“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
– Benjamin Franklin
As we considered topics for our April blog, “tax day” loomed dangerously close. We thought of Benjamin Franklin’s famous quotes and wondered about wildlife “certainties”. Death and taxes are also certainties in wildlife management – the latter painfully so if you don’t keep up with your wildlife activities. But what about other, if not certainties, then certainly rules of thumb? From helpful snake identification rhymes to nectar recipes, the following are just some of our favorite wildlife rules of thumb particularly for this springtime of year.
Friend of Jack?
A couple of weeks ago, a friend opened her front door to see a red, black, and yellow banded snake at her porch step. As one of her dogs bounded out the door, the following rhyme ran rapidly through her mind:
Red touches yellow, kills a fellow
Red touches black, friend of Jack
The rhyme confirmed that the vibrant slithering creature at her front door was, indeed, a venomous coral snake. She was able to quickly get the dog safely back inside and the snake made a hasty departure.
Leave it Alone
As the warmer temperatures of spring arrive, snakes begin to emerge from their winter den to enjoy the weather and look for mates. If you encounter a poisonous snake such as a rattle snake, common here in Texas, the general rule of thumb is to freeze in place until you can locate its position, then try to establish a safe distance of at least five feet from the snake, moving slowly back the way you came, if possible. And, then, as reportedly one-third of people of who suffer snakebites were bitten when trying to handle or kill it, just leave it alone.
A Fawn Alone Does Not Mean a Fawn Abandoned
While does may leave their babies for hours at a time to forage for food, they are probably still within 100 yards. Indeed, a fawn alone does not mean a fawn abandoned, which is why unless the animal is in immediate danger, be sure to consider whether it is actually abandoned before you attempt to “save” it.
To Be Clear, Do Not Clear
There are few things more beautiful than Texas in the spring. The skies are blue, the weather is mild, and the blistering summer temperatures are still in denial. Indeed there is no more tempting time to whip out the old chainsaw and mower to do some land clearing but, for the sake of wildlife, it’s best to not to succumb to that temptation for at least two reasons:
Nesting above and below – Felling trees or even just removing branches can put bird nests at risk. Similarly, mowing and clearing brush can put the nests of ground nesting birds, such as turkey and quail, at risk.
Oak wilt risk – While common thinking persists that “we just don’t know what causes it”, we actually are pretty certain of what causes oak wilt. The rule of thumb to avoid contracting it is to not trim oak trees in the spring. Here is the reasoning behind the rule:
According to the Texas A&M Forest Service oak wilt “is an infectious vascular disease caused by the fungus Ceratocystis fagacearum. The fungus invades and disables the water conducting system in susceptible trees.” Red oaks, particularly Spanish oak are “very susceptible” to the fungus while white oaks, like post oak and bur oak “are resistant.” Live oaks have “intermediate susceptibility”, but they are seriously impacted by the disease “because of their tendency to form root sprouts that result in a vast interconnected root system allowing the disease to easily spread to adjacent trees.” Along with interconnected roots, oak wilt is also spread long distances thanks to sap-feeding (nitidulid) beetles. According to the Texas A&M Forest Service:
“During the spring, the oak wilt fungus forms special spore-producing structures called fungal mats on red oaks. Nitidulid beetles are small (about 1/8-inch long) and are attracted to oak wilt fungal mats because the mats have a sweet, ‘fruity’ smell. Mats form underneath the bark of diseased red oaks and are not known to occur on live oak trees. The fungal mats apply pressure under the bark causing a tiny crack to form. These mats can be found on the trunk and major branches of red oaks. When a nitidulid beetle feeds on an oak wilt fungal mat, spores of the oak wilt fungus will cling to the body of the beetle. Nitidulid beetles also feed on tree sap associated with fresh wounds. If a beetle contaminated with oak wilt spores lands on a fresh wound on a healthy oak, then that tree can become infected. Tree wounds can be made by man or nature, but nitidulid beetles are attracted to both.”
So, long and short? If you’re trimming oak trees and creating yummy tree sap wounds that attract fungus spore-covered beetles during the spring you are increasing your risk of contracting oak wilt. Just wait until the heat of summer or the chill of winter when the oak wilt fungus is not forming fungal mats and the beetles aren’t on the move. Feeling a little too hot, or a little too cold, when trimming trees is a small price to pay for avoiding one of the most destructive tree diseases in the United States. If you must trim oak trees during the spring – and, really, as a precaution year round – be sure to immediately paint the wound.
When “Gone to Seed” Is a Good Thing
We’ve all heard the phrase “gone to seed” used pejoratively, but, when it comes to wildlife, going to seed is actually a good thing. When wildflowers and native grasses are in their full glory in the spring creating rolling blankets of vibrant colors and lush green carpets gently undulating in the breeze, who would want to mow that? No one. But when flower heads begin to droop and grasses have become more tall than attractive, the urge to slide onto that mower seat and tidy up the joint can be powerful. But if you want to foster more wildflowers and native grasses for the coming years, giving the opportunity to go to seed is key.
If you’ve cultivated a hummingbird-friendly environment with plenty of native wildflowers and other shrubs such as salvia greggii, Texas lantana, and flame acanthus (just to name a few), hummingbirds can have plenty of naturally sourced nectar. But, for those of who cannot deny the lure of attracting them to perfect viewing spots, here is the tried and true, super simple hummingbird nectar rule of thumb recipe:
1 part organic cane sugar to 4 parts purified water. Boil for about one minute. Let cool completely. And no red dye. Ever.