Since my seven generations of people have lived in East Texas, we’ve lost much of our natural heritage. By our own hands we extirpated the panther, the jaguar, the jaguarundi, the red wolf, the black bear, the buffalo, the passenger pigeon, the Carolina parakeet and the ivory billed woodpecker. We cut virtually every timber tree and plowed almost every prairie and canebreak. We also unleashed a torrent of invasive species that now ravage the land including pigs, house sparrows, starlings, fire ants, Chinese privet, Japanese honeysuckle, Chinaberry and Chinese tallow.
East Texas was once part of 90 million acres of majestic longleaf pine savanna that reached to the southeast coast. Unfortunately, only 1 percent of that still remains intact, with only remnants in Texas.
As a lover of nature and Texas, I can’t ignore the deplorable plight of my natural inheritance. It makes me very sad that I can’t witness the many things that once grew, roamed and flew here.
While digging and dividing bulbs one winter, I observed a large flock of redwing black birds flying overhead. It was awe inspiring. I noted the duration was about 15 seconds for the entire undulating group to pass over. I couldn’t help but think of John James Audubon guesstimating the numbers in a flock of now extinct passenger pigeons that took three hours to pass over in a column one mile in breadth. He noted that it was far below the average size, as some flocks took days to fly over and literally darkened the sky. Audubon calculated his flock to contain more than one billion birds.
Though we’ll never see passenger pigeons again, I’ve dedicated the rest of my life to creating habitat for those wild creatures that remain. I’ve focused on forest and field specifically for those that flap and fly. One of my projects is an eight-acre demonstration pine savanna to mimic those that were in East Texas and the Southeast when the settlers first arrived. They were basically open pine forests with native grasses and other herbaceous plants below. They were historically shaped and rejuvenated by fire and provided habitat for such birds as wild turkey, bobwhite quail, pine warblers, brown-headed nuthatches and the now-endangered Bachman’s sparrow and red cockaded woodpecker.
My loblolly pines are now 24 years old. I thin them regularly (leaving standing snags for nesting and roosting cavities) to let in more sunlight and burn the stand annually to control woody undergrowth and to promote native grasses. I’m just now getting enough sunlight below to have a scattering of broomsedge bluestem, inland sea oats, slender wood oats and Virginia wildrye. As the sunlight reaches the forest floor, more will come. When our ancestors arrived in Texas, they told of driving their wagons through towering pine forests with open prairies below.
Though I have steady visitation from downy, hairy, red-bellied, red-headed and pileated woodpeckers, I will probably never live to see red cockaded woodpeckers since they need old-growth pines and I’m too far removed from appropriate habit where they still cling to existence. I can always hope, though, and leave the light on for them.
Greg Grant is the Smith County horticulturist for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. You can follow him on Facebook at “Greg Grant Gardens,” read his “Greg’s Ramblings” blog at arborgate.com or read his “In Greg’s Garden” in each issue of Texas Gardener magazine (texasgardener.com). For more information on local educational programming, go to smith.agrilife.org.