Look at this weirdo. He’s like a snake with no face or scales and he can taste with every part of his body.
Earthworms are not native to North America. They arrived here in ballast, you know, all the earth carried on ships coming from Europe to fetch lumber and fur that would have been too light to stay the right way up if they were empty. The earth was be dumped when they arrived in America. There were probably lots of worms stowed away in flower pots too.
Now they are everywhere. You can hear them at night chewing leaves. They work in the dark foraging fallen foliage that they carry (I don’t know how, they don’t have hands) back to their holes to chew into lovely soil. When the dawn breaks they squint and then quit. They go strait to bed no matter what they were in the middle of, which is why you sometimes see leaves standing up on the lawn early in the morning. They are leaves abandoned by worms part way down their holes that I expect act as flags for early birds.
Dee dee dee dee dee dee deeeeeeeeeeeee! Presenting His Supreme Friendliness, Surveyor of the Feeder and Ultimate Birb: the Chickadee!
Sit down and get comfy while I tell you about the best little bird. Chickadees are cryptically sexually dimorphic; These muffins all look the same to humans, but to a lady Chickadee, who can see colors into the invisible-to-humans end of the spectrum, the handsomest Chickadees have ultra violet mustaches!
Chickadees have a lot to say. Their language is complex. ‘Chickadee’ is only one of their calls. It’s one of their alarm calls! They say other things when they are alone (like ‘cheese burger’ and ‘squigledeedoo’) but when they see a human they say ‘Chickadee dee dee dee dee!’ And so we call them that because they call us that. We call each other that.
Chickadees have lots of alarm calls that signal different kinds of danger, where it’s coming from and how dangerous it is. For example they say one thing for a Snake and something different for a Hawk – the number of dees indicates the degree of danger.
Chickadees are non-migratory birds. They stay in the same home range their whole lives and get to know the place really well and you can find them all over North America. While a migratory bird who winters in the tropics and summers in the arctic is passing over my house, they are unfamiliar with the local predators, but they are familiar with Chickadees. Chickadees always know the local dangers. Migratory birds will often follow Chickadees to food and water sources and eavesdrop on their conversations especially their Chickadee alarm calls which can act as a call to mob. When Chickadees want to harass an intruder like a Crow, Owl, Hawk or me, they do a mobbing call that brings in lots of other Chickadees and lots of other species too.
If you’ve ever been out with a birder trying to see as many species as possible you might have heard them pishing. It’s a birding trick that calls lots of birds in. it sounds like this: “Psh psh psh psh psh psh!” To a migratory bird its sounds like the dee dee dee dee of the Chickadee call. If you do it in the spring, all the species around will hear you pishing and might think it’s a Chickadee doing an alarm so they send in a scout to see what the mater is. One scout from each species will arrive to take a look and you can stand still and check off a whole bunch of birds you might never have seen before.
I had planned to tell you about how city Pigeons are all feral, having escaped, or been dumped by humans who kept them captive for thousands of years but it turns out that these ones are real live Wild Rock Doves, rare because they breed with the fancy feral domesticated ones and their offspring have weird human marks on them like colorful feathers or whiteness or strange ruffly things. You can tell this is a Wild Rock Dove from their 2 black stripes on their lovely grey wings. This is a freedom Pigeon!
Rock Doves, the ancestor of the Feral Pigeon, are cliff dwelling birds, this is why we see them in cities. Buildings are just man made cliffs that Pigeons can perch and roost on. It seems as though they prefer to stand in a row, like they would on the side of a cliff because I often see them on a hydro wire, but never in a tree. Trees must be to scribbly for Pigeons.
Humans have lived symbiotically with Pigeons for thousands of years. I say that rather than saying that we domesticated them because they are one of the few animals we domesticated without imprisoning. Domestic Pigeons are trusted to come home. That’s one of the reasons we like them so much.
Pigeons have spectacular homing abilities. They will cross the earth from an unknown location to get home and they do it fast. We don’t completely understand how Pigeons are able to do this. Scientists agree that Pigeons are intelligent, but their sensory perceptions and navigation skills are mysterious. It seems that they navigate by using a complex series of perceptions and cognitions, including using the sun and stars as a compass, electromagnetism (probably felt by hematite in their cells) visual perception of polarized light- they can see North, they are very good at detecting olfactory gradients and probably know the smell of home, and the one I like best is subsonic. It’s likely that they listen to the sounds that the earth makes, the very deep geophony and they can hear these sounds bounce around the landscape revealing a topographical map like sonar.
If you lived before phones and fast cars and were going on a long journey, you would bring your homing Pigeon with you. When you arrived at your exotic destination you might write a little note saying that you had indeed arrived safely, or ‘wish you were here’ and tie it to the Pigeon’s leg and then release her. The Pigeon would fly all the way home and deliver the message to your house mates. Or you might keep the bird with you as a companion through out the journey, say a year at sea, and then release the bird as you came in to harbor to let your spose know you were almost home and to start making supper.
Sometimes a homing Pigeon will get distracted, or lost, or fall in love and go off and have a life of their own and then turn up at home 5 or 10 years later.
If you want to know more read Jennifer Ackerman’s Genius of Birds.
I know where the Gartersnakes hibernate. Its a spot in the forest that I call the Snake Pit because one spring I saw them all waking up together. In retrospect what I saw was probably a mating ball of a hundred snakes having an orgy while they left their hibernaculum.
Mummy Gartersnakes give birth to baby Gartersnakes. They don’t hatch out of eggs and there can be 100 babies in a litter! Although it’s usually closer to 30. New born Garters slither strait out into the world ready to hunt and explore and defend themselves.
Gartersnakes communicate with smells. They attract and fool each other with pheromones and they make a stink when they are frightened. I didn’t know that when I saw this snake. She was not happy so see me. She flicked her tongue and reared up to let me know that she was using this spot and I should go away. I kept my distance and snapped a quick pic with my long lense, but I wish I’d sniffed the air.
You can see this snake’s forked tongue. She’s using it to smell me. Each prong collects chemicals from different parts of the air so she can sense a chemical gradient and understand where smells are coming from. Basically she can smell in 3d. So can I but not very well.
Gartersnakes vary in color from place to place. Ours are mostly black with a snazzy yellow stripe, exactly like the garden hose that makes me jump every time I walk passed it. On the East Coast they are brown, and also make me jump because they look like a species I haven’t met before, but they are the same species as our black and yellow ones, just wearing different styles.
I wonder if I’m a tetrachromat, you know one of those people with an extra photo sensor that can see more colors than muggles… I mean normal people. It seems like I see colors in a very different way than some people. I mostly notice the differences in yellowy colors. Sometimes I have arguments about what color something is against people who seem to only see the brown in things. Before I was a birder these arguments were always about clothes. But now I find it lonely to admire beautifully colorful birds that other birders call drab.
Cornel for example calls the Northern Flicker drab. Brown. Horse feathers! This is the Snazziest bird around.
And beyond the Flicker’s yellow quills, red and blue head dress, sexy dappled spots over a rainbow of yellow belly feathers, this bird is cool.
This is one of our largest woodpeckers, and I mean, woodpeckers are cool in general, but this one forages on the lawn with the Robins. She nests in a tree cavity and if a Racoon climbs up to abduct her fledgeflickers she buzzes loudly, just like a whole hive of bees, a noise that’s terrifying to Racoons.
We have very few words in English that refer to taste. We have a few: sweet, sour, umami, salty.. Is there another? Bitter? How is that different from sour? So we generally use similes. We say something tastes like something else. I’m tasting things right now and trying to describe them. I’ve got a bowl of salad. Spinach, cheese, ham, pecans and some sesame oil and soy sauce. I’m focusing on how I experience each bite. There’s texture first, then taste, which is sometimes insignificant but sometimes specific and nostalgic and and then there’s pleasure.
Texture is complicated. I think it’s the main way I experience my food, but how do I sense texture? I’m not even feeling the food with my tongue! I’m mostly using my tongue to position the food between my teeth so I can crunch it. That’s how I know the texture, it’s a proprioception thing. Proprioception is one of the human senses that we pretend we don’t have. It’s how we know where our limbs are even with our eyes closed. It’s how dancers dance. I think feeling food texture is all about how my jaw moves against the food. How the food comes apart. I love how the pecans shatter in a stuttering slow motion explosion. It’s my favorite part. The cheese is squishy. It’s flavor is very mild, barely noticeable but the texture is distinct. It’s very familiar and comforting but the more I focus on it the more surprised I am. Its square. But I’m barely touching it. It is wet. What? Yes there is a juicyness to it. Gosh cheese must be gross to adults who try it for the first time. (Being able to digest dairy is a relatively new twist in human evolution. Lactose intolerant people are the norm, the rest of us are weirdos. much of the world doesn’t do cheese) I’m very aware of how wet the food is, but how? Its touch I think. I can feel liquid moving in my mouth. Its cold, but I also can be aware of hot liquid. It’s the movement of it seeping and sticking and making suction in my mouth.
My experience of the texture of pecans and cheese also very much comes from sound. I have ‘misophonia’ a ‘disorder’ where some sounds make me ‘feel sick’, especially sounds related to eating, but I think these words are over simplifications and only recognize the negative side of the condition. People with misophonia get irritated and angry in response to certain sounds. And yes that happens to me, but I’m also very aware of changes in my body chemistry. So rather than just being angry at sounds I intentionally and physically “feel” the stress hormones that are released in my body. But there are sounds that give me pleasure. Rhythmic high pitched noises drive me crazy but chaotic ones are great: lip smacking, clock ticking and snare drums make be supremely uncomfortable and if I hear them for long periods of time I can become emotionally exhausted. But some are very soothing and pleasurable like the swoosh of water, or someone yelling in my ear at a concert. I’ve read that potato chip manufacturers are more concerned with the sounds of their chip crunching than the flavor because crunching is more important than flavor when it comes to ‘taste’. I’ve been on a very low sugar diet for several years so am aware of how sugar gives pleasure and how quickly I get addicted to it. Oh, that ‘feeling sick’ from sounds is a simplification of a strange phenomenon. There are sounds that make me react in a way that’s half way between a gag and a yawn. It could easily be misinterpreted as a gag, but it’s that same rumbly sound you hear in your ears when you yawn and stretch. It’s like an automatic meridian sensory response. (Asmr) I think it’s the sound of a muscle inside my head. I think part of the common interpretation as sickness is from the social stigma of doing a gag gesture at the table. If you’ve ever suppressed a gag while eating something gross in polite company you can relate to some of the stress of misophonia.
I think a big part of taste is how it affects our body chemistry. If we like something it gives us a cocktail of dopamine and serotonin and pleasure endorphins. I bet this a big part of what we perceive as taste. It isn’t so much how we perceive the chemistry of food, but how we perceive the chemistry of our selves after experiencing the food.
I did some more tasting and am surprised at how many senses are involved. Vision is very important and sound and smell and temperature and all the senses that go into decoding texture. I suggest that what we call taste is not a sense but actually cognition. It’s how our brains use all these perceptions to make sense of food.