Alligators have sensitive jaws

by Dave Hanks

It’s hard to imaging an animal that is so big and covered with armored skin to be sensitive to anything. Yet the skin around the top of the snout and along the jaws is more sensitive than our finger tips. They can detect touch that is too faint for our fingers to feel. Their most sensitive areas are in the gums along their teeth.

Cats of all kinds have sensitive whiskers and elephants very utilitarian trunks; traits that rival the gators sensors and help each species in their struggle for survival. These sensitive areas can allow animals to identify prey, or whatever they come in contact with.

Alligator jaws that can shut with a tremendously powerful force are, otherwise, weak enough that one could hold their mouth shut with one’s hands – a striking contrast between force and gentleness. The touch sensors allow a special gentleness when the female responds to peeping coming from her ripened eggs, which she carefully opens and then carries her new babies in her jaws to safety. Clumsiness would result in a lot of young ones getting accidently chewed up.

Alligators are more adaptable than their crocodile cousins. This has allowed them to spread farther north. They are top of the food chain predators that feed on a wide variety of animals: fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals, and even your dog. They shape habitats where they live by digging “gator holes” which can modify the wetness or dryness of an area. Other organisms benefit from these modifications.



Resting and warming in the Texas sun


Roseate Spoonbill: Pink amid the Shallows

Pink can be fairly common in our human world in the form of clothing and home decor. But in the animal kingdom, it is indeed – RARE. Yet I see a pink form wading the shallow inlets of the Texas gulf coast. It is a bird, a large one over 30 inches tall. Not only is its color unusual, but its beak resembles a huge, gray spoon (yellowish in the first year). The bird’s head and neck are white, but the rest of the body, including the legs, is pink – with a touch of red along the wings. I am witnessing an unusual sighting for me – a Roseate Spoonbill.

This wader is swinging its bill side to side in search of crustaceans, aquatic beetles and bugs, and tiny fish; as it moves steadily through the water. I grab our camera and sneak as stealthily as possible, to get near enough to get a picture with out spooking it away.

Spoonbills are gregarious, often foraging in groups and nesting in colonies. Courtship between the sexes (which look alike), consists of dancing, bill clapping, and ritualized exchanging of sticks, grasses, etc. The nest is then constructed by the female with material brought to her by the male. She builds it in a tree, especially a mangrove if possible, and then lays 2 to 5 whitish eggs with brown markings. Most spoonbills do not breed until they are three years old.

The Roseate Spoonbill flies with head and neck stretched straight out, flapping their huge wings (over four feet) slow and long. Groups in flight will form a diagonal line, each drafting on the bird just ahead,

This South-American species range extends as far north as the coastal lowlands of Texas, Louisiana, and Florida. They are very shy and to observe them, you must be very careful, or they will be quick to leave.

Plataiea ajaja  Roseate Spoonbill: Pink amid the Shallows

Plataiea ajaja

Black Vultures can be Urban Pests!

This cousin of our Turkey Vulture is usually a benefit to us. Like all vultures, it rids our surroundings of dead animals. But when population numbers increase, or because of urban expansion, they can become a big problem. No one likes to find bird “whitewash” and vomit all over their shrubbery and yards. A Washington D.C. suburb has reported flocks of them, settling in for the night, on pine trees in people’s yards. Upward of a 100 to 200 might come in to a group of trees – so many that branches would break because of the weight. Some species will adjust to living with humans. This is one of them.

Compared to our Turkey Vulture, it is a bit smaller, lacks the red head, and has whitish wing tips. Like all vultures, it has a bald head. This bird has no voice box but can hiss or grunt when disturbed, whether on a carcass or by its nesting area. I say nesting area because it constructs no nest at all – just lays two eggs on the ground under a bush. Young birds take 75 to 80 days to fledge and 3 years to reach maturity. It is very dominant when on a carcass – driving any competition (even larger species) away.

We don’t see this bird in Cassia County because it inhabits the southern and southeastern (especially coastal areas) of the country. Urban areas are warmer than the surrounding countryside. This is called the Urban Island Effect, and it attracts these birds. Noise makers have been used to disturb and move these birds away, along with harmless laser beams, but these methods only move them onto other people’s property. The Migratory Treaty Act of 1918 protects this bird along with other species.

We became aware of this bird in the Everglades of Florida and in southern Arizona and Texas.

A Black Vulture just west of the L.B.J. ranch in Texas

A Black Vulture just west of the L.B.J. ranch in Texas

Northern Mockingbird: Bird Symbol of Five States

It is not only a symbol for 5 states (Texas – Mississippi – Arkansas – Tennessee – Florida), but it is also in a book title – To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s said to be a sin to kill one. Quote from the book: “They don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a Mockingbird.” Probably the reason the Mockingbird was selected so often as a symbol, is due to its very pretty song and the rare ability to mimic the songs of other birds – even to sing a medley using other bird’s songs. Barking dogs, pianos, and squeaky gates can also be imitated. In spring, only the male sings. He will sing for hours – day and night. Both sexes sing in autumn to claim feeding territories.

This is not one of the colorful species, but quite attractive in spite of it. Its behavior, larger size, white front with a faint pinkish wash on the sides, white wing bars on its gray body, yellow eye ring around its pupil, and long beak; all these traits compensate for the lack of showy colors.

Mockingbirds are very territorial and aggressive against any intruder that gets close to their nest. They will even attack their own reflection. This omnivorous bird requires open grassy areas with thorny bushes to nest in. They will readily come to a water source or to feed – especially fruit or suet.

If one ventures south or southeast, this species can be easily observed. They are very apparent as their habit is to perch in the open on a bush or tree top. Even though they are a plain bird, they don’t seem so to us because they have so much “personality”. We are always excited to see them!

Northern Mockingbird in a tree surrounded by berries

Always obvious