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Shadow: Early spring is time to get out in the yard with all the chores and crawdads
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Shadow: Early spring is time to get out in the yard with all the chores and crawdads

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The Mackinaw River State Fish & Wildlife Area in Tazewell County provides an excellent place to hike and look for birds and wildflowers.

One of my assigned tasks this past weekend was to catch up on the lawn care.

Actually that’s not right, I don’t have lawn. I have a yard, and it, too, needs mowing. Lawns are smooth and properly manicured. My yard looks somewhat like a “minefield” with various types of green vegetation inhabiting it. That’s pretty well to be expected, however, since up until a few years back I had horses and cattle pastured there.

I can still tell where the old fence lines used to be. I still have the horses but they’re out back now since we built a new home here. Actually, if I can endure all the bumps, the memories of those days are still enjoyable.

Rosie and I mow the majority of three acres, tend fruit trees and enjoy most of the insurmountable task of keeping up in the spring. The fruit trees are budding and blossoming out and the various flowers are doing their flower things.

Rosie dug into my to-do list until she found a note that said: “Trim the rose bushes.” That task came right after the mowing process. Those things are like trying to handle an angry porcupine. I tolerated the task, however, completing one small scrap of my list. Then it was time to clean the gutters. Again.

Anyway, these above tasks in progress brought to my attention the presence of dozens of massive “crawdad chimneys." I just simply mow them off and make the mud fly, but those pesky “mud architects” rebuild them faster than I destroy them.

It depends on your geographical location and maybe some genealogical background just what you call these critters that live in most of our lakes, creeks, ponds, and even inhabit the smallest of ditches. It’s amazing where they turn up and where they choose to make their burrows or homes. They look like miniature lobsters with formidable pinchers and bad attitudes.

Whether you call them crayfish, mudbugs, crawfish or crawdads, they’re still the same critter and inhabit a goodly portion of our countryside. They tend to build these neat structures (chimneys) in the lower and more moist areas. Even though we usually think of them as living in creeks and ponds where they are under water most of the time, they can actually migrate long distances from the larger bodies of water. Even though they breathe through gill-like features, they can live out of the water for months as long as they keep their gills wet.

Recently, I’ve had an abundance of them building “chimneys” in my yard and the adjacent fields. Other folks experiencing more than normal activity this spring have mentioned and questioned their origins and lifestyles.

I suspect the increased activity and abundance of chimney building is due to the additional rain this year. Some of these chimneys get several inches tall and if you look closely you will find they are usually wet on the inner surfaces. This is especially true if the crawdad is still expanding his burrow.

Crawdads will burrow down several feet, close to the water level, and sometimes have little side rooms off of the main burrow. If the living quarters start to get dry, they will close up the burrow tunnel section, keeping the inhabited burrow damper. Only one crawdad lives in each burrow, so this explains the number of chimneys and individual burrows.

If you’ll sneak up very quietly, especially in early morning hours, you can see the crawdad as he adds more mud to the chimney. Avoid vibrations on the adjacent ground or he’ll be gone before you can blink an eye. They may look clumsy, but they can move very fast.

They build these burrows and the associated chimneys using their pinchers and mouthparts, rolling the mud into little balls and then placing it at the top of the chimney with amazing precision. It is thought that making the chimneys rather than just depositing the mud outside provides an additional level of safety for the crawdad since they are favored meals for raccoons and other predators.

Crawdads are prized table fare, especially in many of the southern states. They can be prepared in many ways but are usually boiled with some Cajun spices, potatoes, sausages, corn, onions, and other items as preferred. They tend to turn red when cooked and actually are quite tasty.

The spices tend to remove or cover up any muddy taste. Most folks break them in two in the middle and suck the meat from the head and tail. It’s a bit of a messy meal but is highly valued by some folks. Try them if you get down south — you might just like them.

I spent a couple of hours training my current project horse this morning and the never-ending cleaning of her stall, then moved on to other projects like cutting firewood for my self-serve wood kiosk. I even washed my bass boat and went to Lake Mattoon for a while. I purchased my new fishing license and lake use stickers, putting them in place on the boat and trailer before losing them.

If you haven’t gotten your new fishing license, it’s time. There seems to be some problems with the operation of the machines this spring — I don’t know what the problem is but several locations can’t provide new licenses due to the problems. It would be a good idea to check first before heading to a remote thinking the licenses would be there. They were available at the Mattoon marina.


PHOTOS: Wildlife Prairie Park

Dave Shadow is an outdoor columnist for the JG-TC.

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