I am sitting in the shade, a disturbed lot speckled with sunflower and gopher apple before me. Gulf fritillaries flutter from plant to plant, spreading their wings to reveal a burst of orange patterned with black lines and white spots. At first, the lot appears to be a mere gap between houses, perhaps the future site of a three-story Florida dream home. Rather, it is the many basement-only homes of the street’s hard-shelled, grim-faced, reptilian neighbors—the gopher tortoise. They keep to themselves, scurrying into their burrows at the slightest sign of approaching danger. I observe as a tortoise, minding his own business, is rudely assaulted by one of his neighbors. As he quietly chews on a sunflower leaf, the offending tortoise sneaks up from behind and, with his leathery lips, gives his peaceful neighbor a jerk by the front edge of his shell. The two then engage in an intense staring contest, raised on their front legs with heads tucked into their shells in an intimidating manner. Finally, the tortoise that started it all just walks away. They continue to feed peacefully as if nothing has happened. The moral of this story: violence is not the answer.
Hey, this isn’t about birds! Actually, this is more about the bigger picture. In our birding, we find ourselves surrounded by many other facets of nature. And all these facets have a tightly interwoven ecology. Consider the burrow of a gopher tortoise. Many species take advantage of abandoned burrows-including Burrowing Owls. The Florida mouse, Florida pine snake, and Florida gopher frog are all intimately associated with the burrows for various reasons including escape from adverse weather conditions, predators, or to raise young.* Consider how desecration of gopher tortoise habitat would affect any one of these species, many of which receive some kind of protection by Florida state law. The gopher tortoise itself is listed as a species of special concern in Florida.
Many young birders hold an interest in herps, insects, or mammals. This is an invitation for young birders to share their experiences outside the realm of birding and how these experiences have in fact helped them understand birdlife better. I encourage you to look for the interconnectedness of all things in your birding adventures, for there are many.
*Franz, Richard. "THE FLORIDA GOPHER FROG AND THE FLORIDA PINE SNAKE." 1986. 17 Mar 2009 <http://www.gophertortoisecouncil.org/dox/Franz_84.pdf>.