Saturday, November 22, 2014

Turkey Tidbits

Two Wild Turkey hens

     Wild Turkeys have made an incredible come back. Not that long ago, all the wild turkeys were believed to have been wiped out from the DC region. By 1910, very few remained in the woods of Maryland and Virginia, and certainly none in DC. Thanks to great restoration efforts by game commissions and hunting groups, Wild Turkeys were re-introduced into their former ranges, including into Maryland and Virginia. The first efforts using game farm birds in 1929 in Virginia failed miserably, but netting and capturing wild stock worked. Starting in 1955 up to 1993, about 900 wild caught turkeys were released into the wilder parts of Virginia. Now they are once again part of our landscape, and getting more common each year. That landscape does not need to be that wild either. They are found in even suburban areas such as Arlington and Fairfax. The photo below shows two wild turkey hens in my driveway near Kingstowne in Alexandria for example, far from a wild place! 

These two hens were in my driveway in front of my wife's van in suburban Alexandria, VA
A gobbler trapped at a Metro construction site in Arlington being transported to be released at a riverside Arlington park.

     I now regularly see wild turkeys. Last week I saw over a dozen gobblers in a large field on the Eastern shore as well as two weeks prior in Madison, Virginia. We've twice had wild turkeys show up at a Metro construction site and be released into wilder settings. Here's a short video of one such release:
     Turkeys regularly go into open fields when it rains. Not being able to depend on the leaves rustling, turkeys instead depend on their sharp eyes to detect danger under these conditions. It's not just humans that like to eat turkeys. I've seen red foxes hunting them, even having called them in while calling for turkeys. One red fox got so close (within 5') that I could even see that it had just one good eye and that the chickadees were mobbing it. My father has seen a coyote charging into a flock, barely missing them as they flew up into the air. 

A series of turkey hunting calls, including an old time call made from turkey bones in the middle. 

     But turkeys are quite wary and hard to see most of the time. Often, I only see the signs they leave behind such as their large tracks, feathers, "paint" from their droppings under a roost, scrapes from their searching for nuts in the leaves, or just hearing them gobble. 

Wild Turkey tracks. Given their large size, these are likely from a gobbler. 

Turkey scrapes where turkeys were searching for nuts to eat, using their large feet to rake away the fallen leaves.. 

     This time of year, turkeys are in single sex flocks. The males (called "Toms" or "Gobblers") are all in one flock while the females (hens) are in another. Turkeys sleep up in trees to avoid predators, often picking evergreens to shield them from the elements and prying eyes. The ones along the Potomac River often fly onto islands in the river to roost, the water offering them an added protection from man and beast alike. Since turkeys can defecate every half hour or so, the areas under such roosts are often covered in white droppings and thus called "paint." 

Think you know a thing or two about turkeys? Here are some turkey tidbits you might not have heard, just in time for Thanksgiving:   
  • Here’s some “turkey talk” for you: A mature male turkey is called a “Tom” or “Gobbler;” a mature female is called a “Hen;” a yearling male is a “Jake;” a yearling female is a “Jenny;” and a baby is called a “Poult.” In the farm trade, a turkey under 16 weeks is a “Fryer” and those 5-7 months old are called “Roasters.” Although it’s okay to call a group of turkeys a flock, some people prefer to call a bunch of turkeys a “rafter” or “muster.”
  • Only male turkeys “gobble.” Wild turkeys are said to have 28 recognized calls in their repertoire which they use to communicate with one another. Some are given such names by hunters as the “lost call”, the “putt” (alarm call), and the “kee-kee run.”
  • Turkeys have very distinctive heads that can even change color depending on the bird’s (especially the tom’s) mood. The fleshy growth on top of a turkey’s beak that can expand and change color is called a “snood” or “dewbill.” The bumps along a tom’s mostly-bare head are called “caruncles.” The loose skin hanging below the head is often referred to as the "dewlap" or "wattle."
  • All species of turkeys are native only to the Americas, but it is said that the King of Spain as early as 1511 asked that any ships returning from the New World bring several turkeys back with them. Domestic turkeys were common on many European farms soon after. Even 200 years ago, turkeys in England were being walked to market wearing “booties” on their feet to protect them.
  • The world’s oldest domestic turkey was believed to be 12 years and 4 months old. The oldest wild turkey was thought to have been 15 years old and was found in Franklin County, Massachusetts.
  • As of December 12, 1989 the heaviest domestic turkey ever (as recognized by Guinness Book of World Records back then) weighed 86 pounds and sold at auction for $4,400 – another record. Wild turkeys typically weigh about 18 pounds for a tom and 8 for a hen. The heaviest known wild turkey weighed 36 pounds.
  • Modern domestic turkeys have been bred so large that they often have to be artificially inseminated. They are not usually capable of breeding on their own. Their large size and weight causes them to suffer numerous heart, respiratory, and other health problems. Even those that are each year presented to the sitting president and given the “Presidential Pardon” at Thanksgiving rarely live more than 2-3 years after that. This tradition of pardoning a turkey at Thanksgiving is said to have been started by Lincoln in response to his son Tad's pleas. Truman then pardoned one, but this didn't become the trend until George H. Bush did so again.

Wild turkey feathers from a gobbler .

  • All 3,500 feathers on a turkey are shed, except for those comprising the tom's "beard.” These are special long, hair-like feathers that grow on the chests of tom turkeys (and every once in a while, a few hens). The older the bird, the longer the protruding feather beard.
If you look carefully at this small flock of gobblers, you can see the beard hanging below.

  • Turkey hens lay on average 10-12 eggs in a nest hidden on the ground. The eggs normally hatch in 28 days. The poults can usually fly by the time they are 2 weeks old. Yes, wild turkeys can fly, over 40 miles per hour, but tire quickly and prefer to run up to 35 miles per hour instead. Hearing a turkey crash through the canopy when flying-scared makes it easy to understand why they prefer to run. Having almost been knocked out of tree stand by an incoming tom, I can say they are not that good at flying.
  • Where does the word “turkey” come from? Some say the English thought the birds came from Turkey. Some say it comes from a Native American Indian name that sounded like “firkee.” Others say the word is derived from “tukki,” after an Indian Tamil word meaning “trailing skirt” and used by Jewish merchants in Spain. It may also have come from the word “tuka” used in India to describe peacocks. Still others claim that it comes from the turkey’s alarm call, or “putt” that to some people sounds like “Turk! Turk! Turk!”
  • In Mexico, Aztec Emperor Montezuma received 365,000 turkeys per year as tribute from his subjects.
  • Rumor has it that the term “Tom Turkey” came about as the mocking of Tom Jefferson by Ben Franklin when Franklin opposed the turkey as our national bird. Surprisingly, the turkey was not either’s first choice.
  • Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson supposedly released turkeys into their tobacco fields to help control “green worms” (caterpillars).
  • The first TV dinner was roast turkey with stuffing, sweet potato and peas, a Swanson 98 cent special back in 1954. It was said to have been Thomas Swanson’s idea of what to do with Thanksgiving left-overs and aluminum airline trays.
  • Neil Armstrong’s and Edwin Aldrin’s first meal on the moon was turkey.
  • June is officially National Turkey Lovers’ Month.
  • White farm turkeys developed as a result of people wanting “cleaner” looking, unblemished meat on turkeys displayed for sale. Dark turkey feathers often leave blemishes where they are plucked and so were not as marketable. White turkeys were bred to compensate. 
  • In bowling, when a player bowls 3 strikes in a row it’s often called a turkey.
  • A turkey has 157 bones.
  • Henry VIII was the first English King to eat turkey. Edward VII started the tradition of eating it for Christmas.
  • Canada’s Thanksgiving is celebrated the second Monday in October.
  • North Carolina produces more turkeys than any other state. 90% of homes in the US eat turkey on Thanksgiving (that’s about 45 million turkeys!) but Israel consumes more turkey per capita than any country in the world (about 28 pounds per person!).
  • Although a lot of Native American Indian tribes ate turkey, some like the Tineh (Apache) refused to eat it or even use turkey feathers on weapons because they thought it a cowardly and timid bird. Other tribes used the fighting spurs found on the legs of gobblers as arrowheads for small game or even made turkey calls from their very wings. Many tribes used the tail feathers as fletching to stabilize their arrows in flight.
Fighting spurs on the leg of a young (2 year old (?)) gobbler, they grow and curve as they get older.

         So with these tidbits in mind, I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Lawns, Tiger Moths, and Woolly Bears, Oh My...

     Tiger Moths are a fascinating group of moths in the subfamily Arctiinae (formerly family Arctiidae). They are better known from their larva, the normally hairy caterpillars with the typical "woolly bear" look that we often see crossing our lawns and driveways. The hairs on the caterpillars easily come off and are uncomfortable for many animals' throats, giving them some measure of protection. Most of the caterpillars themselves are distasteful to many potential predators as well.
     They are most commonly seen while wandering about in Fall when many species are looking for places to overwinter. Many of them spend the winter in caterpillar form, under a log or otherwise hidden. They awaken the following spring and continue feeding as caterpillars for a while before pupating and emerging as tiger moths in the summer.

The Woolly Bear caterpillar, the larva of the Isabella Moth and predictor of winter weather.

     The best known and typical member of the family is the Woolly Bear or Woolly Worm, black on both ends and reddish brown in the middle. Because it curls up into a bristly ball when it is in danger, it is also sometimes called the Hedgehog Caterpillar. This is the larva of the Isabella Moth (Pyrrharcttia isabella) and folklore claims that by looking at the amount of black on its body, the severity of the winter can be forecast. The longer the black bands, the colder the winter, while the longer the brown band, the milder. The color differences are more likely due to what the larvae experienced in the past rather than what will occur in the future. They are commonly seen crossing roads, lawns, and driveways in the Fall and sometimes even on warm winter days. 
    There are several other species of woolly bear-type caterpillars in this group, only a couple of which are shown here. Most feed on a variety of low to the ground plants, overwinter as larvae, and then complete their metamorphosis the following summer, but there are several exceptions.

The Northern (Giant) Leopard Moth caterpillar, not only larger than the typical woolly bear, but also has red segments in between black bristles.

They Yellow Bear, the caterpillar of the Virginian Tiger Moth, is very variable, ranging from yellow to almost red, but always with hairs on its body of different lengths.

The Delicate Cycnia or Dogbane Tiger Moth caterpillar is usually more visible in summer, light colored on dogbane or milkweeds.

Fall Webworm Moth caterpillars are usually noticed in their web nests, but wander off to pupate.

The Agreeable Tiger Moth can be a bit variable, but is a fast moving caterpillar, often with hairless segments. 

     The adult tiger moths tend be bright colored, often white, as warning colors at night. Several of the fuzzy moths are poisonous to many potential predators. They not only announce this by their coloration, but have another means of doing so. When a tiger moth hears a bat coming after them and using its echolocation to find them, they not only take evasive action like most moths, but also vocalize back.

Delicate Cycnia or Dogbane Tiger Moth, showing the typical white coloration of the family. 

     The sounds they send out originally were believed to "jam" the bat's echolocation, but now it appears that they are actually warning sounds. They warn the bats that the tiger moths are distasteful. If they eat one, they will there after link the sound the tiger moths make with how bad they taste.

An Agreeable Tiger Moth - most tiger moths are white or light colored; the only warning colors that show up at night.
The Clymene Haploa is sometimes called the Upside-Down Cross Moth.

     This group of hairy caterpillars and the tiger moths they turn into are interesting and luckily fairly common. People of all ages always seem to be amused and curious when they discover them. Now perhaps we can appreciate them even more knowing more about them.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Jamestown Weed

     The story of how Jimsonweed received its common name goes back to early Virginia history. In 1676, British soldiers were sent to quell Bacon's Rebellion and were stationed in Jamestown. A plant later called "Jamestownweed" was boiled for inclusion in a salad which the soldiers ate.
     As told by Robert Beverly in The History and Present State of Virginia (1705): The soldiers presented "a very pleasant comedy, for they turned natural fools upon it for several days: one would blow up a feather in the air; another would dart straws at it with much fury; and another, stark naked, was sitting up in a corner like a monkey, grinning and making mows at them; a fourth would fondly kiss and paw his companions, and sneer in their faces with a countenance more antic than any in a Dutch droll."
     "In this frantic condition they were confined, lest they should, in their folly, destroy themselves - though it was observed that all their actions were full of innocence and good nature. Indeed they were not very cleanly; for they would have wallowed in their own excrements, if they had not been prevented. A thousand such simple tricks they played, and after 11 days returned themselves again, not remembering."
     The name of the plant used in this salad eventually was corrupted to "Jimsonweed" (though it goes by so many other names). The hallucionatory properties of the Datura genus are well known throughout the world, including in my ancestral lands of Peru where the plant goes by the Quechua names of "Chamico" or "Rurutillo." It has been used in religious ceremonies, as well as to get a high, throughout the world. It has spread from its original range in Mexico and the Southwest all over. Other names for it include: Concombre Zombi (Carib for "Zombie Cucumber"), El-rita (Morocco), Feng-chieh-erh (Chinese), Herbe Aux Sorciers (French "Sorcerer's Plant"), Tatula (Perisan), Yoshu Chosen Asago (Japanese "Exotic Flower"), and numerous Spanish names such as Hierba del Diablo ("Devil's Herb"), Manzana del Diablo ("Devil's Apple"), and Papa Espinosa ("Spiny Potato").
     In Virginia, the plant has a deep and important cultural connection. Jimsonweed played a vital role in the initiation rite of young boys into adulthood among many of the Algonquian speaking tribes such as the Powhatan. Called the "Huskanaw," this ritual lasted for many days where the young teens "died" ceremoniously and were reborn as adult members of the tribes. This was often misunderstood by the colonists who sometimes referred to this ceremony as the "Black Boy Death," perhaps partly due to the ritual painting during part of the initiation. It was believed by them that the boys actually died during the ceremony, which of course would mean a tribe would not last very long sacrificing their teens in this way.
     Rather, the boys fasted, underwent many rituals such as running a gauntlet, and partaking of a special potion which is believed to have contained Jimsonweed. This likely led to hallucinations and perhaps vision quests. Some certainly may have died, especially if they did not perform the ritual correctly, not forgetting their former lives, and having to immediately repeat the initiation in an even weaker condition. Thus this psychoactive plant played a vital role in this all-important rite of passage among these native peoples.
     I still remember working in a park many years ago when some teens approached me asking me if I was familiar with the plants in the park. They actually asked me to help them find Datura stramonium. This was likely the only scientific plant name they knew, but I'm pretty sure I know why they knew it and why they wanted to find it. A very dangerous experiment and way to get high indeed...

The Devil's Snare: Jimsonweed

Jimsonweed plant with its closed flower waiting for dusk to open.

     Few plants have as rich a folklore and history of uses as Datura stramonium, which goes by such a varied assortment of common names: Jimsonweed, Devil's Snare, Mad Apple, Thornapple, Moon Flower, Stinkweed, Hell's Bells, Raving Nightshade, Devils' Trumpet, Jamestown Weed, Locoweed, Prickly Bur, Angel's Trumpet, and Devil's Cucumber, among others. This annual herb can grow to 2-5 feet high and is a member of the Solanaceae (night shade) family. Although originally thought to be native to Mexico, it spread to our region and naturalized long ago. It has since spread to many parts of the world as well.

Its spiny seed pod has led to many common names.

     It has been used medicinally all over the world, as well as a recreational and religious drug. Medicinal uses included smoking it for asthma treatment, to treat nerves and colds (by the Chinese), and to treat impotence as well as to stupefy sacrificial victims (in India).
     Francis Porcher in his Confederate medicinal treatise praised its many applications: "A well-known narcotic and antispasmodic, employed in mania, epilepsy, chorea, tetanus, and palsy... maniacs restored to perfect saneness of mind, which they never afterward lost...The seeds are soporific, and are said to induce delirium and partial forgetfulness." He suggested using it to treat "mania without fever...nymphomania...asthma...eaten to control pains, ulcers, tumors,..and dilate pupils. I've seen the extract used to a large extent in the New York Eye Infirmary."

Seed pod and seeds

      Native peoples used it quite extensively as medicine also. The Zuni used it to relieve pain while setting bones. The Aztecs for paralysis and cuts. The Cherokee as a poultice for boils, piles, and to treat asthma and wounds. The Rappahanock would use it for fevers and pneumonia. The Navajo used it for eyes, tooth aches, and even to treat the castration wounds in their sheep.
     But its psychoactive properties were what it was best known for. Whether used in religious ceremonies in India, by the Aztec in Mexico, and even in the most important rite of passage by Virginia's native people (covered in a separate blog posting), it was often assigned religious significance. It has since been rediscovered as a recreational drug, usually utilizing the seeds as a smoking mix. But all these are dangerous practices, especially since the active ingredients of atropine and scopolamine can vary with the age of the plant, the weather conditions, and how fertile the ground is where it is growing. It can have fatal consequences very easily, particularly when its seeds are used.
     While introduced into this region, it has now become quite common. It blooms mostly at night or when the sky is cloudy, the trumpet-like flowers opening and releasing fragrance. I have often seen sphinx moths necataring at it at dusk. Better they partake in it rather than people.