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.