Monday, April 6, 2015

Armadillos and Water Moccasins

Things are not the same from when I grew up, in rural central Texas circa 1980.  Boys were given BB guns almost as soon as they understood which way not to point it, and given free rein to explore the great outdoors.  Today this is not possible, since it involved such recently frowned upon things as trespassing, misdemeanor ‘destruction of property,’ vagrancy, and general juvenile delinquency.  Many was the day when I would take my trusty dog Poncho, a sack lunch (sandwich, chips in Ziploc bag, apple or orange, bottle of water), a BB gun (and a wonderfully naïve understanding of the Texas jurisprudence system of property law) and spend the afternoon exploring the fields, pastures and woods surrounding my or my cousin’s homes.  

You encountered wildlife, not the least of which included the bull in charge of some farmer’s cattle herd who happened to dispute your right of passage, and made their point vigorously (that is why the dog started to go with me: a border collie instinctively works cattle, giving his 10 year old master time to get back to the fence line).

Once, during a drought, the local creek hosted a snake convention at a small spring outlet.  Poncho and I watched from a healthy distance as dozens of snakes gathered at the spring to drink.  More on snakes in a minute. 

Another time, we discovered an armadillo somehow still out in the daylight.  That was when I first learned that these slow armored beasts have a defense mechanism (or Poncho learned, anyway): they jump straight up into the air, three to four feet.  Given their general bowling ball shape and armored back, anything above them got gob-smacked, and this also can deprive small boys hovering close by of a year’s growth!

Let me digress a bit at this point.  Armadillos inhabit from South America through portions of the United States.  They are generally inoffensive nocturnal insect eaters (unless they dig up your garden looking for a meal) who will usually try to burrow their way out of trouble.  They also can ‘run’ by hopping like a kangaroo for short distances.  However, they tire quickly, and if caught away from soft soil, curl into an armored ball.  Rolling into an armored ball only will protect you so long against a determined predator, say a hungry coyote.  So then the aforementioned defense mechanism comes into play: they mimic a bowling ball and then, when the coyote (or dog, in Poncho’s case) is above them, using their rabbit-like hind legs to jump straight up and into the canine mouth.  Most dogs and coyotes (one assumes, given the proliferation of armadillos versus the coyote population: coyotes will eat anything) learn this lesson after the first encounter, similar to how porcupines and skunks have earned canine respect, one dog at a time. 

Which digresses once again, into an interesting (and somewhat relevant) study from the Texas A&M University School of Veterinary Medicine, which spent federal tax dollars (Motto: spending your tax dollars to satisfy idle curiosity) to discover why so many armadillos die when hit by cars.  Seems someone noticed that armadillos died dis-proportionally on Texas roadways compared to other small animals, like squirrels.  They determined that (and I am not making this up) armadillos die more often on bright, sunny days than in cloudy or night time conditions. (Do not ask me how they determined that one: I imagine scenes where college graduate students traverse country roads counting and tagging dead animal bodies…) 

They discovered that armadillos are conditioned to hunker down into a ball when surprised instead of running, as a squirrel would.   Then, the defense mechanism of jumping into the predator’s face is triggered by sensing said predator hovering over the armadillo’s back.  

Armadillos are not terribly bright (don’t need much brains to dig up grubs) and are very near sighted (almost blind in direct daylight).  Thus the reaction to a car passing overhead causes that unfortunate jump into the undercarriage of the speeding vehicle, with results not unlike that of a football off the toe of a collegiate kicker on Saturday afternoon.  Scratch one armadillo.

Anyway, my ‘cousin’ Jerry owned a Daisy Red Rider BB gun when we moved into the area.  These can still be had today, where politics and population pressure still allow.  Back then, they were famous for rapid fire (Lever Action! said the butt stock), spring loaded low power (thus safer for 10 year olds) and an enormous capacity (over 600 BBs).  These spring loaded rifles represented the pinnacle in pre-teen arms races, trumping sling shots, homemade bow and arrows, and plain old thrown rocks.  The muzzle velocity was so low, you could see the BB leave the barrel (but the same can be said of the model 1911 Colt 45 as well… just sayin’).  

A year later, Jerry graduated to an air powered pump rifle (shoots pellets or BBs! on the box).  This only held 22 BBs (or a single pellet) and required 10 to 20 strokes to pressurize the chamber for each shot.  But that shot was several times more powerful than the Daisy.  Jerry could knock a wasp nest down with it, whereas the Daisy only ticked the little beggars off.  (This, we discovered, was not a good strategy: shooting a wasp nest with anything short of a shotgun will get you your exercise… running away from angered insects.  Yes, the shotgun comment is from life experience several years down the line.  Poison is preferred… or gasoline)

So Jerry got the new rifle and I got the Daisy when we went exploring.  I actually did not mind, as given how inaccurate both guns were, I preferred volume of fire to power of shot.  One day in early spring (cool enough for jackets in the mornings) we were out and about, running from the Bad Guys (imaginary) across a cow pasture which was bisected by a very small stream.  As we reached the muddy cow crossing, I was in the lead when I looked down and saw a SNAKE (!) stretched across a patch of sunshine in my path.  I levitated over the snake, and warned Jerry to stop.  He took an alternate route around the offending reptile, and it occurred to us that here was a sanctioned Bad Guy that adults would not object to killing.  

So I started popping BBs at the snake (who was only trying to soak up enough sunshine to get his day started, like an office worker at Starbucks).  Now, this was a three and a half foot long snake that was moving very slowly due to the ambient chill, so he did not escape very fast.  In fact, he ignored my Daisy shots (when they hit) until Jerry got a good shot in with his rifle.  THAT got the snakes attention, who turned on us and opened its mouth to threaten us.  

This produced several realizations at once: that the snake was too slow in the cool air to chase us; that it had an extremely bright white mouth; and that this mouth was a target when opened.  Thus, Jerry would pop the snake (doing no damage externally) and when the snake hissed at us, I would pump BBs down its throat, past those very large fangs. 

Did I note that this snake had a peculiar trait we had not seen before, in our previous encounters with garden snakes, chicken snakes, and so on?  The head was like a triangle.  Yes, you guessed it: we were fighting a water moccasin.  God protects drunks and ignorant little boys: we messed with that snake for a good 20 minutes until it finally got away, and in that time its white mouth was bloody with BB hits.  (It was several years later before I realized what we had fought!)  

And I always wondered if the hundred or so BBs I put down its throat killed it, or did it leave BBs mixed with snake poo everywhere it went for weeks after?

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