Climate change, popcorn trees, rabid house cats

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Following are several record-breaking climate-related phenomena being reported during 2012. The continental U.S. experienced the hottest temperatures ever recorded. The ice coverage on the Arctic Ocean is the smallest on record. Rapid thawing of the ice sheet that covers about 80 percent of Greenland is occurring – within four days more than 90 percent of the ice’s surface had begun to melt. Nigeria, Australia, and China experienced record floods, whereas India suffered from extreme drought. Warming ocean is blamed for the continuing decline in the coral cover of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

Oyster lovers should be concerned about the plight of commercial oyster farmers in the Pacific Northwest. More than 80 percent of oyster larvae are not surviving in oyster hatcheries in the area. The high mortality rate is the result of ocean acidification, partly due to increasing concentration of carbon dioxide.

Closer to home, in the lower Southeast, records are being broken. Fifteen tornadoes occurred on Christmas day, the most ever. A few weeks ago, the weatherman on WSFA-TV reported that daytime temperatures exceeded 70 degrees on ten straight days in November, a record for an “Indian Summer” in that month. And as weather-watchers in Lee County are aware, only about half the normal amount of 51 inches of rain fell in the county in 2012.

Four years ago, my pond was at full-pool most of the year, and the level has been declining since then. It’s ten feet below full-pool at present, and despite the above normal rain that’s fallen this December, the little spring that feeds it has not begun to flow, an indication that the moistures still haven’t met. When the “moistures meet,” sufficient surface water seeps downward far enough to reach the ground water table and “wet weather springs” begin to flow. A recent long-term weather forecast I saw indicated that our area would receive more rainfall than normal this winter and spring, as a result of a developing El Nino weather phenomenon. I hope the prediction comes to pass.

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The fall issue of Alabama’s Treasured Forests, a publication of the Alabama Forestry Commission, contained an article by Lenela Glass-Godwin titled, “Invasion of the Popcorn Trees.” Also known as the Chinese tallow tree, the plant was introduced into the U.S. in the 1700’s by Benjamin Franklin, which proved to be a bad idea. Since then it has spread across the South and now occurs from North Carolina, throughout Florida, and westward to Texas. It can also be found in many areas of California.

In Alabama, the trees are reportedly causing problems along the banks of the Coosa, Tallapoosa, and Alabama rivers and are steadily invading wetlands in the central and southern portions of the state. The trees may grow up to 50 feet in height, and its seeds can be dispersed by birds and wind. As an invasive species, it is being compared to kudzu, mimosa, and privet.

Popcorn trees have long, green flowers during spring. On an Internet site I visited, one person wrote that the flowers were fragrant and another said they smelled like cat pee. I have not smelled the flowers and haven’t the faintest notion what cat pee smells like, so I’ll refrain from registering an opinion. Maybe Husky Kirkwood or Bob Sanders, both of whom have a popcorn tree growing on their property, may be familiar with the odor of the plants’ flowers. The foliage of the trees turns bright red during fall, which may be the reason some people planted them.

The author states, “Most states have now declared tallow trees a noxious weed and in some states it is illegal to possess them.” I have not been able to determine what states have made it illegal to possess them, but Florida forbids people to buy, sell, or plant the trees. To my knowledge, Alabama has no regulations regarding the trees, so Kirkwood and Sanders do not at present risk being cited for having them on their properties.

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The report of a rabid cat in Auburn biting or scratching some people with whom the cat came into contact should prompt governing authorities in Auburn, Opelika and other municipalities in Lee County, and the Lee County Commission for that matter, to consider enacting regulations requiring owners of house cats to have them vaccinated against rabies. They should also consider allowing animal control personnel to capture and impound free-ranging cats when they are considered nuisances by residents who report them. The city of Montevallo enacted a cat “leash law” that solved its problem with free-ranging cats becoming nuisances or threats to human health.

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Mini-quiz: Two native birds usually begin nesting during December. One is the Bald Eagle. The other is the (a) Turkey Vulture; (b) Wild Turkey; (c) Great Blue Heron; (d) Great Horned Owl; (e) Carolina Wren. Correct Answer: d.

Bob Mount is a Professor Emeritus with the Dept of Zoology and Entomology, Auburn Univ. He is also chairman of the Opelika Order of Geezers, well-known local think tank and political clearing house. He writes about birds, snakes, turtles, bugs and assorted conservation topics.

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