USE ALL YOUR SENSES TO IDENTIFY PLANTS AND ANIMALS
"I don't 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.
Vision is 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 pollinate it.
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 the ordinary.
The sense 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.
you have an environmental question or comment, email