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