The Virgin Islands must reconcile two conflicting challenges: managing mass tourism while conserving our biodiversity and fragile ecosystems. Last week, I wrote about the human tsunami due to hit us when the cruise ships return, with over 10,500 passengers and crew due in port on Nov. 3 (“A crossroads seen in Virgin Islands’ future”). Today, I will reflect on my own personal experiences after the storms.
My wife and I escaped to a neighbouring apartment before Irma struck. After her eye passed, we retreated into the small bedroom. Through a gap in its shutters, we watched the topmost tufts of a Norfolk pine (once a Christmas tree) pushing to and fro, as if in a Punch and Judy puppet show. After they stopped fighting, I ventured across to the bathroom, inches deep in water and its walls plastered with leaves, then bypassed the space left by the kitchen door after had it nearly knocked me out and zoomed across the garden.
I was astonished to spot a tiny skink sheltering under the other outer door. It is the only one I’ve ever seen in our grounds, which may be its ancestral home. Our homes aren’t cocooned against the environment, but have significant roles to play in it. We were also later delighted to see some tiny indigenous frogs hopping around near the tomato plants that fruited so abundantly after the storms.
Irma’s tumultuous winds tore off our roof, then Maria poured incessant rain on our unprotected home, turning librarians into reluctant burners of mouldy books, disintegrating shelves and modern furniture. However, Irma also blew papaya seeds across East End, and Maria watered them. Some gardening books predict newly planted papaya trees fruiting in three to four years, but we’ve already enjoyed some small, ripe fruits.
Flowers appeared on a few trees within three to four weeks, but I couldn’t tell which were male or female, while reputedly the best bearers are both, self-fertilising. The many tips online for changing male papaya into female are matched by posts debunking them. One tree sprang up on a corner of the house which had previously hosted some prolific bearers, with fresh pairs of papaya accompanying each new set of leaves.
However, the whydah birds were confused by the absence of the yucca plants to which they returned every year (Irma had uprooted them), while the killy killies (American falcons) had to circle overhead to find somewhere else to go now that they could no longer roost under our eaves.
The refugee chickens
Within days of Irma, five young chickens sought refuge in our garden. We grew used to hearing them make their way down from a bushy area they had slept in, behind the house, and seeing them scuttle back to it before dusk. Several weeks later, one of them was missing. I thought perhaps it had lost its way back, but it reappeared sporting a cock’s comb — transformation not among my childhood memories of poultry keeping.
A second chick performed the same trick, so I was not surprised when a third chick disappeared, but that one didn’t return. That left two hens and two cockerels growing up in the garden. The dominant cockerel seemed to accept monogamy, but one of the hens had displayed a liking for scratching for insects by herself and shrugged off the other male when he tried to get friendly.
While eating my lunch on the veranda, I was surprised to spy a hen and seven little chicks below, concluding the reluctant lover had briefly changed her mind, perhaps impelled by a maternal instinct. The next day, she flew up to the overhanging cow heel pods and tore out their fluffy contents for her equally fluffy chicks. However, having shown her brood how to expose insects for themselves, she stopped fussing over them.
As they grew bigger, the chicks’ personalities developed. Three always scratched the earth near their mother, three scurried towards her when she moved away, but the last one stayed by itself until, realising its mother had disappeared, it frantically chased after the others. We still hear them coming down in the early morning and see them return before dusk, but three chicks have vanished, possibly eaten by the circling killy killy.
Hearing the cocks practise their calls early mornings and late afternoons became so irritating that we were relieved to hear their cries get fainter until they seemed to stop altogether, but they are coming nearer again. Perhaps the wanderer is curious to see his children without taking any responsibility for them.
The remaining four chicks, nearly as big as their mother now, still follow her round, knowing she will always be there for them — a strong West Indian hen! But we worry that the chickens’ meals may be reducing the VI’s biodiversity.