Bird watching and black snakes

By Larry Dablemont, Contributing Columnist
Posted 4/13/20

The virus hasn’t made life much different for me because how I live now is not much different than I have always lived. Up here on this isolated ridgetop I call Lightnin’ Ridge, the …

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Bird watching and black snakes

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The virus hasn’t made life much different for me because how I live now is not much different than I have always lived. Up here on this isolated ridgetop I call Lightnin’ Ridge, the highest point in this county, I have to spend a lot of time watching the birds that come to Gloria Jean’s bird feeders. It is part of my job because I take it upon myself to try to shoot all the brown-headed cowbirds I see. I sit there beside my Labrador on my screened porch, which is up about 6 feet off the ground, looking out into the branches of oaks, hickories and walnuts wondering when the orioles will get here, or what kind of wren that little bird on the ground might be. But in almost 30 years of that, I have never seen wood ducks there before.

About two weeks ago, a hen wood duck lit on one of the big limbs about ten yards away from my rockin’ chair. In short order a beautiful drake joined her. In a minute or so they flew into another tree, then another and then another. It went on for 20 minutes or so, as they moved just north of my office to the pond I built there about 25 years ago. In the fall, groups of wood ducks have used that pond, but none have ever nested nearby that I can remember. Those two were indeed looking for a hollow tree to nest in. Every time they moved to another tree the drake was just a follower. The hen was the one doing the searching. She had an eye on that pond, perhaps because there is corn spread along the shore quite often. Dozens of doves feed there at times, and my place is a haven for nesting doves. I have seen doves nest on large tree limbs, in head-high bushes and on the ground in thickets.

Hordes of squirrels start using the hollow trees on my place in February to bring off their litters and three species of owls nest in them as well; the little ones, the medium ones and the big ones. You know what species of owls I am talking about it if you are a woodsman or an ornithological enthusiast (bird lover). Too danged many raccoons have dens for their young on my tract of woodland, and there are pileated woodpeckers, flying squirrels and honeybees in other hollowed out trees. Most of those cavities used as nurseries are in trees that are alive, not dead. There are lots of them, but I sure hope the wood duck hen found one she likes. If she did, I think there will be some little baby woodies on my pond soon.

Here’s a question some of you who have earned your master naturalist certificates in recent years. True or False… Woodies can and do raise broods two or three miles from water! True or False… They are the only waterfowl in the Ozarks that will nest in a hollow tree! Then answer this one… baby wood ducks leave the nest shortly after hatching. That makes them which of the following… altricial or precocial. While you are at it, name those three owl species which nest on my ridgetop. And why would a lifetime professional naturalist ( I wrote that ‘professional’ with in a humorous vein), kill a brown headed cowbird? Answers later in this column.

I shot a big old black snake yesterday only a short distance down one of my trails. He was between 7 feet and 20 feet long! I only shoot black snakes, copperheads and the occasional water snake in my pond. Please keep that between us because it is illegal, according to our conservation department, to kill any snake or anything else that they do not mention in their rules booklet. On a Lebanon radio station a game warden always ended his program with the words, “Remember, if we don’t say you can… you can’t”

But black snakes, which can slither into any nesting cavity and climb any tree, eat bird eggs and kill baby birds by the dozens, in the spring, and baby rabbits. My naturalist daughter Christy, who is a science and biology teacher, says that black snakes are valuable mouse eaters, to which I reply that I own enough mouse traps to kill every mouse between my sheds and hers without the help from black snakes. Besides, a white-footed deer mouse is not anything like a house mouse and should be considered native wildlife. They are important food to owls and other predators that don’t eat bird eggs and baby rabbits! If you are someone who falls into the class of tree-hugger or fern-feeler (non-professional would-be naturalists) and you like snakes, I will bring you some of the three I named above.

As to the questions above… altricial birds are those which have to take care of, and feed their young after hatching. Precocial birds have fledglings which immediately leave the nests and feed themselves. When I was young, I was precocial! The three owls are… little—screech owls. Medium—barred owls. Large—Great Horned Owls. Brown headed cowbirds kick out eggs in another bird nest and lay their eggs in that nest. They are a parasitic bird known to have done their evil work to more than 200 species of birds. And lastly, woodies have been know to nest in hollow trees 3 or 4 miles from water, and hooded mergansers also nest in hollow trees near water. So do some Canada geese, high in hollow trees right over the water. Many won’t believe that but I have photos.

Write to me at Box 22, Bolivar, mo or email me at lightninridge47@gmail.com My website, where you can see and order one or more of my 10 books or issues of my outdoor magazine, is found on the computer at www.larrydablemont.com.

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