A Green Iguana Encounter

While doing a survey of plant species in the area on the study site, my partner for the day, a PhD student studying mistletoe,  noticed Dendropemon caribaeus (mistletoe common in the Caribbeans) growing on Citherexylum spinosum (a tree shrub I am sure to talk about more later and a common host for Dendropemon).   Mistletoe obtains part of it’s nutritional requirement from its host, in this case the Citherexylum.  So there was no surprise yet.

Upon nearing closer to the Dendropemon clump, we noticed what looked to be a dead stick sticking out from below the Dendropemon.  My partner almost took a tug at the “stick”.  Yet, he nearly jumped in surprise because he suddenly realized that above the “stick” was a shiny green blinking eye, and the “stick” was attached to an iguana.

Do you see the tail?

We realized we had come face to face with the common miniature  dragon, known as the green iguana or Iguana iguana.  I’d come face to face with these common reptiles before but I had never realized how pretty its eyes are.

peekaboo! I see you!
peekaboo! I see you!

Searching “iguana eyes” on Google images  now reveals that I’m not the only one.  But extensive searches on green iguanas seem to suggest a more malicious side of the tale of the green iguana.  

Green iguanas are thought of as invasive pests here in Puerto Rico, as well as in many other parts of the world.  They are said to sometimes eat native plants, invertebrates, and bird eggs which may put some of these populations at risk.  It does seem that iguanas sometimes stray too close to neighborhoods for the liking of many.  They run away from people usually and are not confrontational but seem scary to some while they are around because of their size, claws, and teeth.  They are often described as a “nuisance” and “invasive threat.”  The government here in Puerto Rico has responded to this “threat” by encouraging the killing and exporting of iguanas to countries in South America where people eat it as a specialty.

However, in contradiction, the green iguana is protected by Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the research demonstrating that iguanas are an all-around nuisance is lacking/flawed, and in my personal experience they aren’t as aggressive to humans as many want to point them out as.  Furthermore, green iguanas disperse seeds, potentially promoting plants that they prey on and are said to threaten.   Several birds of prey supplement their diets with the meaty lizard.  Although, their population is said to be growing out of control, like many other reptiles they compete with each other making sure to self-contain their population at least to some extent.  My supervisor has written articles on the exaggeration and fiction surrounding the potentially negative  aspects of the green iguana.

In sum:  There is a great necessity for caution.  Thought and research must be done thoroughly before terms like “invasive threat” are used and are thrown around as slurs, making it difficult for people to objectively and scientifically evaluate the ecosystem effects of an animal.  Green iguanas may actually be a threat to something or they may actually be quite harmless, but more research must be done especially on the diet of the green iguana….

And I think green iguana eyes (at least) are beautiful.

What do you think about this?  What does evidence or your observations suggest to you?

Mist Netting with a Tough Dead Bird

We had a name for him, but now I don’t remember what his name was.  I have no clue why that smelly, beat-up, mangy, dead creature comes to my mind now or why it’s blank empty eyes still haunt me.

Although coming to think of it, he was our unsung hero, a warrior, a martyr for science.  When trying to think of his name, I want to call him “Rocky” because he knew how to take a hit, and I’m sure when he was alive he was fierce.

He was a decoy.

Manhattan, Kansas, Spring 2010.  It’s one of those sticky days again, but I don’t seem to mind.  I’m a field technician for a Research Experience for Undergraduates program.  My first Ecology experience.  I’m giddy like a kid the day after Halloween.  I’m starting to realize that Ecology is my field.

Konza Prairie

We are out on Konza Prairie, a biological station, with miles and miles of wavelike weeds.

We (my research mates, a tight-knit team of 3 and my thesis adviser) are mist-netting, drawing a transparent net against the horizon and waiting like spiders to pounce, except not on insects but on birds (though, I acknowledge that some of my favorite spiders can catch birds…future post?…).

dickcissel

We are waiting for a bird, a dickcissel (Spiza americana), tiny, yellow eye-shadowed, yellow-bellied (literally) tart that sings simple insistent songs all day. 

(Yes, now you can laugh at the word dickcissel.  Get it out of your system.  Because I’m going to be talking about dickcissels all blog post long, and I’ve heard it all.  Make all the penis jokes you’d like.  In fact I might later write about all the unintentional conversation I had about penises throughout this research experience.  Preview:  Isn’t this dick weird?  Its science I swear.  We’ll talk about it later.  Also, I have noticed the species name sounds like an STD, but I didn’t name it.)

Dickcissels were named for their songs which in brief sound like dick and cissel (creative right?) occasionally with a trill.

Here is where Stinker, the dead bird, comes in.  Yes, one of my field partners, just confirmed that was his name.  Stinker was a dickcissel before his unfortunate death and partial resurrection as a surrogate.  And well now, being the handy dandy dead bird he is, we use him to help lure in alive dickcissels.

When we identify birds without a band on their ankle showing the numbers of their “ID card” so to speak, we prepare to band them with a unique number-coded (possibly quite fashionable) anklet so that we can later distinguish individuals, as well as other select factors about the individuals, such as, in our case: wing span, estimated age, and weight.  We also take pictures to remember the little dicks by.

Out on the tallest shrub he can find we see a prideful male dickcissel singing his heart out to all the available hunnies and at the same time trying to broadcast the ultimate machismo attitude.  He alternates between “how you doin’?” and “you don’t wanna mess with me!”  We know he’s a male because with this species only males sing so loud and cocky.  He’s a perfect catch, not only probably for all of the females, but also for us.  We are set to capture.

So first we set up the mist nets.  We draw out the net taut between two poles.  We make sure that the poles are partially hidden in bushes if possible and the net is partially disguised by some tall grass.  To learn more about mist netting click here.  (This is by Point Blue Conservation Science.  Watch after the 1 minute mark to see mist netting).

Then we bring Stinker out of his Triscuit box in which he is kept.  He is in dire need of upkeep already, feathers falling off, patches missing, gaunt, and then we tie the wiring sticking out of him to a stake.  He doesn’t even complain.  Stinker is such a good sport!  It may help that he can’t feel it, but still not even many dead creatures can brag about being stuck to a stake every day.  The stake with Stinker “perched” on top stands in front of the net.

Then we press play on our boombox, which blasts out a song of a foreign dickcissel in the territory of our target.  That gets our target pretty pissed, and being the manly man he is he comes over to show this fictional dickcissel who the boss is, and who does he see? He sees Stinker perched, with what he probably imagines as a smirk or in bird terms a “fuck you” kind of look.

Now our target dickcissel is not going to take that.  No way.  He goes after Stinker who he mistakes as an arrogant alive sod (these birds are often irrational in their anger).  Our target dickcissel takes a few swings, swooping in a downward flight and clipping at Stinker with his beak probably taking some chunks out of our stiff, but Stinker stands his ground.  We slowly creep closer and closer to the target with the time Stinker buys us.  The target dickcissel takes another few swings, and Stinker is in really sick shape, feathers and chunks flying everywhere, struggling to stay on the pole, but then the target dickcissel makes a false move and veers too close to the net in what may have been the final attempt to finish his pretend offender.

That’s when we give each other knowing looks and run out from our spots that we were watching the fight from rushing our target.  Flustered, the unsuspecting bird flies straight into the net.  We untangle him, record data on him, band him to ID him later, and then release him.

Captured!
Captured!

We appear unblemished from this engagement but Stinker is in a pathetic state.  His insides gush out.

Stinker amazingly lasts the month long season.  Fight after fight he got the rest of the living fluff beat out of him, but he continued playing his defiant role better than any I’ve known.  We had to stitch him up multiple times and give him a few make overs but nothing drastic.

Yet, despite the service Stinker played for us, at the end of the bird banding month, instead of giving him a trophy or finding him a fetching mate, we threw him in the freezer, and forgot about him.  We busied ourselves in our research, finished writing abstracts and giving presentations.  We almost left him in their forever but we suddenly remembered Stinker the day before leaving.  We brought him out of the freezer and decided to give our freezer-burned old buddy a more proper ending.

We drove to the prairie at night in our jeep, some of us had a few drinks, and we had a right proper funeral for the war veteran.  We said many fine things.  “Stinker you were always there for us.”  “You were our hero.”  “You are a champ.”  Then, we left him to rest in peace for what we hoped to be the final time.

Dedicated to Stinker.

This is my favorite dead bird experience.  Have you ever seen a dead bird?  What was that like for you?