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Pangassius Catfish on a fish farm in Southeast Asia

I have written about pangassius catfish (tra, basa, shark catfish, and what-have-you) before in an article about the trade war caused by protectionist legislators responding to the quick growth and success of the Vietnamese catfish farming industry.  However I am doubling back to address the quickly spreading pangassius catfish itself.  The farm-raised fish are currently identical to the fish caught in the wild form, but I wonder if that will continue for much longer.  Pangasius farming has spread from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to Thailand, Nepal, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Indonesia, and, above all, China.  I have a feeling that the pangassius catfish will escape in all of these places and establish itself as a successful invader.  I also feel like the fish farmers will start pushing the captive fish into new shapes with selective breeding (although the catfish is already a near-perfect farm specimen with its ability to tolerate low Dissolve Oxygen, put on weight quickly, eat anything and survive in fishponds, concrete tanks, fish cages, or fish pens).

Vietnamese Catfish Processing Room

Aurochs Fighting Wolves (Heinrich Harder)

About 8,000 years ago, Neolithic people in India, the Middle East, and Sub-Saharan Africa first domesticated cattle. Although the domestication of goats and swine occurred earlier, cattle have a more central role in human history—they were sacred to many of the first civilizations in a way which goats and pigs were not.  Cows and cattle are still highly esteemed today.  In India cows are sacrosanct and not to be harmed, but, in herding societies like Texas or Argentina, the creatures are arguably even more important. There are estimated to be 1.3 billion head of cattle grazing the green earth today.  They collectively outweigh all of the humans on the planet.  Of that immense herd, what percentage would you guess are actual wild cattle–forest dwelling primogenitors from which the domestic cattle descended?

Domestic Cattle

That number would be none.  The aurochs, (Bos primigenius primigenius) the ancestral cow, went extinct in Poland in 1627. It was the second recorded extinction of an animal (after the hapless dodo).  The aurochs were not defenseless dodos: the animals were magnificently muscled giants with wickedly sharp lyre-shaped horns.  An adult male aurochs would have stood nearly 2 meters (six feet) tall at the withers and weighed over a ton.  Living in swampy and wet wooded areas which they grazed for grass and the occasional fruit, aurochs shared some of their range with the wisent, the Eurasian bison. Aurochs were domesticated in various different parts of the world around the approximate same time.  Unfortunately for the wild species, they soon found themselves competing for land and resources with domesticated cattle while still being hunted by human hunters.

Aurochs Cave Painting (ca. 15000 BC)

Julius Caesar evocatively described aurochs and their hunters in the 6th chapter of The Gallic Wars writing “These are a little below the elephant in size, and of the appearance, color, and shape of a bull. Their strength and speed are extraordinary; they spare neither man nor wild beast which they have espied. These the Germans take with much pains in pits and kill them. The young men harden themselves with this exercise, and practice themselves in this sort of hunting, and those who have slain the greatest number of them, having produced the horns in public, to serve as evidence, receive great praise.” Aurochs feature in some of humankind’s most stirring early artworks showing up in cave paintings throughout Europe and on the Ishtar gate of Babylon (where they share company with ceramic lions and dragons).  For all the respect that people had for aurochs, the herds began to fail fast, and populations winked out one by one in the wild redoubts of Asia, Africa, and Europe as civilization and agriculture spread.

Aurochs Mosaic on the Ishtar Gate of Babylon (ca. 575 BC)

The last aurochs lived in Poland, which was remarkable for the remote and untouched wildness of some of its forests and for the game loving policies of certain Polish kings, who tried to keep aurochs and wisents alive in order have formidable trophies to hunt.  Unfortunately disease and parasites from domestic cattle had weakened the last herd beyond saving.  Even with the royal threat of a death sentence for anyone killing an aurochs and with gamekeepers to look after the last individuals, the last female slipped away from natural causes in the mid-17th century.  Her remains were reverentially kept by the royal house but they were stolen by Swedes during the havoc of the Swedish deluge.  In one respect it was a sad end to a mighty animal.  In a more real respect, cattle, the direct descendants of aurochs are everywhere and are doing great!  They outweigh any other single species on the planet except perhaps for krill.

RIP Aurochs

Wild Turkey Poults

During February and March, tom turkeys beguile hens with their magnificent gobbles and vivid visual displays. Shortly thereafter the hens begin nesting. Not only are turkey eggs larger than chicken eggs, they are covered with delicate brown speckles and tend to have a more acute taper on one end than chicken eggs do.  The turkey hen constantly broods her eggs leaving only briefly to eat.  When she is sitting on her nest, the hen is extremely vulnerable to predators.

Turkey Eggs

A month later, turkey poults emerge from the eggs.  The tiny poults punch open the egg with egg teeth (sharpened ridges on the beak which quickly vanish as the young turkeys begin to grow). Wild turkey poults leave the nest about a day after they hatch.

Bourbon Red Turkey Poults on a farm

Wild turkeys face a terrifying host of predators including bobcats, raccoons, skunks, opossums, foxes, coyotes, armadillos, weasels, crows, owls, hawks, bald eagles, and a variety of snakes. To cope with this list wild poults quickly develop limited flight capability and begin roosting in trees two weeks after they hatch.  Domestic turkey poults need substantial warmth to thrive and must be kept under a hot lamp and never given cold water.  They need medicine supplements to prevent infection from chicken diseases and special calcium supplements to make up for the minerals which their wild cousins get from the bugs and arthropods which make up the bulk of their diet.

Day old Narragansett Turkey poults (photo by Cackle Hatchery)

One of the most endearing traits of poults is the way in which they imprint on their mother and then follow her around.  This trait is identical in domestic turkeys: when we ordered poults during my childhood, the little fluffy birds imprinted on me.  Thereafter they would follow me around the barnyard peeping–which was very cute but made me worry about their well-being (imprinting being a two-way street).  The young turkeys were affectionate and endlessly amusing.  Indeed the Aztec trickster god Tezcatlipoca was strongly associated with turkeys because of their playful tricks and the deity was said to sometimes manifest as a turkey.  In the picture below, Tezcatlipoca even looks a bit like a strutting Tom.

A Turkey and Tezcatlipoca. Do you see the ressemblance?

Domestic Tom Turkey Gobbling (Photo by WildImages--Charlie Summers)

It has been a long time since I put up a turkey post.  In a way this is appropriate, since people other than hunters and farmers usually only think about the majestic fowl around holiday time when the sharp axe comes out (or–more likely—when one wanders over to Krogers to check out the price of Butterballs).  Meanwhile live turkeys have been slogging away through the long winter.  For farm turkeys this has meant dull days perched in dark coops huddled together for warmth while living on daily water and grain hand-outs from the farmer.  For wild turkeys the winter is more like a Russian war novel.  The wind, ice, and snow are enlivened by desperate hunger and by fear of omnipresent predators stalking through the bare trees of the frozen forests.  The cold nights are filled with the howl of the wind and the coyotes while the days are filled with desperately scraping the dead ground for remnants of food.

But that was winter–spring is here, and with it, mating season.  This time of year highlights one of the signature features of turkeys wild and domestic—gobbling.  In fact today’s post is really an auditory one.  Here is a movie of a Tom turkey gobbling!

The gobble is rightfully the most famous turkey vocalization.  It is similar in nature to the humpback’s song or the deafening yodel of the siamang: a magnificent declaration of self which proclaims dominance and health to females. This ululating yodel alerts all nearby hens to the fact that an alpha male tom turkey is in the area and is at the top of his game (it also lets rival males know where to go for a fight and hunters where to go for a meal, so it is a true and heartfelt declaration of bravery and lust on the part of the issuer).

Gobbles are hardly the only turkey vocalizations.  Turkeys both wild and domestic are extremely garrulous characters and produce many different calls for a variety of reasons.  Here is a list of the more common turkey vocabulary from the national Wild Turkey Federation.  By using a variety of tools and the full range of the human voice a tiny number of truly expert hunters can produce most of these noises, however turkeys are clever enough that they don’t usually fall for such guile.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

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