ALL YOUR SENSES TO IDENTIFY PLANTS AND ANIMALS
September 25, 2011
see it, but there's a cottonmouth somewhere close by." I have made
such a statement many times over the years. A venomous cottonmouth, aka
water moccasin, emits a musky odor when perturbed, and an ecologist walking
close by a cottonmouth coiled in a swamp perturbs it. The pungent smell
is quite recognizable and usually brings everyone to a halt until the
unhappy serpent is located. A cottonmouth is little threat if allowed
to go about its business while you go about yours, so being aware of its
presence can be important. Your sense of smell can alert you that a cottonmouth
is nearby and help you avoid stepping on it.
the sense most people rely on for interpreting what is happening around
them. Likewise, most people use sight in their appreciation of nature--birds
at a feeder, flowers in the woods, squirrels leaping from tree to tree.
Shape and color are primary cues used in identification. Behavior is also
part of the complex of features commonly used in recognizing life in the
world around us. Even some plants have recognizable behaviors. The evening
primrose unfurls from a bud to a fragrant, open flower in five seconds.
A remarkable botanical sight to behold. The behavior occurs around dusk
and the flower blasts its perfume into the air, attracting moths that
We are accustomed
to the fragrance of flowers, but to experience the scent of some plants,
no flower need be present. On your next walk through the woods, in the
park, or around your yard take a leaf from various trees and shrubs. Close
your eyes, rub the leaf between your thumb and fingers, and sniff. Some
trees are readily identifiable by their scent. The smell of a leaf from
sassafras, sweet myrtle, or pecan and hickory trees is distinctive. Some
leaves will have no scent, but a walk around the neighborhood tearing
leaves off of plants and smelling them can lead to interesting experiences.
Obviously, you do not want one of those experiences to be an encounter
with an irate neighbor who thinks you are vandalizing her yard, so be
circumspect. Also, learn what poison ivy and poison oak look like. The
plant won't mind your tearing off a leaf, but you will.
Next to sight,
hearing is the most commonly used sense in animal identification. Birds
and insects are obvious examples. The only times we get to experience
some of them on a regular basis is by hearing them. Cicadas, katydids,
whippoorwills, and chuck-will's-widows are more likely to be heard than
seen. Learn to enjoy the auditory experience and knowing that the species
is around. Many animals make sounds that are different from the stereotypical
image we have of them. For example, when we consider the call of blue
jays we think of the raucous, bullying sound that characterizes them.
But blue jays make many other sounds, including one made occasionally
that is almost melodious; it is certainly not as obnoxious sounding as
what we usually hear. Or pick up a bessie bug beetle, one of the black,
bullet-shaped creatures found in rotting logs. Hold it to your ear and
listen to it hiss. Learn to listen for sounds of nature that are outside
of touch is one that can offer unusual nature experiences. Most people
know what it feels like to stroke a cat's fur, scratch a dog's head, or
rub a bird's feather between their fingers. I recently let some friends
compare the touch of the smooth scales on a kingsnake's body to the rough,
keeled scales of a watersnake. You may not be able to do that, but you
can explore the texture of different mushrooms by pinching off little
pieces for comparison. Touch, but do not taste unless you are positive
the plant is safe.
smell, touch, taste: using all five senses whenever possible will enhance
your experiences with the natural world, making even a stroll around your
own backyard more enjoyable.
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