So last year, I found this hole in the flowerbed near the house.
It could have been anything. Snake, packrat, chipmunk…anything. I did notice a sort of muddy front porch, where the wet yellowish clay was pushed out, which would imply that it was a rather wet burrow, but I didn’t think much about it.
Once or twice, I caught a flash of motion diving into the burrow, but I never got a good look at whatever it was.
This flowerbed is up against the garage wall, a narrow, shady wet area where I grow lobelia and black cohosh and elderberry. I haven’t done much with it, beyond plunking in those three plants and mulching to cover weeds, so the burrow could have been there for a long time. It wasn’t hurting anything, so I left it alone.
Two days ago, I was pulling leaves off the basal rosette of the black cohosh—it’s a grumpy plant and doesn’t much like having wet leaves on it—and I happened to glance into the burrow.
There was a claw.
A crustacean claw.
Attached to a crustacean.
Now, I’m from a couple of places, including Arizona and Minnesota, but the majority of my childhood was spent in Oregon. Eating crab in Oregon is somewhere between a competitive sport and a religious rite. The sight of me with crab legs has reduced people to stunned silence. As a dear friend once said “I have never before met someone so dedicated to extracting every last scrap of meat from the crab and so totally unwilling to make conversation while doing so.”
This is by way of saying that I know a crustacean claw when I see it.
And there was one in my flowerbed.
I stood there in dead silence for almost a minute while my brain ran through a loop that went like this:
1. That is a claw.
2. Things with claws like that live underwater.
3. I am not currently underwater.
4. Return to 1.
There was no breaking this cycle. I could not have been more baffled if I’d found an octopus in the flowerbed. At one point, I actually looked around vaguely to make sure that I wasn’t underwater and just hadn’t noticed.
I should add that I don’t live in a swamp, near any large bodies of water, near any streams…anything. I have a frog-pond I dug myself, and a drainage ditch that has an inch or two of water in spring and is bone dry the rest of the year. We’re on a well. There are a couple of low-lying soggy areas in the garden (usually in the path) which turns into a sucking mud pit this time of year, but that’s mostly because clay drains not at all, so we have standing water in spring.
None of which explains why there was a lobster among my lobelia.
Eventually my brain did a hard reboot and I went inside to gibber on the internet.
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is when I learned one of the great secrets of the American South.
They have burrowing lawn crayfish down here.
I say that this is a secret because nobody outside the South knows this. I went on Twitter, and half the people said “Yeah? Mudbugs. They do that. Why?” and the other half said “OH MY GOD THAT IS UNNATURAL ARE YOU DRUNK DEAR GOD WHERE DO YOU LIVE I NEVER WANT TO VISIT AAAAGHGH!”
I don’t think it’s a conspiracy to keep the world in ignorance of the noble lawn crawdad. Probably. I assume that it’s one of those things that you’re just so used to seeing that you don’t think to mention it. A little research indicates that they’re fairly common—the “devil crayfish” actually builds little mud chimneys—and people think of them as kind of a nuisance. There are services where people come out and remove your lawn crayfish. The chimney builders cause a lot of cosmetic damage to lawns and golf courses.
And nobody outside the Southeast apparently has any idea that this is going on. Seriously. I had people from New York think that they were hallucinating my tweets owing to painkillers.
In fairness, a lot of people who live down here ALSO have no idea this is going on. The lawn crayfish has apparently managed to live completely under the common radar. We’ve all heard of moles, voles, and fire ants, but crayfish? Sure, they live in streams, right?
I went back out. I poked a bamboo stake into the burrow. The crayfish grabbed the stick and nearly took it away from me. I pulled him halfway out of the burrow before he let go and dropped back—enough to get a look at a murky gray-green lawn lobster bigger than my hand. (Five inches at least.)
Definitely a crayfish.
I named him Craw-Bob.
I have no idea what species he is. As it turns out, there’s forty-odd species of crayfish found in North Carolina, some of which do not live in streams, but prefer to dwell in burrows, have no common names, and look pretty much alike.
The North Carolina Cooperative Extension informs me that low-lying areas that maintain damp soils may support burrowing crayfish populations. The mud “turrets” can be annoying, but they’re mostly harmless (and furthermore, as several other sites inform me, getting rid of crayfish is usually both expensive and unlikely, as you have to drain and/or tile the whole area to prevent them returning immediately.)
The bit that I found most interesting is that crayfish are very susceptible to pesticides. Since they eat ANYTHING and EVERYTHING eats them—the NCCE euphemistically describes this as “involved in a great deal of nutrient transfer in your backyard ecosystem”—pesticide gets into the wet soil, gets into the crayfish, the crayfish gets into birds, mammals, reptiles—or other crayfish (yes, they’re cannibals)—and you have a real problem higher up the food chain.
Once I was over the initial shock that there was, for some bizarre reason, a crayfish living in my flowerbeds, I was fine with him. He can stay. I hope to get a better photo eventually. (I admit, I tried to lure him out for photography with a piece of salami on a string. This resulted in much less salami on the string. You win this round, Craw-Bob….) I don’t have a lawn, I don’t care if he leaves little mud turret around, and near as I can tell, there’s only the one.
The NCCE has a final word of advice, which I found rather charming. “These nonprolific creatures should be appreciated like a interesting bird or turtle living on the property.”
To which I would only add—HOLY CRAP, YOU GUYS, WE HAVE BURROWING LAWN CRAYFISH DOWN HERE!
© 2013, Ursula Vernon. All rights reserved. This article is the property of BeautifulWildlifeGarden.com If you are reading this at another site, please report that to us