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The Verde Independent | Cottonwood, Arizona

home : the villager : the villager April 29, 2016


8/23/2013 12:36:00 PM
Of oak and critters ...
By: Duane DePaepe
VOCA Board President

As a youth, I used to roam the magnificent hardwood forests of the Great Lakes region.

In particular, I remember the towering oaks, many over 150 feet in height. Walking beneath them was like walking in a cathedral!

Well, that was a long time ago and we are now retired here in the Village of Oak Creek. When we first came here I wanted a place somewhat like I had when I was a youth.

Imagine my excitement when I discovered a neighborhood called "Oak Shadows." We quickly bought a home here and on the property were many large trees. But to my disappointment there was not an oak in sight. And when I explored the surrounding neighborhood there wasn't any oaks there either. I began wondering why the place was called "Oak Shadows?"

Eventually a master gardener visited our place and I inquired why there were no oaks around.

She said: "Of course there are oaks around - your property has them everywhere." She pointed to a prickly shrub that I had identified as holly. Hmm ... She was convinced it was oak and I was convinced it was holly. Being a life-long woodworker I certainly know what an oak is like! A spirited debate ensued.

Finally, she took me by the arm and walked me over to the "holly." "See here," she said. "Look at all the acorns growing on your bush." Sure enough, there were acorns; and sure enough I had to admit that it was an oak!

There is an amazing variety of native plants and animals here in the village. It's actually a rather simple ecosystem, but has a great diversity. We are not in desert country like down in Phoenix.

But we are in "chaparral"- an ecosystem comparable to countries surrounding the Mediterranean. It's a land of thorny bushes and low trees. Remember the old time cowboy movies where they wore floppy leather breeches call "chaps" to protect their legs from thorny bushes? Well, the word "chaps" is just a short way of saying "chaparral."

We have around here what is sometimes called a "pygmy forest" because the dry climate permits only native trees of limited stature.

Old timers call it a "PJ" forest because it consists of only two kinds of trees: Pinyon Pine and Utah (yes, Utah; not Arizona) Juniper.

Both of these species grow extremely slow. The other day I helped a friend cut down a long dead pinyon pine that was less than 6 inches in diameter.

We were both surprised to count over 100 rings showing it was over a century old! Junipers are frequently several centuries old. Scrub oak grows even slower.

A two-inch diameter branch can be over a century old. So if we have these ancient trees on our property we have a legacy that deserves our respect and care. They were here long before us and if we protect them we can pass them along for the enjoyment of future property owners.

I shudder when I see indiscriminate destruction of this native legacy. Seconds of chain saw work can destroy nature's work of centuries!

One of my best sources of entertainment here in the village is watching wildlife. I'm no expert, but on our half acre I've clearly identified almost 40 species of birds.

And there are many more that I haven't been able to identify. And what a thrill it is to see a bobcat! The other day there were twin adults, beautifully marked on face and legs, lounging by our stone bench.

Even those hooligans the javelins are well worth watching. Once we saw one tip over our birdbath trying to get a drink.

The mule deer are shy visitors. One buck had such huge antlers that I had to look twice because I first thought it was a bull elk. Folks up the street sometimes see mountain lions.

I haven't spotted one yet, although I found fresh huge tracks in a dry stream bed just above our place. In the deep night, coyotes and great horned owls will provide a concert for the insomniac. And then there's the variety of snakes.

I know they can startle you, but in reality they are friends in that they keep the rodent population in check. I do worry about the rattlers though... Most varieties (there are about 4 kinds in the village) are very docile - which means they won't give a warning when you are near them.

If you step on one they probably will bite; then give the warning rattle! Because of this I don't like to have these dangerous guys around. When I find one I call the local fire department. They haul the thing away and then release it unharmed into another similar environment.

And bear in mind that rattlesnakes are a protected species under Arizona law, so don't try and kill one. Under the law it sort of be like poaching a deer. Bats can be freaky to some folks too, but it's good to remember that they function like a huge aerial vacuum cleaner, clearing the air of pesky insects.

Bats do it after dusk and the hoards of lizards help the birds do it during the day.

Folks sometimes ask me "with so many homes here in the village, will we eventually loose our wildlife?" It's hard to say. What I do know is that here in VOCA most all of the houses that will ever be here are already built. And the wildlife is still here. The reason for this is that a lot of the original habitat here is still preserved on your property and mine. The key ingredients of this critical habitat are the pinyon pine, Utah juniper and scrub oak (all of which can take a century or more to mature).

So encourage the native vegetation and enjoy our Arizona wildlife!


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