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HEMBREE BRANDON: Possum on halfshell; Delta fauna thrives

Often, in the early morning or late evenings, when I’m sitting on the patio feeding the Delta mosquitoes that come from miles around to feast on me, there’ll be several doves perched on the telephone cable and electric wires that parallel our lot, their distinctive cooing calls echoing across the neighborhood.

The presence of these birds isn’t that unusual, I suppose, for those who live out in the countryside, but it isn’t something one expects in town. Over the past couple of years, though, they’re everywhere.

And chipmunks. Not that many years ago, one had to go out west to see the cute, skittery little ground squirrels. I remember, driving through Wyoming, we stopped so our kids could join a gaggle of other tourists who were entranced by a colony of chipmunks scurrying about the rocks.

Now, I see them racing herky-jerky around the backyard, before hopping into burrows they’ve dug. A day or so ago, I watched as one scampered along the patio, pecan in its mouth, then jumped a good 18 inches into a flowerpot, began digging furiously, throwing dirt and plants everywhere, then deposited the pecan, covered it up, and scurried off.

Armadillos (possum on the halfshell, someone wryly called them), which years ago were a western states oddity that everyone said would never be able to cross the Mississippi River, are now a pest everywhere in the Delta, digging holes in yards, uprooting flowers, and just generally being a nuisance. They apparently didn’t know they weren’t supposed to cross the river.

From time to time, visiting at Grenada, Miss., I go for my pre-dawn walks at Grenada Lake, the multi-thousand acre reservoir built in the WPA era. One morning, chugging up the drive of the visitor center, there were two deer, a buck with a fairly sizable rack and a doe, contentedly munching on the lawn. I stopped, they eyed me rather disinterestedly for a minute or so, then ambled off. On several other occasions, I’ve seen deer in that rather public area.

Another time there, pre-daylight, I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye. A coyote. I kept walking and the animal fell in behind me, as if it were a collie dog joining its master for a jaunt. Unsure as to whether it might be scoping one of my legs for breakfast, I stopped. It halted, too, watched me a few seconds, then moseyed off into the underbrush. Two other times, I’ve encountered coyotes there, and they’re a fairly common sight driving around the Mid-South.

A young man whose family has a 2,000-acre spread in Tallahatchie County, Miss., was telling me that on a recent day he counted 35 deer, including a large number of bucks, feeding in one of their soybean fields. "They’re everywhere," he said. "We’re thinking about getting into the hunting business."

The stately white wading birds that once were seen only in coastal areas of Mississippi are now commonplace in the northwest Delta area, adding to the picturesqueness of our sloughs and bogs. Cormorants, attracted by the buffet presented by proliferating catfish ponds, are now the bane of fish farmers. Hawks, nearly wiped out in the days of DDT and some of the early avian-unfriendly pesticides, are now everywhere, much to the dismay of many hunters who don’t like them eating rabbits and other game.

These and many other changes in the fauna of the Mid-South are likely due, in part, to changing climate patterns and food availability that have aided adaptation of new species. But much of it has been fostered by increases in conservation and wildlife habitat programs by farmers, the evolution of ag chemicals with near zero environmental impact, improved water quality, and wetlands preservation efforts.

Environmental protesters, who decry modern agriculture as anathema to wildlife, should come to the Delta and take a look at how it’s thriving.

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