Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Black VuLtUrEs

Fossil records indicate that black vultures were part of the fauna in Europe approximately thirty-four million years ago. Today these vultures are only found throughout North and South America. Traditionally black vultures were found in the southeastern United States, but sometime in the 1990’s they began spreading their population further north and westward into the midwestern states.  These large, gregarious birds occur in Missouri, predominantly in the southern portion of our state. However, in recent years they have been expanding their range to include Northern Missouri as more sightings are being reported in our corner of the state.

Black vultures are cousins to the more common turkey vulture, and approximately the same size with a 4.9-foot wingspan. Black vultures tend to be more stocky in their build and are uniformly black in color including their featherless head. In fact, their species name of “atratus” translates to “clothed in black.” The common name vulture is derived from the Latin word Vulturus which means “tearer” and refers to their feeding habits. Like all vultures they feed predominantly on the carrion of a wide variety of animals. Of the two species of vultures living in Missouri however, the diet of the black vulture is much more varied and does include living animals as well as vegetation. They may feed on birds, reptile eggs, small mammals, as well as refuse from dumps, and controversially the offspring of livestock. Reports from cattle ranchers began pouring in of black vultures attacking newly born calves by pecking their eyes and or nostrils and mouths. This causes the calf to go into shock making it possible for the black vulture to ultimately kill and eat the calf. They extend this behavior to piglets and lambs as well. Why black vultures exhibit this type of behavior has yet to be fully determined, but there are ongoing studies to try and gain some insight and hopefully some answers. With adequate information, it may be possible to come up with solutions to protect livestock as well as the vulture. The black vulture is the only New World vulture known to feed on livestock, the more mild-mannered turkey vulture does not, however he does sometimes get blamed for it. If you are a cattle rancher or livestock owner and see vultures feeding on your calves you probably aren’t going to care who killed the calf, only that its dead and being fed on. It is vitally important though to make that determination so innocent animals aren’t being slaughtered in the name of protecting your livestock. Young turkey vultures often do not have the classic red head and can easily be mistaken for a black vulture. Turkey vultures will show up to a recently killed carcass to feed and may get caught in the crossfire of the bad behavior of the black vulture. It can be very distressing to lose livestock, especially in such a horrific way. This is not only upsetting but impacts ranchers financially. It is imperative that an accurate determination is made as to whether or not the black vulture is to blame for the death of a calf, or if the vultures are actually feeding on a stillborn and being falsely accused of killing the calf. Black vultures are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 in the United States. It is illegal to take, possess, or kill one without a permit. Getting caught killing one without due cause and special permits can cost you up to $15,000 and six months in prison. Always document and report issues these vultures may be causing and apply for the right permits to control the situation. This protects you, your livestock and potentially the vulture from wanton killing.

Until the 1900’s black vultures were appreciated as slaughterhouse cleaners, especially in the southwest where their populations were much larger. Misinformed humans began believing these birds were spreading diseases to humans and thousands were killed throughout the 1970’s. With climate change and an abundance of carrion and other food sources their population has rebounded and they have expanded their range. Vultures are an important part of a healthy ecosystem and are vital for cleaning up carrion. The feeding habits of these birds allow carcasses to decompose faster thus removing them from the environment much quicker. With a decrease in vulture populations there will be an increase in the populations of larger predators such as coyotes which may cause a more serious threat to livestock if left unchecked. The absence of vultures may also increase the abundance of rats and feral hogs which in turn will increase the potential for anthrax and rabies virus to increase and create definite health risks for humans. Vultures are not known to catch or transmit any diseases and have special enzymes in their digestive system which allows for them to eat decaying animal carcasses without risk of contracting pathogens that might make other animals serious ill or even kill them.

Black vultures are highly social birds with dedicated family bonds. They will share food with other family members and continue feeding their offspring long after they have fledged. They lack a voice box and communicate through hisses and grunts. When threatened they may regurgitate a recent meal as a deterrent and also as a means to release weight and be able to retreat more quickly. I’ve had the unfortunate opportunity to experience this first hand. Once while returning a baby turkey vulture to its mother inside a shed where she was rearing them, the baby let me know just how it felt about being handled by a human as it vomited all down the front of me. The smell simply cannot be described! Their corrosive vomit reeks of the death it has consumed. Believe me when I say it is a deterrent!

Turkey vultures on a recently deceased deer
Black vultures have a poor sense of smell, but keen eyesight. They often soar high in the sky above the turkey vultures waiting for them to smell a potential food source. Turkey vultures have a keen sense of smell and can home in on the gases emitted by a recently deceased carcass from up to a mile away. The black vulture will follow the turkey vulture to the food it so kindly sniffed out and then proceed to run them off with their much more aggressive attitude.

Of all the birds that grace our skies, vultures are my favorite. They are one of the most misunderstood and vilified of our raptors. Often held in contempt for doing what nature programmed them to do, and for generations were needlessly persecuted by misinformed individuals. These birds are unique and ecologically important for a healthy environment. Images of their large wings spread towards the sun as they bask, soaking up the heat of the sun’s rays is as recognizable as their silhouette soaring high in the sky. A sky without vultures would be an empty sky for sure. 


Friday, September 22, 2023

Caesar Mushroom

With names like destroying angel, deaths cap, and the panther, it is easy to understand why these mushrooms are to be taken seriously. All occur in a family of mushrooms call the Amanitas and making a mistake with any of these mushrooms will land you in the hospital or even the morgue. For those who seek mushrooms the name Amanita may conjure up nightmares of potential toxic poisoning, and with good reason. The destroying angel, if eaten will cause nausea, diarrhea, and severe stomach pain. Several hours to several days later you will start to feel better. This is the dastardly part of the destroying angel; it falsely leads you to believe you are going to be fine. Then you will find yourself experiencing pain and sickness like never before. The toxins, called amatoxins have spent your remission time eating away at your kidney and liver. You will fall into a coma, with liver damage so severe your only chance at survival is a liver transplant.  This is why I cannot express loudly enough---ALWAYS know what you are picking and plan to eat.

There are a few mushrooms within this family that are considered edible, and not just edible, but choice edibles. People who seek these mushrooms nearly salivate when the season returns for them. I am speaking of a colorful mushroom called the Ceasar mushroom, or sometimes referred to as the American Ceasar mushroom. This brightly colored mushroom is hard to mistake for any other mushroom, but always seek the help of an expert before delving into experimenting with any fungi. Ceasar mushroom caps vary from reddish-orange, red, or bright orange, with yellow stalks standing up to eight inches high. There is a highly visible “skirt” around the upper part of the stem. The cap does not have warts or patches. They grow from an egg-like structure called a volva, before eventually reaching their mature stage. They form Mycorrhizal relationships with oaks, pines, as well as other hardwood trees throughout the Eastern United States. In simple terms, mycorrhizal is a symbiotic relationship between the roots of the trees and the tendrils of mycelium from the mushrooms. The hyphae of the mycelium surround the tree rootlets with a sheath, and the mushroom helps the tree absorb water and nutrients while the tree provides sugars and amino acids to the mushroom. The organisms may need each other to survive.

During the time of the Roman emperors these mushrooms were referred to as boletus, which today are classified in an entirely different family of fungi. Eventually they were given the name Ceasar mushrooms due to the fact it was widely known the elite of Rome ate them frequently. Every man who took the position of emperor,  used the name Ceasar. Talk about confusing. One emperor in particular, Claudius, loved these mushrooms more than any other. His wife, Agrippina desired her son Nero, from a previous marriage, to be emperor. She devised a plan to rid herself of poor old Claudius. She knew of his proclivity for these tasty fungi. She conspired with the palace medic, Xenophon, to slip some destroying angels in with his meal. When he became deathly ill and called upon his medic, instead of providing him some relief for his misery, she administered another dose of deadly amanita. Such a cruel, miserable way to die, but Agrippina got her wish and Nero became emperor.

The American Ceasar mushroom is said to taste like a mixture of brie and camembert cheese with a somewhat chewing texture. They are even considered one of the few mushrooms that can be consumed raw. This may be true, but I would strongly encourage you to cook all mushrooms before consumption. Many of us eat mushrooms for their culinary value and their unique texture, and delicious taste they add to our favorite dishes. Still others consume them for their medicinal value, although these particular mushrooms aren’t known to have any medical uses.

Because these mushrooms belong to the largest group of mushrooms, which contain the most toxic of species, these are not considered beginners mushrooms. Because there is a chance that they could be confused with other more toxic species I cannot stress caution enough. If in doubt throw it out.

Sunday, September 3, 2023

European Hornet

Several years ago, while vacationing in Tennessee’s Smoky Mountain National Park, I noticed a large wasp struggling to carry a seemingly paralyzed cicada. At first, I thought the wasp may be a cicada killer, the size was right, but the coloration and pattern was all wrong. When we returned home, I used the pictures I took to identify it as a European hornet. These are the only true hornet in the United States (except for one more that has recently showed up on the landscape of our country, but more on that in a bit). They may reach lengths up to an inch or a little more in the case of the queen. Their head is red and yellow, thorax brown and red, and the abdomen is striped with brown and yellow. They are a strikingly beautiful wasp. They sometimes are referred to as the brown hornet or giant hornet and were first introduced into the United States in 1840 via cargo containers from Europe. Since then, they have established themselves all throughout the Eastern United States and are locally common where they occur. Like many non-native species that show up in our country, they are eventually considered naturalized. Examples would be the honeybee, Virginia opossum and the nine-banded armadillo. However, the list definitely does not end there. 

The common name of giant hornet (mentioned above) that is sometimes attributed to them is a bit of a misnomer. While they are large for a wasp, the true giant hornet is from Japan and adjacent countries. These monstrously large hornets are the largest hornet in the world and with lengths up to 2 inches or more and a wingspan of 3 inches it is easy to see why!  The northern giant hornet (formerly referred to as the Asian giant hornet) or as it is also referred to, albeit not so affectionately, as the murder hornet…. has recently made an appearance in the United States. I’m sure this moniker bestowed upon this very much unwelcome hornet comes from the aggressive temperament and ¼ long stinger!  In 2019 it was found in British Columbia, and by 2020 was sighted in Washington state, and in 2022 a nest was located and destroyed. This has prompted all sorts of worries of an invasion, not to mention misidentifications. Any large, brown, and yellow wasp-like creature must be a murder hornet. This is simply not true. While European hornets resemble giant hornets, they have a much better disposition and are not likely to ever cause the problems its much larger cousin can and probably will. Giant hornets form massive hives and feed their offspring almost exclusively on honeybees. The USDA and other governmental organizations as well as many local (to where they were found) organizations are working diligently to keep tabs on the spread of this potential new invasive species. 

Photo By: Steve Scott
The European hornet is rarely aggressive and usually only defensive if mishandled or when the nest is disturbed. We know eusocial insects, like hornets, paper wasps and yellow jackets can and do defend their nests with vigor, as anyone who has been unfortunate enough to get close enough has found out. While this behavior can seem aggressive, it truly is defensive. They are protecting their queen, her offspring, their food stores, and each other. There is a lot at stake, and they don’t tolerate potential invaders. Many social insects use pheromones to send messages throughout the hive, but in the case of the European hornet, it is now believed they use a different form of communication. When notifying their fellow workers that danger is nearby, they perform a dance outside the hive that alerts their hive mates to an approaching threat. In no time you may have numerous hornets all descending upon you at once determined to remove you from the area by the only means available to them, the stinger.

Like all social insects there is a hierarchy that determines their job within the hive. Bred European hornet females spend the winter under leaf litter, or within fallen logs and other sheltered areas. In the spring they become active and start looking for a place to begin nest building. She wants to find a secluded, dark location, such as a hollow tree, inside a barn or maybe an attic or within the walls of a house. She will chew bits of wood mixed with saliva. The saliva acts as a cement effectively gluing the hive cells together. In the event they cannot find a suitable location that meets their requirement for darkness and safety they will form an “envelope” around the outside of the nest. This is similar to the outer covering of a bald-faced hornet nest. This envelope will protect the nest from light, as well as wind and rain. Once the queen has raised a few workers they will begin taking over the care of the queen, the queens offspring, and growing the hive. It is at this time their unique communication capabilities are put to use in another fashion called policing. Workers are capable of laying eggs that turn into males. Other workers of the hive will destroy those eggs and will often discriminate against those workers who dare lay eggs in the queens territory. By the end of the season there may be between 200-400 members within the hive. Some larger hives contain 1,000 or more hornets in various stages of development. In late summer or early fall the queen will lay eggs that will become fertile males and females. Once these reproductive adults mate and cold weather sets in the workers remaining in the hive die off, and newly bred queens overwinter and start the cycle all over the following year.

In the spring they are active hunters and put their energy into finding food necessary to grow the larvae. They do this by providing masticated bits of insects to the young larvae developing within the nest. Typically, they chose large insects such as cicadas (like I witnessed), other wasps and grasshoppers. In the fall their diet changes and they become more scavenger-like in nature. You will find the adults feasting on fallen apples, pears, and other fruit. These wasps will quickly become inebriated by the fermentation created within the fruit. This intoxicating libation will have them stumbling like a drunken sailor. Like yellow jackets, they are also attracted to garbage left behind by humans as well as soft drinks, and other sugary treats we favor. This can cause human, hornet conflicts. Most humans, when faced with a large insect packing a hypodermic needle attached to its backside, contort into all sorts of odd positions, and begin swatting at the air like they just don’t care.  Trust me, when I say this will most likely earn you a sting. Ignore the hornet and chances are everything will be fine. Just check your pop can before you take a sip.

While large stinging insects are rarely favored among humans, we must learn to appreciate the good they provide.  In the case of the European hornet, by feeding potentially injurious insects like grasshoppers, moths, and crickets to the larvae within the hive, they are providing invaluable pest control. This can, and does save the agricultural industry millions annually. They are not known to be aggressive so conflicts should be minimal and learning to respect the boundaries of their nest will allow for co-existence.