Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Birds and man

The Wall Street Journal reported a couple of years ago that Americans spend $2.6 billion on birdseed, two and a half times as much as they spend on food for needy nations. While it’s amazing that we spend so much on wild birds, it’s astounding that we spend so much less on fellow human beings in need.

In a way, the disparity is understandable. The birds are right here, fascinating and cute. The world’s poor are distant, unknown and unpleasant.

The fact is, however, birds don’t even need our help, but the poor do. Many agencies aid the world’s needy, both by providing food and by teaching people skills they need to feed themselves. CARE, Catholic Relief Services, AmeriCares, Lutheran World Relief, and Save the Children are just a few. To help others, they need our help.

As we enter a new year, let’s vow to straighten out our priorities. Feed the birds, if you wish, but for every dollar you spend on birdseed, spend five or ten more on people in need.



Cache in advance

Bankers should love the little creatures of the cold. Be they birds in the air, squirrels in the trees, or mice on the ground, they believe in saving, although they do it with cache, not cash.

Most of our year-round birds and many of our small mammals long ago learned to save – not for rainy days, but cold and snowy ones. While many large animals like bears store winter nutrition in their fat, birds and rodents are too small to carry enough fat to get through winter. So they cache food, stuffing it in the nooks of nature so they will have something to eat at harsh times like these.

Some tight-beaked birds, like chickadees, watch over their accounts like bank auditors. They patrol the seeds they have stashed in bark, rock fissures or even under roof shingles. If any are missing, they are soon replaced.

If you think that's easy, consider the chickadees in frigid northern Canada who each stash tens of thousands of seeds over several acres. Could Deloitte and Touche's best bean counter keep track of those accounts?

(Picture of Black-capped chickadee caching a seed in a reed is by Elena Petrcich of Kanata, Ontario.)

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Merry Xmas

At this time of year a century ago, newspapers were full of references to Xmas. Editors were not being disrespectful of the holiday or its origins, however. Xmas is, in fact, a word more than 500 years old, invented and widely used by Christians, including parish priests and monastery monks.

For many centuries, X has been an abbreviation for Christ. X is the English representation of the Greek letter, x, the first letter in the Greek word for Christ. While the letter is pronounced “chi,” it is used for the sound, “ch,” as in “Bach.” (Thus, technically speaking, Xmas could be pronounced “kmas.”)

But in the 1950s, someone decided that Xmas was just some Macy or Gimbel effort to take Christ out of Christmas. Despite centuries of its use by devout clerics, a movement developed that declared Xmas a secular plot, promoted by greedy stores and lazy – or worse, atheistic – newspaper writers.

Abbreviations are symbols for written words, just as written words are symbols for sounds. Xmas is just another way of respectfully writing Christmas, a little more quickly in a little less space.

Butchering season

For local farmers of a century or two ago, mid-December was a time for butchering, a multifaceted event that led to many life-sustaining products.

Hogs and cattle produced various cuts of meat, much of it salted and preserved over the winter in cold cellars. Scraps were mixed with salt and pepper, and ground into long-lasting sausages. Fat was boiled or “tried” for use as kitchen lard, as a main ingredient in soap, or to make tallow candles. Marrow made puddings. Hides were hauled off to the local tannery to become leather, which in turn became shoes, boots, harnesses, saddles, and other products. Even the bones were saved and ground to enrich soil.

The whole process often lasted several days and involved family and friends. The work was hard, even dangerous. Old records often tell of people being maimed by the animals they were slaughtering. In fact, in Ridgefield in 1858, meat market owner David Hurlbutt died after being gored in the head by the horn of a cow he was trying to butcher.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Spring in December

In December, Thoreau used to go hunting for hopeful signs of spring. A bit early, you say? Not when the quest was for skunk cabbage.
Just as winter is beginning, this wildflower is sending up its odd-looking and foul-smelling buds through ground that may already be frozen. It can do this because the club-like spadix, which bears its flowers, has the ability to produce heat, a process called “thermogenesis.” The spadix is protected by a cloak-like spathe, which keeps out the cold air and keeps in the warmth. Even when the outside temperature is freezing, the spadix can heat itself to more than 70 degrees.
In early March when snow is still on the ground and spring is still weeks away, skunk cabbage is already ready to bloom, and its hot pocket will welcome bees, flies and other early insects to a tiny, tropical microclimate.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Happy Holy Days

December is another of those misnamed months, remnants of an ancient Roman calendar that split the year into 10 parts and placed December last. The name is from the Latin for “tenth month,” though, of course, it is the twelfth.

Although just about every modern Western tongue has adopted variations of December in their calendars (Dezember, Diciembre, D├ęcembre, Dicembre, Dezembro, etc.), earlier cultures were more accurate in how they named the month. The ancient Saxons, for instance, called it Winter-monat, or Winter Month, for the season of cold begins at the solstice.

When the Saxons were converted to Christianity, they converted the name to Heligh-Monat, or Holy Month, because the birthday of Jesus Christ is celebrated near its end.

“Holy Month” was never combined into Holimonth. However, Holy Day was. Our word Holiday is nothing but a joining of Holy and Day, and thus saying “Happy Holidays” is really saying, “Happy Holy Days.”

And since December has holiness to more than one faith on more than one day, isn’t that appropriate?

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

An older tradition

Seasons may be known by their scents, but for many of us, the smell that was autumn is gone. Thirty years ago, pollution-fighting laws banned the burning of leaves, which had been almost as much a fall family tradition as Thanksgiving.

However, the ban taught many of us that the leaf smoke's heady aroma was really a waste. Piled out back, turned occasionally, and maybe even mixed with coffee grounds and vegetable scraps, leaves become wonderfully rich food for our gardens and lawns. Composting became more common.

But the law did not ban the burning of brush, the twigs and branches that the wind and we prune from the trees. Perhaps it should have.

Brush piles have a different natural benefit. They attract birds, creating a safe haven from hawks, cats and other predators. Some birds nest in them. And as it slowly rots the brush attracts wood-eating insects that many birds relish. That pile of branches can feed and shelter scores of birds while slowly returning the vegetation to the earth.

Thus, what we used to burn can instead enrich the soil as well as feed and protect wildlife. It happens naturally, the way that was “traditional” for the eons before man.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Pignuts

This is the season for gathering pignuts.

What nuts?

The pignut is the fruit of the pignut hickory, a common tree that grows 90 or so feet high. A century or three ago, some people collected and ate the somewhat bitter meats of pignuts, though most people ignored them as food. Instead, as the name suggests, many a thrifty farmer would collect them to feed to his stock.

However, not everyone cast pignuts before swine. “I am partial to the peculiar and wholesome sweetness of a nut, and I think that some time is profitably spent every autumn in gathering even such as our pignuts,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in his diary one November. “Some of them are a very sizeable, rich looking and palatable fruit.”

“How can we expect to understand nature unless we accept like children these her smallest gifts, valuing them more as her gifts than for their intrinsic value.”

Alas, encouraging the eating of pignuts is too much to ask today. Besides being bitter, the kernel is up to 80% fat, and offers few vitamins or minerals.

The farmers were probably right.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Wow!

As another season of nature’s amazing treetop displays ends, we may ask “why all the color”?

Scientists know the reason leaves turn such bright colors each autumn. Several pigments, embedded in the leaf all season, have been playing second fiddle to the green chlorophyll. But now that the dying leaf no longer needs this food-producing chemical, chlorophyll fades from the scene, leaving the pigments to show off brilliant reds, yellows, oranges, and purples.

But why? Why would a tree put on such a display?

Scientists simply don’t know. As far as they can tell, a tree gains no known benefit from its autumn colors.

There is a benefit, but probably not evolutionary or measurable by scientists. The magnificence of the fall colors adds the poetic to the practical in our appreciation of these marvelous plants. Deciduous trees feed us with their fruits, shade us with their leaves, manufacture oxygen for us to breath, and hold our earth together with their roots. And just as an aside, they wow us with their brilliance each fall.

Makes it pretty tough to cut one down, doesn’t it?

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Daylight Saving thieves

The morning people are about to exact their revenge.

Each April, Daylight Saving Time steals an hour from their favorite part of the day. On Sunday at 2 a.m., when we revert to Eastern Standard Time, the morning people will gain back that lost hour. The sun that broke the horizon around 7:10 Saturday will do it about 6:10 Sunday.

Alas, the gain will be fleeting. As the days slowly shorten, that extra hour of lightness will wane. By the Winter Solstice on Dec. 21, sunrise will be at 7:10 again.

But, say the ever-optimistic morning people, the Winter Solstice marks when we begin winning back bits of the morning. By March 7, sunrise will be at 6:10 again, and by April 2, the day before the Daylight Saving thieves return, dawn will break around 5:20. So the next day, when sunrise is at 6:20, the morning-lovers have lost only 10 minutes from the 6:10 they celebrate this Sunday.

Crazy thinking? Perhaps. But, as evening people say, that's the way morning people are.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The pill on a plant

Conservationists are in a tizzy about Autumn Olive. This native of Asia was introduced here by, of all people, the state government, which 30 years ago was offering bundles of it practically free of charge. Excellent for fixing nitrogen in poor soil and prodigious at producing berries that birds love, Autumn Olive was once considered a conservationist’s delight.

Oops. Lacking natural enemies and other controls, Autumn Olive took off, and is now pushing out natives as it covers countless acres. The berries that were supposed to feed birds also often ferment, and wind up getting them drunk.

But wait! Scientists have also discovered that those berries contain up to 17 times the lycopene found in tomatoes. The anti-oxidant is said to fight cancer and heart disease. “This berry has more lycopene than any other food that we know of in the world,” said one farmer, who now harvests and sells the berries for jams and jellies. The berries also contain phytoene, beta-cryptoxanthin, alpha-cryptoxanthin, beta-carotene, and lutein – all good for your health.

So instead of mowing down Autumn Olives, maybe we should be reining them in and eating them.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

50 years ago…

Nature seems know. With day after day of showers and downpours, she must be celebrating the 50th anniversary of her big 1955 show when nearly 14 inches of rain fell on an already water-logged town - a three-month supply in three days. The result was the worst flood our area experienced in the 20th Century.

The flood of ’55washed away roads and bridges, destroyed homes, damaged factories, and killed three people. It also opened eyes. A new kind of care was needed in dealing with the land.

In the past half-century, flood zones and regulations restricting development in them have been adopted. The state has purchased many hundreds of acres to preserve natural “sponges” like swamps and pond watersheds. The Army Corps of Engineers has built a flood dam in Ridgefield, and plans others.

Much has been done, and 14 inches of rain might not do the damage today it did in 1955. But we should never be complacent; continued care, control measures and even an early-warning system are necessary.

After all, New Orleans thought the dikes would hold.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Farmers convention


In the 1800s, when farming dominated local industry, this was the season of the agricultural fair.

The Ridgefield Fair and Cattle Show was a typical 19th Century fair, with exhibits of products, produce and livestock, plus awards. The fair offered 31 categories for ribbons, ranging from crops, grains, vegetables, and fruit, to cakes, wines, musical instruments, fine arts, and “ladies' industrials.”

Agricultural markets were booming with new machines, tools and seed varieties in the 19th Century, and farmers got to see the latest products and hear lectures on improved farming methods. They could also chat with a wider group of farmers, discussing and critiquing modern-day advances as well as time-tested techniques.

At a fair, “they saw, gathered up in a small compass, what was going on in the farmer’s world, and this within a single day or two,” said an 1860s book on farming. “Thus, they accumulated a fund of knowledge which they could not have acquired had they remained at home.”

Thus, old-time country fairs were a time to learn as well as play -- the precursor of the modern convention.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Fall call

The high-pitched screech of the Blue Jay fills the autumn air as these colorful relatives of the crow gather nuts.

Their loud calls are no doubt warnings for others to keep away. The cries often mimic hawks, thus frightening others into thinking a predator threatens.

Writer Edwin Way Teale observed that not only birds, but also squirrels, muskrats, and rabbits hide when they hear the war-cry of a Blue Jay. For the jay, that’s important. Like the squirrels, jays collect and store nuts for winter dining. In fact, they far outstrip the Gray Squirrel in nut-gathering capacity and in the process, wind up planting more trees than their furry neighbors do. Naturalist M. R. Chettleburgh found that during the single month of October, 30 to 40 jays can gather and plant more than 20,000 acorns, hauling them up to three-quarters of a mile from the mother tree.

Thus, the jay has learned that to win in the war of food gathering, you’ve got to talk tough, not necessarily be tough. You might consider him a politician of the bird world.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Look up

Each September some seem surprised at the “disappearance” of the squirrels. Those rodents that pilfer our birdfeeders and seem bent on running under our tires are suddenly gone from sight.

The squirrels haven't really disappeared. It is harvest season and, hidden in the leaves of oaks, beeches and hickories, squirrels are overhead, gathering ripe nuts fresh off the branch. Yes, they consider your birdfeeder a second-rate source of food. Fresh nuts will always win out.

The puzzlement over the “lack” of squirrels points out a failing many of us have as backyard naturalists. We don't look up.

Dozens of creatures stare down at us as we go for walks, but we rarely see them because our eyes are turned to the ground. Look up and you may see a raccoon mother leading her babies along a limb, a flock of wild turkeys sunning themselves, or an owl eyeing dinner. Look up and you may see a Sharp-shinned Hawk in hot pursuit of a blackbird or a pack of crows mobbing a fleeing Great Horned Owl.

Not only life, but adventure can be found overhead.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Time of much freshness

September is the month of summer’s last fling and winter’s first beckoning, a time when the thermometers might hit 90, yet when you could find the first frost on your lawn.

September’s average high temperature is 74, and low, 50, a range that many would consider just about ideal. But records for the past 20 years show September’s possibilities for extremes: 100 and 23 degrees. The average first frost here is around Sept. 22, the same day this year on which autumn arrives.

September has also been a dry month, averaging only 3.8 inches of rain over the past two decades, one inch less than August or July, or even November. It also has averaged fewer rainy days than any other month – just six.

While that dryness may desiccate lawns and strain wells, September’s weather is about the best that our part of the world has to offer. Many sunny days that are crisp, yet mild, make for great times outdoors. No wonder the Mohawks called September’s full moon Seskhoko-wa – “time of much freshness.”

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Blue Mountain tea

Nature comes in many flavors, and on a crisp September morning, you're apt to happen across the spicy scent of anise.

The licorice-like smell is from the Sweet Goldenrod, whose bright plumes join more than two-dozen other goldenrod species to paint fields and roadsides yellow and gold each fall. But Sweet Goldenrod does more than delight the eye and tickle the nose. It might even be considered a patriot.

Back during the Revolution, when the supply of tea from the “motherland” was cut off, colonists turned to native plants to produce a hot beverage. Called Blue Mountain tea, the brew made from dried sweet goldenrod flowers and leaves was a tasty substitute for Chinese varieties.

And it may be good for you, too. Goldenrods have long been used as tonics and medicines. In fact, their scientific name, Solidago, means “to make whole” or heal.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Caesars and Saxons

September, the ninth month, is named the seventh. But it might have been called August, were it not for July.

In ancient Rome, when the year began in March, September was the seventh month and had 31 days. The emperor Augustus decided he was important enough to warrant a month to honor him, just as Julius Caesar had July named for him. Julius’s honor came posthumously, but Augustus was not about to let death rob him of enjoying his tribute.

Augustus should have picked September, his birth month, just as July was Julius’s. But Sextilis, the sixth month, was next to the month of his famous predecessor. Besides, Sextilis had been a lucky month for him, so he renamed it instead. But Augustus didn’t want only 30 days when Julius had 31, so he added a day to August – and took one from September.

In naming their months, the practical and thirsty Saxons were not interested in self-aggrandizement. September was Gerst monat, the barley month, named for the crop harvested then and the chief ingredient in their favorite beverage: Beer.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Hoppy time

Two centuries ago, the beginning of September was hop-picking time in our town. Vine-like herbs that can grow as much as a foot a day, hops bear cone-like fruits widely used in making beer as well as medicines.

Hops not only flavored but preserved beer, critical in the days before refrigeration. Back then, beer was not looked upon as the stuff of guzzlers but as a nutritious beverage that was long lasting and safer than water, which might carry diseases and parasites.

Many small farmers here grew hops as a side crop. It did not require much space because most of the growth was vertical – up poles (“hop” is from the Anglo-Saxon, hoppan, to climb). The area of the farm set aside for growing hops was called a “hopyard.” Small farmers picked and baled the fruits or “strobili” to ship to mills and drug manufacturers.

The hop, by the way, is closely related to marijuana. In fact, as one authority reports, “counterculture entrepreneurs have apparently succeeded in grafting hops tops on marijuana bottoms and getting a ‘heady hop.’” However, to maintain good health and stay out of jail, drink your hops, don’t toke them.

(Photo shows hops climbing a pole at the Hazel Farm in South Ryegate, Vt.)

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Butterflyways

Nature can be remarkably adaptable. Many examples have been documented of how wildlife has profitably used modern eyesores. Old cars dumped offshore create artificial reefs where fish, mollusks and crustaceans thrive. Once-rare peregrine falcons make their homes on microwave relay towers.

Now, one of the ugliest wounds man has cut into the landscape has been found to have its good side, too. Butterflies love interstates.

“Highways are of major importance for butterflies,” reports Jeff Boetner, a University of Massachusetts entomologist, who discovered that Silvery Blues (pictured), Common Ringlets and other species are extending their ranges, thanks to the interstate highway system. As one observer put it, “viewed from the perspective of a butterfly, an interstate highway is just an endless, sun-drenched field.”

This is especially true of roads that have been planted with wildflowers, a project many states have taken on more aggressively than our own. Be they herbs or shrubs, plantings help reduce the ugliness of expressways; if they provide food and shelter for wandering butterflies and birds, so much the better.

Now if our winged friends could only learn to fly above – not through – the traffic…

Monday, August 08, 2005

Arboreal love songs

The trees are alive with the sounds of cicadas, summer songs that prove that sweet notes don't necessarily have to be pure notes.

These big-bodied bugs live high in the trees, seemingly celebrating the years -- from two to 20 of them -- they were burrowed underground. There, the nymphs had sucked root juices and hibernated until, one evening, they emerged as large brownish-black bugs and flew to the nearest treetop.

As the sun rises and the day warms, the male cicadas' odd songs grow stronger. No sound better symbolizes a hot summer day than the crescendos of their overhead buzzing. Each of some 75 species found in the East has its own time of day for singing and its own particular note -- in some well-cicadaed parts of the tropical world, people tell the time of day from the different species' songs.

Unlike crickets, which make their sounds by rubbing their legs against their bodies, the cicada sings with a membrane, vibrated by muscles, on its thorax. The arrangement is not unlike a drum without drumsticks. In fact, the cicada's sizable body is largely hollow, acting as a sounding box that helps throw the song hundreds of feet through the trees. The males join in a chorus to increase the volume.

The aim, of course, is to attract females. One might say the cicadas are drumming up a summer love. It is their last fling, for soon they'll die. But they'll leave behind eggs of cicadas that will sing to us again, two, five, 13, maybe even 17 or 20 years from now.

August, the Eighth

Some people go out of their way to be remembered after they’ve gone. For instance, when he gave the beach to the town of Ridgefield, Conn., the late Francis D. Martin required it be named Martin Park.

But few people have succeeded at being memorialized better than Caesar Augustus, the Roman emperor. He took a month long known as Sextilis, and changed it to Augustus in his own honor. He probably did us a favor, however, since Sextilis means sixth. Augustus’s predecessor, Julius, had reformed the calendar into a 12-month affair in which Sextilis became the eighth month, and which he should have renamed October, which means eighth. But Julius had made the eighth month the 10th month, and had left its name October. Thus, we would have had two months that were eighth, even though one of them was 10th.

Caesar Augustus did something else useful. Julius had made the month 30 days instead of 29. Augustus decided that he should be the equal of Julius, honored in the previous month’s name, and he swiped a day from February to add to August.

Good move! Who wouldn’t want more August and less February?

Monday, August 01, 2005

Beauty and the bugs

In fields and wetlands throughout the Northeast, Galerucella calmariensis and its cousin, Galerucella pusilla, are chowing down, guests of federal and state governments.

These two European beetles were invited over to do battle with a beauty that botanists believe is a beast. The Purple Loosestrife, whose tall wands of richly colored flowers are so plentiful at this time of year, was imported more than a century ago to grace our gardens. Like many another newcomer, the plant found North America much to its liking, so much so it is now choking out native species and altering vast wetland habitats.

In Europe, Purple Loosestrife is naturally controlled by leaf-eating insects like Galerucella and probably by other plants that aren’t as easily overcome by its dense colonies. Scientists spent years studying the beetles and believe importing them will not harm any other species. Let’s hope they’re right – not everyone is convinced that introducing alien insects is wise. What’s more, beekeepers love loosestrife because of the nectar it provides at a fairly dry time of the floral year.

Odd, that a plant causing such a commotion bears a name that recalls its old use as a peacemaker.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

West Nile robins

The crow – that swarthy carrion-eater of the suburbs – got plenty of bad PR in the West Nile virus scare. Crows were accused of being a source of the disease, transmitted by mosquitoes to humans.

Now comes word that the Connecticut state bird may be the virus’s source: The beloved American Robin is a main vector through which the virus has been spread.

Researchers in Connecticut and North Carolina performed DNA tests on the blood of hundreds of bird-feeding mosquitoes trapped over the past few years and found around 40% fed on the blood of robins, while only 1% fed on crow blood. They suspect that the mosquitoes transmit the disease from robins, catbirds, doves, and other small ground-feeders, not crows, who were just victims of the disease, not sources of it.

Need we now dread robins? Probably not. Only 17 West Nile cases, none fatal, were reported in Connecticut in both 2002 and 2003. Last year, only one Connecticut resident got sick from the virus, and that person was apparently infected in Arizona.

However, between 3% and 15% of the people who do contract the disease can die from it. While West Nile may not be a major health threat, be careful nonetheless.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Summer mug

A week of hazy, hot and humid weather means summer has finally arrived. Everyone complains it’s too muggy. Yes, the weather’s muggy, but what’s “mug”?

In fact, it is an Old English word for “mist” or “fog” that quickly evolved to mean “a damp, dull, gloomy state of the atmosphere,” as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it.

“Mug” may also be a breed of woolly-faced sheep, a stupid person, a school examination, or someone from the Arakan and Chittagong regions of India, once famed for cooking abilities.

Of course, we all know that a mug is something that holds coffee and that it can refer to a face. But did you know that one comes from the other? Centuries ago, drinking mugs were dressed up with grotesque faces, and thus an ugly face became a mug.

“To mug” can mean to make a face, to mope, to cook a big meal, to bribe with liquor, to study hard, or to assault.

But this month, the misty mug has been in the forefront of muggy words. Sure, it’s uncomfortable. But next winter, when the frigid Arctic winds are howling, we may wish we had a bit of summer mug to keep us warm.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Free as a bird?

People speak of being free as a bird.” But how free is a bird?

“Free” is one of those words that mean different things to different people. Americans live in the land of the free, but if they fail to pay their income taxes, they may wind up as jailbirds. Despite being free, we have obligations. Even a hobo has the obligations to feed and shelter himself.

Birds, too, have obligations. Foremost is survival. To survive they must feed themselves. Since most birds have evolved into feeding on certain kinds of foods, they must live near the sources of that food. Thus, a Sanderling, which lives solely on seashore creatures, is not about to take off from an ocean beach and head for a vacation on the Kansas plains.

Many birds migrate, sometimes thousands of miles, to find food and nesting grounds. Other birds are homebodies, sticking to the same small neighborhoods all of their lives. They are free to choose where to feed and where to nest, but only within restrictions of terrain and location.

Some birds might be said to be “freer” than others. The American Crow and many species of gull are remarkably flexible in the kinds of foods they eat and the territories they inhabit. You will find crows at the edge of the ocean and deep in the desert, in the near tropics and the frozen north, in backyards and thick forests. Some crows migrate, some don’t. And judging from the refrigerator leftovers I’ve seen them eat, they may be the ultimate omnivore.

The sight of a bird in flight feeds the imagination and no doubt inspired someone to concoct the phrase, “free as a bird.” But birds are mostly bound by both need and instinct to dwell in certain places and follow certain patterns of living. Humans, who can hop in a car, or board a plane or boat, and travel anywhere in the world, would be the envy of any bird – even the ubiquitous crow – that might have an urge to be free.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Escapees

To more adventurous plants, a garden can be like a prison. Some garden inmates manage to jump the walls and taste freedom. And because the fugitives seem to be on their best behavior, the guards don't seem worried about the escape.

One runaway just finished its season. Dame's Rocket, often erroneously called wild phlox, is a white, pink or violet mustard that brightens the edges of roadsides and woods in mid- to late spring. A native of Italy and the Mediterranean, Dame's Rocket offers not only fine colors but an extraordinarily sweet scent, designed to attract night-flying moths to blossoms that almost seem to glow in the moonlight.

Another escapee, just peaking now, has also taken to the road – or roadside – with equal relish. Hardly a country lane exists that lacks the blooms of the Tawny Daylily. These orange-flowered plants, as tasty to eat as they are delightful to look at, were brought here from China by 19th Century clipper ship captains as gifts for their wives.

These two natives of distant shores have joined others immigrants and taken to their new land – a melting pot of plants as well as people. Some aliens have become pests, to be sure, but many have added some Old World beauty to the New World landscape.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Wondrous whirligigs

We may call them whirligigs. Botanists know them as samaras. Whatever the name, the whirling fruits of the maple are another wonder of nature, so common at this time of year that we may overlook how cleverly made they are.

Their aim is simple: To carry a fairly heavy seed a good distance from the parent. After all, what good would it do to plant your offspring right next to your spreading, shady self where they would lack the sun and space to survive very long? The samaras wait for a good breeze, let go and can twirl through the air long enough to land far from “mom.”

Pick one up and examine its design. Each is finely formed in a way that makes it spin and hang in the air instead of plummeting to the ground. That a tree could develop such an aerodynamic technique for dispatching its seeds is yet another miracle of evolution. Joyce Kilmer may have marveled at trees, but even their tiny offspring are amazing.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Beauty and the beast

Nature is full of strange transformations. While the caterpillar to the butterfly is best known, another beauty and the beast scenario is perhaps more beneficial to humans.

Lurking in the bottom slime of ponds and slow brooks are creatures even Stephen King might find hard to imagine. These long, dark, six-legged creepers have huge retractable lower lips – sometimes a third the length of their bodies – designed to snare victims and feed them into their razor-sharp mandibles. Why, these monsters even breathe through gills protruding from their rectums.

Yet, they are just children. As adults, they are so elegant they’ve inspired the design of countless pieces of jewelry and even Tiffany lampshades.

Fortunately, perhaps, the nymph of the dragonfly stays out of sight in the muck while its handsome transfiguration flies about for us to enjoy. But in either form, dragonflies gobble up large numbers of mosquitoes, larval or winged, helping keep them under control.

Thus, beauty or beast, either is a friend.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Clever caterpillars

In the late spring and early summer, many trees will shed some leaves just as dieting humans shed some pounds – to lose a little excess, unnecessary weight. But not all the leaves sent to the ground are the tree’s doing.

Trees are home to countless caterpillars, the larvae of moths and butterflies that dine on leaves. And searching the leaves for caterpillars are scores of hungry birds. Many, like chickadees, will look for damaged leaves, sensing that where there are holes, there are caterpillars nearby.

As defenses against birds, some caterpillars taste bad, grow spines or hairs, or bear bright “warning” colors. But in one of the little miracles of evolution, many edible caterpillar species have developed a different defensive technique. When they finish munching on a leaf, they clip it off and let it fall to the ground so it won’t give away their location to a bird on the hunt.

They don’t cover their tracks, they drop them.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Petrichor

Some people make a point of finding and learning words for special situations. If you’ve got such tendencies, behold “petrichor.”

Pronounced PET-ri-kuhr, the noun means the pleasant smell that accompanies the first rain after a dry spell. Two Australian geologists invented petrichor in 1964 after they discovered the scent’s source.

The word is a concoction of the Greek, petros, stone, and ichor, which is a blood that flowed in the veins of the gods and helped keep them immortal.

In this case, during dry spells, many kinds of vegetation give off oils, the ichor, that coat the soil and rocks, the petros, below. When water hits the ground, the oils exude that distinctive, earthy fragrance.

And so, thanks to these two Australians, we can get blood from a stone.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Parental labors

When sextuplets were born on Long Island a few years ago, someone calculated they’d need 70 diaper changes a day. A formidable task, to be sure. However, raising young is never easy and in nature, it can be astoundingly tedious.

For instance, scientists once observed a house wren provide 491 feedings to its nestlings in one day. Phoebes can feed the kids more than 800 times in a day. Titmice have been known to make up to 70 feeding trips an hour. While swifts may arrive only once an hour, that one feeding may contain 600 insects – a collecting average of one every six seconds.

What's more, hard-working bird parents raise broods without expectation of rewards. They can't hope for General Foods or Pampers to show up with help in exchange for product endorsements. They can't expect those baby beaks to give them even a small smile. Perhaps worse, they can't count on the kids’ taking care of them in their old age.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Night Life

The late spring nights should be all a-blink as “lightning bugs” in romantic flight flash for mates.

Fireflies are among the few kinds of insects that everyone loves. But they may be dwindling in numbers.

Theories abound. Development is certainly removing firefly habitats, and lights may drive them away. Pesticides and pollution may be killing them, and declining food supplies may be starving them -- larva of many species feed on invertebrates that pesticides kill.

Some people want to do for fireflies what lepidopteraphiles are doing for butterflies: Create habitats that attract and feed them. Since populating a yard with the right kinds of worms and snails is a lot tougher than planting flowers, they may have a challenge ahead of them. The best thing anyone can do, though, is maintain a natural yard that is pesticide free and that welcomes the diversity of nature.

Perhaps then, lightning bugs will shed more light on our Junes.

(For more on fireflies, visit the website of Attorney Donald Ray Burger of Houston, a lawyer who is waging a campaign to bring back the fireflies that have all but disappeared from his Texas city.)

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Bumper Lunch


New York City firemen know how -- and where -- to grab a good lunch, while keeping ready for a call. This is Arthur Avenue in the Bronx around noon on Friday, June 3, 2005, as the firefighters chat after a quick bite on the bumper. Posted by Hello

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

June air

June, as they sing in Carousel, is busting out all over, developing May’s lushness and adding the colors of roses and rhododendrons, and the brilliance of early field flowers like daisies and fleabanes. It is the month that moves us from the rebirth of spring to the verdure of summer.

June offers close to ideal weather, with an average high of 79 degrees and an average low of 56. At 71 and 47, May is just a tad too cool for those of us anxious to dive into summer’s warmth.

June’s name fools many people who think it commemorates a Roman god. In fact, June is short for a Junioribus, the lower or junior house of the old Roman legislature. May recalls the upper house, a Majoribus.

Perhaps the timing of the names involves an ancient political joke about lower-house oratory. June is the warmer month, after all, and offers more hot air than May. In modern Junes, we offer our own version of hot air: graduation speeches galore.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Those Dead Birds

The sight of a bird corpse brought fear to many Fairfield County dwellers a couple of years ago. Health departments were inundated with calls about dead birds, presumably the victims of the once dreaded West Nile Virus.

The callers themselves, it turns out, may have killed most of those birds.

A Cornell University study has found that the majority of birds tested for West Nile Virus in Connecticut and New York in 2002 died not from a disease, but from lawn-care pesticides. Nationwide, Cornell said, deadly lawn chemicals like diazinon and chlorphrifos kill millions of birds a year.

If they kill birds, what might they be doing to you, your family, and your pets?

And what would happen if you didn’t poison your lawn? Wildflowers – some call them weeds – would move in with the grass, adding some color to that bland carpet of green. But what’s better, chickweed, dandelions, clover, speedwell, buttercups, and a host of other lawn flowers produce seeds that will feed instead of kill the birds.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Nachtmusik

It is the middle of the night. Off in the distance, a Northern Mockingbird is singing, belting out his repertoire of dozens of songs as if it were broad daylight. But no, it’s 2 a.m., and there’s no sign of his stopping.

Some mockingbirds have been known to sing all night long. The same incredible album of tunes that is such cheerful music during the day seems almost haunting at night.

Why the nachtmusik from a day-loving creature? Ornithologists have found that the midnight mockers are unmated males, apparently desperate to attract a female. Simply speaking, they are lonely and singing a birdworld version of the blues.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Floral Greetings

Walking or riding along our roads in spring is always a treat, made more enjoyable by the floral thoughtfulness of neighborly people.

Nature gives us an eyeful as the trees, shrubs and wildflowers come into leaf and bloom. But good neighbors add to nature’s performance by planting flowers along their roadsides for passersby to enjoy. From tulips and daffodils at the beginning of the season and marigolds and asters at the end, flowers soften their fences, line their lawns, and encircle their mailboxes.

Often these roadside or walkside flowers can’t even be seen from the house of the person who planted them and were put there for others to enjoy. They brighten the day for mail carriers, delivery drivers, and others who serve us. They say “Hello!” to both stranger and friend. And they offer a “welcome” that no mat ever could.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Roadside Rogue

Bright colors and sweet scents appear in late May with the blooming of Dame’s Rocket, a roadside rogue enjoyable around the clock.

By day, the pink, violet and white flowers light up shady woodsides and by evening, their sweet scent spreads across the landscape. It is, in fact, an evening flower, with scent and colors designed to attract night-flying moths rather than day-flying bees – hence its name, Hesperis matronalis, which can be translated matrons of the evening.

And it may have been matrons who brought this mustard from Europe to America to fill their gardens in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Some, especially Germans, even added its sharp-tasting leaves to their salads.

Dame’s Rocket found the New World to its liking and, like many another weed, has been spreading along roadsides. But unlike most weeds, it offers beauty to the eye, sweetness to the nose, and tastiness to the tongue.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Nature's Way

Overpopulation can be a problem in nature. And while humans often cause the problem, only nature seems capable of solving it.

Take the Gypsy Moth caterpillar. Imported because they spin silk-like threads that man hoped to exploit, the caterpillars eventually exploded in population to the point where they were defoliating vast forests. However, in the late 1980s, a virus, a fungus and predatory insects combined to kill millions of caterpillars and halt the plague in our area.

Back in the early 1990s, raccoons were overpopulating – they were almost as common as squirrels. Suburban man had eliminated their enemies and created a comfortable habitat. Then a southern strain of rabies appeared and almost annihilated the raccoons.

Nature took charge. It might do the same with deer, also overpopulating thanks to us. However, it’s one thing to have a lot of dead insects hanging from trees or raccoon corpses off in the woods. It might be quite another to have hundreds of 150-pound deer carcasses dotting the landscape.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Barberry Dilemma

For some years environmental groups have been attacking the Japanese barberry, scheduling “pull ’em up” parties and conducting anti-barberry education programs. The prickly import that has been spreading through woodlands can push out native species.

However, the folks at the Highstead Arboretum in Redding, Connecticut, have been noticing an unusual phenomenon: Barberry bushes are sheltering native wildflowers.

Probably because the shrub is covered with thorns, deer that have been decimating many woodland plants do not eat barberry. In fact, they tend to keep away from it. As a result, arboretum staff have been finding native wildflowers that the deer normally consume, including Trout Lilies and Bloodroot, blooming away under and around barberries while the plants out in the open have been mostly eaten.

It presents a dilemma. Should we spare some of these alien invaders to protect the native flowers from the native deer?

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Scourge of Spring

Before modern paving, spring thaws and rains turned roads to thick soup. Mud caused far more transportation problems than snow, swallowing the narrow wheels of carts and carriages and slowing journeys to a crawl. It still does in rural Vermont and New Hampshire.

Our forefathers tried various ways to cope with these quagmires. Logs were buried in the mud; in many places, plank-topped highways were built. For a while, charcoal roads were popular – logs were laid along the surface, set afire, and covered with dirt so they burned slowly and turned into charcoal that lasted longer than wood. The surface dirt was removed, and the charcoal packed into place. In some towns quarried stone was laid, long side down, to create durable and dry Telford roads.

The simplest way to handle particularly muddy spots was to fill them with boulders. While years of reworking and repaving have removed most of these old mud rocks, you will still run across old roads in New England towns with boulders protruding through the pavement, pushed up by decades of frost. Odds are, these are not rocks left long ago by lazy road builders, but ones once hauled there to deal with the scourge of spring.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The Desire of Pleasing

Next to a Bible, an almanac was the most important publication in most households in 19th Century rural America. It was a guide to farming life, and offered all sorts of practical advice and information, much of it timeless and all of it short and to the point.

For instance, the now musty and stained pages of an 1855 Old Farmer’s Almanac offer this simple suggestion about “Help and Hired People”: “These are more likely to be praised into good conduct than scolded out of bad. Always commend them when they do right. To cherish the desire of pleasing in them, you must show them that you are pleased. This applies equally well to children.”

In the 20th Century, scores of books were written on corporate management and child rearing that say little more than those 44 words in a 146-year-old farmers’ handbook.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

The Hidden World

Campephilus principalis has shocked Homo sapiens. We think we are, well, so sapiens about this Earth we have conquered, and yet a flashy bird bigger than a crow has managed to elude us for more than 60 years in our own back yard.

It’s a tribute to the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and it’s also a tribute to the conservationists who saved the vast cypress swamps in Arkansas where the bird has hidden all these years.

Yet so much in nature is hidden. Countless creatures are still to be discovered, not just rediscovered. In the last decade more than 360 new species have been identified on the island of Borneo alone. The Vietnamese recently found a “new” tree and a “new” butterfly, and an unusual tweezer-beaked rodent was just uncovered in the Philippines. Last year, a new species of monkey was found in Bolivia and this year, a new brine fly was identified in Utah.

And that’s just on land. Scientists estimate anywhere from 500,000 to 10-million species live in the deep sea, most of them still undiscovered.

The trouble is, through uncontrolled development, pollution and simple carelessness, we may be killing off species faster than they can be found.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Roadside vitamins

“What are all those white flowers along the road – every road?!” someone asked.

Twenty-five years ago, Garlic Mustard was an occasionally seen import that few knew. Today, the weed has spread to the point where plant conservationists are alarmed. These alien invaders are overcoming native species, and efforts have been organized to do them in. The most basic technique is to pull them up -- they have a tiny root system and are easy to yank.

But we have another suggestion: Eat them! In its native England, Garlic Mustard has long been a food. In fact, that's how it probably got here; Virginia settlers were using it by 1700. The garlicky leaves are used as vegetables and salad greens. Old World farmers found them so flavorful, they filled sandwiches with them.

What’s more, this tasty pest is good for you. Garlic Mustard leaves have more than twice the vitamin A of spinach and 20 times more than tomatoes. They also have nearly four times the vitamin C of oranges and nine times that of tomatoes.

So why waste a good weed?

Peeper keeper

Peep. Peep. Peep.

Choruses of spring peepers rise from the woods in April. But how did those inch-long amphibians deal with the vagaries of New England weather that can swing temperatures from the 70s to the 20s?

To peepers, a sudden freeze or even a spring snowstorm is no sweat. Cold air triggers the frog's liver to create glucose. Blood brings this antifreeze to the vital organs like the brain and heart, keeping them from freezing. But the rest of its body -- more than 60% of it – can freeze for weeks without harming the frog.

So on a walk in a wood on a cold spring day, you may find a small, frozen frog. If you put it in your warm hand, the iced peeper will simply melt and hop away, no doubt with a song in its heart.