So, here we are only a week into 2016, and I get to start my first post of the year with some excellent news. An essay I wrote called “Alligator Nature and Nurture” has been published in the winter issue of the literary journal 1966. It’s about the time I went alligator tracking with the wildlife biologist at Palmetto Bluff and alligator natural history, all very fascinating stuff. You can read it in it’s entirety here: Alligator Nature and Nurture. I am very excited about being included in such a great publication. Yay, me!!
In an earlier version of the essay, which describes the alligator life cycle, I included a passage from the book The Alligator’s Life History by E.A. McIlhenny. This is a great book, published in 1935, about the author’s experiences living in close proximity with alligators at his home in Louisiana. If the author’s name sounds familiar it’s because his father invented Tabasco sauce. Anyways, it was a long passage that I debated including because it was so long, and ultimately it ended up on the cutting room floor. Rightly so, I think. And it’s perfect because now I can share it with you here. The following passage describes the days McIlhenny spent the days doing little more than watching a mother alligator build her nest.
… She had bitten off and mashed down all vegetation over a space about ten feet by eight feet, and had gathered a lot of the material into a rough pile near the centre of her clearing. When I first saw her at work she was scooping up, from the outside edges of her trash pile, in her mouth, twigs and leaves, and holding them firmly, would back across the center of the pile dropping her burden on top of the mound already of considerable size in width and height. She would then go forward and get another mouthful from the outside edge of her clearing and pull it across and past the centre. This pulling of the brush and trash from the outside past the centre continued until she had made the circle of the pile four and one-half times, which required almost five hours work. In making this part of the clearing four Alder trees, from two and one-half to three inches in diameter, had been broken off. When these were pulled onto the pile, their trunks were found too large for nest building, so she laid her body across the trunks and tore off the limbs by crushing them in her jaws and with violent shakes of her head. After the limbs were stripped off, the trunks were carried by mouth to the side of the clearing and discarded. Occasionally she would go to the edge of the cleared space and turning her head sidewise would grasp in her jaws a mouthful of whatever the standing growth might be, and after crushing the stems so caught by strongly squeezing her jaws together, would start backing towards the nest, dragging with her whatever material her jaws held, thus tearing the weaker stems off or up by the roots, and breaking off by violent shakes of her head such stems as were too strong to be gotten loose otherwise. When this part of the nest-building had been finished, the result was a pile of stems, twigs and leaves, almost round, and about six feet across by about eighteen inches high. By continually crawling over this mound and working its material from the edge to the centre it was well packed and flat on top. The nest-builder then left off work and went back to the pond, and I also called it a day.
The next morning I was at the nest-blind before sunrise, provided with a lunch and a jug of water, prepared to spend the day. The alligator was not at the nest and did not come to work until 7:35, but when it got light enough to see clearly, I found the nest-building had continued during the night, as the cleared space was considerably larger, and a lot of loose twigs, leaves, briers and dry trash had been piled loosely around the base of the nest-mound. Arriving at the mound, the alligator looked it over holding her head as high as possible while slowly crawling around its base. She then crawled on top and at once began nest-building in a most expert and methodical manner. Lying across the nest pile, tail on one side, head on the other, she would reach down catching the loose material, and the projecting material which she had loosely piled at the base of the mound, in her mouth, and holding it firmly down as the weight of her body was pushed forward across it to the edge again. This work continued until two complete circles of the nest had been made, and it was raised at least ten inches higher; this work occupied two hours and twenty minutes of time. She, now being apparently satisfied with the height of her nest, crawled down and went slowly around it, head held high, looking intently at the shape of the sides, but paying most attention to the top. Being satisfied with its appearance, she now went to the top of the mound and placing her hind feet near the centre, lay flat, bracing her front feet into the outside edge of the nest-material, she then began drawing up and pushing back her hind feet slowly one at a time and turning slowly around the rim of the mound. This action pushed the twigs and leaves from the center towards the outside rim of the mound, and after a couple of circles of the mound had been made in this manner, the center was decidedly hollow, and the outside edges seemed raised at least ten to twelve inches above the center. This was plainly shown by the curve of the alligator’s body as she worked out the depression. After two hours and forty-five minutes of this work the nest-builder slid down the side of the nest and without hesitation made her way to the water.
It was now a few minutes after one o’clock, and I supposed she had “knocked off” work for lunch, but I was afraid to leave as something might happen in the nest-building during my absence. From time to time I could hear considerable noise in the rushes in the pond which I thought was made by the alligator, but was entirely unprepared for what I as next to see; which was, what looked like a bushel of wet and muddy rushes suddenly appearing in the water at the beginning of the alligator’s path to the nest. This mass of material advanced steadily up the path, but it was not until it reached the nest-clearing that I could see the alligator was carrying a huge mouthful of rushes and their roots and the mud in which they grew. This mass completely hid her head as she advanced up the nest-road. Coming to the nest-mound she crawled up to the top and deposited the mouthful of wet material in the hollow of the nest. With only a short pause, back to the pond she went, and I could plainly hear her tearing at the growing rushes. In about ten minutes she reappeared with another large mouthful of the same sort of material which she also put in the depression at the top of the nest. The work of bringing wet rushes and mud form the pond to the nest and filling the hollowed-out top continued for three hours and fifteen minutes, and nine trips were made to the pond and back to the nest. By this time the hollow in the top had been filled with this wet material until it was considerably higher than the sides. She then climbed down and walked all around the mound then back to the top, and scooped up her material with her mouth from places that did not suit her fancy, placing it on other parts of the top, all the while moving slowly round and round over and back of the nest’s top (which by now was at least three feet high) until quite a regular hay-stack-like cone was shaped. It was now ten minutes after six. I kept watch until 7:30, and as it was then too dark to see more, called it a day.
I was in my blind before sunrise the next morning, and as soon as it was light enough to see, observed the nest and surroundings were exactly as they were the night before. I saw nothing of her until ten minutes after ten o’clock, when she came to the point where her path to the nest joined the water, but did not come out of the water until 11:40. She came slowly up the path to the nest, went part way round it, then climbed on top, and putting her head and forepart over the southern edge and her tail pointing north, began hollowing out the center with her hind feet, pushing the wet material from the center to the sides by drawing her hind feet alternately forward and pushing them back and down with considerable force, turning her body about the rim of the nest as the hollow progressed. This hollow was not made as wide as the first hollow, but was deeper and as it was in softer material, much more quickly made.
At 12: 25 p.m., she placed her hind legs on each side of the hollow and began at once depositing her eggs. … As the eggs were deposited the alligator turned slowly, the center part of her body following irregularly the inside rim of the nest-hollow, forward and back. … then pushed her body to one side of the top of the nest, taking a large mouthful of wet mashed rushes and trash from the side rim of the nest where it had been pushed from the center while making the hollow to contain her eggs, she dropped the mouthful on top of the eggs, and continued doing this until the cavity in which the eggs lay was filled to the top with the wet mixture of broken rushes and trash. The old alligator then slid down the edge of the nest, went to the pond, and I could hear her pulling and tearing at the growing rushes. In a few minutes back to the nest she came with a large mouthful of broken rushes and material from below the surface of the water and dropped it on top of the nest as she came up one side, then deliberately slid her body across the top of the nest, turned and slid back so that the whole weight of her body pressed the wet material down on the eggs. She then went to the pond again, and after tearing at the rushes a couple minutes came out with another mixed mouthful which she deposited on top of the nest, crawling over it as before. Six trips were made for broken green rushes, mud and the partly decayed material from below the water, all of which was placed on the top of the nest. As the center-fill got higher, she crawled around the slope of the cone-like top instead of crawling over the top. This caused the top to be quite pointed, very much like a small round top hay-stack, and very smooth, as the weight of her body slicked the mud and rushes together like smooth plaster. She then slid down to the ground, crawled around the nest, slowly inspecting it, then went down her road to the pond.
What a cool thing to witness, right? While McIlhenny watched the nest, the alligator mother charged him with several warning attacks. Yay, mom!
I love this passage because it’s so detailed, and, at the time it was written, this was probably the first time a human documented or even saw alligator nesting behavior. That was back in the days when people thought alligators breathed fire and lived to be five hundred years old. When I read McIlhenny’s description, I can see the alligator working on her nest–and that’s the kind of thing most of us will never see outside the pages of a book.