Monarch butterflies: The next passenger pigeon? August 31, 2014Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom, gardening, critters.
Tags: butterflies, butterfly plants, monarch butterflies, monarch butterfly extinction, passenger pigeon, passenger pigeon extinction
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Our friend Rudy sent us a wonderful article about passenger pigeons (this year marks the 100th anniversary of their extinction). It was packed with fascinating facts about these once-plentiful birds, such as that they once numbered in the billions, comprising as much as 25 to 40% of America’s total bird population, and that their flocks, numbering millions of birds, could blot out the sun for hours. (People who’d never seen a passenger pigeon flock before, hearing the thunder of millions of wings and watching darkness blot out the sun, feared that the End Times were upon them, or at least that a tornado was bearing down on them and making their personal end time imminent.)
Another thing our friend Ben learned from the article was that, unlike something like, say, the ivory-billed woodpecker, people knew exactly when the passenger pigeon became extinct. Martha, the last living passenger pigeon, died at a Cincinnati zoo in 1914 and was shipped to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History for preservation and study. Poor Martha! From billions to just one. Then none.
Human behavior drove the passenger pigeon extinction. People had always eaten the abundant birds, a cheap (or free, if you were a good shot) source of protein. But Dan Greenberg, one of the experts quoted in the article, blamed their extinction on two inventions that would appear to have nothing to do with birds: the telegraph and the railroad. The two had to come together to make the extinction happen: the telegraph, because its miles of wires gave the birds a convenient place to roost, which they would do in huge flocks. On the wires, they were easy to find, and they perched so close together that a single shot could down multiple birds. And the railroad, because the birds could be packed on ice and shipped to major urban areas, guaranteeing an insatiable market of poor urban laborers desperate for some cheap meat.
The extinction of the passenger pigeon, and the awareness and acknowledgment that human actions were responsible, helped launch the conservation movement, and probably saved the buffalo (hunted for their tongues, considered a delicacy on the East Coast) and the beaver (whose fur was used for fashionable top hats) from a similar fate. So at least the pigeon didn’t die in vain.
But the aspect of the article that really snagged our friend Ben’s attention was when the interviewer asked another expert, Steve Sullivan, what he’d consider to be today’s passenger pigeon. And he answered, “the monarch butterfly.”
You probably used to see monarchs all over the place, floating through your yard, drifting along roadsides. I’ve even seen them migrating south at nearby Hawk Mountain alongside the hawks and other raptors. You might even have been lucky enough to see one of their beautiful sea-green chrysalises, in which the monarch caterpillar transforms into a butterfly. But in recent years, I’ve seen fewer and fewer monarchs, and I’ll bet you have, too. (Unless, like our friend Mark, you mistake the brown-and-orange admiral for a monarch.)
The catastrophic decline of the monarchs is also directly related to human activity, and also to a one-two punch like the one that brought down the passenger pigeon. Every year, more and more herbicides are dumped on farm fields, lawns, and gardens. GMO crops are specifically bred to withstand the ever-increasing use of these poisons, so vast acreages of corn, soybeans, canola, cotton, and the like can take even stronger herbicide applications. What can’t withstand the herbicides are the “weeds,” which is to say, the diversity of plant life. And some of the weeds that herbicides kill are milkweeds, the only source of food for monarch butterfly larvae.
Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood make room for plenty of milkweeds here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home we share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. But even so, our monarch populations have dwindled to the point where I think I saw one so far this year. (We also have pawpaws for the zebra swallowtail larvae, which are totally dependent on them.)
I urge everyone to have a butterfly garden in their backyards, or in containers on their deck or apartment balcony, to try to save our beautiful butterflies from the onslaught of herbicides. Milkweeds have gorgeous flower clusters that last a long time (Asclepias tuberosa, the very popular “butterfly weed” that brightens sunny, well-drained gardens and wildflower meadows with clusters of yellow, orange, and red flowers, is a milkweed). Butterfly bushes (Buddleia davidii) sport beautiful plumes of blooms in colors from white through mauve and purple to maroon, and during their summer bloom season, there’s lots of added color from visiting butterflies. (We planted one called “Miss Molly” on our beloved golden retriever Molly’s grave.) And there are many, many more.
But monarchs aren’t just threatened by America’s obsession with herbicides. As you doubtless know, they migrate south for the winter and cluster by the thousands on the trunks of trees in pine and fir forests in their wintering grounds near Mexico City—trees that are being decimated by illegal logging. The monarchs depend on their winter habitat being there. After all, they’ve just flown thousands of miles to get there, and they have a collective memory of the forest where they overwinter and return to it. What if it isn’t there?
Monarch populations have crashed in recent years due to this combination of herbicides and loss of winter habitat. In 1995, they covered 44.5 acres of trees in their wintering grounds in Mexico. Last winter, their population was so reduced that they only covered 1.65 acres. How much more will they have to decline before the last “Martha” is on display in some zoo’s butterfly conservatory?
Please plant butterfly-friendly plants, refrain from herbicide use, and try to urge your neighbors and your community to do the same, to create corridors where butterflies can move and eat freely, as safe from herbicides as any of us can be in this day. Let’s hope it’s not too late.
Don’t throw out those fish and frogs! August 26, 2014Posted by ourfriendben in critters, pets.
Tags: aquarium keeping, aquarium maintenance, aquariums, aquatic frogs, fish, frogs in aquariums
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When our friend Ben moved to scenic PA after grad school, I set up a goldfish tank in my new apartment. One day, I returned from work to find my biggest goldfish, Agamemnon, lying stiff, dry, and to all intents dead on the floor. (After that, I always put a hood on my aquariums. It never occurred to me that anybody would try to jump out.) Picking up the seemingly lifeless fish, I decided that there was nothing to lose, so I threw it back in the tank. Within minutes, Agamemnon, now aka Lazarus, had revived and was swimming around as if nothing had happened. He lived for many more years.
Our friend Ben was reminded of this today when I went into the kitchen and saw one of our two aquarium frogs lying stretched at full length on the floor in a pile of our dog Shiloh’s fur. It looked like a poster frog for rigor mortis, but I picked it up and began removing the dog hair. Eventually, its legs started moving, so I tossed it back in the tank. (Our current aquarium has a tight-fitting hood, so I have no idea how it escaped.) Soon enough, it was swimming around with the other frog and the fish, seemingly unfazed by its misadventure.
If you have an aquarium, or are thinking of setting one up, my advice to you is this: If something dies in the aquarium, it’s dead. But if it “dies” outside the aquarium, it ain’t necessarily so. Put it back in and see if it revives. And always put a hood on your tank!
There’s a dog in my soup. June 28, 2014Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, critters, pets, wit and wisdom.
Tags: KFC cat scandal, KFC crispy towel, Korean dog stew, Sonic pot fries, weird stuff in food, yucky stuff in food
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“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup!”
Thus begins the hoary old joke we’ve all heard so many times. But it’s not so funny when it comes to some real-life object in our food that shouldn’t be there. Just today, two news items on Yahoo news featured unintended items that ended up in people’s food.
Over in England, a 7-year-old boy bit into what he thought was a fried piece of boneless chicken breast from KFC, only to discover that the crispy fried coating concealed not chicken but a blue kitchen towel (the kind made of paper, not cloth). Our friend Ben figured that KFC would quickly offer his family free chicken for the rest of their lives to avoid a suit, but no: The franchise offered the boy and his mother one free meal, and that only after the distraught mother had returned to the restaurant to complain and been told to call customer service instead, and the story had gone viral. Oliver, the little boy involved, declined this generous offer.
Meanwhile, back in the States, a family ordering fries from a Sonic drive-in discovered an unexpected item in their take-out container: a bag of marijuana. “Free pot with every purchase!” or “Get high on our fries!” would probably do wonders for the franchise’s bottom line, but our friend Ben suspects that the fries just went to the wrong customer. There probably will still be an uptick in patronage as customers hope to get lucky.
Given how many meals fast-food restaurants serve, and the emphasis being on speedy service, it’s amazing that stories like this don’t hit the news every day. (Well, maybe not the pot story.) Which means that most fast-food franchises must be doing a darned good job of monitoring their kitchens.
Not that there aren’t the occasional scandals caused by other actions, like substituting, say, cat for chicken a few years ago at KFC franchises in China. (Though cat might be a perfectly acceptable meat source in China, just as the very popular dog stew is in Korea.)
Nor are the alien objects limited to fast-food restaurants. Years ago, our friend Ben accompanied Silence Dogood to one of the few vegetarian restaurants then extant in the South. We had barely raised our forks when a little boy at a nearby table announced that there was a cockroach in his food. Far from expressing outrage, his parents suggested that he simply stop complaining and order another dish from the menu. But for some reason, like little Oliver in the UK, the child had lost his appetite. And so had we.
Being an omnivore, after all, shouldn’t involve eating dish towels. And being a vegetarian, by definition, means not eating insects. Or dogs.
Dead wood can be good. June 20, 2014Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
Tags: birds for insect control, cavity nesters, dead wood, nesting birds, responsible tree pruning, tree pruning, value of dead wood, woodpeckers, wrens
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Silence Dogood here. Our wonderful tree pruner decided to switch over into landscaping about ten years ago, and I’m ashamed to say that we haven’t had our trees pruned here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and I share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA, since that time. (I should say “voluntarily pruned,” since our local electric utility has taken to scalping and shaving whole sides off trees, including evergreens, in an attempt to preempt storm damage. It might have occurred to them that evergreens evolved to resist snow and ice damage, but nooooo.)
Our former pruner had everything we wanted: horticultural knowledge, so he only pruned out dead and diseased or damaged wood; affordable rates; and commonsense (so he took all the safety precautions and didn’t end up flying). We had him come twice a year to keep our friendly forest of trees shipshape. And we’ve been agonizing over his career change ever since.
We’re not eager to bring in an unknown pruner who charges thousands of dollars and believes that trees should be “topped” into hideous balls, like so many pruners around here do routinely. (One of our favorite bumper stickers says “Topless Trees Are Indecent.”) And since we want all downed wood chopped to size for our firepit and woodstove, rather than hauled away or chipped, we fear the costs would skyrocket.
What to do?!! We don’t own a chainsaw, much less know how to use one, and damned if we’re putting ourselves in harness and climbing trees. Some things should be left to the professionals. No point in ending up like Bran Stark. We prefer enjoying our trees from below the leaf canopy.
However, over ten years of not having pruners come attend to our trees, a lot of big branches and many smaller ones have died. This past bizarre winter did in a couple of large shrubs, and hurled forked branches onto the limbs of others. There’s a lot of dead wood around here that needs to be taken down and cut up. So we finally decided to bite the bullet and find a new pruner to clean things up.
Then, this noon, something happened to make me reevaluate a large-scale pruning sweep. I love sitting out on our deck with OFB and our beloved black German shepherd, Shiloh, surrounded by colorful, fragrant, blooming container plants, with our deck water garden brimming with plants, fish, snails, and sometimes frogs, and our creek, Hawk Run, burbling away just beyond the deck, with a sweeping view of our property on the other side of the deck bridge. But in summer, by about 11 and continuing to about 2, the sun falls on the deck and makes it too hot for me to handle.
Normally, I just hide in the house until the sun moves on. But today OFB persuaded me to sit by our firepit under the shade trees on the far side of the creek. I was looking in despair at all the new dead branches sitting there had brought into view—how many thousands of dollars were we going to have to pay to get them all cut down and cut up?!!—when I heard a racket going on directly overhead.
Yikes! There was another dead branch. This one was covered with lichens and mushrooms and had two perfectly round holes in it, doubtless bored by our resident woodpeckers (we have downy, hairy, and red-bellied woodpeckers, though the holes were too small for the latter). The racket was not, however, being made by woodpeckers, but by a pair of wrens who had nested in one of the woodpecker’s holes and were flying in to feed their clamoring babies.
I love wrens (and woodpeckers, for that matter). Wrens are tiny, fearless brown birds that are instantly recognizable by their long, straight beaks and the way they hold their tails up when they perch. They have often “visited” me in my home office by landing on the a/c outside my window and strutting around. They’re incredibly cute and seem unafraid of anything. I’d seen that they’d actually nested in one of our birdhouses this spring, but had no idea that they would nest in abandoned woodpecker holes.
“Ben! You have to see this! Wake up!!!” I tried with limited success to rouse OFB from his fresh-air-induced slumbers. But I was absolutely riveted. Both parents constantly flew to their nest with bugs to feed their babies, who chittered appreciatively (though I thought more appreciatively when the bugs were bigger and juicier).
The adult wrens displayed great intelligence, heading to a blooming privet nearby, which attracted innumerable bugs with its flowers and fragrance. And they were tireless, taking turns bringing their catch to the nest-hole, popping in to feed the babies, then returning to the hunt. If anyone ever doubted the importance of birds in controlling insect populations, I wish they could have seen the scores of bugs brought to the nest in the hour or so I sat there.
At first, the wrens were rather perturbed that OFB, Shiloh and I were sitting almost directly below their nest hole, and there was a fair amount of fussing directed at us before they disappeared into the branch. But, again displaying intelligence, they eventually realized that we were posing no threat, and the alarm calls ceased and were replaced by contented calling to their offspring. (“Look what I’ve brought this time! What a beautiful day! Just wait ’til you can fly!”)
Well. I think we’ll still need to hire pruners this year. But that’s not a branch we’ll let them take off.
‘Til next time,
Chipmunks in the trees! June 3, 2014Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
Tags: chipmunks, chipmunks in trees, wacky wildlife, wildlife
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We were out doing a little pruning Sunday when suddenly, a chipmunk appeared at our friend Ben’s eye level. As OFB is 6’3″, this was a bit startling, to say the least. The chipmunk, on a branch of the tree that OFB was pruning, looked rather startled as well, but it didn’t look afraid. Instead, it just sat there and looked at us curiously, as if to say, “Here I was, having a nice, pleasant morning, and look what’s happened now!”
Of course, we immediately stopped pruning the tree, and Silence Dogood started talking to the chipmunk. (She can never resist talking to any animal, and gives a fair number of plants the “Silence treatment,” too.) I guess the chipmunk wasn’t too impressed with Silence’s conversation, since after a few minutes, it wandered slowly up the trunk and disappeared.
Silence saw a chipmunk go up a tree yesterday morning, too. Until Sunday, we had no idea that chipmunks could climb trees, since we’d previously only seen them scramble into and out of rock walls and brush and wood piles, and chase each other across the lawn. Then this morning, a chipmunk came to visit Silence while she sat out on the deck. Maybe it decided that her conversation wasn’t that bad after all.
Birds make a home at Pizza Hut. April 20, 2014Posted by ourfriendben in critters, wit and wisdom.
Tags: bird humor, house sparrows, nesting birds, Pizza Hut, Pizza Hut breadsticks
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Silence Dogood here. Like most people, I love pizza, and like most people, I love some pizzas more than others. When I’m not making my own pizza with its pesto and olive oil base topped with my own chunky, super-rich marinara sauce and lots of shredded mozzarella and provolone, I love Papa John’s thin and crispy veggie pizza and Pizza Hut’s veggie pan pizza. But there’s something I love even more than these, and that’s Pizza Hut’s cheese breadsticks with extra marinara dipping sauce. Who needs pizza when you have them?!
Yesterday, OFB and I were returning from the farmers’ market when we saw a Pizza Hut. There’s no Pizza Hut near us, and we’d headed to a distant farmers’ market as a special pre-Easter treat. “Ben, let’s stop and get cheese breadsticks!” OFB was up for it and swung into the parking lot. I waited in the car while he went in for the breadsticks, facing a bunch of tightly pruned yew and chamaecyparus evergreen shrubs. As I idly watched the shrub directly in front of our car, I noticed a beak poking out. Followed by a head peeking out. Followed by a male house sparrow slowly emerging from inside the shrub and making his way to the top.
Next, a second head poked out, this time the female. She called to the male, who then flew off. Then she withdrew back into the protective shelter of the shrub, where they doubtless had built a nest. I’d never seen such a thing before in my life. All I could think of was the female sticking her head out and calling to her mate, as I had to OFB, “Don’t forget to ask for extra marinara sauce!”
‘Til next time,
Starlings: Love them or hate them? March 25, 2014Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
Tags: Asian carp, Burmese pythons, house sparrows, invasive species, kudzu, multiflora rose, starlings
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“Listen to that wonderful birdsong!” our friend Rob announced while visiting us the other day. Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood were appalled: Rob was referring to the unmusical but deafening cacophany of the starlings that had taken up temporary residence in our tree canopy. These nuisance birds appear here in great numbers every spring, beating out all other birds at feeders and pooping all over the place. OFB suggested that Rob check out his car, which in fact was now liberally streaked with starling poop. “Yes, aren’t they just wonderful?”
Starlings are perhaps the best-known example of non-native species deliberately introduced to America by well-meaning idiots who didn’t understand what the consequences of their actions would ultimately be. (Multiflora rose and kudzu are others.)
In the case of starlings, some jackass was determined to introduce every bird mentioned in the works of Shakespeare into Central Park. In 1890, he released 60 pairs of starlings, and the rest is history: Their number is now estimated at 150 million. Ditto for the house sparrow, introduced also in New York in 1852, which has spread across the continent and displaced native sparrows and other birds.
These are deliberate introductions that have wreaked havoc with our ecology, not escapes like the Quaker parrot (aka monk parakeet) colony in Chicago or accidental introductions like the Japanese beetle and the brown marmorated stinkbug or, say, the Norway rat. Mercifully, most people now know better than to try to introduce non-agricultural species to the great outdoors, and there are regulations in place to try to prevent invasive species like the Asian carp, now in the Great Lakes, and Burmese pythons, now in the Everglades, from entering the country.
The house sparrow is a very handsome bird, to our eyes the most attractive sparrow. The starling, in its spring plumage, is spangled with a constellation of white stars on its dark feathers. The same could be said of multiflora rose with its mounds of white flowers or kudzu, which is prized in its native Japan for its nourishing and medicinal properties. It’s not their fault they’re here, it’s ours. Let’s hope we’ve finally learned our lesson. All that glitters is not gold.
Signs of spring. March 23, 2014Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading.
Tags: aconites, first spring bulbs, first spring flowers, signs of spring, snowdrops, winter aconites
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Finally! Spring is here, though it’s hard to believe here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and Silence Dogood share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. We still have patches of snow on the ground. Ugh!
However, spring is making its presence felt. Snow geese and Canada geese are migrating overhead, filling the air with their distinctive calls. Our trees are full of squawking starlings (alas). We’ve yet to see the first robin, but it can’t be long now.
And, an annual delight, the first of our spring bulbs—the winter aconites and snowdrops—are in bloom. Winter aconites have small, starry, glossy buttercup-yellow blooms born on glossy green feathery foliage just a few inches tall. They’re bulbs in the genus Eranthis, not to be confused with the perennial aconites (genus Aconitum) with tall spires of purple flowers that look like upside-down foxgloves, giving them the name monkshood. These perennials are deadly poisonous, also giving them the name wolfsbane and many another referring to their poisonous attributes. But they’re still great perennials for the late-summer garden; just don’t feed them to your wolves!
Anyway, getting back to the cheerful little winter aconites, they couldn’t look less like the perennials and aren’t even related to them. How they acquired the same name is one of those botanical mysteries our friend Ben will have to look into. But I’d recommend them to anyone; the joyful clumps of yellow flowers slowly grow bigger every year, and seeds will give you new clumps nearby.
Best of all, they bloom at exactly the same time as snowdrops (Galanthus spp.), another small bulb with strappy leaves and downturned white flowers. These bulbs also spread, and grown with winter aconites, they create an Easter patchwork of yellow and white, cheering winter-worn eyes before the grass turns green or even the hellebores bloom.
They also require absolutely zero maintenance from you after you plant them. We started with a shovelful of snowdrops from a colleague that just happened to include a couple of winter aconite bulbs. We planted them in our shrub border, and over the years they’ve grown into the cheerful display that reminds us that spring really has arrived and many more glorious blooms are yet to come.
Pit bull mauls boy; public supports pit bull. March 17, 2014Posted by ourfriendben in critters, pets, wit and wisdom.
Tags: people support pit bull over boy, pit bull, pit bull attack, pit bull mauls boy
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What the hell are we thinking?!! This morning, our friend Ben read a story about how a pit bull in Arizona bit into a four-year-old boy’s face, breaking his eye socket, cheekbone, and jaw. The article showed a horrific photo of the mauled four-year-old and said that a Mayo Clinic surgeon said he would need at least two years of reconstructive surgery requiring numerous operations and hospitalizations. This is a tragedy, right? Our hearts should go out to the child, and to his family, who are now facing this nightmare.
But no. Apparently people’s hearts are going out to the pit bull instead. A Facebook page was set up to save the dog, which now has 4,000 names on a petition against euthanizing him and 40,000 likes. People have donated $5,000 so far to a fund to defend the dog in court against the charges. A lawyer has given his time pro bono—free—to represent the dog. An organization that exists to keep dogs who harm people from being euthanized has gotten on the case.
Meanwhile, a helpless little boy lies in the hospital in agony, tubes all over his body, unable to open his mauled eye. Apparently, the surgeon was successful at reconnecting the muscles and ligaments of his jaw so he’ll eventually be able to speak and eat.
The pro-dog contingent claims that it was the fault of adults, not the pit bull, that the mauling occurred: That the boy’s babysitter was nowhere in sight when he wandered into the pit bull’s yard. That the owners of the pit bull kept him chained in an open yard where anyone could wander in.
They are right, and more than right. A chained dog, left outside in the baking Arizona sun all day on a chain, enslaved, with only a bone, will not view people kindly. And he will especially not view anyone kindly who comes within chain’s reach and picks up his sole possession, the bone, as the little boy did in an attempt to play with him. It is the owners’ fault for not socializing their dog, for not spending time with him, for not making sure that he didn’t develop aggressive, possessive, dominating tendencies.
A dog should be trained from puppyhood to instantly surrender any toy or treat to its owners without displaying resistance or aggression, but this can only be done if the dog adores its owners and recognizes them in the adult role, hardly likely to happen if he’s chained outside alone all day. The owners of that dog should be in jail for the inhumane treatment of an animal and reckless endangerment of the dog and everyone who came in contact with him.
However, a dog that has been so terribly mistreated and who has developed such a dominance/possessive response is a public danger, and is unlikely to be treatable through behavior modification. If freed, he will most likely respond in the same way toward others who “invade” his territory or pick up his possessions. No, it isn’t his fault, but he should be euthanized before he hurts someone else. Euthansia, as those of us who have experienced it can say with total assurance, is quick and painless. If more people had watched their suffering pets’ faces relax in relief the second the injection occurs, we’d all be begging for the same treatment when our own suffering becomes unbearable. It’s a humane solution.
What dumbfounds our friend Ben is the social media outcry for the dog, as the boy lies suffering. Do you remember, as I do, the chimpanzee who ripped off the face, eyes, and hands of a woman a few years back? Imagine if Facebook had launched a page to save the chimp, if it had received 4,000 names and 40,000 likes and $5,000? What about the grizzly who ate two people alive? Picture the “save the poor grizzly” page. Surely in these instances someone’s voice would have been raised in outrage. But here we are, speaking up for the pit bull while no one speaks for the boy. What kind of people are we?!!