Why the Red Face, Gallinule?

This winter I lay in bed wondering about the strange sounds I was hearing from the pond below our house. I had learned the calls of the night herons and the clapper rails, and some of the frogs, but this was different – a high-pitched, drawn-out series of squawks.  

What could it be? The cries of some poor creature being tortured in the night? A witch’s laugh?

I finally found out when NPS ranger Laurel Brannick identified a similar sound at Francis Bay during one of the Friday morning bird walks. It turned out to be the call of a Common Gallinule, Gallinula galeata – formerly known as a Common Moorhen.
Check out recordings of some of its cackles, yelps and squawks from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology or the Audubon Society.

It is not a rare bird, and is native to the Virgin Islands as well as many other places in the western hemisphere. The gallinules are related to clapper rails, and also American coots. Though common, they aren’t always easy to see because they usually hang out in dense swampy areas.

Besides alarming me, their loud calls are supposed to help them find their friends in the dark, or warn competitors to stay out of their territory. 

Eventually I was able to spot one of the gallinules down by our pond. It was sneaking through the pneumatophores – root-like projections that help the roots of black mangrove trees get oxygen – looking for snacks. They eat both plant parts and small aquatic creatures.


When you actually see one of the birds, its face is even more distinctive than its call. The bill is bright red with a yellow tip, and then the red bill seems to extend up the front of its face.

The red part that goes up its forehead above the bill is called a frontal plate or facial shield. It isn’t the same material as the bill, but a type of hard skin that grows from the base of the upper bill, and can swell up and get brighter in response to hormonal changes. This is not a common feature for a bird. (The related American coots do have a similar plate, though theirs is white rather than red.)

What a strange look. Why would anyone want to wear a red mask? 

One idea is that the gallinules’ facial shields help protect the birds’ faces when they are foraging in the swamp or defending their territory. Is that really effective or necessary?


Like so many other strange affectations, a red mask could just be a way of attracting prospective mates.

 Male and female gallinules both have a shield, so it is not a sign of male differentiation from – or dominance over – the females. Both sexes are socially aggressive, and they share parenting duties. For both, a bright shield is an indicator of good health and social status.   

Still, there is an element of courtship display and competition. A study of the some gallinule relatives in New Zealand (Pukeko swamphens) concluded that the size and width of the facial shield in males was strongly correlated with testes mass, suggesting that a large red mask is a sign of masculine strength.


But they also found that male social status can shift quickly. The gallinules’ testosterone levels (and facial shield size) quickly decrease if they do not respond successfully to challenges by other birds.



Baobab Trees on St. Croix Have Fruit

So why doesn’t the one on St. John? 

Baobab trees are viewed as strong, spiritual presences – but they can also be sexy and fertile.

In its native Africa this type of baobab (Adansonia digitata) is known as the Tree of Life. It can retain water in its pulpy bark, and during dry periods it is an attractive hub of activity for birds and animals, insects and humans. Some people also think baobabs harbor ancestral spirits that can intercede to bring them love and good fortune.   

Yet on St. John, our lady of the L’Esperance Trail appears to be virginal. Well, even if she gets pollinated, she doesn’t bear viable fruit.

What is the problem?  And is it any of our business? Probably not, but we can speculate.

Is she too young?

In semi-arid environments, baobab trees may not start flowering until they are 125 years old. (They are said to be able to live up to 1200 years.) Well, this one is growing on a ridge where there isn’t great soil or a steady water supply, so that may have allowed her to keep a girlish figure, but really she is probably well over a hundred years old, maybe closer to two hundred. Definitely not too soon to be thinking about babies.

Is she really male?

Some people in Africa identify baobab trees that produce a lot of fruit as females, and call the others males.  However, one study of baobab trees in Africa found that there were no genetic differences between the producers and non-producers. Nor did tree size or environmental conditions appear to account for the differences.

Do pollinators find her unattractive?

The baobab’s flowers open at night and hang down from a stalk, just right for bats. The flowers are said to smell sweet at first, but then turn rancid. Perfect. Bats like things that smell like carrion. (On St. John the flowers are high up so it is hard to smell them until they fall, which usually happens within a day or so.)

St. John has plenty of potential bat pollinators. You can see Jamaican fruit bats nearby, roosting on the ceiling of the old Reef Bay sugar mill at the end of the Reef Bay Trail.

Does she need a boyfriend?

Some species actually do have different male and female trees. Nature often insists on sexual reproduction because variety is good – particularly in the gene pool. Sometimes it’s not entirely different trees, but different male flowers and female flowers on the same tree.

Well, it turns out that these baobabs, like many other trees, have what is called a ‘perfect’ flower - male and female parts on the same flower. That seems a bit incestuous, but it works fine for lots of trees.
                                                     Photo Cheryl Magdaleno

Not all of them though. Some trees just don’t believe in self-pollination. Or they do give it a shot, but then abort the fruit before it matures.

The diagnosis – most likely our St. John tree is suffering from a case of ‘self-incompatibility’. Hmmm…I think I feel that way sometimes too.

Anyway, yes, it does seem like she needs another tree – or several – for companionship and pollination.

My friend Joan suggested that I should try to bring back some baobab fruits from St. Croix when I went to the AgriFest, so I took that on as a quest. Maybe we could germinate the seeds and raise more baobab trees on St. John.

At one time there were over one hundred baobab trees on St. Croix. How did they all get there?

I was told that the captured slaves brought seeds over on the ships from Africa, but I wondered how they could have carried them, given the cruel conditions under which they made that passage. One writer reported that the Africans may have carried the seeds in small pouches tied around their necks as nutritious emergency rations, as this was a common practice for travelers at home. Or the fruits could have been carried on the ships by the crew since the pulp is high in vitamin C and could be used to prevent scurvy during long sea voyages. In any event it was a sad trip across the Atlantic for the unwilling passengers from Africa.

Some of the baobab trees were fruiting on St. Croix when I was there, and I was able to get one seed pod from the Ridge-to-Reef Farm stand at the fair. But I wanted more. 

The next day we went to the St. George Botanical Garden and just as we were leaving I snooped around under their baobab tree out by the parking lot.

I found a small ratty-looking fruit hanging on a bush by its tail.

Later my friend Mandy drove us to Grove Place to see the really magnificent baobab there, with three big trunks and a fourth smaller one. It supposedly dates from the 1700s and is currently the oldest baobab tree in the Virgin Islands.

Over 50 feet around. And so muscular looking.


It had lots of fruit, and we picked a nice clean one off the tree - so beautiful, with its soft rusty-colored fur not yet looking moth-eaten. A real treasure. 

We broke open one of the fruits and tasted the tart pulp inside. Some people think it tastes like a tamarind. I thought the small pulp nuggets were like sweet-and-sour candy with seeds inside.

So now I have collected some seeds. The next thing is to figure out the best way to germinate them and get them growing. I am hoping to get some help from my neighbors with that – I have begun handing them out and encouraging people to plant them in pots.

If that works out, we can try moving them into the ground, especially around Fish Bay, which is just down the hill from our baobab – not too far for the fruit bats to fly at night from one to another, carrying the gift of compatible pollen.

It might take a few hundred years, but we could be the ones to finally bring joy and fulfillment to the lonely L’Esperance lady waiting so long for love.    

Growing Your Own Food is Like Printing Money

That was Governor Mapp’s message for the annual AgriFest on St. Croix, held February 18-20. “As one of many in our territory who grew up on a family farm, it pains me to see the millions of dollars that leave our islands each year to pay for food that could be produced here in the territory, often with better results.”

That’s a great idea, but few in the territory are actually growing much of their own food. Given the current level of financial and political uncertainty, the smart move right now might be to invest in kitchen gardens and fruit trees. And to encourage farmers who provide healthy, locally-produced food. 
There was a special ferry from St. John to St. Croix for the Agrifest, which offers a food fair, local music and dancers, and cultural activities as well as displays of farm animals and produce.


It was hot to be walking around in the heat of the day, but fortunately there were tables set out under a big grove of mango trees where we could get some shade while eating our curried goat, fry fish, gooseberries and stewed golden apples. 

I was glad to have a chance to stop by the Ridge-to-Reef Farm stand for a visit. A couple of years ago we signed up for their Community Supported Agriculture program and picked up boxes of fruits and vegetables every week from their St. John drop off point at the Gifft Hill School. 
Besides familiar types of produce, the Ridge-to-Reef stand had some more unusual items.
I picked up a couple of baobab fruits - there are some huuge baobab trees on St. Croix. The fruits have lovely, fuzzy green fur, and you can eat the tart pulp inside surrounding the seeds. A friend of mine had asked if would bring back some seeds so she can try to grow some on St. John. There is only one large baobab on St. John, and it has been flowering but not fruiting.

I also got a couple of West Indian locust tree pods – known to some as old man stinking toe. The seed pods are very hard – like you need a hammer to break them – and inside there is a smelly but sweet powder surrounding the seeds. It makes your mouth very dry, so it is better mixed up with milk or in a smoothie. 

Unfortunately I didn’t have room in my bag for the big jackfruit. Originally from south Asia, it is related to breadfruit, and is the largest fruit that grows on a tree. An ordinary one can weigh up to 40 pounds, but there are reports of fruits over 150 pounds. Its taste has been described as a cross between a pineapple and a sweet potato.

The overall theme of this year’s fair - Agriculture: Our Heritage and Hope for the Future - was portrayed in various box displays made by schoolchildren for the event.

The Virgin Islands participates in the Farmers of America program, which helps schools train new students to become agriculture professionals. This national organization was formed in 1928, just before the Great Depression, to help prepare young people for the challenges of feeding a growing population. It has been reinvigorated by new interest in local and organic food. Students learn about agriculture as a science, as a business and as an art.

Students who grow food in school plots learn practical planting and harvesting skills. In some cases the schools use the produce to help provide healthier, less expensive lunches, or they may make money by selling fruits and vegetables. 

On St. John, The Gifft Hill School’s EARTH program promotes ‘Education And Resiliency Through Horticulture’, in a partnership with Iowa State University. Through hands-on work in the school’s kitchen and expanding gardens, students learn lessons about how food is produced, as well as about nature, the environment and their own health.
They also sell produce at the upper school on Wednesday afternoons starting at 3:15, and occasionally offer farm-to-table dinners as program fundraisers. That’s one way to help support a new generation of farmers on St. John.