Thursday, March 24, 2016

Duck Greetings

Sienna Muscovy Duck Beth Bergman photo
How many times does a talk start with a standing ovation?  Well, it happened on Wednesday, March 23, 2016 when Leslie Day, Beth Bergman, and I gave a talk about The Field Guide to the Neighborhood Birds ofNew York City at the Wild Bird Fund on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  We walked in the door and who greeted us but Sienna, a full-grown beautiful Muscovy duck, Cairina moschata,  as you see in Beth Bergman’s great photo shown here.  Sienna, like all the birds at the Wild Bird Fund (WBF from now on) is a rescue bird.  Rita McMahon, founder of this incredible site of daily miracles, told us that the WBF takes in more than 3,500 injured, sick, or abandoned birds a year and when possible, helps them get strong and healthy so they can be released to the wild again.  A few years ago, Alan and I put into the WBF's care two baby pigeons, Columba livia domestic, birds we had found in Riverside Park (and by the way, despite what most people say, there are baby pigeons. They just grow very fast and look more grown up than they are).  The babies had been left in a cardboard box with an old pillow for a bed—no water, no food, and no ability to fend for themselves.  Rita found that they were buggy but healthy and with the WBF’s fine care, they grew into exquisite adult pigeons. 

Back to Sienna—this people-friendly duck happily went from person to person.  Then when she was helped onto a chair she stood there and gave us our ovation before we said a word.  We petted her and talked with her while listening to the cooing pigeons in the background.  When more people arrived and the door was open, Rita wrapped a towel around Sienna and put her in her cage.  No one wanted Sienna to walk out onto Columbus Avenue and suffer any kind of mishap.  As it is, it is hard to tell how much walking out on the sidewalk she can do.  Sienna was found in the snow after someone left her there; perhaps she had been someone’s pet and they had let her go.  Her toes were frozen and as Rita informed me, “They self amputate.”  Oh my this beautiful duck has blackened ends on her toeless feet, but she still trusts and wants to get near to the humans she meets.  It is heartening to know that thanks to the excellent care that Sienna got, this friendly duck will be moving to a nature sanctuary sometime later this year.    

The room filled up until there was not an empty seat, so perhaps it was good that Sienna had gone to her private cage-home.  We began our talk to the sounds of pigeons and peahens, to the arrival of a box filled with an injured red tailed hawk, to the good vibes of the WBF members, as well as to the smiles and warmth of Rita and the rest of the staff at the WBF--an amazing staff totally dedicated to the needy wildlife in our big bustling city.  The Wild Bird Fund is a treasure found right on Columbus Avenue between 87 and 88th Streets. 

Sunday, March 20, 2016

First day of Spring - March 19 or 20 ???

Wood Duck Egg drawing
I was in the elevator holding my bag of laundry when a little girl asked me why spring was on the 20th and not the 21st.  Her mother raised her eyebrows and shoulders and shook her head.  I said that it was something to do with the vernal equinox. I realized that I had been wondering about this too.  When I was that little girl's age, spring used to arrive on March 21, but that was back then.  Now with atomic clocks, better calculations, the equinox, and leap year day, in 2016 it is arriving either on the 19th or 20th depending on your time zone.  In the EDT zone of New York, spring came in at 12:30 a.m. on Sunday, March 20, but in other times zones in the U.S. it occurred late on Saturday -- in CDT zone it was 11:30 p.m.; MDT zone, 10:30 p.m.; and PDT zone as in California and Oregon, 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 19.  That is really early. Keep in mind that no matter what our clock time says, the equinox itself happens at the same moment worldwide.  

Okay, let’s take a closer look.  As we know a year is 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 46 seconds long.  It’s kind of like the Olympics where every second counts.  Part of the reason for the early spring goes back to 2000 when there was a leap year even though we know that years divisible by 100 do not have February 29, but those divisible by 400 do. (see my February 29 post).  So rather unusually 2000 was a leap year.  This made a difference in the calendars to come and equinoxes and solstices will occur earlier.  Bob Berman’s great column for The Old Farmer's Almanac explains this in even more detail.  But getting back to the vernal equinox:  Equinox, a lovely word that comes from the Latin aequus (equal) and nox (night).  Vernal is from the Latin vernalis and refers to spring.  I knew a man named Vernal once; he told me he was born on the first day of spring.  Anyway on the equinox, Earth’s two hemispheres receive close to an equal amount of sunlight, but in actual fact they are not totally equal. Oh dear.  What are we to believe?  

So this year we have a very early spring, the earliest ever in our lifetimes, and I’m here to say, let’s celebrate it.  And to do that, maybe we should try to test out the ancient folklore that you can stand a raw egg on its end on the equinox.  I’ve read a few different findings on this one, so I decided to try it in my kitchen.  One egg did stand for about a second; the others rolled right over.  It may be that my kitchen was not the best place to try this.  But it is cold out today; they are even predicting snow.  Yuck!  So I thought I’d just put a wood duck egg that I drew for the Field Guide on the blog where I know for sure it’ll stand nice and tall, equinox or not. Perhaps a glass of champagne is a better way to welcome spring in anyway.  

Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Red, Red Robin bob, bob, bobbing into spring

American Robin drawing
We are at the time of year when we start to see the American Robin, Turdus migratorius, and I make a point of saying American because the European Robin Erithacus rubecula, is a different bird in a different species.  But we’ll stick with the American Robins, medium-sized birds in the thrush family, known to many because of their rusty reddish breasts, their worm-eating habits, and their beautiful blue- green eggs.  Robins are such a part of spring  and worms are such a part of robins that it makes sense that the March Moon is called "The Full Worm Moon,"  the time when worms start to emerge from the earth.

Although some American Robins stick around through the winter, we usually do not see much of them until early spring and then they are a harbinger of what’s to come—flowers, green leaves, baby robins, and lots of other spring births.  Robins are generally early risers.  Some researchers think they wake up and sing in the morning because they have more energy then.  Others think they get up to eat.  After all, they are worm eaters, and we all know “the early bird catches the worm.”  Those of us who like to take early morning walks often see robins pecking at the ground for a delightful raw wriggling protein-rich breakfast.  Robins actually have a somewhat varied diet; in addition to worms, they also enjoy a ripe piece of fruit, a juicy insect, and they are especially fond of tasty berries. 

If you see a muddy looking robin, it is probably a female building her multi-layered nest: first layer grasses, middle layer mud, and top layer more grasses, strings, and even hair.  Sounds rather cozy. They have as many as three broods a year.  Each clutch has 3-7 eggs (see the video of robin emerging from egg) that are incubated for about two weeks. Both parents feed the young and in about two or so weeks they leave the nest.  By the way, they often leave the nest unable to fly or fend for themselves.  They may move to different branches in the nest tree to try out life on their own, but some fall to the ground.  Good-hearted people sometimes pick them up and try to care for them, but most bird researchers suggest leaving them alone or maybe moving them to a nearby safer shrub.  Their parents are usually not that far away, and they come back.  They want to see what the little ones will do with some freedom.  Alas, many baby robins do not make it to adulthood; they are easy prey in the food chain. 

Robins come back; they often return to the same territory year after year.  Sometimes they build a new nest on top of the last year’s old one—not a bad solution to the housing crisis.  But for now, we look at them and to quote from Barbara Crooker’s poem:
“The robins. They come back. They pull the sun on the silver thread of their song.”

Monday, March 14, 2016

Pi Day 3.14= π

Amy from 
Today is Pi Day, celebrated all over the world. This is one of those things that almost everyone agrees upon and an idea like that is worth celebrating in these crazy times.  The number for π is 3.141592, so you can see how last year’s π day 3.14.15 at 9:26:53 was really a big deal, called  by many the Ultimate Pi Day.  But this year's is worth celebrating again. Math is both so real and unreal, constant and changing, but π is not.  It is always the ratio of the circumference of the circle to its diameter—big circles, tiny circles, and medium circles, all circles.

The symbol for Pi is π, the sixteenth letter of the Greek alphabet.  It is easily found on the symbols insert page of Word and probably most other word processing systems.  Guess what, the ancient Greeks did not use the symbol π to signify the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter.  Nor did the Arabs, Chinese, or the Romans. It was more than two thousand years after Archimedes studied circles that π began to be used.  And it was in the year 1706 that William Jones first used π in its modern understanding.  But Jones’s use of it did not catch on.  It was Leonhard Euler, who really got the symbol going.  In 1736, after shifting around in the use of π and other Greek letters, Euler began using π in his papers and letters to denote the ratio of circumference to diameter.  This time it caught on.  Johann Bernouli who had been using a different symbol soon started using π in his correspondence with Euler.  And then when Euler used it in his Introductio in analysin infinitorum published in 1748, well as they say, the rest is history. 

But interestingly, it is also Albert Einstein’s birthday—March 14, 1879, and today would be his 137th birthday.  137 is itself a prime number and I found a curious fact about 137 on the web this morning.  It is “the only known primeval number whose sum of digits equals the number of primes "contained." 137 is the largest prime factor of 123456787654321. The reciprocal of the fine-structure constant of electromagnetism is close to 137.”  Now that is really something, isn’t it?

So today we can celebrate π day along with the birthday of one of the greatest geniuses of the 20th century.  It’s raining and overcast here in New York, but I am smiling and seeing the sun—after all it is π day and that only comes along once a year.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Who are you calling yellow-bellied?

First day of Daylight Savings Time today-- first day of spring and the vernal equinox but one week away.  Time to celebrate.  Perhaps time to think about those species that keep our natural world moving along. 

The yellow-bellied sapsucker, Sphyrapicus varius, is one of those forces of nature.  It is considered a ‘keystone’ species, as it plays a vital role in the ecology of bird life.  As the name suggests, sapsuckers get much of their nourishment from sap that they obtain from drilling well holes in trees in early spring.  They drill neat horizontal rows of holes or sapwells into the tree’s xylem or inner part of the trunk to feed on the sap moving up to the branches at the beginning of spring.  Many other species, especially migrating hummingbirds, kinglets, warblers, and phoebes time their migration to the arrival of the sapsuckers.  Those birds make good use of the sapwells living off of the sweet food before flowers begin to bloom and insects begin to hatch.  Like other types of woodpeckers, sapsuckers also eat ants and spiders that live beneath a tree’s bark and other insects that fly by.  They also like fruit trees both for their sap and for their fruit.  But their favorite trees seem to be birches and maples, not so different from us and our enjoyment of sweet maple syrup. 

The relationship between the sapsucker and the hummingbird is a curious one.  The sapsuckers provide the food and the hummingbirds provide-- well, not much, perhaps gratitude with its own interesting expression.  Some researchers have observed that if a sapsucker is attacked by another bird near the sapwell, the feisty little hummingbird comes to the rescue, fighting off the hostile intruder protecting the sapwell and the sapsucker at the same time.  On the other hand, the sapsuckers have been known to chase off hungry hummingbirds as well.  As I said, a curious relationship. 

Speaking of relationships, sapsuckers are playful daters.  They chase each other around tree trunks.  Courting birds face each other with raised bills and tails, fluffed out throats and crest feathers, along with wild swinging head movements.  Quite a way of getting someone’s attention.  It seems to work.  When they mate, they stay together through the nesting season and the raising of the offspring and often reunite in the next breeding season.  And with a somewhat New York City property mind, they sometimes seem more tied to the nest tree than to the partner, but since the partner may be equally home-minded, they stay together. 

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Crocuses or Croci

Quick sketch of crocuses or croci
As I walked up 89th street from Riverside Drive, I saw a line of green stems stretching out from a small patch of snow left from what I hope is our last snow fall this winter.  Some had fallen over and some showed a bit of a bloom, but they all showed gumption.  Snow or no snow, they poked their heads out and promised more.  Little green grasps of hope telling us spring is coming.  Then when I went back a couple of days later, some had actually opened into purple blooms with saffron orange interiors. 

The crocus is a member of the iris family, Iridiaceae.  It grows from a corm, a tuberous bulb, and has cheerful looking brightly colored yellow, purple, or white flowers.  The word “crocus” has an interesting derivation related to words that mean saffron in Arabic kurkum and Hebrew karkōm, and perhaps ultimately back to the Sanskrit word for saffron kunkuman.  Old English had croh for “saffron,” but the present English usage seemed to come indirectly from Latin, which borrowed it from the Greek krokos.  The plural in English is correctly spelled as crocuses or the Latin form of the plural croci.  One sounds like a kiss and the other like a bad cold.

These spring blooms actually have a Greek myth to go along with them.  Crocus or Krokus was a mortal man who fell in love with and was rejected by the nymph Smilax.  He appealed to the gods for help and they turned him into a flower, the crocus.  Smilax was also turned into another plant for rejecting Krokus.  The gods had their ways.  Even if lovers couldn’t have each other, they could bring beauty to the world.  So perhaps it was unrequited love that gave us the crocus, a gift of spring.  Ah sweet love!