How you like your eggs?

LOWA-logo1This article received First Place in Electronic Journalism in the 2014 Louisiana Outdoor Writer Association’s Excellence in Craft Awards.

How DO you like your eggs?  Fried?  Scrambled?  Lying on an English muffin bathed in Hollandaise sauce?

The buzzing of airboats reverberates across the marsh like giant bumble bees, humming their way from nest to nest in search of this ancient delicacy–alligator eggs.  Well, it sounded good, didn’t it?  Like the beginning of an erudite article about a rare, ancient epicurean delight.

Such is not the case, because much to my dismay, I’ve not been able to find one local bayou person who has eaten an alligator egg, raw, fried, or otherwise.

I’ve deduced that this phenomenon must be due to the fact that gators and their eggs have been legally protected since 1972.  However, those same protective guidelines have allowed for the taking of alligator eggs from the nests every summer by licensed alligator farmers since 1986.

Now you’re wondering how in the world taking eggs out of the wild, away from the protection of the mother gator, could be a good thing?  They’re not supplying local markets and restaurants, either.  So get that idea out of your head.

The robbing of the nests is actually beneficial and has been instrumental in preserving the American Alligator population in Louisiana for many years.  How so?

A group of eggs in a nest is called a clutch, and there are between 30-60 eggs in a clutch.  In the wild, once the baby gators hatch and slide into the water, they become tasty morsels for male gators and other predators like wading birds–great blue herons and egrets.  Left in the wild, as few as ten percent of the hatchlings survive and grow to adulthood.

By hatching the eggs at a farm, the eight-inch-long baby gators are totally protected from all predators, with almost a zero mortality rate.  Once the gators reach three to five feet, about 14% of the hatchlings are returned to the marsh from where the eggs were taken.  However, there’s no need to worry that these toddler gators might not be able to fend for themselves. Mother Nature takes care of that without a problem, and this process greatly increases their chances of reaching adult breeding age in the wild.

Burlap sacks hold young gators to be returned to the marsh

Burlap sacks hold young gators to be returned to the marsh

 

The gators that remain at the farm are grown for the sale of the meat and the hides for things like watchbands, boots, belts, and handbags.

One tidbit that I find very interesting about the incubating of eggs both in the nest and on the farms is the effect of temperature range. In the wild, the mother alligator builds a nest from wet marsh grasses piled about three feet high and ten feet across.  She lays her eggs right in the middle and covers them up.  The decaying marsh grass generates heat that naturally incubates the eggs and determines the core temperature of the nest.  Conversely, on the gator farms, the farmers control the temperature in the incubators very precisely.

And now you’re asking, Why would they do that?  Glad you asked!  The answer is in order to determine the sex, that’s why.

In the wild, the mother gator has no control over the core temperature of the nest, but if that temperature remains above 86 degrees, then all the embryos will become male; and if the core nest temperature remains below 86 degrees, all the hatchlings will be female.

With female gators topping out around eight feet, and males growing to ten feet and larger, it makes sense that the gator farmers would manipulate those incubation temperatures to above 86 degrees in order to hatch more males, yielding more meat and bigger hides.  Well, at least that’s my thinking.

Sadly, photographing the wild alligator egg harvest is one of the things I’ve not been allowed to experience down here in these south Louisiana wetlands due to the imminent danger and liability of said activity.  Let me explain that process, and you will see the dangers involved.

About a week before the harvest begins, the nests are spied from a tiny helicopter. Bamboo poles with pink survey flags are then stabbed into the nests, making them easy to spot later by the egg hunters.

Small Helicopter for spying gator nests

Small Helicopter for spying gator nests

Surprisingly, mother gators are very protective of their nests and their young.  She never strays far and guards the nest with loud hissing noises and snapping motions of her powerful jaws.  She will charge a predator, and that is why these guys have to work quickly.

Typically a team of two to four hunters approaches the nest by airboat–one drives the boat, another distracts the mother with a long pole, and the other two men quickly uncover the eggs, mark the eggs before gingerly placing them in a crate between layers of the nesting material.

Did I say they mark the eggs?  Yes, I surely did.

A black line on an alligator egg means “this side up”.  By the time the farmers take the eggs, the embryo has already begun to form, and as unbelievable as this sounds, if the egg is turned upside down from the way it was laying in the nest, the embryo will drown.

Therefore, it is imperative that the eggs are marked before removal from the nest and never turned upside down anytime in the process.

Alligator Eggs with black mark

Alligator Eggs with black mark

Can you imagine this scene? Jumping out into the marsh, fending off an angry reptile nearly as long as the boat, pulling away stinky marsh grass, and then having to find your Marks-A-Lot?  Hey, man! You got a Marks-A-Lot I can borrow?

After the eggs are layered in the crate, it is quickly loaded into the airboat and labeled with the nest number and how many eggs were taken from that particular nest.

Once a boat-load of crates has been collected, a gathering boat comes along and gets the crates and takes them to the dock where the crate information is recorded, and the crates are then loaded into a big transport truck for the ride to the farm.

The sale of alligator eggs is a about a 1.5 million dollar industry annually for our state. Who knew that alligator nests could vastly increase the value of marsh, once considered wastelands?

And don’t you worry none, because there are plenty enough alligators in the wild to hunt when the annual wild alligator hunting season comes along in September.

So, my quest to find that brave soul who dared to eat an alligator egg continues.  I believe, though, if Aborigines can slurp down raw crocodile eggs, then surely that hungry Houma Indian, who was brave enough to slurp down a raw oyster, didn’t let a little thing like a mother gator deter his desire for more raw perfection!

The airboats are a-buzzin’, the eggs are in sight!
(to the tune of ” Shrimp Boats” – 1951)

BW

For more information, visit the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Alligator Program.

 

 

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Comments

How you like your eggs? — 26 Comments

    • Well, Louise, I was thinking of you the entire time and your natural curiosity about the ways of the Houma Indians and bayou people in general. I hope you found this little story both informative and entertaining! And, what a nice thing for you to say about my style!

  1. LOL…. I remembered this, I wish I could find a link to the entire episode espically the part with the eggs for you. I know its not nice to laugh at another’s malady but in the show he completely shucked his clothes when the fire ants covered his “Nether Regions”. I was laughing so hard my sides hurt. I guess I am just a sadist.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&v=rwkj2ooEzbU&feature=endscreen

    If I am not mistaken the show was shot from a farm in Golden Meadow, La. I seem to remember also him helping “sex” the alligators, yes it was funny, but the fire ants portion was my favorite.

    They have removed the copies of his show since it was cancelled last year which is sad because it was a great show. Now you have to buy the bundled set of DVD’s.

    Really great article BW.

    • Oh yes, this is Gerald Savoie from Cut Off. We had a big discussion about him yesterday and this episode, as a matter of fact! It was one of my most favorite “Dirty Jobs” episodes, so thanks for sharing!

  2. This “Dirty Job” was a hoot to watch. Mike, the star, had to sex the gators, done by poking his finger in the nether regions of the animal.

    I think with all the other food found in the swamps perhaps fighting off a mad mama gator to get an egg for breakfast was just to much trouble, And I would like to shake the hand of the first guy to eat a raw oyster. Looks like a big pile of snot and feels like snot going down. Of course, think about where our milk and eggs come from……sorta gross….hahahaha Sorry I got off topic….

  3. I remember that episode of Dirty Jobs too. It was hilarious!
    Now about the post. Very informative. Do you know if there is a limit on the number of eggs that each farmer can harvest each season? I find it a bit strange that eggs are harvested, but alligator farmers must release so many back to the wild. We have friends that USED to have a farm. I can’t imagine wanting to raise gators. I’ve seen their BOOKS of regulations. I would think those that harvest the eggs must follow the same rules (then some). Those barns with the high temps and 100 percent humidity STINK even though they’ re washed twice daily!
    My eldest son’s wrist was bitten by a gator a bit larger than Gucci while harvesting for our friends. Those razor sharp teeth left him needing quite a few stitches. I ramble, sorry.

    • Yes, I recall that gator tale of your son’s close encounter! As far as I know, every egg is taken, but possibly not all the nests are flagged, leaving some to hatch in the wild. That information wasn’t readily available, and I’ve gone three times to catch them coming in today without any luck. I’ll see if I can ask that question of my gator farming friends and find out. Well, before animal rights activists made it uncool to wear any kind of animal hide or fur, it was a very lucrative business. Not so much anymore. I continue to be surprised that the annual egg harvest continues based strictly on the economics involved in this day and age.

  4. This was completely fascinating. Nearly every detail of the process was brand new to me – it’s just one more example of how many “worlds” are spinning around in our big old world. I did find out that there are plenty of critters who eat alligator eggs, so I guess it would be just fine, apart from the complexities of getting to the nest, getting the eggs and getting away!

    You have answered one question for me. When I spotted the 24 baby alligators over at Anahuac, I wondered if those were all from one clutch, since they were all the same size. I guess so – those gators lay more eggs than I realized.

    I think it’s just amazing about having to keep the eggs right-side up.

    When you say the nests are spotted with “a little helicopter”, is that a remote controlled device like a drone? I know such things are being used more and more often.

    • I had a feeling this little piece would prompt you to more research! There are more facets to it that I couldn’t weave into the article in the time slot in which I had to write! Raccoons LOVE alligator eggs, and are probably the quickest creatures around as far as getting away from a gator. This is a small helicopter with a couple humans inside!! I tried to get a photo three times yesterday, but I couldn’t catch it at the right time. They are using two of them this week, and they sit on a flat-bed trailer on the back of a pickup truck. THAT is how small they are! The mamma gator makes a little pool of water beside the nest, and as they hatch they swim in the little pool and do so for about six months. And they might even stay close to that nest/territory for as long as two years. Amazing, isn’t it? They have an egg tooth on the top of their snouts with which they peck their way out of the egg, and if they have trouble, mamma gators have been seen helping them out. She even transports them gingerly with her big teeth when necessary. Of course, they can all climb on her back for a ride. The American Alligator is under-known (is that a new word I just created?) and under-appreciated!

  5. Husband use to go to alligator farms to pick up the gators. As you already know, I’m fascinated with these creatures. I went along for rides a couple of times to see the farms. STINK is an under-rated word for the smell of the place! We were invited to go out and gather eggs with them but he didn’t want to go. Darn. I missed my chance.

    Wonderful posting, as usual dear Cuz.

    • Yes, a missed opportunity. The airboats were buzzing by six this morning, and there must have been an entire fleet of them out there. I had to be away from the bayou all day so I couldn’t catch them coming in with the eggs to see how big the harvest is just in this area.

  6. Ah, the Dirty Jobs gator egg gathering episode. Loved it.

    Yep, I could sympathize with poor Mike, when he got into those fire ants. Or the fire ants got into him. Those things are NOT fun.

    It was interesting to watch them mark the nests from the air, like that.

    I wasn’t surprised at the way they mark alligator eggs ‘this end up.’ They do the same thing (and for the same reason) when they dig up turtle nests to relocate the eggs.

    • Oh, well, see? You knew more about this than the rest of us did. The egg-marked photo is from 2004, and I noticed that Gerald Savoie had advanced to using a Bingo marker, which seems to do a great job and is much easier to use than a marker. I guess that’s called progress!!! And I didn’t know that about turtle eggs, but it makes sense, doesn’t it?

      • Birds sit on their nests and turn their eggs constantly during the incubation process. That keeps the embryos from sticking to one side.

        The exceptions are the megopods, such as the Australian brush turkey, who incubate their eggs in mounds of leaf litter, very similiar to the way gators do. I imagine you’d have to mark their eggs, too, if there was some need to move them. (I can thank years of watching PBS and reading Nat’l Geo for all this trivia!)

        Generally, the locals leave turtle nests alone on the beaches. Sometimes, though, mum miscalculates and digs her nest too close to the high tide mark. To keep the embryos from drowning, the local turtle watch groups will move the nest.

  7. Some time over the weekend, this blog broke 1000 people who are now following by email notification. Yet, I notice that it’s the faithful few who take the time to share their thoughts, ideas, questions, and comments. No matter how big this blog might get, I will still count on and appreciate those of you who have been here since the baby steps. I sincerely appreciate you more than you know and hope you continue to find something worth reading here from time to time!! A big bayou thanks to the few, the committed, the faithful!!

  8. Off to Mississippi (for a few days) where I have no internet service, So, I’ll wish America a Happy Birthday and hope all of you a safe holiday!

  9. Great informative post BW! I enjoyed reading it although I already knew most of the information. I still wonder though if ALL the eggs are taken or a few are left for the mother gator to nurse. I would like to believe they leave some for her and faintly remember being told they do by someone from Golden Meadow area…

    • Typically, they do not leave any eggs, but it’s up to the agreement between the landowner and the farmer buying the eggs. If the landowner wants to leave some, then the egg harvesters must be trusted to leave some. It is not required by law, though, because returning the young gators makes up for the taking of the eggs, as already talked about. (It does seem cruel, though, if mamma gators have feelings like we do . . . .)

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