Friday, November 03, 2006

Nutria in the Petunias

There was an interesting observation yesterday in the heavy rain we seem to have settled into. A nutria (an import from the far end of South America), perhaps flushed from his riverside den by the rising water, discovered some patches of petunias. These were about done flowering for the season and needed to be pulled for the compost pile, having barely survived a light frost. The nutria found them a gustatory sensation, and began first chewing them off and then pulling them up. Upon inspection the following morning it was found that he(?) consumed only the tough bases, leaving the smaller stems and leaves in heaps ready for the gardener to pick up! Some plants were pulled up by the roots. The only other animal which has been seen here eating stem bases (of spring grass) was beaver.

Nutrias are perhaps best described as vegetarian and partway between a beaver, a rat and especially the muskrat, and related to all three. They are aquatic and if lacking predators overuse their habitat by constant grazing. Originally imported into several parts of the USA as a boon to the fur industry, this fur-bearing animal was actually trapped heavily for the fur trade, with up to 1.8 million harvested in a single year in Louisiana alone. Fur fashions change and now demand and prices are so low that the nutria are rarely trapped and have reached pestilential status everywhere. Some states have proposed eradication as a solution to the damaged wetlands they cause. Others see them as an unsolvable nuisance.

Before the old apple tree fell, nutria would travel a long way uphill from the river to feast on the windfall fruit. They would return your gaze with a look apparently both dumbfounded and astounded before lumbering off back to the water. Though efficient swimmers they are slow on solid ground.

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