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The Copperhead Madonna and Thoughts on Snake Boys

We were camped out at the Piedmont Earthskills Gathering in September when a fellow whose nickname is Turnstone lived up to his name. He turned over a log that was right next to the trail and was astounded to discover a “nest” of copperhead snakes.

Copperheads give birth to live young and apparently this mother had recently given birth. She was laying there in a relaxed coil. Her five newborns were cuddled together in a tangled heap a few inches away under the same log.

We decided it would be best to catch and relocate them far away from the trail. One guy came running up with a bucket. A couple of other guys quickly grabbed sticks and started trying to herd them into the bucket. As we all worked together with intense focus using semi-rotten sticks to wrestle these venomous reptiles, I thought about an article citing statistics showing that most women who are bitten by venomous snakes get bitten on the feet or legs while almost all men who get bitten are bitten on the hands and arms. That says something about guys and snakes. A lot of guys can’t resist an opportunity to “mess” with a snake (venomous or not). This affinity for snakes usually starts in boyhood. (Yes, I have met a few girls who like snakes, but it really seems to be a guy thing.) I call these guys snake boys.

I certainly was a snake boy. It is difficult to say what it is about snakes that seems to hold such an attraction for certain boys. There is something about the silent, graceful, glistening beauty of a serpent that has always attracted and stirred me deeply. As I talk to other grown-up snake boys, I get the impression that there is something empowering about capturing and possessing a snake-–a creature that evokes terror in so many people. To catch a snake, a youngster must learn thoroughness–to literally leave no stone unturned. He must cultivate stalking and observation skills as well as the ability to identify the species and have courage to actually grab the beast. To do this he must overcome whatever personal and societal fears that may be ingrained in him. Catching a snake might be seen as a rite of passage in some cases.

Some boys learn that a (non-venomous) snake can make a good pet. As such it provides important lessons about life and relationships. Although a snake can be held captive it cannot truly be tamed. A snake has a will of its own. It can be restrained and controlled, but if it is not handled with understanding it will writhe and struggle and sometimes bite.

A snake fancier soon learns that to hold a snake properly one must gently support its body while giving it freedom of movement allowing it to slide freely through the hands. These are important lessons for a young person to learn.

The male experience really does have a lot to do with coming to terms with a certain mysterious, powerful phallic entity that seems to have a will of its own. Handling snakes might be seen as a metaphor for growing up male.

This short video shows how “snappy” the little ones were. Perhaps if you’re a newborn snake, it pays to make up in ferocity what you lack in size.

For more on snakes, snake boys, horse girls, and other natural phenomena, check out my book Wildwoods Wisdom and other books and recordings here.

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Yellowjackets and Hornets, Oh My!

It’s that time of year. Hornet, wasp, and yellowjacket colonies are building up.  In some ways they are beneficial insects. As predatory scavengers they devour aphids, caterpillars and other problem insects and they do some pollinating, but they don’t take kindly to being jostled or mowed over so when they choose to build nests in high traffic areas we feel the need to eliminate them. We try to avoid poisonous pesticide sprays and we have developed a few non-toxic strategies that seem to work if the conditions are right.

For yellowjackets who are nesting in relatively smooth ground we use the old glass bowl trick: Go out at night and invert a clear glass salad bowl over the entrance hole. Push it down firmly so the edges of the bowl are in the earth. In the morning the yellow jackets will fly out of their nest and since they don’t understand glass, they will fly up into the bowl and continue doing so for the next week or so until they are all dead. You need to monitor the situation regularly to be sure they are not sneaking out under the edge somewhere. If so, gather some clay or thick mud, and after dark use the mud or clay to seal around the edges of the bowl.

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Bald-faced hornet colonies are more problematic. If they are out of the way, we leave them alone and wait until after several hard freezes (which kills the occupants). Then we collect the nest and hang it in the rafters of our open porch. It provides Carolina wrens a warm roosting place in winter and it is said that this discourages wasps from nesting in the area. (For more on this, check out The Wren and The Hornets.)

When we realized that a colony of hornets were building a nest on a bush at shoulder height right next to our driveway, we knew they had to go. So one night I got dressed up in my bee suit (with gloves and a veil) and put on a red headlamp (which insects don’t respond to). I carried a regular flashlight, a pair of pruning shears and a large plastic garbage bag. I propped the flashlight on the ground about 6 feet away so it would illuminate the nest and attract any angry hornets. Then I moved in with the pruners, snipped away the surrounding brush, then as quickly and smoothly as possible, I slid the large plastic bag over the nest and clipped it free from the branches.

The few hornets that escaped ignored the red headlamp on my head and flew down to the flashlight on the ground. I put the bag with the nest in the freezer overnight. Mission accomplished. No stings attached. WHEW!

Thanks to Seaver Grum for the photo of the yellowjackets in the bowl . 

Feel free to check out my web store for books and recordings full of stories, songs and lore celebrating the natural world.

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Deviant Snake Skin Patterns

Hi friends, 

For many years I’ve been pondering and puzzling about the interesting deviations in the patterns on these snake skins. It has stimulated lots of creative thoughts and speculation about ecology, embryology, and evolution, as well as insights into the will of the creator. Your comments, insights, and suggestions are welcome. This is herpetologically geeky I admit, but fun to think about.

The venomous copperhead snake (Agkistrodon contortrix) is a master at camouflage.

Closeup of a copperhead snake's head

Below is a photocopy of the skins of six unfortunate copperheads. They are arranged in a progression — from the most orderly pattern on the left to the most “free-form” on the right.

Here are some of my attempts to articulate my thoughts and questions about what I see:


 #1 is an example of the “standard edition” basic, unmodified  design.  Consistent “hourglass-shaped crossbands with dark margins and pale lateral centers”. (As herpetology text, Reptiles of N.C., states.)  Because of these pale centers on the sides of the snake (where the crossband pattern meets the belly pattern) they appear like dark x’s when the snake’s hide is stretched out flat.


#2 shows the same basic pattern repeated down the snake except for what seems like an irregularity on the right side (after the fourth “X from the top).  Doesn’t it appear that these crossbands are created as separate halves that are “supposed” to meet in the center over the vertebrae but sometimes the “design production teams” in charge of producing and spacing their half of the crossband patterns get out of sync with each other.  In this one the right side has an extra crossband pattern half which “caused” a misalignment of the one above and two below.

On #3 it is the right side again with an extra pattern half in two places.


#4 The two halves on #4 don’t meet at all in the upper mid-section. Is that “caused by” the extra pattern half on the left side down further?

#5 Some of the crossbands on #5 become abstracted to where they are barely recognizable as hour glass- or X-shaped

#6 More so on #6


A copperhead snake skin


Copperhead snake skin laid out flat with significant deviations in the pattern


A copperhead snake skin with coloration pattern severely disrupted.

It looks like there’s a basic plan, theme, program, or “intelligent design” that allows a certain amount of variation. One of the purposes of these patterns is camouflage, to break up the outline of the snake. So, too big an unvariegated space = heightened visibility = death (and those genes are out of the pool).

I am told that the word that deals with these issues is “stochastic”—“denoting the process of selecting from among a group of theoretically possible alternatives those elements or factors whose combination will most closely approximate a desired result.” (Funk and Wagnall’s Dictionary)

But why the pattern sometimes seems to split along the spine might come down to embryology. As an embryo begins to develop the skin is formed during a process called neurulation where the neural plate folds to form the neural tube and the two parts with the epidermis meet at the dorsal ridge. This link shows it:

In reptiles and amphibians, there are three types of colored cells–melanophores (black/brown), xanthophores (yellowish), and iridophores (reflective). Together these are called the “dermal chromatophore unit”. As the neural tube curls, these cells migrate. There must be some kind of genetic instructions about where they should end up.

I’m thinking that as the two sides come together, the two halves of the crossbands reach across to join over the dorsal ridge and then somehow adjust to “fudge” when they don’t meet up. That’s as far as I’ve gotten with this so far. I’m open to any comments, clarifications, corrections, or suggestions.

Meanwhile check out this John Muir quote:

“When a page is written over but once it may be easily read; but if it be written over and over with characters of every size and style, it soon becomes unreadable, although not a single confused meaningless mark or thought may occur among all the written characters to mar its perfection. Our limited powers are similarly perplexed and over taxed in reading the inexhaustible pages of nature, for they are written in characters of every size and color, sentences composed of sentences, every part of a character a sentence. There is not a fragment in all nature, for every relative fragment of one thing is a full harmonious unit in itself. All together form one grand palimpsest of the world.”

– 1867 John Muir (Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf)

 (Palimpsest–A parchment, manuscript, etc. written upon two or three times, the earlier writing having been wholly or partially erased to make room for the next. [Greek, palimpsestos, lit., scraped again]) Early paper recycling!

Thanks to Emily Lutkin for coloring the photo-copy of the snake skins.


Check out the pattern on this copperhead!

Contemplating the will (and the methods) of the creator…
Bilaterally symmetrically (sorta) yours, Doug

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Who Are You, Redbird?

Redbird, oh redbird what makes you sit and sing?
“I’m just perched here mouthing off, welcoming the Spring.”

The dawn chorus of the birds in Spring is an amazing medley of whistles, warbles, twitters, and chirps–songs of multitudes of birds greeting the new day. As the world turns from west to east the dawn moves from east to west, and the morning bird chorus moves with the dawn, so every day the earth is encircled with song.

Early one Spring morning I watched a cardinal perched in a redbud tree right outside my window. His bright red breast was puffed out. His cheerful sounding song was loud and clear–a bold voice in the chorus. It was almost like he was speaking English, “What-cheer, what-cheer, what-cheer, chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp.”

Who are you redbird, sitting on a limb,
A long lost loved one, or dear departed friend?

Some people say a deceased loved one sometimes comes back as a redbird, i.e. a cardinal. They say seeing a cardinal is a sign that the spirit of the departed loved one is near. Here’s a couple of verses from the song “Who Are You Redbird“ recorded by bluegrass musicians Buddy Melton and Milan Miller. A subtitle might be “bluegrass boys contemplate reincarnation.”

Who are you redbird, sitting on a limb,
A long lost loved one, or dear departed friend?
You keep coming back to see me, every now and then,
Who are you redbird, sitting on a limb?

Sometimes when I’m feeling blue and lonely
Skies are gray and I’m running out of rope,
I see you in the backyard checking on me
And hear you sing a simple song of hope.

The cardinal’s song really is a song of hope. It’s actually a kind of an advertisement. He’s trying to attract a mate. His bright red breast is stuck out. He’s leaning back belting out his vigor, vitality and virility, advertizing his sexual readiness. (We’ve all met guys like that.)

Redbird oh redbird what makes you sing this song?
“I’m gonna find the girl of my dreams, I hope it won’t take long.”

But that’s not all there is to this cheery song; there’s more to it than that. The plot thickens! After singing a few verses of the song the cardinal turned and flew straight at the window and smashed up against the glass.

This wasn’t the accidental collision that often kills birds. This was different. This cardinal was braced for impact. And he continued flinging himself against the window again and again.  And then he went back to his original perch and continued his cheerful sounding song, “What-cheer, what-cheer, what-cheer, chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp.” Then he resumed smashing himself against the window over and over. This went on for several hours a day for most of the summer.

Of course he can’t see through the window. All he sees is his own reflection in the glass, but he can’t recognize it as a reflection of himself. He thinks his own reflection is an enemy–an invader in his territory and he is determined to expel this intruder by any means, including violence. As I listen to this instinct-bound critter smashing himself against his own reflection in the window, I think about nature being full of lessons. There must be metaphorical lessons there for us humans. I have been pondering and reflecting on this question and asking various thoughtful people what these lessons might be.

I was talking to an academic, philosophical friend. I asked, “Is this testosterone poisoning?”  She said, “The issue is much less about testosterone than the evolution of our own identities. This cardinal has an identity problem.  He can’t recognize his reflection as himself. He’s trapped in dualistic thinking, (Me, not me. Me, not me…) and he doesn’t know how to get out of it. This instinct-bound cardinal hurling himself into the window is a lesson about the suffering that ensues from lack of self-knowledge.”

There’s a lesson: Lack of self-knowledge has consequences. Know yourself!

Redbird oh redbird what makes your face so black?
“I been hittin’ that window so durn long, lucky it don’t crack.”

My neighbor said, “Cover the window with a piece of cardboard or a tarp or something.”

I said, “The cardinal would just move to another window. Eventually I would have all the windows boarded up. I would be living in the dark and the cardinal would probably move to the car’s window or one of the side-view mirrors.”

Male cardinal bird sitting on a side mirror on a car

In life there’s always more windows and mirrors…and lessons. A window is there to give us a view into another world but the window becomes a mirror for the cardinal and the cardinal, like many of us, only sees himself. In our lives there are lots of mirrors. In some ways everyone we meet is a mirror, reflecting back to us who we are. If all our mirrors were covered we might not even know who we are!   

According to Zen Buddhist teachings, the mirror is without ego and mind. A mirror receives and reflects back what isthere, nothing more and nothing less. Everything is revealed as it really is. So the cardinal is revealed not only as a vibrant, beautiful, brilliant red bird in the mirror–it’s also revealed to be an intolerant, violent, territorial  being. We humans are also known to have intolerant, violent, and territorial tendencies like the cardinal, but like the cardinal, we are also vibrant, brilliant and beautiful in many ways. 

Buddhist masters also point out the mirror is not self-conscious. Neither is the cardinal, and that’s a big problem!

Magic mirror, won’t you tell me please
Do I see myself in everyone I meet?
Magic mirror if we only could
Try to see ourselves as others would.
– Leon Russell

What about the singing? This cardinal pauses in the middle of this battle with a fierce, evenly-matched adversary, to sing? What is that all about?

The singing, along with being a courtship song of hope, (Come on, sweetheart!) is also a way of defining and defending territory. This is true with most bird songs.

Illustration of a Carolina Wren

A birdsong expert who’d spent years studying the songs of the Carolina wren told me that when a Carolina wren sings, any male wren in an adjoining territory within hearing distance is instinct bound to stop what he is doing and answer. So, if one wren has a better territory, or a better physiology, and can finish his feeding, nest building and courtship activities sooner, he can begin singing and literally (melodically) drive other wrens out of their own territories. After telling me this, that ornithologist kept shaking his head morosely and repeating “I wouldn’t want to be a wren…” And all we humans hear is the sweet song of the birds. 

A classicist told me this is reminiscent of Plato’s “Analogy of the Cave”, which is a commentary on society in general. In this analogy there are three prisoners who have been chained since birth in a cave, and they are secured in such a way that they can only look in one direction–at the back wall of the cave. Behind them is a fire in the opening of the cave and there is a procession of people and animals passing between the prisoners and the light. All the prisoners can see are the shadows cast on the wall, and to the prisoners these shadows are reality. When one of the prisoners escapes, goes out into the world, sees what the world is really like, comes back and tries to tell his companions what he saw, they don’t believe him. Plato was trying to say that what we perceive is not always the only reality–the only truth.

The cardinal perceives a rival when it’s only a reflection of himself. And just like the cardinal, what we humans perceive as reality might actually be a reflection of ourselves or a mere shadow of what’s really there.

Although Plato wrote it more than 2000 years ago, this analogy can remind us modern humans, as we spend countless hours fixated on our smart phones, TVs, and computer screens, that those images on the screens, like the shadows on the cave wall, can become our reality when they are really only shadows. They may be full color, ultra high definition, digital images, but they’re still only shadows–and this ancient analogy of the cave reminds us that we would do well, now and then, to look up from our screens, turn around and gaze out at the real world.

Computer geek, computer geek, what makes your eyes so red?
“Been staring at that screen so durn long it’s messin up my head”

My psychotherapist friend says it sounds like the cardinal has issues with projection. Psychologists use the term projection to describe how we humans often see and project our own flaws onto others — we tend to see our own undesirable traits in other people.

Can’t you see that cardinal looking at his own reflection and saying, “Why you bright red, xenophobic, puffed-up, feather-breasted, crimson-crested, bird-brained, black-faced, thick-beaked son of a bird, What is it about ‘What-cheer, what-cheer,chirp-chirp-chirp’ that you don’t understand?” (smash, smash, smash!!!) 

Redbird oh redbird what makes your head so red?
“I been hitting that window so durn long, lucky I ain’t dead.”

An Update

In response to my article above, I got this interesting note from But Kornegay:

Thanks for sending the Redbird blog, with all the lessons to be read into and/or taken out of it. We had a cardinal here one time like the one you describe smashing into the window daily all summer. It would hit so hard right next to where I was sitting in my study that it’d startle me. I named him Tarzan. That bird hit the window so hard and so often that the window became covered in bird snot. One day, after months of this, with relief, I found him lying in the grass, dead. I think it had scrambled his brains. Below is a photo I took of the damn (or was it damned?) thing before his demise. So, that song lyric in your blog could be written…

“I been hitting that window so durn long, finally I am dead.”

Photo of a cardinal bird flying against a window taken from insideThis year we have something very odd going on. It’s the female who sings and fights her reflection in the window! I’m not kidding. The male seems to be emasculated. (Or maybe he’s gotten smarter than his predecessor.) He’s content to perch and preen and get something to eat–let her take care of the territory and all that stuff. I’ve named the female Amazon. Warped feminism has even infected the birds.

You mention Plato, and by chance I’ve been reading some of his Dialogues this spring. In the analogy of the cave, the reflections on the wall are all the things of this earth, unreal, mere changing shadows of reality and truth. Only when a person becomes philosophic and turns towards the light through hard and disciplined thought and purity of heart does he begin to see the eternal, unchanging ideas, the form of the good.

(Thanks to Emily Lutken for the wren illustration, Todd Elliott for the original photos, and Burt Kornegay for his comments and photo of Tarzan.)

For more literature, lore, stories, and songs celebrating the natural world check out my web store.

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The Wren and The Hornets

Illustration of a hornets nest with a Carolina WrenA Variation on the Birds and the Bees

We’ve always been fascinated by those large, gray bald-faced hornets’ nests. If we can find one within reach, we’ll wait until after a few hard freezes, then cut the branch with the nest and put it in the rafters of our open porch. At that time of year there never are any live hornets left in the nest. At the end of the season they all die except for the mated females who will be next year’s queens. They fly off and hibernate in cracks or crevices. In Spring each female starts from scratch building a new nest. To build their paper nests they collect grayish-colored, weathered wood particles from dead trees and fences. They chew it up and add a waterproof glue from their saliva.Photo of a hornets nest

The nest is small at first and the new queen lays just a few eggs. When they hatch and develop, these will become the first workers. They start bringing in more paper pulp and enlarging the nest. The queen keeps laying more eggs and the colony keeps growing until it is as big (or bigger) than a basketball and can house a few hundred hornets. Stay away from those nests in summer and fall; hornets are very defensive of their home–they have powerful stings and no sense of humor!

After we put the nest up in the porch rafters, we noticed pieces of the nest paper on the floor underneath it. Something had torn a large hole in the side of the nest. There was also a neat little pile of bird droppings underneath the nest. In the evening, about twilight, we noticed there was wren activity around the nest. We realized that it was the wren that had torn the hole in the side of the nest and it was roosting in there. This has occurred every year for more than a decade. We realized that the Carolina wren is the only eastern North American wren that does not migrate. The northern range of the Carolina wren is determined by the severity of the winter. At the northern edge of its range a severe winter can decimate local wren populations.

A Carolina wren nesting in a hornets nest during winter
Sleeping wren nestled in a hornet’s nest on a cold winter night

Wrens that can find a hornets’ nest (especially one in a sheltered, dry location) have a winter survival advantage. Those many layers of hornet-made paper with dead air space in between provide great insulation and an ideal, cozy roosting site protected from the frigid winter winds. (photo caption: Sleeping wren nestled in a hornet’s nest on a cold winter night)

Todd Elliott did a search of the ornithological literature and found this phenomenon was reported almost 100 years ago. We published our findings in The Chat which is the official publication of the Carolina Bird Club. You can read the article here.

Many thanks to Todd Elliott for the photos, and to Emily Lutken for the illustration of the wren and the hornets’ nest.

For more literature, lore, stories, and songs celebrating the natural world check out my website here.

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