Garden guests make a great meal

Published 7:56 pm Monday, April 12, 2010

Where there’s a chimney, there’s a crayfish, and where there’s a crayfish, there’s good eats.

For many Suffolk residents, those good eats are available right in the front yard lately.

“I’ve owned this property for 30 years,” said William Fulgham, a property owner in Sandy Bottom. “Every year we get crayfish that come and make their chimneys out here.”

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While the crayfish are annual visitors, heavy rains during the past 12 months mean there may be more of them moving away from their freshwater centers and to front yards and drainage ditches.

“It has been extremely wet,” said Don Schwab, wildlife biologist. “The water is finally dropping, but the critters might be moving into places they’re usually not, or there may be more of them moving toward the outskirts of the sources because there’s more water there this year.”

Fulgham said the crayfish in his yard come up from the swamp behind his property and dig their holes along the drainage ditches.

“They’re usually associated along ditches,” Schwab confirmed. “It’s certainly not uncommon to see them along the ditches on the road.”

This species of crayfish lives near freshwater sources, like the swamp, where the water table is high and burrow 2-3 feet below the surface, where there is more water, using the mud they displace to build a chimney around the tops of their holes.

“The chimney-building crayfish are found here in the southeastern part of the country,” Schwab said. “They go down, dig a burrow down to the water table and make a chimney as they’re going down.”

While Fulgham said the tunnels the crayfish build under his property have caused him to have to build up some of the land, Schwab said they’re generally harmless.

“If you have a bunch in one spot, it might be possible you could get some ground failure over an extended period of time,” Schwab said. “But I’ve never had a complaint about crayfish, and I’ve been working here for a long time.”

And while the dirt the crayfish dig up and use to make their chimney has clay in it and hardens, Fulgham said it’s easy to kick off the chimneys so they don’t dull the blades on the lawnmower.

The biggest problem may not be the crayfish themselves, but rather why they’re in your front yard.

“Because they spend a lot of time in shallow water, if they’re burrowing in your front yard it means you’ve got very wet conditions,” Schwab said. “If I found those chimneys in my front yard, I’d be concerned about those wet conditions.”

Once the heat sets in and the waters begin to dry up, Schwab said the crayfish will probably move back toward the swamps and ponds where they came from.

In the meantime, if you have the patience to dig them out of their tunnels, they can make a tasty treat.

“I’ve never had a chimney crayfish before, because they’re harder to dig out, but you can,” Schwab said. “You just dig down to reach these little suckers. I like mine with Old Bay and beer.”