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Highways and Byways of Florida


Among the Florida birds whose songs have a striking individuality are the mocking birds, mourning doves, Bob Whites, and cardinal birds. Robins are numerous in the early winter, but begin to migrate north by the end of February. They go in flocks of thousands-sometimes so many as to darken the sky.

At dusk the whip-poor-will begins to sing. As compared with the whip-poor-will of the North its voice is less of a plaint and more of a chuckle. Some people affirm that it says, "Dick fell out of the white oak." Others tell you that its words are, "Dick married the widow." The song ceases when the darkness becomes dense, but is resumed for a time with the first faint signs of dawn in the eastern sky.

If you ramble in the swamps you may chance to see the footprints of a wild turkey, or, less likely, may hear a bird gobbling, or even see him. At night the wild turkeys perch in the trees. They feed mainly early in the forenoon and late in the afternoon, and spend the hot midday on high ground lurking among the bushes. In the spring the gobblers fight fierce battles for the possession of hens.

Florida is the home of many long-legged wading birds. One of these is the great blue heron, familiarly known as "the major." He is a frequent sight in all parts of the state, and often several are in view at the same time—not together, but here and there—one on a sandbar, another in some shallow bay, and another on the submerged edge of an oyster-flat. The bird rarely seems to be doing anything except standing. There are rustic natives who declare that he is very good eating if killed in the full of the moon; for, as he feeds chiefly at night, he fares best with the moon to help him secure his food. It is a queer life that the creature leads—fat and lean by turn twelve times a year!

Caution is one of his most striking characteristics. If he is patrolling a shallow on one side of an oyster bar and takes it into his head to try the water on the other side, he stretches up his neck to look in all directions. How could he know but that some enemy was lying in wait? When he is satisfied that he can make the change with safety he spreads his wings and flies over. After alighting he looks once more all about him. He means to run no risks. If nothing meets his vision to cause him apprehension, he draws in his neck till his head is on a level with his shoulders, and resumes his labors. You will probably see a number of the great blue heron's relatives in this country of abounding waters, where the heron family is so much at home. For instance, there are the green heron, the little blue, and that dainty creature which is called "The Lady of the Waters."

Another interesting frequenter of the waters is the pelican, a bird which flies with vigorous grace in spite of its huge pouched bill. In the autumn of each year the pelicans of the east coast begin their mating, and flock to the single rookery which is their nesting-place. This rookery is a low sandy island with an area of about three acres, situated in a sheltered bay of the Indian River, a little south of the town of Malabar. Here they have all bred ever since man has had any knowledge of the vicinity. The young birds cannot bear much heat or cold, and the island is very well chosen for getting a moderate temperature. When the breeding impulse comes to the pelicans in October they collect in flocks of hundreds up and down the coast, and at length, in a single night, all arrive at the island and take possession.

This island is a government bird sanctuary, and a warden is there to protect the pelicans during the nesting season from the depredations of mankind. Some fifteen hundred nests are built on the tract, and then begins a carnival of pelican-growing which lasts for months. Formerly the island was covered with mangrove trees, but apparently the weight of nests and roosting birds was too much for them, and only one lone tree has survived. So close together are the brooding birds that the island as seen from a distance seems covered with driftwood. On the higher parts one great grass nest almost touches the next, and there is hardly room for neighboring birds to take flight at the same time without flapping each other with their seven-foot spread of wings.

The pelican mother lays three pure white eggs which hatch in about four weeks. Ten weeks later the young have acquired full flight plumage. But during that ten weeks the parents have a busy time feeding their voracious young. The male and female alternate in seeking food and sitting on the nest, and seem to share equally in all the care of their fledglings. Not until the chicks have grown the white down which precedes the real feathers are they left alone by the parents, for they quickly die of exposure if the weather is cool, and the hot sunshine is no less fatal. The old birds have to make several trips to the fishing grounds daily. They swallow the fish, and after arriving at the nest disgorge them into the baggy pouch beneath the bill. From this pouch the little pelicans help themselves.

Except for a croak of recognition with which a sitting bird greets its relieving mate the adult pelican is silent. Not so with the young. Pelican Island in the breeding season is vocal with the croaks, cries, and squawks of the young birds. The larger the youthful bird is, the shriller and louder its voice. In March most of the pelicans desert the island, and it is practically uninhabited for the next seven months. During that period the keeper has his vacation.

One of the most singular of the Florida birds is that personification of ugliness, the water turkey. Why it has that name is not very apparent, for the only thing about it that bears any resemblance to the Thanksgiving fowl is its tail. It is also called a "darter" from a habit it has of suddenly thrusting forward its bill to seize its prey. A third name for it is the "snakebird," which some say is derived from its fondness for a snake diet, and others from its snaky neck. The neck is too long for the rest of it, and its legs are too short. It has a small head and a sharp slender bill. The bird is a haunter of the inland streams, lakes, and swamps, and is a very expert swimmer and diver.

A naturalist visitor has said that a water turkey reminds him of a crow that has had its neck pulled. It lives on fish, though how it gets them down its preposterously thin neck is a mystery. The bird is nervous in its manner, and when approached has an odd way of poking its long pointed bill this way and that as if trying to make holes in the atmosphere through which to escape. Then, with a tremendous burst of energy, it whirs away on its short wings. If it is surprised on a limb that hangs low over the water it will dive, and when it comes to the surface afterward it thrusts up its head and neck and looks around while keeping its body submerged.

The tourist does well to remember that Florida is the haunt of many stinging and biting insects. "I'm tellin' yo' the truth," an east coast negro said to a questioner from the North, "the muskeeters and sandflies is awful hyar in summer." These or other pests are found in certain parts of the state at all seasons. The microscopic redbug has colonized every bunch of grass and moss and dry seaweed on the peninsula, as well as every log and bit of dead wood. A pedestrian is sure to become acquainted with it sooner or later. In size it is almost invisible, but it is gigantic in its power of annoyance. The creatures promptly transfer themselves to the loitering sightseer, and give him cause to think he is on fire. However, they can be effectively combated by rubbing the affected spots with a mixture of grease and salt. Leather or canvas leggings are a desirable protection both against the redbugs and wood-ticks that frequent the undergrowth, and against the spiny and thorny harshness of the vegetation.

You need not be alarmed if you run afoul of a scorpion, for it is no more to be dreaded than a spider. But if a centipede crawls over your bare skin it will leave a painfully inflamed trail. When bathing in salt water, should you come in contact with the long streaming tentacles of a Portuguese man-of-war, you will fancy it to be a particularly vicious bunch of stinging nettles, or if you encounter a whipray you will probably receive a wound that will be acutely painful and slow to heal. "But what's the use of namin' all our bitin' and stingin' critters? " an elderly native has said. "I've lived hyar all my life an' hain't run up agin nary one of 'em, 'ceptin', of cose, redbugs an' muskeeters an' scorponiums an' sich trash that don't count, only to make a feller scratch an' cuss."

Some Florida visitors declare that you hear there more night voices gasping, gurgling, screeching, and choking than anywhere else in the world. One peculiar night voice is that of the Southern bullfrog. He ought to be called a pigfrog, for his love call is a mere grunt. He sits with his nose just out of the water grunting exactly like a contented young pig.

Many persons can recall the abounding wild life of the Florida west coast, when alligators slept on the banks of every river, wading birds stalked across every flat, solid acres of waterfowl were to be seen on the bays and streams, and overhead flew great flocks of birds, some pure white, and others gorgeously colored. An Indian hunter leaves enough of the old birds to feed the young of a rookery, but the white man kills the last plume bird he can find and leaves the young ones to die in their nests.

Men tourists are very apt to bring with them automatic shotguns and repeating rifles with which they bang at everything that flies or crawls. They have well nigh exterminated certain kinds of game. Perhaps the deer of the southern wilderness withstands them better than any of the other creatures, for the labor of following it over boggy meadows and through mangrove thickets is too strenuous for the average hunter.

Tourists rarely see a snake, but they hear of them. The Florida man who cannot tell at least one snake story may be set down as having land to sell.

Turtles are among the most numerous and interesting of edible Florida animals. In the egg-laying season the female turtle feels the impulse to seek the shore mostly on fine calm moonlight nights. When within thirty or forty yards of the beach she raises her head above the water and attentively examines the objects on the land. If she observes nothing likely to disturb her intended operations, she emits a loud hissing sound which serves to frighten such of her many enemies as are unaccustomed to it, and they are apt to go to another place. Should she hear any noise, or perceive indications of danger, she instantly sinks and goes off to a considerable distance, but if everything is quiet she advances slowly to the beach. When she reaches it she crawls along with head raised to the full stretch of her neck till she gets to a place fitting for her purpose. There she gazes all round, and, if satisfied that no harm threatens, she proceeds to dig a hole in the sand with her hind flippers. The sand is alternately raised with each flipper until it has accumulated behind her, when she supports herself with her head and fore part on the ground, and with a spring of the flippers sends the heap of sand scattering to a distance of several feet. In this manner the hole is deepened to about eighteen inches, or even to as much as twenty-four inches sometimes, and the labor may not occupy over nine minutes. The eggs are then dropped one by one, and disposed in regular layers to the number of one hundred and fifty or possibly nearly two hundred. The whole time spent in this operation is about twenty minutes. That done, she scrapes the loose sand back over the eggs, and so levels and smooths the surface that few persons on seeing the spot could imagine anything had been done to it. Now she retreats to the water with all possible dispatch, leaving the hatching of the eggs to the heat of the sand. When a turtle is in the act of dropping her eggs, she will not move, even if a man were to seat himself on her back, for it seems that she is unable to intermit her labor.

Those who catch turtles resort to the beach in the egg-laying season and walk along it at night where the turtles come up out of the water to deposit their eggs. When a man sees one he goes to it and turns it over. Then he walks on to seek others, and serves each in the same manner till he is tired. To upset one of the bigger turtles the catcher is obliged to get down on his knees, place his shoulder behind her forearm, gradually raise her by pushing vigorously, and then with a jerk throw her over. Sometimes it requires the united strength of several men to accomplish this. Few turtles, when once turned over, can regain their natural position without assistance.

The morning after the catcher has been at his task he returns to get the turtles that he left on their backs. There they are wriggling in flabby helplessness wholly at his mercy. This method of capture is very old. A visitor to the Florida region in 1682 says, in telling how the turtles were secured, "They are laid on their backs, where, hopeless of relief, as if sensible of their future condition, they mourn out their funerals, the tears flowing plentifully from their eyes accompanied with passionate sobs and sighs."

Some turtlers set great nets across the entrance to streams. These nets have very large meshes into which the turtles partially enter, when, the more they attempt to extricate themselves, the more they get entangled. Harpoons are used also in securing the creatures.

Each turtler has his "crawl," which is a square wooden building or pen formed of logs, the logs being set upright in the mud sufficiently far apart to allow the tide to pass freely through. In this enclosure the turtles are placed and fed until they are sold. The turtle-crawl has much the same relation to the household of the Gulf Coast dweller that the chicken-coop has to inland homes.

The food of the green turtle consists chiefly of marine plants, which they cut near the roots to procure the most tender and succulent parts. Their feeding-grounds are easily discovered because masses of these plants are set afloat and drift to the neighboring shores.

Persons who search for turtles' eggs are provided with a light stiff cane or gun-rod, with which they go along the beaches probing the sand near the tracks of the animals. On certain shores hundreds of turtles deposit their eggs within the space of a mile. The young, soon after being hatched, and when scarcely larger than a silver dollar, scratch their way through their sandy covering and immediately betake themselves to the water. All the turtle tribe can swim with surprising speed.

Probably the alligator is the most picturesque and popular feature of the Florida peninsula. He enlivens its waters and makes his bed on the banks of the streams, and he has served as a target for nearly every rifle that has been brought into the state. The alligators' nests are big heaps of reeds, dried leaves, and rubbish. Their eggs are about the size of hens' eggs, and are white with a tough leathery skin. Midsummer is the laying time, and the heat in the sub-tropical swamp does the hatching. The mother, however, lingers not far away, and if you wish to see her you need only catch one of the little wriggly youngsters and pinch its tail. The squeal of pain can usually be depended on to bring the mother with a rush, though the sight of a man will send her back in a panic. The little ones are born on the banks of the pool in which the mother dwells, and this abounds with fish so that they have plenty to eat. Sometimes an alligator will get a duck or a heron by coming up from beneath and snapping the bird before it has time to rise from the water.

Until about 1800 the alligators had not been much disturbed in most of their wilderness haunts. Fifteen footers wore broad paths promenading from one deep hole to another, but they rarely make such trips now, and you need to be stealthy of foot and quick of eye to see one. They stick closely to their holes, and when the saurian takes alarm while up sunning himself, he has only to make a quick plunge and he is far down in the mud out of sight. He is ordinarily harmless, and only when wounded or surprised in his lair will he show fight. Then he may bite you with those jagged rows of teeth in his big mouth, or strike you with his muscular tail, but this will simply be to get an opportunity to escape. He makes the water fairly boil in his frantic efforts. You can swim in his private pool, if you choose, and instead of molesting you he will crowd farther down into the depths of his mudhole.

One of his habits is to lie almost submerged with only his protruding nostrils and eyes above the surface. If you are not familiar with alligators you would think these were bits of floating rubbish. His deadliest foe is the bulls-eye lantern. Its glare hypnotizes and holds him helpless. This fire-hunting for alligators is butchery. The bulls-eye is bound to the hunter's forehead, he crouches with his rifle in the front of a skiff which a companion sculls at the stern. The ray of light from the lantern strays over the surface of the water, and plays among the leafage along the shore. When it reveals an alligator he is so spellbound that he lies on the surface motionless with his eyes shining in the glare. The hunter need not fire his gun until the boat is so close that the powder burns the creature as the gun is discharged and the bullet crashes into his brain.

Until almost the end of the last century the water in the Big Cypress country was filled with alligators, and fire-hunters often took a thousand of the reptiles from a single small lake. Less than a score of years ago the principal dealer on the west coast bought three or four hundred hides daily from about fifty hunters, and kept a schooner running to Key West with hides and returning with cargoes of salt, ammunition, and grub. The price paid for the hides varied from one dollar for those measuring seven feet or over, down to ten cents for such as measured less than four feet in length.

The fire-hunter has so nearly wiped out the alligator inhabitants of the lakes and streams in southern Florida that their pursuit no longer affords him a living. The surviving remnant of the reptiles leads a precarious existence in the Big Cypress and the Everglades. During the dry season the water of the swamps and prairies, recedes, leaving shallow ponds and water-holes dug by the alligators. An occasional hunter seeks the creatures in these depressions. He carries a long iron rod with which he jabs and prods till the alligator comes to the surface to be knocked on the head or captured. Sometimes the rod has a hook on the end that is used to haul out a reluctant victim. Now and then a hunter lures forth a mother alligator by imitating from deep within himself the call of her young.

The resorts of the alligator abound in poisonous snakes, and sometimes thirty or forty of them can be seen around a single alligator hole. If the hunter wears boots he kicks the moccasin snakes out of the way with the contempt which familiarity breeds, but if he hears the vibrant alarm of the rattlesnake he moves only with the greatest caution until he has located that king of serpents.

There are Florida boys who will go to the haunts of the alligators and follow a trail to a marshy pond and coax a 'gator to the surface by grunting in his own language. If the reptile refuses to respond to this call the boy may wade deep in the mud and explore with his toes till he feels the wiggle of the creature. Then he worries him out of his lair, grabs him by the nose before he can open his jaws, and drags him to solid ground.

The alligators' teeth are used more or less to make into whistles, watch charms, and the like. The process of securing the teeth is to kill an alligator and leave the carcass lying for a couple of months, when it can be revisited and the loosened teeth drawn from their sockets. But chiefly alligators are hunted for their hides. The Seminoles secure a great many of them, and a barelegged Indian will pole his heavy dugout loaded with alligator hides thirty or forty miles to trade them for grits and bacon.

Florida has its crocodiles as well as its alligators. The principal difference between them is that the former has a sharper nose, more formidable teeth, a fiercer disposition, and jaws that are both hinged, whereas the alligator has only the lower one hinged. The Florida crocodile is nearly extinct. The few that are left are probably only to be found along a narrow strip of less than a dozen miles at the extreme southern end of the state. They are active in defending themselves when attacked, and yet specimens nine or ten feet long can be safely taken into a skiff after their jaws have been tied, even if the tying is done with nothing more than a pocket handkerchief. The crocodile becomes as gentle as a lamb as soon as he loses the use of those formidable jaws.

Excerpt from Johnson, Clifton, "Birds and Beasts" Highways and Byways of Florida, published by The Macmillan Company, 1918.


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