Weird weather, rattlesnakes and buzzards

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We experienced record-breaking warm weather in November and December, and now, a heat-wave is occurring in January. Weather forecasters are predicting above average temperatures for the remainder of the winter, at least in the Southeast. Indian summer is a period of unusually warm dry, calm weather in late autumn, usually following a period of colder weather or frost. Blackberry winter is a cold snap often occurring in spring when blackberry bushes are in bloom. There is no colloquial name for an unusually warm period in mid-winter, such as we’ve experienced lately. With a few more breaks in the clouds, we could call it sun-bathing winter or, perhaps, snake-basking winter.

Not long after we moved to the country, about 30 years ago, a spell of exceptionally warm, sunny weather occurred in mid-December. It was then when I encountered the largest canebrake rattlesnake I had ever seen. It was coiled up along a trail close to my barn. Janie was in the barn at the time, and I hollered, “Janie, come here quick and bring a hoe and the garbage can.” She came and I gently lifted the snake using the hoe and dropped it into the can. It was at least five feet long and had 16 rattles. I transported the rattler to some property we own in the wilderness south of Salem, which I call my snake refugium. It’s at least four miles away from the nearest human habitation and provides optimum habitats for a variety of wildlife species, including snakes.

Canebrake rattlesnakes, a.k.a. timber rattlesnakes, are declining in number but are still fairly common in some of the more remote undisturbed natural habitats. Such is not the case for the eastern diamondback rattlesnake, a large species not found in our area. It is now rare in most places where it was once common not many decades ago. Authorities have concluded that the species has undergone a decline of 97 percent within historic times. It is considered endangered and is protected in the state of North Carolina, where it is on the brink of extirpation, if indeed, extirpation has not already occurred. The Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission has proposed that permits be required to kill or capture an eastern diamondback in the wild. The last one seen in that state was in 1995.

In South Carolina, the snake is considered “a species of concern,” and in Alabama, “a species of high conservation concern” with a recommendation that timely research and/or conservation action on the species be undertaken. But except for North Carolina and Louisiana, no state within the species’ range has any provision against killing or taking of the snakes, but it is protected on wildlife refuges and certain other public properties, and on some privately owned lands, such as those owned by the Nature Conservancy.

A petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the eastern diamondback as a “threatened species” throughout its range has been submitted and the status of the species is being investigated. Conservationists are hoping that the diamondback will be listed, resulting in measures that will protect the three percent of snakes that still exist and will prevent the species from becoming extinct.

Notable with respect to residents’ attitudes about protecting venomous creatures are those in Arizona, a state where 13 species of rattlesnakes occur, more than occur in any other state. One, the ridge-nosed rattler, is a federally listed protected species, and two others are protected by the state. Arizona also protects the country’s only venomous lizard, the Gila monster. I salute the people of Arizona, who obviously care about their state’s natural heritage.

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I appreciate Cliff McCollum’s making readers of this newspaper aware of how valuable vultures are in disposing of carcasses of dead animals. Geezer Dan Speake, a.k.a. buzzard man, has a fondness for vultures, or buzzards, the name applied to them by most folks, including me. Dan once had a pet buzzard, named Bobo. Bobo and Dan’s bulldog were fond of each other, and their relationship evolved into what might be called a cooperative brotherhood. The buzzard would groom the dog’s coat and pick his teeth. Bobo would accompany the dog on neighborhood walks, and the dog would overturn garbage cans, the contents of which would provide Bobo with snacks.

Bobo enjoyed the company of people and would occasionally visit a nearby apartment complex, which had a swimming pool. Bobo would stroll around the pool where residents were enjoying themselves, and, lacking good manners, would sometimes relieve himself. This made him an unwanted guest, and the manager would call Dan’s now deceased first wife, Ruth, and say, “Mrs. Speake, please come get your buzzard. He’s making a mess around the pool.” Ruth would oblige and bring Bobo home.

I once had a pet buzzard myself, and I’ll tell you about my buzzard in a subsequent column.

 

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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