Do do do doo doo do dooooooooo! A pair of Trumpeter Swans flew past my window! I threw everything on the floor and ran after them. They paddled around and did some trumpeting and some bottoms-uping and then he climbed on her and they made love in the middle of the creek! There was some honking and some splashing and lots of flapping. Then they went and had lunch.
We often hear about birds who mate for life. Little song birds have about a 50% chance of surviving each year so that’s about half of every couple who doesn’t make it, leaving a lot of widows. Mating for life isn’t necessarily all that long for a bird and the survivors usually find a new mate the next breading season, but not these Swans. Swan widows don’t remarry, but I bet that doesn’t mean that they don’t continue to breed. When people say that birds mate for life they usually mean that birds are socially monogamous but sexually promiscuous. I presume that widowed swans participate in extra-marital breading with mated Swans.
Bird books claim that Song Sparrows say ‘Maid, maid, put on the teeea kettle, tea kettle’. The ones around here say ‘Hey let’s have some teeeeea, shaboom shaboom shaboom’ or some variation of a tinckly jingle and a buzzy call for tea. The thing is, all Song Sparrows have a different song that’s in the Song Sparrow language so a mnemonic about tea will never be accurate.
Male Song Sparrows sing to their girlfriends and to their eggs and to their nestlings and to their fledglings. Baby Song Sparrows start learning songs before they hatch. Once out of the egg they begin to babble. When they get a little bigger they do a whisper song where they try some of the Sparrow syllables and practice using their voices. Then they fledge.
Female Song Sparrows find a mate and a new home close to their parents’ nest but their brothers have to go further away to find unclaimed territory. Once they find a spot for themselves they learn that lady Song Sparrows prefer boys who sing songs similar to the songs their fathers sang, so the boys have to learn the songs of the neighboring adult Sparrows around their new territory. They have to learn the local dialect. So they listen and by the next year they have composed their own song based on the songs sang by the dads around here.
I don’t know how scientists figured this out. It’s my interpretation that the reason female Song Sparrows prefer the very local songs to strange ones is that they resemble the songs their fathers sang to them in the nest. Perhaps it’s something else. Perhaps female Song Sparrows get their taste in local songs from their mums. Perhaps the preference is passed down through the female birds from mum to daughter and the songs are passed down through the male birds from dad to stranger.
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.
Do you know how big an Elephant is? Well, if you put 4 of them trunk to tail a White-Tail Deer could jump right over them! White tailed deer are the sproingiest mammals in North America. They are our Kangaroos.
Mummy Kanga… I mean Deer look after their Bimbis for 2 years and when they are very smol they have spots that make them invisible on the sun dappled dried grass so mum can leave the babies alone out in the open while she goes out foraging to collect snacks to turn to milk.
Deer feet are very skinny, like the opposite of snow shoes. Normally Deer live in small groups but in the winter the snow is so deep around here that Deer form large groups so they can walk in each other’s foot prints.
White-Tailed Deer populations have soared in response to the removal of their predators: Coyotes, Wolves, Bob Cats and Mountain Lions. Their large populations have a visible effect on the rest of ecology. Deer are browsers, they eat the leaves of young trees and herbaceous plants. When Deer populations become very dense a brows line becomes visible; all the young leaves below 6 feet, the highest point Deer can reach, are stripped of the forest, making it impossible for young trees to get established and leaving little else for other animals who forage this part of the forest to eat, or for the animals who eat those animals to eat. This empty space in the ecology makes a pathway for invasive species that Deer have not evolved a tolerance to, to move through.
Birding is soooo different from mushrooming. I mean, I use my ears, stand up strait, look at the sky… I never have to sneak up on a mushroom but even though I can hold one in my hand, smell it, look at it under the microscope, it can be harder to ID than a blurry photo of a far away bird I saw the back of for less than a second. It’s because there are hundreds of thousands of mushrooms. (and probably only 200 birds around here) Millions of mushrooms! And most of them have never been scientifically described so they’re not in any book.
I’ve been stalking mushrooms obsessively for 15 years (what?) and I can still find a totally new to me mushroom growing in my backyard. And not just any mushroom, a weird mushroom that I’ve always noticed in the books and imagined them growing in far off deserts and sand dunes. Today, there they were, in my back yard, in the rain, in early April before any of the other mushrooms are up.
These little muffins are Puffballs. Subterranean, aerial Puffballs. They start as a fleshy mushroom underground and as they mature all the flesh dries and turns to a spore mass. They probably have millions of spores each. Then a little hole forms on top with a lip for spore liberation. Then a stalk grows, elevating the Puffball into the sky. When I saw them it was raining and rain drops where hitting the outside of the ball, disturbing the pressure inside and ejecting puffs of golden dust into the world.
I wonder how long they’ve been here. I hope those spores make lots more.
Aspirin is made of salicin which comes from Willow trees, like this Pussy Willows. It reduces inflammation and pain. Once, in a gallery, I put my hand in a paper bag filled with soft, smooth, silvery, velvet Pussy Willow buds and was soothed.
Those soothing things on Pussy Willows are their very young flowers. The fluff keeps them warm at the end of the winter while they are budding.
In a few days these fluffy buds will change. They will grow into long catkins and each silvery hair will grow into a stamen and produce a little bit of pollen to drop in the wind to find a female Pussy Willow flower.
If you pick these and have them in water remember that Willow twigs make a lot of rooting hormone, so if you want to take a cutting of some other plant and put it in water with your Willow twigs the Willow rooting hormone will inspire the other cuttings to put out healthy roots.
I live with a Lilac Tip Siamese Cat named Twm whose silver toes are just like Pussy Willows.
The essence of these leaves are in lots of mint candies, so we call this flavor minty, but it’s its own distinct flavor that’s sort of hot and cold at the same time.
Wintergreen essence does something magical with light. It absorbs Ultra Violet light and emits visible light. Did you ever crunch Wint-0-Green life savers in a dark closet with a friend? They make a big spark. It’s Triboluminescence, which all hard candy make when you crunch them, but the light being emitted is UV light. Wintergreen essence transforms the invisible UV light to visible light!
These plants stay green all winter. (I wonder if they are actually green when they are under the snow or if they go white when they are not photosynthesizing.) The berries ripened in the fall and are looking beautiful and fresh today, 5 or 6 months later.
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.
Cowbirds are like upside down Grackles: Blackbirds with rainbow iridescence, but a Cowbird’s rainbow runs in the other direction, from tail to head. His Squeek is Grackley but sounds more like a ‘glug, glug, squeee’ than ‘Creek, Creek, squeeeeeek, and Cowbird voices are much squeekier.
These guys are famous. They used to be called Buffalo Birds because they ate the insects that live on Buffalo and were part of the migrating buffalo ecology that moved around the content but we killed all the Buffalo. (There were 60 000 000 of them and colonizers did it on purpose to hurt native people) The Buffalo were replaced by domestic Cows and the Cowbirds adapted.
Part of the story is that the birds had to keep moving to keep up with the Buffalo so they stopped nesting. There just wasn’t enough time to make a nest, lay, brood and raise fledglings before the Buffalo wandered off, so they laid their eggs in other birds’ nests and left them to be raised by strangers.
It’s not exactly true, but it’s a good story. The thing is that Cowbirds don’t abandon their babies. The part where they don’t ever make their own nests is true, they always lay their eggs in some other bird’s nest and often in several other birds’ nests like the Easter bunny does. Sometimes the host is a bigger bird, sometimes a much smaller bird and the unconsenting adoptive parent is stuck feeding a baby who might quickly grow up to be much bigger than them and who will probably eject the other babies from the nest. But Cowbirds don’t do it because they have to go, they stick around.
This behavior is called brood parasitism and there are people who don’t like it. If you find a nest containing the egg of a brood parasite your eye might be able to recognize it. The host bird might not, but then again she probably knows exactly what’s going on so just leave them all alone. If you remove the Cowbirds’s eggs Mrs. Cowbird will notice when she comes to check on them. If her eggs are gone but the host’s remain, she will remove/break the other eggs. (What the heck are you doing looking in nests anyway?)
This behavior is evolutionarily advantageous to Cowbirds because it is usually not a human who does the eviction, it’s usually a host parent who notices and removes the foreign egg, but a mother Warbler who is able to see the difference between the eggs and who is inspired to respond by removing the Cowbird egg will not pass these traits on to her offspring because those offspring will not hatch, having been broken by the Cowbird. So if you remove the Cowbird egg to protect the host you actually ensure that the other eggs will also die. What will likely happen next is both sets of parents will start laying eggs again, which is very energy expensive. They will likely also build a new nest in a new site because this location was a failure. So much work to replace a perfectly good nest that you sabotaged. Vigilanti Cowbird egg thieves don’t help the host, they hurt them more.
Do we have the authority to decide what species lives and dies? The choice of a Robin over a Cowbird is based on human values: the idea that no one should ever have to work to support someone else’s kids. Wait, that’s what human’s believe? That’s a pretty low down value. To let this value drive you to kill things is disgraceful. Things exist in fabulous symbiosis. Ecology is magical clockwork. If you take out the cogs that you don’t like the magic will stop ticking.
The Cowbird story continues: baby Cowbird hatches and grows up in a nest of birds that look, sound, smell and behave totally different. It must be weird. But they are not cut off from Cowbird culture. When they are big enough to fly, but still living in the nest they wake up in the middle of the night. The rest of the family is sleeping. There is the sound of Cowbirds singing off in the distance. The adolescent Cowbird sneaks off to make Cowbird friends and play Cowbird games and learn Cowbird things and then climbs back into the nest before any one else wakes up.
The Secret Wisdom of Water by Craig Childs Reviewed by Alexis Williams May 2021
I have a new favorite book. The Secret Wisdom of Water, written by Craig Childs. He describes his adventures seeking water in the desert. He describes the relationships between water and life and our utter dependence on it. He describes mechanisms and dramas of storms. He describes powerful natural phenomenon in words that are neither scientific nor spiritual but also are both. He says things like: ‘if I prayed for rain the sky would laugh at me’ and ‘The world changes color when you think you might die soon.’
Then come the floods. Its intense and moving and inspired. He must write as things happen, dangling from a climbing line a months hike from help. He uses rich similes that invoke powerful imagery. He presents beautiful science, insightful poetry, and smooth adventure.
This book is unpretentious, easy to read and cool. I’m looking forward to reading it again. I’m so glad he’s written other books I can read.