Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Going a gooding

Dec. 21 is the feast of St. Thomas, the apostle and patron saint of builders and architects. In many parts of Old England, however, it was also the day of St. Thomas’s Dole.

Doleing Day or Mumping Day was when the poor of a community – particularly the old women – would visit the well-to-do in search of handouts. This form of pre-Christmas begging or “mumping” was called “going a gooding.”

Doleing Day was a time of good cheer, and many of the poor were invited into homes for not only gifts of money or grain, but also a sip or two of John Barleycorn. In return, they gave their hosts sprigs of evergreens to use as seasonal decorations.

In the spirit of gooding and giving, perhaps Doleing Day would be a good time for us to sit down with our checkbook and pen a few gifts to agencies near and far that could use our help. So many of our thoughts are with family and friends that we may overlook the needy in our midst and in the world.

This Friday, Dec. 21, do good and dole.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The wily weasel

Weasels get a lot of bad press. Perhaps it’s their sly habits, or the way they seem to slither along the ground, but weasels have become symbols of sneakiness and subterfuge. You’re a “weasel” if you mislead people, shirk a duty, or squeal on someone.

Yet weasels are pretty smart, so smart in fact that some experts can’t catch them – even on film.

For months, the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection has been trying to capture Long- and Short-tailed Weasels for study, and hasn’t been able to trap a single one. Connecticut biologists also set up ink-padded tracking tubes, to record their footprints on paper, but have gotten only mouse prints. They’ve even set up cameras to nail them on film – nada.

Wildlife conservationists are going through all this trouble because a lot is unknown about these cousins of the skunk. Weasels are so secretive, experts aren’t even sure of their range in Connecticut, and must rely on roadkill and chance sightings to estimate their territories and numbers.

Perhaps the wildlife experts need to learn some weaselly wiliness.

If only they could catch one to learn from.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The nose knows

The next time your cat rubs its head against your leg, it may be more communication than affection. Kitty is probably marking you with its scent.

Cats rub against people and places to deposit saliva and secretions from three glands on the head. These deposits send a message to other cats: You are part of their territory. It may be like posting a “no trespassing” sign.

In the wild, creatures from lowly mice to lumbering bears and fleet-footed deer mark the trees and ground with semiochemicals. “Semio” is from Greek, meaning a “sign,” and mammalian signs are read with considerable interest. They often define territories, but their particular mixture of 50 or more compounds may even identify an individual animal, as a name or Social Security number identifies us.

In the case of deer, the meaning of scents can be quite complex, advertising a buck’s status in the herd, triggering the reproductive cycle in females and perhaps even stemming the sexual drive in bucks of lower status.

Most mammals have much better olfaction than humans – dogs and their wild kin have up to a million times more scent receptors than we do.

So remember when you take Fido for a walk: Those leaves and twigs he spends so much time sniffing could be his version of reading the local newspaper.

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