“Saving nickels, saving dimes / Working ’til the sun don’t shine / Looking forward to happier times / On Blue Bayou,” sings American country musician Linda Randstandt. But what is a bayou?
As beautiful as they are mysterious, bayous are low-lying, slow-moving wetlands found in the southeastern United States.
In this article we’ll take a closer look at bayous, their formation, geography, ecology, conservation, and influence on American culture and music.
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How are Bayous Formed?
Etymology and Location
The word bayou entered English through the Louisiana French word bayouque, which in turn came from the Native American Choctaw word bayok. Bayou refers to a small, slow-moving stream or swampy section of a river or lake.
Bayous are associated with the southeastern United States. They line the Gulf Coast from Texas to southern Florida.
They are especially prevalent in the Mississippi River Delta. This stretch of land is affectionately called “Bayou Country,” and bayous are still an essential part of Native American and Cajun cultures.
Bayous have three defining characteristics:
- They are slow-moving.
- Low elevation, usually barely above sea level.
- They are swampy.
Bayous form in lowland areas with substantial rainfall that keeps them flooded year round. Bayous are often near the coastline, where the rising tide creates a backflow of water into inland streams and rivers. Similarly, the outlets and inlets of the Mississippi River contributed to the formation of bayous.
Bayous can be freshwater, saltwater, or brackish–a mixture of both. Typically the further inland you are, the bayous will be freshwater. However, as you approach the coastline, they will change to brackish and saltwater.
Now that we have an understanding of what a bayou is, let’s take a look at the ecology of a bayou.
Ecology refers to the relationship between flora and fauna within a specific environment. Bayous have a rich ecological system and an incredibly diverse cast of flora and fauna. So let’s start with a bayou’s flora or plant life.
Flora of the Bayou
Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum)
The Bald Cypress is a bayou staple and Louisiana’s state tree.
Growing up to 120 feet tall (36.6 m), the Bald Cypress has a broad base that stretches out of a bayou’s waters. They prefer soil saturated with water and have no problem growing in the flooded lowlands of the bayou.
Despite belonging to the coniferous redwood family, the Bald Cypress loses its needles in the winter (hence the name, “Bald” Cypress.) Particular types of root called pneumatophores grow from the submerged roots of the tree. These special shoots transport oxygen to the submerged roots.
The Bald Cypress is an especially important tree because they soak up floodwaters and its roots prevent soil erosion.
Water Tupelo (Nyssa aquatica)
The Water Tupelo is another tree important to bayous. Slightly smaller than the Bald Cypress, Water Tupelos average 100 feet (30.5 m) in height. They have specialized roots that allow them to live in constantly flooded areas. In addition, the bottom of their trunks are swollen, providing stability against high winds and flooding.
Tupelo fruit is high in fat, fiber, and other nutrients. It is an important food source for bayou wildlife, especially migratory birds.
Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides)
Beautiful Spanish Moss hangs from the limbs of Bald Cypress and Tupelo. This “moss” is not a moss at all. Instead, it is a type of bromeliad, meaning it’s in the same family as pineapples and succulents.
Despite its name, Spanish Moss is not from Spain. It’s native to North and South America and was named by French Explorers. The Native Americans called it itla-okla, meaning “tree hair.”
French Colonists thought it resembled the beards of Spanish Conquistadors and named it Barbe Espagnol or “Spanish Beard.” From this name, it eventually became Spanish Moss.
Despite growing on living trees, Spanish Moss is not parasitic or harmful. It is an epiphyte, which means another plant supports it. However, because it tends to soak up moisture, the moss can become heavy enough to snap branches.
Spanish Moss is not edible but is sometimes used as a packaging material when shipping fragile goods.
Black Needlerush (Juncus roemerianus)
Black Needlerush is found in coastal bayous. It can grow up to five feet (1.5 m) tall and provides excellent habitat for snakes, turtles, birds, and other bayou residents.
In addition, Needlerush protects shorelines from erosion and helps with soil oxygenation. Finally, Needlerush is used to restore wetlands and repair coastal ecosystems damaged by erosion.
If you ever find yourself walking through Needlerush, be careful! The leaves are sharp and can cut into human skin.
Fauna of the Bayou
Now that we’ve covered some of the flora in a bayou, let’s look at its fauna or animal residents.
American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis)
One of the most iconic animal residents of bayous is the American Alligator. These massive reptiles can reach over 11 feet (3.4 m) and weigh nearly 1,000 pounds (454 kg).
The American Alligator is carnivorous and feeds on muskrats, fish, birds, turtles, and practically any other critter it can catch.
They are apex predators, meaning they have no natural predators and sit at the top of the food chain. They are a crucial part of bayou ecology because they balance out the populations of other animals in their environment.
American Alligators have existed for over 150 million years, outliving the dinosaurs. Unfortunately, overhunting and habitat loss caused the American Alligator population to decline significantly.
Luckily, thanks to state and federal law, they have seen a major comeback, and an estimated 1 million live in the wild today.
Cottonmouth Snake (Agkistrodon piscivorus)
The Cottonmouth, or Water Moccasin, gets its name from the white interior of its mouth, which resembles cotton. This venomous snake is infamous for its deadly bite and startling defense display. When threatened, they will coil up and open their mouths wide, showing off their fangs.
Cottonmouths are thick-bodied snakes that can grow up to six feet (1.8 m) long. They live almost exclusively in wetlands and are excellent swimmers. They prey upon lizards, fish, frogs, rodents, birds, and even other snakes.
Unfortunately, many other harmless water snakes are mistaken for Cottonmouths and killed on sight.
Cottonmouths are rarely aggressive towards humans and will only bite if threatened or provoked. Many snake bites occur because a person gets too close to a snake to kill it.
While their bite is potentially deadly, few people have died from Cottonmouth bites. An estimated 7,000-8,000 snake bites are reported yearly, but fewer than 5-6 people die from them.
Never approach a Cottonmouth or any potentially venomous snake. If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you.
Alligator Gar (Atractosteus spathula)
Reaching lengths of over 9 feet (2.7 m) and weighing up to 300 lbs (136 kg), the Alligator Gar is one of the largest freshwater fish in North America. They are ambush predators who stalk the bayou’s murky waters, waiting for prey to come to them.
They are carnivorous and feed on fish, snakes, small mammals, or anything else they can catch.
Despite their ferocious appearance and size, Alligator Gar is not dangerous to humans. There has never been a reported case of an Alligator Gar attacking a person. However, the eggs are toxic if eaten, deterring predators from gobbling them all up.
Alligator Snapping Turtle (Macrochelys temminckii)
Are you noticing a theme to the animals featured here? The Alligator Snapping Turtle is another living fossil of the bayou. They are the largest freshwater turtle, weighing nearly 200 lbs (90 kg).
These dinosaur-like turtles spend most of their time in the water and can hold their breath for up to 50 minutes. They are carnivorous and feed mainly on fish. But, like the Alligator Gar, they are also ambush predators. They have a unique worm-like appendage in their mouth that they wiggle to lure in unsuspecting prey.
The Alligator Snapping Turtle is aggressive, but despite their size, they don’t usually harm humans. However, they have a strong enough bite force to crush or cut through bone, so think twice before sticking your toes in the bayou waters.
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Bayous are one of the most unique environments on earth. But, unfortunately, they are disappearing.
Rising sea levels, development, erosion, and trenches dug by oil companies are all contributing factors to the disappearance of the bayou.
National Geographic reports that the Mississippi Delta is one of the “fastest disappearing landmasses on earth.” In fact, since 1930, the Delta and its bayous have lost almost 2,000 square miles of land and continue to lose “swaths [of land] the size of a football field every hour.”
Some efforts have been made to restore the bayous to a healthy condition. For example, we already mentioned that Needlerush had been used to help slow the erosion of the bayous. But what else is being done?
One way the bayous and Delta wetlands are being restored is by eating oysters.
Yep, you read right– eating oysters is helping save our wetlands. The Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana (CRCL) has partnered with over 31 restaurants in New Orleans in an oyster shell recycling program.
The oyster shell recycling program has paid off, as over 5,000 tons (4535.9 tonnes) of oyster shells have been returned to the wetlands. These recycled shells help restore oyster reefs and build new shoreline habitats.
Other conservation efforts include interpretive nature trails. These trails, usually on raised boardwalks, have various signs to educate hikers on the importance of wetlands and what’s at stake if they are lost.
State and Federal conservation efforts have also been made. For example, the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) devised a $50 billion Coastal Master Plan.
Over the course of 50 years, they hope to rebuild and maintain land, reduce the risk of major floods, promote sustainable fishing practices, and support ecosystem health.
Follow this link for a complete overview of the Coastal Plan: 2017 Coastal Master Plan.
Bayous in American Culture
Native American Culture
Native Americans have lived in the southern bayous for over a thousand years. The Choctaw people are native to Bayou Country, and, as we previously noted, it is from them that we get the word bayou.
The Choctaw relied on the bayou for food and shelter. They even made dugout canoes to help them navigate the bayou waters.
Unfortunately, many Native Americans living in bayou country today struggle to maintain their way of life. Hurricanes devastate their homes and villages, and repairs are often slow and costly.
Similarly, habitat destruction, land loss from erosion, and rising sea levels have also affected their way of life.
In fact, in 2016, the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe were the first climate refugees in the United States. The Federal Government gave the tribe $48 million to migrate away from their increasingly uninhabitable native lands.
Creole and Cajun Culture
Creole refers to various people but is mainly used to denote a person of mixed European, African, and Native American ancestry. The Creole people found refuge in the waterways of the bayous, and their unique culture is preserved even today.
Most notable is their music and cuisine. Creole zydeco mixes American jazz, Cajun folk, and African rhythmic music.
Gumbo is a famous Creole dish and the state dish of Lousianna. It’s a stew or soup made of stock, meat (shellfish especially), vegetables, and a hardy mix of spices. It is often served over rice.
Cajun refers to a French-speaking people who once inhabited southeastern Canada. When England took over the territory, they were forced to relocate and settle in the remote bayous of Louisiana.
Cajun people also have a unique musical heritage that mixes Canadian and French folk music.
Cajun communities still exist in small pockets of the Louisiana bayous. They generally live in small, self-sufficient, remote communities and prefer it that way.
For the Creoles and the Cajuns, the bayous offered a place of refuge where their cultures could continue growing and thriving.
American Rock and Blues Culture
The bayou is a prevalent image in American rock, blues, and country music. Countless American musicians have referenced the bayous.
For example, American rock band Creedence Clearwater Revival has an album titled Bayou Country, with the opening track titled “Born on the Bayou.”
American country singer Linda Ronstadt also has a song about the bayou titled “Blue Bayou.” In 1977, the song reached number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Delta Blues is a form of blues music that originated in the bayous and waterways of the Mississippi River Delta. This style of blues is known for its distinct rhythmic guitar, the use of bottleneck slides, and vocal intensity. Charley Patton was one of the leading Delta Blues musicians of the early 20th century.
Despite the substantial loss of bayou wetlands in the last century, the spirit of the bayou is kept alive and honored in the music of various peoples and cultures.
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