Crawdads are fair game and fun to catch for summertime campers

Junior Naturalist Field Camp students enjoyed crawdad hunting in the Florida River this summer and helped the native leopard frogs in the process. Enlarge photo

Courtesy of Durango Nature Studies

Junior Naturalist Field Camp students enjoyed crawdad hunting in the Florida River this summer and helped the native leopard frogs in the process.

Summer takes so long to get here in Durango and then is gone before we know it. For those of us who have grown up in other parts of the country where August is the hottest part of the year, it still feels strange to start feeling coolness in the air in mid-August.

For those of us at Durango Nature Studies, summer starts its grand exit as soon as our summer camps end. Our five sessions of Junior Naturalist Field Camp at the Nature Center and one session of middle school backpacking have drawn to a close.

Summer at the Nature Center fuels us for the year and creates memories and bonds with the kids in our community. It reminds us of what summers should be for kids Ė lazy afternoons of playing with friends in the river and exploring the natural world.

Every year it seems that there is a different memory that stands out for summer camp. This year it is definitely one thing: crawdads!

We didnít plan it, which makes it even more special. Kids started catching crawdads in the river, and by the end of the summer, it had built to frenzied levels of competition and mythology. It was rumored that one camper caught more than 200 (Iím sure that the same crawdads were caught numerous times). Campers debated the largest and smallest crawdads. The use of screens and nets were employed, as well as new inventions to increase the number of captures. Kids learned, after being pinched over and over again, the best place to pick up a crawdad, and laughed when the baby pinches turned into tickles.

So, in honor of our summer campers, I thought I would spend a little time talking about the crawdad.

Crawdad is the name most commonly used in the western part of the United States, however, crayfish is the original name, based on the French word ecrevisse. It was then Americanized to crawfish. Crawdads are related to lobsters and resemble them. They breathe from feather-like gills and are found in freshwater bodies that donít freeze to the bottom.

Crawdads are a mixed bag in Western rivers. On one hand, they signify a lack of pollutants, as they do not survive in polluted water. This is good news to the many kids who spend their summer floating down this section of the Florida River. However, the crawdad is a nonnative species in the West, introduced by government agencies to control weeds and feed game fish. Like any introduced species, itís not clear what the affect will be until it interacts with the surrounding ecosystem.

Crawdads are voracious predators, feeding on snails, algae and even fish. Streams with crawdads often have sparser plant and insect life. In some streams, researchers have documented declines in frogs, turtles and fish after crawdads show up.

So, to all our summer campers whom we teach respect for nature, as well as ecosystem balance, we found the perfect species to catch this summer. As we advised campers to let the native leopard frogs live in peace, the crawdads were fair game. Our burgeoning wildlife biologists may some day remember their summer of species control, but most likely they will just remember the joy of childhood and catching crawdads in the river.

sally@durangonaturestudies.org or 382-9244. Sally Shuffield is executive director of Durango Nature Studies.