Sly Mongoose, all the dog dem know your name,
Oh, yes, sly mongoose, all the dog dem know your name.
You went into the mistress’ kitchen,
Take out one of she fattest chicken,
Put it into your waistcoat pocket
Before we get into today’s Farmer Q & A, here’s what we have for offer at the farmstand this afternoon: Sweet mix, spicy mix, bagged young arugula, microgreens, lettuce heads, slicer and heirloom tomatoes, a rainbow of cherry tomatoes, cooking greens, a few herbs, pineapples, lots of fresh Mediterranean figs, passionfruit, and raw local honey.
Q: Are mongooses (mongeese? mongii? mongoose dem? What is the plural of mongoose anyway?) good or bad?
A: On the farm, mongoose are both good and bad.
The mongoose often spotted in the Virgin Islands is a mustelid, a smallish member of the weasel family; specifically, the small Indian mongoose, (Herpestes auropunctatus) commonly seen in broad daylight crossing roadways and investigating roadkill on St. Croix. Deliberately introduced from India by way of Jamaica in 1884, toward the end of the height of the sugarcane production days on St. Croix, they were a failed attempt at integrated pest management to control accidentally introduced European rats in sugarcane fields. Mongoose usually sport a rough and bristly coat of a golden brown color, blending precisely in with drying grasses. Up close, they have reddish, beady eyes with horizontal pupils, sharp claws, and a mouth of sharp, jagged teeth, and will hiss, growl, scream and spit loudly and ferociously when cornered. Many a Caribbean island childhood includes a story of a mongoose encounter.
The famous Calypso song “Sly Mongoose”, quoted in part above, references their sneaky character, and there are other famous mongoose in literature. While it’s a bit anthropomorphic to assign an animal a certain type of “character”, nonetheless the mongoose has a behavioral habit of staying out of sight and keeping to cover. They hunt very stealthily, and often ‘steal’ food, such as eggs from nests or baby birds from cages. The mongoose was partially responsible, it is believed, for the decimation of the native iguana population on St. Croix and the complete extinction of over half a dozen or more native species of birds, lizards and insects in the West Indies. Due to its damaging effects on the ecosystem here, the VI government issued a bounty in the 1920s and 30s of 15 to 25 cents per head for mongoose. From what we’ve been able to gather, the bounty program didn’t come close to making a dent in the population.
Mongoose are entertaining to watch. They are graceful and efficient in their movements and powerful athletes. They are territorial, and creatures of habit, so you can often spot the same individuals as they ‘make the morning rounds’. They have great motion vision; but if you stand quite still a mongoose may come surprisingly close as they cannot see you clearly until you move. Mongoose often stand on their hind legs like a lemur to take in their surroundings, and while primarily solitary, the mothers attend to their young for several months and it’s not uncommon to see a matriarchal family group of three, loping across a road or through the pasture. The mongoose has become somewhat of a “mascot” or unofficial icon of the Virgin Islands, with even a radio station named after it (which plays mostly “imported” rock music, apropos). But, this small mammal is an invasive exotic that has, due to its predatory efficiency and lack of natural predators, reduced the biodiversity of the natural flora and fauna of the Virgin Islands. Perhaps the same could be said of many of the human population in the Virgin Islands, as well, with our development and fast cars. So who are we humans to point a finger?
We’ll start with the good: we believe that mongoose do predate on (hunt and kill) some animals that are harmful to our farm crops. These include small green iguanas, grasshoppers, grubs, and rats. They also may eat the occasional cane toad or “crapeau”, and other nocturnal amphibians, which can sometimes be damaging to young plants. Mongoose are burrow dwellers and tend to live in brush piles and in lumber piles, common around the farm, and they hunt throughout the day. They are not often found in trees and roofs like rats, but are able to climb in small shrubs to access fruit and bird nests, and like little badgers, are extremely ferocious when cornered. Mongoose are diurnal animals, meaning that they sleep at night like most humans do. This is in part why they were not the ideal predator control for sugarcane field rats and mice, which are primarily nocturnal, or active at night. But, if a mongoose comes across a rodent nest, they will help to control that population.
What’s the downside to the mongoose on the farm? They do steal chicken, turkey, guinea bird, and wild bird eggs, will kill young wild birds and young poultry, and will even attack day-old lambs in the pasture. They will also eat garbage and fresh compost materials. But perhaps most inconvenient of all, Farmer Luca made the unpleasant discovery that they are not solely carnivores. In fact, mongoose enjoy papayas, fresh Mediterranean figs at their height of ripeness, and other high-value fruit crops; we have taken to protecting the trees with guard dogs. And, the mongoose dem will damage irrigation pipes in an attempt to get to water in the fields; we have taken to leaving water dishes out for mongoose in periods of extreme drought to protect our drip lines from leaks due to their sharp teeth!
Off the farm and on the beach, mongoose have been witnessed eating endangered sea turtle eggs and St. Croix Ground Lizards, activities that would cause a human to be arrested. Efforts in the early 2000s by US Fish and Wildlife, and the National Park Service, have eradicated mongoose from two tiny protected cays (mini-islands just off the coast of St. Croix) in order to give these endangered species some respite from mongoose predation. Luckily, mongoose are poor swimmers.
Overall, the mongoose is a nuisance for a farmer, but helps to control other introduced nuisances. And who are we if not an introduced nuisance? So the sly little weasel gets a pass on the farm for the most part.
More on mongooses in the USVI from VInow.com, the National Park Service and the Journal of Mammology!