Popular Science Monthly/Volume 77/October 1910/The Home of the Alligator

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THE HOME OF THE ALLIGATOR

By Professor A. M. REESE

UNIVERSITY OF WEST VIRGINIA

IT has twice been my privilege to visit the wilds of Florida under the auspices of scientific societies, the first trip being to the Everglades, while the second expedition, under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution, took me to the flat-wood and prairie regions in the center of the state, far from railroads and other signs of civilization.

From the pleasant little town of Orlando, with its orange groves and numerous small lakes, we plunged almost immediately into the "piney-woods," where the road is scarcely more than a trail, and is strewn with numberless huge pine cones that produce constant and nerve-racking jolting to passing vehicles.

For about thirty miles we drove, slowly on account of heavy loads, through the pines, where but few and widely separated houses, and no villages, worthy of the name, were to be seen. The monotony and loneliness of these almost perfectly level forests, broken only by an occasional cypress swamp, sluggish stream, or tiny cabin, becomes, to one accustomed to a thickly-settled, rolling country, quite oppressive; and we were glad to come suddenly to the edge of the forest where we could look out for miles upon the open prairie. The prairie proved to be much more interesting, though no less lonely, than the pine woods. The ground is here covered with either grass, upon which large herds of cattle feed, or with the "scrub palmetto" which is, apparently, gradually spreading its useless foliage over the entire prairie.

These scrub palmettoes, especially where they grow in taller, denser groups, are the home of numerous diamond rattle-snakes, the most deadly of American reptiles. As we drove past the palmettoes we frequently saw, and always captured alive if possible, these deadly rattlers, my guide being very expert and perfectly fearless in handling them. If they were coiled when found, he would simply reach out his hand slowly and pick them up by the back of the neck, sometimes attracting their attention by dangling a handkerchief in front of their eyes with one hand while he seized them with the other. If they attempted to escape, he would tap them with a carriage whip until he made them crawl where he could get at them easily. It is remarkable the amount of teasing and rough handling to which a rattler will submit without attempting to bite. His rattle may whirr violently and

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A Typical Florida "Hammock."

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The Interior of a Florida "Hammock."

he will look as threatening and deadly as any animal could, but, unless he be shedding, he will seldom strike if he can avoid it by escaping from his tormentors.

Although he had been handling and collecting snakes for thirty years, my guide had, until this trip, never been bitten by a rattler. One morning he had caught, in a noose at the end of a pole, a large rattler that was shedding and was, therefore, very vicious. Where a snake was lying in an inaccessible place, or was, as in this case, unusually

PSM V77 D373 Leaves of the cabbage palmetto.png
Leaves of the "Cabbage Palmetto."

vicious, a noose was generally used and the snake thus transferred to a bag carried for the purpose. As he was being lowered into the bag, this particular snake gave a sudden twist and one of his poison fangs cut a long gash in the hand of his captor. Fortunately for the man, only the extreme tip of the fang penetrated the skin, so that little or no poison was injected. The guide always carried a hypodermic syringe for just such emergencies, so that a dose of potasium permanganate was soon injected into the wound, and no ill effects from the bite were felt.

Although the bite of these rattlers is not necessarily fatal to man, almost any one in that region can tell of one or more cases where death has followed within a few hours of the time that the wound was inflicted.

PSM V77 D374 Capturing a diamond rattler.pngCapturing a Diamond Rattler. villages would be in other states: Camp Hammock, Hickory Hammock and Jack Hammock are familiar names in that region. They serve as camping places for men, and as shelters from the noonday sun for cattle. Some of them, when entered, are veritable fairy-lands: from the branches of the huge live oaks are festooned great masses of beautiful, gray, hanging moss, while here and there is stationed a stately palmetto, with its great head of green leaves, each leaf nearly twice as tall as a man. From the lower growth may project the gaunt, bare branches of a dead oak, on which a group of turkey-buzzards and carrion crows are likely to be seen. PSM V77 D374 A group of carrion crows.pngGroup of Carrion Crows.

The much smaller ground rattlers are also numerous on the prairie, but, on account of their small size, one to two feet instead of six to eight, they are not feared as are the diamond rattlers.

The monotony of the prairie is broken by an occasional clump of trees, known as a "hammock" (probably derived from "hummock"). These hammocks are sometimes composed merely of a small group of palm trees, called "cabbage palmettoes" from the edible, cabbage-like core at the tip; or they may cover several acres and contain moss-hung oaks and a dense undergrowth. The hammocks serve as landmarks and milestones for the traveler and cowboy, and many of them are named, just as streams, hills or

Except for the flatness of the country, which makes the drainage uncomfortably slow in wet weather, a more delightful place to pitch one's tent could hardly be found than one of these Florida hammocks. To be sure there are numerous snakes (we caught no less than twenty-three in a hammock where we camped for about a month), but they are mostly of harmless varieties and are really very graceful and interesting animals.

Dotted over the prairie are numerous small swamps and sluggish water-courses: the latter are called "sloughs" (pronounced "slews"), and differ from the former in containing, at least during wet seasons, running water. These swamps and sloughs are the home of the alligator and the deadly cotton-mouth moccasin. While searching for the

PSM V77 D375 A typical gator hole in florida.png
A Typical 'Gator Hole of Central Florida.

nests of the former, the latter were frequently seen, but were left severely alone, as they are quite deadly, are much more aggressive than the rattlers, and have no warning rattle to indicate the state of their tempers.

In these swamps we collected not only several hundred alligator eggs, but also numerous alligators themselves, both large and small. The baby 'gator's were hooked up out of the water with a wire noose on the end of a bamboo pole, while the large ones were either shot directly or were pulled out of their caves under the banks and killed by a rifle bullet in the back of the neck.
PSM V77 D376 A nest of the florida alligator.png

A Nest of the Florida Alligator, made of a mass of flags and grasses. The nest has been opened to show the pile of eggs within.

In the tall grass about the swamps deer are frequently seen, while on other parts of the prairie wild cats, skunks and other animals are met with; and rabbits are so abundant and so tame that they may be killed with a long pole or snared with the noose used for capturing young alligators.

Herons, cranes, ibis and other beautiful and interesting birds are constantly seen, so that the naturalist has something of interest before his eyes at every turn.

For the ornithologist, professional or amateur, who wishes to study and photograph an interesting bird colony, as has been done by Chapman with the flamingoes and by other naturalists, there is, on a small

PSM V77 D376 An eight foot florida alligator.png
An Eight-Foot Florida Alligator.
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Four Nests of the White Ibis, within a radius of three feet, on Bird Island. Several nestlings, which are black at this age, are to be seen.

island near the center of Lake Kissimmee, an excellent opportunity. Lake Kissimmee, which is about thirty miles long by five wide, lies at almost the exact geographical center of the state of Florida. It may be reached by driving, as in the present case, or by motor-boat from the town of Kissimmee on the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, at the head of Lake Tohopekaliga.

The island in question is well named "Bird Island," for it is the nesting place of thousands of white ibis, and not a few other birds. Its situation in the center of the lake makes it a safe retreat from the wild-cats and other destructive animals of the mainland, while the neighboring swamps furnish an endless supply of food for both old and young birds. For miles in all directions flocks of ibis, from three or four to as many dozens in number, may be seen feeding in the swamps and sloughs, or flying, single file, with their characteristic alternate flapping and sailing, to and from the rookery on the island.

The island itself is covered with a dense jungle of reeds and undergrowth, with areas of bushes and small trees. When one pushes through the reeds into one of the bushy areas, there is a startling whirr of wings as thousands of the ibis take to flight, circling about overhead in a perfect cloud, and making a most beautiful spectacle.

At the time of our visit to the rookery, about the middle of July, nesting was in full swing, and in all stages, from the egg to the nearly full-grown bird. The nests, crude affairs, each made of a handful of small sticks, were everywhere—in every available situation on the bushes PSM V77 D378 A heron posing for its picture.pngA. Heron Posing for his Picture. The Bird Island Rookery, Lake Kissimmee, Florida. and small trees, and scattered over the ground in such numbers that one had to walk with care to avoid stepping on them. In some nests were eggs, as has been said, while in others were birds of all sizes, the larger of which scrambled away awkwardly at our approach. With a proper shelter it should be an easy matter to get any number of photographs, at closest range, of these interesting birds. Circling overhead was a flock of crows, watching for opportunities to swoop down, in the absence of the parents, and carry off the young birds from the nests. For studying reptiles and birds there is probably no more interesting locality in the United States than this subtropical region of central Florida; and if the ubiquitous gun sportsman can be kept away, the hunter with the camera may there enjoy his harmless and instructive sport for many years to come.

The writer will be glad to furnish information as to equipment, guides, etc., to any camera sportsman who may be interested; powder-and-shot sportsmen need not apply.