Nutria–what are they, and why?

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A nutria in its eating pose, with a piece of lettuce
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A group of nutria–note the webbed hind feet

The nutria is, as you may already have guessed, a rodent.  It has adapted to life in the water–in fact, its nipples, rather than being on its stomach, are on its flanks so that babies can ride around on momma’s back and nurse without drowning.  They are originally from South America, and were introduced in the States for their fur.  They are now considered a pest species in this part of the world, and you can receive money for handing in a nutria carcass, which makes me sad but which I also understand.  The reason why is that they can be very detrimental to wetlands, which are a famously fragile ecosystem already imperiled by human development.

Many people who pass them by exclaim over them thinking that they are beavers, despite signs on the trails around the stream explaining their name and origin.  While they do look rather beaverish, they have long, thin tails like rats, and do not build dams of any kind.  Rather, they appear to dwell in holes up under the bank, hidden away from predators, but whether they dig them themselves, possibly expanding on bank swallows’ excavations, I don’t know.  They have also been mistaken for otters, but unlike the fish-loving otter, nutria exist solely on greenery.  They love being thrown things like lettuce (though only romaine or iceberg–bitter spring greens are shunned by them!), bits of fruit, and bread.  Some are fairly fearless, and if you have food, they will come right up to you and may even take it from you with their little hands.  I have more than once been startled by feeling a wet little paw on my foot when I didn’t realize a nutria had approached me, hoping to get closer to the food I was holding.  They have bright orange teeth, again rather like a beaver’s, which are rather alarming, but I have never seen a nutria behave aggressively.  It’s as well to still steer clear of their mouths, though.

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A nutria with its baby, who is eating a carrot peel
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Turtles–not mutated, and of all ages, with no known ninja skills

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Turtles sunning themselves on a log

Many turtles live in the creek by which we like to take our ‘daily constitutional’–they’ll come up for bits of bread thrown for the ducks and lettuce thrown for the nutria (but more about those creatures in another post).  Young turtles eat a lot of meat, but the older a turtle gets, the more vegetarian it becomes.  Also, the older a turtle gets, the bigger it gets, and after a certain point it doesn’t really have any natural enemies (unless you count humans, who often remove turtles from the wild to become pets).  Before they get too big to swallow, however, the herons, who seem to have snake-like throats,  will eat small turtles.  There are many ducks on this creek, and the ducks and turtles pretty much leave each other alone, except when the ducks have their babies–yes, it’s sad but true, turtles really go for a mouthful of baby bird.  They also look out for a sunny, quiet day and a surface, preferably surrounded by water for safety’s sake, where they can climb out of the water and just bask for awhile.  If you stop and stare, they’ll slide off the log, or rock–plip! plop–in the blink of an eye, hence the name Slider for some species (the Red-eared Slider is common here).  I’ve never seen turtles fight with each other, the way ducks do, and they seem to share their logs in a quite neighborly fashion.

(In case you were wondering, credit for this picture and those below goes to Draconis.)

The Lair of the Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron
A great blue heron crouching with its right foot curled

Behold the great blue heron, which we followed to one of its favorite spots.  We’ve never seen it hunt here, but it often lands here in the evening to relax.  It stands incredibly still and gazes down the length of the creek.  Curiously, it rests and even flies with its right foot curled up. nor is this behavior unique to this bird.

Great Blue Heron Flying
A great blue heron flying with right foot curled