Yellow jackets,
squirrels, and alligators

by Bob Mount

Yellow jacket season has arrived. I saw several drinking from a saucer of water on my deck about 10 days ago. I put out my yellow jacket trap and baited it with sugar-water and a few drops of balsamic vinegar. The trap is made of plastic and the bait must be attractive to gray squirrels, because the following day they had gnawed large holes in it. They have also destroyed my expensive “squirrel-proof” bird feeder.
When we first moved to my 40 acres of woods about 24 years ago, the only squirrels I saw were flying squirrels, but I did notice quite a few spent shotgun shells lying around. Either the former owner or one or more of his friends hunted squirrels on the property. Since then the gray squirrel population exploded. So far last year and the current year, I have eliminated a total of 14 of the “tree rats,” mostly by trapping and relocating them, but quite a few remain. Squirrel hunting once was a popular sport, but I’m beginning to believe that few people nowadays enjoy hunting them. I’ve invited a few of my hunting friends to bag some squirrels on my property, but so far none have been interested.
About ten days ago, I began to hear the cheerful chattering of young chimney swifts emanating from my chimney. I assume that’s the sound they make when their parents are feeding them. The insectivorous little “flying cigars” have declined precipitously in recent decades, for reasons not precisely clear. Some have postulated that extensive use of pesticides has reduced numbers of flying insects to levels that can no longer sustain healthy populations of chimney swifts. Others, including me, believe a shortage of suitable nesting sites, uncapped masonry chimneys, is the primary reason for the decline. Many homes now no longer have chimneys, and those that do are frequently capped preventing the entry of the swifts. Quite a few others that do have chimneys have metal flues within them that make them unsuitable for nesting.
Home owners that appreciate chimney swifts and are concerned about their declining numbers should have uncapped chimneys with masonry flues, if possible, and avoid cleaning their chimneys during spring and summer months, when the birds are nesting.
Last week’s edition of this newspaper had an article on alligators. I have had some experience with the reptiles. In 1980, I conducted a survey of the reptiles and amphibians of Conecuh National Forest in Covington and Escambia counties for the National Forest Service. In my report, I mentioned a large alligator inhabiting Open Pond, a large lake in the forest. The “Mobile Press-Register” published an article I had written about alligators. Not long afterward, a young man and his dog were swimming in Open Pond when he was attacked by an alligator that bit off his right arm. He sued the Forest Service to compensate him for the loss of his arm.
The plaintiff’s attorney discovered my report to to the Forest Service and the aforementioned newspaper article I had written and served me with a subpoena to be a “expert witness.” The late Federal District Judge Robert Varner conducted the hearing. I was questioned by the plaintiff’s attorney about the food habits of alligators, when they were most active, and just about everything I knew about alligators. After an hour or more, the attorney for the Forest Service raised his hand and said, “Your honor, I object to the questions being posed to Dr. Mount that have no relevance to this case.” Judge Varner replied, “Objection overruled. I’m interested in alligators, and the witness is providing me with information I need to make my decision, whether or not the defendant’s attorney deems it pertinent.”
In conclusion, if my memory serves me correctly, the plaintiff was awarded $500,000 for the loss of his limb.
Bob Mount is a Professor Emeritus with the Department of Zoology and Entomology at Auburn University. He is also chairman of the Opelika Order of Geezers, well-known local think tank and political clearing house.