from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
January 12, 2003
RED-SHOULDERED HAWKS SCREAMING
This week's mostly warm, sunny days have been busy ones for the Red-shouldered hawks, BUTEO LINEATUS. Usually by midmorning the air had warmed nicely, a slight breeze had begun stirring, and a very great deal of hawk screeching began issuing from the sky. A handsome picture of this bird can be viewed at www.sccf.org/Birds/red%20shouldered%20hawk.JPG
Some mornings this week I planted apple trees, wearing nothing but a pair of shorts and sandals, and the sunlight, breezes and hawk calls overhead made a heady mixture as I worked. The male hawks were doing their best to impress the females, and it was easy to see that the females were often intrigued by what they saw. Often three or four birds flew tight circles near one another, sometimes almost touching in midair, all the while issuing their shrill calls. One call was a kind of "kee-yar," and another was a constantly repeated, sharp "eep, eep, eep."
The males swooped a lot. High in the sky a male would suddenly draw in his wings, dive headfirst, level out, then, as on a roller-coaster ride, shoot back skyward carried by his momentum, performing a U. I suppose that the tighter the U, the faster the dive, and the higher he climbed with his built-up momentum, the more impressed the female became.
The funniest thing was when a male rested at his perch and a female deigned to visit. The male often gave the clear impression of being surprised, even intimidated, by the visit. Especially the male's body language showed that he was of two minds. On the one hand he was desperately eager for the female's attention but, on the other, he was more than a little respectful of her powerful build and sharp beak and talons.
My books say that this sky-screaming takes place from courtship to the start of incubation. However, here I've heard them calling year round, though right now their calls are more noticeable than usual.
PACKRATS AND SPATULAS
In the December 9th Newsletter of 2001 I reported how Eastern Woodrats were filling my toilet with twigs. In last year's June 16th Newsletter I complained that they were stealing green beans from my kitchen. I have noted that our Eastern Woodrats, NEOTOMA FLORIDA, are very different from Norway Rats, the typical "alley rat." Eastern Woodrats have large ears and large eyes, while Norway Rats have squinty little eyes and small ears. Woodrats possess bushy tails while Norway Rats have naked ones. Woodrats are called packrats out West, and I think they should be called packrats here, too.
Packrats tend to wander around in the night "stealing" things. Long ago I learned to not leave anything small lying around, else one of my Eastern Woodrats would pack it off. But during the course of a year sometimes I simply forget to hang my kitchen utensils on the hooks provided for them on my outside-kitchen's roof beams, and sometimes I simply forget to chuck my chopsticks and knife into the jar where woodrats can't get them.
Consequently, now nearly all my kitchen utensils are missing. I am now down to a pair of mismatched chopsticks, a bone-handled hunting knife too heavy for them to carry off, and a butter knife. All my spoons, forks, kitchen knives and my two spatulas have been stolen one at a time.
Monday when my last spatula disappeared I tried to track it down. Without a spatula I can't properly flip my daily cornbread. I used to flip cornbread by tossing it into midair from the skillet, with a certain wrist motion it took years to perfect, but then the handle came off my skillet. Now I need a spatula.
Beneath the wooden platform on which I sit during breakfast I found a collection of about a hundred stolen dried peppers and those mismatched chopsticks. A woodrat was there looking at me with that big-eared, wide-eyed, goofy look woodrats have, but I didn't bother her.
Beneath my trailer I found a foot-high pile of shiny items, mostly aluminum foil from trash my handful of visitors have left here over the years. Rummaging in the pile I found a butter knife, but not a trace of my two lost spatulas or my favorite "anodized" stainless steal "forever-sharp" knife.
A small trail was clearly visible leading from below my trailer into the wild clutter of shattered limbs left by the collapse of the big Pecan tree during Hurricane Lili. I plunged into that jungle and followed the trail to the other side, to a collapsed shack once lived in by a tenet farmer, now little more than a few rotten timbers and some very rusty sheets of roofing tin. There the trail went beneath the tin sheets and the Pecan's trunk lay exactly atop that. In short, my spatulas were lost. If I should move things too much, the Pecan's trunk might shift onto me.
You can see an Eastern Woodrat's quizzical-looking little face at www.nps.gov/liri/Natural/Animals/Mammals/woodrat1.jpg
I rather like my woodrats, and I accept my lost utensils as just chastisement for my general forgetfulness. My woodrats knock about beneath the trailer each night and explore my kitchen as soon as night falls. They are good company, but I do miss my spatulas and "forever-sharp" knife.
Wednesday night the sounds in my kitchen grew more mysterious than usual so I stepped outside to see who my visitor was. It was a healthy-looking Opossum, DIDELPHIS MARSUPIALIS, North America's only marsupial.
I didn't stand there making my normal reflections on the zoological wonders of this critter because he was into my precious eggs. Each month I bike into town to buy four dozen eggs at the Piggly Wiggly. Because of traffic, this biking is dangerous, but with my vegetarian diet I figure I need the eggs' protein. This 'possum was fooling with something important to me. Already he'd torn open one Styrofoam carton, removed the eggshell-tops and consumed two eggs, and the look on his face told me that he didn't consider his meal completed.
I nudged him off my elevated fireplace (where for six years I've safely stored eggs), secured them in a hanging bucket, and returned to my sleeping bag to think about the whole concept of egg sucking.
For, it seems that egg sucking as an institution has fallen on hard times. Nowadays nearly everyone keeps store-bought eggs in a refrigerator, and this has been the case for so long that now most people probably don't even recognize criminal egg sucking as a possibility.
By the way, I know all about the dire health warnings associated with "improperly refrigerated eggs." With my own eyes I have seen perfectly good eggs thrown away because they lay forgotten on a table overnight. But my lack of a refrigerator and my need for eggs has caused me to experiment, so that today I am alive and well to report that even during the hottest summer months an average Piggly Wiggly egg will keep outside for at least 3 weeks without going bad. By that time you can begin expecting an occasional egg to go bad, so you must check each one before plopping it into your omelet bowl. A simple glance or sniff suffices. By the end of the fourth week of intense heat, maybe as many as a quarter of the eggs will bad. However, you simply throw away the stinky, blackening ones and eat the normal looking ones.
Anyway, as a kid on the Kentucky farm we raised chickens and sold a few dozen eggs each week. We learned the hard way that if you forget to close a henhouse door you can just plan on having a chicken or two stolen by foxes, or at least some eggs "sucked." Moreover, suspicion for an episode of egg sucking usually fell on the family dog. During certain outbreaks of egg sucking, I recall efforts to cure old Whitey of the treason by leaving an egg on the lawn injected with Tabasco sauce.
Being a kid and seeing my dog accused of such disgraceful behavior filled my head with doubts. If something as ordinary and plain as an egg could inspire a usually level-headed dog to begin sneaking around in the middle of the night sucking it, then, in all the rest of the world, what really could be trusted?
I imagined old Whitey at midnight up on his hind legs, his front paws resting on the nest poles, his head thrust into a straw-filled nest, his upper two canine teeth evilly inserted like two straws into the mysterious egg, his eyes rolled back in ecstasy, and I shivered at the Universe's unexpected perversity.
ROMANCE OF THE OPOSSUM
But, back to the opossum. Those subscribers living in 'possumless lands might want to see a genuine opossum family on my opossum page at www.backyardnature.net/opossums.htm
Even today I cannot see an opossum without being cast into a kind of reverie as I think about whence opossums come. They are of an incredibly ancient lineage and their evolutionary story is wonderful to consider.
For one thing, it turns out that when the continent of North America came into existence, it lacked opossums. About 3 million years ago a land bridge formed between North America and South America, and it turns out that South America did have them. In fact, once that land bridge existed, an enormous exchange of living organisms took place.
From South America into North America came the opossum, armadillos and porcupines. From North America into South America went a very much larger flood of animals -- raccoons, the weasel, dogs, the bear and cats (including the saber-toothed cat), mastodons, tapirs, horses, llamas, deer, rabbits and rodents. Today, fully half of the land mammal genera of South America came by way of this land bridge, while in North America only the porcupine, opossum and armadillo have come from South America to find permanent homes.
Of course there is much more to say about the opossum being our only marsupial, but I'll save that for another time. If you'd like to read a fine overview of mammalian evolution, incorporating much information unknown when I took mammology in college, take a look at www.bobpickett.org/evolution_of_mammals.htm
One fascinating insight mentioned at that site is that as early as 200 million ago the first mammals coexisted with dinosaurs. Dinosaurs were the dominant life form on Earth and they lorded over the landscape during daylight hours. Mammals were relegated to sneaking around marginal habitats, dodging dinosaurs during the night. As such, dinosaurs, competing with one another for resources, tended to evolve "physical hardware," while mammals evolved "brain and behavioral software" that helped them evade the dinosaurs and exploi their less-than-optional habitats.
Sometimes I think there must be a law of nature causing genius and beauty to arise from desperation, while comfortable living nearly invariably leads to dissipation and demise.
YANKEE SQUIRRELS ACTIVE ALL WINTER
In response to my comments last week about my nest- building squirrels, Greg Scott in Wisconsin wrote that squirrels up his way also are active all winter.
"If it drops down to 10 below or more, they probably wouldn't bother to venture out or only for short trips," he wrote. "But most of the time they are actively searching for nuts, etc. they've buried in the Fall and that they have to dig out... sometimes through several inches of snow."
I've never seen squirrels digging through snow but when I lived in Nashville, Tennessee, during midwinter I'd often watch squirrels in the parks. Mostly they'd be in treetops nibbling on twigs. They'd snip off a twig tip, then, holding it with their front paws and turning it like someone eating corn on the cob, they'd gnaw the bark off the twig, then drop the twig to the ground and quickly snip off another twig and gnaw on it. The main nourishment was in the twig's inner bark, the greenish part just inside the very thin layer of brown outer bark. Below large trees, hundreds of snipped-off and gnawed twigs would accumulate.
Here I've not seen such twig-gnawing. Maybe it's because we have so many oak trees with plenty of acorns still on the limbs, and probably any self- respecting squirrel would prefer a good juicy acorn to the meager gnawings available on a twig.
ANDROMEDA GALAXY OVERHEAD AT DUSK
About an hour after dusk nowadays one of the most majestic views in the night sky is available right overhead. It's the Andromeda Galaxy, also known as M 31.
This is one of those things that you'd never give a second glance at if you didn't understand what you were seeing. For, what's to be seen is nothing more than a very small, faint smudge in the sky. In fact, right now moonlight makes it a bit hard to see, but if you wait for a few nights before looking, until the moon is below the horizon at dusk, I think you'll be able to see it.
The understanding needed to appreciate the Andromeda Galexy is that all the stars in our night sky belong to our own galaxy. About 1,900,000,000,000 stars -- or "solar masses" as they are called today -- populate our galaxy. Usually galaxies are portrayed as vast swirls of stars appearing to be sucked into a whirlpool. The galaxies have "arms" composed of untold numbers of stars spiraling outward from an intensely bright center. Not all galaxies are spiral shaped, but the last I heard our own galaxy is considered to be a spiraling one, and efforts are being made to map the various arms.
Now here's the wonderful thing about the Andromeda Galaxy: When we see it, we're seeing something outside our own galaxy. It's a whole other galaxy. It's like being a fish in an aquarium. All the stars we see in our sky are objects inside our own aquarium. The Andromeda Galaxy is a completely different aquarium across the room containing nearly as many "solar masses" as our own galaxy.
A lightyear, the distance that light travels in a year, is about 6,000,000,000,000 miles. The diameter of our own galaxy is about 100,000 lightyears. Therefore, no star visible in our sky with the unaided eye is farther away than 100,000 lightyears. Well, the Andromeda Galaxy, the "nearest large neighbor galaxy" to our own, is 2,900,000 lightyears away.
It's impossible for the mind to grasp the distances we are talking about here, but it is good to stand in the night looking into the sky and, seeing that smudge, think of it as a whole other "aquarium" beyond our own.
If you are unfamiliar with the constellations, it can be a bit hard to locate the Andromeda Galaxy. At this latitude when I step outside around 8PM, face north, and look high into the sky, one of the most conspicuous constellations looks like a crooked, somewhat squashed M. This is the constellation Cassiopeia. Notice at the top, left of the M's left hump there's a smaller star. That star more or less points to the Andromeda Galaxy. Hold your arm skyward and make a fist. The Andromeda Galaxy's blur lies about a fist's distance from Cassiopeia, in the direction pointed to by that smaller star. Binoculars show the galaxy as a much larger blur.
You can see a picture of the Andromeda Galaxy and read a lot about it at www.seds.org/messier/m/m031.html
A chart of a small section of the sky with the Andromeda Galaxy in its center can be viewed at www.seds.org/messier/map/And.html In that chart, the galaxy lies immediately above the word Andromeda. Its other name, M 31, is partially obliterated by names of companion galaxies M 31 and M 110.