Category: Animals

The Hooded Skunk makes its appearance on the Gulf Coast.


The other chilly evening, as I sat on my deck, contemplating the universe (and watching a satellite traverse the sky), a soft sound interrupted my reverie. I assumed it was the neighbor’s cat, who often visits me for a head scratch.

I looked down and froze. It wasn’t the cat at all, but a skunk…a weird-looking skunk. Having been raised on a farm in southwest Louisiana and having lived in the country, I have seen many skunks, but have never seen one like this. It stopped just a yard from my feet (which were propped up on a chair), I figured I was in trouble. I was too far from the backdoor, and the patio table blocked me from fleeing into the dark yard. My mind raced through the treatments for skunk spray, but at the moment, I couldn’t think of any.
Amazingly, the animal didn’t appear to see me. It stopped at the edge of the deck, still just a few feet away, looking around the edge of the deck into the darkness and seemed to be listening to some sound that it obviously heard, but I could not. Then it ambled away into the darkness, leaving me a little shaken. Worried that it might return and see me, I slowly arose and made my way back into the house.
Usually, the smell of a skunk precedes it, alerting other potential threats to stay away. But this time there was no scent.
Back in the house, the wife and I looked through out books and searched online for the animal. Instead of stripes, it had what looked like a pure white fright wig that extended from the nose to the tip of the tail, drooping down over its sides.

It was, we learned a hooded skunk – (Mephitis macroura) – translated to foul odorous, long tailed animal.

Mostly vegetarian, its preferred food is prickly pear,  but it will also eat insects, bird eggs and small vertebrates. Unlike our native skunks (Mephetis mephitis) which means foul-foul odorous animal – (notice that “foul” is used twice to describe the striped skunk with which we are more familiar), no record of rabies exists among the hooded skunk population, although their spray is just as horrid. They do however have parasites- nematodes, roundworms and fleas, which fairly well excludes them from human consumption.

We also discovered that my skunk was far out of its habitat range, which includes far southern New Mexico and Arizona, and near the Chisos Mountains in  west Texas. It’s range also continues on to most of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras Nicaragua and northwest Costa Rica.

They tend to den near rocky areas, crevices or human-made objects with a permanent water source and plenty of plants. The, like most of the skunk family, are nocturnal and solitary.

Possible reasons for the hooded skunk to have extended its range to east Texas is increased population density, more land taken up for farming, and climate change. As I have mentioned before, we are seeing more and more animals move northward from more tropical and hotter climes. 

As you can see from the photo, it’s a rather interesting animal. I would warn against petting it, however. Since it’s nocturnal,you may want to leave yourself a quick exit path if you are caught unawares staring at the stars on your patio.

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Winter is a haven for birds


It’s literally freezing outside, but I took some moments to do a little bird watching. Since my office borders the waterway, I see a great many waterfowl around.

Last year, I saw an eagle catch a fish, land about 100 yards away and proceed to feed. Awesome sight. Today, despite the freezing temperature  – or perhaps because of it – water birds are congregating.

Herons, both great blues and whites, mallards, black-bellied whistling ducks, cormorants, a few terns and a gull all depending on the water for a meal.

Mallards are migratory, but some live here all year long. Along the waterway, there are four drakes, one of which is an albino, who have masterfully kept all other drakes out of the area. I have seen fewer hens, although twice mallard hens have built nests in our parking lot and hatched eggs…waddling to the water with the ducklings in tow. Once, a duckling was left in the nest. One of the caring souls here took it home and added it to their small flock of domestic ducks. The little fellow grew to adulthood, only to be eaten by a hungry fox.

While cormorants and black-bellied whistling ducks tend to be around all year, there are more of them flying around in the winter. Both species are migratory.

Cormorants tend to spend their winters along the southern coastal states, but also winter in Oklahoma, Arkansas add eastern Tennessee. They spend summers in their breeding grounds of the northern states (Idaho, Montana, The Dakotas, and Canada – although they might extend east into Minnesota and Michigan.) However, some cormorants live along the Gulf Coast all year as well. People often see them on the edges of waterways with their wings outstretched. Because they are diving birds, their feathers tend to become waterlogged. They stretch their wings to dry the feathers. Cormorants can dive up to 25 feet.

Black-bellied whistling ducks are native to the valley and to Mexico, but they do like to overwinter here. As with all the migratory birds however, some live here all year long. These birds nest in mesquite, hackberry, willow, live oak and other trees. They especially like cavity nests in dead trees. They actually do whistle, and look more like geese than ducks. Ornithologists are recording that they are expanding the northern part of their range.

Great blue herons. These large birds feed on just about anything they can catch and swallow. While their favorite food is fish, they will eat ducklings, rats, mice, and other small mammals, frogs, and other birds. Although some are migratory, many of them do not migrate. Last year, a great blue with a broken wing wandered into as parking lot near here. The animal was almost as tall as me. A park ranger and myself finally cornered him, and with the help of a cast net, finally capture it. I took it to animal rehab where they repaired its wing and released it back into the wild. Great blues are a federally protected bird.

Great white heron. Also federally protected, the great white, unlike its more sedately colored cousin, tend to not migrate, although, even if they do, their range is limited. Those along the Gulf Coast are generally permanent residents.

There are several elegant common  terns in the lake as well. They spend their summers mostly in Central Canada, but their winter migratory regions encompass most of the coastal United States and Mexico.. Terns will fly over water, hover there, and them plunge to catch prey. Sometimes they will also pursue insects on the fly.

Anyone can propagate plants…squirrels, birds and other animals do it regularly


Every spring as I go through my gardens, I find tiny oak seedlings sprouting from the ground…not just a few, but enough to create a forest if I were to let them grow. Some of these are surely caused by acorns falling to the ground and germinating.

Most, especially those growing far enough away from oaks to assure that they weren’t there by chance (unless acorns can walk), were brought there and buried intentionally…by squirrels, of course. The squirrels, having eaten their fill in the fall, begin burying acorns for winter supplies (literally squirreling them away). These bushy-tailed creatures, having short memories, forget where they buried the acorns. The acorns then germinate and sprout.

Houston holly, otherwise known as yaupon, or its Latin moniker Ilex vomitoria, is spread ubiquitously throughout the area by cedar waxwings, who eat the berries of the female plants. The pulp of the berries is digested, and the seeds pass through the bird and then onto the ground, where some sprout.

In interesting and complex symbiosis, plants and animals help each other. Plants provide food, and many animals help spread the plants’ seeds. We humans do too. How many times have we pruned a plant (or removed one completely) and the next spring, many new seedlings appear around the spot? Seeds have shaken loose and dropped to the ground as we were removing parts of the plant. Of course, I’m belaboring the obvious.

I often reseed my natives by stripping some of the ripe seed heads in the fall. Some I spread on soil in the yard, and some I save in old medicine pill bottles for future use. I also start some collected seeds in starter pots for transplanting into the garden after they sprout.

I have many gardener friends who save vegetable seeds from the previous crop. For some plants  (like tomatoes) it’s a little tedious. I have other friends, though, who buy seeds for all their vegetables and start them in their little garage growing areas. And one can start just about any plant from seed.

In a series of articles, I’m going to provide some guidelines for growing your own plants from seed, cuttings, and various other methods to propagate plants.

Winter is a haven for birds


(Photo: Black-bellied Whistling Duck. Courtesy of Cornell Ornithology Lab.)

It’s literally freezing outside, but I took some moments to do a little bird watching. Since my office borders the waterway, I see a great many waterfowl around.

Last year, I saw an eagle catch a fish, land about 100 yards away and proceed to feed. Awesome sight. Today, despite the freezing temperature  – or perhaps because of it – water birds are congregating.

Herons, both great blues and whites, mallards, black-bellied whistling ducks, cormorants, a few terns and a gull all depending on the water for a meal.

 Mallards are migratory, but some live here all year long. Along the waterway, there are four drakes, one of which is an albino, who have masterfully kept all other drakes out of the area. I have seen fewer hens, although twice mallard hens have built nests in our parking lot and hatched eggs…waddling to the water with the ducklings in tow. Once, a duckling was left in the nest. One of the caring souls here took it home and added it to their small flock of domestic ducks. The little fellow grew to adulthood, only to be eaten by a hungry fox.

While cormorants and black-bellied whistling ducks tend to be around all year, there are more of them flying around in the winter. Both species are migratory.

Cormorants tend to spend their winters along the southern coastal states, but also winter in Oklahoma, Arkansas add eastern Tennessee. They spend summers in their breeding grounds of the northern states (Idaho, Montana, The Dakotas, and Canada – although they might extend east into Minnesota and Michigan.) However, some cormorants live along the Gulf Coast all year as well. People often see them on the edges of waterways with their wings outstretched. Because they are diving birds, their feathers tend to become waterlogged. They stretch their wings to dry the feathers. Cormorants can dive up to 25 feet.

Black-bellied whistling ducks are native to the valley and to Mexico, but they do like to overwinter here. As with all the migratory birds however, some live here all year long. These birds nest in mesquite, hackberry, willow, live oak and other trees. They especially like cavity nests in dead trees. They actually do whistle, and look more like geese than ducks. Ornithologists are recording that they are expanding the northern part of their range.

Great blue herons. These large birds feed on just about anything they can catch and swallow. While their favorite food is fish, they will eat ducklings, rats, mice, and other small mammals, frogs, and other birds. Although some are migratory, many of them do not migrate. Last year, a great blue with a broken wing wandered into as parking lot near here. The animal was almost as tall as me. A park ranger and myself finally cornered him, and with the help of a cast net, finally capture it. I took it to animal rehab where they repaired its wing and released it back into the wild. Great blues are a federally protected bird.

Great white heron. Also federally protected, the great white, unlike its more sedately colored cousin, tend to not migrate, although even if they do, their range is limited. Those along the Gulf Coast are generally permanent residents.

There are several elegant common terns in the lake as well. They spend their summers mostly in Central Canada, but their winter migratory regions encompass most of the coastal United States and Mexico. Terns will fly over water, hover there, and them plunge to catch prey. Sometimes they will also pursue insects on the fly.

Where have all the fireflies gone?


Hunting frogs at night along dark waterways, edged by cypress swamps is an interesting pastime, especially if the nearest town with streetlights is 10 miles of dirt road away.

The best time to hunt frogs is on a moonless night, where the headlight I wore would temporarily blind the frogs and make them easier to catch. I know this sounds a little barbaric, but how else is one going to enjoy the delicacy of fried frog legs – called “cuisses de grenouille” in five-star French restaurants. But hunting frogs is a story for another time.

The point is that, in the swamp and along the bayous that meander through them, a moonless night is pitch black. Pitch black except for the millions of tiny lights moving in the sky and the countless millions of unmoving stars behind them. The moving lights were not only in the sky. They extended into the dark cypress swamps on either side. They hovered above the black waters.  They swirled directly above my head.

Fireflies! Some synchronizing their chemical bioluminescence in unison, while others blinked on and off in a cacophony of light. Sometimes I would forget the frogs, turn off the headlight and simply drift with the sluggish current, lying back in my skiff as the light show passed above me.

That was, as human lifetimes go, a good many years ago.  A more recent experience occurred along Panther Creek perhaps eight or nine years ago. It was twilight and I was walking Leon, my now-deceased goofy boxer. I thought I saw a tiny pinpoint of light in the corner of my eye. Then another. I had heard from someone that people on the verge of a stroke (or was it heart attack) sometimes saw flashes of light.

Suddenly, a thousand flashing lights emerged. Immediately across the creek was a small meadow and the lights converged on it, floating around the thigh-high tops of native grass. And then, just before all light faded, a small herd of deer walked into the meadow. Their legs obscured by the tall grass, they appeared to be floating on fairy dust. I was speechless. Leon, who would have ordinarily charged after the deer, dropped his jaw and sat. It was one of the rarest and most beautiful sights I have ever seen.

Several years ago, visiting a friend west of Willis, I saw about a dozen lonely fireflies flitting around his 10-acre property. And then nothing. I haven’t seen a firefly in several years, although I must believe that somewhere in southeast Texas and southern Louisiana, they still exist and perhaps thrive.

Fireflies are in the insect family Lampyridae, in the beetle order of Coleoptera. Their glow comes from the chemical luciferin. The name has the same Latin root as Lucifer, which basically means “light-bearer.”

Scientists are now studying the effects of luciferin in diagnosing tumors, cancer and muscular dystrophy, which may one day bring some true medical breakthroughs. They are also studying luciferin in preventing food spoilage and bacterial comtamination.

On the other hand, scientists are also studying why there has been such a dramatic decline in fireflies. They think that growing light pollution from enlarging human populations has a direct effect on them, as well as loss of habitat and increased insecticide use has dramatically reduced the populations.

I plan to go back one dark and moonless night to those three bayous and see if things have changed. If not, I may be treated to another awesome light show.

Neonicotinoids – Still killing butterflies and bees


A friend of mine purchased some plants at one of the big box stores the other day…some pretty pentas and salvias, along with a few other “fill-ins.”

When she removed the plants from their plastic pots, she was amazed – and horrified – to find, behind the plant marker, another smaller marker indicating that the plant had been treated with neonicotinoids.

In case you didn’t know, neonicotinoids are a new class of insecticides related to nicotine. The name actually means “new, nicotine-like insecticide.” Neonicotinoids affect receptors in the nerve synapse of insects.  Particularly toxic to insects, they can also harm vertebrates.

In a 2015 paper from the Environmental Science and Pollution Research group, an EU-sponsored organization,  neonicotinoids  can have lethal consequences on smaller bird species, and dangerous, but non-lethal effects on fish and mammals, including humans. See the report here.

Many growers treat seeds with neonicotinoids.  Since neonicotinoids are water soluble, they are also used in a spray. Neonicotinoids are systemic, which means once they are applied, they distribute throughout the plants vascular system – the stems, leaves, roots, flowers and seeds. They can exist in the plant anywhere from one to three years.

They are most dangerous to bees, for a number of reasons. Bees sipping nectar from a plant treated with neonicotinoids, or drinking moisture exuded from a plant (for instance corn sweats at night and bees are drawn to the moisture, are directly affected.

Growers know that aphids make plants less attractive, so they use neonicotinoids to kill the aphids. Aphids emit a sweet substance, that bees find attractive. Bees will also drink this.

Bees will also take neonicotinoid-affected pollen back into the hive with them, infecting larvae and adults alike.

Bees aren’t the only beneficial insects killed by neonic chemicals. Aphids love milkweed. Growers and nurseries spray milkweed with neonics to prevent aphids. But milkweed is the food source of the monarch butterfly larvae. When the monarch caterpillars hatch and begin eating the leaves, they die.

Home Depot and Lowes, two major big box stores, have pledged to phase out all neonicotinoids by 2018, and Home Depot has gone as far as to label those plants treated with neonics. However, gardeners need to look closely at the labels.

Ask your nursery if neonicotinoids have been used on the plants you are thinking of buying. Many locally-owned nurseries already know the dangers, and have taken measures to keep neonicotinoids out of their product stream. It still doesn’t hurt to ask.

Here is a list of brands that make and sell neonicotinoids, and under what names they are sold.

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Earthworms and the art of grass cutting


“It’s time to mow the grass.” This was one of the most dreaded statements of my young life. Our acre-and-a-half lawn loomed, a seemingly unending expanse of a green enemy that required regular haircuts. Even with a self-powered lawn mower, the process required several hours of sweaty, unfulfilling work.

We never bagged the grass clippings. Instead they lay where they fell. In a day or two, the clippings disappeared. Wondering where those clipping went never occurred to me. I was just glad that we didn’t have to empty heavy grass catchers.

The ground beneath the lawn was full of earthworms. Just throw a pan of soapy water on the lawn, wait a few minutes, and collect enough worms to catch a mess of perch from our pond.  I didn’t make the connection between the earthworms, the lush green grass, and the disappearing grass clippings. Nor did we understand the part they played in the enormous ecosystem that lived under our very feet.

Charles Darwin, almost a century and a half ago, did understand. His book, “Earthworms”, published in 1881, was the result of years of study into these seemingly insignificant creatures.  In his manuscript he noted “It may be doubted whether there are as many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures.”

It wasn’t until I read this study that I realized that earthworms were the major reason that the grass clippings were disappearing. At night, they emerge from the earth and pull the clippings down into the soil, where they eat and digest them. The bacteria in the worms’ digestive tract breaks down and inoculates the material with beneficial bacteria. This then passes into the soil.

The bacteria then join untold millions of other bacteria, protozoans, microscopic insects and fungi to convert the soil into a rich mélange, which in turn, provides nutrients to the grass (and other plants).

Had I understood this process when I was mowing the lawn, the odious chore would have turned miraculously into an interesting and fulfilling science experiment. University research now confirms that children who understand this relationship develop important skills and healthy qualities.

Involving youngsters in the relationship between healthy soils and plants, including lawns, vegetable gardens and flower gardening, instills healthy qualities.

  • Knowledge of this unseen world instills a real sense of accomplishment and responsible attitudes.
  • Delving into the way plants and soil interact increases skills such as problem solving and nurturing
  • Understanding this allows them to understand and accept delayed gratification, failure and success.
  • The attitudes it instills helps them increase their abilities in science, art, reading and social studies.
  • Involvement in these disciplines helps develop interaction between parents and children
  • It encourages the development of positive relationships.
  • It expands their understanding of a work ethic.

And, who knows. It might even encourage them to gripe less when they have to cut the grass or eat their vegetables.