The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Saturday, April 30, 2005

Cross Timbers Wildlife News
Civet Cats
Jim Dillard, Wildlife Biologist, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, Mineral Wells

From all the calls I get at my office and conversations down at the coffee shop about strange animals and “things in the night” folks have seen, thought they saw, heard or were told about by a friend or relative, I’m not so sure there isn’t another whole world of animals out there unknown to science. Mix in local common names, myths, legends and old wives tales passed down from generation to generation about these elusive creatures and the credibility of even the most seasoned wildlife biologist can be put in question. Civet cats are a case in point. Polecats are another story!

When I was a kid, it seemed that every “civet cat” that wandered into the small farming town where I grew up down in Central Texas found its way under our house and remained there for days. I wasn’t sure what a civet cat looked like or how big they got, but according to grandma, they were worse than polecats. There was no doubt when one got under the old house, and about all we could do was open all the windows and doors and hope for a breeze. Eventually, it would either move on or be evicted by my yard dog Jingles which was not always a good thing. Although singularly devoted to protecting the sanctity of our home and yard from all intruders, Jingles was a slow learner and invariably suffered the consequences of his loyalty. Good dog, good dog – now go away – far, far away! Bathing Jingles in a concoction of tomato juice and peroxide to rid him of the malodorous spray from the civet cat seemed to just transfer the smell from him to me. I never did actually see one of those civet cats but imagined them to be vicious cat-like creatures that could whip their weight in yard dogs.

The Eastern Spotted Skunk (Spilogale putorius) or “civet cat” is neither a civet nor a cat, rather a member of the North American Family Mephitidae that includes other Texas species such as Stripped Skunk, Hooded Skunk, Hog-nosed skunk and Western Spotted Skunk. True civets belong the weasel-cat-like Family Viverridae found in Asia and Africa that also includes the mongoose. The scientific name Spilogale is Greek for spotted (spilo) weasel (gale). The species name putorius is Latin and refers to the smell. The Eastern Spotted Skunk ranges from the Texas Panhandle across North Texas and east of the Balcones Escarpment into Central, East and South Texas. It’s replaced in the Trans Pecos region by the Western Spotted Skunk (Spilogale gracilis.)

Spotted skunks are half to a third the size of their striped skunk cousin, averaging about 22 inches from nose to tip of tail. They’re more weasel-like with a small head and short ears. Markings include a white spot on their forehead and in front of each ear, six distinct white strips down their back and sides and two uninterrupted white bands across their rump. Other white spots decorate their posterior near the base of their tail which is usually solid black with a white tip. An adult will tip the scales at about two pounds. There are five toes on each foot with the claws on their front feet being twice a long as those on the hind feet. In the wild, they’ll live only one to two years.

Spotted skunks are solitary and more nocturnal than other skunk species. I have encountered only one or two over the years while conducting deer spotlight surveys at night here in North Texas. They prefer wooded areas or tall-grass prairies with rocky outcrops and crevices where they hunt for food. Being good climbers, they can climb into trees to den in hollows or cavities. They also dig burrows in the ground or confiscate those dug by other animals or take up residence in hollow logs, abandoned (or occupied) buildings or rock and brush piles. Although they don’t hibernate, they may sleep for up to a month at a time during the winter by living on stored fat in their bodies.

Eastern Spotted Skunks are opportunistic feeders and eat a wide variety of animals and plants including rats, mice, rabbits, birds, bird eggs, insects, fruits (grapes, persimmons, etc.,) seeds and carrion. Their small size enables them to squeeze through small openings in pursuit of food, including poultry houses where they are unwelcome by farmers (and especially the poultry.) They’re good “mousers” and considered beneficial in helping control rodents around barns and feed storage buildings.

Spotted skunks breed in March and April but their eggs may not be fertilized for up to two weeks. Males do not participate in rearing of the young. Following a 50-65 day gestation period, two to nine (usually four-six) lightly furred kittens weighing 10 grams or so are born. Their eyes open in about a month, and by 46 days, they can produce their own musk. At three months, they are adult size and reach sexual maturity in 9-10 months. Some females may breed again in July for a second litter of little stinkers.

As with other skunks, Eastern Spotted Skunks are capable of using their powerful fumigating defensive strategy to survive. Unless you just happen to walk right up on one and give it no other choice, they’ll give you some visual clues that you’re too close and had better back off – or else. And they do not favorably respond to “heeeeear, kitty-kitty-kitty-kitty” either. When worse comes to worse, they’ll do a handstand on their forefeet, raise their tail and let you or whatever is agitating them have it. Or, they’ll drop to all fours, bend their body in a “U” shape and direct their derrière and head toward the intended target. A salvo of methyl mercaptan from two glands located just inside their anus can be sprayed accurately 12-20 feet. Musk from the Eastern Spotted Skunk is considered to be more potent than that of other skunk species.

Enemies of Eastern Spotted Skunk’s are great-horned owls, coyotes, foxes, bobcats, man and slow-learning dogs like Jingles. Many meet their fate on our roadways. They’re sort of a good news – bad news little critter, one to respect but also one to appreciate for keeping us on our toes when we’re out poking around in the great outdoors. Until next time, I’ll see you down the road and God Bless America!

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Spanish Daggers are Blooming!
by Ro Wauer

It again is that time of the year when our tall, heavy-leaved yuccas are blooming. On a recent trip into the Texas Hill Country, these marvelous plants dotted the landscape. And earlier in extreme South Texas and further south in Mexico, Spanish daggers were also in full bloom. In fact, Spanish dagger stalks covered with flowers were a common sight at vendors along the Mexican roadsides. The flowers are eaten throughout northern Mexico.

Spanish daggers, with their tall white-flowered stalks, are difficult to miss this time of year. Some of these plants may reach 20 feet in height, although most are less than half that. But whatever their size they are extremely attractive when in bloom. The great masses of flowers have given the plant the name of "Our Lord's Candles," which is most appropriate. Other common names include "Spanish Bayonet" and "Palma Pita." Scientists know the plant as Yucca treculeana.

Our Spanish dagger is but one of about twenty species of yuccas in Texas. Most botanists place yuccas in the lily family, while others lump them with agaves in the agave family. South Texas's Spanish daggers possess thick, dark green or bluish green leaves that branch out in all directions from the stalk. Some of these fleshy leaves may be 40 inches long and three inches wide at the base and taper to a very fine, sharp point. They can easily puncture the skin or clothing. The flowers, borne in dense masses, contain three outer sepals and three inner petals up to two inches long. After blooming in spring, sometimes from February to mid-summer, leathery fruits appear. These may be four inches long and filled with tightly packed black seeds.

Each yucca is a complete ecosystem, utilized by a wide array of creatures, large and small. Besides those that feed on the fleshy flowers, ground squirrels and wood rats nibble on the fleshy leaves. And the wood rats, better known as pack rats, often build a nest at the base of a yucca, hauling in volumes of materials for the cache. And several birds build nests on the yuccas, usually within the protection of the daggerlike leaves. The birds, such as mockingbirds, also take advantage of the tall yuccas for singing and observation posts year-round.

But the yucca ecosystem also includes a number of much smaller creatures that require closer inspection. The most important of these is the tiny pronuba moth, which sips nectar from the yucca flowers and, in doing so, fertilizes the plant. All yuccas are dependent upon pronuba moths for their long-term survival. The female pronuba moth collects pollen from the yucca flowers with long, curled, spinelike tentacles. She rolls the pollen into a ball that she tucks into a depression behind her head. She then flies to a second yucca where she inserts her eggs into the ovary of another flower with her piercing ovipositor. After ovipositing, she thrusts the pollen taken from the previous flower into the stigma of the flower in which she laid her eggs.
Elizabeth Silverthorne, in Legends and Lore of Texas Wildflowers, explains what happens next: "The moth eggs and the seeds develop together in the yucca ovary, and the tiny caterpillars eat the developing seeds. But since there are only two or three larvae in each blossom and hundreds of seeds in each ovary, the plants is not harmed... Eventually the larva chews a hole in the seed pod and spins a thread by which it lowers itself to the ground. Burrowing a few inches into the soil, it slowly completes its metamorphosis and emerges as an adult moth the following year just as the yucca is in bloom - and the cycles begins again."

Native Americans and Texas settlers also utilized Spanish daggers in numerous ways. Besides eating the new flowers, that can be eaten raw, cut up and fried or pickled, the leaves are very fibrous and were fashioned into sandals, baskets, rope, and cloth. The petals are high in vitamin C. They also were used for fencing and in thatching for walls of huts. The fruits were also eaten, baked, peeled, striped of fiber, and boiled down to a pulp that was then rolled out in sheets and dried; the material could then be stored and used like molasses on bread and tortillas. Prepared fruits also were fermented for a powerful beverage, and soap, known as "amole," was made from some yucca roots.

Although Spanish daggers are seldom utilized today like they were by our ancestors, they still offer a marvelous example of our natural heritage.


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Sunday, April 10, 2005

Lots of New Butterfly Gardens
by Ro Wauer

On a recent trip to the Lower Rio Grande Valley, I was impressed once again by the abundance of butterfly gardens being installed. Five years ago, only Santa Ana and Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuges and Sabal Palm Audubon Sanctuary had butterfly gardens. Now there are marvelous butterfly gardens at Edinburg, the new World Birding Site at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, Hugh Ramsey Nature Park at Harlingen, and the North American Butterfly Association's 100-acre International Butterfly Park along the Military Highway just east of Bentsen. All of these are designed to attract butterflies and to allow butterfly enthusiasts to wander about to watch and photograph those flying gems. The hobby of butterflying has truly come of age.

There are a number of reasons for this new wave of nature appreciation. Besides an increased interest in the outdoors, perhaps a way to reduce the stress of everyday life, is the recent appearance of several really good butterfly field guides. All of the new guides show butterflies in their nature state, that is photographs as they occur in the field, not photographs of specimens that are often difficult to utilize. My favorite butterfly field guide, one that has been available for about two years now, is the "Butterflies of North America," a Kaufman Focus Guide by Jim Brock and Kenn Kaufman. A really superb book! And my "Butterflies of the Lower Rio Grande Valley" includes all 300 species that have been recorded in the valley.

Another factor that has enhanced butterfly watching in recent years is the appearance of good close-focusing binoculars. The typical birding binoculars that do not focus closer than 10 to 15 feet just don't work for seeing detailed features of little butterflies. But close-focusing binoculars, now available from most of the top quality binocular manufactures, allow one to focus on a subject from as close as four feet. It makes a world of difference.

All of this has created a huge cadre of butterfly-watchers, folks who travel about visiting key areas in search for butterflies they have not previously seen. And to accommodate this new hoard of eco-tourists, butterfly gardens are springing up all across the state and elsewhere, especially in the southern half of the United States. As might be expected, new books, brochures, and magazine articles on butterfly plants are now in vogue as well. For instance, the North American Butterfly Association has produced a number of brochures on local butterfly plants. Derek Muschalek of Yorktown and I wrote one of those for the "Central Gulf Coast Area of Texas," available via the Internet at www.naba.org. It includes various sections, including top nectar flowers, those that don't work in this region, top caterpillar food plants, and common butterflies for your garden and yard.

The top 10 butterfly nectar flowers included, in order of their value in attracting butterflies, include crucita or Euptorium odoratum, cowpen daisy, tropical sage, mealy sage, frog-fruit, Texas palafoxia, palmleaf (Gregg's) eupatorium, Mexican heather, and weeping lantana. Milkweeds are also a necessity, especially in spring and fall when monarchs are passing through our area. Additional very good butterfly nectar flowers include weeping lantana, pentas, sky-flower or Duranta, pink eupatorium, Texas kidneywood, prickly sida, and zinnas.

Of course, any butterfly garden must also include a variety of caterpillar food plants, those plants that are used by butterflies for egg-laying. Some of the top plant species (with some duplication) include blue passionvine, dill, Mexican milkweed, common sunflower, candlesticks (Cassia alata), canna lily, crucita, and cowpen daisy.

For those readers preparing their gardens, you can also appreciate butterflies with very little extra effort by planting some of the above butterfly plants. Enjoy!


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Sunday, April 03, 2005

Spiders, One of Our Least Loved Animals
by Ro Wauer

For much of my life I had a mild case of arachnophobia, a fear of spiders. But in about 1967 or '68, while I was working at Big Bend National Park, I spent a few days helping Dr. Willis Gertsch of the University of Arizona, collecting spiders. By the end of that experience my fear had turned to admiration and curiosity; I was even able to pick up a few (with forceps) to examine them more closely. Before that, my orientation about spiders probably evolved from the Mother Goose rhyme "Little Miss Muffet, Sat of a tuffet, Eating of curds and whey. There came a big spider, And sat down beside her, and frightened Miss Muffet away."

Recently, while browsing at the Victoria library, I discovered a fascinating little book by Paul Hillyard, "The Book of the Spider," that reminded me again of these truly fascinating creatures. The approximately 35,000 species of spiders in the world are related to scorpions, mites, ticks, and other arachnids; they are not insects. Spiders possess eight legs, two leg-like palps (mouthparts), and simple eyes, usually eight in number. They have limited vision, relying mainly on touch. The abdomen contains the vital organs, including silk glands. Spinning organs (two, four or six, depending on the species), from which strands of silk are issued through tiny "spigots," are located at the end of the abdomen.

Spider webs often are the most obvious evidence of spiders, although some species do not build webs. But most trail a dragline and secure it behind them. And many small spiders use long airborne threads to disperse. Webbing is also used to wrap up or "mummify" their prey, and some females wrap up the male after mating. And some crab spider males tie the female with silk, the "bridal veil," prior to mating. Spider webs can be amazingly strong and are often sticky. Our local garden spider's webbing is a good example.

Humans have learned to utilize spider webbing in a number of ways. Natives in New Guinea construct a six-foot circle of cane in which a spider spins its web within the circle. That webbing is so strong that it is used to catch fish up to one pound. The strong threads of garden spiders were once used as crosshairs in telescopes and other fine optical instruments. The U.S. Government currently is supporting genetic engineering for the use of spider webbing for bulletproof vests. Regular Kevlar material can stretch up to four percent before breaking, but spider silk will stretch as much as 15 percent before breaking. And in France and Spain, cobweb spiders are released in wine cellars to provide an authentic ambiance and also to control the insects that bore into corks. Other uses have included the use of spider webs as Band-Aids, medicines, and food.

A spider's life cycle ranges from one to two years, although female tarantulas and trap-door spiders can survive for up to twenty years. Most species can survive for long periods, even months, without eating, and many never touch standing drinking water. Spider diets can contain almost any kind of animal small enough to get caught in a web. Insects are most often captured, but larger species such as hummingbirds and lizards are occasionally taken as well. The body of the victim is punctured by the spider's fangs and either killed outright or paralyzed to preserve the prey until later. When eating, the spider's digestive juices liquefy the inside of its victim that is then sucked out by the stomach's pumping action. The remainder is often mashed up with the spider's strong jaws and eaten.

Spiders undoubtedly are tough and fascinating creatures. Remember the Mother Goose rhyme: "Incey Wincey spider Climbing up the spout; Down came the rain And washed the spider out; Out came the sunshine And dried up all the rain; Incey Wincey spider Climbing up again."


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