That’s probably not the exact scenario but a recent article in Current Biology claims that most, if not all, of today’s living polar bears are descended from one Scottish brown bear. Mama bear lived in Ireland near the peak of the last Ice Age 20,000 to 50,000 years ago. Increasing Arctic ice flows likely brought the polar suitors into contact with the brown bears. As the ice receded, the polar bears drifted back to their icy Arctic island, but with a little going away present from their lovely brown sweethearts — a neatly wrapped package of mitochondrial DNA, DNA passed exclusively from mother to offspring.

It has definitely piqued the researchers’ curiosities.  One of the researchers, Mark Thomas of University College London said the study shows that species may not be as fixed and tidy as we would like.

Nor is hybridization necessarily a death knell for a species, but could actually help its survival and coping during times of stress. He pointed to recent studies by Stanford’s Peter Parham that shows Europeans gained genes that helped in battling northern diseases from interbreeding with Neanderthals.

Biologists and researchers have long been aware of the polar bear/brown bear dalliance but it was thought these trysts originated on the Alaskan “ABC” Islands (Admiralty, Baranof and Chicagof) around 14,000 years ago. However, new international research spearheaded in part by Beth Shapiro, assistant professor of biology at Penn State found DNA evidence in the skeletons of 17 brown bears from eight different cave sites in Ireland that predates the Alaskan peccadilloes by 10,000 years or more.

Dr. Ceiridwen Edwards of Oxford University, the Current Biology paper’s head author noted that the DNA from the older brown bear remains (38,000 to 43,000 years ago) had basically the same DNA structure as today’s European brown bears. But the DNA from younger specimen (10,000 to 38,000 years ago) more closely resembles that of modern day polar bears.

Researchers further studied the matrilines (line of descent from mother to offspring) of 242 polar and brown bears, including living bears and fossil records through 120,000 years and across their present and past geographic ranges. Results strongly suggest that all of today’s living polar bears carry that little mtDNA package of brown bear genes from Ireland.

Shapiro finds this scenario especially intriguing because studies of nuclear DNA show that brown bears and polar bears diverged from a common ancestor around a million years ago. In a recent interview with National Public Radio, Shapiro said that the last Ice Age brought the two species back into contact, and that after interbreeding the ice retreated to once again separate the species.

It’s unclear what caused the fixation of this particular brown bear’s genome in the matriline of today’s polar bears. That will surely be fodder for more molecular biological research. The summary from the Current Biology article simply leaves it at:

“The reconstructed matrilineal history of brown and polar bears has two striking features. First, it is punctuated by dramatic and discrete climate-driven dispersal events. Second, opportunistic mating between these two species as their ranges overlapped has left a strong genetic imprint. In particular, a likely genetic exchange with extinct Irish brown bears forms the origin of the modern polar bear matriline. This suggests that interspecific hybridization not only may be more common than previously considered but may be a mechanism by which species deal with marginal habitats during periods of environmental deterioration.”

Today polar bears and brown bears (Kodiaks and grizzlies) are once again coming into contact. This time, however, it’s the shrinking Arctic ice cap and the encroachment of the terra firma bound browns into former polar bear habitat that is precipitating this contact. But the results are the same: interbreeding. The resultant hybrids are known as pizzly bears or grolar bears.

According to Shapiro, “Scientists should reconsider conservation efforts focused not just on polar bears, but also on hybrids, since hybrids may play an underappreciated role in the survival of certain species.”

(Don Hendershot is a writer and naturalist. He can be reached a This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

A recently published study in Proceedings, an online medical journal of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that regular aerobic exercise like walking or hiking can improve the brain’s memory function and perhaps lessen the risk of dementia. As humans age, the hippocampus — the part of the brain involved in memory forming, organizing, and storing — tends to shrink, leading to impaired memory and increased risk of dementia.

The study published in Proceedings took 120 older adults with no dementia and separated them into two groups of 60. One group participated in a stretching program and one group participated in an aerobic exercise program for a year. Magnetic resonance images were collected at the beginning of the program, at the six-month point and at the end of the program. Those images showed that the stretching group demonstrated a loss in volume of the left and right hippocampus of 1.40 percent and 1.43 percent respectively. The group that participated in regular aerobic exercise, on the other hand, showed an increase in the left and right hippocampus of 2.12 percent and 1.97 percent respectively. According to the study, “… we found that, in the aerobic exercise group, increased hippocampal volume was directly related to improvements in memory performance.”

The study goes on to state — “In sum, we found that the hippocampus remains plastic in late adulthood and that 1 y [year] of aerobic exercise was sufficient for enhancing volume. Increased hippocampal volume translates to improved memory function and higher serum BDNF [brain-derived neurotrophic factor that helps support the survival of existing neurons and encourage the growth and differentiation of new neurons and synapses]. We also demonstrate that higher fitness levels are protective against loss of hippocampal volume. These results clearly indicate that aerobic exercise is neuroprotective and that starting an exercise regimen later in life is not futile for either enhancing cognition or augmenting brain volume.”


Need more reasons to take a hike?

A scientific study from the university of Rochester noted a 20 percent increase in energy for people who spent a minimum of 20 minutes a day outdoors as opposed to individuals who exercised indoors. The brain generates natural mood enhancers like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine when stimulated by aerobic exercise like hiking.

The study in Proceedings can be added to a long list of reports and research that point out how beneficial outdoor recreation is, in general to our physical, mental and spiritual well being. But this study concerning the reversal of memory loss may have special significance to many of us. Just think, a regular routine of walking/hiking 30 minutes or so, three times a week and soon we will no longer need to take that GPS with us so we can find our way back to the car.

(Don Hendershot is a writer and naturalist. He can be reached a This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Man vs. nature

Unless you are of a philosophical bent, you might want to skip this last installment of the spotted owl trilogy.

I have been intrigued by the dichotomy of man vs. nature for a long time. I can’t remember exactly what I saw while researching the spotted owl dilemma — the need to kill barred owls in order to save endangered spotted owls — that brought this man vs. nature dualism back into focus once again. It may have simply been the implication that man was, somehow, this omnipotent arbiter sitting outside that out-of-balance ecosystem with the knowledge and power to bring it back into balance by simply manipulating one small aspect — the number of barred owls — with only a cursory mention that, oh, by the way, it was human activities like the logging of million of acres of old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest coupled with the human-induced expansion of forests across the northern plains and southern Canada in the 1800s that brought these two owls into proximity in the first place.

The strange thing about this man vs. nature dualism is that proponents and opponents of the anthropocentric exploitation of natural resources often find themselves supporting this idea of dualism if it appears to advance their particular agenda. You have logging companies, mining companies, real estate developers and others and their constituents who realize a livelihood and a lifestyle from clearing forests or extracting natural resources or manipulating them in a certain way that makes them more manageable or more profitable. And you have some environmental advocates who have gone so far as to posit that there should be large expanses of natural landscape with no type of human footprint at all.

In my, obviously, rather simple-minded observations, what you have is the opposite sides of the same coin. You can no more separate man from the environment than you can take fish from the water. Man is part and parcel of the environment and everything/anything man (you or I) does down to the breath he takes impacts the environment in some way.

It should be apparent that all natural resources aren’t renewable and/or reusable and that even some that might be, over time can’t be renewed at the rate we are using them up. And it should be just as obvious that there will never be a wilderness beyond the footprint of man. Vast expanses of sparsely inhabited wilderness greeted Europeans when they arrived in America only a few hundred years ago — and you see what’s left now.

And I am simple enough to believe in the theory of evolution and natural selection and I have little doubt that while a cave may have been inhabitable that those individuals that learned to use natural resources to create their own habitation in areas that had more readily available or better resources certainly had a leg up. And that ever sinse we crawled out of those caves and began to learn how to utilize the natural resources that we encountered, it’s always been those who were either more adept at utilizing those resources or those who were strong enough to amass the most resources who had the upper hand when it came to survival and advancing the species.

As Homo sapiens have evolved, one can only hope that the depth and breadth of his wisdom and compassion have evolved to the point where he realizes, as Pogo succinctly put it, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

No one, least of all I, wants to crawl back into the cave. And no one believes that the polio or smallpox virus should not be eradicated. But we are fouling our nest like no other species in history and we are not only fouling the physical aspects that provide sustenance for our bodies we are fouling the spiritual aspects that sustain our spirit and give us the capacity for awe and wonder and love and the lost of that awe and wonder and love will be what brings about Armageddon.

“The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects,” said Thomas Berry.

(Don Hendershot is a writer and naturalist. He can be reached a This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

More owl pellets

I mentioned in last week’s Naturalist’s Corner that I found the decision by U.S. Fish & Wildlife to kill barred owls in an effort to save spotted owls intriguing on many levels. I will use this week’s and next week’s columns to outline a couple of those intrigues.

It’s no secret that the Endangered Species Act has become the lynchpin of conservation. Critical habitat designation has been used to preserve hundreds of thousands of acres and sometimes, as in the case of the ivory-billed woodpecker, just the perceived presence of some iconic creature can prove pivotal in raising money and/or support for land acquisition.

I don’t fault environmentalists and/or environmental organizations for using whatever means they have to protect sensitive environmental areas. And I realize that preserving habitat has become a high-stakes legal enterprise requiring legal underpinnings like critical habitat designation that comes with the Endangered Species Act.

But I often think that we, as environmentalists, have the cart before the horse. To paraphrase James Carville’s succinct advice to then presidential candidate Bill Clinton – when it comes to protecting species – it’s the habitat, stupid. Protect the habitat and you’ve de facto protected all the organisms that call said habitat home. Perhaps habitat is too ambiguous or too amorphous for people to connect with, while a spotted owl or an ivory-billed woodpecker is more tangible.

Or perhaps it’s just so intuitive that we don’t consciously focus on it. I mean, if you’re a photographer and you want to get some good butterfly shots, where do you go? You go where there are lots of blooms – why – because it’s the right habitat. If you’re a hunter or a fisherman or a birder or a biologist you can simply look around you and you can list a suite of species that you would expect to encounter at that location.

If you take a spotted owl out of old growth forest, or take an ivory-billed woodpecker out of bottomland hardwoods they won’t survive. Now, I’m not saying you couldn’t raise them in captivity. I’m saying they are part of a larger whole. They are part of an ecosystem – a habitat and they have evolved with that habitat and they depend on it for their existence. And there are any number of other organisms that depend on that habitat, some we’ve probably never even heard of.

The All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory has turned up more than 900 species new to science in a habitat that is largely second growth and sees millions of visitors a year. What might be discovered if thousands of acres of old growth and/or bottomland hardwoods were afforded the same kind of scrutiny?

At this late date of plunder of natural ecosystems in this country and around the world, we can’t afford to take our eye off any tool that gives us leverage to halt it. But we need to redouble our efforts to focus on a larger, more holistic, more sustainable picture.

Aldo Leopold, often called the father of conservation, once stated, “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering. ...” Yet here we are, destroying entire ecosystems and we don’t even have a parts list. We have no idea of what we are destroying. We need to put the horse back in front of the cart.

There must be a way. I mean if the Supreme Court can give corporations individual rights, why can’t we list endangered habitats?

(Don Hendershot is a writer and naturalist. He can be reached a This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

The Migratory Bird Act makes it illegal to kill barred owls, Strix varia. It is a crime that is punishable by thousands of dollars in fines and can include jail time. That is unless you are working for the federal government and you are killing barred owls in Western old growth forests in an attempt to save the endangered spotted owl, Strix occidentalis caurina. The just-released federal recovery plan for the northern spotted owl calls for killing hundreds, maybe thousands of healthy barred owls. This issue is contentious and intriguing on many levels.

The northern spotted owl, a shy, retiring resident of Pacific Northwest old growth forests, was catapulted into the limelight a couple of decades ago when it was listed on the Federal Endangered Species List and made the poster child for the efforts to curtail logging in those old growth forests. The debate was loud and long and rancorous. There was the spiking of timber (driving steel spikes into standing timber) by anti logging activists creating danger for loggers with chainsaws and sawmill operators. Loggers and their supporters countered with demonstrations that included caravans of log trucks and other timbering equipment. Expensive and time consuming suits and countersuits were filed by both sides. And the federal government, depending on the current (at the time) administration’s environmental proclivities, either supported and, perhaps, strengthened regulations protecting old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest or eased said regulations.  

Meanwhile, in the midst of pitched battles between the opposing sides, the northern spotted owl’s eastern cousin, the barred owl, began flexing its feathered muscles. The larger, more aggressive barred owl arrived in the Pacific Northwest in the mid 1960s and early 1970s and began flexing its feathered muscles. Barred owls out-compete and sometimes even attack northern spotted owls, usurping nesting habitat and displacing their smaller, western cousins.

Despite years of greatly curtailed logging, the northern spotted owl shows little sign of recovery. Focus is being shifted to the interactions between the barred and spotted owls. Robyn Thorson, U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Pacific Northwest’s director, called the barred owl, “… the biggest threat spotted owls are facing,” and, reluctantly, supports the culling of barred owls.

Now if barred owls were “exotic” — that is, if they had not reached the Pacific Northwest of their own volition — obliterating them with shoguns might be a lot easier to swallow. Surely, a lot of human-influenced factors like fire suppression and tree planting across the northern plains paved the way for barred owls, but still, they got there under their own power and for many, it’s just a question of natural selection.

In a scenario like this there is little doubt what the outcome would be. The barred owl is a generalist. It has a varied diet and nests successfully throughout a number of different habitats. The northern spotted owl, on the other hand is very selective regarding diet and nesting habitat. Add its aggressive nature – and it’s pretty easy to see that without help the spotted owl’s days are numbered.

When you throw politics into the mix, it becomes a real circus. Timbering proponents are ecstatic. They are pointing fingers and saying – “see, it wasn’t us, it was the barred owl all along, now let us go and cut trees again” never mind that the cutting decimated 60 to 80 percent of the northern spotted owl’s habitat already, severely restricting them while enhancing barred owl habitat. And there are a lot of people and organizations with a lot of vested time and monies tied up in the rescue of the spotted owl willing to try anything to keep their poster child from fading into the sunset.

I will admit to being somewhat ambivalent, but when I simply look at the biology — killing barred owls will never work unless you plan on killing large numbers of them for the better part of a century or longer, until enough old growth is created to give the northern spotted owl some sort of buffer.

(Don Hendershot is a writer and naturalist. He can be reached a This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

The eighth annual Mountain Wildlife Days is scheduled for July 15 and 16 at the Sapphire Valley Community Center. The event is sponsored by Wild South along with partners Sapphire Valley Resort and Cashiers Travel & Tourism.

The program — organized in large part by Wild South volunteer John Edwards of Cashiers and designed to entertain and educate the public regarding the beauty, diversity and issues facing the wild things and wild places here in Western North Carolina and beyond — has been enthusiastically received across the region.

There will be new presenters this year including Freeman Owle, beloved historian and storyteller from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Owle will talk about how the Cherokee have valued and still value the creatures and mountains that have sustained them for centuries.

Kate Marshall, award-winning cinematographer, will share close-up videos of black bears and cubs. Marshall, who recently presented at the Black Bear Festival in Umatilla, Fla., will focus on human-black bear interactions, which ties in with the “bear smart” initiative sponsored by the Jackson-Macon Conservation Alliance (JMCA).

One long-time and much-loved Mountain Wildlife Days presenter, Rob Gudger and his show-stopping wolves, will be presenting a brand new program this year. The new program is designed to promote a better understanding of wolves and their place in the natural environment.

To help you better understand how these wonderful creatures tolerate Rob – the domestic dog is the wolf’s closest relative – their DNA differs by only about 0.2 percent. The wolf and its closest wild relative the coyote differ by about 4 percent. That chihuahua in your pocket and/or that newfoundland on the sofa get their intelligence and social skills from their amazing wild ancestors.

From fur to feathers: The Eagle Lady, Doris Mager, will be present with her collection of feathered friends including owls, falcons and a crested caracara. Cynthia Strain of the JMCA and the Highlands Plateau Audubon Society will lead a bird-walk Friday morning.

A couple of other free hikes will also be offered Friday morning. Guided hikes in Panthertown Valley and on Whitesides Mountain are offered — but there is a cut-off for participants. If you wish to participate in one of these hikes you should call the Sapphire Valley Community Center at 828.743.7663.

If flying and/or furry are not your cup of tea, how about scaly and slithery? Steve O’Neil, “Wildlife Warrior,” will present, along with a few furry mammals, a number of reptiles and amphibians with the message that salamanders are animals too.

The focus on Friday evening will be “seeing God in everything.” It will be a musical celebration performed by the newly created “Creation Singers” with messages from pastors Steve Kerhoulas of Christ Church of the Valley and Randy Harry of Cashier United Methodist Church. There will also be music by Judy Felts, Lee Porter and acclaimed wildlife photographer Bill Lea. Relax, folks, this is not a “Creationist” celebration but a celebration of nature as part and parcel of the creation we all enjoy.

For tickets and more information visit the Sapphire Valley Community Center or call 828.743.7663.  For a detailed schedule of activities, visit and click on 2011 Mountain Wildlife Days.

(Don Hendershot is a writer and naturalist. He can be reached a This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Too many birders hang their binoculars up and put their field guides back on the shelf after May, fearing the “dog” days of summer. But the summer months offer a great opportunity to get to know your local nesters. While it’s true that rising thermometers, incubation and chick-rearing duties quiet and/or shorten the morning chorus, early morning still offers a great deal of avian activity. And here in Western North Carolina  we’re fortunate to have the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Cherohala Skyway, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and other avenues to race those rising temperatures up the mountains and prolong those good birding opportunities.

Last Saturday (June 18) I had the pleasure of leading a field trip for the Great Smoky Mountains Audubon Chapter to look for local nesters. The disparate elevations across WNC not only allow you to chase cooler temperatures they also provide different birding opportunities.

We started out last Saturday at Kituwah along the Tuckasegee River in Swain County. The area, formerly known as Ferguson’s Field, is home to the Kituwah mound and revered by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians as the “mother town.” The EBCI purchased the mound and 309 surrounding acres in 1996 to preserve the site. Tribal members farm small plots on the site. Kituwah is open to the public from sunup to sundown and birders are welcome. Kituwah’s open areas and brushy fence row habitat offers a chance to view different birds than one would encounter along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The purple martin colony, near the entrance to Kituwah was busy when we arrived Saturday morning. Tree swallows, barn swallows and chimney swifts joined the martins in the sky chasing insects. We also got a brief glimpse of a blue grosbeak along the railroad track near the entrance.

We started out along the railroad tracks and were shortly greeted by the “fitz bew” of a willow flycatcher. The wet brushy habitat at Kituwah is ideal for these little flycatchers. A pair of noisy, curious blue-gray gnatcatchers also greeted us along the tracks.

We were observing eastern bluebirds and listening to yellow-breasted chats and common yellowthroats near an old barn along the tracks when the sky suddenly filled with barn swallows.

A glance up showed the reason for all the excitement as the swallows escorted a male Cooper’s hawk out of their territory.

We never did get looks at a chat, although we heard at least three. Another noisy brush-denizen that sang and sang for us while remaining hidden was a white-eyed vireo.

We did, however, luck out on another Kituwah resident. We were skirting a cornfield along a turn row, when a short burst of song stopped us. An orchard oriole popped up into the top of a small tree and gave us great looks – singing all the time.

We were beginning to work up a sweat at Kituwah so we abandoned the lowlands for the coolness of the Blue Ridge Parkway. It was a little after 11 a.m. when we stopped at the Big Witch Overlook for lunch. As we were sitting in the cool shade, first a black-throated blue warbler, then a chestnut-sided warbler came over to check us out. At Jenkins Ridge we were serenaded by a brown creeper but never got looks at the little tree hugger. We did get great views of a Canada Warbler and a pair of common ravens, though.

Darkening skies spurred us on along the Parkway to Heintooga Ridge Road. We picked up a ruffed grouse with at least one fledgling and a pair of hen turkeys with a whole herd of polts along Heintooga. At the Balsam picnic area, at the end of Heintooga road we heard golden-crowned kinglets and saw red-breasted nuthatches.

The rain overtook us and we headed back to Waynesville with around 60 species. Not bad for the “dog” days of summer.

(Don Hendershot is a writer and naturalist. He can be reached a This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Watershed stroll

The first 2011 sojourn into the Town of Waynesville’s 8,000-plus acre watershed occurred last Saturday (June 11). The town has been sponsoring and coordinating a couple of guided hikes into the watershed each year since 2007. It’s a way for residents and other interested parties to see this wonderful resource that has been placed in a conservation easement to ensure the town has an ample supply of high-quality drinking water for generations to come.

For those of you just awakening from a seven-year coma, there was a bit of a stir back then regarding some of the attributes of the easement. Some areas of the watershed are in a “forever wild” easement — which basically means hands off. However, a large portion of the watershed is in a “working forest” easement — which gives the town the authority (and perhaps even the directive) to actively manage the forest. And “active” forest management includes logging — a term that, justifiably, sends shivers up and down the spine of many environmentalists/conservationists.

There was an immediate hue and cry (some perhaps politically prompted) regarding the motivation for and the consequences of logging in the watershed back in 2004. While emotions fer and agin logging the watershed ran rampant at coffee shops and in “letters to the editor,” the town proceeded in a rational way by creating a public oversight committee and commissioning a study of the condition of the watershed and the creation of a management plan for the watershed. I believe it was during this laborious process of studying the watershed and hashing out the details of a management plan that the idea of hikes into the watershed, where citizens could get a first-hand look, germinated.

The hikes have been well received and this year’s first hike was no exception. Alison Melnikova, assistant town manager and watershed hike coordinator extraordinaire, had to halt registration at 65 for this hike. Forty-nine of those registered showed up!

I must say we were quaking in our boots a bit concerning the logistics of providing a quality experience for 65 hikers. But a big shout out to Dan Callaghan, Forest Stewards’ Americorps apprentice forester; Ed Kelley, photographer/naturalist; and Michael Skinner, executive director at Balsam Mountain Trust for answering the frantic pleas for help and volunteering their time to help create a quality outing for participants.

Dr. Pete Bates, professor of natural resources at Western Carolina University, president of the board of directors of Forest Stewards and lead researcher of Waynesville’s Watershed Management plan, has always been one of the leaders for the watershed hikes. In the early years Bates’ groups never got in much of a hike due to all the Q and A regarding the management plan. But Bates is a stalwart and convincing supporter of the plan and the science used to create it and is always happy to discuss the merits and objectives of the watershed management plan.

This year ,Bates got to stretch his legs and obviously had a good hike: “Overall I thought the hike went well. I had about 20 in my group, and we did about an eight-mile, out and back from the water treatment plant.  We saw a variety of forest communities ranging from white pine plantations to rich coves to northern hardwoods at about 4,700-feet elevation. For those in my group, it was a great opportunity to see the watershed and learn more about the town’s efforts to care for its forests.”

We took advantage of Ed Kelley’s photographic skills by offering a last-minute opportunity for those interested in nature photography and had about a half-dozen takers. According to Kelley, “…we did a lot of close-ups and exercises in observation, looking for subject matter, addressed some creative things you can do with your camera when there’s not a lot of great photo subjects, and I answered some technical questions about photography, as well as tried to get them to thinking about using what they saw along the way to plan future photo outings (i.e. a remembering the location of a group of staghorn sumac that will be blazing orange-red in the fall.)”

Michael Skinner kind of floated between groups. Fortunately, he was with my group, with his bird-app, when we had blackburnian warblers overhead. He was able to play the song, coaxing the blackburnian down where most people got good looks. Skinner noted, “I had a few in the group suggest we do this more often.”

As for me, I was doing my usual grand job of spreading misinformation. We encountered some yellow mandarin (not in flower) and I was trying to think of the other common name for it when “cucumber root” jumped out of my mouth. I have no idea why. The plants look nothing alike. There is some similarity in the flowers but even that’s a stretch. I guess I’ll write it off as a senior moment. The other common name for yellow mandarin is fairybells — sounds a lot like cucumber root doesn’t it.

(Don Hendershot is a writer and naturalist. He can be reached a This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Dead snakes are certainly interesting and can pique a child’s curiosity. Izzy (9) and Maddie (5) found just such a specimen next to the garage door last Saturday. We couldn’t tell for sure the cause of death but guessed the dogs must have done it in.

The small (15 inch) gray-brown reptile was an immature black rat snake, Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta. Immature black rat snakes don’t live up to the “black” moniker. They have dark brownish patches on a gray-brown background. There is a superficial resemblance to copperheads. The differences are evident but for some reason many people don’t see snakes through a rational perspective. If you’re calm enough to look and note features here’s what you will see:

Copperheads get their common name honestly – there is a rusty, copper-colored patch on the top of its head. The top of a young black rat snake’s head won’t have this rusty patch. The head of an immature black rat snake is basically patterned like the rest of the snake’s dorsal (back) – that is dark splotches on a lighter background.

The copperhead is a pit viper. It has a broad, triangular or wedge-shaped head. There is an actual pit between the eye and the nostril but this feature may not be obvious with just a cursory look. However, the triangular head and elliptic pupil are quick giveaways. The rat snake has an oval shaped head and large, round pupils.

There is another difference regarding the head that’s pretty easy to see once you learn to look for it. The copperhead and other pit vipers have a small smooth, shiny plate over the nose that extends back just pass the eyes. The rest of the triangular head is rough or scaled. On rat snakes and other non-venomous snakes, this shiny plate covers the entire head.

And while both have dark patches over a light background there is a distinct difference in the pattern. The dark splotches on the dorsal of the young rat snake are square looking. They are broader on the top of the back and narrower on the sides. The copperhead’s copper-colored blotches are narrower on top and broader on the sides. They’ve been described as hourglasses draped over the back.

And there should be no problem distinguishing immature copperheads. They have bright, yellow-tipped tails. The splotchy pattern continues on the tail of the young rat snake.

For some reason North Carolina leads the nation in copperhead bites. It may be because there are few poisonous snakes in North Carolina and people don’t take time to look or because copperheads are, in fact, pretty common and like sheds and woodpiles and the fact that prey like mice are attracted to human habitation, so they are often found in proximity to people.

But if you learn how to recognize copperheads (and other poisonous snakes) and give them their space there should be no conflicts. Snakes can basically only strike with authority within a distance of just over half their total body length.

So learn to recognize snakes, teach your children to recognize snakes and adhere to two simple caveats – 1) never try to touch or capture any snake you can’t positively identify and 2) always give poisonous snakes and/or the ones you can’t identify a wide berth – and enjoy your serpentine summer.

Of course, there’s no mistaking the guy in the photo. But when we looked closely at this four-foot plus black rat snake, we could still see the faint splotchy pattern on its back. It must have been a young adult.

Don Hendershot can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Summer Daze

Soccer balls litter the yard, my wife is auditioning for NASCAR on the lawn mower and I am following the tiller through a soft, loamy sea of rich smelling earth in the garden. In the evening, fireflies are dancing in the dark outside our windows like some kind of organic neon sign flashing SUMMER TIME – SUMMER TIME – SUMMER TIME. Bathing suits are all folded with care, stuffed in the pool bag — knowing a “swim date” soon will be there.

In the Old South, we would become more crepuscular in the summer. The heavy lifting would be reserved for early morning and late afternoon. Routine chores, maintenance and preparations would be undertaken under the fiery glare of the midday sun, often on some kind of crude table under the shade of a giant water oak with a glass of southern iced tea — you know the kind with enough sugar to leave a residue on the bottom of the glass — just an arm’s length away.

I remember a summer job I had during college — checking cotton. We would hike through endless oceans of cotton, pulling the “squares” to check for boll weevils. We would record the percentage of weevils we found so the farmer could determine if it was time to call in the crop dusters. Every afternoon we would watch the thunderheads gather and try to keep track of their direction. We usually had enough fields to check that we could avoid the heavier downpours and keep working. Often, at dusk, as we headed home across those green seas of cotton, heat lightning would light up the distant sky with surreal blue-green flashes.

I remember scents too. It would start in spring with jasmine. Then it would gradually grow into a sweet, sticky blend of Japanese honeysuckle and wisteria.

And no down home southern summer would be complete without the roar of cicadas. Cicadas were so common that you didn’t hear them until they quit — then the silence would be startling. These were annual cicadas — not periodic –—so they were there every year. Another common sound was the “rain crow.” Rain crow was the colloquial name for the yellow-billed cuckoo. It was given this name because of its propensity for calling on cloudy days or especially before rain events.

Annual cicadas are not too common here at higher elevations, but I encounter them occasionally at lower elevations. I recently heard some periodic (13-year) cicadas near Hot Springs. I understand there is a brood of 13-year cicadas hatching in some spots across Western North Carolina this year, but they’re not nearly as widespread as that emergence of 17-year cicadas we had a couple of years ago.

The periodic cicada is certainly loud and during a pronounced emergence they can be deafening. But their call is an otherworldly ebbing and flowing “whirrrrrrrrrrrrrr – uuuurrrrrrrrrrrr” not the buzzy drone of the annual cicada.

Rain crows I have. And every summer I look forward to hearing their muted “crow” when those storm clouds start to gather.

I guess it’s because the days are so long, but we often think of summer as a long drawn out affair. But, trust me, those luminescent explosion will disappear from the night sky before you’re ready and katydids will be calling to alert you to the approach of autumn. So don’t delay – get out and sweat some!

Don Hendershot can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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