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Bugs and Climbing Birds

July 15, 2020

Gabriel, who’s living upstairs for a few months, identified the birds a week ago. We’d both been intrigued by their antics, as they climbed up the garage walls and the outside of the house, like lizards or squirrels.

Once he discovered the correct species, he also discovered an online recording of their song. Provided we limit the time we do it for, it’s fun to play this, and wait for a couple of them to pause and respond with their own versions.

I should explain that, since this house is built into a hillside, the builder decided to put the garage on the lowest level, so you could just drive in and park. He put the main floor (where I live) above that. Gabriel has the small apartment on the top floor.

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Our garage, where the Canyon Wrens like to hang around.

The garage is cavernous, being about 11 ft high and 35×17 ft in area. It’s open to the skies at both ends, so we get squirrels, all kinds of bugs and the birds coming in.

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A Canyon Wren. Note the long, strong toes, used for climbing.

The birds are Canyon Wrens (Catherpes Mexicanus).  From a distance they look superficially like sparrows, but do tricks no sparrow does, or (presumably) wants to do. They occur throughout western North America, from British Columbia down to Chiapas in Mexico, but since I lived most of my life in Ontario, I never saw one till I came here.

They like human-built spaces like our ground-floor garage, which is made from lava-rock. There are crevices for them poke into with their long beaks when they hunt insects. I’m guessing there are also spaces for them to nest, in greater quantity than they’d find in most actual canyons or cliff-faces. Their song can be piercing when they sing it right outside my window at 7.00 in the morning, but otherwise they’re fun to have around.

I’m wondering if, among their insectile prey, they include Cochineal bugs (Dactyloplus coccus), which live on prickly pear cacti; we have a couple in the garden here. To date, however, since these critters produce large amounts of carminic acid, a red pigment that’s toxic to predators, I’ve not seen the wrens go after them.

The bugs, which don’t really move much, used to be harvested for their colour, which stains wool particularly well. Today, they’re considered a pest, and farmers who grow these cacti (nopales) for food must spray them to keep the Cochineals off.

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The prickly pear, its leaves flopping and rotting after a summer of Cochineals eating it.

We had a magnificent nopal here until last summer, when these bugs attacked it, and soon it was covered in the white filaments they spin like cocoons, and was looking forlorn. The cactus is coming back this year, putting out new growth, and so far we have no Cochineals. The Canyon Wrens, though, seem to be having a good year, at least going by how often they’re around. I hope it stays that way.

Edible Cactus

The first time I was offered cooked cactus, I felt I was being daring to try it. The letdown came with the taste, which was very slightly tart but otherwise bland: think zucchini without the slight sweetness or the touch of green bitterness. Since then, I eat it when it’s offered, but I don’t seek it out. When I was told it’s used a lot to feed livestock, I wasn’t surprised, though I did feel a pang of empathy for the cattle who have to eat it. It is, however, rich in magnesium, and is a modestly useful source of vitamin C.

I naively assumed, for some time, that people wanting to consume it went and picked pieces of wild prickly pear. I had no idea there were 3-million hectares (about 6.6-million acres) of the over-100 edible species of Opuntia cacti grown across Mexico. So, the first time I saw a field of nopal, the cacti growing in long rows, I was fascinated. I suppose someone who disliked broccoli or tomatoes would feel the same way to see rows of broccoli plants or swelling red fruit in a large greenhouse.

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A large field of nopales near the town of Tlayacapan, Morelos.

Growing them doesn’t seem complex. Prickly pear are native here, and so they respond well to the natural climate cycle. In some cases, they’re grown to attract cochineal insects, which love them, and from which carmine dye is extracted. This fell into disuse in the 20th Century, with the growth in synthetic dyes, but it’s made a comeback for food colouring and lipstick as concerns over synthetics generally have increased.

The downside to this fact is that if you want to grow the nopales for food, then the cochineals are a pain, and you have to spray to keep them at bay. The plants seem to continue growing when infested with cochineals, though; one in our back yard is covered in them but seems otherwise healthy.

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Cochineals conceal themselves under a soft screen of white fibres on our backyard nopal.

Some of the fields growing nopal aren’t much larger than an average back yard – in other words, it’s a small sideline for a small farmer – while others are surprisingly extensive. The town of Tlayacapan, a few miles from where I live, has large swathes of nopal in the flatter areas among the hills.

If you’ve ever been given a piece of prickly pear by someone who owns one, you know you can plant it and it will put down roots and also grow new cladodes, the technical term for the flattened, leaf-like stems ‘leaves’ that in time become actual stems. The things can grow as big as small trees, given time, but a nopal farmer wants to harvest young cladodes, which obviously are more tender and tasty to eat.

Some growers break off entire cladodes, but at least one grower whose crops I examined was cutting them in half. The bisected leaves then put our two new cladodes each, so there is uninterrupted  food production: two pieces of edible cactus where there was one before. Somebody, of course, has to scrape off all those teeny little spines, which can stay in your skin for days, and I often see women in the market in town doing this with scrapers. I assume the nopal pickers themselves wear gloves; either that, or they perversely enjoy feeling like human porcupines.

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This farmer has sliced his nopales‘ cladodes, selling half of each and letting new leaves grow from each sliced surface.

Staring at the lines of cacti, scarcely two feet in height, I’ve considered that it can’t be hard to grow a crop. And they’re kinda pretty to look at. But my passing horticultural fantasies always disappear when I consider one basic fact: I still don’t like them enough to want to eat them much. And I’m sure they’d end up on my plate a lot simply because there’d always be some available.