. Most evident are its sharp sputtering calls, like metallic chips and harsh scolding, although a partial song, especially during the morning hours, is also possible. Its full song, usually limited to spring and on its summertime breeding grounds, is a rapid, bubbling chatter that rises in pitch, then falls off, and usually is given many times in succession.

Oftentimes, even when it is obvious that one of these little songbirds is close by, it can be difficult to see. It is a skulker that rarely spends much time in the open. Sometimes, with low squeaking or pishing noises that get its attention, it may come into the open. But that lasts only a second or two, and then it is back into the safety of its brushy home area. When a watcher finally gets a decent look, our target wren is small, even more so than our common Carolina wren, grayish-brown with barred back and tail, and with pale underparts. Marvelous coloration for concealment. It differs from the larger and reddish-brown Carolina wren, from the similar-sized Bewick's wren that has a somewhat longer tail and an obvious white eyebrow, and it is larger than the reddish, short-tailed winter wren.

House wrens are winter residents only in South Texas, moving into our area by September, but leaving for their more northern breeding grounds by April; a few northbound migrants may still be moving through until early June. Its breeding grounds lie to the north all across the United States and into the south-central portion of Canada. It does nest in Texas along the Canadian River in the eastern Panhandle and westward to Hartley County, as well as in two Trans-Pecos highland sites: Guadalupe and Davis mountains. Plus, it is one of the few songbirds that readily utilize nest-boxes for nesting.

Perhaps, more than most of our resident wintertime songbirds, the house wren does us a great service by feeding on a wide variety of insect pests. One study suggests that its diet consists of 98 percent insects and only two percent vegetable matter. That 98 percent consists of one-half grasshoppers, crickets, locusts, and beetles and one-half caterpillars, bugs, and spiders. Especially during the nesting season, one study showed that a pair of house wrens that were feeding young during one 65-hour period made 667 visits to the nest. They fed their young 637 pieces of food, consisting of 161 beetle larvae, 141 leafhoppers, 112 young grasshoppers, 56 bugs, 29 crickets, 10 moths, 5 ants, 4 miscellaneous and 81 pieces of unidentifiable. Although wintertime residents are no longer feeding young, they still provide us with an amazing service.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Fire Ants Are Everywhere after the Rains
by Ro Wauer

The recent rains seemingly have increased the fire ants in my yard. I realize that their total numbers may not have increased, only the evidence of their presence. The above ground fire ant mounds have gone from a few to dozens. And according to Beck and Garrett's "Texas Bug Book," each mound can contain 80,000 to 240,000 workers, and also as many as 3,000 queens. These are the nonnative Brazilian red fire ants, not one of the three native species. But whatever they are, that is one heck of a lot of fire ants! The Brazilian fire ants first appeared in Alabama around 1940, and have since invaded the entire South.

I scratched open a couple of the mounds in my yard, with a rake of course so that those little hateful creatures could not get to me, and found literally thousands of ants and hundreds of eggs. The ants swarmed about trying to attack whatever was causing the disturbance. I hope they broke their jaws on the metal rake tongs. And when I returned to that same disturbed mounds a couple hours later, they already had repaired much of the mounds, and none of the eggs were evident. I suspect the queen had already produced plenty of replacements. In fact, some biologists claim that disturbing the mounds only lead to increased ant numbers.

The fire ants amazing survival ability is its use of multiqueen colonies. Not only can they rebound faster, but also their densities, like those in my yard, help them fight off other ant species competing for food. The imported nonnatives may possess ten times more colonies in an area than any native ant.

The significant increase in Brazilian fire ants during the last half-century have had serious effects on many of our native wildlife species. Thirty years ago, anyone turning over a rock in a South Texas pasture could find spiders, centipedes, millipedes, and a number of other native invertebrates; now there often is little more than Brazilian fire ants. Researchers tell us that in some areas up to 90 percent of all native ant populations and 40 percent of all other native insect species have been killed off by these nonnative fire ants. And the decline of some of our grassland birds, such as various sparrows, meadowlarks, bobwhite, and our wintering loggerhead shrike, has been linked to the spread of fire ant colonies. Also, many biologists blame fire ants, along with habitat destruction, for the loss of our prairie-chickens. Even white-tailed deer fawns have been killed by Brazilian fire ants. A fire ant grabs onto its prey with its mouth and attacks the victims with a stinger on its abdomen.

Not long ago, after a heavy wind, while picking up loose branches, my arms were suddenly covered with fire ants; I had unknowingly disturbed a mound under the branches. Although I managed to immediately rub them all off to avoid them from crawling onto my upper arms, a dozen or so managed to sting me. The bites burned at first and itched for a couple days afterwards. Tiny red welts appeared by the next morning. But many people are far more allergic than I am, and a similar experience can have far more serious results.

Brazilian fire ants are mostly a curse, as they create trouble for humans and wildlife alike, including fouling up electrical devices. One the other hand they are said to have helped reduce fleas, ticks, termites, chiggers, and a few other troublesome pests. I have yet to be convinced that the chigger populations have declined. It seems to me that there is now the great double-curse of living in South Texas: chiggers and Brazilian fire ants.