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Wildlife Lookout

Wildlife Lookout: Weird Facts About the Wild Turkey

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by Chelsea Cochrane

Turkeys have long been associated with a traditional Thanksgiving feast, but how much else do we know about them? Here are some interesting and little-known facts about turkeys.

Turkeys are large birds native to the Americas in the genus Meleagris. This genus is split into two species: the wild turkey of northern, central, and eastern North America with six sub-species, and the ocellated turkey of the Yucatan Peninsula. The turkey species can be traced back over 20 million years on the North American continent.

Aztecs first domesticated a subspecies of wild turkey, the south Mexican wild turkey, sometime in the early Classic Period (c. AD 200–1000). Spaniards brought these tamed birds back with them in the mid 16th century, where they quickly gained popularity throughout Europe. The original pilgrims actually brought these domesticated birds back to North America, unaware that their larger cousins were already here.

From America, not Constantinople

Historians are unsure how this American bird ended up being called turkey. One theory is that at the time this fowl was being popularized in international trade, shipments to Britain were coming through the Levant and the bird became associated with Turkey. Another theory suggested the wild turkey was confused for a similar guinea fowl that was introduced to Britain by Turkish merchants.

The turkey is the heaviest member in the order Galliformes, which includes domesticated and wild landfowl. Wild turkey males will range from 10 – 25 pounds, with some reaching 30 pounds or more. This gives them the second heaviest maximum weight of birds native to North America, after the trumpeter swan. Still, these large birds are excellent fliers, unlike their domesticated cousins. Wild turkeys can run up to 25 mph and can fly as fast as 55 mph.

Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarrenWild Turkey

All the Weird Names

Anatomical structures on the head and throat of a domestic turkey. 1. Caruncles, 2. Snood, 3. Wattle (dewlap), 4. Major caruncle, 5. Beard
DrChrissy –  P041111 12.08.jpg

Male turkeys are called “gobblers” for their unique call, used to defend territories and call to females (called “hens”). The head of a turkey is very complex, made up of loose, elastic bare skin. The four distinct parts of its head and neck are: the “caruncles” on top its head and neck, the “snood” hanging off its beak, its “wattle” or dewlap hanging from the neck and the major caruncle along the lower neck. The plumes on the males’ chest are called a beard. Male turkeys are also called “toms”, and male juveniles are sometimes called “jakes”. The male mating ritual, which includes gobbling, fanning feathers, drumming and spitting, is often called “strutting”.

The male turkeys’ head changes color based on its mood. When he is excited, his head turns blue or even white. When he is aggressive it turns red. The loose skin around his head and neck will fill with blood and expand when he is alarmed. Body feathers of both males and females begin black and gray with a copper and brown sheen. The color of the male turkey becomes more complex as it ages, picking up metallic green and blue hues.

Gobble Gobble!

Gobblers gobble mostly to attract females, and to alert other males of their presence. These birds can produce a drumming sound by the movement of air sacks in its chest. Similarly, a spitting sound can be made by a sharp expulsion of air from these sacks. Females also gobble, but sparingly. The gobble of a wild turkey can be heard up to a mile away.

Ben Franklin Weighs In – Turkey Vs Bald Eagle

A common mythos surrounding the wild turkey is that Benjamin Franklin had suggested it for the national bird, over the bald eagle. Although he never publicly denounced the symbolic use of the bald eagle, a strongly voice letter to his daughter Sarah Bache dated January 26, 1784 had this to say on the matter:

“Others object to the Bald Eagle, as looking too much like a Dindon, or Turkey. For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk [osprey]; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.
With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country…
I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For in Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”

Learn more about turkeys:

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/14-fun-facts-about-turkeys-665520/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turkey_(bird)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wild_turkey
https://www.nwtf.org/hunt/wild-turkey-basics

Flora of Covington

Flora of Covington: Facts About the Bald Cypress

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There are many cypress trees in Covington, but how much do we really know about them? Learn more about Louisiana’s State Tree here!

Bald Cypress, Taxodium distichum, is a deciduous conifer native to the southeastern United States in the family Cupressaceae. This is a conifer family with worldwide distribution and includes junipers and redwoods. There are 130 – 140 species total in the family.

The genus Taxodium are native to North America. The generic name is derived from the Latin word taxus, meaning “yew”, and the Greek word εἶδος (eidos), meaning “similar to.” Taxodium species grow pneumatophores, or cypress knees, when growing in or beside water. The function of these knees is currently a subject of ongoing research.

The bald cypress was designated the official state tree of Louisiana in 1963. Some consider it to be a symbol of the southern swamps of the United States.

Common names include bald cypress, baldcypress, swamp cypress, white cypress, tidewater red cypress, gulf cypress and red cypress.

Bald cypress in French is cyprès chauve.

The native range extends from southeastern New Jersey south to Florida and west to East Texas and southeastern Oklahoma, and also inland up the Mississippi River.

Ancient bald cypress forests, with some trees more than 1,700 years old, once dominated swamps in the Southeast. The largest remaining old-growth stands are at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, near Naples, Florida, and in the Three Sisters tract along eastern North Carolina’s Black River. The Black River trees were cored by dendrochronologist David Stahle from the University of Arkansas. He found that some began growing as early as 364 AD.

In 2012 scuba divers discovered an underwater cypress forest several miles off the coast of Mobile, Alabama, in 60 feet of water. The forest contains trees that could not be dated with radiocarbon methods, indicating that they are more than 50,000 years old and thus most likely lived in the early glacial interval of the last ice age. The cypress forest is well preserved, and when samples are cut they still smell like fresh cypress.

It typically grows to heights of 35–120 feet (10–40 m) and has a trunk diameter of 3–6 feet (0.9–1.8 m). The tallest known specimen, near Williamsburg, Virginia, is 44.11 m (145 ft) tall, and the stoutest known, in the Real County near Leaky, Texas, has a diameter at breast height of 475 in (39 ft).

This species is monoecious, with male and female flowers on a single plant forming on slender, tassel-like structures near the edge of branchlets. The tree flowers in April and the seeds ripen in October.

In good conditions, bald cypress grows fairly fast when young, then more slowly with age. Trees have been measured to reach 3 m in five years, 21 m in 41 years, and 36 m in height in 96 years; height growth has largely ceased by the time the trees are 200 years old.

National Champion Bald Cypress at Cat Island

The National Champion Bald Cypress is recognized as the largest member of its species in the country and is listed as such on the National Register of Champion Trees by American Forest. The National Champion Bald Cypress is in the Cat Island Nation Wildlife Refuge, near St. Francisville, Louisiana, and it is 83 feet tall with an 85-foot spread, a diameter of 16.5 feet and a girth of 49 feet. It is estimated to be approximately 1,500 years old.

Oldest living bald cypress at Three Sisters Swamp
in North Carolina,
the oldest bald cypress swamp in the world

The oldest known living specimen, found along the Black River in North Carolina, is at least 2,624 years old, rendering it the oldest living tree in eastern North America.

Bald cypress cones don’t actually look like cones at all. Their cone structure is round and about one inch (2.5 centimeters) in diameter. When cones appear in autumn, they are tough and green, but they become woody as the season progresses. Each cone is made of a number of scales, and each scale is associated with two triangular seeds. Seeds are eaten by wild turkey, wood ducks, evening grosbeak, water birds, and squirrels.

The lumber is valuable for building construction, fence posts, planking in boats, river pilings, doors, blinds, flooring, shingles, garden boxes, caskets, interior trim and cabinetry. In virgin stands, yields from 112 to 196 m³/ha were common, and some stands may have exceeded 1,000 m³/ha. The odorless wood, which closely resembles that of other Cupressus species, has long been valued for its resistance to water.

Box made from sinker cypress

Still usable prehistoric wood is often found in swamps as far north as New Jersey, and occasionally as far north as Connecticut, although it is more common in the southeastern states. The density of the wood causes the logs to sink rather than float, allowing it to sit underwater for years to petrify, and leading to the common name ‘sinker cypress’. This partially mineralized wood is harvested from swamps in the southeastern states, and is greatly prized for special uses such as for carvings.

The bald cypress was used by Native Americans to create coffins, homes, drums and canoes.

The fungus Lauriliella taxodii causes a specific form of the wood called “pecky cypress”, which is used for decorative wall paneling.

Bald cypress logging and trade is historically an integral part of Louisiana economy, particularly between 1700 – 1960. French “swampers” traditionally would log by hand, securing enormous trees to rafts and transporting them on land by horse or oxen.

Interest in bald cypress as a landscape tree is considerable. Many landscape horticulturists use this tree in their plantings, and it is one of the top five tree species planted in Louisiana.

A botanical variety of bald cypress called pond cypress (Taxodium distichum var. nutans) has finer-textured foliage than bald cypress and is more upright. Foliage color can be attractive with new growth in spring, and most trees have rusty brown fall foliage that lingers into early to mid-December in south Louisiana.

Montezuma cypress is another variety to consider planting, but these are not as readily available at Louisiana garden centers. These bald cypress relatives have no knees.

Bald cypress provide a number of great benefits to the landscape. So consider adding Louisiana’s state tree to your landscape. September through November is a great time to plant one.

Sources:

Wildlife Lookout

Wildlife Lookout: Louisiana Bats

Published by:

by Chelsea Cochrane

Northern yellow bat

A common sight at dusk, bats are the only mammal capable of true flight. Their order, Chiroptera, is the second largest order of mammals after rodents, comprising about 20% of all classified mammal species worldwide. There are over 1,400 species of bats in the world – 45 are native to the United States, 11 can be spotted in Louisiana. These were originally divided into two suborders, the megabats and the microbats. Recently further knowledge of these unique mammals gave way to new classifications, dividing the order into the Yinpterochiroptera and Yangochiroptera suborders. The creation of these new subdivisions is largely based on molecular genetics data, unlike the old classifications which were more related to the bat’s eating or behavioral habits.

some species of bats hibernate for the winter

Despite what is presented in popular vampire culture most bats eat insects or fruit. In fact the largest bat species affectionately called “flying foxes” are harmless fruit bats (if you’re not a fruit farmer) including the impressive giant golden-crowned flying fox, Acerodon jubatus, which can have a wingspan of over 5 feet. We won’t see any of those here though – they prefer the tropics and subtropics of Asia. All bats found in the southeast United States are insectivorous, nocturnal, and locate food primarily by echolocation. Of over 1,400 species of bats, only three species feed solely on blood. These ‘vampire bats’ are found in Central and South America and rarely make their way into the US. Really.

Many tourist visit Carlsbad Caverns to see the massive colonies of Mexican free-tail bats

Insectivorous bats are generally deemed a good thing, as long as they are not nesting in your attic. These heavy feeders eat many pest insects, like crop-eating beetles, moths, and mosquitoes, reducing the need for pesticides. Their waste, called guano, is mined and used as a popular fertilizer. Some species nest in huge colonies whose nightly flight can be a popular tourist attraction. Unfortunately some bats make great hosts for many pathogens like rabies, and it is advised to never interact with bats, and to take special precautions if an interaction occurs.

Bats have long been admired for their precise and maneuverable flight. Their wings have hand-like digits that connect to a pivotal “wrist”, covered with a tight thin membrane of skin called patagium. The order name Chiroptera means “hand-wing”. This gives them an advantage in agility over birds. Many also use echolocation – emitting an ultrasonic frequency to determine the exact location of an object by its reverberations. The bat’s highly developed ears can pick up the fluttering of a moth’s wings, and even the movement of underground insects!

Bats in Louisiana

There are 11 documented species of bats that can be found in Louisiana. Here is a list with short descriptions.

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In the vesper bat family Vespertilionidae, the big brown bat occurs widely throughout the US, Canada, Central America and the Caribbean into South America. It’s large for a microbat, with a wingspan of up to 15 inches. Commonly seen just at dusk, the big brown bat can adapt to many environments, including urban settings.

Mexican free-tailed batTadarida brasiliensis
The Mexican free-tailed bat or Brazilian free-tailed bat of the family Molossidae is widely regarded as one of the most abundant mammals in North America. Nevertheless their natural habit of roosting in enormous numbers can cause massive fluctuations in populations due to habitat destruction and disease. The free-tailed bat holds the record for fastest documented flight speed of any animal, with a top ground speed of over 100 MPH.

Tricolored batPerimyotis subflavus
The tricolored bat is a member of the vesper family native to eastern North America. It was formerly called an eastern pipistrelle based on its resemblance to the European Pipistrellus species, however further genetic studies revealed it is more closely related to the canyon bat and those of the vesper family. The name is derived from three distinctive bands of color on its back. Once common in this area, the tricolored bat has suffered significant decline since 2006 due to a fungal disease. The tricolored bat along with the silver-haired bat are the two bats most associated with carrying rabies.

Eastern red batLasiurus borealis
Another member of the vesper family, the eastern red bat is considered among the most common in Louisiana, and is widespread throughout most of eastern North America. Its entire body is very furry, males are a rusty brick red, females have more gray dusting. Both have distinctive white patches on their shoulders.

Evening batNycticeius humeralis
Another quite common in our area, the evening bat is also in the vesper family, native to North America with a relatively small range over the southeast region. These small bats hunt strictly at night. They have short lifespans for bats but are heavy breeders – females will form “maternity colonies” consisting of 15 to 300 bats. 90 percent of births are twins, some singles and some triplets. They are known to be good pest-eaters.

Hoary bat Lasiurus cinereus
Also in the vesper family, the hoary bat can be found throughout most of North & South America, with some disjunct populations in the Galápagos Islands and Hawaii. It has a 15 inch wingspan and a thick coat of dark fur with white tips, giving it a gray-ish white frosted or ‘hoary’ appearance. The hoary bat is mainly solitary, though it will occasionally nest with other bats in a cave.

Northern Yellow BatLasiurus intermedius
The northern yellow bat has a very specific region bordering the Gulf of Mexico through the US and into Central America. It tends to inhabit wooded areas near a permanent water source with Spanish moss or palm trees. This species of vesper bat uses Spanish moss exclusively for nesting. Its coat can vary from yellow-orange to gray-brown.

Rafinesque’s big-eared batCorynorhinus rafinesquii
Sometimes called the southeastern big-eared bat, this species has big ears. Over an inch long, which is quite big for a bat averaging 3 – 3.9 inches long. They are vesper bats in the genus Corynorhinus, meaning “club-nosed”. These are not the most attractive bats, and they are fairly uncommon throughout their range. Similar to the Townsend’s big-eared bat.

Seminole batLasiurus seminolus
The seminole bat is another vesper with a relatively small distribution, found exclusively in the southeastern US. It is often confused for the red bat because of its similar coat. This bat feeds on a relatively large amount of ants, bees and wasps, as well as beetles, moths, flies and some cicadas. They also use Spanish moss for their nesting.

(c) adamdv18, some rights reserved
(CC BY-NC)

Silver-haired batLasionycteris noctivagans
A solitary, migratory species of the vesper family, the silver-haired bat is the only member of its genus. Its range consists of much of North America, wintering in the south just into Mexico and summering all the way up to Alaska. We are actually on the very edge of its range here in St. Tammany. This bat has dense black fur with white tips, giving it the frosted appearance for which its named. The scientific name translates to “night-wandering”, an ode to these creatures’ nocturnal habits.

Southeastern myotis batMyotis austroriparius
Another bat with a very specific range, centered closely around the Gulf. These small bats vary from gray to bright orange-brown, weighing 5 – 8 grams. This species nests and hunts around open water and can be found in thick hardwood forests. It sometimes roosts with the Rafinesque’s big-eared bat. This myotis stands out among its genus as a heavy breeder, often producing twins. During nesting season the southeastern myotis is an important food source for barred owls.

Flora of Covington

Flora of Covington: the Pecan Tree, a Southern Tradition

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by Chelsea Cochrane

Pecan tree orchard with autumn leaves

The pecan tree (Carya illinoinensis) is a species of hickory native to the Mississippi River region and into northern Mexico. These majestic trees can grow 100 – 140 feet tall and can live as long as 300 years. Many old and young trees can be spotted in the Covington area, some remnants of the vast pecan groves and orchards that once speckled the South.

Its not an event without mini pecan pies!

Pecans are certainly a staple of southern living, a necessity in several baking recipes and an all-around healthy snack. Texas named the pecan the state’s official “health nut”, as well as the state tree, and pecan pie the state’s official pie. They’re a little nuts about pecans, but they’re not the only ones – the pecan is also the state nut of Arkansas and Alabama, and one of California’s four state nuts (don’t even talk to them about nuts). There’s a reason everyone loves pecans – besides being delicious, they’re good for you too, benefiting blood cholesterol levels, rich in vitamins, and containing high levels of antioxidants.

To see what all the hype is about, you’ll have to understand that pecans once played a large role in southern economics, and are still a major trade today. The only edible major tree nut native to North America, its use can be traced back to 16th century Native American cultivation and trade. The name “pecan” comes from the Algonquin word “pacane” meaning “nuts requiring a stone to crack”. Pecans became a large part of Native culture and were even used as a form of currency for a time.

Pecans are among the most recently domesticated major crops, first cultivated commercially in the 1840’s here in Louisiana. A black slave by the name of Antoine at the Oak Alley Plantation was the first to successfully graft a wild cultivar, creating an improved variety for propagation and thus budding the pecan industry. Pecans quickly grew in popularity and spread across the nation, from coast to coast and as far east as New York. To this day the US is still the largest producer of pecans, boasting 300 million pounds per year.

From the USDA: “Almonds and pecans are the major tree nut crops produced in the United States, followed by pistachios and walnuts. More than 98 percent of the acreage in almonds, pistachios, and walnuts is found in California. Seventy-four percent of the pecan tree acreage is in three states — Texas, Oklahoma and Georgia. The pecan acreage includes both native and improved tree varieties. The 2007 Census of Agriculture shows there are 1.86 million acres of tree nuts in the United States.”

from the USDA’s 2007 Census of Agriculture

Pecans aren’t actually nuts

Still green “fruit” of the pecan tree

Not to burst anyone’s bubble (especially Texas) but the pecan is not actually a nut. Often classified in the somewhat indistinct realm of “edible nuts”, pecans join pistachios, cashews, almonds and walnuts in the also hazy “drupe” or stone fruit classification. This distinction is made because unlike true nuts that contain both the fruit and the seed of the plant, drupes are fruit containing a hard-shelled seed within. Apricots, peaches, plums and cherries are also examples of drupes, just ones where we eat the fruit rather than the seed! The lines between classifying drupes and berries gets a little fuzzier, and has caused some arguments and long-standing grudges in the scientific community. Isn’t botany fun?

Pecans in Covington

Pecans can adapt to a variety of environments but thrive in full sun, warmer climates and sandy well-drained soil, making the Mississippi and adjoining rivers an ideal habitat. The Port of New Orleans became the main exporter of these southern-loving trees, whose soft wood also gained popularity in fine furniture making and in cooking, as a flavor enhancer for smoked meats like other types of hickory. Pecan orchards and maintained groves began popping up everywhere in the south.

Many older Covington natives can remember large groves of pecans along the river and around Claiborne Hill. The Alexius family owned a track of land on Three Rivers Road dubbed “Alexiusville” that was home to vast pecan groves as well. If you look around downtown you will find some magnificent older trees that are still producing. You may even have one in your backyard!

Caring for your Pecan Tree

If you are lucky enough to have one of these big beauties then you know one tree can provide an incredible amount of fruit. Pecans are slow to produce, often taking 10 – 15 years to mature from seedling. A single pecan tree in its 10th growing season can produce 50 lbs, while a more mature tree into its 15th season or more can drop over 100 lbs of pecans! Most of these will be eaten by squirrels however, if you aren’t quick.

Many variety are alternate-bearing, meaning that they will produce heavily one year and then very little the next year, or in some cases next several years. This can be helped sometimes with extra fertilizing. Trees will deplete much more nutrients on heavy-bearing years and need time to catch back up. Zinc is a common additive to help pecans produce a strong harvest.

photo by Carol M Highsmith of Texas pecan farmer

Learn more about pecans at the National Pecan Shellers Association’s website ilovepecans.org!

Wildlife Lookout

Wildlife Lookout: Catbirds & Mockingbirds

Published by:

by Chelsea Cochrane

The northern mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos

Two common birds that often get mistaken for one another are the northern mockingbird and the gray catbird. Both are in the Mimidae, or mimid, family. They are remarkable song birds, and many species are especially skilled in mimicry of a wide variety of sounds. The name “Mimidae” is Latin for “mimic”.

Gray catbird, Dumetella carolinensis

The gray catbird is pretty much slate gray all over, with a dark cap on its head and dark gray streaks in its wings and tail. It is similar in shape and size to the northern mockingbird, and one of their original classifications translated to “capped mockingbird”. Actually, the gray catbird is probably more closely related to the Caribbean thrashers than mockingbirds. They do however share the ability to mimic other birds, as well as tree frogs and some machinery. The most recognizable call of the catbird is its namesake call, which can sound like the mews or cries of a cat.

Northern mockingbird

The northern mockingbird is the only common mockingbird in North America, and common it is. Its appearance is very similar to that of the catbird except that it lacks the dark cap and has a lighter belly and white tail feathers. The mockingbird also has white patches on its wings that are only visible in flight. Here in the South it is a permanent resident, but we may get an influx of migratory birds if weather conditions are harsh up North.

Listen to an example of a northern mockingbird’s song here.

A studio portrait of a Northern mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos.

The northern mockingbird is noted for its intelligence. A 2009 study explored the bird’s ability to adapt to urban environments and even identify individual humans. They can learn up to 200 songs and can mimic an incredible range of sounds, from other birds to cats, dogs, creaky gates or even car alarms with striking similarity. The northern mockingbird’s scientific name, Mimus polyglottos, loosely translates to “mimic of many tongues”.

How Do They Sing Their Songs, and Why?

Magpie singing

Birds don’t actually have vocal chords but sing through a special organ called the syrinx that only they have. Located at the top of the windpipe, the syrinx has thin membranes that vibrate to produce sound when air is pushed through it. Song birds can control each side of the syrinx independently, which allows for complex and unique songs, including doubling up or “duetting” notes. Some birds can even sing rising and falling notes simultaneously.

Listen to an example of a Wood Thrush “duetting” notes here.

A Gray Catbird in Madison, Wisconsin, USA
(photo from wikimedia commons)

There is a lot of speculation as to why birds sing songs, and specifically why birds that mimic do so. A popular opinion seems to be that birds build song repertoire to impress potential mates. The idea being that the more songs a male bird knows the longer he’s been around, which equals healthy genetics and good survival skills – both perks in the bird world. Many birds sing to proclaim territories, and in most species only males sing. Some speculation is made that mockingbirds may copy competing birds’ songs as a warning to keep away. This seems unlikely however, as it has been observed that other birds like robins or jays do not respond to the mockingbirds’ imitations.

The mockingbird has certainly made its way into the heart of Americans. Symbolized in literature, in music and on screen, it is also the state bird of Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas. It was previously the state bird of South Carolina as well, but was replaced by the Carolina Wren.

“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee 1960

Flora of Covington

Flora of Covington: Goldenrod and Ragweed – Friend or Foe?

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by Chelsea Cochrane

It seems like every season is allergy season for something in the South, especially in our particularly sub-tropical region of it. The fall allergens combined with the change in temps seem to hit me the hardest for some reason. Like many people do, I would see the bright yellow plumes of goldenrod flowers and assume that they were to blame for my distress.

Such a shame that these golden beauties get such a bad rap! Their only fault is they happen to share a season with the less conspicuous ragweed. It’s easy to see how the confusion is made – the tiny brightly-colored flowers seem like they would harbor mini pollen bombs waiting for a good breeze. Actually, goldenrod has a thick, sappy pollen that is adapted for insect pollination and does not become airborne. This is opposed to the wind-blown ragweed pollen, adapted to travel hundreds of miles to coat your car and sinuses.

Goldenrods are actually a genus of about 100 to 120 species of flowering plants called Solidagos. Part of the aster family, Asteraceae, most goldenrods are native to North America, with a few South American and European species. According to the U.S. Geological Survey there are at least 13 species of goldenrod found in southern Louisiana. The most common may be the Louisiana goldenrod, Solidago ludoviciana, which can grow to 5 feet and produce as many as 140 flowers per plant.

Goldenrod has many beneficial aspects. As most species are fall bloomers, and heavy bloomers at that, goldenrods serve as some of the last food sources before winter for our pollinating insect friends. Many cultures praise goldenrod for having various medicinal benefits, such as anti-inflammatory and mild pain-relieving effects, and even kidney and bladder cleansing properties. Through several studies by the European Medicines Agency on goldenrod (Solidago virgaurea), non-clinical data shows diuretic, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, analgesic and spasmolytic, antibacterial, antifungal, anticancer and immunomodulatory activity. Add this to its showy golden blooms and you can see why some people consider the goldenrod lucky and feature it in their gardens.

Ragweed is also a member of the aster family in the genus Ambrosia, of which there are about 50 species. It is native to southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico and distributed heavily across tropical and subtropical regions. The most common ragweed species in North America is Ambrosia artemisiifolia. The Greek name Ambrosia translates to “food or drink of immortality/the gods”.

Ragweed is believed to heal many ailments and was widely used in Native American medicine. Surprisingly, it is most well known for its astringent qualities in the treatment of hay fever. According to King’s American Dispensatory, 1898, ragweed is used for “excessive irritation of mucous membranes…with free mucous discharge” of the nose, throat, mouth, urethra, and bowels. The pharmaceutical industry has even caught on to the use of ragweed to treat allergy symptoms, developing a Ragweed Sublingual Immunotherapy Liquid extract (RW-SAIL) for individuals suffering from chronic allergic rhinitis, or hay fever, from their ragweed allergies.

common ragweed

So in conclusion, I would say both plants have their purpose, although both can become invasive if left untended. But as far as allergies go, pull the ragweed before the goldenrod. And maybe make it into a tea.

Wildlife Lookout

Wildlife Lookout: the Great Blue Heron

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Ardea herodias

Alan D. Wilson, www.naturespicsonline.com

The Great Blue Heron is a large wading bird in the heron family Ardeidae, common over most of North America and Central America, as well as the Caribbean and the Galápagos Islands. The blue heron can adapt to many climates and diets, found near the shores of open water and in wetlands. Birds east of the Rocky Mountains and in the Northern range are migratory – they can be found as far north as Alaska during the summer, and extend down to Mexico and South America during the winter. Birds in southern regions, however, are year-long residents.

It is the largest North American heron with an average wingspan of 66-79 inches, making it also the third largest of the heron family. The great blue heron stands at an average of 45 -54 inches with long legs and ‘S’ shaped neck, only weighing about 4 to 8 pounds.

More noted than its size are the blue heron’s distinct markings – a red, brown and black body, slate-gray/blue flight feathers, long plumes under the neck and black or slate plumes above the eyes, stark against a white head and rusty-gray neck. During breeding season the blue heron will adorn long plumes on its back, the lore will turn a bright blue, irises will turn reddish, and the yellow bill will take on an orange hue. Most commonly seen slowly stalking through water banks, stretching its long neck out and quickly stabbing prey, swallowing it whole. The heron feeds on small fish, amphibians, reptiles, crustaceans, insects or even birds and mammals. They are surely a sight to see, especially when taking flight with its massive 6 foot wingspan.

There are many subspecies of the great heron that differ only slightly in plumage and size. Commonly confused with the smaller grey heron or little blue heron, the best distinction between the birds besides size is the great blue heron’s white head. Herons are often mistaken for many other common water bids such as cranes, storks or ibises, which all differ in that they hold their neck straight during flight, while the heron holds their neck tucked in. The white morp native to Florida, called the Great White Heron, is debated to be either a subspecies or an entirely separate species.

Interesting Facts About Herons

The long stringy feathers that grow from the heron’s neck are specially designed to help the bird clean their beak from its fishy prey. The fine powdery feathers continually grow and are worn away by the bird’s grooming.

The great blue heron usually breeds in colonies and return back to the same breeding place each year. These colonies, called a herony, are commonly found high in trees along lakes or in other wetlands. Heronies can range from 5 to 500 nests, averaging around 160 nests per colony. Both parents help to incubate the egg and raise young.

There are 64 species in the heron family and they can be found on every continent except Antarctica. Almost all species are waterbirds, with a lifespan of about 15 years in the wild.

The word heron is rather old and of uncertain origin. It appeared in English language c. 1300, originating from the Latin aerius meaning aerial, or from Old French hairon, eron (12 century), earlier hairo (11 century), from Frankish haigiro or from Proto-Germanic hraigran.

the sacred Bennu bird of
ancient Egypt, in the likeness
of a heron

The heron is a revered creature in many cultures, symbolic of wisdom, purity, communication and good judgement.

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Wildlife Lookout

The Northern Bobwhite Quail

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Colinus virginianus male

Colinus virginianus male

Also called the Virginia Quail or Bobwhite Quail, the Northern Bobwhite is a member of the group commonly referred to as the New World quails, Odontophoridae. Native to the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean, the 22 subspecies of the Northern Bobwhite are also common game birds. In Louisiana, bobwhite quail populations have declined about 75% since 1966, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey (2010). This is primarily attributed to an increase in habitat loss occurring during the 1970s and ’80s, but their populations have begun to stabilize with conservation efforts.

The Northern Bobwhite is a moderately-sized quail, the smallest galliform native to Eastern North America. The birds are a chunky, round shape, with an overall rufous plumage spotted by highlights of gray on the back and white on the stomach. The males have a white throat and a black chin strap, females are duller colored overall without a chin strap. Bobwhites eat mainly plants and small pest bugs. The birds are named for their distinct whistle, a clear “bob-WHITE” or “bob-bob-WHITE” that rises in pitch a full octave from beginning to end.

Colinus virginianus female

Colinus virginianus female