The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Sunday, November 19, 2006

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 enough to perch in trees. By fall, when acorns are ripe, several families may congregate into huge feeding flocks.

The Native American had already domesticated wild turkeys by the time the first Europeans reached North America, and it was one of the very 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 05, 2006

South Texas Butterfly Numbers Peak in Early November
by Ro Wauer

It seems strange that just when our daily temperatures begin to decline that butterflies, both the number of species and total individuals, would increase so dramatically. Instead of finding 30 or 35 species in my yard daily, the number of species can be closer to 50 from late October through much of November. This increase is especially odd for a cold-blooded creature that requires warmth for its mobility and very existence. Most other insects decline in numbers as daily temperatures drop.

The reasons for increased butterfly numbers this time of year are varied. One of the most obvious is the appearance of several species that are either migrants or emigrants that are moving southward. Monarchs are the best known of these, and the only true butterfly migrant. Monarchs move southward from their breeding grounds all across the northern United States and southern Canada, passing through Texas in fall, and continuing to select wintering grounds in central Mexico. In spring, these same individuals will move northward into Texas, lay eggs on milkweed host plants, and most then die. The next generations will continue northward to their summering grounds.

All our other butterfly species that move through our area in fall never return. Some continue southward into Mexico, but others remain in Texas at least until temperatures become unbearable and they die from the lack of nectar or old age. The lifespan of most butterflies is limited to a few weeks only, although monarchs can survive up to eight months and mourning cloaks, an extremely rare species in South Texas, is known to survive for up to eleven months. This large butterfly can hide in protected places in winter, and it may actually fly about on sunny days even with snow on the ground.

Some of our most common emigrants currently present in our area include southern dogface, cloudless and large orange sulphurs, American and painted ladies, and red admiral. The red admiral is an interesting species because it often remains in our area throughout the winter months; in some places it is referred to as a "winter butterfly." Although it can occur in South Texas anytime of the year, it is most numerous from October to April. Although not as widespread throughout North America as the gray hairstreak, it does occur from Guatemala to Alaska.

Another group of butterflies that increase our fall numbers are those that stray northward from their breeding grounds in extreme South Texas, such as the Lower Rio Grande Valley. One of the earliest to appear is the white peacock, a butterfly that also occurs as a temporary colonist in our area. Temporary colonists occur when a female from some distant location is able to find the right kind of larval foodplant to lay her eggs, and those eggs hatch and eventually produce a new crop of butterflies, away from their normal range. Those new colonists may survive for several years, or until an extremely cold prior (like our Christmas 2004 snowstorm) occurs that wipes out the entire population, adults, eggs, and caterpillars. Zebra heliconians (a black and white striped, long-winged butterfly) is one example of a temporary colonist in our area that was reasonable common before the 2004 storm, but has not been seen since. And Julia heliconians also fit into this category. It is long-winged, orange butterfly has become reasonably common this year, although it has not been seen in our area for two or three years. It is possible that with the number of these butterflies this year that it will reproduce and become resident for a few years.

Some of the other more tropical species that are possible this time of year include Florida white; tailed orange; mimosa yellow; soldier, a monarch look-alike; sickle-winged skipper, a species that might better be called “bat-winged” skipper; white-patched skipper; and Laviana white-skipper.

Still a third reason for increased numbers of butterflies this time of year is the general decline of nectaring plants outside of our gardens. And right now some of our best nectaring plants, such as crucitas and bonesets that we grow in our gardens, are in full bloom. These plants act as marvelous butterfly magnets, bringing a wonderful variety of these flying gems to where they are more likely to be found and enjoyed.