Georgia’s Natural Wonder Animals
The Okefenokee Swamp is a true wildlife refuge. The wildlife seen in the great swamp are in their natural surroundings. These are the natural inhabitants, the original inhabitants – now protected by law. Few places in America can offer as varied and extensive wildlife as this southeastern swamp. Over 200 species of birds have been identified by refuge personnel and visiting ornithologists. There are over 40 species of mammals, more than 50 species of reptiles, and 60 species of amphibians. The waters house an abundance of fish, 34 different kinds.
The bear is by far the most powerful animal in the Okefenokee. At one time they were a menace to the small farmers living near the swamp. They made repeated raids carrying off hogs, small calves, or anything else they could find to eat. Organized bear hunts were not for sport to the settlers but a necessity to protect their livestock. The bear mates in the summer, and the cubs, usually two, a male and a female, are born in the late winter. At birth the cubs are blind, almost hairless, and weigh less than one pound. The mother often sits with the cubs between her legs, blowing her warm breath on them. They are one of the most helpless and dependent animals at birth and in no way resemble the large and powerful animal they later become. They grow 100 pounds a year for the first two years, then 50 to 75 pounds the next couple of years. A full gown bear will weigh around 300 pounds and stand over six feet tall on his hind legs. In spite of their size, they are not slow and cumbersome, but are capable of great speed. The bear is omnivorous, eating both plants and meat. He eats plants, berries, nuts, roots, insects, fish, eggs and small animals. The bear has even learned to find the camouflaged turtle nest by raking its long claws over the disturbed ground until it finds a deep soft spot. It is able to feast on the eggs hidden from so many other swamp creatures.
The otter is one of the most graceful of all animals in the water. It swims with tremendous speed, as well as grace, and with seemingly little effort. The otter grows to around four to four and a half feet and weighs around fifteen to twenty pounds. At one time they were hunted by dogs as well as trapped because of their valuable furs.
Of the 27 species of snakes in the swamp, the water moccasin is one of the largest and one of the few venomous ones. The majority of snakes lay eggs, but the moccasin is one of the few species that give birth to living young. It has large hollow fangs which are connected to sacs of poison in its cheeks. When biting its enemy, it squeezes the sacs to inject the poisonous venom, and returns to its coiled position in approximately ONE-HALF SECOND.
The American Alligator was at one time seriously threatened and considered one of the endangered species. “Gator Hunting” became popular and extremely profitable as reptile shoes, handbags, and belts grew in popularity. The alligator was seldom hunted for sport or game but strictly as a business. Two hunters could kill as many as forty gators in an evening. The female alligator builds a large nest, measuring five or six feet across and two or three feet high, in an open area near the water. She lays 30 to 60 eggs and covers them with leaves, muck, moss, and other trash. She then splashes this down good with water and the sun heats the damp vegetation and the eggs in the mound. It takes from 60 to 90 days for the eggs to hatch, and the baby alligators immediately start making a clucking sound. The mother hearing the clucking, uncovers the newly hatched alligators. When hatched, the young alligators are about six inches long. These young alligators grow about one foot a year for the first six or seven years. Full grown they may reach twelve to fifteen feet in length and weigh 700 pounds. The alligator is extremely fast, although he looks slow and clumsy basking in the sunshine. He feeds on snakes, fish, small animals, turtles, and even baby alligators.
This is a large bird between four and five feet in height. They are gray and have extremely long legs. The Sandhill Crane keeps the same mate for life. They nest in fairly open places where trees do not block their vision. They lay two eggs which take about four weeks to hatch. The young cranes can fly fairly long distances within two months because of their rapid growth. Many Sandhill Cranes were killed in the early hunting days of the swamp. Although they were hard to kill because of their extreme wariness and good vision. When frightened or sensing danger a crane sounds its alarm cry that can be heard for miles. Other cranes and animals recognize the distress call of the Sandhill, take up the cry and flee the area. They have been called the “watchmen of the swamp.”
At one time the osprey nest served as guide-post to the local natives penetrating the unchartered interior. Osprey are known to be territorial. A pair will build their nest usually in a high tree near a prairie and this area for a couple of miles in all directions will become their domain. No other osprey will establish a nest in their territory. The osprey repair their nests when necessary using the same nest year after year. The fact that these nests are in high places, are large and easily seen, remain for many years, and are several miles apart, make them useful landmarks to the local natives.
Many a new-comer in the early days killed himself a “water turkey”, thinking he had a good meal. Anhingas, or water turkeys, look a great deal like a wild turkey except that it has webbed feet and is definitely not good to eat. This bird can fly, swim on top of the water, or dive beneath the water, where it can swim at great speed. It eats a great deal of fish which its speed and keen vision help it secure. After diving beneath the water it takes only a few minutes in the sunshine to sufficiently dry out its feathers enough to fly again. On dark, cloudy days when there is no sun it instinctively knows not to go beneath the water.
Other Swamp Birds include the Barred Owl, Great Blue Heron, Prothonotary Warbler, Yellow Crowned Night Heron, Red-Billed Woodpecker, Great Egret, White Ibis, and many more.